PlayFirst's Mari Baker

The CEO on iPhone potholes, Facebook vs Google and making games for women

Founded in 2004 and scoring an early hit amongst non-traditional gamers with Diner Dash, PlayFirst is a relative veteran of casual games scene - having released enough new versions of Dash on enough platforms to score some 500 million players., Like so many of its contemporaries, PlayFirst finds itself now having to fight for attention on Facebook and iPhone, experimenting with microtransactions and the App Store chart met with CEO and president Mari Baker to discuss how to make games appeal to a female audience, Facebook vs Google hard lessons learned from iPhone development and whether, given her venture capitalist background, she think there's a future in the rush of social dev acquisitions.

Q:I read that something like 38 per cent of PlayFirst execs are women; how does that effect the nature of the company compared to the other places you've worked.

Mari Baker: Sure. Well, let me trying to back up a bit to a higher level. PlayFirst first launched to capitalise on the launch of casual games as a market opportunity, which clearly is largely female-orientated. At least PlayFirst's audience in the casual space is largely 70 per cent female. And of course as new opportunities such as the iPhone have grown, and things like the Wii and now Facebook.

The typical FarmVille user is a 43 year-old woman… A lot of the growth that has been going on in gaming in general has been this whole new audience who is starting to play. In the PlayFirst space we have always been a company that is fortunate to have a number of our game designers and producers who are women, who bring another perspective to the table. As far as having women on the executive team I guess that when I think about forming a team… I always use this analogy a lot – in may not work as well in Europe as in the US – of making a basketball team. Which, if everybody was a six-foot guard, you would lose your games. If everyone was a seven-foot centre, you would lose your games. And then it's all about creating the right mixture of talent, which is different perspectives, different skills and can sometimes also be served by having different genders or different ethnicities on the team.

I think that robust discussion and innovation comes from that mixture of ideas and skillsets. So I don't when I build a team consciously try to say "I am going to get more women on board", but I think having that attitude valuing different views and mindsets helps to create an environment where you can build a more diverse team. And I think certainly for PlayFirst it helps us to be really true and honest about serving the female market as well.

Q:Do you think other companies are perhaps more resistant or don't even think about that diversity? That the default attitude is just white guys in suits and most places don't think that's any kind of problem?

Mari Baker: I think a lot of people when they're building companies think "I'm pretty good, I'll hire a bunch of people like me." And when you're a white guy in a suit, that's your thought, and you end up getting companies like that. I think there are lots of different approaches to success, but the diversity of ideas is what leads you to breakthroughs. I think a lot of people don't necessarily think about it.

Q:In terms of the perception of the company and the games, how careful are you in stating that a lot of the games may be made with women in mind? Is there a danger of them looking too prescribed? I notice when the company talks about itself the line is "games for everyone."

Mari Baker: I think that there is two pieces to it. One is that the goal is to make games that are approachable and easy to use – sort of the definition of casual games. Fairly easy to start using and to learn, not complex rules. A lot of women are then attracted to those games and I think one of the reasons the Facebook gameplay ends up going so much towards is it's five or ten minutes of gameplay at a time. Which means by definition they have to be easy to get in and out of. And so we think about making casual games more than about making games specifically for women. And I think the other piece from a marketing perspective is I don't think that women when it comes to a game specifically want to feel like it is made for women.

There's a degree to which I just wanna play a good game, and I'm not trying to identify myself as a woman in choosing that game. I'm identifying myself as someone who wants to play a good and interesting game. Thus if the content is appealing towards women then that's the piece that's more relevant than going out and… So a game like Wedding Dash – our audience there is 90 per cent female, because women fantasise a lot about planning a wedding. Guys are certainly reluctant even when you're getting married to get involved in planning it. So it's less about saying Wedding Dash is for women than to be in itself something that appeals to that audience.

Q:Though I guess you have to be careful that, even in a title as overt as that, you're not typecasting its players as "you would like a fluffy pink dress because you're a woman."

Mari Baker: That's exactly right. And I think it's interesting that our new game on Facebook is called Chocolatier, and it's about building a chocolate shop and we're adding a few more things into that leverage from our PC download game that are about travelling the world, searching for ingredients, stopping into different ports and stocking different kinds of chocolates. Chocolate is clearly very appealing to women, but I think it's an example of something that plays out more broadly – there are plenty of men who enjoy eating chocolates as well. So it's different from Wedding Dash which is very appealing to women. So one of the messages that we've been talking about is the notion of building brands and building franchises, and I think EA has been very good at that. Their acquisition of Playfish last Fall was all about bringing brands into the Facebook platform. And of course the recent Disney acquisition of Playdom has been all about bringing Disney brands to the Facebook platform.

When I started a year ago in the game space, I didn't hear people talking about brands. It's a world that I've come from, where people think about building brands and the sustainability of that, how you can leverage it more broadly. And so my talk [at GamesCom] was about bringing brands cross-platform. But at the heart of it is really understanding customer needs, building a great product and if you get both of those down then you have the opportunity to build a brand that then has meaning that's associated with it. So we think about Diner Dash – or Dash – as being a time-management brand. When consumers interact with 'Dash' they expect it to be time management. Whether that's Diner Dash or Wedding Dash or Cooking Dash, it's time management. And then the product has done well and we've been able to take it across platforms.

So we relaunched Diner Dash. It was originally launched in the Fall of 2008 and it was done as a port which a) is not a compelling product, even if it's a good fundamental game underneath, but simply porting it over meant the hotspots were too small, they overlapped, the graphics were too small because it just ported the big screen to the small screen. So we relaunched it in January this year... the ported version was around about number 200 on the best-selling chart. The port reached number 2 paid game for a while, and has been staying in certainly the top 50 grossing if not the top 25 grossing since. It was about making it native for the platform. And it's done much, much better.

So when we think about Facebook where we have Chocolatier, we did some research among people who play games on Facebook. Diner Dash already has better brand awareness than things like Happy Aquarium or Mind Jolt, some of the top-flight games on Facebook. So we've been talking a lot about how you have to understand the needs of the customers. So in this case what do 40 year old women seek in the games? Theme is important to that. Creating a compelling product which means polish and gameplay and making it right for the platform and then building a brand off of that. The built-in awareness gives you a little bit of a lift up if you have a great product.

That was a long answer, and only a little bit about women and gaming, huh?

Q:Well, it covered the question I had about brands too, anyway... Interesting to hear you mention your competitors there too. You must get a whole lot of people getting PlayFirst and Playfish muddled up...

Mari Baker: Yeah! [Makes strangled noise.] We keep thinking that maybe they'll send a cheque to us accidentally... [Laughs].

Q:You've come from a venture capitalist background yourself, so what's been your thought on all these acquisitions going on around you? How much space is there for all these guys to co-exist at the top of the iPhone and Facebook charts?

Mari Baker: I think that the Facebook-based gaming is real, right. It's 200 million people every day, playing games on Facebook. So that's a real phenomenon. And I'm a believer in the notion that we're at end of the beginning – but we're still at the beginning phases. It's ready to move on, and part of that next phase is about bringing a higher quality of the brands, and a deeper and richer game playing experience. That said, when we speak to consumers, they speak about playing games on Facebook as something to do at work at the end of a project. So they're working on something, maybe writing a story, and at the end they want a little break. And where previously they might have gone out and smoked a cigarette or gone out and got a cup of coffee or maybe gone online and done some shopping, now they're thinking about going and playing a game on Facebook for a few minutes.

They really want a shorter experience, and I think that's part of the next phase. I think that it's real, there's lot of people doing it and it's grown so fast. I mean think about Zynga and Playfish and Playdom – these are companies who are two or three years old. They're tens of millions of dollars in revenue, and worth hundreds or billions in market cap. So it's huge. There's not a lot of other industries that you can name where companies have achieved such scale so quickly. Even in the early days of the internet, you had a Netscape but even that took a long time before Yahoo and some of the other companies coming along. This has happened very, very quickly off the back of Facebook having created an ecosystem.

So when I look at why did EA and Disney buy these companies, I think they also saw there was huge potential. And these are companies who need big scale. Disney needs things that are going to be billions of dollars in revenue and contribute to the growth of the overall corporation in a few years, so I think it makes a lot of sense for them. Playdom of course wanted to get to scale fast, so they bought a whole ton of smaller developers along the way. We'll see what happens at Zynga; they've done some acquisitions, but we'll see how they really approach the changing landscape. I think Crowdstar is another interesting group that hasn't done any acquisitions that I'm aware of to date. I think Crowdstar is now ahead of Playdom for AppData number of users. And that's all natural, organic growth.

Q:But how many people can break through and achieve that? There are only so many potential players out there, surely, and it's only going to get harder to defeat the Zynga, EA et al stranglehold.

Mari Baker: Certainly, there's Zynga and then there's the next group, and then there's everybody else. So do independent developers have a chance? Well, in any entertainment space, innovation, any IP can all of sudden capture the innovation of people and zoom to the top. I think there's plenty of examples, whether it's in movies or TV or games where companies have spent tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars on DOING IT BIG. And it fails spectacularly. And yet you have a sleeper movie or an independent movie or TV show or game that zooms to the top. On Facebook we still see the ZipZapPlay guys, for example, with Baking Life, who came out of nowhere. I think ZipZapPlay are now the 25 Facebook developer – just a tiny little group. The Watercooler guys - who I guess are Kabam now – are another example. So I don't think you should ever write off an industry because some consolidation's happened at the top. I think if you did that Google might not exist, because Excite and Yahoo were already owning that market.

Q:It's hard not to think about everyone launching against World of Warcraft and then promptly disappearing or changing to free to play, though.

Mari Baker: That's right. The interesting thing though, to do an MMO took a lot of capital. With Facebook games, you can still have five people self-funding for a while and all of a sudden [smacks hands together] figure out how to hit it big.

Q:How many of PlayFirst's eggs are going to go into that basket versus the other business models – mobile and paid-download PC games?

Mari Baker: We're going to be cross-platform, and we think that's going to be consistent with how we hear consumers play. We bring consumers into the office on a regular basis and just listen to them talk about game playing. And they talk about playing on their iPhone when they're on their way to work in the morning, or just when they're bored. And it used to be that you might just gaze out the window or play a crossword puzzle or something, but now because the technology has enabled really good entertainment on such a small device... There's lot of times during the day where you have ten or fifteen minutes, which I think has created a whole new market.

Obviously an iPhone has email and pictures and a lot of things on it, but games are certainly the killer app on the iPhone. Consumers as I said talk about coming to work in the morning and firing up Facebook and having five or ten minutes of play - throughout the whole day. And there are also consumers for whom games are their preferred form of entertainment. So when they come home in the evening they want to engage immersively in a game, whether it's a World of Warcraft or a PC download game or an Xbox title, instead of turning on their TV. It's a shift, it's people who prefer to get their entertainment that way. So we think there's lots of opportunities. In fact, doing just Facebook and ignoring these others games doesn't leave you very well positioned for the eventual merging of social and mobile kinds of gameplay. So we're pursuing all three; we have some experiments going on still in some other areas including some on future phones and what not.

Q:The download arm of things must have suffered a bit as a bunch of your own and broadly similar games have arrived on social networks for ostensibly for free?

Mari Baker: We're big believers in virtual goods and microtransactions. There are so many free to play models out there, whether in traditional PC download where the model was try it for 60 minutes and then buy. I don't know who came up with that, but for a lot of people 60 minutes is enough. And so the appealing piece of the virtual goods model is you can still tap into a large audience via a free to play entry, you don't have to spend any money. The Facebook data would tend to indicate the same kinds of conversion rate as on the PC download model, but the difference is that for some people you may only be getting 3 or 4 dollars, but for other people you're getting 20 to 30 to 40 dollars or more. And thus your revenue per user is actually higher than a pay-to-buy-the-game model. So Facebook obviously we're doing that, and our new version of Diner Dash on iPhone you have the option to buy more levels. We'll be continuing to work more virtual goods and microtransactions into our iPhone games.

Q:Are you looking towards Google for that at all? They seem to be gearing up to really push Checkout for microtransactions.

Mari Baker: Yeah, the Google acquisitions and Google's entry is interesting. It adds more legitimacy to the space. It'll still be interesting how it unfolds. We have a version of Diner Dash on the Android, which as far as units go does fairly well, but... I don't hear from a lot of game developers who have successful revenue models on the Android. In the end, if developers can't afford to sustain having businesses and reinvesting in improving quality, you can't create a very robust ecosystem. I think Apple's done a very nice job on the iPhone, taking 30 per cent and leaving 70 per cent for the developer. It's a good model.

Q:Did you hear about Google asking just 5 per cent on Chrome Web Store? Is that an incentive to focus your efforts there?

Mari Baker: I'm a little bit confused on how Google are going to align the Chrome, Android and the new… I don't know if they're going to do it on Orkut or whatever they're doing with social games, but how they're going to align all those. Google had a games summit recently, and we had a couple of our folks down. It was very mobile-orientated, it doesn't sound like they're really cohered their strategy across the three different platforms.

They need an uber-gaming tsar sort of thing to keep it rational. The other thing that'll be interesting about Google is that Apple, from the earliest days of the Apple II and the Mac, always had to build a very strong developer relations group. Google is all about publishing documents, making online self-service, so it'll be really interesting to see what they do to help and support developers.

Q:Facebook seem to be making a concerted effort for that - they've just hired a gaming tsar. Is that an attempt to win back good will?

Mari Baker: Right, they've been working hard to support developers, because clearly games have become the killer app on Facebook too. They shut down a lot of the viral channels, at the same time they're saying use Facebook credits and we'll take 30 per cent for that, but you now have to spend more money advertising with them... There's a lot of other providers doing it for more like ten per cent, so it seems a little bit steep. And now they're making developers spend more to buy traffic. So I think both of those combined was a bit of a double whammy to developers. Now they've got Google comin' after them. I'm glad to hear they've hired someone. Because the other places are all trying to a lot to incentivise you to come up there. In the end competition should be good for developers and should be good for consumers.

Q:It must be a bit annoying for PlayFirst, as a much more venerable company than many of the others, but you've got to fight this battle on equal terms with all the startups?

Mari Baker: Yeah. [Laughs] I think we've figured out the iPhone. Diner Dash and Cooking dash made it to number two status and stay around the top 50. We just relaunched Wedding Dash native to the platform and that's around number 15. And typically even SpongeBob Diner Dash, which we did for MTV, is in the top 100. So we typically have four Dash games in the top 100 grossing chart.

Q:That must mean some pretty serious money.

Mari Baker: And it gets even bigger as you get closer to number one. You can see the numbers growing as you get up towards the top, there's a lot of money there.

There's no other franchise that has that many titles in the top 100. I think EA has two Sims titles, but nobody has four. While I wish we had launched on Facebook a year ago, we think it's our target audience, we have games that they know and love, and it's our job to bring them over to the platform in the right way. We've just got to keep getting them out there - and we've got to learn Facebook and do it right.

Mari Baker is president and CEO of PlayFirst, Inc. Interview by Alec Meer.

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Latest comments (1)

Jack Boats elitist 7 years ago
Really... in 1982 when BurgerTime was released or 1983 when "Tapper" dropped, was there this much hoopla? no there was not. Sure they weren't elevated to the ranks of "Social Game," as if these things are even social or games. "Social gaming" is just another name for lame games exploiting a demographic that's now finally tech savvy enough to enjoy the medium. "Chocolatier" gag, how about "ShoeBinger" or "Mama Grizzly Hunter". Just go play the Sims and get it over with.

It feels like the industry is having to reverse course 30 years to let some noobs on board the train. Get with it ladies, we are tired of waiting around on you! Yes, go "learn" you some facebook.
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