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Interview: Will Kassoy's Wild Ride From Activision To Jirbo

As SVP at Activision, Will Kassoy ruled over an immense, well-oiled machine. Now as CEO of Jirbo, Gamasutra talks to him on his new position in the rocky and unpredictable business of free to play mobile and social games.

Colin Campbell, Blogger

May 2, 2011

5 Min Read

[As SVP at Activision, Will Kassoy ruled over an immense, well-oiled entertainment machine. Now as CEO of Jirbo, Gamasutra business editor Colin Campbell talks to him on his new position in the rocky and unpredictable business of free-to-play mobile and social games.] The mobile and social games business is wild and dangerous. It shimmers, entices and fascinates. You can get hurt here. Thousands from the gray, respectable, predictable console business are hitching their careers to some nag and headed out across the prairies looking for a fast buck, an escape from tedium, a taste of the old days when the game industry really was a rare old hootenanny. Will Kassoy is one of them. New frontiers favor the young and hungry, but Kassoy is not especially young. He's been in the entertainment business since the 1980s, working his way through the music biz, movies and big budget console games. At Activision for 13 years, he steered major franchises like Tony Hawk. When he quit Activision last year, he'd risen to a position where he'd pulled together the Blizzard merger, one of the biggest deals in our industry's history. Now he's CEO of Jirbo, a mobile games company that's created 12 apps that have hit the iPhone App Store's Top 10 list. The company is built on the free-to-play model, pulling gamers into novel experiences and selling virtual goods to single digit percentage of hardcore devotees. Jirbo makes mobile games, for now, but Kassoy says the company has an eye on moving its franchises to the social space. Like all its competitors, Jirbo is heavily into trying out new things, searching for angles, hooks, formulae, maybe the next Angry Birds. Its diversity can be viewed through its franchises which include hit marine biology game Tap Reef and a well-liked hardcore strategy adventure, Sovereign: Kingdoms. Kassoy says, "The consumer is different in all our games, so we're constantly testing new ways to provide them content, see if that gets engagement, see how people are engaging with the games. We're tracking all that data and, over time, building best practices to better understand the consumer, what they like, what they don't like, so that we can constantly fill their needs." This is the crux of free-to-play. It's been here for a while and is not entirely terra incognita, merely almost entirely unmapped. "We're always learning. Right now we're monetizing with a small user base of maybe five percent of people playing the game. But they are really into buying the in-game currency to unlock stuff faster and experience more of the game faster; more value and more services." It's a model that's exciting investors in mobile and social gaming. If the 99 cent model is scaring the bejeezus out of the traditional sector, they are even less enamored with free. But the success of games like Free Realms has encouraged the market. Even EA is involved. "Research shows there are companies that have increased revenues by fivefold with this model. You find that affinity base of people who want to pay, anything from 99 cents up to $100. We have some people who have paid $99 for pearls in our Tap Reef game because they value the experience it provides." "They get Moby Dick and they share their reefs with their friends and they are providing 'oh my god, check it out' social currency with their friends. It's very powerful. People love that. It's how they bond with each other." I want to know how Kassoy, an old school big cheese, feels about moving from something relatively stable to an emerging and turbulent sector. He says he got the bug while at Activision, seeking ways that company might leverage its way into new platforms and new models. And he argues that his experiences from the emerging console sector is of some help in the emerging mobile sector. "After 20 years of game industry experience I can see a lot of similarities in terms of pitfalls, the things to avoid. You see common trends that can be applied." "But the one thing that is very different is marketing and distribution. It's essential to get on the bestsellers list on Apple [App Store]. If you're not there you can't break out. Once there you have to cross market your own games. You have to get a lot of downloads right from the device itself. It calls for incredibly efficient marketing and a secret sauce that I think Jirbo has." Still, some things don't change. In the console business, it's all about the console manufacturers. In the mobile business it's all about Apple. Which is worse to deal with? Kassoy laughs. "It's very similar. For my mind, Apple closely resembles Nintendo, who are most concerned about the user experience. Ultimately we understand, as does Apple and Nintendo, that you build communities around people who have an affinity for your brands." Most people who make the transition from console to mobile talk about the major differences - the shorter development schedules and the smaller teams. Kassoy enjoys all this, and the relative creative freedom. "I like it because you can experiment. With a big console game, experimentation is a big expense and people naturally want to eliminate some of the risk. So we all follow more formulaic genres. With mobile, people are forced to try new things and innovate." But all markets eventually settle down, and Kassoy believes stability will come to mobile and free-to-play. "As the platform expands we'll see more of the traditional game publishers build mobile extensions of their console games. We'll see broader marketing campaigns and bigger production values. We'll see more of a theatrical style release." But that's all in a future that hasn't been built yet, one that will provide boundless drama and surprises. "This is a hit driven market, but it's not just about finding the next Angry Birds. We are focused on a million, two million downloads of a game and building a community over time. It's not a good idea to just look for some crazy hit."

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