Interview with Ofer Leidner, Oberon Media

Oberon Media is the largest casual games company you do not know much about. That is because Oberon has been so busy creating games, developing partnerships, and acquiring companies (just today, they announced the acquisition of 2 Russian game studios, Kenjitsu and Friends Games), they have not had the time to talk to anyone — until now!

We sat down with Ofer Leidner, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Oberon, to talk about their numerous acquisitions, the Russian casual games market, and Shakespeare.

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Oberon Media is the largest casual games company you do not know much about. That is because Oberon has been so busy creating games, developing partnerships, and acquiring companies (just today, they announced the acquisition of 2 Russian game studios, Kenjitsu and Friends Games), they have not had the time to talk to anyone — until now!

We sat down with Ofer Leidner, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Oberon, to talk about their numerous acquisitions, the Russian casual games market, and Shakespeare.

What is the story behind the name Oberon Media?

Oberon is from Shakespeare’s – “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” story. We wanted to have a name that reflects greatness and creativity as an inspiration. Shakespeare was an immediate candidate. We later had to deal with the usual challenges of selecting the name, finding out the domain is taken, but finally cleared a name we were all happy with.

Developer, Publisher, Distributor. PC, Mobile, Console, and TV. Oberon has its hands on a lot of cookies in the cookie jar that is casual games. If you had to describe Oberon Games in 100 words or less, how would you do it?

Oberon is the leading multiplatform casual games company. We provides content, platforms and services to our partners. Our goal is very simple: we want to bring the best games and game experiences to our partners’ audiences and allow them to play on any platform they choose to. This is less than 100 words right?

Indeed it is. How big is Oberon Games today and how has your business changed since you first started 4 years ago?

Oberon grew substantially in the past few years since we started the business in a small New York City apartment as a real bootstrap exercise. We actually have been growing well over the market growth rate in the past 4 years and that is mostly because we have always focused on execution as the key to building our company. By implementing a hyper-scale business model and attracting amazing talent to work with us, we were able to grow the business quite rapidly. One of the important points is that the casual games market is booming, and more and more people are becoming casual gamers spending time playing and having fun. Luck is also an important factor, anyone who dismisses luck, is naive.

We have hundreds of partnerships worldwide with game developers, IP owners and distribution partners on all platforms we serve.

This year we grew both organically and non-organically via a set of acquisitions we made to allow us to execute on our vision. We are in the mix of integrating all these businesses; the outcome we believe will be very exciting.

Speaking of acquisitions, Oberon just announced two new acquisitions today at Casual Connect in Kiev: Kenjitsu, a Nikitova-affiliated outsourcing studio in St. Petersburg and Friends Games, A Kiev-based developer. Why did you buy these studios and what do you plan to do with these new companies?

We are very excited about these two acquisitions and the addition of the new teams to the Oberon Family.

Anyone that has been involved in the casual games business in the past few years can not ignore the clear trend we noticed – a big portion of the casual games sold today around the world are developed in Eastern Europe and Russia. The developer community in the region has definitely become a significant player in our industry, with creative and talented developers willing to learn and adjust as they grow their businesses.

We have been working with developers in the region for quite some time and decided that it is time for us to establish a permanent local headquarters and presence in the region. Kenjitsu, a Nikitova affiliated outsourcing studio will be handling web, downloadable and other platform development allowing us to bring better games to the market with greater efficiency. As for Friends Games, we have been working with Taras (the lead guy at Friends Games) and his team for a while on several games, the most well known is the Magic Match franchise. As we grow our presence in the region, Taras will help establish our local developer relationships, looking to partner with talented teams.

Overall these acquisitions are part of a decision we made to invest more resources for development of games and platform in the region. We already have mobile game studios in the region and a platform development group in Kiev; we’re planning to consolidate these operations and do more out of there.

Oberon has been on an acquisition binge lately, acquiring 5 companies, including the two Eastern European studios you announced purchasing today. Gamezebo readers want to know: when do you buy Gamezebo? Joking aside, what type of companies are you looking for when you make an acquisition?

Joel, don’t leak next week’s announcement, you’re going to confuse your readers. But seriously, Oberon Media is implementing organic and non-organic growth strategy. On the non organic side, we look for companies that can add synergistic component to our products and services. Obviously we have to feel really good about the management teams – people are the most important part in building our company and achieving our goals.

With big acquisition comes huge growth. How big is Oberon now? What are the advantages and challenges of acquiring so many companies in such a short amount of time?

We are still in the process of integrating and streamlining resources across our company. We have over 500 employees around the world. The advantages? Clearly we have the most rounded offering in the casual games market both from content and platforms point of view. A lot of what we’ve been working on hasn’t been publicly announced yet, but when time comes we will be happy to share more. The challenges are also there; we are digesting several operations, cultures, and activities into one cohesive vision and product offering. We think that this process will be done by the end of this year, as we are shaping for a great 2008.

Let’s go into some details about your acquisitions because each is unique and interesting. In July 2007, you acquired PixelPlay, a leading creator and developer of games and entertainment in the interactive TV space. For those who do not know, what are interactive TV games? What are your plans to bring casual games to a TV near you?

Interactive TV games are simple games that can be played on TV using the remote control. For a lot of reasons but mostly because of the current platform limitations, casual games are a perfect fit for this medium. We are very excited about PixelPlay and the living room expertise this acquisition gave us. We are currently operating the fastest growing subscription based ITV service with EchoStar (Dish Games) and there are more to come on that front.

Oberon has placed a huge bet on the mobile game space, purchasing 3 mobile companies in the past year: Blaze, CMate, and most recently, I-Play. With these 3 acquisitions, what type of mobile game offering do you plan to offer for casual gamers?

We are indeed bullish on mobile games. We believe that the mobile games market is at an interesting point. It’s a consolidating market with fewer and fewer companies doing more, and we want to be one of companies at the top there. At the same time, the sense we have is that this market is close to a tipping point: handsets are improving dramatically, more people are using their phones as an integral part of their digital lifestyle downloading content and using data services and the ecosystems will eventually open. We think that the casual game play is ideal for the platform. There are still issues in this market mainly around discoverability and handset fragmentation. But we would not make the investment if we didn’t think this market has a great potential.

Oberon has quietly launched its multiplayer game platform with a couple of its partners. What features does your multiplayer platform offer and what plans do you have to bring it to the masses?

Joel, we aren’t quite ready to discuss this platform, but I can only tell you this has been our biggest R&D effort to date.

There is huge buzz right now (at least in the venture capital community) around two types of casual game opportunities: Web sites where users play casual games for free (e.g.,. Kongregate, Addicting Games) and virtual worlds where users play casual games for a micro-transaction and/or subscription (e.g., Three Rings, Meez, FlowPlay, Club Penguin, etc). Do you think these “new” casual game offerings are more “hype” or the “real deal”?

New game experiences are constantly appearing on the radar and it’s good for the industry. I think that both business models you mentioned are real and here to stay. We are integrating both models as part of our services.

It’s been over a year since RealArcade and Oberon no longer distributed each other’s games on respective Web sites (as well as RealArcade and Big Fish Games no longer distributing each other’s games). The result of which has that each company is providing casual game offerings that are increasingly much different from each other (they all used to be the same). A year later, what do you think the impact has been on the industry? Is this a good or bad thing?

We don’t see much of an impact there.

Can you give us hints on upcoming Oberon games or features you plan to launch in the future?

We have exciting games coming up and we will be happy to share these with your readers as we get closer to launching them

Five years from now (god willing), I’m playing an Oberon games. What will this game experience be like?

Five years is a long time and I don’t really have my crystal ball with me today. Now seriously, I think that games will continue to evolve around fresh innovative gameplays backed by strong social interaction between gamers while playing, and around the gameplay experience. Did I mention ‘play anywhere’?

What games have you developed and/or published that you’re especially fond of?

I am personally a big fan of our Turbo Pizza Franchise; it’s just a fun game that I found myself returning to again and again. Magic Match was a fresh take on the basic match 3 mechanics I thought was interesting and innovative. Last – my wife likes Dream Day Wedding – which is a great game and very fresh story and environment.

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

I really liked Cradle of Rome and Big City Adventure.

Any closing words for your fans out there?

We are all very lucky to be part of these exciting times in the casual games industry and working with the best talent out there. Bottom line – fun, games & building a great business – what can beat that?