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Rock Solid

RockYou and Playdemic discuss the UK's role in the evolution of social gaming

Last week social app company RockYou announced its first acquisition of the year, as it swooped for Manchester studio Playdemic. The UK developer has been working on Gourmet Ranch for Facebook and is comprised of former Ubisoft Reflections, THQ and Eidos staff - and counts Ian Livingstone as a major investor.

Here, in an exclusive follow-up interview with, RockYou's Jonathan Knight, senior vice president for games, and Playdemic's general manager Paul Gouge discuss the deal, why the UK isn't aggressive enough when it comes to embracing the new games economy, and how social gaming will evolve in next 12-18 months.

Q: What attracted you to Playdemic as an acquisition target?

Jonathan Knight: It was pretty simple really. One thing we've all learnt over the years is that the most important thing is to go with a great team and these guys have a really strong chemistry, they're very talented, they understand how to build great games. We wanted them be part of RockYou and Gourmet Ranch is a great product.

Q: Will Playdemic be using the game engine TirNua, that RockYou bought last year?

Jonathan Knight: No, not at all. Playdemic is going to operate on its own. It's obviously part of RockYou but we really want them to retain their creative independence, their working culture, their values, technology and franchises. We're really excited about the technology that they've built for Gourmet Ranch which can be used for future games. It's super-smart. The acquisition of TirNua last year bought us a very different kind of technology which will be used for a very different kind of game.

Q: Can we expect more development acquisitions from RockYou this year?

Jonathan Knight: We're always looking for opportunities to grow our business and we're very serious about becoming a leader in social gaming. So we're always going to be on the lookout.

Q: We're seen Zynga and Playdom makes moves to acquire European studios - do you think there's going to be a rush to grab Euro teams in the social space?

Jonathan Knight: It's not part of a deliberate strategy. I've been in the games industry a long time and have worked with teams all around the globe. We've got a lot of respect for British game developers - there's a lot of great talent here.

Paul Gouge: The UK has a very strong history in game development and there are some very, very talented people in the UK. I think it's almost testament to that that these sort of acquisitions happen because it isn't easy to manage a UK business from the West Coast of the US. The fact that US businesses can accommodate those issues reflects the fact that they do appreciate the talent in the UK. Some of the transitions that you can see in the games industry in the UK, the lay offs that are resulting in changes in the traditional physical games industry, there is a definitely a need for us to embrace new technologies and the way the market is going.

We're very excited to be part of a large US parent company but equally, it's a shame that there aren't any big UK-owned businesses in this space. That needs to improve in the UK.

Q: Could that prove a problem in the longer term - there's no social firms breaking out from the UK, not on the same scale...

Paul Gouge: The most successful was Playfish and it was an early mover in the market - born in London and operating out of London but now very much a part of Electronic Arts. What we've seen in the states and in silicon valley in this industry has a very clear, aggressive and well-funded ambition to be world leaders in a new marketplace.

In the UK, historically, whilst we're very strong creatively, we haven't always been leaders when it comes to commercial opportunities that have been presented in the marketplace. The UK's great when it comes to game making but we don't necessarily have the secret sauce to be aggressively pushing these new market trends. Certain players in the UK need to be more focused on that.

Q: What evolution do you expect to see in the social games space over the next 12 months?

Paul Gouge: This is a highly dynamic space and it's moving very, very quickly. Where we are today compared to where we were a year and a half ago is a significant advancement in a lot of areas. That's both an opportunity and a risk. We have to stay abreast of technology but more importantly we have to stay abreast of consumer trends. I've worked in the casual games space with a number of guys for the last ten years and one of the traps that you can fall into is assuming that technological advances are always a good thing.

From our perspective we're very focused on the consumer experience because this is a mass market audience. For us it's much more about what the consumer demands rather than what new technologies are able to deliver. Where those two come together and work hand in hand you've got the perfect storm. But it's absolutely essential to us we stay focused on what the consumer is demanding not what we as game makers can do with the latest technology.

Q: There's a push for social and browser gaming to move into 3D, and for iOS games to become more technically advanced if you look at what Epic and id Software have released recently. How necessary is that?

Paul Gouge: Technology should be a tool used in our arsenal to offer a better experience, it shouldn't be an end in itself. The games industry is unique in the world in being one of the few industry's where technological advancements reduces margins and that shouldn't be the case. From our perspective, where technology can help improve the gameplay experience, whether that is through 3D or any other opportunities that are open to us then we'll absolutely embrace it. We're very focused on staying abreast with that. But it shouldn't be used just because it's there and that's something to be very guarded against.

Look at something like Just Dance which has sold well over ten million units for both versions and it's not a technologically advanced game, but it's absolutely hit a sweet spot in the marketplace. Very much like movies we've seen films with huge budgets crash and fail and movies with small budgets become worldwide hits. It's about the product, it's not about the technology.

Jonathan Knight: In the year ahead, what you're going to see from RockYou is a fairly balanced portfolio where we have different kinds of experiences that we're trying to create for different audiences. It's about the team and the experience they're making and the experience the audience want and then figuring out the right technology to deliver that.

As I look forward I don't think the social gaming and social network platforms are going to evolve as rapidly as some of the dedicated gaming platforms over the past couple of decades. I don't think there's going to be a huge rush in ever increasing production values, but I do think 3D is going to play a role.

If you look at EA's latest golf game, that obviously requires the Unity plug-in and that can be a barrier when you're trying to reach a very large audience. But it's really impressive what can be done with 3D in a web browser. One thing I do know is that audiences all over the world do openly want great experiences that are immersive and believable and sometimes that requires you to deliver a very rich, graphical world. But other times it requires the delivery of great music or something else depending on the game that you're making. We're going to see advancements but I don't think it's going to be a prime mover in the space.

A couple of other things that we're seeing - smartphones and tablets are coming like a tidal wave. They can't be ignored as a really important platform for social gaming. It's an unstoppable trend. The other thing is that so many games are only available in English and that's something that's clearly going to change. It's something we're going to focus on.

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