Riccardo Zacconi, CEO of King.com, never expected to be in the position he's in right now -- head of the number two game developer on Facebook. Not that long ago, conventional wisdom suggested it would be impossible for a new developer to break into the top five, but then Wooga did it, and subsequently King.com did.
Did he expect that kind of success? "No," says Zacconi, laughing. "There is no company in the world that always grows. Companies go up and down, up and down."
But he follows that up with an even more surprising statement. "I think, for us, Facebook is an expansion platform," Zacconi tells Gamasutra.
The company operates a traditional casual games portal on King.com, and the best of the best games from that portal -- the company publishes 15 a year, with plans to expand that to 20 by the end of 2012 -- are chosen to be expanded into Facebook properties.
"The reason we launch 15 new games on King.com is because this allows us to test and to innovate," says Zacconi. "I think we have a very solid plan for a long time based on IPs that we know work very well, in terms of gameplay, on King.com."
King of the castle
King.com is no overnight success story, even if it wasn't a prominent name in games until it burst onto the Facebook charts. In 2009, the company saw Facebook begin to suck its users away -- "and so for this reason, we started thinking about how can we break into Facebook, or how can we propose our games also to Facebook players," says Zacconi.
"If a game is good on one platform, there's actually a high chance that if the game plays good in one format, it is going to work also somewhere else. You just need to propose it in a way that is right for the platform."
Now, the company has begun its serious into the mobile and tablet space. It has created versions of its games for iOS which synchronize with their Facebook versions, enabling players to pick up where they left off. "I think how we look at it, if we have a good game, we want to make sure this game is played everywhere," is how Zacconi puts it.
As with Facebook, the company quietly pushed into the iOS space but met with surprising success. Zacconi puts it down to an entrenched fan base supporting its games. Catering to that fan base has lead the company to its strategy for mobile.
"We basically put ourselves in the shoes of the player," he says. "With the change of game habits, the ideal situation is one where the player can actually play the game wherever the player is."
"Player habits are changing," he recognizes. "If he finds the same game available somewhere else, on a different device, the expectation is to play the same game. It's not to play the game where the player has to start again from scratch."
Meanwhile picking platforms, says Zacconi, is "about setting priorities. So we start with platforms that have reach. And when a new platform has reach, we also want to be there."
The success of King.com marks a shift for the Facebook platform, in which simulations and city-builder games once exclusively ruled the charts.
"In the entertainment world, I think you need to come up with fresh ideas, with new content, with constant innovation," says Zacconi. While the games King.com releases aren't necessarily new to the world, they were new to the Facebook audience, which happened to be, as Zacconi puts it, "classical, typical" casual demographic.
In his GDC Europe presentation, Zacconi pointed out that "if you go back a year in time, there were no casual games" in the Facebook top 10. Speaking to Gamasutra, he says that "I think that we've seen more and more copies or more and more games in the same genre, and now we're bringing what I would call 'color'."
Of course, what's ironic is that Bubble Witch Saga, one of King.com's big Facebook successes, is a copy of Taito's Puzzle Bobble/Bust a Move that's been expertly adapted for social network play. Of course, Zynga then followed on from Bubble Witch Saga with its Bubble Safari. Zacconi sees room for all comers in a niche like this, however.
"I think the player who likes to play one game actually likes to play other versions of a similar game. So I think from that perspective it's a larger market, and it's very interesting," he says, untroubled by the idea that he might be cloning Taito or that Zynga might be cloning him.
"I think one advantage we have is that we're not stuck with one game. We have tons of games which are just about to be released."
[UPDATE: After the publishing of this interview, a King.com rep wanted to clarify its stance on "blatant" copying of games. Here is the statement in full:
"There is a big difference between being inspired and just making a rip-off of another game. King.com takes great pride in the originality and innovativeness of our games. All of our games are created in-house by our great developers. We recognize that the inspiration for great games can come from a lot of sources, but there is a big difference between being inspired to create something new, different and better compared to just copying what is special about a game and pretending it's your own work.
When companies blatantly copy most of the elements of one of our games to present a game with the same look and feel, they are stealing our creativity and calling it their own - that's bad for the game world because it rewards the copyists at the expense of the creators. A creator takes the risk that a game will be a success or a flop, a copyist ripping off a great game takes none of that risk but a lot of the benefit. We want other games developers to be clear, when companies 'cross the line' into blatantly copying our games and their original and unique IP, we will take action."]