SPIL Games has built a formidable casual gaming empire targeted towards non-traditional gaming demographics, but now, like so much of the industry, it's turning its gaze to social games. This week, the Dutch firm introduces the Activity Feed to its 4000 games and claimed 130 million users. SPIL says the new social layer will debut with some 420,00 daily achievement postings, 200,000 daily comments and half a million daily friend requests.
Here, GamesIndustry.biz talks to SPIL CEO Peter Driessen about why it's moving to social, whether traditional casual games are dead, whether user privacy can be protected and why HTML5 gaming will eclipse apps.
Q: Why have Spil moved into social gaming, and why now?
Peter Driessen:The source is in our social confidence which we have built so far. Starting up with a profile with friends, with game scores, the source between this is really this feature, a wall where we connect everything with each other. That's quite nice, because it's quite dynamic, we're talking about high loads of traffic, so it was quite an achievement to have built for all these gaming websites which we own.
Q:You describe yourself as the world's leading social gaming platform - what's the metric that means you can describe yourself as bigger than Facebook?
Peter Driessen:Well, Facebook isn't a social gaming platform - it's a social platform. We're really only about games, we don't do anything else.
Q:But there are surely more social gamers on Facebook...
Peter Driessen:Of course, yes.
Q:So this will purely be happening via your own platform, or will you encompass Facebook Connect?
Peter Driessen:Yeah, we do work with Facebook Connect, so people can use the Facebook Connect graph to play within our social gaming platform - that's one way to use it. But really it stands by itself, so we've been building up these audiences which are forming communities, playing with each other in that social environment. What we especially see, and what we had really never thought about, is that people are really making a lot of friends. So it's just starting up, and already half a million happen every day - that's quite a lot.
Q: This is about taking advantage of existing communities rather than sort of forcing players into that construct, then?
Peter Driessen:It's more the other way around, I think - people have this need to have friends, and people who share the same passion for games and playing them together. That wasn't possible before, really. Now this opens new territories. For example, we now have a mix of singleplayer games and social games, like farm games and fishing games, all the genres. People go into these games saying 'oh, that's cool, I really want to have a lot of friends to play these social games'. So it doesn't necessarily mean that you want to play only with your real friends - people really love to have people around them that they can meet up with.
Q:Is the business model microtransaction-based for the most part?
Peter Driessen: Yes, that's right.
Q: How confident are you that the model of wait/spam/pay system most social games use is something that's here for the long haul?
Peter Driessen:The question is what is a social game? You have different categories, and how I see it is even singleplayer games which startup into your social feature set and where you can play for high scores, comparing features, is a social game for me. So social games which can be very small to very big games like those from Zynga - and they're from different genres, so you can have the farm style of games but also the Wooga style of games, which are much more casual in a sense. I think everything is becoming social, but within these social games are different categories, and I think there will be continuous development in that area. If you talk about, for example, Popcap, their games are social nowadays and have huge success within Facebook.
We're big believers that in a couple of years gaming through a mobile browser will be bigger than through apps
Q:Is there room for more successful social games in the FarmVille vein?
Peter Driessen:The category will get much broader, while the next genre - and Wooga is a great example of this - will be much more casual and setup a new category. I'm working with some other companies now and have seen some new developments in that field, where they make a mixture of casual and MMO games - MMOs in a lighter form. I really believe that will work well. We haven't seen everything yet, that's for sure.
Q: How important is it to SPIL to be able to say 'we are the nth biggest social games company' or 'we could beat Playdom or even Zynga'?
Peter Driessen:We won't beat Zynga, we won't be Playdom because we're not a developer of social games. We are much more a company who develops social gaming platforms, and tries the best games around it, and comes up with the best user experience for the audience that comes its way.
Q:At some point though, Zynga will surely come up with its own social platform, though it's stuck with Facebook for now. What happens then?
Peter Driessen:A lot of those companies are trying that, and so far we just have to see if that's a successful approach.
Q:There's a lot of people trying it on mobile too, like Ngmoco and DeNA's Mobage Town - are they a rival to you too?
Peter Driessen:I can't speak for these kinds of companies of course, but what we are doing is making these platforms bigger and bigger and building viral elements around it as well. For example, GirlsGoGames.com is big and girls really love those social elements, but also those kinds of target groups are not really allowed in Facebook because they are between eight and thirteen. So we really have something to offer them, and also focus a lot on something which is safe for children. We do a lot of community management and making sure that we do it in the best way possible.
Q:How do most of these visitors find their way to your platforms? While you've got enormous traffic your sites and games aren't ones you often hear name-dropped within gaming circles.
Peter Driessen:It's mainly an SEO thing, because we bought great domain names in the past. GirlsGoGames is also a name that people look for, especially girls - they look on Google for girls and games. These kinds of names help us to be found tremendously.
Q:Are you moving those services to mobile at all?
Peter Driessen: Yes, and we're big believers that in a couple of years gaming through a mobile browser will be bigger than through apps. We're taking the first steps there, but not only us - you also see Microsoft and Google and Facebook moving in that direction. Facebook will open up with their HTML5 mobile platform before the end of the year. So the only way to push games within Facebook Mobile is HTML5.
Q:You're confident that can take off so soon? Other firms seem to think it will be some time before HTML5 is really ready for prime-time.
Peter Driessen:It will take two or three years before it will be bigger than the apps, but it will grow in a very fast way. We've already seen huge developments in that area.
Q:What happens if Apple decide to clamp down on it as they did with Flash?
Peter Driessen:That's always a possibility, but HTML5 is friendlier to use on the phone - with Flash you're faced with more problems. And as well as that when you build in HTML5 you can use it on your PC, on your iPhone and also on the television screen. It enables gameplay on every device, and I think that's the best thing about it.
Q:Is IPTV going to be enormous any time soon?
Peter Driessen: I don't know yet, but I do think people will play games on their television screen, of course.
Q:Going back to SEO, can you talk about the kind of fight you're in to stay on top there? Everyone has their own SEO expert now, it must be tricky to ever feel like you've mastered it.
Peter Driessen:Yeah, it's always a continuous development in that area. For example, Google can change the algorithm and you have to do something - so you have to keep track. But of course you can't keep increasing your SEO traffic. However, there are always ways to do it better and to fight for it. With the last changes to Google, we actually did better thereafter, because of these great domain names and these 4000 games living in a social world - that really contributes a lot of SEO traffic. Nevertheless, a lot of people are finding us directly as well - around 40 per cent of our traffic is SEO, but the rest of it is coming directly.
The download-style business model will keep on going on but it will die in the end
Q:You're confident that the existing audience won't be turned off by the new social stuff?
Peter Driessen:Yes, because the gameplay is the same as it was before. People can enter the site, it's for free, you don't need to subscribe, but if you want to store your game scores or you want to pay for something in a social game you need to subscribe. But even the social games you can enter without subscribing - just get into it and play them, which is very different from things we've seen in other places.
Q: How are you managing privacy issues with regard to notifications and the like?
Peter Driessen:Notifications are all around friend requests and in the games, so we don't use them in a commercial way. They're more about building the community and engaging the community - they've been pretty positive about it.
Q:Is casual gaming as-was dead now?
Peter Driessen:Yeah, the download-style business model will keep on going on but it will die in the end. So I really believe that a new category is coming up; casual games will still be very strong but in a social way. It's very funny to see nowadays that while the social companies like Zynga and Playdom are strong, also the casual companies like Popcap are having a sort of second wave coming up that is extremely popular.
Q:Do you have any sense of what might come after it? There's been quite a trend of new types of games and business models coming around, then everyone rushing to take advantage of them, but by that point the big money's in something else.
Peter Driessen:I think it's going to be in the cloud - for example, with HTML5 you have the game on all the devices everywhere, connect to your favourite game and game brand anywhere. That brand has to live in the cloud, and that needs extra investment from companies.
Q:Has what happened with Sony shaken faith in the cloud concept and the reliance on remotely-stored data at all?
Peter Driessen:There is always a lot of risk attached especially for payments and those kinds of things, so you need to have all the proper protections in place. That isn't only to do with having just one login - on Facebook you have just one login too - so it's really about safeguarding what you have.
Q:No doubt Sony thought they were perfectly protected, though. Every company claims to be secure, but how much can consumer confidence remain if another large hack did happen.
Peter Driessen:Yeah. I find it very difficult to give a proper answer in that respect.
Q:Have you moved to social because you feel you have to, or because you think it can make you bigger still?
Peter Driessen:Of course, when social came up and Facebook became very popular, a lot of people were starting to play games there. So our direction was either did we need to go onto Facebook or build up our audiences there, or could we transition the games that we do have to a social experience? We chose the latter, because we already had hundreds of millions of players and we don't need that marketing spend to build that up somewhere in Facebook. What I see now if I look to the global gaming landscape is that you see Facebook own a lot, the local social networks declining and you see our social gaming platforms increasing in traffic as well. So I think we have something in hand with the potential to be very, very strong, because I believe you will have more verticals in social networks. Facebook is for your real Friends, LinkedIn is for professional friends, GirlsGoGames is games in a social way for girls. That's something that I think will work for us in a big way.