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Interview: Inside WildTangent's Quieter Life

The often iconoclastic casual game firm WildTangent has relegated bombastic CEO Alex St. John to a much less prominent role -- but where now for it? Gamasutra talks to the management team...
[The often iconoclastic casual game firm WildTangent has relegated bombastic CEO Alex St. John to a much less prominent role -- but where now for it? Gamasutra talks to the management team...] Since we last spoke to them, casual game firm WildTangent has been trucking along expanding its game portal business. Though known the past for former CEO Alex St. John's loud assertions that the traditional game console was dying, the company has been quietly expanding its business with the introduction of new payment methods and new ways to enjoy its services. WildClub, launched in November, is a membership service that operates PC casual games on a rent or own model; spend what you want on the game to play it, and if you end up spending enough, it becomes yours. In addition, the company also offers an advertising-based play model -- watch a pre-roll, enjoy a game session (which terminates when you close the game.) To learn more about where the company is right now, Gamasutra sat down with Sean Vanderdasson, vice president of marketing, Matt Shea, vice president of product development, and Sean Sundwall, director of corporate communications. You've moved into retail; is that for WildCoins, or physical product? Which way do you partner with retail? Sean Vanderdasson: For physical retail initiatives, we do distribute three or four of our games in physical retail, and they are doing very well. We did come out with an [in-store] game card [that allows digital purchases when redeemed] last year; we've tweaked it a little bit. We're actually coming out with probably a better price point, a better feature set with the card, and you'll see that probably in the next couple months nationwide. I think game cards, for the most part -- unless you're a single brand, very well established -- haven't done very well. The Big Fish ones, and stuff like that, have pretty much all bombed out there. So we're taking a little bit of a different twist with ours so. We're satisfying... what the consumers want who don't have necessarily a PayPal or credit card to purchase from us, and we're also helping to drive the brands of the developers that we work with. We're cautiously optimistic right now, especially in this economy. But we think with the right price point and the right presentation we can establish a good position. The retailer wants that game experience too because they're shrinking the amount of square footage that they're putting for boxed products. Have you also investigated alternative payment methods? I know that some games and services have lots, and I feel like there still seems to be room for growth in that regard, potentially. SV: We are exploring quite a few different payment methods that are out there. The ones where it's kind of a bounty -- sign up for Netflix, those types of ones. I think that's kind of played its way out, and I feel like people who went heavily into it are already seeing it die, because you can only have so many Netflix accounts before Netflix is gonna go, "Four is enough; this kid will never pay me." So I think there's some additional ways -- especially outside the United States -- we're introducing a number of additional payment methods. The economy is depressed to an extent, and a lot of media are competing for ads -- since you rely on ads a lot, how is it affecting your business? SV: Well, we actually see the people who would advertise on TV going to the 'net, and they're looking for high results and positive association with brands; historically, I think we show the highest affiliation -- highest possible results. I don't know if Sean has the survey... Sean Sundwall: Last year, obviously, no recession; this year, six months into recession, we're forty-five percent up, and that's just advertising. He hasn't mentioned how high up we are on subscriptions; that's just ridiculous. But the advertising -- we're just not seeing it. SV: Right, because advertisers are willing to pay for results; they're not willing to pay for carpet-bombing advertising that doesn't produce results. So the selectivity is helping your business? SV: Without a doubt. We can say, look, independent third-party, here are the results that we provide. You can go on and do a test; that's great. We'll do a test. But we're just telling you right now, we're not making this stuff up; here are the real results. SS: There aren't a lot of media formats where you can target my six-year-old daughter separately from my eleven-year-old son, and that's what you can do with games; we can prove it. The metrics are right there. WildClub is your subscription, right? SV: Yeah, there's a million subscriptions that are out there; the nuance for us is that we're knitting together rental and ownership. Every WildCoin that you spend goes to decreasing the price of ownership of the game. You can actually use your WildCoins to buy a game as opposed to pulling out a credit card and completing a purchase, so it gives a ton more flexibility to a user who might have previously signed up for WildCoins. They they might have spent the WildCoins across a myriad of different games. Before, if they had wanted to own the game, they would have had to pull their credit card out. So they can accrue the game, essentially? SV: Yeah, basically it's like rent-to-own, but where the furniture industry is like 3000%, there's actually no mark-up; it's no different. If you want to play a session for four WildCoins or a couple WildCoins, you get that credit toward ownership. Is there a cost to enter WildClub, like a monthly fee? SV: Yeah, you can sign up for getting WildCoins on a monthly recurring basis -- two, six, or twelve months. But any WildCoin that you don't actually spend in a month rolls over, as opposed to most subscriptions where how they get the user is all time-based. Most services give you all-you-can-eat access. SV: All-you-can-eat and then -- boom -- it's the end of thirty-one days -- poof -- whatever credits you have, they disappear. With ours, we go no, no, no; if you didn't spend a WildCoin, it goes to the next month, and any WildCoin that you spent on a game that month doesn't go away either. It just keeps on accruing towards ownership. We're in the hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and it's comfortable to say that we've grown 800% plus since November 2nd. The trajectory just continues on. Predominantly, one could argue, oh, it must be price-based; no, because there's tons of subscriptions out there that are entirely based on trying to drive ownership of a game to zero, and the trouble is that a lot of them are flat. The point that we're really seeing with our growth is that people think they are buyers and renters, and knitting them together gives you the full flexibility. If you want something else, there's no, "Oh, I wish I could have just spent a couple WildCoins as opposed to buying the game with WildCoins." You can; it's whatever you want to do. When I last spoke to someone from WildTangent, much was made of the full-screen WildTangent Console. Do you feel that attracted an audience that was sort of being kept away from your service? SV: I think, depending on what it is that you want to do... core gamers play casual games as well. I think there are people who want to use immersive experience full-screen at times. There are other times when they just want to load up a ton of games into the console, and the windowed mode, to be fair, works better that way; it's designed more like that. The full-screen is lean back, gamepad, big-screen TV, and just kind of veg out and play games. By introducing more enthusiast content or core content, my suspicion is that we will continue to see even greater growth in the full-screen version of the console. We've got the partners that we announced last year; we've had a number of additional partners sign up recently, and to be fair right now we have a huge backlog of games that we're introducing. I would imagine between now and the middle of this year you'll see a substantial increase in the number of core-type games that are going to be released in the service. So we'll see what plays out in terms of -- do they want to acquire the games in full-screen or in the windowed mode and then how it is that they want to actually play? SS: Basically, it's the content, not the cosmetics that are ultimately going to drive -- it's pretty and fun, and I like it -- but it's ultimately going to be the content that drives that elusive hardcore gamer. In the next two or three months, you're going to see a lot deeper catalog and a much more competitive catalog of truly hardcore games. Tank Commander? Yeah, ok, but truly hardcore games. Right, guys? Can you talk about Alex St. John's move away from being CEO? He had such a huge role in the voice of the company, since he's always been the big, big proponent of "the console's going to die and be replaced..." SS: Alex is just... any time you have a larger-than-life personality like he is, you turn down the volume even in the slightest and the silence itself is just deafening. So Alex has just taken a much less prominent role in the day-to-day driving of the company, and he's gotten involved in some other things outside the company as well to help keep him busy; but the passion certainly hasn't gone away. Just, he won't be taking an active role. Mike Peronto... has been directing the company really since I got there, and Alex has been kind of the public face to go kind of tout his agenda and things like that. The operation of the company really hasn't changed since I got here. Mike and his management team have been driving this thing since I got here almost two years ago. But again, when you have someone like Alex, there is a perception that he may be more involved than he is, just because of who Alex is -- you know, he's one of a kind.

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