Back in April, I had the good fortune of moderating a panel at the Social Casino Summit in San Francisco. The panel was about how to stand out in the crowded social casino marketplace. It’s a topic that Michael Carpenter, CEO of Ruby Seven Studios, knows all too well.
Michael’s studio is responsible for the “Tiny Pirate Casino” suite of Facebook and mobile games, including Poker Best in 60, Video Poker With Pirates, and Slots of Plunder. I had a chance to catch up with Michael after our panel, where he shared his thoughts on Ruby Seven Studios, as well as the social casino industry at large.
Before starting Ruby Seven, you got your start in social gaming as VP of Social Operations overseeing Bejeweled Blitz and Zuma Blitz. What made you decide to start your own company and why did you decide to focus on social casino games?
I saw an opportunity to take an innovative look at the social casino game genre. At Ruby Seven Studios, we believe that developing a social casino game is not solely about recreating the solitary casino experience in a social setting. It’s about taking the essences of both casino and social gaming and blending them to create fresh, new game experiences for players.
The social casino space is the fastest growing sector of social, projected to grow from $1.7 billion in 2012 to $2.5 billion in 2015 (SuperData Research). What accounts for the popularity of social casino games, especially since players are playing with virtual and not real money?
Social casino gaming is not about a monetary gain; it’s about the feeling the player gets from playing. Put simply, it’s fun. The joy of winning in social casino is not the same rush as hitting a real money jackpot, but it’s not unlike the small rush of the daily euphoria one might experience from getting a high score in Bejeweled Blitz or conquering a level in Candy Crush.
Further, while millions of people love the experience of playing slots, bingo and poker, not everyone has the time or wherewithal to travel to a casino or bingo halls. Online social casino games give these casino players a chance to play the games they love with the convenience of playing in any location.
Poker Best in Sixty provides the fun of poker with the convenience of anytime gaming
The bad news for anyone moving into the social casino space today is that it’s very crowded. How much does it cost to develop a successful social casino game today? How much of the cost is attributed to marketing? What is the cost per acquired user today?
Costs depend on a number of factors. Games have different complexities, quality and requirements and even acquisition costs vary widely based on the quality of the user acquired.
In my experience, having an efficient development process and an understanding of running games as a service is paramount. Efficient design and development gives you an advantage over less efficient companies and allows a company to spend more resources on user acquisition.
In terms of an industry norm, most companies’ blended rate is likely in the $1-$3 range. Our team at Ruby Seven Studios takes a long term view and looks at the lifetime value (LTV) of the players we acquire on a platform by platform basis, which can mean investing more when acquiring players.
Ruby Seven recently announced a partnership with Bluhare Studios, an award winning real world casino game designer. Can you tell us more about this partnership? Do you see more collaboration between social game and casino game companies in the future?
It’s about creating a more sophisticated and dynamic social casino game experience. At Bluhare, they are masters of real-world casino game design with decades of experience under their belt building some of the top slot games on the casino floor. They have a deep understanding of the nuances of casino game design that the typical video game designer might miss or fail to implement properly. Ruby Seven Studios’ team contributes an understanding of social game publishing and running games as a service. The partnership is a win-win for both studios – and also for players of our games.
Aside from the well-publicized acquisitions, it surprises me that there hasn’t been more collaboration between social casino game companies and real-money designers to date. I think that will change in the next few years. I also believe that some of the new great casino games may well come from these types of partnerships – as well as from social casino designers who can understand player behaviours through direct analytics and feedback loops.
The first game you are developing with Bluhare Studios is TimeQuest Slots. Can you share with us more about TimeQuest Slots and its innovative features and theme?
TimeQuest Slots takes players on a journey through the global history of gambling. Players are presented with an authentic real-world casino slot game experience and exciting social gaming features, packaged into a captivating gambling history adventure.
Ruby Seven Studio’s upcoming TimeQuest Slots
How important is innovation in social casino game design? Does innovation pay or it is better to take the safe road?
Innovation both in quality and design is paramount to deciding the eventual market leaders in social casino games. At Ruby Seven Studios, our approach is two-fold: first, we strive to deliver the highest quality game experience we can possibly offer; second, we are creating innovative new twists in traditional casino gameplay, such as a one-minute video poker game like Poker Best in 60.
In the past, Facebook was a huge driver of growth for social casino but now mobile is the big trend. How important is Facebook to virality of social casino today and what are best ways to take advantage of the open graph?
We consider Facebook an important part of our social casino strategy and we are creating games on the Facebook platform as well as using Facebook SDK integrations with all of our mobile games. This strategy allows our players to use Facebook to share their experiences, as well as have the same game experience wherever they play, including shared coin balances, XP levels and achievements.
For virality and player acquisition, we use Facebook’s scores and achievements as well as other open graph features, such as telling stories and stream publishing. It’s not necessarily the “good old days” of viral user growth, but Facebook does provide many of the communication channels that allow our players to share content that ultimately enhance their experience in our games.
How “social” are social casino games really are? The answer is obvious for a game like poker, but what about inherently single player experiences like slots or bingo? What can you do on the game mechanic and community side to take advantage of social?
Social gaming, at its essence, isn’t really about the social platform. It’s about using the social platform channels to connect players for a multi-player experience. Poker is much more fun when you are competing against other players than playing in isolation against a machine driven AI. We are also using multi-player experiences to make traditional single player games like bingo and slots more exciting, with features such as live tournaments and player vs. player games.
With money not being a factor, what are the psychological drivers for players behind the success of social casino games and what can you do as as developer to design around it?
The pleasure of mastery, the feeling of an adrenaline rush, the intrinsic competitive and cooperative nature of humans, and a natural craving for a social experience are huge drivers. We try to address these factors in all of our games. As an example, in Poker Best in 60, you are matched up against 4 other players on Facebook and/or mobile to see if you can outplay them in a one-minute draw-poker adrenalin rush.
There are lessons to be learned from non-casino games, too
As mentioned, you were at PopCap before starting your own company. What can social casino companies learn from the best social mobile games such Clash of Clans, Candy Crush Saga, or the game you worked on, Bejeweled Blitz?
I learned a ton about social gaming while I was at PopCap, and I still think Bejeweled Blitz is one of the greatest games ever. I think King has proved that you can take that well-understood game mechanic and execute in an entirely new way to reach an entirely new success level.
We can all learn from the executions of these great games. The key is not mimicry, but instead seeing that their executions were effective because there was a very compelling game-play loop that was brilliantly thought out and perfectly executed.
Looking into a crystal ball, what trends do you predict in the next 3 years for social and mobile games?
Mobile games will undoubtedly continue to grow in popularity as the platform provides an almost perfect gaming experience. I think Facebook will also continue to be a viable game platform for many years to come, and I disagree that Facebook is a dying platform for gaming.
Mobile game discovery will continue to be difficult for the smaller, new entrants, and I expect new channels for curated indie-game discovery will begin to prosper as players seek high-quality, but harder to discover game experiences.