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Interview: CEO Paul Thelen On How Big Fish Took Itself From A Small Pond To The Ocean

28/09/2012 16:40 BST | Updated 28/09/2012 22:01 BST

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Games - if you hadn't noticed - are everywhere. Once they might have just been in your living room, or on your home computer. Now, thanks to the rise in mobile and cloud gaming, they're on your commute, at work, in the kitchen, even (whisper it) in the bathroom.

The small pond that used to be the gaming industry is now looking more like an ocean. And a bigger pond needs… a bigger fish.

Enter Big Fish, a games marketplace and publisher who by seeking to appeal to casual gamers - often older, often women - with its range of adventure, point-and-click and puzzle titles, is serving millions of people who, ten years ago, might not have picked up a game at all.

bigfishlogo_200x200 Just look at the stats. Since 2002 Big Fish has distributed more than 1.5 billion copies of its games. More than 18 million devices have a Big Fish game installed - and more than 14 million visit its website every month.

On iOS alone Big Fish has more than 300 titles, and alongside its a catalogue of 2,500 total games continues to release at least one new game a day - usually more.

Big Fish also has a number of hit flagship brands, including the highly popular Mystery Case Files series (which alone has been played by 100 million people). Oh, and it's also making money. Big Fish claims nine years of consecutive record growth.

Now the company is making new efforts to expand its portfolio of products, recently launching a cloud gaming service Big Fish Unlimited as well as Big Fish Casino.

But it also has challenges. Increasingly Big Fish is putting its own name on its products but its own brand is unfamiliar to many. And as other publishers have seen, the attentions of gamers are always fickle in a market where a new - increasingly free to play - game is just a click away.

We caught up with Big Fish CEO Paul Thelen, who founded the company as a one-person start-up studio, to find out who plays games, where the money is being made - and if there's any screen, room or market where games won't eventually end up.

thelen Who is playing Big Fish games?

We have a number of platforms but the common theme is that women are either an equal or majority player. Whether that be PC and Mac casual games, or whether that be mobile games, the common theme is that our games are geeared more to a relaxing, de-stressing environment. It attracts an older, and more female crowd.

Is that an audience you specifically went out to grab, or is that just how the business has evolved?

It's the latter. We built the games, and we built a wide variety of games, and that audience, the more female audience, was very under-served at the time by other retailers or digital offerings… We just kept making games that were selling without paying attention to the demographic.

Why haven't hardcore games makers picked up on that market too?

There is still very robust growth to the core industry, but it was coming off a very large base - whereas casual games came off a non-existent base and it's been growing ever since. So I don't think what makes a great triple-A game translates into a casual game. A good example is most AAA games for consoles are pushing the limits of 3D and lifelike graphics, but we are yet to have a really successful, breakout 3D game in casual. Often 3D gets in the way of the game and relaxation.

Why hasn't at least one developer cracked that recipe yet and made a AAA-looking game that also appeals to your audience?

I would argue that for many of our games - if you play the Mystery Case Files series or a lot of the linear adventure games - are at the same kind of graphic quality that AAA games are... If you look at social and games that have to be rendered in a browser, they traditionally have been graphically at a lower quality bar. If you look at some of our games on iPad or iPhone in the adventure genre there are amazing artists and cinematography in those games that rival AAA games.

There is a perception that the games you and other similar publishers put out often rely on very well-trodden models - Blackjack, puzzle games and so on - is that the case? Or is there more creativity below the surface?

There are some dominant genres, but some of those are more akin to a novel than to a game, and so it's not about the mechanics.

An adventure game for example, which we're probably best known for on PC and Mac, and increasingly mobile, it's more about the story and the immersion of the experience than it is the exact mechanic of the adventure. There is a huge amount of creativity in how do you grab the audience and immerse them in the plot-line.

What right now is your most important platform?

Well, if you look at the number of PC and Macs in the world it's measured in billions, and that's a very important platform and when we build a game that's where we tune it and launch it. But increasingly mobile adds a very important follow-on life to a game, where we can build it to PC/Mac, bring it to mobile on an adaptive port and that's a second life that sometimes rivals what it did on PC/Mac.

And is the Holy Grail for you guys still to provide that instant-on, connected experience where you can play a game on one platform and pick it up on another?

The holy grail for us was really to have beautiful, immersive content, but it was ranging from 500mb to a gigabyte to experience, and if gamers are used to click and play in social games or downloading on an app store it was very hard to get them to engage in downloading a gigabyte game.

Our cloud technology [Big Fish Unlimited] provides both instant access to a game but it also provides that experience where you can play on a PC and pick up your phone and continue playing. In a couple of months we're launching on Roku television, so wherever you are you can play from your living room to your desktop on your subway.

big fish games

Above: the homepage of Big Fish

Do you think we're going to reach the point where people just get burnt out on games? That people will just become exhausted with options?

The exact opposite - what we're seeing is that for consumers it's a part of their lifestyle, they really enjoy it and it's an interactive activity that's more mentally engaging than reading a book or watching TV.

Is there still any stigma at all about gaming and who does it?

There is a big of a stigma around - historically around that video games were 'just for 18-year-old kids with lots of time on their hands' and it was a 'waste of time'. Increasingly with the advent of mobile, social and casual, that demographic is not the profile of the gamer anymore. ... Games as an entertainment source stimulate your brain in ways that television where you're just observing does not. … I don't know if I could say the same for an action game where you're just shooting people. But our games are about solving puzzles and having adventures.

Most industries after a big boom like the one mobile gaming has been through tend to consolidate into a few big companies dominating most of the releases. Do you think we're heading there with casual and mobile games?

I do. I think the biggest challenge in the games industry in mobile right now is discovery. The ability of an indie developer being able to deliver and experience direct to the user is real, but that is not the norm, that's the exception.

There is an increasingly used term 'zombie apps' where games are released onto the app ecosystem on mobile and no one notices. It may be a great game but there is so much content it never gets noticed, and part of what we do is have over 600 SKUs on iOS alone and they're all networked together.

When we launch a new game, everyone playing any one of those 600 games is notified that there is a brand-new game that's similar to what they're playing, and 'by the way it's on sale today only'. That creates that discovery that is very hard for smaller developers to achieve. In the early days you could just launch and make money and that's not true any more. There is so much coming to market and Apple can promote a handful of features and hundreds are launched every week.

Do app stores like Apple's and the Google Play store have enough power to distort the industry?

I think that's a bit of a concern but I think it's overplayed. We can get a very high feature in the App Store and still not get a return on the game. That's not the panacea. … Apple 'features' are important to continuing to build scale and it's important for developers trailing a low budget game to get a return. But beyond that it's not really a king-making mechanism.

How reliant on 'hits' is Big Fish games?

We have over 3,000 games on PC/Mac and about 1,000 SKUs on mobile, which is about 200 unique IP, and the largest game comprises about 2% of our companies revenue.

With the exception of our new Big Fish Casino, which is a bit larger than that but which is still not significantly larger than 2% and that doesn't go out of style, it's always popular. It's also a result of the velocity of content. We're releasing 400 games a year on PC/Mac and 2-300 on mobile every year.

So unlike Zynga, where if a game like Farmville drops out of the top 100 people start to panic, you're confident you can ride out those changes?

It's also the nature of our content, which if you look at adventure games for example they're linear and they're consumable. What I mean by consumable is that they really have a playtime measured in 5-15 hours and you're done. It's like reading a book, if you read a book you're not going to start at chapter one and read it again, you know what happens. …

As opposed to one game extracting $100 from a consumer over a year, we have consumers who are consuming 100s of games a year. It's kind of the reverse. Our goal is to keep that interest level high, so that when they finish a game they want the next one in the series and when they finish the series they want a new series of games to play. It's more akin to a Nancy Drew novel than a repayable social game.

As for yourself, why was this year the right time to come back as CEO?

I'm a product guy, by background, and for a long time - almost eight years - we were a one product company. We were delivering premium casual games to a PC/Mac audience, and about two years ago we entered mobile in a big way so then we were a two product company.

This year we're launching Big Fish Casino, we're launching free-to-play games, which require a different mechanic and organisation to support those games, and we're launching a cloud initiative - all of which are very product intensive. Our base business is very strong and allows us to invest in these new areas, and with my background in building products and building companies that was the best time to do that.

What platform are you focusing on next?

I think connected TVs are going to be a big deal. IF you think about the console space they're all basically TV-experience games. Our cloud initiative allows us to attack the living room that no other company really can.

Finally - for you, what do you think is most exciting in games right now?

I'm a thinking gamer, I like strategy games. I go outside what Big Fish offers. Anything to do with tower defence I love. In our own catalogue I like adventure games where it's more about completing puzzles, using critical thinking. I don't enjoy the time killers as much, it's just my personal bias!

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