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Interview: Crowdstar's Relan On Facebook Success In A Post-Viral Age

Crowdstar chairman Peter Relan thinks his company's got numerous advantages over its "fat" rivals in the social space -- he tells Gamasutra about keeping lean, succeeding even with limited virality, and much more.
Among the top-most companies in the social games space is Crowdstar, maker of Happy Aquarium, Happy Pets and Happy Island on Facebook, currently servicing around 47 million monthly users on the service. Crowdstar sees itself a little differently from companies like Playdom and Zynga; as changes to viral channels continue to prompt evolutions in the way social game developers work, company chairman Peter Relan says the company was ready. Crowdstar's strategy has been to stay small. And according to Relan, the fact the company wasn't founded with venture capital has meant an advantage in the way it operates. In his view, firms established without big up-front dollars have to earn rather than buy their way onto the platform. And being private means no investors awaiting a certain level of return. And amid much consolidation in the social space, Relan alludes to a rumor -- widely reported regarding Crowdstar -- that Microsoft once tried to buy the firm for $200 million in its early days. Along the way, the exec talks to Gamasutra about Crowdstar's rivals, how it's stayed successful, and why it's crucial to avoid console-like thinking in the social space. You are at, what, around 90 to 100 people right now? Is the company going to keep growing? Is there a growth goal? Yeah, we think 75 to 100 is about the right size for what we've accomplished. It's lean and mean, but I think we will put some more muscle on. So, I would expect next year for the company to double or more in size, which would still be less than Playfish, Playdom, and Zynga. But, you know, we're also bigger than Playfish and Playdom in terms of users. So, we expect to really focus on Zynga next round. I believe that one great developer is worth five or ten others. That's just been... I've been in Silicon Valley 28 years, and I've never seen that be disproven. Generally speaking, I think one of our people here is equivalent to five people at anybody else's company. How do you iterate and address quality in your games? There is a certain CrowdStar level bar, and our users will tell us. One of the things that you will see Crowdstar do differently than everybody else... [Zynga's] support is done through a trouble ticket system. Our support is done openly in the community. We're like a glass house. So, we are completely transparent about our product. Whenever our product quality, look, or feel doesn't match up to what's expected from Crowdstar... I mean, we set an incredible bar for ourselves, because when we launched Happy Aquarium... I mean, it's a beautiful product. That went viral. You know, we launched in September. That went viral as much through word of mouth as it did using Facebook channels. So, it's just a beautiful piece of art. If a product's not of that quality, users will tell us, and it will be out in the open with the community. And so we're paranoid about being quality-conscious because otherwise we will be embarrassed. Your company's private, and there's a lot of consolidation in the space. Do you see acquisition in your company's future? We're unique because we do not have an investor base that is looking for a return, because we don't have investors. [Laughs] The way I would describe our company is we will continue to build as long as we need to or want to. Frankly -- we have a lot of fun doing what we do -- until we decide we really should merge for reasons related to competitive dynamics or the business is not able to grow much more. There was a rumor that Microsoft tried to buy us. We were 18 people at the time when that rumor surfaced. I can't comment on that rumor, but when that rumor surfaced in February or March, for $200 million, we were 15 to 20 people. [laughs] So, a lot of people are digging it. If the rumor were true. Do you think Facebook's changes to its viral channels change the scope of what's possible? Could there even be a FarmVille-sized game now? The last two years, particularly last year, was a once in a lifetime, never to be repeated again probably in the history of any consumer product, sort of unbelievable opportunity to acquire hundreds of millions of users for free. And that won't happen again. So, the question really is what are you comparing it next to? I'm a big believer that Facebook is still a hugely beneficial platform, but one thing is for sure. That is a Crowdstar view because we're lean, we're mean, we understand... We didn't get spoiled last year. We understand that last year was unusual. We still know how to guerrilla-market our way into getting users. We're the only company that has been built without venture capital, which also means we're the only company that has never spent money on market and gained userbase. I think Zynga, Playfish, and Playdom are just like... They got fat, you know. You've got $200 million venture capital, buy your way on Facebook, you know, like, okay. They had that advantage of virality, but then virality was gone. From our perspective, the virality was nice to have, but we were always building and using techniques that were truly social games that would get users anyway, and the virality was like, you know, whipped cream. But we never looked at whipped cream as our staple. In other words, if the only way you know how to build social games is by spamming, yeah [laughs], that's gone, right. So, now you have truly social games, and we believe we still build those. Can you talk a little more about your approach to design, and your staff's backgrounds? Some of the social game companies have been hiring talent from the traditional space, as Zynga did with Brian Reynolds... They're bringing in the console people. The console people are brilliant... FrontierVille was a very good game. That's why I say... if you look at us as an entertainment company, Zynga is like a movie studio. Zynga is like Paramount, Universal Studios. We are like HBO. We are like a TV show studio, where we regularly and continuously do productions that are quality, episodic, as opposed to... the old console model. I would say we have two or three people in the whole company who come from console. And usually when they come here, we spend the first two months beating the crap out of them in terms of explaining that this is not that model. And Facebook is the same way. It's a web culture. These games... We are running websites, basically. But do you feel that it's valuable that have learned time-tested design skills to come in and bring part of that equation to you guys? Our game team leads are all non-console guys. But the game teams, the way they work is we have an art director, we have a game design director, right, and we have a merchandising director. They each put a person from their teams onto these teams. So, we took our game design director, Jeff Tseng from Sega, because the mechanics and the key factors of monetization and economy balance... That is something that is very valuable from the console industry: how to design the economy, how to get the fun curve going, how to get the sawtooth going. We absolutely need those guys. But there's a difference between saying that person is running the studio with a mentality of... So, that person, Jeff, he's not doing the staffing plans and the resourcing and the budgeting. That's the people you want to avoid from the games... Because their natural mentality is "Alright. We need 40 people. That's how we build a game, right?"

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