Interview with Mari Baker, PlayFirst

Mari Baker took over as CEO of PlayFirst back in late February after the departure of founder John Welch, and Gamezebo is thrilled to be one of the very first to interview her in her new position. Mari spoke with us about the company’s plans to expand beyond PC download casual games, what might be next for the Dash series, and whether Diner Dash: Hometown Hero‘s experiment with micro-transactions has paid off (among other things).

Previously, you were the CEO of Navigenics, Inc., President of BabyCenter, LLC and Senior Vice President of Intuit, Inc — three companies not very well known for their games. How does your experience in technology and consumer brands relate to your new position as CEO of a casual games company?  

One of the most fundamental keys to building successful products and successful companies is to WOW your customers.  To understand who the customer is, what their needs are, how you can best address those needs through the use of technology, and how best to reach them so they can find your products.  These are fundamental tenets of any consumer business and very directly related to casual gaming.  

PlayFirst is a “veteran” in the casual games space, having just turned 5 years old.  What do you think have been PlayFirst’s biggest accomplishments in its first 5 years of existence?  

PlayFirst games are now globally recognized for their engaging narratives, immersive worlds, and identifiable heroes. The company was named a Deloitte and Touche “Fast 50 Rising Star” in 2008 and also won three Zeeby awards in 2008 for hit games Diner Dash, Dream Chronicles, and Chocolatier.  These are tangible, objective proof points which demonstrate the excellence the company has applied to building its products, and which have garnered mass appeal.  

What should we expect to see coming from PlayFirst in the next 5 years? Can you give us any hints about your upcoming projects?  

We have a terrific games development studio, which is working on innovative new games – already this year Emerald City Confidential has been a top hit, and Wandering Willows is a genre-breaker bringing role-playing-games to the casual field.  We will continue to push forward and innovate in bringing fun, engaging games to a broadening audience, with the upcoming launch of DinerTown Detective Agency, a tongue-in-cheek spoof on the mystery genre.  We have also launched several titles this year on iPhone and will be expanding our products onto other platforms, including XBLA, Wii and PSN, so customers can have access to Diner Dash, Wedding Dash, Chocolatier and Dream Chronicles on their preferred platform.  

You most recently honored Gamezebo users with an exclusive preview video of Dream Chronicles: The Chosen Child (thanks!).  What new features can Gamezebo users expect to see in this game?  

With every new title in each of our franchises, we strive to produce new features and technical advancements. The Dream Chronicles series is no exception – our audience will see many exciting new elements such as the fact that players now have a lot more mobility to move around in the game, back and forth between areas of the dream realm. Our development team has developed a special blog that illustrates more specifically how the game has progressed.  

From Diner to Doggie to Diaper, PlayFirst is the undisputed king of time management games. Can you give us any hints about where the Dash franchise might go next (and Wedding Dash: Ready, Aim, Love! Doesn’t count as a hint – we know about that one already!)

You tell me, what would the Gamezebo audience like to see in a new Dash game?  Maybe a Gamezebo Dash?   

Some people are concerned that PlayFirst is releasing too many Dash games too quickly, at the expense of quality and innovation. How do you respond to this concern?

Our fans love Flo and the Dash games and they are an easy entry into casual gaming, with compelling characters that have positive messaging.  I believe that especially in this time of economic crisis, the overall Flo and Dash messaging is more compelling than ever.  The key of course, is making sure that we are diligent about maintaining the quality of experience that made Flo and Diner Dash successful in the first place.   

In a market that seems starved for innovation, PlayFirst released two very unique titles recently: Wandering Willows and Emerald City Confidential. How has the response been to these two titles, and are you planning to release more games like them in future?

We are constantly looking for ways to expand on our offerings, develop new genres and harness fresh talent in our development partners. These two titles are great examples of this and have performed extremely well for us.   The popularity of these titles on Gamezebo is a great reflection of their overall success with Wandering Willows currently at # 2 on the ratings list and Emerald City Confidential at #4.

In our quest for innovation we also look at the game elements that work well within hardcore gaming e.g. RPGs and evaluate how they can translate in a positive way for the casual gaming market. This has worked particularly well for us with Wandering Willows – the casual RPG presents a compelling new spin on the genre.  

We are always open to creative and original ideas for games and we’re keen to foster growth and support talented developers in this way. Our open platform offers superior technology and improves speed to market – something that independent developers can really take advantage of.  

Diner Dash: Hometown Hero was an experiment in "episodic gaming," where players downloaded the main game and for small amounts of money could purchase new levels on a regular basis. Has the experiment paid off so far? Would you implement something similar in other games?

Hometown Hero was an outstanding success for us and continues to be a fan favorite – it’s still rated among the top ten games on As always, we will continue to pursue projects that show successful innovation and prove popular with the gaming community.   

PlayFirst is known for PC download games, but is also branching out into Facebook, iPhone and console games. Can you tell us more about that?

The gaming playground is constantly expanding to embrace new settings and platforms as consumers become more tech savvy and gaming becomes a ubiquitous pursuit.  As a leader in the casual gaming space we must lead and reflect this changing marketplace. Our audience is now engaged in more mobile and virtual communities than ever before and we will continue to embrace new settings and platforms to ensure we’re always relevant to consumers.  

We’re bringing Diner Dash to XBLA, Wiiware, and PSN this spring. We’re also particularly excited about the popularity of our games on the iPhone and we’re focusing on making more of our titles available for that audience. Right now our available iPhone titles include Wedding Dash, Diner Dash and Chocolatier and we’re gearing up for the release of Dream Chronicles in April. 

What games are you playing right now and enjoying (other than your own, of course!)  

Since I travel a lot, I’ve been playing more iPhone games than anything else, although I’ve decided it may be bad luck to play Flight Control while you’re on the plane…  And while I was originally skeptical that Chocolatier made sense on the iPhone, I have become hooked on it; Chocolatier is so engaging when you have a longer flight – unfortunately my iPhone battery doesn’t last as long as my interest in continuing to build my global chocolate empire.  

Any last words for your fans?

I’d like to let our fanbase know that we consider them to be an important part of our creative process at PlayFirst. We value their loyalty and feedback and we are strongly committed to providing our community with innovative and challenging gaming experiences.  We will be doing more to reach out and hear from them on how we can do better.

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