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Q&A: GameTrust's Greechan Talks Captivating Casual Gamers

In this in-depth interview, Gamasutra talks to Game Trust director Jonathan Greechan about the casual game publisher and infrastructure provider's new 'meta-game' creating Captivate system, creating identity and loyalty in the crowded casual space, and ho
One of the earliest companies to focus strongly on the casual game market, Game Trust has been operating since 2002 as both casual game publisher and infrastructure provider, driving some of the most prominent online gaming portals such as MiniClip.com and Shockwave.com with its Game Frame platform. Game Trust recently announced its 'Captivate' system, a service which turns any site from portal to social networking hub into a 'meta-game,' with users playing for any number of site-specific goals, such as scouring profiles and pages for objects and rewards, increasing a site's 'stickiness.' To learn more, we talked to Game Trust director Jonathan Greechan about the history of the company, how its Captivate system has been received and is being used, how to differentiate the company's clients in an ever more crowded casual space, and how consoles going more casual affects the PC sphere. Can you tell us about Game Trust as a company and its history to date? JG: Game Trust is a casual game and community platform company. We’ve developed the leading enterprise software platform for community, affinity, and commerce models in online casual games and related entertainment. Our Game Frame platform provides chat, instant messenger, badges, avatars, leaderboards, new revenue streams (such as subscriptions, micro-transactions, and advertising), and multiplayer functions for audiences throughout the world. The platform is licensed by leading entertainment and media properties, such as Viacom, Liberty Media, MiniClip, and more. We are venture backed with offices in New York and Denmark. Our goal is to create the standard for casual game infrastructure. We feel that the industry grew up very quickly, and that a lack of standards is holding the industry back from even more rapid growth. In particular, developers are forced to modify their games to comply with several different standards across the distribution channels – a common infrastructure would allow developers to focus on making more great content, which would lead to even greater growth for all. You recently launched your Captivate System – can you tell us more about that? JG: The Captivate System is an extension of the Game Frame platform that allows destination sites to run what we like to call “meta-games.” I think the best way to explain it is to give you an example. Let’s say a big gaming portal wants to run a site-wide meta-game to increase session time and advertising revenue across their entire site. They can use the Captivate System to create custom event triggers for actions like downloading a game, posting a game review, achieving a high score, using a new site feature… anything they want to encourage their players to do. When their players perform these actions, the Captivate System tracks it in real-time and rewards the player accordingly. The portal could create a virtual currency for this promotion – lets say, “Coins” – and if a player earns a certain number of Coins during the event, they can earn awards like virtual merchandise, badges, free downloads, or even a sponsored prize like a Best Buy gift certificate. The portal could even hide little Coins throughout their site content, creating an online treasure hunt. Player achievements are tracked through their online profiles, and they can use our community features to collaborate and work with others towards their goals. The system is completely customizable, so the only limit on the type of “meta-game” you can create is your imagination. What’s been the response from both partners and users of the system? JG: The response has been very positive. Everyone is looking for innovative ways to build community, attract new users, and retain existing users. The Captivate System allows you to do all of this, with better integration and revenue opportunities than more traditional methods. The Captivate System can also wrap content other than games - such as video - so the interest is not limited to the casual gaming space. The Captivate System was also involved in a huge mass market online “meta-game” that ran last year. The event was a huge success, attracting several million participants. I can’t disclose any more specific details, but this experience was invaluable and we have tweaked and refined the system accordingly. How much will a client need to re-work their existing site to tie itself in to the Captivate System? JG: That really depends on the partner and the program. The event triggers are all XML-based, so we have designed it to be as easy as possible. You mentioned a profile treasure hunt for a social network site in the Captivate announcement – has the client been announced and the game currently under way to be viewed? JG: We have been speaking to some very big social networks, but nothing is official yet. We are very excited to run a program for a social network – compulsive profile viewing has helped these networks grow, so why not encourage further use and create new opportunities for sponsorship by hiding rewards within these pages that can lead to sponsored prizes? Is Captivate meant to be separate from your traditional mini/casual game offerings? JG: Yes, and no. The Captivate System draws upon the same affinity engine that we use to power community features in casual games, so in many ways it’s just an extension of this same offering. Luckily we’ve built the system to be very flexible. In the end, our Game Frame platform – which the Captivate System and the affinity engine are built upon – was designed to entertain and engage users with sticky community features and content. The community and affinity engine does this at a micro-level, while the Captivate System does this at a macro-level, so to speak. So both offerings may be targeted towards different clients, but they all work towards the same end goal. You’ve been in the casual space for several years now – how has the space and the market changed over that time? JG: It’s been very exciting to see the industry evolve. Before we shifted focus towards business-to-business platform development last year, Game Trust – like many companies - wore almost every hat in the casual games space. There was ‘co-opetition,’ where we’d work with companies on some projects, while competing with them for others. This type of climate is changing very fast, and it’s been interesting to see how everyone has begun to specialize and position themselves in the market. The next wave of growth will be very competitive and very exciting. In terms of the content - the quality of the games has risen exponentially, but I would argue that the market is currently not optimized to create innovative games. You see very few truly original casual games these days, and with the bigger portals now being more selective – and arguably, more risk-adverse – I’m not sure this trend is going to change. The development costs are also rising, further fueling a generally risk-adverse environment that is not conducive to innovative game design. Clones are saturating the market. New platforms, online revenue streams, and the establishment of standards will help everyone break out of this mold, and help to push unprecedented levels of innovation in casual games. There are more developers and publishers in the casual space than ever before – how do you differentiate yourself (or your clients) from the rest, and how can you help retain users? JG: Game Trust helps differentiate our partners – including portals, site operators, and developers – by leveraging the Game Frame platform to create a unique and sticky online game experience. Community, affinity, and competition integrated with single-player and multiplayer web games have proven to keep users online longer. By keeping the user online (as opposed to downloadable games, where 99% your players effectively “go black” and do not purchase the full title), we can provide more revenue opportunities for every member of the value chain. Everyone at the moment seems to be striving for the YouTube Of Games crown – are user-created games the future of the casual experience? JG: I think a YouTube of games will emerge, but more in the sense of a mass market online games community where people go to consume and share short viral entertainment, rather than a consumer generated content sort of games channel. Anybody can create a video, but until tools are created for non-techies to create games, it will be hard for such a community to grow into the mainstream – and creating such a toolset is, obviously, no small feat. Consoles seem to be creeping into the casual game space as well with more broadly-targeted games hitting Xbox Live Arcade. How has that affected the PC casual space? JG: New platforms have driven more revenue into developers' hands, which in turn increases the quality of games put forth. So, in that respect, the more platforms the merrier! I also think these new platforms have put to bed the whole idea of casual games just being for mothers and grandmothers. The success of casual games on XBLA and other platforms show that casual games don’t need to be all cutesy and filled with flowers – but that easily accessible and quickly engaging game play are what make casual games true mass market entertainment. Geometry Wars is a perfect example of this. With more consoles adopting web browsers – particularly the Nintendo Wii – have you looked at tailoring experiences toward a living-room based audience? JG: Unfortunately, every time someone says the word “Wii” or “Xbox” in our office, there is usually a mad scramble around the cubicles to our gaming lounge to grab a controller for a 4-player game of tennis, or a deathmatch... so not much work gets done.  In all seriousness though, we have begun looking at these opportunities. I remember when I was a kid, I’d get yelled at for playing Atari or Nintendo in the living room. The Wii can actually bring families together in the living room through casual games, which is a very powerful thing, with tons of opportunity. You also have to tip your hat to Nintendo for helping to bring casual gaming into the mainstream – which is helping everyone in the casual game space. Where do you see the casual space moving over the next several years? JG: We are betting that downloads will take a backseat to online games – it’s hard to think otherwise when you consider the re-emergence of online advertising, the growth of broadband, and the increasing saturation of the download market. As an interactive two-way medium, online games provide opportunities for an unprecedented level of targeted and highly involved advertising. And, while we think advertising will be a large part of the pie, there are also great revenue opportunities for subscriptions, virtual merchandise, and micro-transactions. The trick is creating a common, flexible infrastructure that makes it easy not only for destination sites to support these features, but also for developers to write their games for them... and that’s exactly what we’ve set out to do.

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