When PlayFirst first launched in 2004, they did two things to raise the bar for casual games. One, PlayFirst was the first company introduce the traditional publishing model to the burgeoning casual game space. Two, they hired Kenny Dinkin to run this publishing arm.

Painter, musician, and executive producer to a wide variety of games, including classic children’s fare (remember Carmen Sandiego, anyone?) to the Diner Dash series, Kenny is truly the Da Vinci of casual games. We talked to him recently to learn about the philosophy of PlayFirst, as well as the code that makes this Renaissance Man tick.

What is the story behind the name PlayFirst?

OK, so John Welch (our CEO) is in his hot tub at home one night, martini in one hand, dreaming about how he’s going to start the Casual Games industry’s first full-on publishing house, when the name came to him in a moment of clarity – (cue the harp and violins). He runs inside to Google it and the rest is history.

On a more serious, less vivid note, the name works because it speaks to the tone of the company we wanted to build and the kind of customer we wanted to reach – folks who believe in play, pop culture and games. We’re all pop culture junkies over here, whether we’re deconstructing the newest chain popper, unearthing a rare German board game or discussing the latest issue of a Ed Brubaker’s Captain America.

What games have you developed that you’re especially fond of?

Personal favorite? Plantasia. A real labor of love from the brilliant game designers at Gamelab. Plantasia’s a gorgeously addictive gardening game, with a sophisticated approach to story and really robust system management mechanic at its core.

Like Diner Dash, it represented a creative risk – in both cases we set out (with the developer) to innovate. To try something new not just in terms of mechanics and story but in how they would weave together. That’s what gets me up in the morning – trying new things with this (relatively new) medium.

I also, of course, love Diner Dash and Diner Dash 2. Diner Dash was the first game out the door for us, and in a weird way, it was the platonic ideal of what we were shooting for in our portfolio vision – a game that had mass market appeal, but had none of the (presumed) necessary trappings of a gamer’s game (no dragons, no spaceships, no elves in bikinis). It has an everyday metaphor, a female hero who’s a regular gal, 2d graphics, humor and even (yikes!) a job where you work a shift!

I also still love Oasis, and have a special corner of my heart reserved for my very first title as lead game designer, The ClueFinders 3rd Grade Adventures (The Mystery of Math-Ra).

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

I respect what Patrick Wylie at Big Fish has done with the Mystery Case Files series. There’s an attention to narrative immersion, and of course a really compelling (but simple and accessible) mechanic there. I also admire the games that are coming out of Sandlot Games. Tradewinds is a personal favorite.

Mostly, I like to see developers that are taking new risks on gameplay and narrative – whether it’s games like Q-Beez 2 or Fish Tycoon. Best of all, we have seen some amazing concepts from small indie developers, both from within the PlayFirst circle and from new groups. Check out Professor Fizzwizzle or Pirate Poppers to see what I mean.

I suppose this would be a good place to confess my intense (though thankfully, temporary) addiction to Insaniquarium.

When PlayFirst launched in 2004, it was the first company to raise venture capital funding from the get-go and bring a pure video game publishing model to the casual games space. What do you think has been the impact of PlayFirst and other publishers on the casual games space?

I think it was visionary (and even controversial!) when casual games were just heating up for John Welch to say, “Hey, this industry is ready for a traditional publisher.” Back when the company launched, the casual games industry was just heating up – developers had low barriers to entry and many developers just said “no way, we don’t need publishers, we can self fund and go directly to the portals with our games.” And many developers remained wary of publishers – after all, casual games (with their low costs and low barriers to entry) had offered a good deal of creative freedom and experimentation by letting talented developers fly free under the radar of executives and marketers – and many indie casual developers had been burned by publishers in their console days.

But the thing is, now the industry is growing up – and no one thinks it’s crazy to offer publishing services in the space anymore. In fact lots of our brothers and sisters in the industry (like PopCap, Big Fish, iWin and Oberon) are offering second party publishing as part of their repertoire of services now.

Our goals are really the same now as they were then: take our capital and fund talent, foster creativity, build a portfolio of great games – and while we’re at it, contribute to popular culture. The timing was right, because we knew if we made great games we could help to grow the category, reach (and entertain) more people and expose casual games to broader demographics.

Because we were set on publishing we prioritized making great content and building a powerful distribution network that spans all the places that casual gamers play.

I think the impact of publishing entering the space has been good for everyone -developers get funded and get to make their art, and, if their games are good, and their publisher is good, those games will then end up in more places. And of course the portals get higher-quality, more polished, better tested and researched, QA’d content to bring to their customers.

As a major casual games publisher, you see hundreds of games but publish only a few. What are you looking for from developers when you decide to publish a game?

Greatness! Magic! Freshness! And passion and of course, innovation. I am looking for mass market themes, accessible mechanics and compelling game structures and metaphors.

There are three “flavors” or ways we work with developers:

  • Vanilla, which is when a developer has a game and we sell it on our site
  • Chocolate, which is a deal for exclusive distribution
  • Strawberry, which is a fully funded, robust publishing partnership
As head of publishing and production at PlayFirst, my world focuses mostly around Chocolate and Strawberry.

When a developer submits a game, we’re looking for three key ingredients:

  • Mechanics

  • Meta-Structure

  • Aesthetics (Story, Art Direction, Metaphor)
For Mechanics we like to look for what we internally call the “Z-Axis”, that secondary axis of strategic gameplay. In Diner Dash, for example, you’re not just waiting tables – you’re also seating customers in the right colored chairs.

For Meta-Structure, we want to see ideas that help propel gameplay beyond the first hour. Are you collecting inventory? Unlocking a map? Improving your restaurant?

For Metaphor, we are looking to the popular arts and the mass market themes that you find there. So, not too many dragons or spaceships on the horizon.

Lastly, I’m trying to balance out our portfolio. So pitching a game that plugs a hole helps us out as well – but most importantly, we’re interested in broadening the market through experimentation and innovation.

PlayFirst was also one of the first game companies to integrate stories and characters into their casual games (for example, Flo in Diner Dash). How important are stories and characters in casual games? What other factors do you believe are key to the success of your casual games?

Oh man, I just did a whole presentation on this at Casuality.

So I love stories. Doesn’t everyone? The truth is there are plenty of excellent casual games that didn’t need a story or a character to be successful. (Do we need a story in a mahjong product?)

At PlayFirst, we want all our games to have a compelling metaphor – a reason the user is playing the game. But we also have a rule: don’t start with story. Gameplay drives structure which drives story, we like to say.

That said, I believe video games are an art form, and as such, they should be used as a medium for self expression – and telling stories and developing rich characters ought to be part of the vocabulary for game makers. Needless to say as an industry, we’ve got a ways to go still before video games really get good at telling stories, or more famously, make you cry. But my contention is that when we get there it will be through experimentation and will not necessarily be through following the same linear story-telling structures familiar to us from film, novels and theatre.

Diner Dash is one of the most successful casual game franchises ever. Can you share with us the creative process designing this series? In particular, how did you design the sequel, Diner Dash 2, so that its captures the best of the original game while offering something new?

First, I want to give a shout out to my pals at Gamelab, especially Nick Fortugno, who was the lead designer on Diner Dash (1) and worked so hard on it. (Woot!) We were really lucky to partner with Gamelab on the first Diner Dash game, so the foundation for a great franchise was built when we took on doing the next one internally at our PlayFirst studio.

Our process varies quite a bit from title to title and developer to developer, but with Gamelab, we chose from a set of concepts they presented to us – picked our favorites and began to work. We collaborated giving feedback as they went, sometimes asking for changes, sometimes just being blown away but what they’d come up with.

For the internal studio, I am a bit more hands on – my focus with the internal team is to really try to create an environment that fosters imagination and is supplemented by solid user testing.

With Diner Dash 2, I gave Michelle, Chris and Nick (the internal team design leads) a lot of room to try new things but ultimately, our customers guided us and told us very specifically what they wanted.

We made a lot of deliberate choices in the second game: continue to develop Flo’s character, introduce a secondary set of characters, and introduce new twists on the same gameplay that players loved from the original. Everything was tested through usability, focus groups, and our FirstPeek program. We were psyched to see that over 95% of existing Diner Dash fans believed the second game exceeded their expectations for a sequel and sales have been above our expectations too. So, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to bring a sequel to market which will benefit other games coming through our portfolio now.

Who do you think is the ideal player for PlayFirst games? Do you think that will change in the future?

PlayFirst makes what we call “games for the rest of us.” By which I think we mean, games for (traditionally) non-gamers.

Look, you like games, right? Ask yourself, how is it possible that everyone else doesn’t? We have an accessibility gap with the mass market. When I was a kid, I loved the Beatles and my Dad (who is 40 years older than me) used to come into my room where the White Album was blaring and tell me to turn off that “junk”. There was an accessibility gap. Today, nearly everyone acknowledges the artistic merit of the Beatles. So what happened? What changed?

Rock music woke up and stopped being music for just kids. I think the game industry has a similar trajectory. To date the games have been made by gamers for gamers, but the medium has more promise than that! The medium can reach out and explore all kinds of topics – ideally with just as much breadth as television or music. We should have games that explore themes like divorce, family, history, world travel and cultures, police work, eating, shopping and gardening.

The PlayFirst portfolio endeavors to create games that reach out to the mass market. The mass market of folks who five or ten years ago might not have been adept at playing games with a mouse on their PC but who today are. We’re looking to bridge the fact that people now find the PC an accessible mode of play with equally accessible content and of course, compelling gameplay mechanics and dynamics.

At Casuality, you proclaimed that “casual games can be the Vaudeville of the Internet Entertainment Industry.” What exactly do you mean by this?

I was drawing an analogy to the history of musical theatre. In the early days of musical theatre, they had a very hard time integrating story with songs – and the Operas and Operettas didn’t reach the mass audience they were after. Vaudeville, with its cheap budgets, fast zippy creative cycles (sound familiar anyone?) managed to be a rich ground for experimentation and it ultimately influenced the songwriters who broke through the barriers and gave us the first mainstream, mass market popular musicals.

While the mass market is responding positively to our games with their wallets, video games still aren’t accepted as a mainstream form of entertainment. The real challenge for us is to elevate video games to the point where households finally welcome them in with open arms – just like books, music, television and yes, Broadway shows. Our job is to dispel the longstanding notions and prove that video games aren’t just for 18-35 year old males anymore. I believe we’re making progress, but the future of our industry may rely on what some of us kooks in the casual space are experimenting with today. Just like those geniuses back in the early days of vaudeville.

What are your plans (if any) to develop and launch PlayFirst multiplayer games in the future?

Good timing! We have just launched Connect Four Cities, our first downloadable multiplayer title, on PlayFirst.com. Our internal studio worked with Hasbro’s classic brand and extended it with a “Cities Mode” offering the option to play single or multiplayer.

Multiplayer has been part of our vision all along. We recognize a more sophisticated customer is emerging and they want more. But we wanted to make sure the product started with a great single player experience too. Our hope is that by offering a great single player game, where the option to play against other folks and chat (all contained within the game – no browser based experience!) will result in attracting a broader audience to the game and the multiplayer concept overall.

PlayFirst is ready to support multiplayer in two ways. This summer, our multiplayer system is built at the game level, so players from one site can play easily with players from another site. When the portals are ready, we’d like to support multiplayer at the site level, meaning that we’ll integrate horizontal community features of the big game portals into the multiplayer experience.

Ten years from now (god willing), I’m playing a PlayFirst game. What will this game experience be like?

If I’m right, in ten years (ok, maybe 15?) there won’t be “casual games” because the elements that make “casual games” accessible to the mainstream audience will have tipped into all video games and the medium will become something that everyone groks and everyone enjoys. All games will be “casual” because games will no longer be a niche form of entertainment perpetuating a singular kind of consumer.

That’s when you and I will be playing Diner Dash 27 on my private space jet, by the way.

According to my sources, when you are not designing and publishing games, you are a musician in a rock and roll band. What are the similarities and differences of designing a game and writing a song?

When you play in a band, you are practicing a collaborative art form. That is, even if you wrote the song, you are dependent on the drummer to keep the timing and the beat, the bass player to drive the rhythm and keep the floor solid, the lead guitarist to translate the melodic ideas of the narrative appropriately with the right figures or solos. So I learned a lot about working with a creative team by being in a band.

Songwriting is a bit different, in that it tends to be more directly expressive. When I write a song I am often working it out on a guitar or a piano singing as I explore a melody line, or a lyrical phrase or an idea. Game design ideas might come more upon you (“all at once” as it were) or they may be more laboriously prototyped into greatness. Like a game idea, once a song is more or less crafted and written though, it still has a long way to go before it becomes a recording. Shaping the song, editing, it, crafting the thing is a lot like the project of making a game – especially true when you’re in a band.

Can you give us any hints of your upcoming games?

We’re in the third generation of our portfolio now and now that we’ve got thirteen games out, we’re starting to really focus our games in some new experimental directions – so, I’m extremely excited about what I’m calling our “stage four” games due out in late 2006 and early 2007. By then we’ll have a mix of casual game play experiences – old stand-by’s that everyone loves, more franchise favorites, and of course new genre-breakers that will hopefully continue to move the players’ expectations beyond what they are seeing today.

Finally, any closing words for your fans out there?

I’m fascinated by the way casual games are unearthing new ways to entertain us. I hope casual game fans will continue to support the new ideas on the horizon and I hope the new game makers out there will take full advantage of the wide array of interests and passions of the casual game audience – I hope game makers continue to look outside of games (and not just to Star Wars) for influences. As an industry I think we are too self reflective. If we want to break through the barriers and reach the mass market, we, as game makers, need to explore and be experts outside of our own medium and its limited history.

Second, I want to remind all you brilliant game makers out there that we’re always looking for fresh, new game ideas and demos and bright, talented developers to partner with. If you’ve got something groovy in mind and want a publishing partner, please submit your game ideas, demo or prototype through our website at http://www.playfirst.com/about/contactus.html.

Ok, there you have it, thanks for playing!