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Q&A: Atari's Paulina Bozek On Breaking Into Facebook With Photo Sauce

Atari London Studio dev director Paulina Bozek speaks to Gamasutra about Atari Photo Sauce, the studio's new Facebook app, as Atari pursues an online and social strategy.
Traditional game publishers have begun taking the Faceook gaming space seriously, and seminal game industry name Atari is among them. In October of 2009, the studio released its first social networking application: Atari Photo Sauce, a simple photo manipulation tool that thrives on interplay between Facebook friends. Atari, in the midst of financial troubles, announced in 2008 its plans to refocus its primary efforts away from traditional big-budget console and PC games, and move towards social and online gaming. At the time, Atari president Phil Harrison (who has since stepped down from that role) said that "Atari is part of an industry in some transition from pure packaged media to an online business model and social communication and community model," and that Atari may "take a slightly aggressive, leading-edge role in that transition." Here, Atari London Studio development director and former SingStar franchise director Paulina Bozek talks about Atari's motivations to pursue the social space, the studio's process of conceiving its project, and what "You’ve been Photo Sauced!" means. What prompted you to tackle a Facebook app? Paulina Bozek: Facebook has attracted over 300 million users and the potential to engage this audience with fun games and applications is very exciting. We were set up as a mass-market social game studio and our background is in social games. Facebook is where friends hang out these days, and as social game developers we wanted to be there. Major developers have been slow getting into Facebook. What allowed you to get the jump on the others? PB: We were deliberately looking to enter this space and had the support and buy-in from senior management at Atari. Some major developers have been looking at social networks and trying to figure out how it fits into their strategy and business, but we didn’t really have to go through a big analysis of whether or not we should do it. There were a lot of compelling examples from new companies like Playfish, Zynga, RockYou, and others, demonstrating that social networks are a valuable and emerging platform for games. This is more of an app than a game. What prompted that decision? PB: Atari Photo Sauce is one of several concepts and prototypes that we’ve been working on over the last few months. We chose to release Photo Sauce first because it was a smaller app that was fast to develop and meant that we could start learning from a live environment more quickly. The decision to make an app rather than a game was not deliberate; we were more focused on finding an idea with potential. The idea of creating a fun application around photos inspired us. Facebook is the largest photo sharing site on the internet. There are billions of photos uploaded to Facebook every month. It’s bigger than Flickr. Photos go [to] the heart of sharing on social networks -- whenever you’re tagged in a photo, you immediately want to see it. We thought it would be interesting to turn photos into a social interaction amongst friends. When it comes to something like Facebook, there’s a lot of opportunity but also a lot of competition. How do you mitigate that conceptually? PB: We look for concepts with some originality, whether it’s the core idea or a specific component that brings something new to the experience. We also think about whether we can implement something better than what already exists – make it more user friendly, more social or more fun. Our studio ethos is to focus on concepts that are relevant and popular with mass-market audiences. We like to stay connected to popular culture and be part of somebody’s overall entertainment ecosystem. Did any traditional console or PC game developers work on this project? PB: My background is in console games, I spent six years as the executive producer of the SingStar franchise for PlayStation. Our art director also came from SingStar and was a founding member of that team. We’ve worked together for a long time. Our producer worked at Sony [on] SingStar and other titles, as well as MTV.com. Other team members are from Habbo Hotel, Lego, and the social media space. We’re a fantastically varied team who have all worked in various aspects of online entertainment. Has that helped in any way, or introduced challenges? PB: Our specific console background was very helpful, in the sense that we were already developing social games. Of course with SingStar, it was about creating social games for the living room rather than across the internet, but I think there are strong similarities in the way you engage players. With SingStar we were also very focused on usability and intuitive interfaces. This has been very advantageous in developing for the mainstream audience on Facebook. The other members of the team have a web background, which is very valuable from a technical point of view. The high overhead of publishers can make small projects tough to make sense of financially. Did you encounter this at all? PB: This project is actually a low financial risk. Rather than spending $25 milllion and having a large team developing a game for several years, we are a very small team which can launch fast and the test the idea quickly. The Atari brand is retained in the title. Do you think that brand means something to the audience? PB: We have seen strong take-up from teenagers, some of whom might think Atari is a t-shirt company! But that’s okay -- they are connecting with the brand in a new way. Back in the 1970s Atari introduced the world to interactive entertainment with games that were very simple and appealed to everyone. We like to think that we are reconnecting with that heritage. What about in the context of a photo app rather than a game? PB: In a way, applying Atari stickers to a photo is not too dissimilar from wearing an Atari t-shirt. It’s an iconic brand that has a certain amount of status and street cred. We are lucky to build on top of a brand that is so recognizable. The key to Facebook success is said to be social interaction. How did you employ that? PB: Photo Sauce lets users decorate their photos with stickers, accessories and speech bubbles. It’s a simple app but we see it going in a number of different directions and social interaction is the foundation which drives the majority of our design decisions. Our tag line is "You’ve been Photo Sauced!" and it’s all about surprising your friends with that funny party photo or other shared moment. For our younger audience, there is also strong pull towards customization. You can save a Photo Sauce and make it your profile picture on Facebook. You can dress up your photos with cool, cute stickers or plaster stickers of your favorite band or obsession with Twilight. This strong element of self-expression is connected to the way we interact socially. Finally there is a gifting angle. [You can] make a Photo Sauce for someone, with a custom photo and special message, or tell a story with your holiday photos. The app itself is also configured to maximize virality on Facebook. For example, when you Photo Sauce an image, a thumbnail is sent into the main Facebook stream where all your friends can instantly see it. This is not a generic Photo Sauce logo or graphic; it is a thumbnail of the photo you have Sauced, which attracts a lot more attention because it is a meaningful visual to friends. Our focus is very much on the sociability around photos. We’re not interested in building extensive photo manipulation features. It’s the social interaction that we’re building. Did you rely on research or competitive analysis in developing the app? PB: We did a fair bit of research on other photo applications and we saw that they focused their effort on photo manipulation. Even apps available on the Facebook platform did not make much use of the available social hooks. That’s when we decided we didn’t want to make a Photoshop-light. Rather, we wanted to focus on the social interaction and felt this is where the potential lies on social networks. How has the app performed so far relative to your expectations? What about relative to the company’s needs? PB: We’re happy with the performance so far. We’ve seen strong take-up from the teenage audience in particular and we’re focused on expanding this segment first, then we will look at broadening the demographic. The growth has not been as explosive as something like a FarmVille, but one important distinction is that this isn’t the same style of gaming where you check in on your crops and fish and pets every day. It’s a different type of application with different use patterns. It is also our first app, so we don’t have the cross-promotion opportunities yet. It’s early days and we are still building the feature set and exposing all the different angles, but we’re excited about the response so far and the potential. What future do you see for Atari and other large publishers on Facebook? PB: I think there is a lot of potential for large publishers on Facebook, both as extensions of existing games but also as a platform to grow new IP. The audience is there, people are spending more and more time on social networks, and their friends are on there. You can’t ignore these things. We have recently seen the integration of Facebook on both the Xbox and PS3 platforms, and the DSi can upload photos to Facebook. People’s entertainment habits go across platforms and game publishers are well positioned to take advantage of what is available. However it does require an approach which takes into account digital distribution, games as services, new business models, communities and other such aspects of these online platforms. Why Facebook? Why not other social networks too? PB: We decided to launch on Facebook first simply because it’s the biggest and because we thought there was a specific gap for this type of creative app. However, photos are universal to most social networks and we may expand to other networks in the future. What’s the business model for the app? Is it working? PB: The application is free and advertising-funded at the moment. We want to build up the user base first. The next step would be to look at microtransactions for premium content as well as sponsorship opportunities with major brands. What models do you think work best on Facebook? PB: Facebook is a platform of huge user volume and low-friction distribution, because most apps are free and things get passed around by friends. That means your product can be seen by a very large number of people and you work hard on converting some of those users into paying users. We have seen this model work very well for the most successful developers on Facebook. Most games rely on the micro-transaction model rather than subscriptions for purchases because it is more flexible for the user, given they don’t have to sign up to a long-term commitment. I am personally very interested in a future Facebook currency or wallet system, because that would make the purchase step much more seamless and will encourage users to feel more secure about purchases on Facebook. I think we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to monetization potential on Facebook. You’re adding content to the app with updates. What’s the road map for that service-oriented model within Atari? How is it going? PB: In our case, it’s driven on a studio level. We manage our content and update pipeline and work with central marketing teams to promote the product. Currently we deploy new features every week and do content updates twice a week. There is a lot of activity on Facebook and you need to actively engage your users on a regular basis. One of the biggest benefits of working online in an on-going service model is the ability to use analytics and user feedback to drive our feature and content development. We also want to stay current and up to date with what is happening in the real world, whether that’s a seasonal event or a hot new band or movie. Working with a service model lets us do that. For us, launching the application is only the first step, not the last step. The product seems a bit inspired by Japanese print club machines. Coincidence or truth? PB: It’s actually a coincidence. We didn’t look at this as a specific reference, but I can completely see the comparison. I guess it’s a 21st-century version. Just like those Japanese print club machines, we have put Photo Sauce where people hang out: on Facebook.

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