INTERVIEW: Playfish

Ben Parfitt
INTERVIEW: Playfish

At a time when more and more games firms are taking their business online, often through digital distribution, it’s something of a rarity to see a company sailing against this tide.

Playfish.com, the casual games giant owned by Electronic Arts, has recently embarked on this unlikely journey with the launch of its currency cash cards late last year.

Available in various denominations and found in several familiar High Street stores, these allows consumers to purchase premium content in the company’s biggest Facebook-based titles, such as Restaurant City, Poker Rivals and Country Life.

Playfish is now seeking out further chances to generate revenue through traditional bricks ‘n’ mortar retail, recognising the opportunities the sector offers that are unavailable online.

“You can’t underestimate the power of the retail distribution channel,” says Playfish.com’s vice president of business development and strategic partnerships, and co-founder, Sebastien de Halleux.

“Playfish had previously diverted around the retail channel by making our games available solely online, but the retail channel still carries a lot of weight.

“It’s very powerful to have the trust of retailers who can then offer the cards to their customers and explain how they grant access to premium content, so we’re working very closely with retailers to build on that trust.”

Since their debut last November, Playfish claims its cash cards have sold “extremely well”, appealing not only to new customers but also an established community of more than 60 million monthly players – small wonder then that EA picked up the social games firm for a whopping $400 million last year.

The release of the cash cards is more than just a solitary venture. Playfish is using them as the beginning of a larger push towards retail, reaching out to an audience that is not immediately reachable through its online portal. De Halleux says the firm’s ambitions could see Playfish following in the footsteps of giants such as Apple.

“The idea that these cards could completely replace boxed product is perhaps a bit extreme, because boxed product has a huge value in being able to deliver bigger games,” de Halleux says.

“But in the casual games sector, then products like these can totally replace boxed product – look at what Apple has done with the iTunes cards.

“You can buy iTunes cards almost everywhere these days, even in supermarkets, and they have a higher value than a traditional CD. In the music industry, they’ve certainly have created a big dent in the influence of boxed versions.”

And the cards are just the beginning. Playfish is working on several potential projects that will bring familiar elements from some of their most popular titles away from the confines of Facebook and onto the shelves of the High Street.

De Halleux says: “We’ve decided to experiment a bit more with physical components to our games. There may also be other physical objects coming in the future that will form a bridge between the retail world and the online world.

“Many of our users have expressed a need to get more from their game beyond the online component and this could be anything from virtual currency to a six-foot robot from one of our games.”

The key thing is to generate more revenue through the traditional retail channel. Playfish is keen to emphasise that its games are free to play, but feedback from its 60 million users has shown significant demand for paid content in the firm’s games.

While users can purchase these additions online, the number of payment methods has caused confusion among less tech-savvy consumers. In time, Playfish turned to the High Street for a solution, offering a convenient entry point that is a familiar part of daily life.

“We realised that we had been missing the ability to pay over the counter for a long time,” says de Halleux.

“It’s a method of payment that many people are more comfortable with. That’s really what prompted the launch of these cards – they had the ability to reduce payment friction and allow more people to spend money in the games.”

The cash cards are currently available at WHSmith, Sainsbury’s and HMV, and come in £10 and £25 voucher. Until Playfish has finalised its other retail products, the company plans to expand the number of stores that stock the cards, targeting the most wide-reaching outlets around the nation.

“The rollout is going to continue in all high convenience outlets, the kind of stores that are found on High Streets all over the UK,” says de Halleux.

“We’re really aiming to give the cards a sort of blanket coverage.

“As they pick up, you might see them appear in other department stores that get a high level of footfall so that the cards are even easier to access.

“Games retail is definitely on the radar, but for the moment we favour the convenience of having them in stores that everyone has access to, and that are all around the country.”

To accomplish this, Playfish will develop stronger ties with British retailers by highlighting the advantages that are open to them. While other online initiatives arguably serve to damage or isolate retail, the company is one of the few that believes any High Street partnerships can be mutually beneficial.

“These cards are a very high margin item,” he explains.

“It takes very little shelf space compared to a magazine, a DVD or other entertainment products, and it’s a pretty high value product.”

More importantly, the cards push consumers directly to stores. They are heavily marketed within the games, and provide games with all the details they need to pick up additional virtual currency – including a map to the nearest store.

“That’s perhaps the biggest benefit of the cards,” de Halleux says. “Unlike rival cards that are often impulse buys, ours tend to have their sales velocity created by the games themselves. We literally drive the traffic from our community of 60 million players into those retail locations.”

While a single company may not be able to change the face of retail – even with the backing of a publishing giant like EA – it is still an encouraging development in the developing relationship between bricks ‘n’ mortar retail and the online world.

Should Playfish successfully boost its revenues with a variety of physical products beyond the standard cash cards, it will stand out as a prime example of how the two sectors can work together and further prove that there are still new opportunities to discover as our industry develops.

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