Outplay Entertainment Ltd Kicks off Cross-Platform Business on Facebook
Scotland-based newcomer Outplay Entertainment enters the social and mobile game market this month with two games launched on Facebook that will eventually become cross-platform experiences on iOS and Android in the first quarter of 2012.
The term “cross-platform” has been used a lot by developers in the last year as Facebook-spawned devs make their first attempts at mobile games and mobile developers attempt to migrate their apps to Facebook and other social networks. It can mean two completely unrelated games that share a common theme, like CrowdStar’s It Girl for Facebook and Top Girl for mobile. It can mean a game that is identical across all platforms, but not connected by platforms, such as Rovio’s Angry Birds on G+ versus Angry Birds on just about every other device under the sun. It can also mean games that are the same game no matter what device the player users, like Zynga’s Words With Friends — which is what many developers term “true” cross-platform play.
Outplay Entertainment currently falls toward the Words With Friends end of the spectrum with its two games, Booty Quest and Word Trick. When the mobile versions launch, players will be able to initiate games on Facebook and then have that same game immediately available to them on iPhone or Android if they switch devices. For future projects, the developer may lean more toward CrowdStar’s cross-platform model where one platform has the “main” gameplay experience while another platform provides supplemental elements. Similar to what Ubisoft has planned for its upcoming Ghost Recon games, this could take the form of a mobile companion game generating additional currency or experience points for the Facebook main game.
For now, though, Outplay is focused on getting its foot in the social-mobile games door and scaling quickly. Though there is some skepticism that developers cannot use Facebook as a sustainable starting point on which to build a business, the developer feels it has an edge by virtue of experience, compelling gameplay, and ample resources to direct toward marketing. The company was founded by brothers Richard and Doug Hare, two video game industry veterans that have come a long way from 1997 when they first founded a development studio focused on porting Windows games to the PlayStation console. In the following interview, the brothers outline Outplay’s approach to the rapidly shifting market:
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Richard Hare, Outplay Entertainment Co-Founder (pictured right): It’s probably the fact that we grew up playing games together. It’s been a hobby and then it became a common interest. The first company of scale we created was The Collective, which we formed in 1997 with one other business partner, and focused on console development. We grew that over the course of eight years to 150 people, then we merged with Backbone Entertainment in 2005.
Doug Hare, Outplay Entertainment Co-Founder (pictured right, with child): We merged the companies, created Foundation 9 Entertainment, and then sold the majority of it in 2006. As a result of that investment, we grew to about 800 people in 11 different studios. That’s when we started [researching] Facebook as a platform and at the same time saw the [rise] of Apple with the launch of the App Store. It was difficult to go after those markets from within our company, so it ended up being easier to start a new company. We’re still substantial individual shareholders at Foundation 9, but we have no operational involvement.
ISG: How did you end up back in your native country, Scotland? What’s the development culture like there?
Doug: We started with the idea of doing Outplay in the states as a very virtualized company with lots of different individuals collaborating on the product — after 800 people, we were drawn to the idea of a small company. As we refined our view of the market, it became apparent that games were services rather than products you could fire [off] and forget, so we started realizing that we needed a fairly substantial internal capacity. We started looking at various locations where we could set that up, and [chose] Scotland. We came to that realization around April or May of last year and came back in September to start meeting with VCs and angels investors. We officially opened our doors in April 2011.
We can’t claim to be experts, but a lot of stuff happened while we were away [from Scotland]. But one of the surprising things [about] Scotland is that it’s the home of Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto. Those games originated here and Grand Theft Auto is still developed here. [Video games] is not a huge industry in terms of headcount, but in terms of the size of the country — five million people — the amount of relevance is amazing for such a small country.
ISG: We’ve heard some people say that Facebook isn’t the best place to launch a studio anymore now that Zynga dominates the market and cost per install (CPI) is really high. Where do you see opportunity on the platform?
Doug: It’s a question of having the type of product people want to play. Whether it’s the App Store, the Android Market, Facebook, or Xbox Live, they have the same challenges around discoverability — grabbing people’s attention so that they come back. [The opportunity] comes from the quality of the product that we create, the genres that we select, and the part where we can direct a reasonable amount of marketing toward [the games] to get traction. We’re not trying to be Zynga, we’re not trying to compete for the same audience. They’re an atypical outlying phenomenon. We’re making different types of games that will ultimately attract a different audience.
ISG: Booty Quest is a match-3 game and Word Trick is more like more like Scrabble, both very casual older female-skewing genres. Is that the demographic you’re primarily focused on?
Richard: There’s a multitude of reasons why we led with those genres. From our perspective, they’re great games. It’s a style of casual game that we enjoy playing. And because we’re forming a new team in a new country, we wanted smaller scale products with a relatively constrained and focused style of developing. From a market analysis standpoint, they seemed like logical bets to start with [because] even though there are many match-3 games, there’s a large appetite for that style of entertainment. We also felt we could create something that was innovative within those [genres]. These are an exercise in proving out the team and proving out our product. As we move into next year, you’re going to see more complexity in content types and development.
ISG: How do you offset CPI on new games, being such a new studio? Is it all in the marketing or will you integrate an ad platform or hot new viral mechanic no one’s thought of yet?
Doug: We’re moving rapidly and beyond simple raw marketing. We have other secret sauce as to how we [attract] audiences that we’ll be rolling out next year. It’s something along the lines of what you mentioned — only it’s saucier and more secret.
ISG: On the cross-platform side, what’s your approach? Are you using HTML5 or building native apps by platform?
Doug: We built our own technology for cross-platform development. HTML5 is interesting, but the experience that we have on mobile devices is just not something that you’d be able to get on HTML5 right now.
Word Trick and Booty Quest exist very happily on [PC or mobile]; the experience is satisfying regardless of the platform. However, that’s [not the case] for most types of games. Taking another type of game and making the same experience [on multiple platforms], one of them is going to be a pure experience on one of the platforms whether you like it or not. We’re not going to make the games identical all the time; we’re going to have games that you want to play on Facebook, on PC. And then we’ll have another game that’s a different experience [but related to the Facebook game] on a different platform. The two games are standalone, but if you play both, you’ll move faster through the experience. It’ll be a better experience overall.
There are other companies that are doing this. But there will be a change in the patterns that people play [by] and we want to have an approach to where we’ll be there whenever [the player] want us, no matter what the device.
Richard: The key is being sensitive to the context of the platform you’re playing on. There’s certain things that work extremely well or are only possible on mobile. We want to make sure it’s not going to be an exercise in porting between desktop and mobile, but trying to recognize the true experience based on the context. We’re not going to do, “Here’s the Facebook game,” and then a few months later, “Here’s the mobile game.”
ISG: You define your games as “skill-based,” even though they’re not actually related to the concept of gambling — where players compete against one another to earn prizes relative to their skill. What does the term “skill-based” mean in the context of your games?
Richard: One way of looking at it would be that there’s always a level of challenge that can be worked and mastered. That’s something that has a natural appeal and draw over time because it’s not too easy. With gameplay mechanics, we want to make sure that it’s always rewarding and satisfying. It’s finding the right level of skill or challenge. That will be based on the style of product — [Booty Quest] is more reaction-based while [Word Trick] challenges your vocabulary.
Doug: Both games require you to develop [a skill]. It’s rewarding to see your development of that skill, more fundamentally satisfying than games that are based on patience. The term “skill-based” reflects casino gaming, but the idea is really that you’re demonstrating a skill and the evolution of that skill is underpinning the overall enjoyment. There are a lot of games on Facebook that don’t have the requirements for what [we define as] skill. They have behaviors that can be rewarded, but there’s no change in behavior.
ISG: What does the road ahead look like for you, beyond launching new products? Are you in the process of raising funding?
Doug: We raised our seed funding at the start of the year, so we’re not raising money right now. When we pitched the company as an investment opportunity, the idea was that we were going into it [with] the functionality a publisher would have — dedicated community management, dedicated quality assurance, marketing, and public relations. We’re at 32 people right now — we started with two in April — and we grew ourselves in the space of three-and-a-half months. We’ve built these games and mobile versions that are nearly complete. What we’ve accomplished, when you think about it, is quite a lot.