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Age of mobile: Ensemble founder Goodman on his new iOS battles

After a brief stint at Robot Entertainment, the founder of the Age of Empires developer is back with a lean little startup focused on casual games -- People Fun -- and he explains why to Gamasutra.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

October 11, 2012

4 Min Read

Tony Goodman founded Ensemble Studios in 1995 and sold it to Microsoft in 2001 on the success of the Age of Empires strategy game series. When it was spun down in 2009, he moved on to Robot Entertainment (Hero Academy). The studio may have found success, but Goodman didn't find satisfaction. "Robot happened. It was a great opportunity to start at a company, but not necessarily what I personally wanted to do," he says. Perhaps he can be better satisfied with his new self-funded startup, People Fun. "I've just always wanted to get back to something smaller than 25 people," he says. "I really like being involved in creative more. And [to] stay at a high level too. I've been thinking about that for several years." "The most satisfying type of experiences have been on an individual team," he says. People Fun has fewer than 10 staffers right now, and he hopes to keep it small. "We're certainly stretched. I like to be stretched at the moment. We'll manage that as long as we can," says Goodman. "We don't have plans to grow."

Onward, Word Chums

But he won't be trying to tackle the kind of material that made his fortune. "As a customer of games, I really personally feel the need for simpler types of games," says Goodman. "Our strategy for the next couple of years is try to do a game that everybody in the world can play." The team's first game, an iOS title called Word Chums, is an evolution of the Words With Friends concept -- ironic, perhaps, because Zynga With Friends, its developer, was also started by Ensemble veterans Paul and David Bettner (who recently left.) This, says Goodman, is a coincidence. "Words With Friends was one of our favorite games to play," he says. "We wanted to add something to the genre, and we thought because we're smaller we can compete in that area, and we want to see what happens."

The Bump in the Road

Competing, however, is not that simple. The company ran into a major issue by launching when iOS 6 and the iPhone 5 were released. It seemed like a good strategy, but user acquisition costs spiraled upward that week, crippling his ability to market to consumers. "During our first few days, we were running ads and acquiring users at about $1.50 a user. That's kind of gone up to $7 a user," says Goodman. "Unfortunately, this is the week we're also featured by the Apple Store." "It's something I didn't anticipate, and it's purely from a standpoint that I'm completely new in this market," says Goodman. Learning how the mobile market works has been a major challenge for Goodman, who has a strong knowledge of brick and mortar from his Age of Empires days. "That's been my vocation for the last six months. That doesn't prevent us from making mistakes we shouldn't make," he says, with a laugh. "I'm the kind of person who likes to learn by experience, or learn the hard way... I don't like it, but I seem to."

The Market Keeps Changing

He doesn't put all of the problems on himself, however. "The game industry, the technology industry, just about everything changes from year to year," Goodman says. "I keep on thinking it can't continue to accelerate, but it seems to continue to accelerate." By way of example, he says, when it comes to the social space, "This year it was all about the rise of the mid-core game. The previous year was all about the core game is dead." Meanwhile, he says, "about a year and a half ago, it was like 'Facebook won, it's all over, they own everything.' And now it's..." he trails off, with a laugh serving as today's consensus opinion on the platform's monopoly on casual gamers.

Analytics vs. Intuition

One thing hasn't changed, however. What makes a good game, he says, is no different than it always has been. "I think those underlying rhythms and those underlying structures of games seem to be the same, in the older games and the newer games," he says. "Things that made Mario 64 fun are still the same types of things [that work now]. The people who understand the rhythm of gaming, the reward cycle... Not the newer reward cycle of analytics, but the reward cycle that you get when people were just focused on making a game that they thought was fun." "I don't want to suck all the passion out of our company by being purely analytics-driven," Goodman says. "I'm not a fan of is making all decisions based off of the analytics of cash flow and revenue." "There's a difference between having the data and what you do with that data. I really think that in the triple-A gaming space, we were making much better games when we started really putting in the user-tracking mechanisms," says Goodman.

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