Sagi Schliesser explained how the company he co-founded, TabTale, was able to release 300 games in 4 years in his session at Casual Connect Eastern Europe 2014. One of the lessons they learned was that, according to him, “Consistency is critical.”
Sagi Schliesser is a family man. He has two daughters, of which he is their “number one fan,” and takes part in all the regular fatherly tasks: helping with homework, cooking, talking with them, guiding them through life, and even playing games with them.
It’s the last item on that list that ended up getting Schliesser into the games industry. “My daughters would ask to play games on my phone, and there weren’t any that they wanted to play,” he says. Rather than bemoan the state of things, Schliesser decided to do something about it. A born entrepreneur who has always had a creative side, he used his connections as a technology executive to bring together game-makers in order to build engaging apps — with a focus on the children’s market. The result: TabTale.
Founded in 2010, the company first focused on interactive books and their first app, A Christmas Tale, hit #1 in the iOS App Store. And they’ve skyrocketed from there. The company had 25 million downloads in 2012, 100 million in 2013, and over 500 million this year alone.
Things have changed a lot since 2010. When the company started, there wasn’t mobile content directed toward kids — now, not only is there practically a mobile device for everyone on the planet, there are various tablets and electronics geared toward children. The company, which established their operations on iOS because of its dominance, is now operating in the Android market as well because it has found equal footing with iOS in the games market.
“(It’s been) stated by many people before that the only constant in mobile gaming today is change, and we keep seeing it constantly on the App Store,” Schliesser says. He notes though that “we are a nimble company, and adjust as we learn and as the industry changes.”
When TabTale started, they focused on the North American market. Today, they have strong audiences around the world — including in Asian markets and the Chinese market in particular. The company even recently acquired a Chinese studio.
Along with China, TabTale operates in five countries — a key part of TabTale’s strategy for growth. “When TabTale was created, part of our vision was to create a global company which does not have ‘one voice’ and taste, but rather a fusion of different cultures and talents,” Schliesser says. “We believe it can bring kids from different countries to learn about more than just the movie-type characters (they see in film) and enrich their experience.”
Schliesser notes that having a multicultural company is a great incubator for many different ideas and innovation. Part of his focus as CEO of TabTale is to make sure creativity keeps flowing and communication between everyone is open and continuous.
“Camaraderie and creativity flow from one conversation to the next at TabTale. We have fun in what we do — that’s important to our success,” he says. However, there is no room for things that gum up the works — like clashing egos. “TabTale already has over 200 people, but I have zero tolerance for red-tape or politics and (I’m making sure) we build a great DNA of people.”
Another key contributor of TabTale’s success is Crazy Labs — the company’s publishing arm. According to Schliesser, TabTale’s “Top 10” status worldwide downloads is largely due to the popularity of Crazy Labs games released over the summer — such as Airheads Jump and Cheating Tom. “In the first two weeks of release, each game had at least one million downloads — and Cheating Tom crossed 3.5 million so far,” he says.
The company got into the marketing game after coming to the conclusion that with their expertise in marketing and monetization, they could help a lot of great games — like the kind made by indie developers — get noticed. While they are very selective about the partners they choose, they are also very active in mentoring those they work with through whatever fine-tuning is needed to make the game a success.
“There is a lot of talent and creativity being put into great games (by) gamers who know what other gamers want to play,” Schliesser says. “We want to put their game in the top charts so that they can continue to keep making great games.”
TabTale is also keeping an eye focused on the horizon. Schliesser notes that wearables are a big trend the company is closely watching. However, the challenge is learning how to engage gamers with the technology in a way that is clearly beneficial to everyone — consumer and company alike.
The company is also closely watching Android TV, the rise of mobile-to-TV gaming, and 3D printing. “We believe the ‘family board games’ model will be extended to the living room using the big screen and handsets for playing, and we are already in the lead to meet this change — as well as the revolution which is bound to happen with the costs of 3D printing lowering and kids’ love for customized games or accessories.”
Meanwhile, TabTale is continuing to build its mobile game portfolio to suit all ages — with a strong focus on the kids demographic, of course — and expand its reach into Asian markets. They are also making inroads into the non-mobile markets. In the last year, the company announced a collaboration with Microsoft to bring their games to Windows stores, marking their first steps into the PC world.
“However,” Schliesser notes, “there are many new platforms to explore.”
“I think the brand experiences that work best with games are where the mechanics of the game speak to the brand in some meaningful way, ” Nick Fortugno said during his session at Casual Connect USA 2014. “Because then playing the game makes sense in the narrative of the brand.”
Nick Fortugno, chief creative officer at Playmatics, is dedicated to gaming as an expressive art form, so in his free time, he does a lot of interactive art work. He is co-founder of the Come Out and Play Festival, which has its tenth anniversary next year. He also spends time reading novels, swing dancing, playing the guitar, and he started skateboarding last fall.
For The Fun Of Gaming
He is clearly dedicated to gaming for the fun of gaming. He says, “I play pretty much on everything. I’m finishing The Last of Us on my Xbox before going over to Titanfall, I’m playing Kentucky Route Zero on my PC, I’ve got Plants Vs Zombies as my go-to on my phone and I use my DS for Fire Emblem and Icarus when pressed.” And he admits to owning all the last round of consoles, going back to Dreamcast and is about to purchase an Xbox One and a PS4.
In 2009, Fortugno co-founded Playmatics with Margaret Wallace because they saw a need for games that were not just clones or rip-offs of popular games. They also provide a bridge into the world of film, television, and digital media in general through the work he does with Sundance and Tribeca. On a day-to-day basis, his work includes doing the lead design work and managing the teams making the games.
Playmatics has had some great moments and won a number of awards since it was founded. Two of these are the M– USE award they won for game design on the project Body/Mind/Change and the CableFAX award for Breaking Bad: The Interrogation. Fortugno is also very proud that the White House gaming groups cite Ayiti as a seminal work, and he says, “Diner Dash is something I am always humbled by.”
For Fortugno, the most enjoyment working in the games industry comes from reaching millions of players with new kinds of interactive content. “Watching players explore the systems you’ve designed is just magic,” he asserts.
Watered Down Contact
However, he believes that currently there is too much emphasis on short term gains in the games industry, resulting in alienated audiences and watered down value of brands. He also considers discovery to be a large barrier for all game developers, but especially for mobile games. He insists, “We desperately need better channels to consumers on our platforms.”
At Playmatics, they respond to the challenge of discovery by focusing on diversifying what they create so they can compete in multiple markets. They continue to push the boundaries in games, believing unexplored territory is where you find the most exciting new ideas and the most potential value.
Fortugno considers that in the next few years, games will become a part of more goods and services, as well as “real world” experiences. Games will take on a more critical role as part of brand strategy, and narrative properties will see games as a deeper part of their ecosystem. He is also very excited about wearables and how they will enable new kinds of augmented play.
At Casual Connect USA, Fortugno announced that Playmatics is continuing to create branded and original IP using its proprietary PlayComix platform.
Holly Liu is the chief of staff and culture at Kabam, overseeing HR and driving Kabam’s vision, mission, and values for its 800 employees around the globe. Previously, she was VP of people ops and user experience and led design for Kabam’s very successful game, Kingdoms of Camelot. Here she discusses her experiences with Kabam and her insights into the evolving game industry.
Entering the Game Industry
I entered the game industry because the free-to-play business model enabled me to connect directly with players. Before I started in the game industry, I had spent my time designing products that were based around the advertising business model. I had never been in the gaming industry before, so I’m not sure if I had any expectations. However, once I became involved in the industry, what I did learn was the fundamental difference between product design and game design. Product design can be thought of as blocks or “features” that can be stacked next to each other – not necessarily affecting one another; however, game design needs to be thought of as co-centric loops and a whole eco-system, where moving one piece will affect another, and expanding the game isn’t just “turning on features.”
The Creation of Kabam
Kabam was founded in 2006 initially as watercooler-inc, focused on things that people would talk about at work around the water cooler. We initially created the largest TV and sports fan communities on Facebook, which was so popular that when ABC wanted to distribute video, they called us rather than Facebook. That was the height of our fan communities. However, when the 2008 mortgage crisis hit, it adversely impacted us because our communities and business model were based on advertising revenue. We spent some time talking about what we should do given the climate for our particular business model. The first thing we decided was to stay in the game. We looked at three things: market opportunity, team capabilities, and passion points. First, we had a passion for games, especially our CEO, who loved PC-strategy-based games. Secondly, our team had over 60 years of cumulative experience creating and launching Facebook applications. And finally, we were realizing that Facebook games, coupled with the free-to-play business model, were growing during these trying times. That was what really our start into gaming.
Our CEO was frustrated with the lack of depth of the current Facebook games and wanted to bring a deeper game to the Facebook audience. So we started building the first strategy-based game for Facebook using the ever popular lore of Camelot. We used a lot of community building strategies we had learned from our fan communities to connect people within alliances. Today, our Kingdoms of Camelot franchise has grossed over $250 million dollars in revenue and was the top grossing application in 2012 in the iOS store. We have connected millions of players who have made lifelong friendships, connections, and marriages.
Lessons From Kingdoms of Camelot and Kabam
Through this experience, I learned that entrepreneurship is a full contact sport. Be ready to take everything you have learned – not only what you learned in books at school, but also on the playground and at family dinners, and bring it to the table. You are in the ring. The good thing is you don’t have to do it alone. Make sure you have the right team with whom you can do the best work of your life. With the right team, you can make sure you are getting the right product out the door, and you will be able to raise capital to make this happen. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
In the beginning, my role was to help design a game that was accessible for the Facebook audience. While we knew there were gamers on Facebook, we also knew that a lot of people with no gaming experience would be exposed to Kingdoms of Camelot. Therefore, I spent a lot of time on the first time experience, as well as encouraging the player to get help from and engage friends. I was really inspired by some of the Camelot lore we grew up with and by the idea of transporting the player back in time to the medieval age where there were kings, lords, ladies, princes, and princesses. The concept was influenced by many of the Asian PC-strategy based games as well as a little from Sid Meier’s Civ. The game certainly exceeded our expectations not only on monetizaton but also with the deep connections between players. Personally, what I most enjoy seeing are the connections and how this game has changed people’s lives. The interesting thing is we are changing the world one connection and one player at a time – and I’m not sure how you can change the world without changing people first.
Now as the chief of staff and culture, I am responsible for overseeing HR, internal communications, and knowledge sharing (as a subset of internal communications). Currently, my day will include various meetings on how we can increase knowledge sharing, syncing up with people, and check-ins with various employees. Larger scale projects involve defining the cultural vision, setting up the internal communications framework and executing upon it, and finally, knowledge-sharing projects and milestones. My day-to-day activities all support these larger initiatives.
The Evolving Game Industry
There have been three large shifts for the game industry in recent years. The first has been platform changes. With the astronomical growth of the smartphone, we have seen people shift some of their gaming time to the mobile phone. In the West in particular, we have seen this impact the portable gaming consoles. Also, with the accessibility of the mobile phone, the gaming audience has widened past traditional gamers who are well-versed with the controller, out of the living room and into people’s pockets. This means a whole list of issues on how to get distribution on this platform and whether there is a first mover advantage. Currently for iOS and Android, the platform is moving much closer to a retail store where shelf space is limited, given that there is only so much content that can be featured on a limited shelf space.
We have seen the model move from a consumer goods business model to a service-based micro-transaction model.
The second shift has been around the business model, particularly in the West. We have seen the model move from a consumer goods business model to a service-based micro-transaction model. Or in the mobile phone context: paid apps vs. in-app purchases. In 2012, Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North was the #1 Top Grossing app across the iOS store, beating out Facebook, Pandora, Yelp, as well as any other paid app. This really ushered in a new viable business model, as it was one of the first times an in-app purchase app had beat out paid apps for the Top Grossing spot on the iOS store. The implications of this shift have radically transformed how we think about game making. Rather than thinking about a game like a movie, we need to think of a game as a TV show. In movies, as in traditional gaming, the first week is crucial to how well the movie will do. Doing well in the first weekend is the best indicator to how the movie will do over its lifetime. For a TV show, the pilot is the beta and a lot of tweaking can happen along the way. Also, the revenue curves are not determined by the first night the show is aired. Therefore, with free-to-play gaming, we think a lot about how the game is created in association with players. We value highly what players do, so we have spent quite some time looking into player behavior. There are now things that we can quantify and see, whereas before, there could have been more of a religious debate. For example, in a paid app world, there probably is a large discussion around something that is fun. For us, we can see the effects of fun with our retention rates. Additionally, the game does not stop when it is launched – in fact, that is only the beginning.
The Games-as-a-Service mindset and business model has been around for more than a decade in many Asian countries and is quite sophisticated in how they think of features and how they update the game.
The third shift is really due to the shift in the business model. It is more of a cultural and mindset shift to “games-as-a-service,” which is really a shift for the game industry in the West. This mindset and business model has been around for more than a decade in many Asian countries and is quite sophisticated in how they think of features and how they update the game. For some Asian games, there is a dedicated 24-hour hotline for VIP customers in their games. For free-to-play gamers, quality does not necessarily mean fidelity of art and graphics, it means consistent uptime, new content, and ultimately fun (or else they wouldn’t come back). Now with Games-as-a-service, when we design the game, we tend to think about how we will be able to extend the game. Much like when television writers write a story arc, they think of ways the story can be extended. We think of expansion packs and big feature releases similar to television seasons while tournaments, special items, smaller features, and events are similar to television episodes.
Challenges in the Changing Games Landscape
All game makers are facing two major challenges in this changing landscape. The first is distribution, particularly on the mobile device. On the web, folks just bought traffic or used SEO to drive traffic to their website, but now with the mobile phone (particularly for native mobile apps) it’s pretty difficult to repeat the same thing. The price of performance marketing has increased, driving many game developers either to partner or to focus on their business relationships with Apple or Google. The other challenge has been the ability to keep fidelity high while moving toward a Games-as-a-service model. Many game makers are coming from AAA console game development where a large amount of graphics and visual stunning art is what really helped increase revenue for the game. Console games were also built knowing that you had the players’ full attention – it was on the TV and there were controllers, so the games were more cinematic. But with the era of mobile, most players are not familiar with controllers. The game needs to be snack-able (i.e. you can be interrupted and it’s okay), easy to start and stop, and have a lesser amount of graphics that need to be downloaded.
Coming Innovations and How They Affect the Game Industry
I am pretty excited about wearable technology such as Google Glass and Oculus Rift, and the ushering of new gestures while maintaining an immersive experience. I’m hoping that the gestures will be more natural, which will do away with the alienation of the controller and widen the immersive experience of high-quality gaming. I’m also very excited about streaming and getting back into people’s living rooms. It is amazing that some people have canceled cable TV for streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix. And now with Google and AppleTV, you can fling a lot of content onto your TV with minimal effort, and latency fairly decently.
Coming Next From Kabam
Kabam is currently concentrating on making the next generation games. We have some pretty exciting games under development including some original IP as well as some Hollywood licensed IP, such as Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, and Mad Max. Kabam is also focused on building our platform by partnering with third party game developers not just to publish their games, but also to help localize and provide service operations to their games. And, this is all in addition to changing the world! 😉
Be sure to check out Holly Liu’s session on harnessing the power of passion in your work during Casual Connect USA!
“We are moving into a period of increased consolidation right now in the gaming industry,” Shawn Bonham said at Casual Connect Asia 2014. “As we move into this phase, it’s really important to identify the key components of the business back to scale. Just like that perfect black jacket or black dress that you can wear clubbing or you can wear to a wedding, figure out what your core components of your tech stack are, what the core components of your business are, and then you can really scale them as you build out your business across multiple dev teams, or as you work as a single developer with multiple publishers.”
Shawn Bonham is the senior managing director, APAC at Upsight, a company that delivers actionable analytics and marketing to mobile games. Upsight resulted from the merger of Kontagent and PlayHaven last December and has now launched its freemium platform. They offer unlimited access to core acquisition, engagement, and revenue metrics, as well as tools for performing in-app marketing and targeted push-notification. They will also offer multiple upgrade paths to allow developers to choose the right features and capacity at the right time. The merger makes it possible for them to offer value through a mobile’s tech-stack, as all of the components for deep analytics, in-game marketing, and push are connected together in a unified system.
Bonham also announces that Upsight continues to improve its product localization and have added Japanese, Simplified Chinese, and Korean tool tips to its dashboard; more localized documentation will be coming soon.
At Upsight, Bonham manages operations and strategy for APAC and consults with mobile companies throughout the region on best practices in actionable data analytics. Previously, he held management positions at Havok and NVIDIA, working with publishers and developers to identify the business case for new technologies and to realize tangible ROI from their implementation. At Havok, he started the APAC team and helped to expand the adoption reusable console middleware in Japan in the PS2 era. At NVIDIA, he worked on many partnerships with mobile developers to create mid-core mobile games that reach the core gamer audience.
Energized By Innovation
Most of his career has been in the APAC region, including China, Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Southeast Asia; he is always energized by the speed of innovation and business in this area. He says, “It’s not about figuring out the right answer tomorrow, it’s about figuring it out today!” He emphasizes that each country is vastly different in language, business culture, business models, and game preferences. It is valuable to understand each in order to find the best business fit for various technologies and to consult with partners as they expand to the West and to other APAC regions.
Bonham has seen mobile games become increasingly complex in their mechanics and budgets for development; operations have expanded accordingly. There has also been an explosion of middleware in the mobile space in the last few years to meet the needs of publishers and developers. As a result, developers must implement a vast array of SDKs and, on the operations side, view information on multiple independent dashboards to manage and optimize an F2P game’s performance. In response to these trends, he expects both developers and publishers will consolidate to mitigate development risk. And he expects to see consolidation in the middleware space to leverage multiple technologies through a single SKD. He believes platform will be a major theme in the next few years.
He claims, “The merger of Kontagent and PlayHaven is a great example of the consolidation trend. We’ve been able to really empower developer while simultaneously making their lives easier by putting the tools for deep analytics, in-app marketing, and push together in a single, unified dashboard and SDK.
He also believes wearables will be an interesting disruption over the next few years, saying, “I look forward to seeing how game mechanics and business models will be tweaked for these new technologies. All of this is going to require a great deal of trial and error, for which concrete metrics and solid use of analytics to gauge progress will be key.”
When not involved with work, Bonham enjoys playing tennis and basketball with friends and working out, especially Olympic-style weightlifting. He appreciates the terrific live music and DJ scene in Tokyo, so he goes to shows whenever he has time. And he is a big gamer, making an effort to try out all the major releases on PC, console, and mobile.
Bonham used to be a huge console gamer and a fan of Japanese RPGs and action games. But these days, he rarely has time to finish epic games, so he now turns toward short-burst competitive PC and mobile titles, such as Clash of Clans, Hearthstone, DATA and many others. And, as a fan of American football, he occasionally plays the Madden series on consoles.
He sees F2P as a two-edged sword depending on the interaction between in-app purchases and game mechanics. A play-to-win mechanic can cause large problems in multiplayer games and in the single player genres. If a player feels manipulated into purchasing an item or power-up just to finish a level in a reasonable time or to collect an achievement, then it will leave a bad impression and negatively affect retention.
However, if the micro-transaction can be successfully decoupled from in-game success, then F2P makes it economically feasible for a developer to focus on perfecting game balance and adding iterative improvements and content to a title while maintaining an F2P revenue stream, without worrying about adding potentially unnecessary mechanics and features to justify another full-priced premium package purchase to the consumer. Bonham believes the key to succeeding with F2P is making users feel they don’t need an in-app purchase, but just really want it.
As a longtime console gamer, Bonham owns both PS4 and Xbox One. He plays more on the PS4 because he prefers the clean interface and finds Playstation Plus a fantastic value. He is curious to see how this generation of consoles will evolve. He believes we are beginning to see hybrid games combining some free-to-play business models and game mechanics inside traditional packaged console games, and is excited to see how this will develop.