All Aboard - Part Two

Frederic Descamps and Jordan Maynard on Facebook - and the future of A Bit Lucky

Last week, in the first part of the interview with A Bit Lucky CEO Frederic Descamps and chief creative officer Jordan Maynard we talked about the origins of the Facebook company, its first title Lucky Train, and why they think it's time for a new era of social network gaming.

Here in part two we discuss the retention curve for a Facebook game, how the social network's rule changes have affected games companies, and what we can expect from the company in the next 12 months.

Q: Attracting and retaining users for any game is a challenge, but for games that don't require an upfront investment it's really tough. One of World of Warcraft's successes was to create a game that people could get into easily enough, but then notched up the complexity on a smooth curve. What do you take into account when looking at that curve for Lucky Train?

Jordan Maynard: The interesting thing about the curve - and they change drastically depending on how many friends the user has playing the game already... if they were introduced to it by a friend who was at a really high level, it'll be a very different user experience beginner curve for them. It also changes drastically if they're willing to spend Lucky Bucks, so you have to design for both of those.

But looking at a user who just comes in raw, we try to give you enough to do in the beginning to get you hooked, and then you've got the come-back time, where you've sent all your local trains and maybe one to a friend - then you've got a couple of hours to think about what to do next.

One of the things we've focused on is the multiplayer aspect - we don't have a lot of single-player. There are local trains, but we don't have a lot that, without your friends, you can really do. In lieu of that I almost wish that the user will go away for a while, go to work for eight hours, then come back and deal with their trains again.

A Bit Lucky Team

The whole of the team from A Bit Lucky.

Q: Obviously Lucky Bucks are key here - Phil Harrison recently explained that when investors are looking for opportunities they're really looking for e-commerce companies under the hood. If the layer on top is games, then that's fine - so how do you balance the need to create free content with the need for people to spend cash on Lucky Bucks?

Jordan Maynard: From a gameplay perspective, Lucky Bucks are really a way to unlock gaming content - but also to get exclusive content. There are some trains and buildings that are only available with Lucky Bucks, as well as some upgrade short-cuts as well. In time they might have more utility in the game, or they might just be a unique graphic or model.

From a balance perspective one thing I really like about the game is that one person spending money generally benefits their friends - it's not just that a person who spends money is ahead of me... "Hey, he's cheating!"

It's more that Frederic bought a Gold Moskva Jet and put it on a line that I'm also on, so I get the benefit of it too. When it comes into my town, it'll generate me more money.

So there's a really interesting collaborative feel as well, where one player spending money can help everyone in their social network.

Q: Because you earn your gold coins based on a combination of the speed of train, but also the number of stops on that route?

Jordan Maynard: Yes - we've seen a lot of people that will add a train and select the optional wall post. And they'll add their own incentives - maybe that if ten people join their train, they'll upgrade it to a Shuriken, for example.

Frederic Descamps: For some people it's a no-brainer. Free-to-play has been a huge phenomenon in the last ten years, invented by Nexon in Korea, but it's now really moved over to the US and Europe. For a long time I think it was confined to traditional games, like MMOs - but on Facebook it's like the perfect storm, because you have this very broad user acquisition opportunity. You have potentially 275 million users to attract to your game; but even if only a small percentage end up paying you can still make quite a bit of money.

I think there are two angles to attracting users. One is the fact that people will invite their friends, which is good. But at some point, they or their friends will spend money - and one thing we wanted to do was prove that a higher quality game on Facebook was valuable, and that the metrics would look better.

We have some very interesting metrics regarding monetisation for our active users is pretty high - it's above average for games on Facebook - so it's fascinating. Our graphic artists are having a great time, because between the time they think of a new item to put out and the time it's released, that could just be a few hours.

But they can also look at how people react to that content, and make changes - maybe make more items from a specific series, for example.

Jordan Maynard: The Gold Moskva Jet is the best train in the game, and it's been a very good money-maker for us - because it's only available with Lucky Bucks. To be honest, the number of bits that we had to make for it, because we already had the silver one... it was incredible from a business perspective, and probably took a half hour to create.

Lucky Train

Lucky Train in action.

Q: Facebook has changed its notifications policy a little while ago because of the spam backlash - it had an effect on some Facebook games developers. How do you find that balance between what people want to know from their friends, and what could annoy a potential player?

Frederic Descamps: It's a huge issue for Facebook - people give them some flak for changing stuff, and making some games less viral for some channels. But quite frankly, we completely understand that, because they have a huge population, with roughly two types of people. One that really likes games and wants to play them with their friends, with achievements and so on; and the other that couldn't care less.

They have to, for the sake of their own survival, to make some drastic changes - and in some ways we can applaud these changes, because they were hefty. But they also confirmed the other thing that we wanted to do regarding games on Facebook, which is that it shouldn't be about who spams the most, or who finds the dirtiest tricks to get people in their game.

We think it should really be, first and foremost about the games - the quality of the entertainment - and the engagement. When Facebook made its latest set of changes a few weeks ago, that was the very first time they mentioned engagement as one of the most important metrics for them - because it's an indication of the fun people are having.

I think Facebook still has some work to do in terms of the process of discovery for applications, but overall they've made the right decisions over the last weeks and months.

People really should give them more credit - no pun intended - because they really do care about their platform, their ecosystem. If you notice in the announcement about a month ago, they're very thoughtful about the changes they make - they've been through them, of course they do lots of data testing, but they're really thoughtful.

And it's also an internet company - they've proven that if they do something that doesn't work so well, they're willing to go back and change it. In the end it's great, because our interests are completely aligned - we want to make great games, and they want to have great games on Facebook. The better and higher quality the games on Facebook, the more they're going to make, because we're giving them a 30 per cent cut on the Facebook credits, so the more engaging the games, the more gamers spend money.

And that, by the way, is absolutely fine with me - I get asked a lot about the 30 per cent, and if that's too high. Well, no, it's not too high. Of course Facebook has to earn it, but I want Facebook to make money - I give them 30 per cent without thinking about it. It's the single largest gaming platform ever created in the history of mankind.

Q: And that's a much better split than a developer of traditional boxed product could expect... by a very long way. So what are the plans for the future of A Bit Lucky? Will there be more investment?

Frederic Descamps: Well so far we've raised $2.6 million and among our investors we have SV Angel - that's Ron Conway, probably the best-known and most-respected angel investor in Silicon Valley. We also have the two co-founders of Red Octane (the makers of Guitar Hero), Charle and Kai Huang.

We also have the head of M&A at Google, David Lawee, as well as Lerer Ventures, which is basically Ken Lerer (co-founder of Huffington Post) and his son Ben - not to mention Mark Jung, the co-founder and CEO of IGN.

But the future - that's a good question. There are a few secret things - we have a few more games in development for Facebook, but we also want to do something called trans-platform gaming. That's different from cross-platform because you give people access to the same game from different front ends. On some platforms you'd access the full game; on others just selected aspects.

So in the next year we want to release several more games on Facebook and other platforms - and have them all connected. We started working on a few more games a few weeks ago, but it's hard to say when they'll be ready.

We've also just opened an office in the UK, and while it doesn't have many people yet, we're looking forward to expanding that. For us, Lucky Train is just the beginning - Jordan mentioned previously the next gameplay layer that we'll add with Cargo gameplay.

But one of our design philosophies is that you design a game based on a fairly solid and broad gameplay footprint, and you start with something that just occupies a small portion of it. If a game proves itself, then you can expand the game into that footprint.

It's one of the coolest things about this space - it's truly fascinating to be able to build up your game, and you don't have to frontload all the publishing and marketing costs, plus you can have long-lasting IPs in this space. We hope that Lucky Train will be one of those.

Frederic Descamps is CEO and Jordan Maynard is chief creative officer at A Bit Lucky. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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