Interview with John Barbour, RealGames

When John Barbour was announced as president of RealNetworks’ Games Division in October 2008, I was intrigued:  One, John is a toys industry veteran and I’m fascinated by the convergence of toys and games; two, John is an outsider joining the casual games industry at a critical juncture.

Gamezebo sat down with John to discuss the similarities and differences between casual games and toys, the impact of the dreaded “R” word on casual games (OK, I’ll say the word, recession, and it’s not so dreaded), and his plans for RealGames in the next 12 months and beyond.

You describe yourself as an “old guy who is new” to casual games. As a relative newcomer to the world of casual games, what do you think about our tight-knit industry? What are we doing right? What can we do better?

Over the past several months, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many dynamic people in the industry and have been inspired by their indisputable talent and genuine passion for the business. In general, I think what we’re doing right as an industry is developing games that have a meaningful, positive impact in the lives of millions of people every day. Particularly at a time when everyone is feeling the strain of tough economic times, we are providing affordable entertainment options that help people relax and have fun.  

As for what we can do differently, it’s simple: think bigger! Where we have an opportunity as an industry is in reaching a larger percentage of the consumers who would enjoy and benefit from our games, but who aren’t playing for various reasons.

Think about it: while this industry has seen great success, we’re still only reaching a small percentage of internet-connected women at this point. This means we have the potential to grow the market significantly by attracting more women and educating them on the fun and benefits these games can bring to their daily lives. We can begin to do this by better promoting our games and major brands, attracting fresh talent with unique perspectives to the industry and recognizing new and potential customer segments that would enjoy and be meaningfully impacted by our games.  

Previously to becoming President of RealGames, you were President of Toys “R” Us, in charge of, and you started the toys company, Oddzon. What are the similarities between toys and casual games? What are the differences?  

Obviously there are lots of similarities between toys and games – when done right, they can provide fun, enjoyment and happiness while challenging creativity and thought. The best toys have sustainable play value – think LEGOs or Barbies – that goes way beyond the initial impact and fun of the toy itself.

Similarly, games have levels and often release sequels and new versions to extend play value and deliver continued challenge and entertainment. Toys are purchased by mothers, who just so happen to be strongly represented in our core demographic of casual game purchasers.

The primary difference between toys and games is the target playing audience – while toys are enjoyed mostly by children, casual games are played by just about everyone and primarily the mothers of those children who play with toys.

You graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in chemistry. How did you switch fields from chemistry to toys and games? Does your chemistry degree come in handy in anyway with your current position as President of RealGames?

Working over summer vacations, I found that I was more attracted to consumer markets and the consumer world than I was to  chemicals and equations so when I left University, I started working for Proctor & Gamble.  

Believe it or not I find it very helpful!  As a chemist, you mix a lot of ingredients to make a unique chemical.  To make great games for consumers, you also have to mix a lot of ingredients.  The two are similar in that when it works, it works – and when it doesn’t, it can be quite a mess.

What games are you playing right now? What is your favorite game and/or toy of all time?

On my mobile, I tend to gravitate towards match games like Collapse! or PileUp! Candymania, but I’m also becoming a Tiki Towers addict. For a break from work, I enjoy adventure games like Ancient Secrets, where there’s something new at every turn. I also enjoy some of the hidden object games, like Mystery P.I. from PopCap and PlayFirst’s Nightshift Legacy.

My favorite toy of all time has to be LEGOs – it’s a great example of a classic toy that offers the variety, creativity and joy that any good toy or game should.

During your keynote at Casual Connect: Hamburg, you proclaimed: “Content is King (or Queen).” What do you mean by this? What plans does RealGames have for content?

It’s simple: our standpoint is that it’s all about the game. And shouldn’t it always be? Our customers want an entertaining, stimulating experience and they’re not willing to pay for less than that. The better the content we can create and deliver, the better our ability to attract a larger audience of satisfied players that will want to continue purchasing our content.

Whether our customers master games over time or simply lose interest in a particular game, they will get bored with stale or tired content. This means we must continually evolve content through creativity and innovation in order to hold player interest and provide compelling experiences.

I believe our team is made up of the most experienced and creative minds in the business, and that we’re working with the best, most innovative partners out there. Together we’re developing the best and largest selection of engaging games available, and the smartest thing we can do as a company is to encourage and invest in these peoples’ ability to continue developing more great content.  

You also said that exclusives are bad for casual games. Why?

Great games should be exposed to as many people as possible, as quickly and as widely as possible, in order to build critical mass for our business. As we see it, exclusives are counter intuitive to that goal and don’t help to build developers’ brands or promote the health of the industry overall.  

Aside from your keynote and my panel, the biggest topic of discussion in Hamburg was Amazon’s decision to offer casual games at $9.99 or less without a club subscription. What do you think this move by Amazon means for casual games?

Amazon has the attention of a staggering number of loyal consumers, many whom have perhaps never heard of casual games, but fall directly within our core demographic. That alone means Amazon’s in a position to help accelerate the marketplace.

At the same time, they’ve brought the topic of price to the forefront of the industry. Price is always an emotional subject, but it has become even more sensitive in the current economic climate. We’re seeing a pricing evolution and revolution in this industry right now and, like it or not, we’re going to continue to see it evolve, as it will across the entertainment industry.

We’ve all got to take a look at our approach to pricing in order to stay competitive, and whether subscription services or a la carte purchases, it’s critical we take a step back to reassess what’s best for our customers, ourselves and the larger industry going forward.

One of the most discussed and important issues for Gamezebo users is customer service. What plans do you have to improve customer service at RealArcade?

I completely agree. Customer service is critically important and we are thoroughly committed to maintaining and improving it across our portals. In recent months, we have been placing an increased focus on our interactions with customers and keeping tight metrics around the feedback and overall satisfaction of our customers.

Our current metrics actually show customer satisfaction ratings at 84% – but we’re still not satisfied. This is a primary focus of ours and we’re continuing to invest in it to take it to the next level. Feedback from our customers is critical to this process, so I’d encourage your readers to keep sending it our way.

GameHouse recently re-launched its Web site and the new GameHouse Club. Tell us more about the new service and do you have plans to expand the Club to RealArcade and Zylom?

As a part of the GameHouse re-launch, anyone can download a free game daily and we’ve begun rolling out features to improve player experience overall. This includes the option to join GameHouse Club, in which members purchase a set number of tickets at a fixed price per game that represents the lowest prices available. For now, we’re assessing customer response to these options and plan to apply our learnings to new features and services for our other portals, as it makes sense for each individual site and its audience of players.  

Real recently released the game Tiki Towers for the iPhone and it has sold well. What are your plans for releasing games for the iPhone?

We’ve had great success with iPhone, so we’ll definitely continue to roll out games for that platform. In the broad sense, iPhone has definitely shaken up the industry. It’s undoubtedly been revolutionary to the games market, impacting everything from design and implementation to audience and playability, and it’s exciting that more and more people are discovering casual games through the iPhone.

At the same time, the mass opportunity it represents is becoming less lucrative – as the market becomes saturated with iPhone games, prices are declining, game life cycles are decreasing and development costs remain high. To make things even more interesting, carriers have already begun to replicate Apple’s App store model, potentially putting developers in an even more difficult – and expensive – position as they deal with increasing requirements related to formats and porting.  

To effectively address this issue, developers need a way to cost-effectively offer their games across a multitude of handheld devices. We believe we have the best solution for this through our proprietary EMERGE development platform. If a game is built in EMERGE, we’re able to port the game to over 1500 handsets for a fraction of the cost other developers might incur. We are now beginning to partner with mobile developers to publish their titles across hundreds of handsets and all major platforms, including java, BREW, Windows Mobile, Blackberry, ngage, Nintendo DS and iPhone.

What are Real’s plans for releasing games on other non-PC platforms – the Wii, Xbox, and mobile? Do you plan on releasing any games in future that are cross-platform (as example, I can play with you on the PC from my iPhone)?

Our plan for releasing games on any platform hasn’t changed – we want to provide the games consumers want, wherever and whenever they want to play them. This includes PC, Mac, handheld, console, social, mobile and beyond. We’ve already released several of our major brands on multiple platforms like Collapse!, Tiki Towers, Sally’s Salon and Mortimer Beckett.

As for the ability for head-to-head cross-platform play, it’s certainly a trend we think will begin to capture the interest of our players. We have some unique ideas around it and are evaluating how our players might best utilize this form of game play. Stay tuned.

Looking into your crystal ball, how will RealGames and casual games change be different 12 months from now?

Overall, I think people will have a far broader vision of the casual games industry as it continues to mature and evolve beyond being primarily a PC business. Particularly with strains of the external environment, we’ll see a lot of interesting changes. Let’s face it: when the water rises everyone benefits, but when the water drops you figure out who’s naked! Like any industry that’s experienced rapid growth, there are a few naked folks out there right now and in the coming months, only the best will be able to sustain growth.

RealGames will continue to focus on the pillars we’ve learned through experience can ensure we thrive in a tough economy: making great games, providing compelling customer experiences, expanding to new platforms and continuing to invest in growing the market for everyone.

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