Talking Ranch Rush with FreshGames’ Stephan Smith

After handing out a rare perfect score to FreshGames’ Ranch Rush 2, it felt like the perfect time for us to pick the brain of FreshGames President Stephan Smith. We chatted with Stephan about the Ranch Rush series, new projects, and the Ranch Rush Best Level Contest, which runs until June 24.

Farming games are all the rage now on Facebook (and soon, iPhone). Yet, you were one of the first companies to launch a farming download game, Ranch Rush. Why do you think that people like to farm online?

That’s an interesting question, one I have pondered for a more than a few minutes. I’m not sure millions of people really want to be farmers in real life, but the idea of growing things quick, seeing results and not getting dirty might be the appeal. Layer on top of that the social element, where you can gift, share, brag and design – all things that motivate people in real life and you might have your answer.

What were the challenges in designing Ranch Rush 2, the sequel to Ranch Rush?

With a sequel, it’s very important to bring a fresh new angle to the game without making it a re-skin. The challenge for us was how we introduce new ideas without breaking the core mechanic that made Ranch Rush successful. We tried a lot of game-play ideas to see if they were worth adding and finally settled on five, although the hardest part was level balancing which took longer than expected. Here’s a quick overview of the some of the top features.

First, we did not want to do the typical rural farm setting, so we had the story revolve around Sara taking a vacation, then finding a farming opportunity on an island. Second, we introduced a new helper for Sara, Coco; the resident monkey – this added a new twist to completing orders. Third, we separated the farming area with a river which was created a whole new challenge to filling orders.

Fourth, we wanted to add a new mini-game perfect for the theme, so we introduced a cute fishing game that allows you to earn and collect coins, while taking a break from tasking orders. Fifth, we added decorative items, which you can purchase with coins you earned from fishing. Of course, the really cool stuff is expensive, so you better be good at the fishing game. The user feedback on the new additions has been nothing but stellar.

You just launched a Ranch Rush Best Level Contest. Tell us more about the contest and more important, what Gamezebo users can win!

We have a lot of users submit farm layouts so they can show us the strategic designs that made them play the game better, so we thought it would be fun to have a level contest. There are two categories; one that includes pure design and the other functional design. The Grand prize to win is the actual shoes Sara wears in the game – orange Converse high tops. The Second and Third prizes are two limited editions t-shirts. One is “Farm Chicks Rule” and the other is an “I heart RR2” custom logo.

Cubis is one of our favorite puzzle games. What is the future for the Cubis franchise?

Cubis is going through re-fresh mode with an Amazing new look and feel. All I can say right now is that there will be an iPhone version first, followed by a Facebook addition with lots of interesting social elements added. Stay tuned, Gamezebo will get the first peek.

FreshGames is one of the oldest casual game developers around; having launched Cubis in 2003. How has the download market changed in that time and what can be done to ensure that developers like FreshGames to continue to create good download games?

We have always been a firm believer of quality over quantity, but the short sales tails in this crowded PC download market make it very challenging with the current revenue models offered by our partners. The biggest changes are pricing and royalties earned from unit sales. In the old days (6 years ago) revenue splits were fairer and the sales price for game was $19.99 across the boards.

Fast forward to 2010 and games are being sold for $6.99 and the revenue splits are lower too, with a net result being we are making 75% less that we were earning years back. Even though distribution channels have grown, it’s not an exciting value proposition for developers entering the market. Developers want to be compensated fairly for their hard work and risk, if not, they’ll be looking for higher paying channels, markets or platforms to exploit their games. I predict the download market dramatically changing in the next several years, if not sooner.

Why has FreshGames never created a hidden object game? Is there a HOG for FreshGames in the future?

Funny you ask we have a very exciting, ground breaking puzzle/adventure in the works. A mystery/thriller with an amazing story, packed with all kinds of twisted fun.

Facebook, iPhone, PC downloads, Android, the Wii…so many devices to develop casual games for, but you can’t do it all. What casual game platforms and devices are you most bullish about and what are you staying away from?

I really like the social games market and feel that it is the future of gaming. But, it’s totally different from the PC download market; all new skills set and it’s a service business. If you you’re prepared for that challenge, there’s a lot of opportunity. Apple with the iPad and iPhone are pretty much unstoppable right now with their reach and the app store. Android is coming up in the ranks as a player, we’ll probably do something later this year. We like Xbox with its installed user base, although we’re a little shy on Wii, at least for our games.

What games and projects are you working on now that you are most excited about?

Cubis, which is a long time coming. Our new Puzzle/Adventure, our social games coming shortly and our other top secret project – everything!

You just took a family vacation to Africa. Any crazy stories you can share with our users?

I took a trip in March to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe with my wife and son. The most unforgettable experience (for me) was jumping off the gorge at Victoria Falls. For adventurous people, there is a service there that offers unique experiences – one is jumping off the gorge. Of course, my 9-year-old wanted to jump, so I couldn’t let him one-up me.

After driving down a winding dirt path for five minutes, we arrived at this hut overlooking the river; three guys greeted us and got us ready for the jump. The jump area consists of a wooden plank and a thick wire connected to a big contraption from Zimbabwe, which is stretched across the Zambezi River to Zambia. Next they outfit me in a climbers harness with the other side of the line connected to the wire halfway across the river.

There I was, looking straight down while standing on a plank overlooking the river, when the guy who strapped me in counts down from 5 and then tells me to jump. Yes, I hesitated, but then jumped. It’s a 230 feet free fall drop and all I’m thinking is hopefully the line is connected to more than a bush on the other side. Just when you think you are going to die from a heart attack, there is a tug on your chest from then harness which then swings you like a pendulum 110 meters skimming across the rushing river rapids as you’re hanging 15 feet above the water swinging back and forth. It was rush beyond anything I’ve ever experienced!

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