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Gameloft's Quest To Be The Mobile Leader

Gonzague de Vallois, the company's senior vice president of publishing, discusses how the company intends to get to the top, and offers his opinion on mobile market trends, discusses his company's dalliances in the handheld console space, and explains its success with casual and hardcore games.

Paris-headquartered Gameloft has become a force in the mobile market. While it's been accused of shameless copying -- a charge discussed later on in this interview -- it's also very shrewdly targeted the space with a variety of titles of surprising complexity and variety. It's also reaped the rewards as both casual and hardcore audiences play those very same games.

While it primarily focuses on the iOS and Android spaces, the company has also branched out to portable consoles -- primarily with downloadable titles, but with a few retail games as well. All the while, the company has kept in mind the target of becoming the market leader in mobile games.

In this interview, Gonzague de Vallois, the company's senior vice president of publishing, discusses how the company intends to pursue this vision, and offers his opinion on mobile market trends, discusses his company's dalliances in the handheld console space, and explains how the success of "paymium" MMO Order & Chaos was surprising for the company -- and whether it intends to launch its own social mobile network to compete with Mobage or OpenFeint.

Gameloft has become a real force on the mobile side.

GDV: Yeah. We've been in the mobile space for quite some time. But I think the mobile space is getting bigger now, a bigger part of the real video game industry -- as the smartphones are walking a bit on the streets of portable video game consoles, and everything.

Then again, you also support Nintendo's portable consoles, and also home consoles, with downloadable product.

GDV: Yeah. Everything that's digital, we tend to support it, as long as it makes sense. We are on PSN, DSiWare, 3DSWare now. We do also satellite boxes, and TV gaming. So we did a deal with Panasonic so you can play directly on your TV. So everything that's digital, that's part of our range -- as long as it's mass market accessible.

That's your real goal? Mass market accessible gaming?

GDV: Yeah -- that's the vision of the company at the beginning. It's true that the play from the beginning has been mobile. Our CEO's vision when he created the company, 11 years ago now, was that mobile devices would become the most mass market gaming console available worldwide. It's starting to be true with the smartphones that allow, I would say, a real gaming experience. So yes, mass market digital, that's our motto.

How would you define the company strategy?

GDV: Our goal is, as we reach the mass market, a wide audience, we try to cover all the genres. So from MMORPG to solitaire -- it's true that there are very different genres. We are publishing a good number of titles with a very strong focus on quality.

Even more for casual titles, we think that quality is expected by consumers, because they don't forgive much. Whereas hardcore gamers can understand, sometimes, the constraints on the platforms, and they can be more patient. So quality, diversity. It's true that we've been releasing a number of titles in the last years.


Order & Chaos

So you have had, to an extent, some games that are a little bit more hardcore -- your MMO, Order & Chaos, is a really interesting title to talk about.

GDV: It's true that our DNA -- many of our guys on our creative teams are coming from the video game industry, so our DNA is more gamer type of games, but they're still designed to be accessible to a wider audience.

Order & Chaos is maybe our most hardcore type of title, and it's a pretty innovative one on the smartphone and tablet platforms. And yes, it has been doing really well, and it's still doing really well for us, and we have a strong community. And we are updating it -- updating the game every month or so, to bring new environments, new features.

Were you surprised by the success of that title?

GDV: Particularly surprised, yes, because it's a game genre that is generally pretty niche, and for big fans that want a very thorough experience, very deep experience on a big screen, and everything, and we were happily surprised. I think the game is very well done, so I wouldn't say that we did a sub-MMORPG, but we were happily surprised by the how warmly welcomed the title was.

And it's also successful from a business perspective?

GDV: Yeah, it's interesting, from a business perspective. If you compare to, say, World of Warcraft, which is the very big brother and the big leader in the field, what we are bringing in terms of business is very, very small. But in the smartphone gaming ecosystem, it's a good success. The game has been ranked in the top -- early days, in the top 10 -- but now it's stabilizing around the top 40 on the App Store in the U.S. It's doing well, also, on the Android marketplace. In other markets it's even ranked higher, so yeah. It's a strong success.

Is that in the revenue ranking?

GDV: Yeah, the revenue ranking -- the top grossing.


It's interesting to see how many titles you've released for you the 3DS eShop, and for DSiWare, and WiiWare. There aren't that many publishers that focus on it -- even people who have strong digital presences.

GDV: So we've been supporting, very strongly, WiiWare and the DSiWare when they launched, and we've adjusted our support based on the success of the digital downloads on these platforms. The consumer experience and shopping experience was not optimized, and so the success was average.

But yeah, we've been happy with the support, and with the partnership that we've had with Nintendo. We support their 3DSWare. We launched Let's Golf! before the summer, and we have, of course, all our DSiWare titles that are also available on the 3DS.

And we also support the 3DS on the retail side. So that's the only outtake section to our digital motto -- as some of the consoles launch, we made a deal with Ubisoft in the U.S. and Europe, and with Konami in Japan, for the launch of Asphalt.

There's a PlayStation Vita Asphalt game, too.

GDV: That's coming, and it's the same story. It's published by Ubisoft in the Western world, and by Konami in Japan.

What about iOS and Android, and your thoughts on those platforms? You've had a lot of success on iOS.

GDV: Yeah, we've been very, a very early supporter of the iOS platform. When the iPhone came out -- and at the time it came out without the App Store -- we decided we strongly believed in the platform because it really brought innovation to the market.

So we were very active at launch and we've kept supporting the platform very strongly. I think we have around 80 titles launched on the iOS platform. So we'll be on the iPhone, on the iPad, we support the Mac App Store with some titles. We've been following up on each innovation, from the first iPhone, to the iPhone 4, and we will support them on the iPhone 4S.

What do you think of the iOS 5 and iPhone 4S launch?

GDV: I think there are two features interesting on the gaming side, which are iCloud and AirPlay, which will enhance the gaming experience. You'll be able to store, and have a real cross-device experience. AirPlay allows you to stream, and maybe to create a new gaming experience, by having a dual-screen experience, so that's very exciting for our teams.

On the 4S, our developers are always very happy to have more power in the devices to create better experiences graphically, so that's also very exciting for them.

Do you find the complexity of the games naturally rises as the power of the platforms increases?

GDV: Yeah, it's true. It depends on the type of games, and the types of people that you target. When you want to target a casual audience, you don't need, maybe, to leverage all of the power of the platform, and put polygons, and 3D, and everything. So it depends on the type of games.

But it's true that for a more "gamer" type of experience, more power means a better experience, and more complexity, and it's true that the development timelines of our titles have been expanding. As more power [comes] more fragmentation also [comes] somehow, because now you have to cover different devices, and more online and everything. So, yeah, it's adding in terms of development times.

Have you had any thoughts into entering into social games, on Facebook?

GDV: Yeah, we made a few trials there. We are still looking to find the right way to get there. There are some very strong leaders in the space that are hard to catch up with, so we are still investigating on finding what we can bring to the platform that the others don't bring.

Now to be transparent, our core focus is really on mobile -- so the smartphones, tablets...

Sure, though there's been a rise in social networks on mobile -- particularly Asian companies such as GREE, DeNA, and Papaya, which have been launching social mobile gaming networks. Is that something that's important in the Western market?

GDV: Those guys have been pretty successful in Asia -- DeNA and GREE -- and we have a strong presence in Japan, so we've been working with them in Japan. On the feature phone business, not yet on the smartphone business. DeNA, mainly.

And we are talking with them on their new initiatives. As Gameloft, we want to keep a direct relationship with the consumers, so we feel it can be dangerous that we have somebody in the middle, that will dictate whether the consumer will take. So we're still discussing with this company how we can find a way of working together.

Have you considered launching your own network?

GDV: Yes, that's also something that we are working on, and investigating to see if it makes sense to. We always value the consumer experience, so if it makes sense to add this component to our games, then we will do it -- and that's something we are studying now.

And you've moved into Android as well?

GDV: Yes. I would say the smartphone business, in general, is growing fast. Android is a natural extension of our business, and it's a leading platform in terms of penetration, so we've been accelerating our support to Android. We've been active from the beginning, but we've been increasing our support in the last month, and we have now pretty much synchronized launch between iOS and Android, on all of our titles. So we have a growing part of our resources supporting Android.

If you're synchronizing the launches, you definitely consider it to be a high priority.

GDV: Yeah. The thing is that if you want to maximize the marketing impact of a launch, it's better to be cross-platform, so that you can maximize the boost. And it's true that in the last 12 to 18 months, the Android platform has been skyrocketing in terms of volume. We are pretty platform agnostic so as long as the consumer experience is good, and of course there is a way for us to distribute our game. Then it makes sense for us to support them.


When you speak of marketing, how strongly do you market, as a company? A lot of mobile companies don't do a lot of strong direct-to-consumer marketing.

GDV: So from the beginning, when we started distributing our games -- that was the feature phone business, Java and Brew -- we had our own store from the beginning, so that we were able to talk directly to the consumers, to get their feedback.

And so we've been continuing this initiative. Plus, in the last three years, we've been building our community of fans through digital media like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. So we announced recently that we reached the one millionth fan on Facebook -- so that was a pretty significant threshold that we achieved.

We have worldwide presence with marketing people, talking to the community, talking to our media partners -- so that we announce our different launches across the world, and it's a pretty significant part of our investment.

You have games that target different audiences, so you must have very different strategies for reaching casual and core audiences with your games.

GDV: It's true that it's different; it's a different strategy. What we try to build is communities around different game genres and appetites. But it's true that it's very different audiences, and it's a different acquisition strategy.

On the casual [side] there are so many titles out there that you need to invest in media more, so that people see the game. Whereas maybe on the gamer side, the quality of the game would make it that the buzz can be created around the title. So it's different media and marketing strategy for different game genres.


Modern Combat: Sandstorm

Are all your games developed in your own studios?

GDV: From the beginning, we are a very internal company, and that's for the sake of quality. We've been building franchises -- let's say Asphalt, N.O.V.A., Modern Combat -- and it's the same team that have been working on the new editions. Having them internally makes that you capitalize on them year after year, or every two years, depending on the releases. So yeah, it's been an internal play from the beginning -- even on the Java side, we've been there.

Where are your studios located?

GDV: We have, we have New York, we have them on different part of the globe. So Americas, it's New York and Montreal, we have Buenos Aires in Argentina, we have Paris, we have Bucharest, we have Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu. We have Auckland, we have Seoul. So we have many different locations, and so we try to bring some diversity in our creations.

Do you have internal engines, internal tools, internal technology?

GDV: Yeah, we use mostly internal tools. We announced we were licensing the Unreal Engine, so it happens from time to time that we use external technologies that really bring something to our game development. But most of the time it's internal tools.

What advantage do you as a company find in keeping internal technology?

GDV: I think we are assessing different tools, but we develop so many games, maybe, that we find that it's more beneficial to share our learnings. If we are doing only a couple of games per year, I think we have enough resources to improve the engine year after year, and to recreate. We have the internal resources to do so.

Also, financially, when you don't have to pay the royalties, as long as you can bring as good quality, you do it. And that's why, I think, we licensed Unreal, because we thought that it could really help us bring a better experience to consumers.

Obviously, there's been a lot of commentary about how many of your game concepts are unoriginal, and seem to really very closely be inspired, let's say, from existing franchises from other publishers. What do you say to that?

GDV: What we've already, said and what I'll tell you again, is that we think that, in the video game industry, there are some key genres like World War II -- that type of a shooter game, and futuristic shooters. As we want to be targeting the mass market, we are covering these genres. We try to improve it, and bring our, I would say our "touch of creativity" on this.

If you look at even in the regular console video game business, there are some game genres where you have five or six titles competing with one another in the same category, and if you look deeply into them, they learn from one another -- the experience, the features that they bring, and everything. So we think it's pretty much the same.

What is different there is that it's a new platform, and we are pretty unique as a game publisher, bringing these types of titles to this platform -- meaning we are the more prolific iOS publisher, in terms of gamer titles. So we are more attacked on this [than if] we were publishing on another platform, where there are already certain titles like this. It's because it's a new platform -- that's why people are seeing it more.


Like you say, there are certain genres, and I can see that. But with some of the titles it's more of a "I see what you did there." For example, there's a game that's clearly Castlevania-inspired. That game is clearly aesthetically very deeply inspired by the Castlevania games on the DS.

GDV: I think that our game developers are big video game players; it's the same, in they are also taking inspiration from the movie industry, so it's part of the creative process. And we are trying, and we are creating also some innovative titles -- so it's a balance.

There is so much competition in the mobile space; how do you identify as a company where you want to go?

GDV: What we think is that the mobile and the tablet platforms will be growing platforms in the future. So we want to take part in the adventure there. By bringing, as I said, again, really the different genres for different audiences, our goal is to be the leader in the mobile, and smartphone, and tablet gaming space -- in the years to come.

And we think that the competition will progressively -- it's like when we were in the feature phone business, a couple of years ago, after the early days, where there is a proliferation of applications coming to the market. And we think that if we keep bringing the best possible experience, then we will create a brand, and we will capture progressively a bigger part of the business.

When you say "leader" -- you want to be the leader -- how would you define leadership? Is this market share? Is this quality of titles?

GDV: Yeah, it's in terms of market share, but market share will come with quality and diversity. The simplest metric in terms of leadership is market share.

As more and more people take up smartphones, are you finding that there is demand for different kinds of titles?

GDV: Oh, yeah. There has been, I would say, two big evolutions in the last 12 to 18 months. One is the target audience of the smartphone gaming business. I would say [for] the first guys that bought the iPhones and were ready to download, gamer type of titles were more suited to maybe this audience. And in the last 12 to 18 months, it's really, with the explosion of the smartphone install base, it's so much more casual, and much more, I would say, diversified.

My kids play on my iPad, my bigger sister plays on her iPhone, so that's why we need to create different games for different audiences. So that's one big move that has been happening, and the second is the business model. The emergence of... more than the emergence, the explosion of the freemium business model, that has really taken over the whole iOS and Android ecosystem.

You've had success with premium-priced iOS titles.

GDV: Our original model was the premium model. We are progressively switching, I would maybe say "balancing", the premium and the feemium model. Because it's the mass market audience that plays, really, freemium.

For more gamer type of titles, it's a balance between premium and freemium both -- what we call now "paymium". So Order & Chaos is sort of a paymium; so you pay to be subscribed, to be able to play the game, and if you want to get quicker or faster in the experience, you can, inside the game, do some in-app purchases. So those three business models are now cohabiting.

Can those three coexist comfortably, or are we going to see transitions?

GDV: It varies every day. We'll see how that moves. For the moment, they cohabit, but it's true that the freemium model has a tendency to take a bigger space. Because if you have the choice between 90 free games and 10 paid games, I think these are not gaming consoles, these are smartphones. So people have the choice between free and paid -- they will certainly go to free. Except if you show -- that's what we try to show -- that we bring a layer of quality that deserves a premium price. But it's challenging.

Order & Chaos is a good example. It's a game that's sold at $6.99, and that has been out for six months, and we're still doing really well. If you bring something really unique, there is room for that, but you have to really raise the bar to justify that you will ask for a price up front, which is challenging.

It's challenging, I think, for the whole industry -- this switch from a secure business model where people pay, and then they play, and you know what you invest, and you know what you can get -- to the freemium way of saying, "Okay, I'll see how the consumer reacts, and adjust, and then I'll do updates." It's a whole change of organization.

It's a bet, but we believe that if we do things well, in the casual space, we can show that the freemium business model could work. And in the PC world, on the other side of the spectrum, Riot Games, League of Legends. Or in Asia, there are many games there. Or Ubisoft, Settlers, in Europe, showed that there is also a way to develop high quality on the freemium model.

How do you communicate to your audience that your premium games are worth it? Especially with the Android Market or the App Store? There's very little room for discovery, and very little room for marketing.

GDV: That's why we built this community of fans or followers three years ago -- it's that we knew that marketing would be important, and getting the feedback from our consumers. So we communicate through those media with the fans, because it is true that it's important given the number of applications that are on the store, and how sometimes not visible you can be if you don't directly reach the consumers.

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