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Q&A: PlayFirst CEO's Casual Strategy For 2010

PlayFirst CEO Mari Baker speaks to Gamasutra about her company's roadmap for 2010, and how it hopes to expand and differentiate its products while not relying solely on Diner Dash.
PlayFirst is best known for its Diner Dash series of casual games -- and its focus on downloadable PC games. But the market is fast changing, and the lines are blurring. CEO Mari Baker speaks to Gamasutra about how the company views this changing market and how it plans to react to these trends. "We are committed to the audience that we have traditionally served," said Baker. However, she said, "we believe the historic definition of casual games is somewhat either irrelevant or expanded -- however you want to look at it -- in the new world." While we shouldn't expect PlayFirst to make a "hard shift" to target male teens, "the Dash series has proven to cross genders in its interest level," said Baker, which explains why it made the journey to 360 and PS3. When games make the journey in 2010, said Baker, PlayFirst will "really [be] re-imagining them as we bring them to new platforms... really being native to those platforms." While social networking and iPhone are growth targets for PlayFirst, its core PC download business is not to be ignored. "We sold more units in 2009 in the PC download than we had the prior year, so we think that there's still a lot of growth and opportunity there," said Baker. However, she said, "There has been a lot of price compression over the last 18 months, which has made some of the dynamics of that business potentially challenging." The problem is, she said, "as the price points continue to drop, it starts to become very difficult to maintain your standards of excellence as the revenues that you're getting really fall quite precipitously. That's where we're trying to realign in the organization." Baker also pointed out that, thanks to its Playground development SDK which allows for easy multiplatform development, the company remains "very committed" to releasing games on the Mac, which has "performed very well for us." Playground is, said Baker, "a real underlying strength that the company has, and we'll continue to leverage that, where we do a combination of what we've built up as a strong internal team of producers and game designers and artists who work to support the external developers to make sure that what we're producing meet our quality standards and criteria and are able to perform in the marketplace." Casual games have a tendency to rest in several comfortable genres -- copycatting is random, and innovation is a bit harder to find. Is that a problem? "We believe that breakthroughs happen when you can identify a new type of genre," said Baker, pointing to the company's work with the "HOGventure" genre -- which is not so much a new genre but a synthesis of hidden object and traditional adventure gameplay. "Obviously, when you're innovating and breaking new ground, sometimes you hit it, and sometimes you don't. But our teams are definitely targeting titles; we're trying to break new ground and open up new genres," said Baker. Baker seems to see creative possibilities more in gaming that spans platforms than in new genres -- from PC to iPhone to social networking. "How do you start to make sense of people playing the same title across iPhone and download and console and potentially social?" asked Baker. "I think there's interesting things still yet to come as we think about what does that mean... encountering the IP in all kinds of different scenarios." Of course, the company is best known for Diner Dash. Is it possible to over-rely on one series? "People [here] would admit to having a phase in 2008 of over-Dashing," said Baker. "We were very conscious in 2009 of really working on some new IP. With Diner Dash 5, it's the first Diner Dash in over two years, and so we are very conscious of trying to plan out and map out the strategy with introducing completely new IP as well as iterating in an innovative way on some of the most popular existing titles." The company has been investing in adventure games -- such as Emerald City Confidential. Is that a strategy? Said Baker, "We're not gonna go do match-3 type games. How can we build the storyline, develop characters, create a narrative -- create something that's really engaging entertainment for the consumer? When we talk to out customers, they talk about getting lost in the gameplay, and that is very appealing to a segment of users."

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