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I-Play's Leighton Webb

We're a profitable games company which a lot of our competitors are not...

Late last year, I-play announced it at hired ex Fox Mobile exec Leighton Webb as head of content strategy and licensing, to help expand the company's portfolio and spearhead moves into other business areas.

Here, Webb talks to about the issues the market needs to address in order to grow, I-Play's standing in the mobile sector and why the time is right to expand into different genres of gaming. Can you give us a brief overview of I-Play's strategy for 2007?

Leighton Webb: Our strategy for 2007 is very much a casual games strategy supplemented with core gaming content and 3D content. In terms of the types of content, it's a mixture of licensed titles and original IP. The focus is very much on building brands and franchises. More about quality versus quantity, investing in and building brands and franchises. You mentioned casual games being very important. One of the criticisms leveled at mobile games is that you need to be quite technically savvy to download and access mobile content. Do you think this can put potential casual consumers off downloading content?

Leighton Webb: I think that's one of the biggest challenges in the market. The industry seems to being thought more from a technically driven standpoint and a lot of companies need to think from a consumer standpoint.

It can still be incredibly difficult to find a game, download it and then find it again after you've downloaded it. So what we want to do as a publisher is put a lot of time and effort into ease of use. From things as simple as 'what is the UI?', 'what is the gameplay mechanic?' and 'can I describe it to the consumer in three sentences or less?'

It's a mistake to focus solely on 'gamer' types of games as it's alienating a huge part of the market. From my perspective the mobile market is very similar to the casual market on the PC, it's a huge, untapped market. So today, if you have 5 per cent of people who've downloaded and played a game on mobile versus 50 per cent who've done it on PC through an internet connection and played a game online, then it's a very large untapped market. We as a publisher are very focused on keeping things simple and intuitive but high quality and lots of fun. As far as your catalogue goes, how do you strike a balance between licensed and original content?

Leighton Webb: First and foremost we think brands sell. It's not just the games industry, look at any industry and you'll see that big brands sell. Brands that people know and recognise and have comfort in. As an industry the vast majority of what's selling are well known franchises, so the vast majority of our content is licensed.

That being said, we think that given the relationship between the carriers and the ability of what's involved to bring a game to market in terms of porting and QA, it does open the door for us to create original franchises in the market. It's almost a Trojan horse approach in that the core focus is big brand licensed content but we supplement that with original IP. We will continue to grow the original IP part of the portfolio. What do you think the secret is behind producing good original IP for mobile consumers?

Leighton Webb: Essentially, it's the same for the mobile market as it is for the PC or console, it's really understanding your consumer - who is your target market and who are you creating the game for? Then it's about creating the game with mobile in mind. Really thinking about the device and the functionality of the device. One of the phrases which we use a lot within the company is 'one thumb gaming' so that's part of the design approach. I want to be able to play this game with my thumb as opposed to creating a game where you have to use a lot of the keypad. I-Play is moving into other content areas such as movie clips - is that because the mobile gaming market hasn't lived up to expectations?

Leighton Webb: Absolutely not. The gaming industry continues to grow and there's more than enough opportunities for us to go after, we just think that given the way that the value chain works in terms of the publisher's relationship with the carriers, the carriers are becoming more selective in terms of their publisher choices.

Also, given the relationship which we have with some of the Hollywood studios we think there's an opportunity there for us to move into this mobile video space. From a company perspective it's a little bit myopic for us to think about the industry just in terms of gaming, and a little more dynamic to think about it in terms of an entertainment industry and think of ourselves as an entertainment company. So as we look at what we can do and what products we can develop, games are absolutely the core, but there are other products which we can bring to market. We'll do so selectively. That doesn't mean we'll go out and branch into a new application every week. What about PC and console gaming, is there any interest in getting into that area?

Leighton Webb: No, not today. I think in that industry the barriers to entry are very high. If you look at that industry I don't think that any small independent publisher can move into that space from where they are today, it's not a core development area for us. We see a bigger opportunity in the mobile game space. The other thing is that we think that mobile is the true mass market. There are over two billion handsets in the market place as opposed to the 250 million consoles that have been sold over the last 5-7 years. If you look at the number of people who own a phone and the percentage of those who are actually playing mobile games, it's very low. Is it really accurate to say that because billions of people own phones, billions of people will play games on them?

Leighton Webb: In the US over half the people who have a PC and an online connection play games, yet most of them don't think of themselves as gamers. So even if you were to move that 5 per cent of mobile users who play games to 30-40 per cent, or ideally on a par with PC users, that's a very big number - over a billion people playing games. That would far surpass the number of people playing games on consoles.

The challenge is to the industry. It's not complicated to identify the problem - it's difficult to find a game, download and play it, and when publishers and carriers make that an easier experience, then we see new distribution channels that can move that number from 5 per cent to 40 or 50 per cent. In terms of I-Play's standing in the industry, there's a lot of talk about who stands where, who's number two or number three. Where do you see I-Play on that list?

Leighton Webb: We see ourselves as a top independent publisher because you're right, it changes depending on the numbers you're looking at. The one thing I can say is that there is information in the marketplace, both from companies who have already gone public and those who are about to go public, so we're starting to see some real numbers which can quantify where we stack up.

One thing I can say is that we're a profitable games company which a lot of our competitors are not. We're in a really good position to really grow the business and take it where we want to go. If you look at industry research and look at where we're ranked, whether it's top two or top three, we're certainly not outside of that handful of top companies who are really jockeying for that top spot in terms of independent global publishers. So number one would be the goal eventually?

Leighton Webb: Absolutely. do you plan to do that?

Leighton Webb: The first thing we want to do is to build out and refine our content strategy. Again, to really concentrate on brands and franchises. We're really looking at where we need to take the portfolio to ensure that we have the best brands and the highest quality games in the market place.

The other area is diversifying into new genres. Today we're focused in a few key genres such as casual puzzle and racing games but we think there are other genres where we need to be playing in more aggressively - whether that's card and board games or casino, you'll be seeing some announcements from us very soon.

Diversification into new areas and then improving the quality above and beyond what we have today is important. And then also strengthening the quality of the brands that we have in our portfolio. To me, this business on paper is really not complicated, it really comes down to execution, whether on the game development side or the relationships that you have with the content owners. So we're spending a lot of time ensuring that we're really best of class focusing on quality and continuing to further the relationships that we have in the market place.

Leighton Webb is senior vice president of content strategy for I-Play. Interview by Ellie Gibson.

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