AGC – Casual Games and Community

This is a partial transcript of the “Casual Games and Community” session. I’ve only included the quotes I considered interesting and/or amusing.

Moderator: Adeo Ressi, Founder and CEO for Game Trust
Panelists: Greg Mills, Director of Premium Games for AOL; Chris Early, Studio Manager for Microsoft Casual Games Group; Andrew Pedersen, Vice President and Executive Producer for Pogo (EA)

On knowing what the customer wants:

Andrew: Customers often don’t actually know what they really want when first exposed to a new experience. Pogo badges didn’t focus test well at all. Now, badges are so popular that we rolled out “premium badge albums” that you can purchase. Users are snapping them up like crazy. We’ve sold over 750K premium badge albums.

Chris: Everybody thought that the “gamer score” in Xbox Live would be a good thing, but nobody thought it would be a strong driver. But we’ve seen that people live by that score — they look to buy games that will significantly increase it.

On maintaining a community:

Andrew: A regularly flow of new games and new features is important to maintaining a community. We see opportunity to incorporate community features into downloadable products.

Chris: With Xbox Live, you could be playing Bejewelled and chatting with someone who is playing Halo. Doing that sort of thing on the service level is key for us.

On building communities for children:

Andrew: For a long time, there was an inherent fear that people had around kids and the Internet. The key there is how to create a safe environment. There are opportunities; Toontown, for example. There is a market out there, and we’re taking a close look at it. The big question is, are parents going to be interested in providing that kind of program to their children, knowing that children have a short attention span? Are they going to want to subscribe or otherwise compensate the company for providing such a service?

Chris: Parental controls are a big part of the Xbox and Vista environment. Giving parents control over what children do is where the responsibility lies. I can’t dictate what you are and aren’t comfortable with. You may or may not want your kids using voice chat, so we leave that up to you.

On children and purchasing power:

Chris: We use Microsoft Points to enable kids to buy stuff without a credit card. You can go into any computer store and buy $20 worth of points.

Andrew: We don’t have any specific program set up. I’ve found that my five-year-old is the most effective sales person. If you provide kids with content that they are very interested in, that’s an effective means of promotion. But the parent has to remain involved — they have to govern what the child is looking at.

On up-selling premium content:

Andrew: We incentivize regular players to become Club Pogo [premium] players by exposing them to other Club Pogo players. Club Pogo players cross-polinate when the play the free games, which are available to everyone. That’s our most effective selling tool. Also, some of our Club Pogo elements are exposed to the free players to help create awareness. We’ve run a lot of promotions and done a lot of different tests to find a secret sauce for conversion; there isn’t anything we’ve found that’s more effective than a loyal Club Pogo player.

On downloadable games and community:

Chris: Count on guys like us to build APIs that you can take advantage of in your downloadable games. I want someone to buy that game but remain connected to the community and service.

Andrew: On Pogo we already have token APIs that enable developers of downloadable games to give tokens. It hasn’t been very popular yet. One of the challenges from the developer’s perspective is that it isn’t an insignificant amount of work and it doesn’t cross over with other sites, so the game isn’t interesting to other platform operators (like Microsoft.)

On avatars:

Andrew: We deployed the Pogo avatar system a year ago. It’s proved to be very successful. One of our strategies was to find a way to migrate people’s sense of status away from tokens and into something that they can modify and personalize. We have 80-90% conversion rate in terms of Pogo players modifying their avatars. We’re trying to find more and more ways to service the avatars within the site, to make their visual status more prevalent and compelling.

On communities in Europe and Asia:

Chris: 80% of our play is outside of the US. We have some very good generic content with worldwide appeal, but little regionally-focused content. We continue to try to publish content with the broadest appeal possible.

Andrew: Looking at Asia, particularly China, we see younger audiences more focused on competition than collaboration, but it depends on the demographic segment. What we’re seeing is a general pattern around casual gaming — the soccer moms in Germany, people in the UK and Japan — there’s a common need to take a break and relax. They have similar motivations and tastes. Also, you want to make sure that your games are culturally relevant.

On “awareness”:

Chris: The big untapped market is “awareness” — sending the message that it is OK to play games. Right now, it’s a guilty pleasure for mom. That sounds like a stereotype but we’ve studied this. Many women play games but don’t feel it’s OK to talk about it. Getting past that stigma is important. Look at the raw numbers: 1/3 of the US plays a Microsoft casual game on a monthly basis, but most of those people wouldn’t admit to it or identify themselves as casual gamers.

Greg: The biggest eye-opener for me was a focus group in which half the group said they didn’t know where to find Solitaire in the Windows operating system. People want quick access to gameplay. Keep it simple, stupid.

On user-generated content:

Andrew: There’s a huge overhead associated with managing user generated content, especially when you have a lot of equity in the brand you’ve created. If the user-generated content is outside the lines of your brand, it could be disruptive. With 300K people visiting Pogo every day, if they become unhappy, we can quickly become overwhelmed by the unhappy players.

Greg: Since half of people can’t even find Solitaire, they probably wouldn’t be interested in creating a badge.

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