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BusinessDevelopmentExclusive InterviewsIndustryOnline

Holly Liu’s Insights From the Kabam Experience and the Evolving Game Market

July 22, 2014 — by Industry Contributions

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Holly Liu is the chief of staff and culture at Kabam, overseeing HR and driving Kabam’s vision, mission, and values for its 800 employees around the globe. Previously, she was VP of people ops and user experience and led design for Kabam’s very successful game, Kingdoms of Camelot. Here she discusses her experiences with Kabam and her insights into the evolving game industry.


Holly Liu - Kabam (2)

Entering the Game Industry

I entered the game industry because the free-to-play business model enabled me to connect directly with players. Before I started in the game industry, I had spent my time designing products that were based around the advertising business model. I had never been in the gaming industry before, so I’m not sure if I had any expectations. However, once I became involved in the industry, what I did learn was the fundamental difference between product design and game design. Product design can be thought of as blocks or “features” that can be stacked next to each other – not necessarily affecting one another; however, game design needs to be thought of as co-centric loops and a whole eco-system, where moving one piece will affect another, and expanding the game isn’t just “turning on features.”

The Creation of Kabam

Kabam was founded in 2006 initially as watercooler-inc, focused on things that people would talk about at work around the water cooler. We initially created the largest TV and sports fan communities on Facebook, which was so popular that when ABC wanted to distribute video, they called us rather than Facebook. That was the height of our fan communities. However, when the 2008 mortgage crisis hit, it adversely impacted us because our communities and business model were based on advertising revenue. We spent some time talking about what we should do given the climate for our particular business model. The first thing we decided was to stay in the game. We looked at three things: market opportunity, team capabilities, and passion points. First, we had a passion for games, especially our CEO, who loved PC-strategy-based games. Secondly, our team had over 60 years of cumulative experience creating and launching Facebook applications. And finally, we were realizing that Facebook games, coupled with the free-to-play business model, were growing during these trying times. That was what really our start into gaming.

What started as watercooler-inc turned into the successful game company Kabam.
What started as watercooler-inc turned into the successful game company Kabam.

Our CEO was frustrated with the lack of depth of the current Facebook games and wanted to bring a deeper game to the Facebook audience. So we started building the first strategy-based game for Facebook using the ever popular lore of Camelot. We used a lot of community building strategies we had learned from our fan communities to connect people within alliances. Today, our Kingdoms of Camelot franchise has grossed over $250 million dollars in revenue and was the top grossing application in 2012 in the iOS store. We have connected millions of players who have made lifelong friendships, connections, and marriages.

Lessons From Kingdoms of Camelot and Kabam

Through this experience, I learned that entrepreneurship is a full contact sport. Be ready to take everything you have learned – not only what you learned in books at school, but also on the playground and at family dinners, and bring it to the table. You are in the ring. The good thing is you don’t have to do it alone. Make sure you have the right team with whom you can do the best work of your life. With the right team, you can make sure you are getting the right product out the door, and you will be able to raise capital to make this happen. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In the beginning, my role was to help design a game that was accessible for the Facebook audience. While we knew there were gamers on Facebook, we also knew that a lot of people with no gaming experience would be exposed to Kingdoms of Camelot. Therefore, I spent a lot of time on the first time experience, as well as encouraging the player to get help from and engage friends. I was really inspired by some of the Camelot lore we grew up with and by the idea of transporting the player back in time to the medieval age where there were kings, lords, ladies, princes, and princesses. The concept was influenced by many of the Asian PC-strategy based games as well as a little from Sid Meier’s Civ. The game certainly exceeded our expectations not only on monetizaton but also with the deep connections between players. Personally, what I most enjoy seeing are the connections and how this game has changed people’s lives. The interesting thing is we are changing the world one connection and one player at a time – and I’m not sure how you can change the world without changing people first.

Now as the chief of staff and culture, I am responsible for overseeing HR, internal communications, and knowledge sharing (as a subset of internal communications). Currently, my day will include various meetings on how we can increase knowledge sharing, syncing up with people, and check-ins with various employees. Larger scale projects involve defining the cultural vision, setting up the internal communications framework and executing upon it, and finally, knowledge-sharing projects and milestones. My day-to-day activities all support these larger initiatives.

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My day will include various meetings on how we can increase knowledge sharing, syncing up with people, and check-ins with various employees.

The Evolving Game Industry

There have been three large shifts for the game industry in recent years. The first has been platform changes. With the astronomical growth of the smartphone, we have seen people shift some of their gaming time to the mobile phone. In the West in particular, we have seen this impact the portable gaming consoles. Also, with the accessibility of the mobile phone, the gaming audience has widened past traditional gamers who are well-versed with the controller, out of the living room and into people’s pockets. This means a whole list of issues on how to get distribution on this platform and whether there is a first mover advantage. Currently for iOS and Android, the platform is moving much closer to a retail store where shelf space is limited, given that there is only so much content that can be featured on a limited shelf space.

We have seen the model move from a consumer goods business model to a service-based micro-transaction model.

The second shift has been around the business model, particularly in the West. We have seen the model move from a consumer goods business model to a service-based micro-transaction model. Or in the mobile phone context: paid apps vs. in-app purchases. In 2012, Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North was the #1 Top Grossing app across the iOS store, beating out Facebook, Pandora, Yelp, as well as any other paid app. This really ushered in a new viable business model, as it was one of the first times an in-app purchase app had beat out paid apps for the Top Grossing spot on the iOS store. The implications of this shift have radically transformed how we think about game making. Rather than thinking about a game like a movie, we need to think of a game as a TV show. In movies, as in traditional gaming, the first week is crucial to how well the movie will do. Doing well in the first weekend is the best indicator to how the movie will do over its lifetime. For a TV show, the pilot is the beta and a lot of tweaking can happen along the way. Also, the revenue curves are not determined by the first night the show is aired. Therefore, with free-to-play gaming, we think a lot about how the game is created in association with players. We value highly what players do, so we have spent quite some time looking into player behavior. There are now things that we can quantify and see, whereas before, there could have been more of a religious debate. For example, in a paid app world, there probably is a large discussion around something that is fun. For us, we can see the effects of fun with our retention rates. Additionally, the game does not stop when it is launched – in fact, that is only the beginning.

The Games-as-a-Service mindset and business model has been around for more than a decade in many Asian countries and is quite sophisticated in how they think of features and how they update the game.

The third shift is really due to the shift in the business model. It is more of a cultural and mindset shift to “games-as-a-service,” which is really a shift for the game industry in the West. This mindset and business model has been around for more than a decade in many Asian countries and is quite sophisticated in how they think of features and how they update the game. For some Asian games, there is a dedicated 24-hour hotline for VIP customers in their games. For free-to-play gamers, quality does not necessarily mean fidelity of art and graphics, it means consistent uptime, new content, and ultimately fun (or else they wouldn’t come back). Now with Games-as-a-service, when we design the game, we tend to think about how we will be able to extend the game. Much like when television writers write a story arc, they think of ways the story can be extended. We think of expansion packs and big feature releases similar to television seasons while tournaments, special items, smaller features, and events are similar to television episodes.

Challenges in the Changing Games Landscape

All game makers are facing two major challenges in this changing landscape. The first is distribution, particularly on the mobile device. On the web, folks just bought traffic or used SEO to drive traffic to their website, but now with the mobile phone (particularly for native mobile apps) it’s pretty difficult to repeat the same thing. The price of performance marketing has increased, driving many game developers either to partner or to focus on their business relationships with Apple or Google. The other challenge has been the ability to keep fidelity high while moving toward a Games-as-a-service model. Many game makers are coming from AAA console game development where a large amount of graphics and visual stunning art is what really helped increase revenue for the game. Console games were also built knowing that you had the players’ full attention – it was on the TV and there were controllers, so the games were more cinematic. But with the era of mobile, most players are not familiar with controllers. The game needs to be snack-able (i.e. you can be interrupted and it’s okay), easy to start and stop, and have a lesser amount of graphics that need to be downloaded.

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All game makers are facing two major challenges in this changing landscape.

Coming Innovations and How They Affect the Game Industry

I am pretty excited about wearable technology such as Google Glass and Oculus Rift, and the ushering of new gestures while maintaining an immersive experience. I’m hoping that the gestures will be more natural, which will do away with the alienation of the controller and widen the immersive experience of high-quality gaming. I’m also very excited about streaming and getting back into people’s living rooms. It is amazing that some people have canceled cable TV for streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix. And now with Google and AppleTV, you can fling a lot of content onto your TV with minimal effort, and latency fairly decently.

Coming Next From Kabam

Kabam is currently concentrating on making the next generation games. We have some pretty exciting games under development including some original IP as well as some Hollywood licensed IP, such as Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, and Mad Max. Kabam is also focused on building our platform by partnering with third party game developers not just to publish their games, but also to help localize and provide service operations to their games. And, this is all in addition to changing the world! 😉

 Be sure to check out Holly Liu’s session on harnessing the power of passion in your work during Casual Connect USA!

AudioExclusive InterviewsOnline

Jesper Kyd: Music Serves the Same Purpose Regardless of the Platform

July 18, 2014 — by Casey Rock

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Jesper Kyd Headshot 1
Jesper Kyd (Photo Credit: Fitz Carlile)

As a composer, it’s no surprise Jesper Kyd loves music. Even from a young age, when Kyd started playing classic guitar and piano, his passion for melodies and harmonies was evident.

As he grew, so did his musical expertise. He started messing with music in an electronic medium when he got his first computer, a Commodore 64, at age 13. At 15, he got his first keyboard, a Roland D-20, and began composing music with that as well. “I’ve always loved experimenting with electronics and creating unique sounds,” he says.

Once More, With Feeling

Some of Kyd’s favorite bands and influences include The Knife and Royksopp, as well as classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Ottorino Respighi. For him, music is all about the feeling. “Music can take you far away and make you feel something different,” he notes. “I’m drawn to the emotion of music.”

This fundamental trait of music is what makes it so enjoyable to work with and is a component of the music-making process for Kyd — allowing him to find inspiration in whatever the focus of his latest project is. “There is always a lot of inspiration when working on games, film, and TV as your music needs to fit into a certain world so that world should always be able to inspire ideas.”

“Music is there to set the mood and deepen the experience, to add atmosphere and immerse you in the world.”

Regardless of the platform or genre, music has the same purpose in a game. “Music is there to set the mood and deepen the experience, to add atmosphere and immerse you in the world,” Kyd says. “Music can also make you play a game longer. For example, if some music comes on that you feel like listening to, then you might stay in the game world longer and that might be all it took for you to find something new and now you end up playing the game for another hour or more.”

The process is also the same no matter the game. Kyd will generally work alongside the creative director, audio director, or game director, discussing what the music needs to do along with the wider game story and its characters. At times, he will be directly involved with how the music is applied in the game, and other times everything has already been sorted before he’s even brought in. He loves being involved as much as possible in the process though. A score can take anywhere from three to nine months to put together, depending on how early he is brought in to the process and how much music is required — and it’s not unusual for him to write around three hours of music on a single project.

Reflections and Pushing Forward

“I’m always trying to push my music forward so there is not really a project where I can say ‘that’s the one.’ I think there is always room to improve and that is something I feel when listening to my music.”

There’s no such thing as a crowning accomplishment for Kyd and each project brings more knowledge and new ways of thinking to the table. “I’m always trying to push my music forward so there is not really a project where I can say ‘that’s the one.’ I think there is always room to improve and that is something I feel when listening to my music. I develop my music all the time and so when I go back to listen to a score after I have grown in other areas of music making, I feel I can go back to that style and add something new.”

Even though he won’t call it a crowning achievement, his scores on the first four Assassin’s Creed games were certainly a milestone, and it makes him happy to know the Assassin’s Creed community still enjoys the “Ezio’s Family” theme and connects to it, noting it was intended to go beyond gameplay. He is also proud to have established the sound of Assassin’s Creed, saying “It seems there now are very high expectations from the music in the Assassin’s Creed series, and I feel good about having planted that seed.”

In keeping with his theme of pushing forward, Kyd has recently made the jump to social games. He was approached by Plarium, who were looking to create interesting and unique music for their games. “Plarium gave me full creative reign and that’s (one thing) I look for when working on a project. I liked their ideas and they were very open to mine, so we connected on a creative level and started working together.”

Whatever projects may come in the future, for Kyd, “It’s always about working in a fun environment with creative people who share the same kind of enthusiasm and passion.”

DevelopmentExclusive InterviewsUSA 2014

Laralyn McWilliams: Feeling at Home in the Games Industry

July 17, 2014 — by Casey Rock

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As CCO of The Workshop, Laralyn McWilliams is an ardent believer in variety in games and taking risks in what is an all too often formulaic gaming industry. Even from a young age, she enjoyed gaming, but her road to The Workshop has had its share of twists and turns.

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McWilliams at Disneyland. During her session at Casual Connect USA, she wil look at examples of successful games that include aspects of the Disney park model.

Taking a Leap

McWilliams grew up on Atari and arcade games, but it was text adventure games that first really showed her the inherent potential in gaming. “I wanted to experience and create immersive worlds,” she says. “As time passed, I was very influenced by others pursuing this same goal in games like The Colony, Quarterstaff (and many other Infocom games), Alternate Reality: The City, Shadowgate. Uninvited, and ultimately Myst,” she says.

It was in the 1980s that McWilliams realized she wanted to make games for a living — though at the time, she was unsure how to do that.

It was in the 1980s, after playing Adventure on her TI-99/4A and teaching herself to program an adventure game in BASIC, that McWilliams realized she wanted to make games for a living — though at the time, she was unsure how to do that. “I was never certain about a career beyond that, but studied things that were interesting to me,” she recalls. “In college, that was psychology and after college, it was law. For a time, I considered becoming an FBI profiler — hence psychology and law — but I couldn’t stop playing and trying to make my own games.”

Finally in the mid-1990s, she leaped head-first into the gaming industry with a demo that she sold to Microprose.

To a large degree, McWilliams believes that to break into the gaming industry and make it in the business, a person needs three things: talent, drive, and passion. A college education in a game- or tech-related field isn’t always necessary. “I’ve worked with a broad mix of people, some with no degrees and some with doctorates.”

However, she notes that a college education can come in handy for creating good learning habits and the exposure to new people and ideas it provides. “I think the habit of seeking out opportunities to learn is essential for game designers,” she says.

“I think the habit of seeking out opportunities to learn is essential for game designers.”

In the Business

During her time in the gaming industry, McWilliams has racked up some impressive accolades. She was the lead designer on Full Spectrum Warrior, the most nominated game of E3 in 2003. The same game won 1Up’s Player’s Choice for Best Simulation/Strategy in 2004, as well as being nominated for “Most Innovative Design” by IGN and “Most Innovative Game” by Gamespot.

In 2008, she was one of “The Gamasutra 20” highlighting women in games. She also shared the No. 1 spot on Massive Online Gaming’s list of the Twenty Most Influential People in MMOs in 2010.

The biggest achievement for McWilliams though is simply being where she in the gaming industry. “There aren’t very many women of my age or at my level of leadership in game design, and I consider that an achievement. I want to see more people of all types rising through the ranks of game design into leadership roles. Different voices make our games better and more interesting.”

Now at The Workshop, McWilliams spends half of her time on company-wide work like business development and game pitches, and the other half focused on a specific game — though that will likely change once the current game project wraps up. “Right now, we only have one game that needs my attention, and it’s a major, self-funded investment for us, so it deserves as much of my time and energy as it can get,” she says.

Ironclad is a new IP they are working on internally, along with the unannounced FPS and the unannounced next-gen project.
Ironclad is a new IP they are working on internally, along with the unannounced FPS and the unannounced next-gen project.

After that, she will have responsibilities over multiple games at once — an “interesting transition” for her after several years of roles where she only focused on one game at a time. “I have mixed feelings about it, honestly, because I enjoy making games. I always say, ‘I never want to be in a role where all I do is talk to other people about the games they’re making.’ On the other hand, I don’t want to be one of those people who tries to embed herself deeply on everything and becomes an irritating roadblock when the project needs to move forward and I’m out of the office or in meetings. It’s a delicate balance, for sure.”

McWilliams and The Workshop also share similar goals and philosophies, which makes working with them ideal. Along with keeping a balance between personal life and work, The Workshop has a commitment to building and supporting “great teams who make great games.” McWilliams also enjoys the way they encourage creativity and foster a sense of ownership in their employees.

For instance, she points out, The Workshop has no rules against side projects. “Since my current role is less hands-on than I’ve had in the past, a side project is a great way for me to continue to further my technical skills,” she says. “The funny thing is that both those things — a work/life balance and respect for individual IP ownership — are also taking risks for an independent company. Very few companies do those things, and more should.”

The Workshop developed the Mr. Torgue's Campaign of Carnage DLC for Borderlands 2.
The Workshop developed the Mr. Torgue’s Campaign of Carnage DLC for Borderlands 2.

The Importance of Risks and Mistakes

One of the initial things that drew McWilliams to The Workshop was the fact they were willing to take risks. Along with its open and accommodating workplace policies, this also includes the game that is the focus of McWilliams’ attention at work. Although they are seeking funding for the game, they are committed to launching it themselves if they have to.

Along with risks come the occasional mistakes, missteps, and failures — which McWilliams believes are just as important in risk-taking as the successes.

Along with risks come the occasional mistakes, missteps, and failures — which McWilliams believes are just as important in risk-taking as the successes. “That’s the only way to learn, after all,” she says. “It’s why understanding your choices and expectations is so important — if what you’re doing fails and you didn’t have a clear expectation for what should have happened (and didn’t), it’s a lot harder to figure out the weaknesses and improve.”

Off the Clock

During her free time, McWilliams stays busy. She is active on a forum for head and neck cancer patients. “Most of the people on the forum are either going through treatment or have recurrences and it’s important that they hear from survivors,” she explains.

She also enjoys TV, books, traveling, and — of course — games; but the biggest thing that takes up her time when she’s not doing Workshop work is her side project. While she can’t say much about it currently, finishing it is something she looks forward to accomplishing. “It’s the first time I’ve ever worked on a game that felt so personal to me, and so much like something I needed to express. I haven’t worked on art in years, and art is a big part of the project. Finishing it is a huge goal for me.”

The Future of Gaming

McWilliams believes the future of gaming can be found in the indie scene, noting that indie games have enabled some great leaps forward. “I see that as where we’ll be moving forward most quickly and seeing more variety,” she says.

McWilliams believes the future of gaming can be found in the indie scene, noting that indie games have enabled some great leaps forward.

Variety is incredibly important to gaming, McWilliams says, because it pushes the entire industry forward. “Understanding what makes a 60-year-old grandma play a game is just as important as understanding what makes a 28-year-old guy play a game,” she explains. “We learn a lot more right now from the grandma because she’s new to us. Yet we keep focusing on the 28-year-old guy. I strongly feel that things we’d learn from understanding how to motivate Grandma will help us make better games for everyone, including the 28-year-old guy.”

McWilliams believes that the women and kids audiences will become more important as well, pointing out that both are big sources of revenue and huge consumers of mainstream entertainment — saying the current system seems broken. “You’ll find that the highest rated and most popular TV shows either have no equivalent in games or if they have an equivalent, it was developed on a short schedule with a tiny budget (compared to core games).”

In terms of technology and platforms, she thinks cross-platform gaming will rise as technology continues to advance. Already, she notes, more core gamers are taking up mobile gaming as the games get richer and more immersive. She believes gaming is coming to a “point of convergence” with two separate concepts: quality and location. Where a gamer used to have to choose between one or the other, they will eventually be able to have both at the same time.

As for the technology that excites her most right now? “I tried a Rift for the first time last E3 on ADR1FT, and it was great! I’m excited by it, as well as Steam’s hardware,” she says. “I’d love to get my personal project on both.”

McWilliams will be talking about how to make a game the Happiest Game in the World during Casual Connect USA 2014. Find out more about her session here.

 

BusinessExclusive InterviewsOnlinePR & Marketing

Sonal Patel on the Evolution of Advertising

May 19, 2014 — by Catherine Quinton

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Sonal Patel, Director of Twitter Exchange, JAPAC

Sonal Patel, the business development director of Twitter Exchange, JAPAC, says her favorite part of the industry is the complexity. She started out training to become a lawyer but ended up in advertising, realizing her passion was in technology. She grew up working in the family grocery store and noticed some products sold more than others; this began her interest in advertising.

Working in a New Market

Her first role was in the oil and gas industry at a time when gas was being marketed to UK homes from other providers that were not government run. The market was new, the product was the same, and the only differentiator was the marketing, so her role was a tough one. She was very hands-on in creating new ways to go to market, to understand the wholesale gas prices, work through B2B markets, and do financial modeling to create compelling propositions. The main difficulties were comprehending the needs of the various stakeholders and finding balance. Although she admits overcoming these difficulties, understanding the overall business gave her perspective.

Patel accepted her current role with Twitter Exchange because she recognized the passion and drive of social media and the real depth of social data, real-time bidding and relevancy. She was a Twitter user who loved the product and understood the potential of Mopub. She was sure the technology platform was going to be a game-changer.

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She was a Twitter user who loved the product and understood the potential of Mopub. She was sure the technology platform was going to be a game-changer.

A Satisfying Position

There have been many satisfying moments in Patel’s career, she tells us, but the time that keeps her grounded was helping to build an ad network that started out as a sole trader in advertising and grew to a team of more than two hundred around the world. She says, “This experience was humbling, as this particular ad network founder showed me where he had created the vision of his business and how he conceived his idea in his small retail store, and has now become a massive million dollar business.”

She emphasizes, “I love the gaming industry because it resonates so well with me as I help young entrepreneurs who have a passion to enjoy games, build amazing games, and overcome the many challenges they have to become successful. Helping those smaller companies or individuals think about engagement and adoption builds their confidence to create great products.”

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When Patel describes her work, she claims there is no ‘normal’ day, and she loves working in such a dynamic and differing landscape.

When Patel describes her work, she claims there is no ‘normal’ day, and she loves working in such a dynamic and differing landscape. She states, “The vibrancy of Asia from the cultures, customs, languages, and advertising maturity keeps me intrigued, busy, and learning every day.” She believes the main qualities necessary to thrive in this environment are listening, patience, humility, and respect for others. Her skill in advertising comes from recognizing opportunity; she notes that sometimes it is harder to walk away from a deal than to sign it. JAPAC is a market with wide economic disparity. Mobile phones and tablets are the first way for many people to get to the internet; this has created a surge of information-hungry users who want to experience everything from games to video to knowledge.

A Disruption in the Industry

Patel is seeing a huge change in the industry coming from the disruption of the media buying landscape and the utopia of relevant audience. Small gaming companies have limitations on their advertising budgets, so they use as much data as possible or a platform that allows them to find a relevant audience to download their games, and then spend money where the ROI is going to be positive. The thirst for user acquisition pushes technology players to layer on as much data as possible that will be insightful to help an advertiser find the right inventory to click or convert a user.

“Relevancy is at its most potent in real time; when it collides with opportunity and engagement to result in a purchase.”

In Patel’s career, she has seen a tremendous evolution in understanding the relevancy of advertising. She insists, “Relevancy is at its most potent in real time; when it collides with opportunity and engagement to result in a purchase.” But it has been difficult to move advertisers from the guaranteed premium mindset to thinking about real-time bidding and ad exchanges. When working with clients in mature markets like the US and UK, she saw a lot of apprehension on such a sophisticated technology play in advertising. But it started the tech revolution in advertising we are seeing today. The days of buying impressions because of the belief of a publisher’s user base are gone; the return on investment has become paramount.

Patel emphasizes that the disruption in the advertising world over the last five years has turned the industry on its head. Today, content is channeled across many media, which include opportunities for consumers to communicate directly back to the advertiser. So advertisers must have the resourcefulness, creativity, and drive to think on their feet while keeping the conversation and engagement with the consumer going, and they must do it in real time. She advises, “Keep relevant and keep responding to new advertising trends to realize your market potential.”

The biggest trend she sees coming in the digital industry will result from the emergence of cloud computing, giving big data the ability to grow and become reality. Big data, the connectivity of the web to our lives, gaming, and the possibilities of biotechnology will drive the adoption of the Internet of Things. During the next three to five years, she expects to see the consolidation of the digital landscape, the effect of disruption between e-commerce, 3D printing, video gaming and mobile. Programmatic Real Time Bidding will become a mainstay way to buy media.

Sonal Patel will be discussing more about Programmatic Real Time Bidding during Casual Connect Asia 2014. More information on her session can be found on her conference website.

 

BusinessExclusive InterviewsIndustryOnline

Sergio Salvador: Passion, Inspiration, and Creativity

May 19, 2014 — by Catherine Quinton

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Sergio Salvador
Sergio Salvador, Head of Games Partnerships, Google

Sergio Salvador, the head of games partnerships at Google, developed an interest in video games at an early age. He was 12 years old when he received his first computer, a Sinclair Spectrum 48k (a popular choice in Europe at the time). He was expected to learn to code on it, but quickly discovered he enjoyed the end product much more. So he spent many hours playing games like Elite, Manic Miner, Skool Daze, Gauntlet, Way of the Exploding First, Fury of the Furries, and Atic Atac.

Salvador’s career has also focused on the end product, as he has served as business development, product marketing, product management, and general management. Most of his career has been spent with Electronic Arts spanning several countries, including Spain, UK, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

A Life of Games

While studying for his PhD, he made his first entry into the serious side of games with an online games magazine he founded with a friend. The magazine had reviews and editorial content and was a great success, becoming the most popular games magazine in Spanish in the world.

One particularly rewarding experience in his career was the international launch of Battlefield 2 while he was based in London. He decided to do something rare for EA at the time: launch a special edition of the game with a great box and memorabilia inside. It became incredibly popular, and the game did well overall. He still owns one of these special editions in an unopened box.

The games industry when he started out was quite different from today. One of his first roles with EA was in the online division in Europe, working on the launch of the online games services, known as EA.com at the time, a very early predecessor to the Origin service. The launch of the service was difficult at the beginning; it came just after the dot.com bubble burst. He emphasizes that it was hard going at first, with uncertainty and diminishing support both internally and externally, but eventually, as the online industry overall began to recover, the service started getting off the ground.

Focus on the People

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Salvador’s career has always focused on the business side of the games industry, and he finds the skills necessary for success are interchangeable with those needed in other industries.

Salvador’s career has always focused on the business side of the games industry, and he finds the skills necessary for success are interchangeable with those needed in other industries. One of the skills he feels is critical to develop is a laser focus on the user, whether external, or, less commonly, internal. He insists, “Identifying a problem or need a user has, and doing everything in your power to find a solution for it, almost always results in a positive outcome.”

Unfortunately, Salvador has noticed it is common under certain company and industry conditions to feel pressure to focus on driving revenue. He asserts, “This is anathema to a great partnership. Focusing on the partners’ needs and working to help them find a solution is the right premise to any partnerships-focused work. Solving the problem a partner has will routinely end up being beneficial to both partners, with revenue being a common desirable side effect.”

Leave Room For Fun

These days, he is spending quite a lot of his time in China and Japan meeting partners and presenting at conferences. Working globally requires flexibility and long days; early morning is a good time to connect with the team in North America, work with Europe starts at about 3:00 PM, Singapore time, and in between, he is involved with the Asia-focused work, reviewing the status of different discussions or working on overall strategy for different partners.

Salvador believes it is essential to take time away from work; he normally does this on weekends. Usually he devotes this time to his family, but when he is not with them, he is training for marathons, playing tennis, attending yoga classes or learning to play the electric guitar. He also lectures on digital marketing one evening a week at a local polytechnic, claiming this change of pace feels like free time, and is on the boards of a local NGO and a global games conference.

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Salvador wanted to take a fun picture while in Ho Chi Minh City.

Tips for the Next Gen

To people starting out in the games industry, Salvador recommends focusing on the future with mobile, mobile, mobile! He recognizes that the online games industry is large in Asia and consoles are a big part of the industry in Western countries. But he insists, “The future is in mobile, and that doesn’t mean only smartphones.” He recommends, “Settle on an idea you are passionate about and start experimenting with it on phones, tablets, wearables, and virtual reality platforms.”

Passion is the attribute he feels is most important for the next generation of games professionals. “Games are a form of art, possibly the most interactive and entertaining form of art,” he insists, “Players are almost always passionate about games they play and games they love if they can feel the passion that went into making them, whether they are hardcore or casual gamers.” So professionals should be passionate about the work they are doing, whether that work is directly designing and creating the games or is the business side of the games industry. It all contributes to great gaming experiences.

Defining the Market

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Saturation and business models are always important concerns when he is working with partners.

Saturation and business models are always important concerns when he is working with partners. To some extent, he says this is an Asia-focused view of the world, particularly China, where games markets are reaching the point that makes long-term business unsustainable for small companies. Business models are now gravitating to micro-transactions and in-app purchases, models which are essentially the same for different platforms. Today, with the number of games available in online and mobile, only the top developers are making any real money, while the majority of companies only generate enough revenue to continue plodding along, but are limited in how much they can innovate. Salvador recognizes that this will be damaging to the industry long term until a painful market correction happens.

He believes that mobile platforms will continue to define the market in the foreseeable future, with new platforms bringing both challenges and opportunities. This evolution of the games industry will allow games to be more portable, possibly more customizable, and will make them significantly more mass market. He points out that there are great experiments going on now, such as Google’s augmented reality game, Ingress. Salvador says, “The team will be working this year with a select group of developers to build games using geographic data from the game, with a full API expected to release to the public in 2015.”

As a gamer, Salvador is excited about virtual reality technologies, claiming we now have the right talent and the right computing power in small formats. He believes, “Both Morpheus and Oculus seem to be inspiring developers, and whether they deliver what they promise or not, inspiration always leads to creativity and new ideas being generated. That can only be good.”

Sergio Salvador will explore solutions for the challenges facing developers who can’t live on in-app purchases alone during Casual Connect Asia 2014. More on his session can be found on the conference website.

 

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Stephen Lee on the Importance of Culturalization

May 15, 2014 — by Catherine Quinton

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Stephen Lee, Vice-President, 6waves

As the Executive Director and Head of Publishing at 6waves, Stephen Lee spends his days speaking with developers from all over the world. And, while 6waves is one of the leading global publishers of independent social and mobile games, each developer may bring very different games, experiences, skills, resources, and needs to the publishing discussion. He says, “Having the flexibility to adjust to your partners, understand their situation, and come up with ideas that best address their needs, while still making business sense to all parties, is key.”

He maintains that flexibility is also the key to succeeding in all aspects of the games industry, since the industry changes more rapidly than most. Unless companies and individuals can adjust and pivot quickly, they won’t survive.

For the Love of Games

On a typical day at 6waves, Lee spends time with the team identifying high-potential games to approach for publishing, planning for the upcoming games in the pipeline, and exploring how to help the existing publishing portfolio. And they all spend time testing games that are being considered for publishing, although Lee has had to cut back on this lately.

“Having the flexibility to adjust to your partners, understand their situation, and come up with ideas that best address their needs, while still making business sense to all parties, is key.”

Gaming is not yet an established industry in Hong Kong, but it is growing steadily. Hong Kong is on an island, both literally and figuratively, so Lee is usually talking with people remotely using conference calls or Skype. As a result, he feels the best part of his job is traveling and participating in game shows, where he can meet others in the industry, catch up with peers in person, meet one-on-one with developers, and get a firsthand look at what is happening in the industry. He insists, “Any time I’ve had the pleasure of meeting developers that have worked on games I have enjoyed on a personal level is gravy on top!”

Lee has been a gamer as long as he can remember, but, with very strict parents, any time he was allowed to play was a special treat. And the love of games has stayed with him to this day. After working in Asia for 10 years, he knew he wanted to be a part of an industry he felt genuinely passionate about. The opportunity at 6waves came at just the right time, and he seized it.

Working in the Industry

At 6waves, he began on the business development team doing work similar to what he had done in his previous careers. Since then, he has had the opportunity to learn a great deal from colleagues and peers in the industry, especially about game development and product management. He emphasizes, “We’re very lucky to be working in a field with so many talented people. It’s non-stop learning and somewhat awe-inspiring. So I leverage my position to broaden my game knowledge as best I can.”

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The 6waves team

Now, Lee leads the 6waves publishing business for both social and mobile games, which includes the business development, product management, localization, customer service and community management teams.

Lee believes the greatest challenge facing the games industry today is discovery. Technology is evolving and game experiences continue to improve, but most games will not reach a meaningful number of players in a cost-effective manner. Although he sees no easy or simple fix to the problem, there are a number of factors that may help: improvements by platforms to more easily surface relevant and quality content to their customers, growth of cross-platform technologies to make games more readily available on as many consumer touch-points as possible, evolution of successful publishers to help with the scale and services developers need, and innovation by developers to bring more unique and interesting games and ideas to the market.

The Perks of a Publisher

A developer should always keep an open mind to consider publishing support in some fashion or another, Lee maintains. There are large developers in the industry with the resources to successfully launch a game worldwide, but no one company is best at every game genre or in every language and market. If the business terms make sense and both partners are committed to success, developers may achieve much more with a publishing partner that has specific areas of strength than they could realize on their own.

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6waves has partnered with many developers to deliver great games

In today’s challenging climate for games, with the console market share shrinking and platforms becoming saturated, developers are left hoping for the next big hit or relying on work-for-hire projects. Not every game can be a hit, but publishers can help developers reduce risks by fronting marketing costs, providing advances to help developers recoup their investment or improve their cash flow, and, in some cases, funding projects altogether.

Lee points out that, although developers can raise funds from more sources than ever before, experienced publishers have established networks and a wealth of experience with optimizing games. So publishers can help developers market their games more efficiently, as well as target and retain users with better LTV.

He also realizes that most developers want to focus their time and energy on making great games. With their existing infrastructure and experience, publishers can help look after all the other things developers may not have budget, bandwidth or desire to handle, such as Live Ops, QA, Customer Service, Community Management, Localization, Hosting and others.

When building a relationship with partners, Lee listens carefully while reminding himself that developers put their all into making great games: time, energy, blood, sweat and tears. He says, “If developers put their trust into 6waves as their publishing partner, we owe them the same level of trust and commitment, and that means delivering the best quality service and giving their games the best opportunities to succeed.”

The latest game 6waves has launched is Cosmic Garden on Facebook
The latest game 6waves has launched is Cosmic Garden on Facebook

The Future

Lee believes the future of the games industry will see the growth of cross-platform games continuing, and most high quality games launching with a multi-platform, multi-device strategy. Already, some console titles are on mobile, and as this trend continues, gamers will be able to continue playing their favorite game wherever they are.

He has noticed considerable hype around the increased penetration of smart phones and wearable tech, but insists, “What’s largely missing in this discussion is that software will be just as important to success as hardware or the form factor. There will be a lot of people throwing their hats into the space, but after some shaking out, the cream will rise to the top. Hopefully, this will lead to more platforms for games to take off on.”

He also sees social elements continuing to be important factors in the most successful games, although, ironically, this usually leads to players being less social in the real world.

Looking at Asia

For developers to get the most mileage from their games, they need to carefully consider Asia, according to Lee. 6waves has an office with a large number of different nationalities, and a strong and diverse mix of cultural influences. This has served them well in building their global audience and helping developers to bridge the gap between East and West. People tend to think of Asia as a single region, but there are important cultural sensitivities between each Asian country and language.

People tend to think of Asia as a single region, but there are important cultural sensitivities between each Asian country and language.

Lee points to China as an example of how complex this situation is. For a developer to localize a game properly for the Chinese audience, they would first have to localize the language to Simplified Chinese for players in Mainland China. They also need to localize into Traditional Chinese for players in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but the spoken language of the characters is completely different in these two regions, Cantonese in Hong Kong and Mandarin in Taiwan. And each market has unique cultural references and slang. Most likely, the graphics would have to be changed to make the characters more appealing and features added to cater the gameplay to local audiences. It’s more than localization; it’s culturalization.

Asia is huge from a revenue perspective, but it is fragmented. Lee insists, “To really get the most from their games, developers should have a publisher willing to drill down to this detailed level, not only with localization, but also with online and offline marketing; this operates differently from other parts of the world.”

This is the area 6waves is focusing on, believing it is how they can help developers the most. They have local teams in the largest Asian mobile markets, strong relationships with local platforms, and an established publishing track record. Lee believes 6waves is in a great position to become the go-to partner for local publishing in Asia.

Stephen Lee will be discussing what developers should keep in mind when getting ready to launch and grow their games globally during Casual Connect Asia 2014. Find out more about his session on the conference website.

 

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Matthew Hall: The Challenges and Rewards of Working as an Independent Game Developer

May 7, 2014 — by Catherine Quinton

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Matthew Hall, Founder and Developer, Klicktock

Matthew Hall, Founder and Developer of KlickTock, describes his career as the childhood hobby that never went away. He decided on his career direction at a very early age. He was five years old when he watched a news piece on Atari with some footage of the factory floor. He turned to his parents and said, “When I grow up, I want to be an electronic engineer.”

By eight years old, he was making his own games. Recently, he took out a 30-year-old cassette of these games and was impressed to discover that almost all of them were complete. “These days,” he admits, “I have a lot more half-finished games lying around.” Hall began working as a professional game developer in 2001 and now he can’t imagine doing anything else.

A Hard Choice

Starting out as an independent developer is not an easy choice to make. When Hall decided to start KlickTock, he tells us, “My wife and child moved back to the family farm while I toiled away there on the original Little Things. When the original launch of that title didn’t go as well as I had hoped, it was a pretty dark time.” The problem was not that he had made a bad game, it was that he had made it for the wrong audience. When it was eventually released on tablet, it was very successful. Fortunately, he was able to move on quickly and found a niche for his unconventional products on the App Store.

Video games have always been a source of inspiration for Hall. Zelda: Link’s Awakening was the first Nintendo game he purchased. “I was completely captivated,” he says. Luxor by Mumbo Jumbo inspired him to leave his day job and start KlickTock. Recently, he has been playing Forget-Me-Not by Brandon Williamson and Nuclear Throne by Vlambeer. He claims, “They are the two most inspirational games I’ve played and remind me just how much I have to learn about writing games.”

As an independent developer, Hall especially values being in charge of his own destiny. He believes the best thing about his work is never having to convince anyone that his idea is a great one. But the most difficult thing is convincing himself of its value. He has discovered, “Without perspective that you can rely on, the only way to properly judge your own game is to take a few months off, come back later, and play it again. This obviously makes development quite slow!”

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As an independent developer, Hall especially values being in charge of his own destiny.

A Change in Indie Development

Hall points out that independent developers have been around since the birth of computers, but recently game development has changed in ways that benefit them. Unity and UDK have given independent developers the opportunity to compete with the big studios. Previously, they had to write their own 3D engine to release a 3D game. Now, any major problems can be quickly solved with a search, especially with Unity, since it has such a large development community.

The rise of portals such as Steam and the App store has also benefited independent developers, allowing them to make money, sometimes in significant amounts, from their hobby. Unusual games that were once played only by hobbyists can now find an audience.

Getting Noticed

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Hall has been working on Age of Solitaire, and expects to release it soon.

The biggest challenge developers are facing, both in the indie space and in the mobile space, according to Hall, is getting noticed. Building a great product doesn’t guarantee success. He states, “For the indies, a cult of personality has emerged. Not only does your game have to be remarkable, but your personality also is a factor.”

In the mobile space, he has seen that the issues of a crowded marketplace have existed since the early days of the App Store. He emphasizes, “It’s important not only to build an amazing product, you also have to be ready to pick yourself up and try again if things don’t go well the first time. Building a profile as a reliable and interesting developer takes time.”

He gives this advice to independents starting out: “Build titles! Take a small idea, prototype it to prove it’s worthy of completion, then complete it.” He has noticed that developers are often overly invested in their ideas; playing them can shatter preconceptions of the game in a good way.

Preparing for the Future

Hall sees huge changes coming to the electronic entertainment industry with the advent of virtual reality via Oculus Rift. The original Oculus Rift dev kit has a profound effect on anyone who has tried it. Hall believes, “With the new technology, new genres and new opportunities will emerge. I’m very excited about making VR games, even if it isn’t the wisest business move at the moment.”

Deck War Cards
Hall is currently in “development hell” working on Deck War

And the future of KlickTock should be just as exciting. Hall has a wall covered in game ideas ranging from the esoteric to potential top grossing titles. For several months, he has been working on a new title called Age of Solitare, which he expects to release very soon. He also tells us he is currently in ‘development hell’ working on a collectable card game called Deck War and hopes to release it later this year.

Hall will be sharing tips to getting featured on the App Store at Casual Connect Asia 2014! Read more about his session on the conference website.

 

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Simon Mack: The Advantages of Developing for Mobile

May 5, 2014 — by Catherine Quinton

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Simon Mack, CTO of NaturalMotion

Simon Mack, CTO of NaturalMotion, knew at an early age that he wanted a career in software development but, although he grew up playing games, he never considered the possibility of working in the games industry. While he was studying at his university, a friend introduced him to a company called MathEngine and the physics simulation middleware they were making. He says, “I was blown away—this was unlike anything I had seen before and more advanced than I had thought possible. I got an internship there and was hooked.”

Inspired by Technology

During Mack’s work on physics engines, he met Torsten Reil, CEO of NaturalMotion, and was inspired by the breakthrough technology his team was creating. He has now worked for the company for almost 11 years.

Today, NaturalMotion focuses on advancing its middleware technology with state-of-the-art character animation that scales across consoles and PC, as well as for their own mobile games. They also focus on growing and sustaining their mobile games such as Clumsy Ninja and their CSR franchise, while developing new breakthrough mobile games in new content categories. Emphasizing product value and customer experience is what allows NaturalMotion to build experiences thought to be impossible on mobile. And, they are always interested in hiring the best people to help take the company to the next level.

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NaturalMotion is growing and sustaining their mobile games such as Clumsy Ninja and their CSR franchise.

No two days at NaturalMotion are the same; Mack claims it’s hard to imagine a “normal” day. Because they use agile, collaborative processes across all projects, usually they begin the day with scrums with various teams. The rest of the day includes such things as product reviews, tech planning, and helping teams resolve technical issues efficiently. Mack especially enjoys the sprint reviews where he sees the progress on each project. He points out, “With so many teams working across technology and games sections, there’s always something we’re working on together to raise the bar for incredible consumer experiences.”

When not hard at work, Mack does manage to fit in a bit of mobile gaming. These days, Mack’s mobile gaming includes Threes! and Boom Beach. He also admits to playing a lot of Zynga’s recent launch, Farmville 2 Country Escape; he enjoys the game’s visually rich design and depth of gameplay.

Succeeding on Your Own Merits

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In the games industry, Mack finds “a fantastic blend of genuinely cutting edge technology and artistic creativity, something that is found in very few places.”

In the games industry, Mack finds “a fantastic blend of genuinely cutting edge technology and artistic creativity, something that is found in very few places.” He enjoys the constant change and the inspiring talent the industry attracts, as well as the fact that it generally allows people to succeed on their own merits.

Mack has had considerable involvement with recruiting talent and offers this advice to people starting out in the games industry: “Build a portfolio that showcases your art or what kind of code you can write. I always enjoy interviews where the candidate shows off a personal project.”

Great Growth and Consumer Experience Opportunities

During the time Mack has been in the games industry, he has seen amazing technical progress in the console space as well as a change in the scale of games, development teams and budget growth. The results have been richer visuals and deeper AAA games with great content, causing a great deal of consolidation in the industry.

And, he notes that the past few years have seen amazing growth in mobile gaming. “Mobile games have enabled smaller teams to create high quality games more quickly, revitalizing the industry with massive opportunities for growth,” Mack says. “Millions of people who have never played traditional video games now play social games on mobile devices every day. Casual consumers benefit from far greater accessibility, social experiences, and lower costs, whilst hardcore consumers have better console-quality experiences than ever before and an increasing number of category options on mobile.”

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“Mobile games have enabled smaller teams to create high quality games more quickly, revitalizing the industry with massive opportunities for growth.”

But Mack sees possible mis-steps made by developers new to the industry, including determining the right level of innovation in technology. Some resist using middleware, preferring to develop their own solutions. So, as they re-invent the wheel, they have less efficient development time and miss the opportunity to use best-in-class technology.

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Simon Mack will be talking about Clumsy Ninja and the character animation system used to create their game during Casual Connect Asia 2014.

He also sees the opposite scenario: it is becoming more common for development teams to pick an off-the-shelf engine solution and simply add content. He believes this lack of technical innovation can lead to games that lack the ‘wow’ factor they need to stand out. At NaturalMotion, they emphasize constant innovation in technology while remaining as efficient as possible by using best practices and reusing existing systems when it makes sense.

Mack is excited to see how mobile technology will evolve over the next few years. He says, “We’re nearing the possibility of real console-quality on mobile devices, and it will be interesting to see how that is best leveraged in making games that appeal to both the mainstream market and the more hardcore player.”

Simon Mack will be talking about Clumsy Ninja and the character animation system used to create their game during Casual Connect Asia 2014. Find out more about his session here.

 

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Jakob Lykkegaard on Pocket PlayLab and Taking Advantage of Opportunities

April 28, 2014 — by Catherine Quinton

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Jakob Lykkegaard, Co-Founder of Pocket PlayLab

Jakob Lykkegaard, Co-Founder of Pocket PlayLab, remembers his teacher telling him that entrepreneur or CEO was not a valid dream job. Fortunately for mobile gamers, he was not convinced. When he started looking for opportunities, he quickly became enthralled with the internet. A few years ago, he and Co-Founder Thomas Andreasen had the opportunity to take over an entire gaming team of 13 people. Pocket PlayLab was the result. He says, “I think I got into gaming because I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of taking over a great team that had become available in a booming industry.”

Exceeding Expectations

The first challenge to the new company became clear immediately: not a single member of the team had ever built a server or mobile game platform to the size and scale they were aiming for. They overcame the challenges through trial and error, and in the process learned so much that they are now among the best in the field. So much so that they attract professionals who have worked on a large scale with the big games.

Lykkegaard and Andreasen with the Juice Cubes Game team
Lykkegaard and Andreasen with the Juice Cubes Game team

After a little over a year, with the team of 20 being paid out of Lykkegaard’s and Andreasen’s pockets, the company reached a crisis point. The end of Pocket PlayLab was in sight, unless they could raise money from outside the company or unless their next title was a hit. Lykkegaard met with investor after investor, but admits, “Every one of them rejected us at our first meeting for being unrealistic. They didn’t believe in our team or in mobile gaming.”

So the most exciting, proudest moment of his career came when he realized they had a major hit and no longer needed to raise money to keep the business going. He loved the feeling of proving all those investors wrong. But he points out, “They were right about our sales projections and valuation being unrealistic. We reached our 2016 projections shortly after launch in 2013.”

A Refined Plan

A lot has changed since Lykkegaard and Andreasen founded Pocket PlayLab. Their reason for starting the company was to figure out how to make a successful business out of making games, and they believed they would find a way by trying out a lot of directions. Today, they have a much more refined plan for their internal platform to produce more successful games with higher quality and at greater speed. They are still constantly testing new content and styles, but they know which direction they are going.

PocketPlayLab's Office Area
PocketPlayLab’s Office Area

The team at Pocket PlayLab gets inspiration for their games through constantly playing and testing successful games to analyze why they like them and breakdown what it is that makes them successful. Lykkegaard emphasizes, “When you have done this many times, you start to have a clear idea of what would be awesome to make; then you do a prototype. If that prototype was not as fun as you expected, you start over. If it feels like a hit, you go into production.” This is the same way he learned about investing and founding a startup. He figured out who had already accomplished what he wanted to do, then he studied as much as he could about how they did it.

Looking at the Industry

A Screenshot of Pocket PlayLab's Juice Cubes
A Screenshot of Pocket PlayLab’s Juice Cubes – an example of the opportunity in the game industry

Lykkegaard feels there is no other industry with as much opportunity to build a successful business as you will find in the mobile game space, with users willing to pay and distribution reaching billions. The biggest issue he sees in the industry is building something that users will love and use as part of their daily habits.

He recognizes that many developers see exposure as a great challenge with thousands of apps and games coming out every day. However, this is only an issue if a studio has become used to having things go viral in the early days or building games without a marketing team. Then they are dependent on having a big publisher pick them up. In every other industry, it takes a lot of money and PR to reach users. Lykkegaard asks, “Has the games industry just become lazy with their marketing?”

Choosing to work with a publisher or not is another decision developers have to face. After working both with and without a publisher, Lykkegaard has his own guidelines about when a publisher will be an advantage. He says, “If you have a freemium that makes over $2 + LTV, you are able to buy those users from advertising networks and make a higher profit without a publisher. If you have a freemium game that makes less than that or a premium, then go find a publisher. It takes only a few hundred dollars to find this out on a test market with ads, but many fail to do it.”

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The future for Pocket PlayLab involves staying in the Cube universe for some time, but also include diversifying to reach other kinds of users

Future Plans

For now though, the future for Pocket PlayLab involves staying in the Cube universe for some time, but also include diversifying to reach other kinds of users; the games to do this are already in production. Lykkegaard is excited to see what they will come up with, since they are currently expanding to new markets and people.  He says, “All I know for sure is that everything we have done so far has been a big step forward.”

Jakob Lykkegaard will be discussing more about how Pocket PlayLab was able make a comeback from nearly closing at Casual Connect Asia next month. To find out more, visit the conference website.

 

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Yat Siu on Succeeding in the Asian Market

April 23, 2014 — by Catherine Quinton

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Yat Siu, Co-Founder of Animoca, as well as Founder and CEO of its parent company Outblaze, has always been attracted to technology, although his educational background is in music. His interest in gaming began as a child playing on his Commodore 64, but he never expected to work primarily with games, simply because it was such a fledgling industry at the time. But as he followed his interests, his career included various technology areas, such as lifestyle, Internet, Web, social media, and games.

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Yat Siu, Co-Founder of Animoca

Creating Animoca

When Siu co-founded Animoca, he recognized the high investment necessary in publishing and marketing a hit game as a formidable problem. The games industry is a crowded and competitive market, and with so many people focused on creating the next big hit, the chances of succeeding are limited. So Siu went a different direction, with what he calls a “supermarket approach.” Animoca offered a broad selection of titles that would appeal to a wide range of the global market, including the underserved female audience.

This plan, particularly catering to girl gaming and the “cute” niche, allowed them to become profitable in their first year. The strategy also allows them to distribute apps very effectively because their games are played by a broad range of people over the globe, with 220 million downloads by early 2014. For the future of Animoca, Siu expects to continue growing the business, but equally important, he wants them to continue having fun, learning, unlearning, and learning even more.

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This plan, particularly catering to girl gaming and the “cute” niche, allowed them to become profitable in their first year.

To navigate the inevitable crises in this business, Siu uses negotiation skills and a logical, information-based decision-making process. And he insists, “Develop the ability to avoid panic!”

Keys to Success

Siu emphasizes that the most challenging aspect of working in the games industry is its ever-changing nature. To be successful, you must identify trends early, before they become established. It is essential to be constantly learning and observing, while discarding outdated information and modes of thinking. He says, “Running tech companies is a mountain of hard work, and often your efforts don’t succeed at first, but the key is to adapt, persevere, and follow your vision.”

For a game’s success, Siu feels the most important factor is player engagement. He insists, “Whether it is the story, the art, the difficulty, the game play, or the social features, what you want is for your game to engage players.”

“Whether it is the story, the art, the difficulty, the game play, or the social features, what you want is for your game to engage players.”

Dramatic Differences

Siu emphasizes that the Asian market is far from being a single market. In fact, it is a multi-market with dramatic cultural and language differences between countries, and a game can succeed in one country while failing miserably in another. There are dramatic cultural and language differences between countries, even such geographically close ones as China and Japan. An example of these differences is the strong trend toward portrait-based, one-handed game play in Japan, something which is not evident anywhere else.

Asia, he tells us, is fragmented with many markets at different stages of development, affluence, and hardware penetration. For instance, China is a fast-growing smartphone market; Korea is a mature one. And in South Korea, China, and Japan, ecosystems are emerging and interacting with hardware companies and telecoms to provide new methods of distribution.

In Asia, the vast population is localized into single markets; being successful in one market is not considered a problem.

In contrast, in the West, the USA is a single enormous market and no European market is even close to its size. App developers focus on what will be popular in the US. In Asia, the vast population is localized into single markets; being successful in one market is not considered a problem. The West concentrates on a global market while developers in Asia localize for a single market. Asia is moving toward localized, culturally relevant content rather than emphasizing products which will be easily transferable to other markets and cultures.

Asia’s Influence on the Industry

Over the years, Siu has seen the games industry become more mainstream and accessible to everyone; focused on delivering a personal experience. In the past, games were experienced on a special shared device, a console, or gaming computer. Now games are played primarily on the device you use to communicate, to manage your contacts, and to connect to the internet, your social circle, and your social networks. Gaming is now moving toward the personal and the personalized with Siri-like services in games and more portable or wearable computing devices.

Siu has noted that the games industry thrives on borrowing and adapting, and the influence of Asian models and innovations continues to increase. For example, free-to-play came out of South Korea, and Asian game titans are now starting to dominate. He expects to see continued cultural exchange and assimilation of games, and at Animoca, the emphasis is on finding the appropriate market or niche for a title. Another trend in the Asian market is the focus on producing hardcore games that require significant investment in player time and effort, a trend which is now spreading to the US.

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He expects to see continued cultural exchange and assimilation of games, and at Animoca, the emphasis is on finding the appropriate market or niche for a title.

Breaking into the Asian Market

As developers attempt to break into the Asian market, the most frequent mistakes he sees come from allowing personal bias and experience to get in the way when making decisions. He points out that you can’t take your intuition and habits for granted in a new market. It is critical to study the environment, the opportunities, and the obstacles and use them to make sensible, data-driven decisions.

The most important advice he gives for making a game stand out in the Asian market? “Move to Asia!” Or at least work with good local partners.

Yat Siu will be speaking about what it takes for Asian mobile game developers to break into the US market at Casual Connect Asia 2014 in Singapore next month. Find out more about his session on the conference website.

 

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