Q&A: Kixeye CEO On Facebook's 'Uphill Battle' To Win Over Core Gamers
According to Kixeye CEO Will Harbin, Facebook has a serious problem: there are no games for traditional players. Harbin thinks things could be different, that Facebook can and should be a platform for even the most core-focused genres and games.
Considering the platform's historical abundance of casual, management-focused titles, however, he says developers face "an uphill battle to prove to gamers that Facebook is a viable game platform."
Kixeye, previously known as Casual Collective until earlier this year, has set out to bring more traditional titles to Facebook with strategy games like Backyard Monsters and Battle Pirates. With these titles, Kixeye hopes to merge traditional RTS elements with the accessibility and persistence of a web-based online platform.
In the following interview, Kixeye's Harbin explains why he thinks Facebook games don't appeal to traditional players, and issues a call to arms for developers to create more diverse, quality content on the platform.
What made you decide that you wanted to switch into developing more hardcore games for Facebook? What told you the time was right to start developing these kinds of games on that platform?
WH: Because there were no games that I wanted to play on Facebook. Two years ago Facebook is taking off, Zynga's taking off, and I go and play FarmVille, and it's polished, it's an interesting little social app, but I wouldn't call it a game. But looking at the platform, there's this huge social graph, and Flash is more than capable of delivering good experiences on everybody's browser. And first and foremost, my favorite genre has really been real time strategy -- like Command & Conquer, the original Dune II, StarCraft, Warcraft, etc. -- and nobody had come close to doing anything that was cool on Facebook.
But we were also a bit insecure about themes, because nobody was doing games for them on Facebook. When we did Backyard Monsters, it had some core game mechanics to it, but we made the theme more simple to make it gender neutral. And then we realized we made a mistake with that. We slowly over time made Backyard Monsters more hardcore -- with more blood, more monsters. We even introduced at one point decorative items in the game that didn't sell at all. So people want competition and things like that. And Battle Pirates launched about a little while ago, and it's doing super well, it's very sticky in terms the users that are playing. That game was really driven by us wanting to make cool games that we wanted to play that aren't on Facebook. That's the bottom line.
I'm on Facebook hours a day, and all these people are playing games are putting stupid crap on my wall. There's something to this, but there's no content that appeals specifically to me.
Yeah, it's interesting. There are certainly a lot of traditional gamers on Facebook, but who knows how many think of it as a go-to game platform.
WH: That's because there are no games for them! Look at history of video gaming -- what platform has really worked that didn't have a lot of good quality content? It's always the games and the content that prove out platform, right? We have a bit of an uphill battle to prove to gamers that Facebook is a viable game platform.
For us, it's more about browser accessibility. We want to make good games that are super accessible to everybody. Whether it's on Facebook, or another social network sites, it doesn't matter; accessibility is the point that we're after.
How do you guys plan to incentivize these hardcore players to jump in to the social space, considering the majority of these social game communities cater towards more casual audiences?
WH: Part of it is PR, part of it is just word of mouth. I mean with Backyard Monsters, we saw a ton of people creating Facebook accounts for the first time to play the game, so something is working. I mean they're not coming by the tens of millions, but they're certainly are coming by the hundreds of thousands to play the game. So I think it is a combination of PR, it's a combination of word of mouth,
There's always going to be an early adopter who'll play the game and say, "Oh, this is pretty cool, I'm going to tell my gamer buddies and hey you guys should come and play." That's kind of what happened for us. There is some virality going on with the game, I mean it's not runaway virality like you might see with CityVille because the addressable market is much larger and those players all on Facebook and they're very comfortable with playing games there. It's a lot different for us, but I think it's just a matter of time. As long as we continue to deliver kind of quality titles, people will find out about it and check it out.
So it sounds like you are primarily targeting a different audience than those playing things like FarmVille and CityVille. Is that right?
WH: Yeah, it's the exact opposite audience.
Why did you decide not to pursue the fans of FarmVille-esque games, who are already on Facebook?
WH: Well, it's just easier to distribute on Facebook, and it's easier to acquire traffic on Facebook; it's easy to access the social graph. You know, I think Facebook does get a bit of flak sometimes, but we've had a very positive experience with Facebook. I think they're great partners to have. They want to see us grow into a big gaming company; we want to grow into a big company, you know, it's a win-win for both of us. I think Facebook gets it, and that they want to be a good open platform for lots of different kinds of apps, and games are in the front seat right now. And the male demographic in terms of gamers are severely underrepresented on Facebook, so we thought it was worth a shot. And so far, it's paid off pretty well.
Your games are obviously reminiscent of sort of traditional strategy games. What sort of things do you do differently considering you're on Facebook? What do these games have to offer that say, a traditional RTS doesn't?
WH: Well it's nothing inherent in the Facebook platform, but what we do is make sure things are in a persistent world. I mean my goal within the RTS genre is making the ultimate war game that you can possibly make, and to do that you have to have a persistent world, you need to have real people playing; it's an MMORTS. And Battle Pirates is a true MMORTS -- it's fully synchronous, it's persistent, there are thousands and thousands of players online at any given time, and everyone's on a virtual map. And it'd be really hard to do that off of Facebook, because it's just easier to get users and have them grow and register for the game.
But really the thing that's kept back the RTS genre is the lack of persistence. With RTS, I think it's always been a merger between strategy and arcade; there's always been that twitchy arcade feel that came with Dune II and Command & Conquer and so on. We're doing our best to capture that fun, that feel that those games can deliver, but also combine it with kind of some of the drawn out experiences that you see in games on open platforms.
Do you think there are specific genres or game types that work particularly well on Facebook?
WH: No, I think any good game will work anywhere. You're probably asking about it because you see a bunch of people doing what they consider strategy games on Facebook. It's because they're popular, they're taking no risk whatsoever. But the problem is that approach is very bad for the industry -- we need other people creating good games, and diverse games, so that we can prove out the platform.
Unfortunately, we have competitors that hear rumors about how well you're monetizing, or how well you're retaining users, and they say, "Oh my god, we need to go copy that!" And you know, we didn't copy anybody with Backyard Monsters on Facebook -- we just try to do an original title with our own take on the RTS genre and put it online.
I'm hoping that other competitors come out there and get the message and realize that it's not easy to do exactly what we do, and they should spend more energy and effort on doing more original content, rather than just re-skinning competitor's titles or even re-skinning their own titles over and over again. It's not good for the industry, and frankly it's not a good long-term business strategy. I think that those businesses who are relying on those sorts of tactics will eventually fail.
Why do you think that culture of emulating successful titles has persisted for so long?
WH: It's because they're all from performance marketing and consulting backgrounds. They're inherently from backgrounds where they lack creativity, and they're not from the gaming business. If you look a little while back, you saw a shift at Zynga. When more of the traditional game guys came into Zynga, you started seeing more original titles. CityVille is a good app, it's a good game! They kind of took like the interesting parts of, say SimCity, combining with the harvesting mechanics of FarmVille. I was pretty surprised when Zynga launched that game; it was a lot better than I expected of what they could do.
I think they're doing their market justice, they've gotten a lot of flak -- because in the early days of their history they were doing some copying. But now they're doing more original titles and I applaud them for that, and I think it's a testament to some of the new people that they've hired on board. But unfortunately, other people that have jumped on the bandwagon, they're from consulting backgrounds, or they're from performance marketing backgrounds. The only thing that they know how to do is analyze and copy -- that's just in their DNA, that's what they do. They're not game designers and they're not gamers. So the sooner they get weeded out and put out of business the better.