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GDC Austin: PlayFirst On Bringing Established Brands to iPhone

GDC Austin: PlayFirst On Bringing Established Brands to iPhone

September 15, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

September 15, 2009 | By Christian Nutt
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Chris Williams is iPhone product manager at PlayFirst, the successful casual game company behind Diner Dash. He began his iPhone Games Summit presentation at GDC Austin on Tuesday by contrasting his approach, as a representative of an established publisher, against the image the conference has given so far: "This [presentation] is a little bit different than what you've seen this morning: the small, scrappy indie developer."

However, says Williams, "You need to get small and scrappy, and what I'm going to talk about are ideas on how to fit iPhone development into your company."

PlayFirst, best known for the Dash series of games (Diner Dash, Wedding Dash) initially approached the iPhone as a platform to stick ports of its PC/Mac games onto. "The iPhone for us back in [late 2008] was a derivative platform. That's changed. The way we're moving forward is going to be much more about what's appropriate for the iPhone, much less about ports."

Given the PlayFirst SDK and its iPhone integration, "We could do one every three weeks if we wanted -- crank 'em out. But we're not going to do that," says Williams.

Its most recent release, Cooking Dash, peaked at the number two paid app -- thanks, Williams admits, to a 99 cent promotion. More interestingly, the game has 70% user retention in its second week of play once purchased, and average play session length is 29 minutes.

"If you want to get into the top 10 or the top 20, you're going to be 99 cents unless you're a monster brand. But there's plenty of money to be made in the 20-60 range," says Williams.

"Unless you have a really powerful brand or you're going to give it away at the [99 cent] price price point, you need to make it feel native to the platform. This stuff is hard to deal with if you have an existing game brand that was conceived on another platform."

Designing games for the iPhone is about user perception: making features that feel "native" -- in terms of UI -- to the iPhone, and delivering play experiences that fit the platform. "People might play for 30 minutes, but they want to go in with the perception they will only be playing for a few minutes," says Williams. 

Before bringing the game to the iPhone - survey the market and establish experience. Says Williams, "Someone in your organization has to become really knowledgeable about the iPhone, and that includes playing a ton of games."

Crucial is to understand your audience's expectations: both those who are fans of your games on their native platforms, and those who have heard of your games but will not play them till they come to the iPhone. "I am acutely aware of every casual time management game that comes out [on iPhone], I play them, and do feature comparisons."

Do surveys with your existing audience before you enter the market on whether your fans are on iPhone, what they have as their device (iPod Touch, iPhone 3G versus 3GS, etc.) Conversely, you should also engage iPhone gamers and see if they are interested in your brand coming to iPhone. Then find out the expectations for your brand with both audiences.

As important, says Williams, is defining your business objectives -- then be prepared to adapt and revise them, "because what you think is going to happen is what will likely not happen."

"How much money are you planning to make out of this, really? And an equally important question is what percentage of this money is part of your overall revenue? Be realistic about what percentage of your overall bottom line will be coming from iPhone and move forward appropriately," warns Williams.

It's not all about making money, he says. "Showing up with a game on the iPhone that isn't going to make any money is okay -- it can be a marketing tool, connect to the original game, drive original game sales, and increase brand awareness." However, Williams warns that you must "make a really honest and informed P&L for yourself. If your goal is not sales, it's something else, then you should have some sort of analytic attached to that."

"Does the fact that you have a brand create a competitive advantage for you? I think if you look at the top 10 or 20 or 50 apps out there, you'd say, 'of course'. But the reality is that brands are successful, and make a lot of money" are not necessarily a good fit to the iTunes purchasing environment, warns Williams.

In the App Store, there's a very low cost to users to search for a competitor and switch to it, there's a standardized retail environment where placement advantages aren't purchasable, a huge number of alternatives, unlimited "shelf space", few established ecosystems, and a highly distributed market share across this variety of applications. Says Williams, "If you were going out and saying, 'Hey, Coca-Cola, this is your new reality', they'd be screwed."

"The competitive advantage should give you the ability to do premium pricing," says Williams. "You've got this customer trust and mind share, and if you're smart, you should be able over the long term to [establish] a publisher brand."

So what does a strong brand offer? "Recognizability -- to cut through the clutter," says Williams. As with generic medicine versus brand name pills, there's an opportunity to outsell generic games in a genre, bring your existing fan base, and to get Apple's attention in a promotional context with your brand power as well.

PlayFirst specifically has other advantages that map well to the iPhone: "Fortunately for PlayFirst, time management just works on the iPhone." Its existing library of assets work, and the games plug into its existing publishing model (e.g. PR), its tech foundation, and its economies of scale.

Once your app is live, "be prepared to revise, adjust, and whether that's on the marketing/pricing side, on the updates side, or on your next app, you're just getting started," says Williams.

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