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Interview: Pocket Gems CEO On Seeking New Creative Horizons

In this Q&A with Pocket Gems CEO Daniel Terry, Gamasutra discovers why and how the Tap Zoo creator has set its sights on "being the dominant free-to-play player for mobile."
One of the more exciting aspects of the smartphone gaming revolution is that developers are springing up who have no experience in games -- and are feeling their own way through the creative process, spurred on by user feedback and intuition about what makes sense. One such developer is San Francisco's Pocket Gems, which recently raised $5 million from Sequoia Capital and others, and has had a great deal of success with free to play iPhone titles such as Tap Zoo, as well as other games like Pet Hotel, Tap Store, Tap Farm and Tap Jungle. "We have released six games for iOS and they’ve all been great hits, all of them have been in the top ten apps," Daniel Terry, the company's CEO and co-founder told Gamasutra recently. "I met my co-founder [CTO Harlan Crystal] at Cornell studying computer science and both of us actually did artificial intelligence research for like three or four years funded by the NIH," he said. He followed it up with a stint at Stanford Business School, starting the company before he earned that degree. Seeing the possibilities of the iOS App Store, the two "just built this first game in our spare time. The two of us wrote all the code for it and threw it out there in December of 2009, and it just was an instant hit and shot up to the top of the charts." The team made its first successes "during the wild west of the App Store," says Terry, launching "three games in that, like, eight month period." Riding high on the success of their initial plays, the two began to see the App Store as "one of those once in a lifetime opportunities, where there’s this platform emerging with a huge amount of momentum behind it, as well as this new business model of free-to-play." Pocket Gems, philosophically, sees the smartphone as a platform that offers "an opportunity to create some really exciting next-generation entertainment," and soon set its sights "on being the dominant free-to-play player for mobile." Right now, says Terry, you're seeing "just the beginning of" what this new outgrowth of games can offer. "There’s some amazing new genres I think will emerge, that will make the platform look really different than anything else that’s out there." Important to Terry, he says, is a "strong creative component," in which games look "less and less like traditional games," offering their players a "creative experience, or self-expression." This "new kind of behavior" causes Terry to "think of it more as entertainment, even, than games." So far, though he has recently recruited developers with more experience in games -- the team has swelled from two into to the 30s -- "the creative effort has come from a team that didn’t have a lot of background in game design," and "that actually was something of an advantage to us." Pocket Gems, at its inception, was "not thinking that, 'Okay, this platform needs to be the same as another platform,' or 'social is doing really well, let’s do exactly what’s on social,'" but instead "more thinking, what’s really, really going to work and be really exciting about this?" In Terry's view -- noting the company is still focused on iOS and hasn't yet approached Android or other platforms -- "the platform is really unique and we want to continue to approach it as if it’s a fresh place to create new kinds of entertainment experiences." So is there a chance to push the medium forward? "Absolutely," says Terry. "I think we take that really seriously." Like most free-to-play developers, Pocket Gems takes an "iterative approach" to development, in Terry's words. "We like to get stuff out there, understand what works about it, what doesn’t, and let it evolve from there." But instead of sticking strictly with what makes money, he says, the team likes to "experiment with new and different things -- which that’s exciting, that’s for sure." Of course, it's hard to pat him on the back for taking creative risks with titles like Tap Zoo and Pet Hotel -- broad-based casual titles with clear antecedents. With iOS, "there’s an opportunity there to put out entertainment that really has a broad and universal appeal and we think that’s an exciting opportunity," says Terry. "A large user base is a great lasting asset," he says. But the realities of the App Store are what drives this. "If you’re popular in a broad way you’re at the top of the charts -- whereas if you’ve got a niche appeal, then it’s harder to do that." And right now, being at the top of the charts is essential. Of course, the team is primarily concerned with keeping people playing longer -- and thus paying more. But the approach is one that focuses on efforts to "expand this canvas that the user is building on... we’re very focused on the creative aspect of our game. I think that’s a core tenet. We have this idea of users starting with a blank canvas, and being able to create something there, and so with each release, we like to give them a little bit more depth in what they can create." Of course, it's hard to offer too much of this kind of opportunity on a small phone screen with a simple interface. While acknowledging its limitations, Terry says that "there’s the potential for a lot, actually. We’ve only scratched the surface of what you can create." Where the team adds depth is by developing games that operate on multiple scales -- "whether you start out really zoomed into a tight scale because you’re starting out with a small portion of this ultimately very large canvas, making it so that, at every scale, it’s still an exciting experience. You’re starting out small, but then you’re going to have to, if you want to build something really complex and deep, it’s going to have to exist at a larger scale." The challenge for the developers is, then, "making both of those sorts of levels still feel exciting." Whether or not the team can push out games that allow both more depth for their players or original themes is yet to be seen -- but it's clear from the conversation that Pocket Gems has evolved a creative ethos, which will be core to the company sticking out the App Store fight.

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