When I first met Paul Thelen (founder of Big Fish Games) four years ago, it was on his office boat on Lake Union in Seattle with his full-time staff of three. Since then, Big Fish Games has expanded to 100+ employees, released one of the most popular casual game series (Mystery Case Files) and grown its Web site into one of the largest distributors of casual games on the Internet (they must have gotten a bigger boat). We sat down to talk to Paul Thelen to learn the secret of their success and the future of casual games.

How did you come up with the name Big Fish Games ("BFG")?

It was originally just kind of a joke. I was a company of one person working out of my house, hardly a Big Fish of the industry. A friend of mine furthered the irony by superimposing a "Big Fish" over an image of the earth. My company of one was hardly the Big Fish in the pond called earth. 

Yet, BFG has grown into a "big fish" in the casual game space, competing (and partnering) with such large companies as Real Networks, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. How did BFG start and what do you think accounts for your success? 

I wrote the business plan for RealArcade which was the first high volume distribution service for game downloads. I worked closely with Popcap and Gamehouse in their transition from great web games to high quality downloadable versions. In the following three years we launched over a hundred games from dozens of developers and I got a great sense of what it took to build a successful game. I left RealNetworks after 3 years to try my hand at building games. I took a 8 day trip to Hawaii and read a programming manual cover to cover and wrote my first prototype on the plane trip home. In the following 15 months I wrote 12 games…well ok, 7 unique games and 5 varieties of Mahjong.

Your marketing slogan is "A New Game Every Day." Can you share with us the decision-making process of how you pick games to offer on your Web site?

When we were purely a game developer it was a very frustrating process to get games distributed on large portals. This was especially the case when I was sure I had a hit on my hands but the portals did not believe in the game. The problems was that our core demographic are 45 year old gamers, largely women, and the folks deciding what games to launch were mostly men in their twenties.

We launched Big Fish Games with a different philosophy, of letting the customers decide what games are good instead of our employees. Launching 30 games a month gives each game a chance for broad consumer exposure, an opportunity that many surprise hit titles would not otherwise have.

Even at 30 games a month, only 20% to 30% of games submitted to us get released, based largely on a quality threshold not our judgment of whether it will be a hit or not. If a game resonates with our audience in the first few days (most games will get 30,000 to 40,000 download off the text "New Releases" section, a very statistically valid sample), it will bubble up the rankings and sell very well. If the game does not do well, it drifts down in the rankings and is eventually removed from the site.

Some developers think their games will get ‘lost’ with so many games, but if the game is good, it will get to the top of the genre and maybe even the top of the entire site and generate significant sales. We think it is better to have a shot of success than not getting launched at all. We distribute over 300,000 games on peak days now, so the games that self select and do well will generate impressive sales numbers. The few things we do have control over like newsletters and the feature spots on our home page, are based on game performance, not relationship with this developer or that.

In addition to distribution, BFG develops and publishes its own games. What games that you have developed and/or published that you’re especially fond of?

We are of course delighted with the success of Mystery Case Files, but our latest game Mystic Inn is my wife’s favorite game and has an incredible amount of polish and some very unique twists on the "Betty’s Beer Bar" genre. 

My favorite game of the year, we published out of passion and not out of listening to our customers. It is called Master of Defense, a real-time strategy game. Way out of the norm for our demographic, but I got totally consumed by this game for several weeks so I figured we would take a risk and publish it into our casual audience. It did surprisingly well and a certain segment of our base was fanatical about it, but it was definitely not geared towards the casual game masses. We are very selective about the games we publish, and, at the end of the day all we are really doing is some Q&A and leveraging our existing relationships. So, we pass most of the third party distributor upside revenue back to the game developer.

What about other casual games? Anything new and interesting that has caught your attention recently? 

We have been experimenting with large file casual games. We launched the game, Law and Order, from Legacy Interactive. It was a great game for our demographic but the demo version was 100MB and the full version over 1.4GB. We were pleasantly surprised with the sales it generated. A great demo and famous brand made this game a surprise success in spite of the 30 to 60 minutes to download it, even on a broadband connection.

The Mystery Case Files games (Huntsville and Prime Suspects) are among the most popular casual games on the Internet. Can you share with us the creative process designing this series? 

To be fair, Huntsville took us by surprise. We did a lot of usability testing and focus groups to tune it over a 9 month period, but when we put it live on our site and it generated over 1000 sales units in the first 24 hours, I literally almost fell out of my chair. It took a while to really understand what made Huntsville successful and we tried to make sure that element was not lost in Prime Suspects.

We then tried to add new twists to make it more challenging and added 50% more content than the original had. The result was more than twice the game play, a lot more variety, and a final puzzle that will have the brightest minds scratching their heads. We also added some fascinating logic so that each time you play the game, the clues lead up to different ‘prime suspects’ and a different master criminal…oops, am I giving too much away?

Who do you think is the ideal player on Big Fish Games? Do you think that will change in the future?

We definitely focus on the "mature gamer", the over 35 crowd. If you try to please all audiences, you will serve them all "ok" and be the best with none of them. We want to be the best with the "mature gamer." This is everything from the voice we use in communications, the art style and colors on our website, the games we launch daily, and the games we develop internally.

What is your opinion about multiplayer casual games? Do you believe multiplayer casual games will be as popular in the US as they are in Asia?

It depends on your definition of casual games, as it has become a pretty broad term for anything that is not a core game. The massively multiplayer online games ("MMO’s") that are taking off in Asia appeal to the younger audiences. I do not think there has been a real run-away success with MMO’s for the 45 year old women yet anywhere. The Asian MMO’s range from hard-core war to fantasy RPG, to more playful titles in Europe like Habbo Hotel that appeal to the instant messenger crowd (the 15 to 25 non-core gamers).

The mature puzzle and bingo players haven’t really caught on to the commitment that an MMO model requires. One of the many definitions of casual games is that they are easy to get into with no challenging learning curve to overcome. Some current casual gamers will graduate to games with steep learning curves and broad flexibility like the game play of Second Life from my old RealNetworks buddy Philip Rosedale over at Linden Labs, but the "keep it simple" crowd have yet to bite on this type of game.

Suppose we fast-forward 5 years from now (the year 2011). What types of games and offerings that I will be playing on BFG look like?

I think the game mechanics will continue to be the same, but the story and production values will increase. One of my favorite "core" games is American McGee’s Alice. Alice, if you really boil it down and remove some of the shooting, is essentially a series of fun puzzle games to solve with a variety of very innovative mechanics, but with stunning graphics and top notch production values. If you could convince a casual gamer to spend 20 minutes or so to learn that game, remove the stigma of it being a core game, and make it a reasonable sized download, it could be what the future of casual games looks like.

Can you give us any hints of your upcoming games or features on your Web site?

I am sure it is no surprise but we have big plans for "Mystery Case Files: To be Named."  We also have a completely new game the likes have never been seen before… look for it around the first week in July… it involves foreign countries and photographs 😉

Finally, any closing words for your fans out there?

If you liked Huntsville and Prime Suspects, hold on to your hat for the episode in this series!