Recently acquired by Oberon Media, I-play is one of the mobile games industry's most well known brands. Games On Deck talks to I-play's SVP of Content Strategy and Licensing, Leighton Webb, about casual games, the success of the Fast and the Furious franchise and the choice to diversify into video.
Games On Deck: Can you brief us on I-play's history?
Leighton Webb: We're a leading mobile games company, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Oberon Media, the world's leading casual games company, which is headquartered in New York with offices across North America, Europe and Asia Pacific. We handle about 80% of our development internally and 100% of our porting and Q&A internally. Our focus is on creating high quality, premium casual mobile game content.
GOD: Specifically casual games?
LW: Casual is used a lot within the industry, but worth clarifying that for us "casual" is a mindset rather than a genre. Mobile is a unique device which means it has specific development requirements, as well as specific consumer behaviour. Mobile consumers "snack" on content, grabbing a couple of minutes here, a couple of minutes there, versus the immersive environment of console or PC. By developing "casual" games, we create content with that behaviour in mind. One of our production mantras is "easy to access, hard to master." So "casual" involves designing a game to be played with "one thumb", providing a dip-in, dip-out experience, as opposed to only developing puzzle games. We do, of course also publish titles traditionally considered "casual". We have a strong relationship with iWin, and our Jewel Quest franchise is one of our most successful, but we also offer action and racing games. The Fast and The Furious franchise represents one of our most successful titles and has achieved the staggering milestone of 7 million paid for downloads. We develop across the whole range, 2D and 3D.
GOD: Is there room on mobile for more "hardcore" gamers?
LW: I think so. There are now 3 billion handsets in the world and mobile is clearly a mass market device, so you're reaching gamers of all types of interest. We think there are opportunities to reach all of those segments in a way that's relevant to them.
GOD: Tell us about some of your upcoming titles.
LW: We've just launched our latest Fast and Furious title, Fugitive, and are really excited about that. We've also just launched Pillowfight and that's an original project that we're really proud of. It's a totally unique game that's never been done before on mobile.
Some of the highlights ahead include Slingo Quest, brought to mobile through our relationship with Slingo, one of the most well known brands in casual gaming in the online space.
We've also announced our relationship with Daniel Negreanu, one of the top poker players in the world, and are doing a joint project with him which includes Texas Hold'em video and a game that's launching later this year.
The Fast and the Furious: Fugitive
GOD: The Fast and the Furious franchise has been very successful for I-play. What do you put that down to?
LW: The Fast and the Furious is really sort of the perfect storm if you think about it. Hindsight is always 20/20, but looking back here's what I think it is. First of all it's a great brand, a great franchise in terms of the demographic that it appeals to- the young male demographic. The movies did very well, particularly in DVD sales.
Secondly, the guys at Universal were very progressive and did a fantastic job in working with us on the marketing and promotion of the game. That was very much core to the success - getting the awareness out there among consumers.
Thirdly, I think it comes down to just the name on the deck. As you'll know, when you purchase on deck all you see is the name, and a title like The Fast and the Furious immediately conveys to the consumer what the game is, what they are getting - it conveys a sense of excitement, they know it's a racing game.
Of course, a lot of it is down to the development team doing a fantastic job creating a great game.
GOD: The Fast and the Furious is an in-house production?
LW: All of the 2D games have been produced by our development team in Dunfermline.
GOD: What's your development philosophy?
LW: It's a collaborative process. It starts with title selection and the content strategy - identifying which titles we want to develop. We set out every year and identify key genres and types of games that we'd like to create across the year. We also look at upcoming brands, across television, cinema etc. that we know will become available in a given year and then we couple that with opportunities we see in the marketplace.
For example, we think right now that there's a lot of opportunity to grow the casino genre in mobile in a meaningful way. We also think the game show space is relatively underserved.
We look at all that and then we collaborate with our development, sales and marketing teams to develop the titles.
We're a consumer-led organisation, so we look closely at what we think consumer interest is and we set our development in line with that.
GOD: I-play is based in the UK and it still seems like Europe is ahead of North America when it comes to mobile. How does I-play work to push the market forwards in North America?
LW: I-play already has a strong presence in the US and the majority of our revenues come from that market, and now of course we're owned by a New York headquartered business. The perception that Europe is ahead of North America is slightly outdated as well, I think that was the case two or three years ago, but not anymore. The US market is less fragmented from a carrier and language perspective and therefore is very attractive from a publisher perspective.
GOD: How did you come to work with Capybara games on Pillowfight?
LW: Capybara Games have been fantastic. They've done an amazing job on Pillowfight and it's an interesting title because in this business it's as much of an art as it is a science.
You never have concrete information; you can never perfect a roadmap. If it was just a case of picking Monopoly and other obvious sellers, well, anyone could do that, but to really make a difference it requires the ability to innovate and create new ideas. And that's not only true of mobile; it's true of the console and PC business too.
So we set aside some space in our year's roadmap to really push ourselves to come up with new innovative ideas. And that can come from our company or ideas pitched to us from developers. We don't want to stifle our creativity by even thinking where they could come from.
Pillowfight is something that came from the developer, Capybara, and we said, "Wow, that's a really great, clever game concept that no one has done before on mobile. Let's go for it."
This wasn't a game based on box-office receipts or DVD sales - it was based on a great, unique idea.
GOD: Pillowfight also uses the I-play Lounge system?
LW: One of the areas where mobile is still underserved is the community, in terms of easily viewing leader boards, communicating with friends, sharing experiences, which is a large part of what has made casual online gaming as successful as it is. We are constantly looking for ways to implement community features in our games. We have a couple of games coming up that you'll see in the future that will include not only posting high scores but real interactivity with online components in the game. We think this kind of thing really hasn't been tapped into on mobile yet, and we think that once that happens, you'll really see mobile gaming take off.
GOD: I remember David Gosen saying that mobile, not console was the future of gaming, but there was some research done recently that claimed that growth was slowing...
[Editor's Note: David Gosen gave us his personal response to this question via e-mail.]
David Gosen: Screen Digest's study into the value of the mobile games market at $1.6 billion today and $2 billion in 2011 seem to be along way off from the more established market studies, such as Informa Media & Telecoms, which values the market at $3.3 billion growing to $7.2 billion by 2011.
Not only do the existing benchmark studies question their findings but if you overlay the recent announcements from EA mobile of their business growing over 100% year on year, Gameloft growing over 40% and I-play nearly 50% year-on-year evidence of strong market growth is clear.
It is also worth making the point that whilst we should be excited about the future promise of TV and music - in the ARPU challenged world of the carriers - mobile games is delivering significant and growing revenues and healthy margins today from a broad mass market and this trend will undoubtedly continue.
GOD: You've diversified into video too, though?
LW: First and foremost we're a games company. That's our bread and butter, our core business. But that said, it's still early days for mobile, and no one really knows how the business is going to evolve. Because of that, companies need to look at diversification within the mobile space.
So, for example, we think, and we're not alone, that video is going to be very important for mobile, and so we've made some strategic moves to diversify with projects like Hollywood Mobile Minutes and video with Daniel Negreanu.