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Q&A: Pogo's Kerpelman On The State Of Casual Gaming

How can casual developers stand out in a crowded field? Todd Kerpelman, creative director for the EA-owned Pogo.com, talks in-depth to Gamasutra, giving his thoughts on casual business models, Facebook gaming, and the swift cloning of game concepts in the
How can casual developers stand out in a crowded field? Todd Kerpelman, creative director for the Electronic Arts-owned Pogo.com, helps to run one of the longest-running online/casual game sites out there - Pogo has been around in various forms since 1998. The online destination continues to run free, ad-supported in-browser games on its site alongside its popular Club Pogo service, which offers exclusive games, no advertising, and extra community features and prizes for a $40 yearly fee. In addition, Pogo also helps to create and distribute standalone downloadable PC casual games on its site, including titles such as Fairy Godmother Tycoon - some of which additionally get retail distribution. In this in-depth interview, Kerpelman - accompanied by EA PR representative Honey Hamilton - tells Gamasutra his thoughts on casual business models, Facebook gaming, and the swift cloning of game concepts in the casual industry. Casual games is quite a different space than EA is traditionally known for. What does it mean to be the creative director for Pogo as both a brand and a portal? Todd Kerpelman: From my point of view, I tend to focus on the games themselves. We have people who tend to focus more on the extent of the features and the community elements of the site. I generally focus more on the games, and making sure they're still a good experience. That's my focus. There are two creative directors, myself and another gentleman named Troy Whitlock, who are creative directors on the game side, and then for features, there's other people, depending on the business. With EA's new label structure, when you say you work for Pogo, it's concentrating fully on the website? TK: For the most part, yeah. There's the website, there's downloadable games -- essentially, there's what people associate with the website. Pogo is part of the larger EA Casual label, and that includes the guys who made Smarty Pants and that kind of stuff. I'm focused on the Pogo world. We're sort of our own little island in the EA development community. The industry still seems to be in a period where it's not sure where the goal or the sweet spot is for casual games -- like how people want to make experiences that really get taken up, and what the business models are. TK: There's certainly a lot of business models that people have been trying. The traditional one has been, "Try it for an hour, and if you like it, pay us twenty dollars." I've seen some games out there that have half-hour trial periods, and I've seen some games that are like, "Try it and buy it, or we'll show you video ads in the game while you're playing." I think people are still experimenting to see if there's different models that work best in the downloadable games space. If you look at Habbo Hotel, where they have a huge userbase of mainly adolescents, there's not really, at a basic level, much of a game experience like we would traditionally think about it, but it's compelling because of the social aspects and the customization. What have you found when it comes to offering those sorts of options to your players? TK: Habbo Hotel is really interesting. I think probably the conventional wisdom around that was that was built because a lot of the younger players don't necessarily have twenty dollars to plop down on a game, but they're willing to plop down a dollar here and a dollar there to customize their avatar. We have some of that, to some degree. There are Club Pogo players who can customize their Minis either with tokens, which are the currency used in-game, or some items you can only buy with Gems, which is basically our microtransaction system. Some players that are really into decorating their Minis will use their Gems for that, but I think compared to Habbo Hotel, they're probably not so gung-ho. Is your demographic an older female audience? TK: Yes. Especially on the Club Pogo service, you're really seeing that. The free service is a little more wider of a demographic. Honey Hamilton: We're about 58 percent female on Pogo.com, and 75 percent female on Club Pogo... about half of the female population is over 35. It's definitely taking a different demographic. How do you go about coming up with creative ideas to appeal to that audience, especially with, not to over-generalize, developers that are traditionally a little bit younger than that and male? TK: When I work on our game for our audience, I generally don't intentionally say, "I'm going to make a game for women over 35." In general, it's more like, "I want to make a game that's for everybody." You don't want to deliver a game that excludes anybody. You'll notice that very few of our games are pink, and made to look like we appeal to women. We mostly try to appeal to a broad audience, and try not to isolate anybody. Have you guys brought any licensing into your games? MumboJumbo has a game based on The Office license, for instance. TK: We haven't done a whole lot of that. Obviously, a lot of our free games get sponsored, though that's a little different. We did just sign an agreement with Hasbro. I think there's probably some appeal there. It's funny. I'm not sure how well licensing does in the casual space. I think it'll get people to notice your game -- when faced with 20 games, if one of them has a license that they maybe know about, it'll get them to try it. But because the casual game business model is all about downloading and buying it if you like it, I don't know if it affects sales as much as the game being good, but it will probably boost trials, I would guess. It sounds like you're still pretty dialed-in to the download and try-and-buy model. TK: I think it's been fairly effective, although, personally, I mostly focused on the free Pogo and the Club Pogo stuff, the online stuff. I did one casual game, Fairy Godmother Tycoon, and that sort of helped out with some of the downloadable games that are out now, though most of my time is spent on the downloadable games. There's certainly no end to portals popping up, and there's no end of clones of popular games. How do you stand out in the signal-to-noise problem? TK: It's tough. Partly, if you notice, on the Pogo website, it's not open, in that we don't let [other developers] pile in and publish whatever they want. I think some of it is that the Pogo website is focused on getting people to stay on the site and have fun playing there, and a little less about, "Hey, now that you're here, how about you download this game and buy it?" We actually like people spending all day on the site, whereas I think a lot of the portals you see out there are really focused on the downloadable model where they partly get you to play the game online, but they really want you to download the game and buy it, whereas we're happy if people spend all day playing our games online. [The community aspect] is certainly something that we have that a lot of other portals don't have. You know, three people who kind of know each other, or people who pile into the same room together -- people make friends online in our game rooms, and meet every day at 3 in Word Whomp and chat. You see that happening a lot. A lot of families that might be separated across the country may actually get together in the same game room and talk. We do provide some of those social interaction features that you don't necessarily see on other sites. It's games that people can play, but not distract them from the conversations. It gives them something to do while they're conversing. TK: Yeah. That's a good way to describe that. Most of our games have little time pressure, so you can take a turn, and then maybe chat, and then go back to your game, and bounce back and forth. We don't necessarily distract you if you'd rather be there talking. It's interesting that even Pogo itself is running a few different models. You have ad-supported free games, a subscription service of web games, and the try-and-buy convertible. Do you think something is going to pull ahead, or there's a model you haven't hit on yet that might potentially work even better? TK: We're certainly always for the potential that something better will come along. I think for us, it's not like we're looking to consolidate those three business models into one, because each one serves a different need. They're all good for our hardcore players. They spend a lot of time on the site. The Club Pogo service is good for them and good for us. Same with the downloadables. It depends on what you're here for. There's certainly a lot more interesting stuff that's going to be happening in the microtransaction area. You hear people talking all the time about Kart Rider. EA has made some moves towards Facebook, as well, right? TK: Yeah, I still play the Smarty Pants game. I think it was just intended as a promotional vehicle, but I think it's a lot of fun. It's just ten trivia questions every day. That whole area is interesting. Personally, I go back and forth between, "Is this the next big thing?" and "Is this a flash in the pan?" and "Is this somewhere in the middle?" Every day I have a different theory. I'd say that if I get one more zombie invite, I'm going to strangle somebody, but that's kind of a cool area. Who knows. In a year, we'll probably be talking about something else cool that everybody's looking to get into. We just don't know what it is yet. Are the big successes in casual games still "match three"-type games, or is it starting to get a little more broad, conceptually? TK: I don't want to take credit for this, but it was [Diner Dash creator and Rebel Monkey founder] Nick Fortugno who showed a graph at a summit that showed how a lot of the hardcore games were getting simpler, with games like Puzzle Quest and Wii Sports -- if you want to consider that a hardcore game on the simple side. At the same time, some of the casual games are getting more complicated. There's still some very simple games -- hidden picture games, match-three types of games -- but there are also games like Virtual Villagers, which is certainly more complex than Bejeweled. It's a fairly sophisticated artificial life resource management kind of game. I feel like we're between the hardcore games and the casual games. We're filling in the gaps in the middle. You're going to probably see stuff all along the spectrum. I doubt the very simple casual games will ever go away, because there's certainly people who like those, but at the same time, it will be nice to see where we'll be able to diversify and see some more complex stuff, too. Do you worry about coming up with simple, good ideas that people will instantly start to clone? TK: It's funny. This is also something I can't take credit for, and I can't remember who said it -- maybe the guys who worked on Mystery Case Files -- who said that when thought their game was going to be a hit, they'd start cloning their own game right away, because they thought, "Somebody's going to clone this game. It might as well be us. We'll get credit for our idea and get that head start." In some ways, I think generally the industry's view on clones is that if you want to sort of copy a game mechanic, do that, but try and add something on your own. Add a twist that will make it a little different, and hopefully advance the genre in a different way. Don't just do a straight-on clone. I think in the past, that was certainly true. I think whenever we try and make a game that's based on a mechanic that's already out there, we do try and make it different, because, partly, it's personally no fun just making a straight clone. That's not something we'd ever want to do. Jewel Quest was an interesting example of that. Bejeweled had been out for a while with the match-three mechanic, and it kind of played itself out. These guys introduced the match-three mechanic with just one twist, which was that when you match three, the background of those spaces would change. You just had to clear out the background of an entire grid. It was a simple twist on a known mechanic, but that kind of revitalized the genre, and you started to see a lot of games essentially cloning Jewel Quest. We did something like that with Sweet Tooth, with a little twist where you could move diagonally. All of a sudden, I think that made the game feel fresh. Puzzle Quest took the match-three mechanic and added RPG elements. If you're going to take a mechanic that's already out there, that's fine. Just see what you can do to make it different. Not only did it make the game fresh, but there's no end to the praise from developers and players. Everyone recognizes that it's essentially Bejeweled, but they recognize that the developers had the sense to put in new elements to make it work. Rather than developers saying, "Hey, this is a clone," they said, "Hey, I wish we could do something like this." TK: Yeah. You can't simply take something that's out there. Even though it's sort of a clone, it's not really a clone. It's really a new game. I think that's nice.

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