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 Woodland Heroes  studio goes where the players go - to their phones

Woodland Heroes studio goes where the players go - to their phones Exclusive

December 5, 2012 | By Kris Graft

Row Sham Bow is a small Orlando-based company whose staff isn't afraid to go where the audience goes.

The studio is made up of high-ranking EA Tiburon staff who had dedicated a large chunk of their careers to making Madden NFL on an annual basis for the console crowd.

After founding Row Sham Bow in 2011, the company created the game Woodland Heroes (recognized by Gamasutra and its affiliate, the GDC Online Awards, for top-tier design) for the Facebook crowd. And this week, the company has released the clever, uniquely competitive word game Letter by Letter for iOS and Android mobile devices.

It's becoming an increasingly common story: Facebook developers are redirecting time and resources to mobile game creation.

But for Row Sham Bow CEO Philip Holt, transitioning to mobile wasn't just a reaction to some perceived market shift.

"One reason [we went from Facebook to mobile] is -- I don't know how to put this delicately -- looking at what works in social games, the mechanics that allow for viral growth and retention and monetization are not the kind of mechanics that we enjoy as users," Holt said in a phone interview.

"The stuff that works on the platform leads to games that we don't like to play," he said. "So we're not the audience. Therefore, it felt a little disingenuous to focus on that platform as our primary launch platform. It felt like a better place to be, because it's a platform we're more passionate about, so that was probably one of the most important influences."

Letter by Letter might at first to be a clone of Words with Friends or Scrabble, but it's quite a bit more tactical than that. Players do compete head to head against one another, and they do have to make words from random letter tiles. But the goal is to take over the board, and "steal" your opponent's letters (and points), adding an unique style of competition among word games.

Holt is also fortunate that his platform of preference also resides in a booming -- yet highly competitive -- marketplace. Going Facebook-first allowed Row Sham Bow to get a handle on the free-to-play business model. (The game makes its money through ads, a paid ad-free version and sales of virtual money.)

He made clear that they're not anti-Facebook, as a version of Letter by Letter is in development for the social network, and the studio works with Perfect World on the Facebook and game, Knights of the Rose. Facebook was a good learning experience for the studio.

What Facebook didn't teach Row Sham Bow is exactly how to get people to play your mobile game. It's a science that the studio, along with everyone else in mobile game development, is trying to figure out.

"Our approach to launching the title was we went through a number of paid acquisition channels," Holt said. "We wanted to get a seed audience established as quickly as we could so that we could get as high up the charts as possible, because we know that a lot of app discovery happens from people just browsing the charts."

After that, it's up to organic growth -- word of mouth and viral channels-- to really expand the game's user base. One way to facilitate that was by allowing players to log in to Letter by Letter using their Facebook accounts.

But Row Sham Bow was caught off guard when people were logging into the game via their email addresses instead. So the studio has found the need to adjust its organic growth strategy to one that encourages sharing of the game through email and SMS, and must adjust accordingly.

Ultimately though, Holt admits, the way to facilitate organic growth is to make a game that's good enough so that players will want to tell their friends about it.

"I think what we're seeing is a transition to the kinds of games that are going to be successful on Facebook, and going away from the very mass casual stuff, to games that a bit more 'mid-core,' ones that don't appeal quite as much to a broad general audience, but can retain and monetize users better.

"Platforms come and go, and I think the companies that survive understand that platform transitions are a natural part of the game industry," said Holt, "and you need to go where the audience is going."

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