Some of social gaming’s major players will be on hand at Casual Connect Asia this May to discuss success, failure, and the industry at large. Executives from PlayStudios Asia, KamaGames, Huuuge Games, Murka, and more will speak on topics ranging from social casino content to skill-based tournaments.
At a glance
The Social Gaming track takes place on Day 2 of the conference and will kick off with a fireside chat with KamaGames. Chief Marketing and Commercial Officer of KamaGames Daniel Kashti will discuss the social casino industry at large and KamaGames’ strategy within that – as well as discuss the influence of genres such as MMOs and RPGs on the social casino ecosystem and the introduction of meta-games designed to attract the mainstream gamer.
Speakers such as Murka VP of Strategy Mark Beck and Huuuge Games Chairman Wibe Wagemans will discuss innovation and user acquisition in social casino while GameDesire VP Maciej Mroz will talk about different approaches to revenue for free-to-play (F2P) games. PlayStudios Asia Managing Director John Lin will discuss the APAC social games market and whether it is worth diving into for companies.
Plarium started out humbly enough in 2009 on Russia’s social networks with only a poker game and a farming game to its name. Today they are the #1 hardcore game developer on Facebook and a major force on mobile that is continuing to grow quickly. How did Plarium get from one to the other? It all comes down to its content, its employees and its players – with a dash of marketing thrown in.
George Zaloom led the discussion of a panel of recruiters at Casual Connect USA 2014. “When I think of recruiters, the job of dentist also comes up,” he said. “I don’t know why it is, but hopefully we will be able to dispel some of these rumors, and maybe you’ll show these guys a little love, and they’ll show you what they can do for you.”
George Zaloom wasn’t always in the gaming industry. The CEO of The Las Vegas Whaling Company, Zaloom started out in Hollywood producing films like Encino Man and Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. He wrote Attack of the Killer Bees, which brought him to beekeeping in his free time. “What fascinates me is the utopian society that the bee’s live within — living and harmony and producing more than they need. We can all learn something from them,” he says.
While both the gaming industry and movie industry are content-driven, Zaloom feels the two are vastly different in how they go about achieving their goals. “The big difference is that movies are made by knee jerk reactions by overpaid Hollywood studio execs who take meetings while getting manicures (true story) whereas games are data based,” he says. “…And you can’t beat data!”
Data and Geography
Zaloom’s foray into the gaming industry was a fortuitous accident. He was involved with the creation of a social network for kids called FaceChips. Zaloom notes that “social is pretty much the lifeblood of gaming” and that it’s difficult to have a successful game without some social aspect. Realizing kids wanted to play games as well as socialize, they built an API that would allow kids to play games made for Facebook, known as giantHello. “Little did we realize that would iterate into a casino gaming platform,” he says.
Eventually, Zaloom ended up co-founding The Las Vegas Whaling Company. He notes that building a new business is always a risk, even if you’re armed with data points, but being prepared to fail is a whole different thing.
Zaloom originally planned for Las Vegas Whaling Company to be a mobile games-of-chance provider. It is now transitioning into a skill-based geo-gaming platform though. “Consumers are now playing land-based games like Ingress and we see an exciting new market there,” Zaloom says.
He notes that geo/mobile is a new frontier. Users who play games like Ingress actually go out of their homes to play and socialize in the physical world as opposed to playing behind avatars. Zaloom believes that the innovative way that the platform becomes ubiquitous with the environment is underutilized so far and has game-changing potential.
Other than geo/mobile gaming, Zaloom believes that the other big gaming innovation to pay attention to is immersive 3D such as Oculus. “Imagine riding the tape in a slot machine as the bars and cherries appear,” he says. “What an experience that would be for the user!”
The Albatross of Gaming
Zaloom acknowledges that gambling can be a “bit of an albatross” for the gaming industry, but points to free-to-play content as the answer for some of the concerns surrounding gambling games. “Sell the fun, play down the gambling,” he says. “If it’s free to play, that means it’s pretty hard to lose your house — even if you were addicted.”
The other headache the gambling gaming market is experiencing is its maturation. “There are no more shortcuts to take,” Zaloom says. “Either you have bucketloads of money to license real math, create amazing art, and buy users, or — as we say in New Jersey — ‘fuggedaboutit.’” This is one of the reasons Zaloom and Las Vegas Whaling Company are aggressively pursuing geo/mobile and skill-based games.
Past, Present, and Future
While Zaloom hopes his next big accomplishment is in the geo/mobile arena — breaking the mold and creating a new form of gaming, he is currently most proud of his work with GoPlay, another company he founded before Las Vegas Whaling Company. “Being an early innovator in connecting land-based casinos with gaming platforms (was very pleasing),” he says.
Shai Magzimof, co-founder and CEO of Nextpeer, the leading multiplayer SDK for mobile game developers, spoke about the benefits of multiplayer capabilities during Casual Connect USA 2014. “One of the biggest things to remember when making it multiplayer is to keep it simple,” he explained. “A lot of game developers tend to think that multiplayer is very complicated, and actually there are some ways to make it much more simple.”
Magzimof always dreamed about working in the games industry. But in Israel, the industry is not large, so his answer to this situation was to form a company and create his own opportunities. Now, he finds it great fun to play games at work with no one thinking it’s wrong or a waste of time.
Some Family Fun
Magzimof became excited about the video games at a very early age. One of his first memories is seeing his father come home from work, have dinner with the family, and begin playing one of his C&C (Command & Conquer) strategy games on the PC in their home. Eventually, he and his brother became addicted to playing as well, and at least once a week, they would get together with his uncle and have their own LAN party. They would bring all their computers into the living room, create a local HUB (this was before they knew of Wi-Fi and dynamic IP address), and play for hours.
Today, he describes himself as a digital socializer, playing with friends online every weekend, although he does enjoy reading and watching movies as well. One of the games he enjoys most is Call of Duty, and since most of his friends live in other cities or countries, the best time for them to connect is through playing as a group against other groups. He also plays 2048, saying, “It is just addicting, and it is even better because the developer behind it is using our multiplayer SDK.” Another game he plays with friends is Dota and only a month ago he got hooked on League of War from MunkyFun and Gree; although he admits he doesn’t know why, he says, “I can’t miss a day without playing at least 30 minutes.” He also plays Minecraft with friends on a daily basis.
Rise of the Smartphones
Magzimof credits the rise of mobile gaming with something that gives him great satisfaction: Almost everyone understands what he is doing. His mother, father, grandmother, and his siblings are playing games on their smartphones that are integrated with Nextpeer. They can see what he has created. He states, “It’s an amazing feeling to see everyone in your family using your product, especially since I’m only 23 years old.”
Discovering A Challenge
The most difficult challenge Magzimof sees facing the games industry today is discovery. He points out that it is very difficult to get a game out and into the mass market; and only the largest and wealthiest gaming companies can afford the cost of acquiring large numbers of users. There are rare, successful indie developers with highly addictive games, but he emphasizes that it is extremely difficult to get into the top ranks of the app stores.
Nextpeer attempts to alleviate this problem through cross-promoting players in their multiplayer games. Magzimof claims, “Our theory is that players want good games, and if they like our multiplayer mode, they will probably like a game with a similar multiplayer mode.”
He believes the future will bring many games adding multiplayer functionality and discovery tools. He sees playing together online becoming more and more popular as discovery becomes more difficult. These are exactly the issues Nextpeer is working on, to enable developers to add multiplayer mode to their games and to get discovered.
At Casual Connect USA, Magzimof was excited to announce that Nextpeer had reached 120 million downloads of their multiplayer SDK.
Greg Hartrell believes firmly in the power of games and its growth. “Everyone is a gamer now,” he emphasizes during Casual Connect USA 2014.
Greg Hartrell, lead product manager for Google Play Games, believes that we are better human beings when we get along, and playing games is an ancient way for us to come together that is still in practice today. He continues to be part of the games industry to help realize that vision. It is important to him to make our lives a little better in some way. Even if he were not in the industry, he would be attempting to use technology to do that.
Inspired To Make Connections
Hartrell learned to code through making games at an early age. He officially entered the games industry when Microsoft launched the Xbox 360 and Xbox LIVE. He was inspired to connect people around the world to games in their living rooms, and he was proud to be a part of making that happen. Today, he is inspired to see how they are getting people to play together using the devices they have in their pockets.
When he joined Google Play, Hartrell was asked to help make games more social and to build a thriving games business. The experience he brought in making large online platforms and in making games themselves at Capcom/Beeline has had a large part in allowing him to build perspective on where games are going on mobile and into the future. He says, “The mix of ‘platform thinking’ and ‘content creation’ is very valuable for what I do.”
Google Play Games is growing extremely quickly, and Hartrell is proud to be a part of that growth. In the first half of 2014, 100 million new players joined, earned achievements, posted scores, and played multi-player games. This makes it the fastest growing game network ever. The team that has executed this and what they have achieved so far bring him great satisfaction.
Designing For The Future
Google Play Games is designing for the future with emphasis on proximity, location, and context. Hartrell believes, “We are still searching for a world where video games bring us together in the same way physical world or traditional games did. Board games, the occasional living room multi-player game, and remnants of arcades remind me those experiences are wildly effective at getting us playing together and making games more fun.”
These days, Hartrell is enjoying playing Hitman: Go. He became a fan of the Hitman series long ago on console. He feels that Go is a fantastic example of delivering a great mobile experience that can be played incrementally while still preserving the tone and satisfaction of solving the puzzles the Hitman series is known for.
Hartrell considers the game he is playing much more important than the console or device he is playing it on. What does matter is that the game play is great and fits his lifestyle when he is ready to play. But he is biased toward Android and hasn’t used iOS in a long time.
However, he does own consoles; most important is the Xbox 360, because he helped make it and considers it “pretty awesome.” He also still has his original NES, SNES, N64, Gamecube, and Wii simply because of the great games he played on them.
Pini Yakuel is co-founder and CEO of Optimove. Optimove’s retention automation platform helps marketers maximize revenues and customer loyalty by automatically personalizing, executing, and evaluating a complete framework of customer-data-driven campaigns. The Web-based software’s unique customer modeling, predictive micro-segmentation, and campaign optimization technologies have already enabled dozens of iGaming and social gaming operators to become highly successful data-driven marketers. He provides a new way to look at marketing campaigns in this article.
As a marketer or retention expert at a social gaming operator, you are spending plenty of time and money on your customer retention campaigns. But did you know that there is a foolproof way to dramatically improve the effectiveness of your campaigns? The secret lies in treating every campaign as a scientific “marketing experiment.” In other words, focus on accurately measuring the uplift of your campaigns – in monetary terms – in order to optimize future campaigns and maximize the revenues they generate.
Many marketers use push notification response rates, in-app pop-up click rates, and email open rates as their primary means of measuring campaign effectiveness. These metrics may provide important insight into brand strength and customer engagement, but these metrics provide no indication of what players actually did in your games after they clicked on the campaign. Even more importantly, these direct response metrics tell you nothing about the monetary uplift generated by the campaign – and this should be the most important metric you’re looking at.
The key to determining the effectiveness of any customer marketing campaign is the proper use of control groups. A control group is a subset of the players you’re targeting with a particular campaign who you decide will not receive the campaign. The members of the control group are randomly selected to represent the entire target group of players. In other words, they should be similar to the members of the entire group and thus be exposed to the same set of conditions, except for the particular marketing campaign being tested.
It is very important that each control group is a representative sample of the overall campaign population, and that the size of the group is large enough to generate statistically significant results (typically 5-20 percent, depending on the overall size of the target group and the expected response rate).
Analyzing the Results of your Marketing Experiments
The central idea in treating every campaign as a marketing experiment is comparing the response rates and spending volumes between those players who received the actual campaign (the “test group”) and those who were in the control group throughout the duration of the campaign. It is not sufficient to look only at the purchases made by the test group, because a certain percentage of those players would have spent money during the measurement period anyway. Rather, this approach is about measuring the increase in spend observed among the campaign recipients versus the amount they would have been expected to spend in absence of the campaign – something that is only possible to determine by also examining the spending patterns of the control group during the same period.
It is crucial that the comparison between the test and control groups is made during the same time period.
One might think that by simply comparing the purchase rates and spend amounts of a similar group of players from a previous time period (when no campaign was run) to the current period (in which the campaign ran) can reveal how much additional revenue was generated by the campaign. The reason that this comparison is not valid is that there are always numerous other factors affecting customer behavior from one period to another. It is crucial that the comparison between the test and control groups is made during the same time period.
Running a Clean Experiment
To achieve high results integrity, it is important to ensure that no additional factors under your control are influencing player spending behavior. In other words, during the measurement period of a particular campaign (usually a number of days), the test and control groups should not be exposed to any other targeted offers or incentives. If customers are receiving multiple simultaneous campaigns, it becomes impossible to measure the effectiveness of any one campaign. This is called isolating your marketing experiments.
If customers are receiving multiple simultaneous campaigns, it becomes impossible to measure the effectiveness of any one campaign.
Thus, keeping track of which customers are within the duration period of other campaigns and excluding them from any additional concurrent campaigns is a crucial aspect of selecting target customer groups for any marketing campaign.
Optimizing your Campaigns Based on Uplift Results
It is important to note that for this approach to truly succeed, you will need to run all your campaigns as marketing experiments. However, selecting target groups for recurring campaigns, isolating valid control groups from each group, and analyzing all of the results is not an easy process to perform manually (e.g., using Excel). This is especially true for companies running dozens of marketing campaigns every month, including regularly recurring ones for particular target groups (new players, big winners, high spenders, most socially active, customers at risk of churn, etc.). The answer is to adopt a retention automation software system that automates this entire process.
Once you’ve made the switch to evaluating the financial uplift of every retention campaign, you are able to use the results to optimize the campaigns you send your players. By systematically evaluating every campaign and comparing the results of different campaigns sent to the same types of customers, you will know, with certainty, which campaigns generate the most revenues from each target group.
Over time, you will be able to fine-tune the timing and mix of your campaigns to maximize the revenues you can generate from your existing player base.
To hear more from Pini, you can follow him on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.
Matt Bruun is the Studio Director at SomaTone Interactive. He has worked on hundreds of games, including some of the most successful titles in social and mobile gaming. He shares his ideas on polishing casual game audio in this next installment of the Game Audio Artistry series.
The Circle of Development Trends
Casual and mobile game development tends to be cyclical, with a big hit game leading developers to create games with similar themes and gameplay. In the early and mid-2000’s, we worked on a lot of Match-3 style games that followed in the wake of the success of titles like Bejeweled and Zuma. Then came a period of games with a Time Management theme, riding a wave of popularity that likely had a lot to do with the success of the DinerDash series from Playfirst. After that came a long run of Hidden Object games that were successful in both the downloadable market and in mobile. Now the Match-3 is back, with quite a few popular titles available in the App Store, and many more in development.
It’s just as important that the sounds and music are created from the ground up, with the goal of having these elements work seamlessly and smoothly together.
With any Match-3 game, it is not especially difficult to create serviceable audio that covers the basic events in the game. However, simply adequate sound design in this type of game is not enough to make a gameplay experience that stands out from the crowd of other similar titles. While the sound design and music composition must be the highest quality, of course, it’s just as important that the sounds and music are created from the ground up, with the goal of having these elements work seamlessly and smoothly together. Then, there needs to be excellent communication and coordination between the individual(s) who will be implementing the assets into the game and the audio lead who oversaw the creation of them.
Creating Great Music
On a title in the Match-3 genre with a major publisher last year, we were able to partner with a great composer whom we hadn’t had the chance to work with before, Grant Kirkhope. From the start, we designed our sound effects to work seamlessly with the score that he would be creating, and made sure there was a cohesive overall plan for how the pieces would fit together. I really like what Grant came up with, and it was a lot of fun to create sound design around that music. His score is simultaneously melodic and engaging, while not being distracting or fatiguing if heard on a loop while playing a longer level. This combination is what makes for great casual game music.
For this project, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the development team in Seattle for a few days to assist in the implementation of the assets, once production on our end was complete. This is a luxury that time in a developer’s schedule does not always allow for, but we take the opportunity to conduct on-site work whenever possible, as the polish at that stage of implementation can make a huge difference in the final product.
Simple Steps Leadto Great Results
Until recently, most casual and mobile game developers would have considered audio middleware tools such as Wwise to be out of reach for the budget in a game of this type. Audio Kinetic, the makers of Wwise, have changed that. They now offer a pricing structure that accommodates developers who are producing games with modest budgets (more details on this can be found in this blog post from SomaTone Executive Director Michael Bross). With middleware in place, the audio team is then free to make all of the many small adjustments that are needed to get a polished result. Even without the use of a great tool like Wwise, good coordination between the audio team and the person doing the implementing can assure a good final product.
Good coordination between the audio team and the person doing the implementing can assure a good final product.
For example, at the end of a level in this particular game, there is a bonus sequence that takes over, making matches for you and adding to your score. The length of this sequence depends on the number of moves that you have left when you beat the level. At first, we had the gameplay music loop just continuing during the sequence, but for the player, it was a little confusing. The gameplay music was still playing, but the mouse would no longer respond to input, because the sequence was automated at that point. So we created a second loop just for this sequence, and then a music sting for the score count-up screen that appears as that sequence ends. Once these were implemented with smooth crossfades and sound effects to help cover the transitions between them, the problem of confusion about the automated sequence was solved. The “level complete” experience in general was much improved. These are simple changes to make – a crossfade here, a fade there, adding a sound effect to cover and smooth a transition, etc. – but they go a long way in making a polished game. It’s these many small, simple steps that add up to a quality result.
Balancing Sounds and Music for the Most Polished Effect
The overall mix between the different audio assets (the music, sound effects, and voice effects) is critical. We often need to have audio implemented into the games we work on without being able to go on-site with the developer. In these cases, providing the assets already mixed and ready to drop in the game is helpful. Getting a good balance between the sounds and the music before sending it out is the goal. Our usual process involves us making detailed video captures that demonstrate the way that the sounds and music are meant to work once properly implemented into the game, so that the person handling the integration can refer to them, sure of what was intended by the sound design team. Having the audio lead involved closely at this stage with the person doing the implementation is the difference between an average audio experience in a game, and something polished and compelling.
Knowing how much there can be on the game development team’s plate, it’s understandable to us that there is a temptation to have some of these audio implementation details made lower in priority. This is especially true at the end of a production cycle leading up to a release, which is usually when the audio team is most critically involved in the project. Considering the huge improvement in the overall experience for the player, it’s well worth the effort!
Next month’s installment will explore the role of game audio and discuss the creative journey, so look forward to it!
Scott Prather, VP of Business Development at PlayPhone, has been involved with mobile gaming for more than a decade. Before he came to PlayPhone, he helped two startups in the mobile gaming industry, OpenFeint (purchased by GREE in 2011) and I-Play (purchased by Oberon Media in 2011) grow and exit. He also spent a number of years with The Walt Disney Company and T-Mobile USA. Because his background has included work at both large and small game development studios, a wireless carrier, and a platform provider, he is able to evaluate opportunities from multiple angles. At PlayPhone, he heads up the marketing, strategic development and all business partnerships, strategically growing and partnering with leading developers, technology companies, and wireless operators across the globe.
PlayPhone’s social gaming platform powers numerous game stores for leading carriers that link to a global gaming community, with partners that include Verizon, Sprint, SingTel, Claro, and Vivo. Prather tells us there are more carrier partnerships in the works, including the launch of their latest carrier game store. He insists, “We’re very excited about the incredible momentum and engagement that we’re seeing. Our reach is quickly approaching a billion mobile customers, solidifying our position as the world’s third app store.”
The most exciting time Prather remembers in his career was the launch of PlayPhone’s first social game store on Verizon. He says, “Working directly with Verizon from conceptualization of the deal through product delivery and testing took a huge amount of time and effort, but it made the actual release that much more satisfying. Being able to walk into any one of their 2300 plus stores and see your product on display is a pretty good feeling.”
Next-Gen Mobile Gaming Experience
He points out that they are creating leading edge technology as they pioneer the next generation mobile gaming experience, and a successful market introduction and carrier launch road map has confirmed their vision and technology.
PlayPhone is always looking for ways to improve their gaming network. They constantly analyze how players use and play games on the platform and constantly seek new ways to enhance the gaming experience. He claims, “We listen to the community, both players and developers, and build the road map accordingly.”
Prather admits to being an avid, longtime gamer himself, and says one of the most enjoyable aspects of his job is getting to play the games as they come onto PlayPhone’s mobile gaming network. As with most of us, these days he is playing My Singing Monsters, Candy Crush Saga and Deer Hunter 2014. He says console games are amazing, but he prefers mobile, claiming nothing beats being able to play on-the-go.
He foresees the next few years bringing aggressive mobile expansion globally with increased smartphone penetration; faster and more powerful phones and tablets; increased mobile and internet usage; and increased percentage of time spent on phones and tablets as opposed to laptops. He also expects an explosion of mobile gaming growth globally including Asia, Africa and Latin America with China, India, Indonesia and Brazil leading the way.
The Importance of Engagement
Prather emphasizes the advantages of the free-to-play model because it lowers the barrier to entry and enables the widest audience to easily invite friends to play and share games, something he sees as a core ingredient for successful gaming. He notes, “Engagement goes up significantly when more friends are playing together.”
But he sees the most challenging element in free-to-play is getting the balance of monetization right, since monetization is critical to the success of every game. Engagement is essential to convert a user to a paying user, and monetization is optimized when the play vs purchase mechanic is balanced and the right offer is delivered at the right time. Free-to-play is most successful when monetization is integrated at the game design phase. He emphasizes, “Successful monetization balance is typically achieved only through much testing and iteration. It’s amazing how much psychology goes into gaming.”
Headquartered in the global technology hub of Herzliya, Israel, Plarium employs over 400 individuals across its three offices and animation studios. With 90 million registered users, Plarium is considered one of the top hardcore game developers on Facebook. Nicholas Day is the Creative Director for Plarium’s portfolio of hardcore games (Total Domination, Soldiers Inc., Pirates: Tides of Fortune, Stormfall: Age of War), and shares the story of Total Domination.
Over the past few months, there’s been an increasing amount of reports on the death of social gaming. Plarium’s hit hardcore title Total Domination: Nuclear Strategy proves that these reports have been greatly exaggerated.
Plarium’s Total Domination has been growing and evolving steadily since its launch in late 2011. In terms of numbers, Total Domination’s registered players have increased by 55 percent in the last year alone, with players logging in an average of three sessions a day on Facebook alone. As part of Plarium’s ongoing work with their core players, they’ve been consistently updating the game with new content, new mechanics, in-game characters, and extended storyline events that take the gameplay experience to the next level.
A few of Total Domination’s most notable new features include the immersive Global Missions, Live Chat, and the introduction of Clan Warfare, all of which increased the overall game engagement factor, while allowing Plarium to fully maximize the “social” aspect of gameplay.
With Global Missions, the game offers a break from competitive gameplay to allow players to work collectively against a universal non-player enemy – success or failure is up to the community as a whole, and players can earn free units, bonuses, and special content while unlocking key plot developments and shaping the course of the game storyline.
While a simple addition, adding live chat has given all in-game teams a powerful new tool to coordinate in real-time without leaving the game or sending messages. Coupled with new improvements to the game’s team gameplay interfaces, Live Chat has made it even easier to play with old friends and meet new ones without missing the action.
Over the past 12 months, Plarium has brought Clan Warfare to the center of the Total Domination player experience and put a stronger emphasis on team cooperation and social gameplay. This feature allows players to team up with live allies from around the world to battle for control of the game map, upgrade and defend powerful map objectives, and engage in complex team gameplay within the game world. Clans have their own player-determined internal command hierarchies, achievements, and access to special resources and units.
Artifacts have also been introduced to the game – advanced ancient technological components players can use to improve their fighting units, increase their resource production, and reduce unit production times. Artifacts can either be recovered randomly during battles, or by controlling and searching archeological sites across the wasteland map.
“We’ve introduced eight new units as exclusive bonus content within the game’s Black Market,” shares Gabi Shalel, Plarium’s VP of Marketing. “Each unit boasts serious firepower, and grants special collective attributes when fielded with weapon systems within its class.”
More recently, Plarium launched the latest installment of the Total Domination franchise, titled Total Domination: Reborn, for iOS devices. The mobile title features all new groundbreaking graphics and gameplay. Upon launch, TD: Reborn reached the #1 spot on the US App Store for Strategy Games and Top 50 spot overall.
The Total Domination team has a lot more in store for their players. With so many existing game features and mechanics, the next major step for TD is developing more story-driven multimedia content; including new fully-voiced game characters, an entirely new musical score, playable side missions, and a massive new storyline for new global missions that will uncover more of the world’s history and shape the narrative act of the game worldwide leading into 2014.
Launching a hardcore title is only the start of a game’s journey. To maximize the success of any title, whether it is on social or mobile, requires listening to user feedback in order to implement the right updates swiftly and efficiently. Additionally, community feedback can have a direct impact on your game’s long term engagement and monetization factors, so keeping an open channel of communication between core players and the development team is essential.
Amitt Mahajan is on a mission, and it’s a dangerous one at that. You see Mahajan, and his partner Joel Poloney, are tight-rope walkers. They’ve strung their wire between the once lofty tower of social gaming on Facebook and the rapidly rising rocket ship of social-mobile. They’re walking that very narrow line between art and science as they attempt to leave one world behind, building on their early success at Zynga, to stake a claim in the new world beyond.
But Red Hot Labs, newly founded by Mahajan and Poloney, is well-funded and well-poised to make such a crossing. After all, Poloney and Mahajan are the brains behind the Ville-games that provided Zynga with so much of its early zing. The question now is, just how hot is Red Hot? Building blockbuster franchises like Farmville and Castleville is incredibly difficult. But building a company that can create them is Sisyphean. Can its two young founders roll that huge boulder back up the hill? All signs point to Yes.
The lightbulb moment came for Mahajan during his stint as Zynga’s CTO in Japan. It was there, immersed in a society thoroughly inundated with mobile devices, that he saw the future.
“It made sense that when I came back to the US, we would try to get ahead of that curve here.”
“In Japan, I got a chance to see what a mobile first society looks like,” Mahajan said. “Everywhere you looked, people were utilizing their phones as their primary means of communication and entertainment. Every other TV commercial was for a social game, so I knew that it was only a matter of time before that phenomenon spread to the US… It made sense that when I came back to the US, we would try to get ahead of that curve here.”
Mahajan and Poloney knew they wanted to start a company, but their general thrust didn’t gel until they left Zynga. They saw promising potential in what was then still a nascent and evolving mobile landscape and formed Red Hot Labs as a sort of technology and know-how bridge between what worked in the old world of web-based social games and the new frontier of always-on, always-connected handheld devices.
“Our core belief is that the mobile ecosystem is still new and undeveloped,” Mahajan said. “The tools and infrastructure we had available when we were building games for Facebook does not yet exist for mobile and there is an opportunity in applying what we learned building FarmVille and other mass-market games at Zynga to mobile devices.”
Red Hot see gaps in the app development ecosystem. So they’re investing in their own core technology early, and taking their time doing it right, believing that will pay off down the road. Red Hot plans to create their own tools and services to fill those gaps that still exist, and that inhibit growth, in the mobile space as it pertains to app development. And their approach is both wise and humble. Having come off such success at Zynga, one might expect to find arrogance or even cockiness at Red Hot. Not so. Mahajan espouses a cyclical philosophy of perpetual learning that is almost Zen-like in its emphasis on leveraging the skills and talent of its people as both teachers and students.
“I measure our success in that regard by not only how successful we are when people are working with us, but how successful our alumni are even after they have left Red Hot Labs.”
“My aim is for Red Hot Labs to be a place of continuous learning,” Mahajan said. “Everyone here is a teacher and everyone here is a student. We aspire to work with people that inspire us to grow and do our best work. I measure our success in that regard by not only how successful we are when people are working with us, but how successful our alumni are even after they have left Red Hot Labs.”
Mahajan is serious about what he feels sets Red Hot apart. He sounds more like a University Dean than game studio CEO, but such a mindset is not altogether altruistic, it’s also good business. It’s like a brick-and-mortar store that prides itself on customer service except in this case, the employee is the customer. When a person feels respected and taken care of, that person not only works harder and more productively, but moves on with a positive and gracious attitude that yields dividends in the form of referrals, reviews and collaboration in the future.
Bingo Blast™, Red Hot’s first game, released on iOS and Android in March. It was featured on Google Play and, according to Mahajan, is doing very well. But it’s really only the beginning of what Red Hot has up its sleeve. It’s the technology beneath Bingo Blast that’s the real differentiator. Red Hot’s game-agnostic server architecture allows them to run multiple games on the same set of servers by employing some unique trade-offs in how data is stored and updated, enabling them to deploy games very quickly using their unique approach.
Though technology is a key component of Red Hot’s strategy, it’s game-play and brand loyalty they are most focused on. They are building processes around the collaboration between what Mahajan calls ‘intuition-based designers’ and metrics-driven product managers, leveraging what they learned at Zynga – both what did, and what didn’t work.
“We’re a retention-first company,” Mahajan says. “That means respecting the player and building a long-term relationship with them by delivering entertainment first. We’re always looking for win/win experiences where the player constantly experiences new unique types of fun and we are compensated for our efforts. It’s not always easy to do, but searching for those opportunities is what differentiates us and makes this an incredible adventure.”
Balancing the art and science of game development has been the mantra of many studios before them, but Red Hot seems to have the chops to actually pull it off. If they can achieve on mobile what they managed to do with Farmville in the now ancient social-Facebook past, we could be looking at the next Zynga…or perhaps, the next Zynga acquisition target.