Interview: Number Two Facebook Developer Wooga Now Shooting For iOS

Gamasutra speaks to Wooga CEO Jens Begemann to find out how the company rocketed to number two on the Facebook charts and uncovers its plans to bring its games to iPad -- and find bigger success in the U.S.
August, 2010: Wooga reaches 10 million monthly active users on Facebook. April, 2011: 20 million. May, 2011: 30 million users and a $24 million round of funding. According to materials provided to Gamasutra by the company, over the last 12 months, Wooga has seen 264 percent growth in MAU. It's now the number two developer on Facebook, behind only Zynga. And now it has announced it intends to become a force on mobile -- with plans to bring its biggest Facebook hit, Diamond Dash, to Apple's iOS later this summer, just for starters. But who is Wooga? Wooga is a 90-person social games studio based in Berlin, Germany, founded by CEO Jens Begemann (pictured above right) in 2009. Begemann, who started coding games in high school for fun, eventually got an MBA in hopes of founding his own company. Instead, he worked for major European mobile company Jamba (known as Jamster in the U.S.) for eight years before finally deciding to found Wooga in 2009. "Basically, I started Wooga with the vision of creating games for everyone," Begemann told Gamasutra this week. "Games for gamers are for maybe 10 percent of the population. I want to make games for the other 90 percent of the population." Social gaming flowed naturally from this, he said. "The goal was to start a company doing games for everyone, and that it would be social games would be kind of driven by the belief that if you are a casual player, you will love to play with your friends. You don't want to play alone, and you don't want to play with strangers." Jan Miczaika, the company's head of operations, described Wooga as a "small, scrappy underdog from Europe." All of its games are developed at its Berlin headquarters by its 90-person team, which features members from 21 different countries, who are mostly recruited from traditional game development backgrounds. "We recruit from all across the world. When we started, we said, 'We're not building a German start-up; we're building a global company,'" Miczaika told Gamasutra. "We're based in Europe, and for us, being based in Berlin we see as an advantage because Europe also has a great history of games," said Begemann, describing the city as a "very creative place" -- "It's amazing what's happening there at the moment," he said. "And the competition for talent there is a little bit less crazy than it is here." The company is currently hiring new developers at a rate of two a week. "We believe this is a rate where we can hire and still keep our bar extremely high. Our bar of what it requires to be a Wooga team member, it's very, very high. And also being able to integrate those people," said Begemann. The company is very big on its studio culture -- Miczaika is adamant that all developers should work out of its Berlin HQ. He says many of its recruits agree. "Many of our people come from EA and companies like that, and are severely traumatized by the multi-studio thing where you're coordinating between Helsinki, San Mateo, and Bangalore. And so we have everything in-house, and it's all in Berlin." But because of this, one thing the company lacks is Americans. "We have Scandinavians, English, and so on, and for us, it's really hard to make games which appeal to Americans. We're not very good at that yet. We're going to be hiring more people to attack that problem," said Miczaika. That, perhaps, explains how the company got to be the number two developer on Facebook yet still lacks a big American audience. While Begemann describes its percentage of American users as "double digit," he also admits it's under 35 percent of its total audience. "We're strong all over the world except for the U.S.," said Miczaika. It's just not proving a huge problem to growth -- so far -- thanks to the fact that "now 75 percent of the Facebook audience is outside of the U.S.," said Begemann. However, he's also very keen to attract a larger American audience. To that end, he says that two new games in the pipeline stand a good chance of doing so -- but he wouldn't talk specifics, except to hint that we can expect one of them to launch this summer. Wooga's success is a portfolio-driven success. While some of the top Facebook app developers have rather lopsided audiences if you compare titles, Wooga has three games in the top 15: Diamond Dash, Bubble Island, and Monster World. This spread "makes us strong," said Miczaika. According to the company's press materials, its games have a "special focus on emotional characters, great usability, and superb localization in seven languages." Miczaika describes the key to the company's success more simply: it's "making people happy." "We learned that it's not about viral spreading. It's about retention and engagement, and so we rebuilt our games and really focused on retention and engagement. The market has been really rewarding that. Less than 10 percent of our users are from paid ads," he said. "Virality is nice, it's great, but it's really like icing on the cake," said Begemann. "The focus really needs to be on engagement. You have to make sure that people come back." In fact, said Begemann, coming to Facebook after Zynga's head start gave Wooga an unexpected kick. It's "sometimes an advantage to be so late," he said, because the company wasn't founded on a culture of chasing virality. Each game is created by a small team of 12 to 15 people which is "responsible for the whole game," Begemann said. "They can overrule me. So, Stephanie [Kaiser], who runs that [Monster World] team, has the decision power and everything. If she and I disagree, she has the last word. And I think this is all part of our culture, that these small teams work like a startup in the company and achieve amazing stuff within very short periods of time." The company also isn't big on releasing games to the wild, seeing which ones survive, and then killing the rest. It has yet to kill a title -- preferring to weed out bad ideas very early on in the process. "We've released all games that we started coding on so far," said Begemann. "We believe that if the basic idea you had, if the core of the idea is good -- and usually it is if you really spend so much time thinking about it -- then usually you can fix by iterating a lot of things," he said. The company will iterate weekly to improve the game and draw its users in further. But it doesn't separate out operations and development, he said. "We don't change the teams. They remain extremely focused. They work on weekly iterations." Four out of its five titles -- Bubble Island, Monster World, Happy Hospital, and Diamond Dash -- "had an all time high in the last seven days. So, all of those four games had their highest day ever in terms of MAU, the highest day ever in terms of DAU, and the highest day ever in terms of revenue, all in the last seven days," said Begemann. He puts that down to "constant iteration, making them better, not killing games, keeping the same teams on it." Despite the fact that the company backed away from other social networks, despite success -- "we shut down everything which was non-Facebook," said Miczaika -- it's now planning to branch out into mobile development, with an iOS version of Diamond Dash, available sometime this summer. It's a native iOS app, which will be free and microtransaction supported. It will support Facebook Connect and its leaderboards will be integrated with the Facebook version. "We're going mobile because basically, the people we're targeting, the average user, the average consumer on the street, is now adopting smartphones. It's becoming a mass-market device," said Begemann. Since he started at Jamster in 2001, it's been his dream to see powerful phones in the hands of many, he said. Mindful that cross-platform versions of titles require some finesse, Begemann said "it will not be a one-to-one port. It will really be something where we create the game with the intellectual property and the concept in mind, and we optimize it for mobile phone." And while the company is sticking to the classic casual demographic of women age 30 to 50, it expects to find a new audience on mobile -- "we believe we will have the same kind of users on mobile, but they will not be the exact same people," Begemann said. Apple is its primary target, thanks to reach. "We went for iOS because we believe tablets will be the next big gaming device, and the iPad has such a big lead on the tablet market," he said. "We're looking forward to also supporting Android in the future, but initially we're building the perfect game experience for iOS." The company does have more adventurous mobile plans down the road, Miczaika hinted. "We're really experimenting with that. Do we develop natively on iOS? Do we use HTML5? How do we integrate social? Is it via Facebook Connect? Is it via Apple Game Center? So, that's kind of the huge effort for us."

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