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Q&A: Oberon's Ryan On The I-Play Difference

As Oberon Media announces the rebranding of its casual division under the name of the recently acquired I-Play, Gamasutra talks with senior VP and former Xbox Live Arcade co-creator Don Ryan about reuniting a fracturing casual audience, and new initiativ
Multiplatform casual games company Oberon Media has announced a rebranding of its publishing division under the name of the recently acquired mobile brand I-play. Senior vice president of publishing for Oberon Media Don Ryan notes that the move has come about due to the need to “convey the essence of our core business, regardless of platform”, and to better show the company’s ability to develop and publish content over the three major platforms of online, mobile and interactive television. The company’s casual gaming platform division will continue to produce the product under the name Oberon Game Center. This platform is currently used by clients such as Microsoft, Comcast, Verizon, Electronic Arts, France Telecom and NHN. The focal point of the rebranding is the consumer website Iplay.com, which is described by the company as a “robust online entertainment destination”. In addition to providing users with access to games for the three supported platforms, the site will also serve a community hub, allowing users to download ringtones and wallpapers and earn Achievement-like tokens. Gamasutra spoke to Ryan about the rebranding initiative, its impact on the company as a whole, and the idea of casual gaming as a mindset. I just wanted to start by asking what the advantages of rebranding are for you. Don Ryan: I think ultimately, you just have to step back and get an idea of our background a little, and this will be informative as to why we think this is relevant to anyone besides ourselves. Oberon, after we got the investment from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Oak [Investment Partners] we went on an acquisition spree, especially aimed at aiming to fill to convergent vision we’ve had at the company for quite some time. It’s the idea that we could become a service provider or casual content, and ultimately a publisher of casual content across all of the mass market screen: television, PC and the mobile devices. Also that we were going to create a holistic organization that provided license holders and content partners and advertising partners – as well as ourselves in terms of original IP – the ability to reach a very, very broad audience in an integrated way. Internally, we developed one of the leading online games publishers in the Oberon Games division, with the Dream Day series and the Agatha Christie series. We’re a leading online game publisher, and we then acquired I-play and the mobile games company Digital Bridges, who are the leading independent mobile casual games publisher. After that we acquired Pixel Play, the number one provider of gaming solutions for interactive television. Essentially, what this announcement ultimately is about is that we’ve synergised all of these divisions into a unified publishing organisation that we’re branding I-play. We’re leveraging that I-play brand that we obtained in that second acquisition. We’re labelling this experience that you’re going to have around this brand and the expression. It does a few things: it focuses people’s attention on the fact that there is a unified experience across these different platforms with the branding, and internally it gives us a focal point for unified portfolio management and unified production processes. And for our external partners, like content providers and licensors and developers, it gives them a single point of contact and understanding of all the services we provide across all of these different platforms. So, that’s the focus of this effort; to announce to the world a unified publishing organisation and unified publishing strategy. We took the I-play brand, reinvigorated it and relaunched it to spearhead this announcement. It’s interesting that you’ve gone with the name of a company that you’ve acquired. Do you think that I-play had that kind of brand recognition from casual gamers? DR: I think I-play is exactly the label that we wanted to express the kind of content that we want to provide over these different platforms. I think it did have – as a leading independent casual mobile games publisher – within the span of mobile gamers, some kind of cache; some kind of name recognition and brand value. Within casual gamers, I think there’s a huge opportunity to introduce them to the brand itself and the brand expression. One of the things I love about the group is the idea that casual is a state of mind. If you’re familiar with my background, I spent over 15 years at Microsoft, and spent the last few years as general manager of Microsoft Games Studios, where I ran all of casual for Microsoft. I started off running MSN games and we actually launched the Messenger Games service, and took what we learned there and took different games and projects and took all of the community learning, and I ended up a co-inventor of the Xbox Live Arcade service, and launched that on the original Xbox and then on the Xbox 360. This is an evolution, in a lot of ways, in terms of that cross platform focus and being able to reach a very wide audience with a unified set of products. How brand conscious do you think the casual market is? DR: Again, one of the things we have to be careful about is that brand can be interpreted a lot of different ways. An individual gamer is much more affiliated to a game brand, and then to a publisher brand, so you have the example of people loyal to Blizzard products. If Blizzard game out with an entirely new concept, you’d have a high percentage of people lining up to experiment with that kind of content. Ultimately, our aspiration here is to develop enough awareness around this publishing brand that casual gamers have that same sort of reaction when a casual game comes out. We’re trying to have all of our interface and experiences have a consistency in experience and branding, so if you turn on a television set and have an experience with ITV that was some content you really like from I-play, and then you go to the new invigorated I-play.com that we’re launching, you find out you can download that to your phone or PC. We’re trying to encourage people to experiment with different platforms, but there’s a whole other angle to this, which is that we’re trying to appeal to the folks like [author] James Patterson, who has identified us and our cross-platform strategy as the key reasons that he’s signed a deal with us for Women’s Murder Club. We’re launching that next month as a PC product, and then following on with a bunch of ancillary products on other platforms. It’s really a message to licensors that you can have a one stop shop publishing house in the casual space that’s focused on this breadth of experiences on all three screens and have a single partner. What that provides is – if you’re familiar with the Oberon collection of partner sites – the core part which is a services and solutions provider for casual games. Basically, games channel management for large portals. Oberon powers MSN Games download solutions, Pogo.com download solutions, they power Comcast.net, and now we power the MySpace Games solutions. With these large partners in aggregate, right now it’s being reported that we’re the forth largest collection of monthly users in online games. That doesn’t include things like MySpace and MSN, just the more than 100 partner sites that we power around the world. So you have this very large addressable audience for introducing all these different concepts, so you can combine that very large selection with a publisher than produce mobile content and ITV content as well as download content, and then you can create some very interesting synchronised licensing strategies that we think are going to be unique in the marketplace. Again, going back to the James Patterson example, that is interesting for IP rights holders to partner with a publisher like the new I-play publishing division in order to release their new intellectual property. Do you think that kind of multiplatform approach is something that’s going to prove popular within the casual sphere, or is that something we’ve already seen success with? DR: I think there’s various aspects that have shown a lot of success and as we build up these different services, I think they’re going to prove even more successful. We live in a connected world, and when we think about the casual audiences we think about two different kinds of audiences. One is what we call the more traditional casual gamer, which is older, more female, and then there’s the more core casual audience, which is younger males, who are more action oriented on one end, and more intellectual games on the other end of the spectrum. That’s a broad characterisation, but if you think about each of those different spheres in the core casual space, you see an affinity for web type products – even free advertising type products, and more action oriented mobile products. As an example, we recently launched a Facebook applet around the Bubble Town mobile game. Again, trying to generate interest and drive individual traffic to people who are made aware of that game on their mobile device and can now end up converting. We’re not the only publisher trying to use that one platform to initiate awareness of product and drive conversion to another platform or product, but we think we’re uniquely placed in the marketplace, given not only our very large audience, but also our advantage of being to get distribution, since we actually own distribution on some of these larger portals and can work with them at a platform level, as well as a publishing level. I think we’re seeing some early very positive signs, especially with community at the centre of these experiences, I think it gets more interesting over time. It must present some interesting opportunities from a licensing and development point of view, as well as from a purely business point of view. DR: Ultimately, if you’re talking about a shared community, this kind of thinking goes back to something that’s been happening over a long period of time. It’s really about a collection of audiences and different types of content, and allowing audiences to get to that content and experience it with different devices. One way to slice that is to look at it from a device specific point of view as a publisher, and to say, ‘Okay, how am I going to address a particular audience with this particular device?’ What we’re trying to say with this unification of not only the brand but the strategy is that, really, it’s about the audience and the community, and the device is secondary. If you’re trying to get high scores and share experiences around a particular game, then I should be able to share those experiences via chat on my mobile device just as I’m able to share on my PC. It’s breaking down some of those walls, and some of those features are going to directly drive revenue, and some of them aren’t going to directly drive revenue. It’s really up to us as – well, we view ourselves as a leader in this space – to try and find out how to prioritize what really matters to consumers. In my experience, what really matters is having a fantastic gaming experience on the device and then being able to access a shared community around that content regardless of where the device is. What kinds of challenges exist in trying to build a community within an audience that is, effectively, wide and nebulous like that casual market? DR: We don’t view it as wide and nebulous. Ultimately, we’re trying to provide a series of solutions, and that goes back to what our core proposition is with our partners. Comcast, for example: we’re a very close partner with them, and we power their online games solution, and the platform called Chill, which is all around casual games and we power that for them. Another example of taking your mobile experience and your online experience, and ultimately the direction that we’re heading is, the contact that you made within one sphere - just because I happen to be sitting at a PC – why should I have to make a whole other set of friends on mobile if those friends are available on that network or device? There’s going to some natural segmentation depending on carriers, of course, and they all have rules governing that, at least at this stage. And as we move towards more open platforms, the world of convergence becomes more and more interesting. Ultimately, if you are on the same network, then you should have a similar set of service all the time. How much of a difference would an open or unified platform have for the mobile gaming sphere? DR: The challenges in the mobile games world have been well documented. Essentially, you have a very, very tightly controlled point of purchase that has to be all things to all people. Essentially, what ends up happening is that carriers are looking for the biggest bang for their buck with that promotional inventory, and they tend to go towards and highlight more high profile movie licenses and content that brings with it a large marketing budget. What we’ve seen on the internet with all types of sites, especially in the web games space and also in the downloadable market, is an explosion of creativity. Eventually, you have a bunch of people being able to easily generate and distribute content. As we move towards open platforms on mobile devices, you’ll see exactly the same thing. In fact, you’re seeing a little bit of that with Flashlight already, where there’s that explosion of free content and there’s some innovation happening there. This is one of the things that we’re well versed in with the PC, and we have a collection of teams around the world. Last year we made a big announcement about opening an Eastern European publishing headquarters in St Petersburg in Russia, and we work with hundreds of developers over there to bring their content to different platforms. We’re very excited about the movement towards open platforms, and we think it’s only going to help broaden the audience for mobile. People like to play mobile games, and I think when introduced to the product there’s actually a reasonably high conversion rate. But we have a massive discovery problem – the more casual user doesn’t have the time to root around their device and try and find out how to download a game, so you find that most of the games that are used for the casual side are already included with the phone. They may have a wonderful experience, but they have no idea how to that get that second game, or the third game, or the fourth game. So with our example of the established property, within the context of say, Jewel Quest, Comcast Online’s experience, you’ll be upsold to this experience on mobile. So now you have a highly qualified audience, and we’ve tried to make this experience as easy as entering your phone number. We have a trial version you can download and experiment and see whether you like it or not. Even though it’s direct to consumer that way, the carriers are supported because they are getting the premium SMS services, and ultimately they’re expanding the audience for digital media for mobile devices. That’s one of the reasons that mobile is such a huge part of this initiative, given the huge number of handsets and the overlap of the casual mobile audience with the online audience. How important a part of the rebranding is interactive television? DR: I think it’s an important part, but if you listed it in order of priorities, it’s definitely the up-and-comer of the group. We have a number one position, but overall the industry is smaller than the other industries we’re talking about. But you see the potential in working with Comcast and being able to work in with their overall media. It’s the opportunity to do real mass-market advertising for some of these services. We think it’s an important mid- to long-term component, and we’re very excited about that. Like I said, the real heart of those conversions right now is around the web, the download to PC space, the PC to mobile and the core casual space. ITV is a nice layer across that, especially with the family packages being promoted. We think mid- to long-term there’s a lot of potential there. How do you go about driving this kind of rebranding home for the casual market? DR: I think there’s two aspects of it, again. There’s the consumer aspect, which is really built around building I-play.com as that key place to go for I-play content, and we want to make sure that folks can experience our own products easily and really ultimately build a community around our properties there. I think that’s one of the key steps forward with I-play.com. We’re very consciously not shipping other people’s content on I-play.com. We’re not trying to become a general purpose games portal. Ultimately, that is all about our IP and building a community around IP. The second part of that consumer part is really bringing all the content elements that go on the different platforms and making sure that we reinforce integrated branding elements in our branding and splash screens. Over time, we’re trying to reinforce – maybe with some advertising – some of the core elements of what we think differentiates the I-play games, and that goes back to the notion of casual as a mindset. Then we have the licensor and developer content part of it. It’s really about our continued presence in the industry at licensing shows and trade shows trying to reinforce and hammer home the collection of services that we can provide these folks in a unified manner. It’s really demonstrating past successes and getting people excited, and getting people like Slingo, who have signed up for IP distributed products for all three screens, or James Patterson who can stand up and let us work out how we can fit in with their overall branding strategy. Can you expand on the idea of casual as a mindset? DR: Basically, I think the word casual, which is a horrible word anyway, is pigeonholed. Before the launch of Xbox Live Arcade, we fought the idea with Microsoft that it had, at least with the core gamer market, a stigma of Solitaire for soccer moms. Ultimately, what we proved with the launch of Xbox Live Arcade was that there’s a type of gameplay that is easy to learn, easy to get into, quick to reward, viral in nature, and connected. I think the community element is critical in a lot of these casual games, even if it’s a single player game. Having the ability to give some kind of reward, like Achievements, or badges or tokens to share within an outer game experience. Ultimately, it’s about a type of experience that’s distinct from sitting down and playing World of Warcraft. It’s a snack as opposed to a full meal, I’ve heard people say. That type of gameplay is interesting to folks that are hardcore WoW players, as well as folks that don’t even know what an RPG is. I think there’s a critical element of our publishing strategy that is there’s a world of opportunity for the core gamer, as well as the traditional casual gamer for these more bite-size experiences. We’ve had millions and millions of downloads of mobile Fast and Furious, and that was the leading racing game on mobile. I think that speaks to this perfectly: you have a game that’s quick in, quick out, and a very satisfying snack experience on mobile that’s much more action oriented. It fits perfectly into the idea that a core gamer can have a casual experience and like it and be drawn to it. Ultimately, the essence of casual is a state of mind. Do you think the token system that you’re setting up with I-play is going to become a focal point for your market? DR: Again, if you think about and understand that Oberon Media is two halves – the platform company and the publishing company. The platform company is definitely about building community experiences for our partners and implementing and achieving mutual business goals. It’s not groundbreaking at all to say that, in this day and age, a connected user experience at some level is critical. You have to go back to what drives casual gamers. A different way to cut the casual market is that you have the competitive folk, and the social folks. And the competitive folks want to be number one in the world at Bubble Town. They’re all about challenging friends and high score lists and building out maximum tokens or achievements. In the more social set, there’s still a draw towards some of these tools that, like tokens and Achievements and badges, that can be used as elements of conversation and bonding together. ‘Hey, you got this particular Achievement or badge! How did you do that? Can you show me?’ Again, they’re just tools to glue the community together, whichever axis you happen to be on as a consumer: competitive or social. I wanted to finish up by asking where you see the casual market as a whole moving over the next few years. DR: That’s a very broad question. It is. [Laughs] DR: [Laughs] You know, it’s a highly dynamic area, and I think the thing that’s most striking for me is, my team and I presented to Bill Gates back in 2003 the giant casual über-plan, and it’s really last year that every publisher had to have a dedicated casual division. We have now – I don’t know if you saw the announcement a few weeks ago – we have a really great relationship with THQ helping them scale their casual efforts on the console and online. So I think all the attention towards this audience, especially with some of the innovative devices that you’re seeing in the marketplace, like the Wii for example, and some of the innovations that are bound to happen on open platforms with great user interfaces like the iPhone, what you’re seeing is an explosion of different experiences for different people. Going back to the casual as a mindset idea, it’s really about finding experiences that are easy to use, that people are going to want to experiment with, and I’m very much looking forward to all of the innovations and experiences that are going to explode from that marketplace. As a company, we’re trying to position ourselves to weave in some of that innovation, and also to help put together unified experiences across the different screens. We want to really start thinking about user experiences first, and how they want to connect to each other before we worry about the device to deliver that experience. That’s what we’re excited about, and what we see as the evolution of casual games going forward.

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