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All Change

Row Sham Bow's Philip Holt and Nick Gonzales on the journey from EA Sports to social gaming

One of the defining trends of 2011 was the ongoing migration of AAA talent to social development. This has taken two forms: leading companies like Zynga tempting industry veterans with new contracts on the one hand, and the formation of companies like Row Sham Bow on the other.

Formed by a group of people from EA Tiburon, the home of Madden NFL, Row Sham Bow intends to bring AAA experience to bear on the evolution of social gaming, placing greater emphasis on compelling game mechanics and good old-fashioned fun. In this interview, Row Sham Bow's CEO Philip Holt and CTO Nick Gonzales discuss the value of a swift start, consequences and loss in social games, and how admitting you know nothing can be your greatest asset.

GamesIndustry.bizRow Sham Bow was only founded in April, and you had your first product to market in a little over six months. Most companies don't start with such pace, even in social development. Was that part of your strategy?
Philip Holt

Yeah, actually, it was from the get go. We assumed when entering this space that most of our instincts would be wrong. We wanted to launch quickly and get our products out in front of customers so we could start learning from their behaviour.

So that was a goal from the start, and we made choices around that regarding the scope of the product, what features we'd include at launch, and features we wouldn't include at launch. And I'm very glad that we did, because I think we've learned a lot since we launched [debut game Woodland Heroes] in late October.

GamesIndustry.bizDid you do much research, or was it more a case of learning on the job?
Philip Holt

Well, the first day of operation was April 18, and in our second week we built - in, like, four days - we built and deployed a game on Facebook; a very, very simple rock, paper, scissors game. We did that first for the primary reason of getting the team used to Facebook APIs and going full lifecycle, from an idea to out in the field. We got maybe 100 users, but that wasn't the point.

We assumed when entering this space that most of our instincts would be wrong

That was really valuable, and then after that there was probably two or three weeks of very focused playing of the top 50 games on Facebook at the time. Concurrently with that, the team - and the team at that point was probably 8 or 10 people - everybody had ideas about products that they wanted to make, so we literally let people work on whatever they wanted to, just two or three day prototypes.

We selectively chose down from half a dozen ideas to two, and did some testing on Facebook against the concepts that resonated most strongly with the team, just to collect some demographic data. And we used that data as one of the filters on our decision to select Woodland Heroes.

GamesIndustry.bizYour background is at EA, your co-founder, Nick Gonzales, was also most recently at EA, and many of your initial staff also have that traditional publisher background. The sort of dynamism you're describing in Row Sham Bow's early days isn't associated with companies of that size. Is that why you wanted to make the transition?
Philip Holt

At EA - and anyone that's worked in the industry in a primarily retail oriented business - you look at second hand sales, you look at declining user attention spans, the consolidation of sales in the top 5 titles versus what used to be the top 20 sales; it's just really, really difficult to be successful in retail these days.

The fastest growing and most dynamic part of the market is in mobile and social, and so we thought a couple of things: it's a really interesting space to understand; the speed at which you can deploy is really, really fast; the iteration and learning times are very, very rapid; and the barrier to entry is very, very low, so you don't need a 100 person team and $20 million to get to market.

GamesIndustry.bizDid you feel the AAA market getting smaller?
Philip Holt

Not necessarily smaller, but more concentrated around the top 5 titles. Working at EA, we had the benefit of the Madden franchise, which has commanded a top 5 spot pretty much for the last 10 years. So it's a good place to be, but it's increasingly challenging. If you're looking to do new stuff... I think a huge draw for a lot of the team that came from EA was the opportunity to do something new and different. Some of these guys came from 15 years at EA Tiburon working on football titles.

GamesIndustry.bizNick, you worked at EA in a somewhat different capacity, on Facebook and free-to-play properties...
Nick Gonzales

Yeah. One of the things we find really exciting about the f2p space is the ability to make changes quickly, and respond to how the players are behaving in the games. We have a direct feed of data that tells us how to make the game more interesting, more fun, more compelling for the players.

GamesIndustry.bizSo you were involved in these areas already. Do your reasons for being involved in Row Sham Bow differ from many of the others?
Nick Gonzales

My passion and motivation is really just around being in this space in general. Luckily I had that opportunity while I was at EA, to release some products in this space, and just taking that next step, having that creative freedom and ability to move quickly and deliver on our creative vision, that really excites me about being with Row Sham Bow.

Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.
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