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INTERVIEW: JOHN EARNER, PLAYFISH


the top of any To Do list. Earner isn’t saying. You probably guessed that. He does, however, point out some other slightly more oblique advantages: “EA has a massive global footprint. In the previous two years in our space, folks didn’t put a whole lot of time into localisation. But today catering to local markets and having local knowledge is a point of competitive differentiation. FIFA’s a good example of that. “They also provide us with a lot of experience in game design, a rich talent pool and a pretty powerful recruiting engine. They give us jet fuel to grow quickly.” That doesn’t mean, however, that there will be a surge of new releases. In fact, Playfish games are appearing less often. “The catalogue’s up to 10 games or so, but what the investment and increased headcount has done isn’t to make 10 more games, but to put more people onto the management of the existing titles.”


The strategy pays off in a market


packed with short-lived rivals. Playfish’s Pet Societyhas outlasted many games that competed, but are off the map already. The game has a daily average user (DAU) figure of about 2.3m, says Earner. FIFA Superstars’ DAU currently stands at about 700,000, but, Earner says, “where it really shines is in its ability to monetise – and I think that’s because the content in the game is real world and has high meaning to people”. One of the key metrics by which Playfish and others measure monetisation is how many non- spenders get converted to spenders per month. “That tends to be a very low number – one to three per cent, that’s kind of industry standard. But when we look to Japan or Korea,


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which are a few years ahead, we see five to ten per cent, and we’re cautiously optimistic that’s where we’re heading.


“But the devil’s in the detail. In a lot of cases you’ve got games that make a lot of money off a small number of users and you’ve got games that make slightly less money off a much larger volume of users. In an ideal world, it’s better to convert more people than to rely on a small number of whales.” Pursuing this model means the company has fully embraced Facebook’s new Credits currency. Sometimes controversial, but already stocked in retailers like GAME and Tesco, Playfish has signed up to exclusively use the payment system in some games. “Anything that takes friction out of the purchase process will work to our advantage. It’s so easy, I can imagine in six to 12 months from now seeing a large lift in that conversion. It comes with a promise that over time with everyone able to use a trusted currency across all games, we’re going to see massive increases in conversion rates. And I don’t think that’s a pipe dream.”


CASHING IN


Where this leaves Playfish’s own retail cash cards, launched earlier this year across the UK, Earner isn’t saying, but it seems most likely they will be phased out.


And despite being such an advocate of microtransactions, Earner says future business models will make game subscriptions a source of revenue, too. “I think there are interesting subscription models out there and there’s something appealing about finding a way to monetise a user who isn’t a ‘whale’, but might pay up


200m


The number of Playfish games installed and played by people around the world


Playfish’s diverse range of brands include (from left to right) Pet Society, Cafe World and FIFA Superstars –reaching a total of 50m active users every month





We’ve had 80m people play Pet Society. That's with the sort of useage numbers the best triple-A games just don’t have.


John Earner, Playfish


to £10 pounds a month for some currency, status and access. “The challenge is making it operate in parallel with microtransactions. You don’t want to kill the golden goose, and I think the microtransaction model is the golden goose. But someone will figure that out and in the future you’ll definitely see those business models working hand in hand.” More immediately, in the next six to nine months, in fact, Playfish will release another game carrying an EA brand, and an original title. “There are amazing opportunities in the EA IP toy box, but I think the best players in this space have proved that there are tremendous opportunities to make games that don’t use established brands.


“The social gaming space also creates its own IP. We’ve had in the region of 80 million people play Pet Society. Many of them have moved on, but many of them have stayed. Pet Societyis a global brand with the sort of useage numbers that the best triple-A games just don’t have. So we’re creating brands and looking forward to taking them to other places.”


The initial scepticism over EA’s acquisition of Playfish was understandable, possibly inevitable. There have been some clunkers when companies from a traditional space moved in on up-and-comers in a digital sector. And it’s easier for analysts and pundits to look smart by switching to a default sneer setting. But there’s no denying EA has bought not just a way to present its big brands in new ways to the expanding social gaming audience, but a different view of the future of gaming. And that can only help it negotiate the unprecedented changes to come.


December 3rd 2010 25


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