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Snapchat's journey to be a "gaming destination"

Global partnerships lead John Imah offers insight into the early days of Snap Games, and how it fits the company's broader gaming strategy

PC gaming storefronts, cloud streaming platforms, mobile subscription services -- it's been a busy year for new ways to play games. And if you're one of the 210 million daily active users of Snapchat, you've probably heard of one more in the last several months: Snap Games.

Snap is one of several major companies that has recently decided to make the leap into gaming, with global partnerships lead John Imah telling GamesIndustry.biz that he's taking charge of a "fairly new team" within the company that's prepared to make a "long-term bet" on gaming within its social messaging app.

Snap Games launched in April with six games to start, and has since added two more. Several of the titles are made internally by Snap, while others are made by known mobile developers such as Zynga and SpryFox exclusively for the chat platform. All of them are multiplayer titles specially designed for the kinds of instant, social communications inherent to Snap's platform.

"We use Bitmoji as a good standard for developers to look at and get a sense of the type and style of games we like on our platform"

Because of the unique nature of the Snapchat platform, including its AR capabilities and personal, customizable emojis called Bitmojis, Snap works extremely closely with its game developers on very tailored projects -- "in some ways co-developing," as Imah puts it.

"The biggest thing we've learned from working with developers is that they want to make sure they're heard and they're building this platform with us together," he says. "We make a point of collecting feedback from developers and making sure that the communication stays consistent as we progress with the platform and games on our platform."

Snap Games is a closed platform, with Snap being both careful and curated with the kinds of games it accepts. Currently, all its games are free and playable through Snapchat with friends, with developers monetizing through six-second, unskippable ads -- though the Snap team is exploring other monetization methods as well.

While eight games in seven months seems small, and while Imah can't give any specifics on how many developers Snap is currently working with on upcoming titles, he assures me the steady, limited rollout isn't for lack of interest.

"Most of our developers have reached out to us," he says. "We received a huge influx of developers reaching out after we announced the platform. From there, they'll submit a proposal that talks about the type of game that they're looking at creating, what does it look like on Snapchat, a little bit about themselves, and so forth.

"The team and I review those internally and determine if they're a good fit, and if they are a good fit we set them up with the tools. They get introduced to the team, and we start working side-by-side with them to help them develop their game and make sure that the transition and everything they need to have a smooth development on Snap Games is there for them."

john_imah

John Imah

So what makes a good fit? Part of that is inherent to the kinds of games a social platform like Snap can accept naturally, but Imah says the team is also highly focused on quality and creativity -- he wants to see what unique ideas creators come up with that will work with the Snapchat platform.

"This goes into the creativity bucket, but we use Bitmoji as a good standard for developers to look at -- Bitmoji Party and Bitmoji Tennis -- and get a sense of the type and style of games we like on our platform," he says. "We don't necessarily have a specific genre right now because it's still really early days, but we do ask our developers to develop games that anyone can play, meaning that the barrier to entry is low where people can pick up these games very easily and play with their friends."

Bitmoji are the stars, as Imah says, of two of the currently available Snap Games, and Snap is using them to stretch even farther. As a part of Snap's broader gaming initiatives, the company has recently introduced an SDK called Bitmoji for Games, which lets developers integrate Bitmoji into their games and allow people to play as their Bitmoji within titles outside Snap.

"The gamer is constantly thinking about their avatar, so extending it into a developer's game that is already successful or that they want to build on top of presents a ton of value"

But even Bitmoji for Games isn't just a free-for-all. Like Snap Games itself, access is curated by Snap, which wants to use the initiative to keep Bitmoji (and by extension Snapchat) in the minds of its users even when they're outside the app.

"We basically hand-pick all the developers we want to work with to integrate Bitmoji into their existing games or build a new game on top of that," Imah says. "It's no different in some ways than a licensing deal.

"The nice thing about Bitmoji for Games is the fact that if you look at some of the IP in general in the gaming industry, from a user perspective, users may not be thinking about that IP every day, and only when they're playing the game. Versus if you look at Bitmoji, people are using it daily, and they're also using some of the integrations we have, whether it's through Snapchat, Tinder, or Gmail. The gamer is constantly thinking about their avatar, so extending it into a developer's game that is already successful or that they want to build on top of presents a ton of value."

Imah tells me that seven months in, it's too early to give any detail on metrics in terms of how many users are playing Snap Games, if there are any particular connections between people interested in Snap Games and people interested in gaming on other platforms, or if users are joining Snapchat specifically for Snap Games. He's also not concerned about the decline in numbers of games released through social media platforms such as Facebook.

Part of that, Imah says, is because for him and the team at Snap, gaming is a slow, long-term project across multiple initiatives -- not just Snap Games itself. Imah and his team's job ranges across Snap Games, the aforementioned Bitmoji for Games, connections with esports groups like FaZe Clan for social gaming content and communities, and AR initiatives that intersect with gaming and associated communities. Above all, he wants Snapchat to be a "gaming destination."

"Snapchat is a platform for real friends," he says. "As a gamer, I play games on other platforms and I play with random people that did become my friends, but they weren't actually my real friends. Whereas when I play games on Snap Games, I'm playing with people that I know. I've never really experienced that on mobile or some other platforms, so I think that's a huge value proposition for Snapchat.

"For us right now, it's just making sure we build the right features and social offerings for developers to make sure engagement is consistent and goes beyond. The other side is just learning. The platform has only been live since April, and next year's going to be a big year for us, so we're just taking it as we go."

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