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Playfish: The Social Gaming Provocateurs
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Playfish: The Social Gaming Provocateurs

August 24, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

However, in the end, I have to admit that part of the reason that statistics, metrics, and user acquisition are such big deals is because you're not selling people a game for 60 dollars up front; you're giving people a free experience that they can choose to convert. And that's a really tough way to live, isn't it?

SD: Okay, let's face reality for a second. All the companies who were present at the panel are vastly profitable. At least, let me put it this way: Playfish is vastly profitable. And the word is that all other companies go on public record saying they are "profitable," and I don't know what exactly that means.

But if you are in a fortunate position -- not having to chase your own tail as far as your cost base is concerned, and because you have no marketing span, you can put all the quality in the game -- the question you really need to ask yourself is, aren't you in the position to really start innovating? Aren't you in this ideal state where because you are not worried about paying the bills, you can really throw all your energy and money into creating something new? I think that's the chance.

This is the uniqueness for game designers. Not having that marketing department come in and bother you because the game needs to sell more? It's a dream situation for a game designer, saying, "You now have the freedom to go one step beyond the comfort zone, and provide something that really hasn't been tried before."

And guess what: we admit, and know that we will fail. And we embrace that completely. We are telling our studios we are not worried about creating a game that doesn't succeed. Now, go and find a game company that says that to the studio. There are not that many. But it's very, very important, and I titled some of my presentation, "Make mistakes." Because making mistakes is what got this industry started. Games were started almost as a mistake of the programming ecosystem. It was done as like a completely side experiment. If you don't have the appetite for creating a total failure, you will never have a total success either.

Well that's how the game industry itself actually started. Nolan Bushnell made Computer Space, and it flopped, and then was like, "Fuck this, we'll make Pong. Let's get this as simple as possible. We realize that this game is too complicated for people to understand while they're drunk in a bar," because that was the venue for the games at the time. The famous "Avoid missing ball for high score" is the only direction in Pong, right?

And why did he come up with that? Well, partially because he saw Ralph Baer's version and ripped it off, but partially because he realized that people in a bar -- in the context of their market -- couldn't deal with Computer Space. It was too complicated, and they weren't ready for that level of abstraction.

SD: But you see: what was the cost of that failure? That's the interesting thing. It was low enough to be able to say, "Hey, forget that. Let's come up with Pong," right? The issue is that with game budgets of a hundred million...

That's the big issue.

SD: Yeah. And so for us, because we, from a company standpoint, have diminished our risk level, A, because we are already profitable, and B, because the total cost of bringing a game to market is less -- not because the game costs less, mind you, but because I think you can get feedback faster.

Because, probably, 20 percent of the development goes into the game before it gets public. I don't even want to talk about launch, but before really users start interacting with the game, and you continue to develop them. It's closer to an MMO model, where you can say, "Well, this game is getting a lot of traction." Like Restaurant City. the game crossed two million users before it's even completely live, and hence you can nurture your hits.

And this is a really cool concept, because if the game doesn't go for the right curve, and starts to tank with even a hundred thousand users, you know it is a scaling issue; it has nothing to do with the hardware, it has to do with the game design and the core concept.

And not in itself making a bad game, but it resonates less with the needs of those users. And that's how we learn, so, I guess at Playfish we have seven games -- and people talk about "seven hits". I don't know what "hits" mean, but, each of the seven games has gone to the Facebook top 10. So that's interesting. We hope to create a really total disaster, because that's only where we can prove to ourselves, and our users, that we are comfortable experimenting with new things.

I know someone who's working on a game for the Wii that's almost done, and suddenly marketing came to them and said, "Add Wii MotionPlus!" It's the type of game that isn't strongly Wii control-focused. "Really? Like, with a month and a half to go? Really?" "Just add Wii MotionPlus."

SD: I have heard that story a hundred thousand times. We have that same one around iPhone. We've been quite successful on the web, and so people ask us, "What about your iPhone plans?" We are mobile by background, and we were not part of the first wave, so everyone says, "Why is Playfish not doing iPhone stuff? It sounds like there's a gold mine out there..."

And we always say the same thing: the iPhone is an exciting media device. It's really cool. A really cool media device. So, it's a very nice platform to port your console games from a generation ago, or whatever, and then put them on that device, and use all kinds of sensors.

There's fifty thousand of those -- so why would we bring yet another drop to that? What is the value that we deliver to other players? There are already some great games there; why try and create even better games? Our view is that you can provide a lot of fun without having without having to rely on the specifics of the media device. You can rely on what we think is the next generation console, which is Facebook, or MySpace, or the social network.

So, what did we do? We waited. And when we were able, with Facebook, and Apple, to announce the Facebook Connect coming to the iPhone, we released our first game then. And this game has no sensor implementation, and doesn't use the GPS, and doesn't use the camera, and you don't blow in it, but what it does is that when you click "Friends", all of your friends pop up.

Whether they have an iPhone, whether they don't have an iPhone, all your friends that you know on Facebook pop up on your screen -- and then you are reminded as a user, "Hey, this game is about playing with your friends." Not about playing with your iPhone friends, but just playing with your friends.

And so we went through incredible length at balancing the game, so that the touch input mechanism on the iPhone version -- which is technologically completely differently built than the Flash version, played with your mouse on the PC -- all comes to the same kind of score, because as a user you feel that you are part of the same experience. You feel that when you play, whether it is from an iPhone or on the web, that is completely secondary. That's an access device; that's how you've chosen to participate in a 3D experience. What you feel is that you're part of that experience with your friends.

And so, that's why it's gone well. It was number two in the UK App Store. So, you know, people are really finding value. And that's, like, still an embryonic effort from our side. But we think that the iPhone is a connected device.

Your friend on the Wii might have created a fun experience, which has been an innovation in game mechanic, but innovation in game mechanic does not have to use sensors. That's why, for me, one of the games that has impressed me the most has been Pictionary.

Because for a long, long time, people have been buying Pictionary boxes, that only have four white notepads inside the box. I think that's brilliant. It shows how low reliance we have in the game itself, and it's all just down in the little rule book. And those rules are very simple too, right? And yet people buy the box, over and over again, because they realize that this is the Pictionary experience.

I think it was a very powerful experience. But, if you think about it, the genius was to move the investment in technology away from the game, and move it to user-generated content, in that case, because that's where you derived your fun from. 

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