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Kixeye's War Commander

CEO Will Harbin on capturing the Facebook core gamer, VC investment and the myth of the social bubble

The company name Kixeye is probably already familiar to you. Either you're a fan of their Facebook titles like War Commander, Battle Pirates and Backyard Monsters, or you've read about their copycat troubles with rival company Kabam. Maybe you remember when it was originally called The Casual Collective? Whichever, it's a company that is attempting to flip Facebook gaming on its head, by making addictive product for core gamers.

CEO Will Harbin was happy to explain Kixeye's strategy for success in a crowded market, how its recent recruits are settling into its growing team, and what venture capitalists are looking for in the games industry. (Spoiler: if you want money from Silicon Valley you're going to need more than a business plan.) And, says Harbin, don't go judging Zynga's success just yet... The challenge of creating social games for core gamers seems to be all about trying to connect with a group of people who may not even perceive Facebook as a platform for gaming.
Will Harbin

Well, it's certainly a challenge. I think early in the days of gaming around Facebook a lot of what we could call core gamers tried some games and were frankly turned off by what they saw. So yeah, there absolutely is a limited subset of the gaming population on Facebook that wants to play our kind of games that we're making, but its certainly increasing. And yeah, I think it's just a matter of time. For us, it's kind of... to attract users it either has to happen one of two ways. One, you get them through ads, two, you get them via word of mouth.

We don't see the typical social gaming virality tactics work on these kinds of gamers. They're not inclined to accept a lot of Facebook game requests, so it's really got to come from one of their friends who is really passionate about the game, who is playing it non-stop and says, "Hey guys, you really need to play this game with me." We've seen a lot of that in Battle Pirates. It's a synchronous game so the experience is absolutely enhanced when you're playing with another person or against another person. And we've seen that game spread quite a bit through word of mouth and people's traditional friend networks.

I was pretty vocal about my worries about copycats last summer. We could see some trouble down the road if we don't add more, not just quality titles, but more diversity So do you work on the assumption that, because you've got 800 million people there, that core gamers are on Facebook just because is everybody is on Facebook?
Will Harbin

Yeah, it's a general slice of the population. There are absolutely gamers out there who just refuse to play games on Facebook, because I think their view has been tainted by either one, personal experience in the early days before there were quality games on the platform, or two, just reading the press that's kind of all about FarmVille, CityVille - obviously games that don't appeal to me, [and] they don't appeal to the traditional gamer.

And yeah, we fully recognise that, we don't plan to move from Facebook or move off of Facebook but we do have our own platform launching , probably by mid-summer, and we'll hopefully capture some of those unconverted. But I still expect the market to grow on Facebook for the traditional gamers, simply just as time goes on and there's more quality content developed. Do you think that Facebook gamers might be getting a sense of deja-vu, with so many similar games on offer, and are coming to Kixeye for something with more depth?
Will Harbin

I don't think that's been a challenge yet. I was pretty vocal about my worries about copycats last summer but that was more of a... this is kind of a warning that we could see some trouble down the road if we don't add more, not just quality titles, but more diversity. We're kind of shooting ourselves in the foot.

I don't think that's a problem yet. I think really the big problem is we simply just have people who are not converted. I can't speak for other developers, but for our games we certainly haven't seen many people get sick of what we've developed so far. I mean we still have people who've been playing [Backyard Monsters] for well over a year, and people who have been playing since day one of install on Battle Pirates, and War Commander is doing well too even though its very early days - we don't even have the full game launched.

But, yeah, I absolutely worry about that down the road, but I think most people have got the message that people aren't just trying to turn out strategy title after strategy title, but we do have a pretty diverse road map coming out. We're launching an RPG in the summer, which will be our first deviation from strategy since we launched Backyard Monsters, and we've got some other things planned as well. So I do hope that the rest if the industry follows suit, but there will likely be tons of copycats of our new approach, but we can't control that.

But that's why we're hedging our bets a little bit. We're allocating a lot of resources to our own proprietary platform so we don't have to worry about stuff like that. I'm excited, there are some newer entrants coming into the space that have a similar approach to us, just thinking about the player and the gamer and trying to deliver quality game experience and not so much trying to be just the best kind of performance marketer out there. It's reminiscent of what one of the founders of Bossa Studio told me. He'd begun to notice a really strong copycat ethic everywhere he looked, that there was this kind of yawning chasm just waiting to be filled by companies that want to offer something different, and that that difference was its selling point.
Will Harbin

Yeah, I think the reason that we're seeing... The companies that have been able to survive so far, first and foremost, are the ones who are able to publish, and I think in the early days of the platform that takes the front seat to game quality. It doesn't matter how great your game is, if you can't get it in front of people it doesn't matter. Unfortunately for quality game developers, they have to really learn how to do their own publishing, because it's not going to work without that.

Rachel Weber avatar
Rachel Weber: Rachel Weber has been with GamesIndustry since 2011 and specialises in news-writing and investigative journalism. She has more than five years of consumer experience, having previously worked for Future Publishing in the UK.
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