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Kerb Appeal

Jim McNiven on the launch of Kerb Games, and how the company will leverage its advergaming experience in online titles

Recently GamesIndustry.biz spoke to Spil Games' CEO Peter Driessen, who revealed that the casual games portal was experiencing huge growth globally.

Add that to successful launches of free-to-play MMOs from Nexon in the West, as well as more explosive revenues from game card company GMG recently, and it starts to become clear just why digital interaction agency Kerb have just launched a games label - here CEO Jim McNiven explains how the company plans to use experience from the exposure to 350 million users that its advergames have racked up.

GamesIndustry.biz Kerb's been around for 13 years as a company, and involved in the games industry, but not necessarily in a segment that everybody would have come across before?
Jim McNiven

Yes, we started off as a web design company in 1996 and really joined the dotcom crash in 2001. Most web design companies were going to the wall, most of our clients were taking their web design work in-house, and we'd successfully made a couple of viral games at that stage, to generate awareness of brands and so on by building games.

That was a specialisation that people didn't have, and while clients like EMI decided to set up their own web build team to save money - with template-driven stuff they could get loads and loads of different sites based on the same template, quite quickly - they didn't have the skills in-house to make the viral games. Game-building is a very different discipline to website-building, and building that kind of stuff in Flash is very specialised.

So we realised that at that time, in order to survive the crash, we had to specialise and push really hard into viral games, which at that stage was a very new and interesting slant on advertising. That was really heavy-going, because we had to convince brands that they should spend money promoting themselves in games.

Marketing people are actually quite staid - they like banner ads, they like display advertising, because it's a known quantity. They know they can spend a certain amount of money, and get a certain ad displayed to a certain number of people - and they won't lose their job over it.

A viral game is very different, because it's a case of creating something really cool... if the internet population decides it's a cool thing then you'll get a huge return on investment, because it doesn't cost that much compared to the amount of traffic you'll get. But there's a risk there, and for our clients it was a factor, so we built our own tracking software that allowed us to report back on the games we'd built, no matter where they were on the web, and we could tell our clients how many people were playing and interacting, how long they were interacting for, and so on. So they could show their bosses that the advertising was performing properly.

GamesIndustry.biz You had quite a degree of success in terms of numbers of people playing your games...
Jim McNiven

Since we've been doing viral games, or since we've been tracking them from 2003-4, over 350 million people have played our games.

GamesIndustry.biz That's not a small number.
Jim McNiven

The only downside to that is that we don't get paid any more than if only one person had played them.

GamesIndustry.biz What's the trick to making these casual games appeal to a wide number of people?
Jim McNiven

I think the reason that very few companies have been successful with the viral games they've built... the space now is really crowded, but I think what sets our games apart is that we really love games. We've always been interested in building games, and we've found a way to get paid by building advertising within them.

A lot of people that are doing viral games are truly from an advertising background, so to them getting the advertising message through to the consumer becomes much more important than the actual game itself. For us, the gameplay is the most important part of it.

It's almost obvious, and stupid, and it shouldn't really have to be said, but the way to make a successful viral game is to make it fun and playable. It's obvious, but in our industry it's something that's ignored repeatedly.

GamesIndustry.biz You launched Kerb Games today - that's a slightly different direction, so can you explain the reasoning behind the decision to launch that brand?
Jim McNiven

Well, for a start the two things worked really well symbiotically, because our background and work methods have been shaped by having to build rapid-development, awesome little casual games for our clients. The engines we've used for those can also be used by Kerb Games.

On the flip side, the development that we do in Kerb Games will also help Kerb clients when we're making advergames. The two will work well together.

GamesIndustry.biz But also, the games you've made in the past you can now monetise for yourselves?
Jim McNiven

Absolutely. The fact that there's a market now that's sophisticated enough... we've been making games, but the internet's been a place where people don't pay for content. That's always been a mantra, really, and something we've learned to accept in the last decade - but now that's changed.

Now people are viewing it as another entertainment medium that they're prepared to pay for because the quality is up there now, as good as the quality of the other entertainment they pay for. So really the distinction between the Kerb and Kerb Games is that Kerb will always be an interactive advertising agency, and Kerb Games will be simply about monetised gaming.

GamesIndustry.biz What projects are you currently working on at Kerb Games?
Jim McNiven

There are ideas, concepts and IP that we've been developing in our down time for a while, and Kerb Games is a vehicle that will give us an opportunity to put those into practice. As Kerb we've been running a persistent browser-based online game called Project Rockstar since 2002, which was free-to-play and had huge traffic, as well as a strong community that's constantly begging us to give them a new evolution.

It pulled in 26 million page impressions in one month during one summer holiday, when the students had more free time. One of the posts on the forums has over 200,000 replies to it, so these are quite obsessive about this big online roly-playing game based around music. Kerb Games' first venture will be a complete rebuild of that, using stuff from the community we've got already, and that will be a fully monetised game.

GamesIndustry.biz What does success look like for you in the next year or so?
Jim McNiven

Within the next 12 months we're hoping we'll have a raft of different multiplayer online games. The way they'll run at the moment is still under discussion, whether it'll be with a large online game portal, or whether we'll create our own portal - that'll depend on the outcome of a few discussions.

But the beauty of the sort of games that we build is that the development time for these sort of things is only two or three months. But getting the game online and getting the users using it is only the start of the journey - it's very different to the traditional games business, where getting a box into the shop is more-or-less the fait accomplis.

For us it's a starting point, and then we're working with the community - taking small micro-payments from them, then developing the game organically. Within twelve months we're looking to have two full-size multiplayer online games.

GamesIndustry.biz Free-to-play titles seem to be experiencing a period of growth all over the place - last week game card company GMG announced strong profits, while Nexon and others are also showing good numbers.
Jim McNiven

Those numbers don't surprise me at all - it's the sort of thing we've been hearing at the recent Casual Connect conference in Hamburg, from people like BigPoint and GameForge - and we know from experience. In our Project Rockstar game, in its total lifespan, it's had over 500,000 people registered to play it with a marketing spend of nothing. It's just from people getting their friends to hang out, because it's a nice place to hang out and enjoy an interesting and fun distraction, that only takes them about 10-15 minutes per day, but they're passionate about what they do there. Those traffic levels - we managed to achieve that without a media spend.

With Kerb Games we really have a two-pronged attack - one is that we can build a really compelling online game experience, which we know people will enjoy, and we know how to grow and get involved with that community.

But we also know how to drive insane amounts of traffic to websites, because that's what we do for our clients - so we know the places where traffic lives, and we know how to get it from A to B.

A good example of a click-through that we got for one of our clients, that will be a similar demographic to what we're aiming for, is a game that we did for a student portal. It's been going for a year and a half, and had 8 million people play it, of which over 4 million clicked through to the website.

That's over a 55 per cent click-through rate (CTR), and with a banner ad a 0.5 per cent CTR is considered really good. A CTR of 0.5 per cent is what any self-respecting agency would hope to achieve. With our games we get a minimum of 10 per cent, and if we're actually pushing something that's very relevant to the market via a game then we'd be looking to expect at least 25 per cent, and up to 50 per cent CTR.

So we know we can deliver the traffic to whatever it is we build.

GamesIndustry.biz Are these games complementary to the more traditional games that are out there on the market, or will they start to replace them over time?
Jim McNiven

It depends on the online game, because online games are becoming more and more sophisticated. But for persistent browser-based stuff like Project Rockstar, complementary probably isn't the right word - they're just totally different food groups.

One of them, the console game, is where you're looking at investing two or three hours of your time in one go, with the wife and girlfriend nagging you - speaking from personal experience - playing something like LittleBigPlanet... but something like Project Rockstar is maybe five or ten minutes in any one go - you get on there, spend your action points, make sure your band is set up for the day, doing whatever they do, and that's it.

It's the sort of thing that becomes part of the daily routine - it's part of the casual gaming mindset, where you're dipping in and out. There's no big load-up, it's just a website. You log-in, do your stuff, and move on. You can do it from work, on any low-spec computer.

GamesIndustry.biz There seems to be a bit of a snobbish attitude towards casual games from the point of view of the core games business - is that something you've experienced?
Jim McNiven

It's something that's changing a lot. Certainly the fact that we did Flash games before... because Flash games generally have a really bad name - on the web there's no real arbitrator of quality. There's no quality control process, there are people bashing out a game and sticking it on the web in an afternoon. So because there's a lot of rubbish out there, people believe that Flash games are inherently rubbish.

I think as Flash has become more powerful, people are starting to put bigger budgets into it, we're starting to see that there is some real quality out there - and I think that's been mirrored in the attitude of traditional games developers. I think they're starting to see that there's real scope here, and it's just a different format.

It's like comparing a Nintendo DS game with a PlayStation 3 version - it's just a different iteration of a game. Perceptions are definitely changing.

Another reason is the fanfare that a lot of console games get when they come out - the marketing spend is huge, so it's understandable that they get more attention, because their budgets demand more attention.

But I think as people start to see the revenues generated by the smaller footprint, under-the-radar games, they'll get more publicity and there'll be more awareness about them.

Jim McNiven is CEO of Kerb Games. Interview by Phil Elliott.