Ecko|Code has had an interesting history. After starting out in the console business with the release of Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, the developer then set its sites on the iPhone with Dexter: The Game. The success of that led to more Showtime licensed properties for Facebook, including the just launched Weeds Social Club and the upcoming Dexter: Slice of Life and The Borgias. Gamezebo caught up with Marc Fernandez, Ecko|Code’s executive vice president of product development, about the untapped potential of licensed video games as well as what the studio may have in store in the future.

To start, give us a background on Ecko|Code and why you got into the social gaming scene in the first place.

At first, Ecko was primarily focused on console games and retail distribution. And we were really a production company that was financing game development and then doing distributor partnership deals with companies like Atari to get our products out. While Getting Up was good for us, and we definitely made all our money back, it was a sound business play, we quickly realized that the retail business is a tough business. There’s a lot of barriers to entry there and it’s a little harder to have a constant line of communication with the consumer. So we jumped from that into something a little more direct-to-consumer with digital distribution. And that’s where we focused in on the early days of the iPhone and did Dexter: The Game for that.

And basically, as we were working on that product and that product came out and that product was doing very well for us, we realized that, yeah, this is way more where we want to go. The next frontier was free-to-play and social gaming and we’ve really embraced that and, as you probably know, we just launched our first game to the public with Weeds Social Club. And then we’re going to launch another one in October, the Dexter: Slice of Life game, and then we have a couple of upcoming releases after that. So it’s been a pretty natural evolution from retail to free-to-play gaming, social gaming. But we still consider it AAA. We feel like we don’t want to work on anything that we ourselves don’t say, “Hey, this is a AAA effort. We’ve done what we can to make this game have the highest level of production values as possible.”

So even though we have changed platforms, I don’t think we’ve really changed our philosophy of game production at all.

Licensed games typically haven’t been the most successful games on Facebook, so why did you decide to go that route with your first couple of releases?

Yes, I agree with you that traditionally licensed games haven’t been very successful and I think that that’s a problem, to be honest with you. I think back to when I was younger and I was a pure game consumer, I was fascinated with games like X-Wing, I was fascinated with games like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Games that would leverage brands and create spectacular gaming properties out of them, you know. As time has gone on publishers give less attention to branded games compared to original IP because it’s a smarter business move for them to focus on original IP.

So when you have a company that makes great games like, let’s say, Ubisoft; they make great games like Splinter Cell, Assassin’s Creed, or whatever. Then they get a brand that probably you or I love like Lost, or even something like Avatar, and you get 4.5/10 rated games out of those things. Because for them it’s just leveraging the brand, leveraging the added value of the distribution, make a quick buck out of it and move on to the next thing. For us we don’t see it like that at all.

We partner with these brands at a very intimate level because it’s very important to us that these brand owners feel like we’re there to treat their brand exactly as if it were our brand. And we really do. I think that we did a good job with the first Dexter game with proving that. If you go back and you read the reviews on it, if you play the game yourself, you can tell that there is attention to detail to the brand, it’s not an afterthought, it’s something that’s a holistic experience: how to create the best possible game for that brand. That’s what we’re focused on and I think that, if anything, we’d love to leave that behind as a legacy, that we created a renaissance of sorts, like the old days of LucasArts and some of the older days of gaming, where branded games were once again at the forefront of gaming in terms of perception. I think that’s very important now.

Not all of our games are going to be branded, but a big part of our portfolio is branded and it’s something that we care a lot about. I love waking up in the morning and getting to work with some of my favorite brands. It’s very important to me. And it’s something that I want to keep doing. We have other brands that we haven’t announced yet that are so dear to my heart, and I think you’re going to be very excited when you hear what these brands are. And the reason why we get these brands is because our track record, as somebody who cares about brands, is starting to speak for itself. And that, to me, is one of the things that I’m proudest of so far.

Based on the games you’re working on now, it seems like you have a pretty close relationship with Showtime. How did that come about?

The reason that we have a close relationship with Showtime is that the first game that we did, which was Dexter: The Game for iOS. And Dexter: The Game has performed very well in sales, as well it was very well received critically. So I think that based on the fact that we had a successful project with them, we were able to license other brands with them and work with them on a deeper level. Like, for example, the original Dexter game that we did with them was based on the pilot episode of season one. But the Slice of Life game is based on season six. So we’ve been working hand-in-hand with the show creators in parallel; when they’re shooting the show, we’re building the game. So it’s been a very integrated experience. And, again, it’s all because of a certain trust factor between Showtime and us.

If you look at most of the bigger games on Facebook it’s all sort of lighter subject matter, whereas your first two games are kind of opposite to that.

We believe that there’s many different market segments out there in the free-to-play space. Yes, there’s a huge segment of predominantly women of a certain age that are really big fans of FarmVille or FrontierVille or any of the Zynga products that they migrate users from one to the other. They’re targeting hundreds of millions of players. For us, we feel like it’s a little different. We feel that we’re targeting millions of players, and we consider our game mechanics a little more mid-core, just less about harvesting resources and clicking a map, but actually creating a little bit of strategy and introducing sort of mid-level game mechanics.

Like, for example, in Dexter we have a very cool stalking mechanic that’s essentially the first time that I think stealth will ever be applied to a social game, and I can’t wait for people to play it. It’s simple and it’s not like Splinter Cell but it’s damn close. And it feels great in isometric and all that stuff.

So we aren’t targeting the same kind of audience that a YoVille is targeting, or a FarmVille or CityVille, we’re targeting a different audience. But we believe that it’s an audience that is also potentially more engaged, people who if you give them a better gaming experience are going to be better users. And maybe you only have a few million users but they’re better users than the hundreds of millions in some other games. That’s our plan.

One of the things I found interesting with Weeds Social Club is that, even though I wasn’t familiar with the show, I could still get into the game. Whereas with Dexter: Slice of Life it sounds like it’s almost going the other way where you’re targeting fans of the show.

That’s a good question, and I actually see it the other way around. When somebody plays Dexter, let’s say they’ve never seen one episode, and you play Dexter, what you’re going to get is a game about a vigilante serial killer that’s incredibly well written and you’re not going to need all of the different story points from seasons one through five to understand what’s happening. But you’re going to get to play a game about a very interesting character that is hunting down bad guys. And that’s going to become extremely apparent from the first second. And that’s the content driven piece of the game.

There’s also a community driven piece of the game, which is probably the most exciting piece for me, which is this player versus player section we have in the game where you essentially create your own customized Dark Passenger and you set this Dark Passenger amuck in other players’ Dexter neighborhoods. And you commit crimes and when you log-in as Dexter it says “Hey, somebody’s committed a crime in your neighborhood, go ahead an investigate it.” You investigate it, find the clues, you find out who it is, and then you stalk and pick out the other player’s Dark Passenger. So that kind of community driven content blended in with what’s AAA and Hollywood written content about a very interesting character, I think is going to make people want to watch the show. And that’s really our intention. Dexter is one of the biggest shows on premium cable but that means that only about two million people watch it. Our hope is that folks who are playing the game that aren’t watching the show will now want to go watch the show because the content is very compelling. That’s kind of the way that the game is being built. It’s not being built with the dependency of having watched the shows before, that would just be silly on our part. It’s built on the idea of making the content interesting to the point where you want to go and watch the show.

Who is doing the writing for the game and how is the narrative going to come through?

The writing for the game is basically, since we are building an episode of the game based on an episode of the show, the writing for the game is being done by the actual writers on the show. The way that’s manifesting itself is in a couple of ways. There’s very specific mission text that guides you through the missions and that’s all derived from the scripts. Then there’s voiceover work that’s created by [Dexter star] Michael C. Hall that is very specific voiceover work bringing you deeper into the mood of the game.

In [the iOS title Dexter: The Game] one of the things that I think is really cool is that you have this inner voice of Dexter that’s constantly talking to you, narrating the game as it were. And we’ve introduced that same exact element in the social game, so I think it’s going to increase immersion, it’s going to increase engagement, it’s going to have longer playtime because of it. Because as you keep playing there’s progression, there’s payoff that comes out, it’s really great acting by Micahel C. Hall specific to the game and my hope is that people will keep playing it to uncover all of the little tiny bits and pieces that we’ve hidden into this game content wise.

Now the other project you have announced is The Borgias [based on a Showtime TV series of the same name]. What can you tell us about that game?

The Borgias is going to be a great game. It’s going to be a very ambitious crime game where you play as a young lieutenant in the Borgias family climbing your way up the family. It’s essentially a mafia game, but it’s set in 1492 Rome. So it’s in the Renaissance of Rome and you’re essentially working for what’s considered to be the first crime family in the premise of the show as a peon in the Borgias family trying to climb your way up to become the major kingpin of the family.

And the game is also highly customizable; you can customize your own village, create your own businesses, carry out action missions like murders and getting information from this person and bringing it to that person. It’s a very mission driven game. And there’s also an entire PvP room, with PvP arenas like the coliseum and stuff like that. It’s a very cool game. We haven’t announced a release date for that yet but it will probably be at some point closer to the end of the year. It will definitely come out after Dexter comes out.

There’s obviously a lot of crime games on Facebook. Aside from the brand how is this game going to differentiate itself from the rest?

I think that one of the biggest distinguishing factors is the environment we’ve created. We’ve gone to great pain and a lot of effort to create Roman architecture from that time period. So the way that St. Peter’s Basilica looked like, the Pantheon, different neighborhoods, and the architecture itself definitely is something that will set us apart by the way the game looks.

And also I think another thing that will set us apart is the complexity of the game. Yeah there’s a lot of crime games out on Facebook, but at the same time I think that you’ll be surprised at the level of game mechanics that our game brings to the table. It’s definitely a step up. It’s not like a traditional card playing game. It’s much more elaborate, much more mission specific, following our mid-core ambitions to introduce social games that have added game mechanics. It’s not just purely harvesting resources but it’s also engaging with a storyline, engaging with combat, being strategic about your combat, stuff like that. So I think that that hopefully is what will set us apart.

Will it be similar to the other games where you don’t necessarily have to be familiar with the show to play?

Absolutely. So The Borgias will actually take you from the beginning of the show. Basically the game is the entire first season, so somebody who has never watched the show will be able to follow the story from the beginning to end like they were reading a graphic novel. So it is completely set-up for someone who has never seen the show.

Can you talk about anything else that’s coming up?

I would love to, because I think that both you and I would be very excited to talk about them, but unfortunately I can’t talk about any of the other things that we have going on. But they’re very, very exciting and I’m very, very excited about them.

More generally, going forward are you going to be doing any original stuff or going to any different platforms like Google+?

Obviously Google+ is on our roadmap. We’re very excited about what it means. We’re also very excited about original IP, I appreciate you asking that. It’s something that we feel is inevitable. We have a lot of stories to tell, we have a lot of ideas in our minds and we want to get them out there. Right now we’re focused on getting these branded games out there at a very high quality so people associate our games with high quality, so that once we do introduce a new IP to the public it will already come with a badge of authenticity, which is our brand.

So that’s kind of our big plan right now, that’s why we’re leading with the brands, but then the original IP is something that we’re actively working on.