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RockYou's Jonathan Knight

The company's VP of games on a promising 2011, Apple and the 3D revolution

Last year wasn't a great 12 months for RockYou, with the CEO stepping down, controversy over security on Facebook and a round of lay-offs. But 2011 started with an acquisition of Manchester's Playdemic, makers of Gourmet Ranch, and will continue to see the social games company score talent to make games it hopes will establish the company as a real player in the online gaming business.

Here, senior vice president of games for RockYou, Jonathan Knight, talks GamesIndustry.biz through the realistic plans for 2011, locking up talent and putting design first, the foresight of Apple and the tablet and 3D revolution.

Q: What's RockYou's plan for 2011 and into 2012?

Jonathan Knight: The focus for this year is that we're trying to build, and I think we are building, a world class social gaming studio that's going to publish what I think will be some of the very best games out there. We've got a really clear commitment to great games and great game makers and pushing the medium forward.

That's really the focus and it's a pretty tall order given where we were at last year. I have a big vision, and we share a big vision, for where the space is going in terms of platforms and genres and the overall business. We have a long view of this and we want to be a world leader in social gaming.

The first mission is to make really high quality, highly polished games. And even before that, we have to ask ourselves, 'how do we do that?' For me it's about locking up the talent and assembling great teams. That's what you do in game making, you find teams that either work really well together or you know you can fit together with another team and balance each other and make up other's deficiencies and find people that are really passionate about social gaming. There are a lot out there.

I would say there's a great migration happening from traditional gaming to social gaming in terms of design talent, so that's where I'm focused - and it's where other companies are focused as well. So that's where it starts and that's what I've been doing for the past three months, to assemble great teams with great game designers in place and let them do their thing.

Q: Where is that talent coming from - from the guys who used to make boxed games or new talent that is more familiar with social networks, and have grown up with web design experience?

Jonathan Knight: The successful social gaming companies are the ones that are doing the mix to find the right balance between what you might call web DNA and mixing that with gaming DNA. We're trying to figure out that balance between the web business, web metrics and gameplay.

For me, you have to have both and you really need good game design first, then make that collaboration. If you start with just a web business and then think you can slap some game on it after that, that's when you get product that consumers are rejecting.

A lot of social gaming companies are learning very quickly that design matters more than ever in this space because production values are fairly simplistic. The design mechanics need to really shine though, and if they're not there and it's not hooking you, consumers figure that out right away.

Q: Bruce Shelly said at DICE this week that we should remember it's commercial art we're making, and made a point of ensuring metrics and game design are balanced...

Jonathan Knight: At RockYou we're all driven to make a profit, it's a business after all. I certainly feel we're focused a little bit more on creating innovative experiences. Because we have a challenge - we don't have 150 million customers at our disposal, we didn't grab and keep those a year ago and that was our fault.

But now we have several million customers and we have to build up our customer base and that's what we're going to be doing this year. One fan at a time, we're going to be committing people to play our games. That's a tougher challenge if you've got 150 million users and you just need to introduce them to your next game. That makes us need to create more innovative and appealing and unique products.

Things that will pull someone away from what they are doing to check it out. I think you'll see that in the games that come out in the next couple of months from RockYou. It's not going to be the same recipe for each game but I do think 3D plays a big part of that. But even 3D in Facebook gaming can mean a lot of different things to different people.

To get back to your original question, the guys that made Gourmet Ranch added a little bit more strategy to it, it's not your original farming game, it's fun and compelling. We're figuring out what the business is, and once we have people playing it and having fun then we can figure out what's selling, what do they want, what are they buying and it's up to us to optimise the business around that. Again, we have to put the design first but you can't put the design independent of business.

Q: Why is 3D important to social games? Is there a danger that if you over-complicate something or make it look too much like a traditional game you're going to lose or alienate those customers that are attracted to it in the first place?

Jonathan Knight: Yes, there's totally that danger. 3D can be a third rail, it can definitely hurt as much as it can help. The Facebook audience doesn't want to feel like it's playing a computer game, that's clear. If they see a polygonal thing that looks like something computer game nerds play or is slow and clunky, they are going to reject it. There's no question.

The Facebook audience wants speed and accessibility. But any audience in the world wants believability, they want stuff to be emotionally compelling. Cute animals on a Facebook game have been successful, so if you were to apply 3D techniques on those assets to make the game more emotionally compelling, more cute, without it coming across like a nerdy, clunky thing, that would be good for the product. We just have to be careful.

But look at a Pixar movie - it doesn't look computer nerdy or like an MMO from 2005, it looks spectacular, it's as 3D as it gets, it's the most sophisticated technology in the games business. We're not obviously going to make Pixar-quality animals in our Facebook games yet... but you've always got to keep your eyes on the ball.

Q: What other trends do you see in the next 12 months?

Jonathan Knight: Tablets. I read the other day that in five years, 25 per cent of all computers sold in the US will be tablets. And that's not all mobile devices, that's all computers, period. That's a powerful statistic and when the tablets have cameras on them mounted on the front, as a game maker these devices are going to be initiating a lot of interesting development around augmented reality.

These little Samsung phones that have little cameras on, it's a little tiny screen and you see an augmented reality tech demo, it looks cool, but that's not really a mass-market appeal. But with something like a tablet that acts as a window to a room, with such a big screen, that's going to be important. It may be way off but the technology is ready.

But the tablet in general is a great gaming device. It brings a couple of things together and the power is definitely there to do engaging things. The touch screen brings a great interface for games. The reason Angry Birds is so successful is because it's designed for a touch screen. It combines physics with the screen in an elegant way.

I've got a three year-old and he can play Angry Birds before he can tie his shoes, before he can count. The real estate is a great size and of course it's connected. As we get out beyond 2012 I think what we're going to see is a revolution in casual, social table gaming. Connected games that are very accessible on the go.

Q: Do you think tablets will be designed with that in mind? The iPhone wasn't and yet it's become such a successful games device. What if a tablet is designed with games in mind?

Jonathan Knight: I'd be reaching if I was to presume to speak for hardware manufacturers. If I put myself in their shoes it seems to be working pretty well. Games are taking off like crazy on these platforms. Whatever they are doing is working. I guess they would want to stick to their principles of elegance and accessibility.

The other thing about these devices is that although games are dominating on them, they aren't just for games, they're for social networking and browsing, or taking pictures or watching Netflix. Despite the fact that it's a good piece of their business, they can't tailor to it at the cost of other functions.

Q: It's interesting that the traditional console manufacturers are completely missing out on that, they aren't involved in that at all in the casual, social, mobile revolution.

Jonathan Knight: The problem is it takes such a long time for those companies to react and create new hardware, peripherals and such. Sony and Microsoft are still catching up to what the Wii did a few years ago with motion sensors. They got caught with their pants down with the Wiimote. To put a bunch of stuff into R&D, it just takes time to get out.

And all the while they were doing that these other revolutions started happening. Again, I don't want to speak for those very successful companies but I can only imagine it's difficult to react quickly to some of these trends for some of these successful devices. Apple has had the fortune and foresight to be out on the front of the ship saying "this is what people really want". There's few companies that can do that.

Q: Are you seeing a rush to increase production values in social games? If you look at iPhone there were basic matching puzzle games to begin with, and just recently companies like Epic have pushed the Unreal Engine, and id has done similar with Rage HD. Would you expect a similar push in social web games?

Jonathan Knight: I think in social there's going to be a slow, steady increase. But I don't think it's going to look at all like PlayStation or like a tablet, where the acceleration and impression values on those platforms is much greater than what we'll see on Facebook as a platform.

Facebook's not the only social gaming platform but it's certainly the most dominant one. You have real limitations right now if you want to be a mass market game and you're building on Flash. As interesting as it is, and I've played the EA golf game, it requires a Unity plug-in and the mass market just isn't quite ready for that. We see a spectacular drop off when we ask people to do that.

So yes, we'll start to see the escalation of 3D in Flash and Adobe is certainly excited about that and committed to it and there's a big upgrade coming in Molehill. We met with them just recently and we're excited to collaborate with them. I do think that will be a slow evolution. When they do release the next version it will allow people to adopt that, but we're out into 2012 when we're talking about Molehill being fully deployed in the mass market.

Absolutely that's going to be a trend but I don't think it's going to be a dramatic curve. The best uses of it are when you're not trying to suddenly create an in-depth, rich, 3D open world that you can walk around in with believable characters - that would be a mistake. Back to my previous example, to use 3D in this way to create more emotionally believable characters, if the performance matches the art style, that's what we'll see first.

The other thing I would say is that high production values isn't just graphical performance, there's a lot of other things that go along with that. We are seeing more polished games and some of the best Zynga games, they are incredibly well-polished and those guys are setting the bar now.

Gone are the days when you could just put out the three-month version of your game to see how it does and evolve. You really need to polish to meet expectations of what other games people are playing on Facebook. Polish, user interface, graphics. Sound is getting better and better, Ravenwood Fair is one game that does sound very well.

John Romero talks a lot about the use of sound and music in a game as a feedback mechanism. When someone pays for something it should make a cool sound. Those all add up to better production values but I don't think it's going to resemble PlayStation to PlayStation 2 changes.

Q: Bringing it back to RockYou, you've just bought Playdemic - how important is it to staff up in the face of competition like that?

Jonathan Knight: It's certainly not about an arms race with competitors, that's not what our acquisitions and our key talent is about. It's really about making a commitment to games-making talent as the foundation of the company going forward. What I liked about the Playdemic team is they're game makers who work well together. The team has been in games and casual games for some time now and I can trust them to make quality games on a daily basis. They care about what they are making. We're going to grow that studio and the pace of that is determined by how Gourmet Ranch succeeds. It's not about staffing up as fast as we can.

In our other wholly-owned studio we made the acquisition of TirNua and brought that talent into really energise and change the DNA of that studio to be more game-focused. There were a couple of really great industry veterans that came with that studio and now are in leadership positions in RockYou. We're definitely still looking for publishing deals or studio acquisitions, that's part of the plan, but we're being selective about it to make sure we get great game makers.

Jonathan Knight is senior VP of games at RockYou. Interview by Matt Martin.

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