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Q&A: Pogo/EA's Andrew Pedersen On Networking The Casual Space

In an in-depth interview, we talked with EA/Pogo vice president Andrew Pedersen about Electronic Arts' major casual game portal, adding a new virtual currency business model to its subscription service, Pogo 'achievements', and the future of the site.
Following news of an expansion in Electronic Arts' casual-games system, Pogo, to include virtual currency and microtransactions via its Pogo Gems program, Gamasutra had a chance to talk with EA/Pogo vice president Andrew Pedersen. We quizzed Pedersen about Electronic Arts' major casual game portal adding a new virtual currency business model to its subscription service, also asking about Pogo 'achievements', console possibilities, and the future of the service. Gamasutra: Let’s start off by talking about building casual franchises. I know [new Pogo downloadable title] The Poppit! Show builds on an existing license – do you think people are really looking for brands in casual games? Andrew Pedersen: I think so, I think that in general users become attached to a brand, and to a certain experience, and the expectation or promise that that brand represents. So when you have a hit product, it behooves us to find a way in which we can leverage it and extend it, provide some twists on the experience, but continue to deliver on that promise, because at the end of the day in the casual space ultimately building brands is going to be really important. There are so many products coming into the space, so you need to find ways in which you can rise above the noise. GS: Are achievements and badges a pretty big deal for you? AP: Yeah, badges are important, they really resonate with the Pogo players. We were actually the first company to launch with badges, and it’s since become popular with other companies and other games utilizing the technology, but we were the first to roll it out. It’s very important to the Club Pogo players because it’s part of their overall experience, and this (badge and avatar implementation into The Poppit! Show) was an opportunity for us to extend this past the normal reach of our Pogo subscribers, so that people didn’t necessarily have to be a subscriber in order to sample the badge experience. GS: Pogo is one of the first to favor the subscription model as far as I know – why go that particular route, rather than specific game downloads? AP: Well, back in 2003 when we originally launched the subscription service, one of the things we discovered was that there’s a lot of demand for the kinds of features that are on Club Pogo but we couldn’t necessarily justify them for an audience that’s primarily monetized through advertising. So we felt like this was an opportunity for us to create a superset of features that would really resonate with the loyal Pogo players, and history has told us that it’s the right decision. We have approximately 1.3 million paid subscribers on Club Pogo and continue to grow at a healthy clip. GS: Do you think that badges and whatnot are part of keeping subscribers around? AP: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of things that go into keeping subscribers around, I think a lot of it comes down to keeping a steady flow of new content so that they feel there’s always value that’s being added to this subscription service, and we do that in spades across all aspects of the service. But I think (badges) also help a lot because it pushes people into different gaming experiences that they might not find on their own, and it also pushes users together in ways which - two players might be going in and playing a game of Jungle Gin, for example, which they’ve never played before, and they’ve never met before, but if they play a match, all of a sudden they have something in common and something to talk about, and social connections are made. So it’s an important component to our service not only from a gameplay perspective, but also from a social networking perspective. GS: How do you define that casual audience? Do you have a certain demographic for the subscription model? AP: Well there’s no particular demographic we go for, and as far as defining it, at least from Pogo’s perspective, there’s nothing casual about them. They have a voracious appetite for gaming and playing on the service. Club Pogo players play an average of 12 hours per week, so it’s a huge amount of time that they’re spending on the site playing games and interacting with other folks. In terms of skewing our content toward a certain demographic, we don’t really do that per se, but what we do is try to build games that we think are going to have mass appeal, while resonating with our core audience. They have to be very fun, very accessible, very original, they have a lot of replay value, and they really leverage a lot of the strengths of the core Pogo service as far as the rewards mechanisms, the community features, and the social components. GS: Since you’re not having individual game purchases, do you track how often games are played in order to determine what’s popular, and what directions to go? AP: Well, we certainly look at what’s happening on our own site, and we draw inspiration from a lot of the experiences we’ve all had growing up playing different kinds of games. I think a lot of the best casual games are those that have some sort of familiarity - whether it’s with a brand or a game mechanic - that makes the game feel accessible. Usually players come into Pogo games and within 30 seconds they’ve figured out what the gameplay is all about, and part of that is about designing things that are intuitive, but also leveraging mechanics that are fairly well understood, and maybe what you’re doing is combining two familiar mechanics into a unique experience. GS: So it’s more that than tracking user data? AP: Well, we do look at who’s playing these games in terms of popularity, as sort of a metric for success. With the badges we can certainly see that games that might not traditionally have a great amount of popularity, we can see that the actual usage of those games quadruples just if we put a badge on them. We also look very carefully at how long a game’s been on the site, how popular it is, what aspects of the game resonate with the users, how long players are playing, what demographic is playing the game most, we take a careful look at all of those metrics, but we don’t let that dictate what kinds of games we build. GS: I suppose badges could then show you what aspects of gameplay people enjoy as well. So The Poppit! Show is a ‘connected downloadable’ game – what exactly is that? AP: Well traditionally, the downloadable products that you would play, or buy from any portal, were stand-alone experiences - Windows based games that you try before you buy. These usually don’t have any connection back to the place that you purchased it, or any connection to other players. So what we did is essentially looked at what makes Pogo special, and a lot of it has to do with those community features and the badges and awards programs. That’s been exclusively in the web domain, and the downloadable games are usually richer experiences as they’re full-screen, on a Windows-based client, and are between 15-30 megs in size, and tend to have deeper gameplay. So we decided to look at how we could marry these two experiences. So, we created a new platform which we’re referring to as connected downloadable products. The Poppit! Show is the first game we’ve released on this platform – a downloadable product that we’ve wrapped with our community features. GS: This is a different service than EA Link? AP: Yes. GS: Why build two download services when they seem to have somewhat similar aims? AP: Well, this is different in that there’s a way in which casual game users are used to downloading content and getting it from Pogo. So what we’re offering is the ability to purchase that experience, but connect back to Pogo and get access to that experience. GS: Are you looking to move away from subscriptions with this, since it’s a one-time purchase, or is this just an extension? AP: It’s more of an extension of our existing business model, so we're trying something that’s a little different. We have probably the most diversified revenue streams of any player in the causal space, and this is just sort of a new twist on the downloadable business model. GS: Would this not be possible to download via EA Link? It seems like that would be a good way to popularize this with a different audience. AP: Well, it certainly could be something we might consider in the future, but right now we have somewhere around 14.5 million unique players coming to Pogo every month, so there’s a huge audience here that we would like to expose to the game, so we have our work cut out for us there first. GS: Have you thought about integrating Pogo into the PS3, 360 or Wii? AP: Well, even though we’re part of EA, and EA’s core business is very much in the console space, we’re aware of all the stuff that’s happening with respect to those different platforms in terms of casual games and connected features and taking a careful look at whether Pogo content or Pogo style experiences are appropriate for those platforms, but there’s nothing we’re announcing yet in terms of work on those platforms. GS: Purely speculating, perhaps, would you be concerned about those consoles having a lack of an established subscription model? AP: Pogo’s not just about subscription, the success we’ve had on Club Pogo is certainly driven a lot by subscription, but we have very successful business models for digital distribution, and for advertising, licensing, and retail sales. So what we look at is how we can extend the Pogo brand to these platforms with appropriate content for that particular demographic, and what are the best business models to employ in order to get the amount of return that we want. So it really varies. I think it’d be a challenge probably to do subscription on many of those platforms, but we certainly haven’t ruled them out. GS: Does being part of EA offer any particular advantages? I know EA proper isn’t exactly a casual-focused company. AP: We certainly can draw a lot on the infrastructure, expertise and the stability that EA provides. Certainly we can grow as fast as we want and as fast as we can justify to management. EA has a great name for attracting valuable talent, and it’s a global business, which helps Pogo think beyond North America. GS: Who do you feel are your main competitors? AP: It’s really hard to say, there’s a vast number of different companies that are out there, some focus exclusively on downloadables, but really I don’t feel there’s anyone I feel to be a direct competitor of Pogo, because we’re the only company that really offers a breadth of different experiences with a host of content that you can only get on Pogo. GS: Are you concerned at all about the online gambling law that recently went into effect? AP: It’s something we’ve looked at very carefully, but we’re not really affiliated with online gambling. We do have skill-based games that we distribute for WorldWinner (a site that provides games playable for cash and prizes), but at this point there isn’t really anything that has us directly concerned because we’re not really affiliated with that sort of business. GS: So a poker game or something like that wouldn’t be affected so long as it’s not money-based? AP: Yeah, we don’t have any gambling on our site in any way shape or form. We have poker games, but all you’re wagering are tokens that you have earned, and they have no monetary value. So we’re not really in a gray area at all. Clearly on the side of the law. GS: That’s good, because the law reads a bit ambiguous to non-law people, and seems to encompass all gambling as a concept. AP: One of the other benefits of EA is that we have a very strong legal department, and they’re always taking a look at all of these decisions that are being made by the courts or by Congress, and we certainly feel very comfortable where we are.

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