Interview: Wooga's big social gaming push

CEO Jens Begemann on its new titles, core gaming, HTML5 and expansion plans
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Social gaming giant Wooga has just revealed its plans to significantly expand its portfolio of games on iOS, Android and Facebook with four new titles set for release in the next few months.

The studio also said that since entering the mobile market in 2011, having started out on Facebook in 2009, the developer was now generating 50% of its revenues from smartphones and tablets.

Develop caught up with studio CEO Jens Begemann, who has big plans for the Berlin-based company – one of the biggest developers on Facebook – to ask what’s driving this push and what it means for the studio’s future.

You're focusing on different platforms and genres, what's the thinking behind this?
To us it's really about this big vision of bringing games to everybody. And it's about this big vision to bring games as an entertainment medium to the same level as music and video. I believe to achieve that you need to have different genres and you need to cater different audiences.

What we try to do is once someone really falls in love with a game, we try to keep them for years. We run our games as services, and we really try to keep them for years.

We believe that with this diverse portfolio of games that we're launching we're actually able to find something where almost everybody can fall in love with one of these titles. I think it's also a result of us trying to build the best possible games and not limit ourselves too much.

The teams run independently, they lead their teams like independent small start-ups inside the bigger Wooga. They have the last word, not me, they have the last word. They make all the decisions for these games. We try to make the best games, and I would not go and limit them too much and say they have to do something that follows this particular angle, that would not build the best possible games.

But surely you have some input?
Yes, if I have got a strong opinion, it's considered a strong recommendation. But I'm overruled every week. And I'm frequently overruled by all of these guys and ladies.

And that's important for you?
It's very important otherwise we can't scale. First of all they are smarter and better in their field, and secondly otherwise we can't scale right? How could we scale the number of games?

You still have a target audience, so how does branching out like this fit in with the audience you have now, or is that not the point?
Our target audience is casual players, it's really people who try to play whenever they have a few minutes of spare time, That may be on PC or that may be on mobile.

And our core audience is not the core gamer who kind of sees playing games as their main, I would not say profession, but somebody like I was 15 years ago where I spent the main time of my leisure time playing games. And that's kind of not the main audience we have, it's more casual.

Facebook are doing a big push for core games, and you're doing that with at least one game. Is that something you’re going to move more into in future?
We're happy with what we’re doing now. So Kingsbridge is a mid-core title but it's I think one of the most approachable and maybe even one of the most casual and approachable mid core titles made.

So even if you're a casual player you can really get into it. And you don't need previous mid-core strategy game experience to play it. So that's what we kind of try to do with that.

Despite saying a year ago you would stop working on HTML5, given your push into iOS and Android as well as facebook, could this change in future?
We've stopped working on HTML5 altogether. We started working on HTML5 almost two years ago and we stopped working on HTML5 almost one year ago. This game that we worked on, a game called Pocket Island, we made that open source. There are a couple reasons why HTML5 is not yet mass marketed.

I would say there are two really. One is that if you make a native game it's a better user experience. It's more responsive, faster. Almost everything can be done with HTML5, but it just doesn't feel as smooth, as responsive and as great.

The second reason is that consumer behaviour on mobile phones is about going to the App Store, downloading an app and after that having an icon on your device. Typical consumer behaviour on mobile phones is not being in your browser all the time.

On the PC the average consumer spends their whole time in the browser. On a mobile device there are many people who don't open their browser in an entire day. And because of that it's much more difficult to get people back into the games.

And those are the two reasons that are really market factors or technology factors and that's the reason at the moment we are not working on HTML5. We hope it will come back.

What would it take?
The industry as a whole they need to invest a lot into HTML5 from a technology perspective, and secondly HTML5 in the browser would need a more seamless intergeneration with typical use behaviour that people have on their phones which is a browserless set of icons on their device.

What are your plans for expansion this year?
We don't set an exact target, but 400 is kind of the ball park we will be in. We were 140 a year ago, we grew by 140 to 280 now, and we expect to continue to grow fast.

What's the thinking behind continuing to grow fast, rather than steadily?
So for us it's very, very important to grow constantly, and predictably and not too slow and not too fast. And that's been something that's been very important to Wooga since the beginning.

I’m a big believer that the maximum growth a company can do really in a healthy way is doubling in a year. As a company, if one year you go factor four, and then the next year you go a little bit slower and the you go factor four again, it's not healthy for your culture.

It's really difficult to stay a strong culture, and therefore we have limited our growth intentionally and made sure that we grow by reinvesting our revenues and by really making sure we build this sustainably for the long run.

You've got staff from over 40 countries and you’re expanding this office with a whole new floor. But are there plans to open offices anywhere else? What's the thinking behind keep your operations here?
At the moment we don't have any plans to open offices elsewhere. We have everybody herw in the same building in Berlin and we see lots of benefits from that.

We have a culture that is really about independent teams. So each game team is independent and they make their decisions a little bit like a start-up inside the bigger start-up.

But, they collaborate. They share information very openly here. Everybody shares everything they learn extremely openly. We don't have any tendencies of keeping information back. anything that's happening is very transparent, and we've got many rituals around that.

And that works extremely well if you're in the same office. If you need to share these learnings through other forms such as email or other things it becomes much more difficult. And doing that inside the same office allows us to learn form each other extremely fast and by doing that getting better at what we do.

So how many people on each team do you roughly have?
It varies a lot, but a typical game team is 15 people. And such a game team consists of engineers, maybe 40 per cent of it, artists maybe 30 per cent and then 30 per cent of people in other functions.

We sum that up as 'product', but that's actually really game design, story creation and analytics. It's all of these other things combined.