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PopCap's Dennis Ryan on the new social gaming
PopCap's Dennis Ryan on the new social gaming Exclusive
March 16, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

March 16, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
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More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Exclusive, Business/Marketing



PopCap has been talking frequently about its moves to unify games like Bejeweled Blitz across multiple platforms toward a vision of a persistent universe.

But in terms of the vision in which PopCap was founded, this is not new, says worldwide publishing VP Dennis Ryan. He tells Gamasutra that the 12-year-old company -- now owned by Electronic Arts -- developed games for dedicated gaming consoles last, only after proliferating across the web and the PC software market. "Games for everyone" has always been PopCap's vision.

"What's new is that Facebook and Apple have blown open, in a very positive way, our ability to execute on that vision," he says. "To be able to do a game like Bejeweled as a service that's available to a broad set of users regardless of what device they access... yes, it's more obvious that we're doing that now."

But the idea of persistence across mobile and Facebook creates something of a complicated understanding process for everyone, Ryan reflects. He's frequently asked whether, on the heels of the company's regular top 10 successes on iOS, PopCap will choose to shift its focus more to that platform versus Facebook.

There are two ways to look at Facebook, he notes: "There's the direct-to-consumer business proposition of Facebook.com, and then there's the more enabling infrastructure value of providing identity, social graph, and wallet. And both of those are not mutually exclusive opportunities, as well as values that [Facebook is] providing."

It's important to realize that even without the Facebook site on which to actually play games, the social network provides that important infrastructure that is becoming key to social play -- even for games that don't necessarily take place on Facebook itself."

"Whoever provides that -- Facebook is doing that better than anybody -- is relevant, regardless of what client platform an app happens to be developed for," Ryan explains. "Us looking at a client platform like iOS and using it as an enabling internet infrastructure is totally symbiotic."

"There's nothing mutually exclusive between an iOS client and the enabling internet infrastructure provided by Facebook," emphasizes Ryan.

With two powerhouse companies both aiming to offer direct to consumer value as well as infrastructure for cross-platform developers, "there can still be conflict, potentially, on some of those underlying, enabling aspects that Facebook provides -- wallet, identity and [social] graph," Ryan notes. After all, iOS offers its own wallet through iTunes.

What about Zynga's recent move into Zynga Platform and "zFriends," an initiative to let its users concentrate their social behavior around its games on its own platform? "Facebook.com has a very broad kind of vision where one element of that is games, so the idea of having a game-focused environment semes like it makes sense to me," he says. "That builds on your Facebook identity, your Facebook graph, but extends it out to be able to play with others who have similar interests in games -- and filters out the non game-specific information."

Although Facebook built a successful foundation on the use of real-world identity, it's actually common to form your social group around a game and not the other way around, Ryan notes. "If I walk down to the community hall to go play chess, those aren't necessarily my a priori friends, they're people I first identified with through Thursday night chess matches. The idea of finding people through the common interest of games first... is obvious."

As for PopCap, it'll pursue its strategy of long-term investment in its brand slate; that's why it's taken these new social initiatives generally with its longest-lived products. "In that sense, there wasn't the burden on the Facebook version of Bejeweled or Zuma to perform or die at its launch," Ryan says.

Ten years ago, PopCap launched free web versions of new games onto portals that weren't directly monetizable at all. "It was for getting people exposed on a very, very broad scale to, for example, the game of Peggle. And then over time we'd figure out how to best monetize those customers through enhanced play experiences," he points out.

"On a high level, it's the same thing on Facebook. We put our social games out there, and the most important part is people start playing and enjoying." Rather than invest in rapid, expensive user acquisition in the early stages of an app launch -- largely the normative model on Facebook -- PopCap believes stable numbers come from patient brand-building, just as it did on the portals back in the previous generation.

"Because we have that history that's so core to our DNA, that will benefit new IP that comes out on Facebook first," Ryan says. That includes Solitaire Blitz, a brand-new IP that debuts on the social network before spreading to other platforms.

"Even though it's a new game, Solitaire Blitz won't live or die on its performance in the first three months of its launch," he says. "It's a game we believe in, and we're going to continue to invest in it regardless of how well it does in the first three months."

That patience is a luxury of profitable companies, perhaps -- but it's essential to staying profitable, PopCap believes.


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