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Q&A: Sandlot Games' Daniel Bernstein Talks Casual Success

In this casual Q&A, Sandlot Games' Daniel Bernstein (Cake Mania) discusses the state of the casual game biz, how to correctly target an audience with your games, and why the cost of PopCap's 'big-budget' $700,000 casual title Bookworm Adventures
Casual gaming developer and portal Sandlot Games was formed in 2002 by Daniel Bernstein, a ten year game industry veteran who has previously worked with Kesmai Studios, Monolith Productions and WildTangent. Since then, the company has expanded significantly, with Bernstein claiming that the company’s most popular title, Cake Mania, has seen 25 million downloads. Recently, Bernstein has expressed a desire to speak out on the areas he feels the casual games industry has managed to evolve, and where its future lies. We spoke to Bernstein about these issues, as well as his feelings on game clones, and whether the casual and independent games industries will continue to cross over with one another. When and why was Sandlot Games formed? I founded Sandlot Games in 2002 in an effort to establish the leading developer and publisher in the emerging casual games market. I was motivated to build a games company in this exciting new market segment because it provides an unprecedented range of creative and artistic freedom. In a web trial-based model, we have the opportunity for games with the most addictive and innovative game designs to become best-sellers. For the most part, that is no longer the case in the traditional gaming industry due to limited shelf space and the exorbitant marketing fees that publishers spend to push fairly mediocre product. What do you feel Sandlot offers over its competitors? Sandlot Games is fortunate in that we have hit games in a variety of gaming genres. We are not known as “the strategy games company” or “the action games company.” We have the most successful platformer in the Casual Games market with our Super Granny series of games. We have launched AAA titles in the action-puzzle genre with games such as Cake Mania. We have developed the first successful casual real time strategy game called Westward, and our adventure strategy game, Tradewinds, continues to be an enduring franchise. We don’t make patronizing assumptions that the casual games consumer will only like a certain type of game, and we often make bets that other game companies do not. This allows us to be very well diversified in genre, and we are excited to use this to experiment in new business models, whether it’s trial based, ad driven, micro-transactions, or massively multiplayer. We believe because of our diversified portfolio of content, we are uniquely positioned to take advantage of some of these new and exciting business directions. What changes have you seen in the casual games market since 2002? The casual games space has matured substantially since 2002. What that means is that the casual game player is ready for a wider array of content and won’t be satisfied with the same match-3 dynamic that has driven the industry in the past. At the same time, there are more and more people playing games on the internet so the user base is widening. Also, the emergence of new types of business models such as ad-supported game play and massively multiplayer games has made the casual games landscape much more interesting. There has also been a feeding frenzy from developers trying new “takes” on existing game dynamics. The number of developers in this market continues to increase, as do the production values. Due to this influx, the amount of time that a game will get top placement and prominence on the distributor’s web sites has been cut drastically. Moreover, distributors - such as Internet portals - continue to retain the lion’s share of a game’s revenue. This, in the end, makes it very difficult for smaller developers to compete as the return on investment for a single game becomes smaller and smaller, unless you can hit the ball out of the park with a AAA product. Finally, advertising is back “in”. As a result lots of portals are retooling their game offering to re-focus back on advertising. As a result, downloadable try-before-you-buy games have been significantly minimized in prominence on those portals. I see this as an important trend that counteracts the growth of the casual games industry. Casual game developers will need to learn to compete with their own ad-enabled offerings, since games continue to be the big draw on the Internet, regardless of trend. How has the target audience for casual games changed in that time? The same folks that played casual games five years ago still play them now. Additionally, more people have been pulled into playing casual games than ever before. Whether it’s young adults with less leisure time who now gravitate to casual strategy games like Tradewinds or grandmothers who have never played a game in their life absorbed in the Super Granny series of games. The audience base is widening and as a result there is more variety than ever before of content. Moreover, I believe the term “Casual Games” will soon be antiquated, as more people will play casual games than ever before. Casual games will be redefined as mainstream games while hardcore games will be delegated to a small subset of that audience. How do you survey and analyse user statistics? We have software that tracks downloads and purchases from our website. Our partners (Internet portals) provide statistics of how our games perform on their sites. We also focus test our games with our 20,000 beta testers on a regular basis. This provides us with a better understanding of what we are doing right or wrong in a particular game design. We have a system in place of examining the performance of a title in focus test and we can determine how well it’s going to perform in the market. However, there is no amount of focus testing in the world that can guarantee a good game design. Lukewarm focus test results have killed more than one project in the history of Sandlot Games. Do you find different genres will attract different kinds of players? They certainly do. Cake Mania, with a young, adorable main character, Jill, definitely skews more female than the Super Granny or Tradewinds crowd. A player’s attraction to a game has to do with the game’s characters probably as much as it has to do with the game itself. If the game’s character is someone an audience segment can relate to, then it tends to attract more of those players. Super Granny, at its core, is a more hardcore game dynamic than most hit casual game titles out there. However, the main character is a kick-ass Granny hell bent on saving her kitties, level after perilous level. Super Granny, with her funny quips and purse-swinging ways resonates with older casual game players incredibly well. Do you feel that the general "casual gamer" term is too broad these days? No. In my head a casual gamer is anyone who does not consider gaming as their #1 leisure activity. That’s a lot of people. It’s not the soccer mom demographic. It’s pretty much everyone except a select group of hardcore gamers. Which titles have proven most successful for Sandlot, and what do you attribute to their success? Cake Mania, the Tradewinds series, Westward and the Super Granny series of games have been most successful for Sandlot. Cake Mania has had over 25 million downloads to date, and has won and been nominated for numerous awards. Westward, though released very late in 2006 has made it into the top ten on all major casual game portals and was nominated as the best Strategy & Simulation Game of the Year by the Casual Games Association. All of these games are very different but they do have a few things in common. They all either make you empathize with the character or transport you to exotic locations. They have interesting and deep storylines. They are finely crafted games with extremely high production values. They are unique. Why have you previously commented that PopCap was wrong to spend $700,000 developing Bookworm Adventures? I think that money alone will not guarantee a hit game. Advertising that you’ve spent almost a million dollars on a title does nothing. Fortunately, in the case of Bookworm Adventures, it is a finely crafted title with a lot of very ambitious game design decisions. I believe the true test of a game is how it evolves the casual games market and pushes the industry forward. Whether or not it requires $700,000 to do so is irrelevant. What is the general cost of development for a game on Sandlot? It varies. We have 5 dedicated development studios around the world, so there are cost savings to our development process. On the average it takes between $50,000 to $500,000 to develop a game. These cost savings allow us to make big bets and innovate. How have you established and maintained third party relationships? I’ve been around the games industry for years, so some of the relationships have been fostered since I was working at Kesmai on Air Warrior in 1994. We are fair and honest with our partners, and have a reputation for being that way. Our development terms are straightforward and we treat each published title with the same care as we do our internally developed ones. Do you offer suggestions for developers on audiences they should be targeting, and how to effectively target them? Don’t be afraid to risk in new genres. It pays off in the end, and drives the industry forward. Also, if you innovate, you do not necessarily need the massive production values required to differentiate your game from the other multitudes of clones out there. Up and coming developers should contact Sandlot Games to see if we can help them with their publishing goals. Having a good publishing partner can be the difference between success and the electronic dustbin. How much are games on Sandlot, and what kind of revenue does a developer generally make from your site? The average price of games on www.SandlotGames.com is $19.99. We share 50/50 on all games we publish. We believe these terms to be fair, and we only take games that have the potential of being AAA hits. We will put our entire weight of marketing and support behind our published titles. Do you see a crossover between casual and indie titles developing? I consider them one in the same, if by indie you mean “original game with solid game design.” Are you concerned about casual game development being outsourced to cheaper workers? No. We have development teams around the world. It gives us the ability to compete, scale, and take pretty aggressive bets. Where does your site stand on the issue of cloned titles? There is a difference between a title that is inspired by a game and a game that is visually and gameplay-wise identical to an existing title. We are working with our partners to maintain that differentiation, and move aggressively against anyone openly cloning our games. Do you think the casual games market will continue to expand at this current pace, and what will that mean for development costs? Yes, it will continue to expand, and development costs will continue to go up, as long as there is money to be made in this business. However, production value is not the magic bullet, so you cannot overspend your competitors to insure a AAA title. There are plenty of opportunities for 1-2 person teams to make lots of money in this business. All it takes is some innovation and guts. Where do you see the market going over the next five years? I believe that there is going to be lots of experimentation in the business model of games, whether it’s by connecting casual gamers together in a multiplayer experience, providing items in a micropayment solution or by offering more gameplay in return for advertisement. Right now, we are receiving revenue from .5-2.5 percent of folks playing our games (what is commonly called “conversion rate” – the ratio of purchasers to downloaders). In any other industry, this .5 – 2.5 conversion rate is an abysmal number. I am very excited to see what developers, publishers and distributors can do in the next 5 years to increase this number tenfold, while at the same time continuing to expand the casual game playing user base.

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