Wooga (pronounced “voo-ga”) came out of nowhere as a major force in social games. Now we’ll see if the company can reproduce some of that magic in mobile games. This crossover strategy is the same kind of move that rivals like Zynga and King.com are making. Those who execute this transition strategy well will be on the top of the game industry, and those who fail…. We won’t say, but Wooga’s chief executive, Jens Begemann (pictured), has plenty to talk about.
He cofounded the Berlin, Germany-based company in 2009 with Philipp Moeser and Patrick Paulisch with the goal of making games for everyone. Now it’s the fourth-largest social game publisher on Facebook, with more than 38.6 million monthly active users according to AppData.
The company has created addictive, simple, and high-quality games, such as Bubble Island, Brain Buddies, Monster World, Happy Hospital, Magic Land, and Diamond Dash. With that portfolio, the developer has grown to more than 200 employees and raised $24 million in venture capital. The company’s mobile version of Diamond Dash alone has had more than 20 million downloads.
We caught up with Begemann at the Casual Connect game conference in Seattle. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Jens Begemann: A year ago, we decided that mobile would be a very, very important part of our strategy, and that in addition to the PC games on Facebook, we should also try to make mobile games social. Because I think if you look at the biggest successes on mobile — the biggest mobile games — they all have been single-player, even though these devices are really communication devices. We believe all mobile games should be social. So one year ago, we started investing a lot. Now we’re a bit over 200 employees, and half of them work on mobile games. We made quite a big shift. We continue to invest in our PC games on Facebook, but mobile is extremely important to us now.
GamesBeat: Is the mobile game market catching up with the level of Facebook interaction, in terms of the number of mobile game users or how much they play games?
Begemann: Facebook is now so huge that virtually everybody uses it on their PC. There are very few people left who don’t. On mobile and smartphones, and especially on tablets, we see a super-strong growth in users. While on Facebook, revenues are still growing, but user numbers not so much. [The number of] Facebook users on mobile is growing insanely. That’s what we try to take advantage of: more and more mobile users using Facebook to be social on mobile.
GamesBeat: Did a lot of your mobile activity also coincide with Facebook growing on mobile?
Begemann: We don’t have exact data on the usage of Facebook’s mobile app. There is some public information, but we don’t know the exact details on that. We feel that the growth we have is because there are more devices. Facebook on mobile is growing. People want social games on mobile. That’s what we do now.
GamesBeat: There were some interesting comments recently. At E3, Naoki Aoyagi from Gree International said that this whole mobile game dominance would be settled in the next 18 months or so. That’s why they’ve decided they want to spend so much money now. Mark Pincus responded to that and said, “I don’t think the market is quite ready because there’s so much more scale on Facebook.” You launch something, and pretty regularly they can make it to 10 million users in 90 days. If you invest, say, 10 million bucks, you can expect to get 50 million dollars in return. He says that they’re still waiting for that return rate to enable that on mobile. You may invest in mobile now, but you’re not going to get that return rate. It’s an interesting contrast.
Begemann: We’re extremely happy. Diamond Dash, which we launched in December for iPhone and iPad, went way beyond our expectations. We had 20 million downloads without spending money on advertising. That was all organic, but still millions of downloads every month and way beyond our expectations. I think what helped there was that the game is really cross-platform, right? In the morning you can play on the iPhone. At your lunch break you can play on your PC, and in the evening on your iPad. It takes your account from device to device. And you compete with your friends. That’s also extremely important. It’s a social game. On these devices — on the Android, like the Galaxy S3 and the Nexus 7 — it’s coming…in a few months. We’re still in development. But we’re excited to be on more platforms.
Begemann: For us today, the importance is equal. We continue to hire super-fast; we grow by at least two employees every week. Half of them work on games for Facebook and Flash games for Facebook on the PC, and half on mobile. So for us it’s really 50/50. I can’t speak for others, but for us they have equal importance. I think that will also be reflected in user numbers and revenues very soon.GamesBeat: What is it like after launch, though? Some people talk about how that’s almost becoming more important.
Begemann: Yes. For our successful games, and over the whole lifetime of the game, 80 percent of the work is post-launch. If you take a game like Diamond Dash or Monster World or Bubble Island — all games that have been very successful — roughly 80 percent of the work is post-launch, and only 20 percent is before. That’s the same for mobile. For Diamond Dash, we have done many, many updates. We do an update roughly every four weeks in the App Store. There’s a team that is as big as it was during development — before launch — continuously doing improvements. We see that it’s very similar.
GamesBeat: Is that the same team who worked on the social game? The Facebook game?
Begemann: No, they’re different teams. They are in the same group, so they sit next to each other. The Diamond Dash team for the PC and the Diamond Dash team for mobile sit next to each other and exchange, but they’re separate teams. That helps them to build games that feel native on iOS. It’s the same here with Android. That’s also a separate team [doing] the Android version, but obviously it takes advantage of all the learning that has been made in the other groups — the other teams.
GamesBeat: Getting it discovered or marketing it, monetization…these are all big issues.They’re things people want to figure out on mobile.
Begemann: We’ve learned a lot in the last half a year. We didn’t spend money on marketing, so these 20 million downloads were organic. And obviously Apple featuring in the beginning helped. If we look at the game overall, we see that there’s a very high amount of distribution via word of mouth. People just tell their friends, “Hey, play Diamond Dash with me.” And the other thing is that viral distribution via Facebook also works on mobile.
Begemann: Or sent me a gift or whatever, right? This is the Facebook app on iOS. You click on the notification. Then you see that a few people sent me a request in Diamond Dash. I tap that, and it starts Diamond Dash. If I don’t have Diamond Dash installed, it sends people to the App Store. What I just showed you happens about 20 million times per month: sending people to the App Store or starting the game. Unfortunately, we can’t track how many are which one.
GamesBeat: Is this sufficient for getting the game to spread?
Begemann: It’s a mixture. This Facebook virality is an important factor, and it can deliver millions of downloads. It can clearly deliver that. You have word of mouth in addition to that. Of course, both of these factors only work if you have a truly excellent game. It helps a lot if the game is social because if it is, then people want to compete with their friends. They tell their friends, “Hey, please get this game and play it with me.” It’s possible to discover it on the App Store by browsing the categories and so on. That’s also great, but we see the world more optimistically than some other comments I’ve read in the last few weeks. We believe mobile discovery works.
GamesBeat: There’s different players who want to be the middlemen with a more social platform, but they all seem to want that 30 percent of your money…
Begemann: Who do you mean?
GamesBeat: Well, you’re kind of giving 30 percent to the Apple App Store. Would you still want to give money to Gree or DeNA/Ngmoco?
Begemann: We just did one game, right? We did Diamond Dash. We’re announcing Monster World here at the conference, which also looks great. We’ve got these successful franchises on Facebook. Millions and millions of active users on Facebook on the PC. On mobile, we use Facebook Connect to make the game social, and we obviously use the payment systems of Google for Android or Apple for iOS. To us, that works very well. We’re not working together with any other third-party platform. For us, this model that I just described is very good, and it works very well.
GamesBeat: One of our speakers at the conference also said that in the digital world, it’s a little unclear about how you draw the lines. There are fuzzy lines between publishers, stores, and platforms. With some people, it seems like they take on the role of a developer-publisher. You don’t need other partners in that sense. It seems like that’s where you guys are coming from.
Begemann: Yeah, clearly. It has been from the very beginning. I think this separation of developer and publisher is something that comes from the product world. When a game was a product — when you started a project and then it was done, and the developer gave it to the publisher, and the publisher was responsible for marketing…. These games that we do today, they are services. That’s the case with social games; that’s the case with mobile games. You constantly update them, you constantly improve them, and your distribution is your game. Because you constantly update your game, you get word of mouth. You build viral features inside your game, and you get distribution. Your distribution is your game, and therefore, this separation of developer and publisher doesn’t make any sense. It didn’t make any sense for social games on Facebook, and it doesn’t make sense for mobile games that are social and that are services. A platform is a different thing. A platform like Facebook, Android, or iOS definitely has an important role because we build our games on top of these platforms. But we don’t think there should be a developer and then somebody else publishing a game. We believe that’s a thing of the past.
Begemann: Yeah. We tried. Over a year ago, we started working on our first HTML 5 game. It’s…surprisingly good. Everybody we showed it to told me, “Wow, this looks great…for an HTML 5 game.” Nobody cares about that, right? No user cares about that. It’s not yet ready for prime time. It’s close. Let me show it to you…. This is HTML 5 on the iPhone. It’s pretty decent, right? It’s close to native. But you see it’s not exactly as smooth as a native app.
Begemann: We tried. I believe in HTML 5 long-term. We invested quite a bit of time and quite a team trying to make it work. As you just saw, it looks pretty decent. This game is called Pocket Island, and it’s available for free. We made it open-source. Everybody can download it. You can also download the demo from our website. I believe HTML 5 will come, but it’s not ready today. In this market, you have to have the best possible user experience. If you have a game that is 80 percent of the quality of other games, you have no chance. Instead of 80 percent of the downloads, you’ll get almost no downloads because there are hundreds of thousands of apps. If you’re not the best at something, people won’t use your game. We believe it’s too early.
GamesBeat: What do you think about new platforms, like Amazon? It seems like they’ve got another Kindle coming. And there are rumors of a phone. Does that make you believe that that’s going to be a long-term platform?
Begemann: I read the same rumors you read, and I think we have to wait to see what they will do. So far, what Amazon has launched is the Kindle Fire. I think tablets for 200 dollars are a great thing because they bring tablets to so many more users. Many people will buy it as an additional device, and because of the 200 dollar price point, they’ll look closer at tablets. Some of them will buy an iPad instead after looking at the market more closely, so I’m extremely happy about that. That is obviously Apple, Android, and Amazon. We will see what other hardware comes from Amazon, but we tried to build the best possible games on platforms that have hundreds of millions of users. We do truly mass-market games, and the platforms we’re active on are those that have hundreds of millions of users. Not millions of users, but hundreds of millions of users. That’s the case with iOS, and that’s the case with Android.
GamesBeat: So you don’t really want to pursue the strategy of being first on a platform.
Begemann: Well, with HTML 5 we were pretty early. I don’t know if many people developed a game of that quality a year ago on HTML 5. So we are very willing to try to to invest. At the same time, we’re also very focused. I want to make sure that every one of our 200 employees makes a difference, and that they work on something where they can reach millions and millions of users with their games. We’re willing to try, but we’re also willing to look at what works and select the best opportunity. There is so much opportunity out there in the market. We focus on a few things and do them really well.
GamesBeat: I went to the Zynga Unleashed event and wrote a column about it. I noticed the stock went down that day, and I tried to figure out why. To me it was because they showed these red-ocean games instead of a blue-ocean game, which is more innovative or is often a brand new market they could expand on. These games all seemed to go head-to-head with somebody else to steal market share from them. You guys were in the crosshairs. King.com probably was, also. It could be said by others that they were being copycats again. What do you think of this particular state of the competition?
Begemann: We believe imitation is the biggest form of flattery. We feel very honored if others in the market look at our games and think what we do is great. We try to focus on building the best games possible. We’re a very small company, as I said — just 200 employees. We’re doubling every year. Two years ago we were 55, a year ago we were 99, and now we’re a bit over 200, so we’re doubling every year, but we’re still small. We grow if we do great games. That’s what we focus on. Our pipeline for the next six months is super exciting. We’re launching more than we’ve ever done in a similar time frame. In the next six months, we’re launching roughly as many games as we’ve launched in the last two-and-a-half years. I’m really excited about that.
GamesBeat: So about six games, or…?
Begemann: That’s a rough ballpark. We do a lot of mobile, and we do a lot on Facebook.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about the open space on Facebook? This year, they pointed to maybe sports games as a big opportunity. Last year, [Facebook’s director of games partnerships] Sean Ryan was saying there are only two hidden object games here, but there’s a huge market in casual websites. It’s an open space that could be grabbed by people who can put more games into it. Do you think about the market that way, as well? Is there opportunity to spread out? Do you feel like there’s a lot of open territory?
Begemann: We definitely see opportunity in new genres. You’ll see the games that we will launch during the next six months. It’s a healthy mix of genres and categories that we’re in already, and we’re bringing them to mobile or we’re doing a different variation on that. But there are also genres that we’re not in and where we believe there’s lots of opportunity for growth. If you build a great game, users will come. We don’t look at it in this way where we have to build a game exactly in this category because that category is underserved. We build games that we believe are great and that are fun. I think if you look at it only from this analytical perspective — and you look at an area or a genre that is underserved — then there’s a risk that you build a game that you don’t love, and because you don’t love it, it will not be great. [Chuckles] You need to have love to make games. You have to.
GamesBeat: There had been more companies coming and going on Facebook. CrowdStar…. They’ve left Facebook behind in that respect. You’re in a better position, so you don’t have to do that, but have you also thought about some of the mindset of these other companies that are doing that?
Begemann: For us, we believe that doing games across platforms is a huge opportunity. If you do a social game, it only works if you get critical mass. If you have a game that has hundreds of thousands of active users, it’s not enough because it’s very unlikely that your friends will play the same game. To have a social game, you need millions of users to make it likely that some of your friends are playing the same game. By doing the same game that is connected across platforms, you increase this critical mass. [Having] Diamond Dash across Android, iOS, and Facebook on the PC creates a broader reach, and therefore critical mass gets bigger. By being on more platforms at the same time, each of those becomes more successful. Playing the game on iOS is more fun because you have people on Facebook. Playing on Facebook is more fun because you have people on Android and on iOS. That’s how we see it. Cross-platform social games are what we’re heavily investing in and what we believe in.
GamesBeat: Social casino games, they seem to be….
Begemann: We’re not looking into that. Everybody seems to be going into that market now — into casino and into gambling. We don’t do that.
GamesBeat: I think there were more than a hundred titles in that segment now.
Begemann: Probably, yeah. It’s for many reasons, but one of the reasons is that many of our employees have clearly expressed that they don’t want to work for a gambling company. We believe that…. First of all, this market gets super crowded, and competition in this market will mainly be about who can spend the most money on advertising. For us, it has always been about building games that have organic growth. Less than 10 percent of our users come through advertising, both on mobile and on Facebook. We believe in organic, viral growth. That seems to be difficult in the casino and gambling area. The second point is, as I said, many of our employees say they don’t want to work for a gambling company, and by not being in this space, I think we can attract some of the best talent in the world. People who want to make games that are a lot of fun.
GamesBeat: That’s a little contrarian now because there seems to be a bubble in social casino games.
Begemann: Yeah, and that’s fine. Everybody else should please focus on this, and we’ll build many other kinds of games. [Laughs] Please! Spend your energy on this!
GamesBeat: That is interesting, though. I could see game designers not necessarily being proud to design the next poker game.
Begemann: For us, when we create new games, it always starts with the team. We don’t start with a game idea; we start with a team. We start with the one person we trust to be the lead for our next game. Then, obviously, they look at the market, and they look at what may work, but it always has to be a game that they love. We believe otherwise we can’t be successful in the market. Obviously, we’re also analytical, and we look at data a lot. But you can’t create a great game without love.