Man on wire: CEO Joel Goodman talks about Playdek's balancing act at the top

By Owen Faraday 13 Dec 2013 0
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

It was around this time last year that we named Playdek our Publisher of the Year for 2012; there were scant few voices in opposition. Playdek were enjoying a Beatles-like release-to-hit ratio, and had announced a set of licensing deals with some very enviable properties for 2013. The makers of Ascension and Summoner Wars were the iOS games developer to watch, and it wasn't just us who though so: in the spring of this year, Playdek padded their war chest with almost $4 million in funding from venture capitalists who were as bullish on the company as the fans were.

Getting to the top is hard -- staying there might be harder. Today, Playdek is in the spotlight whether they want to be or not. Though they've released three acclaimed titles this year including a Dungeons & Dragons game -- by far their highest-profile release yet -- they've also been dogged by iOS 7-indudced problems with last year's Summoner Wars (a 2012 game that continues to enjoy a strong multiplayer following) and some fans are grumbling about the pace at which Playdek releases promised expansions to their older titles. The company has also had to endure a very public dissolution of their partnership with Ascension designers Stone Blade Entertainment, who have decided that keeping more profit in-house is worth the risk of developing a new Ascension without Playdek along for the ride.

The last time I spoke with Playdek CEO Joel Goodman, he was in a confident mood. The company was about to launch the mold-breaking Agricola and had just announced a collaboration with Wizards of the Coast that would later be revealed as Lords of Waterdeep. Earlier this week, Goodman sounded a little less ebullient but no less certain about the direction Playdek is moving in. If anything, Playdek's ambition has grown this year, setbacks or no.

In this interview, Joel Goodman tells us about Playdek's plans for Lords of Waterdeep and Android support, and gives us a frank take on some of the company's woes from this year.

Lords of Waterdeep, Playdek's latest release. Lords of Waterdeep, Playdek's latest release.

Owen Faraday: Joel, Lords of Waterdeep has been out for a couple of weeks. How has that done for you?

Joel Goodman: Extremely well. We're really happy with the response that the game has received so far.

OF: What was the experience of working with Wizards of the Coast like? Dungeons & Dragons is a huge brand and I can imagine they were keen to see it employed carefully.

JG: They are the biggest licensor in Playdek's history. But Playdek's history. The core of Playdek came from Sony and Incinerator and we've worked with Disney and Pixar and Nickolodeon before -- also very big brands. [*More details on Playdek's origin story in Pocket Tactics Vol. 3 No. 27.] And that expertise helped tremendously.

OF: Wizards was happy with the product, then?

JG: Oh yes, they're pleased.

OF: I ask because Waterdeep surprised me by being so conservative in terms of presentation. After Agricola, which was full of video game-y digital presentation like the animated animals and the townspeople walking around, Waterdeep is like a cold shower. It's so literal, so similar to the physical board game. It's got wooden cubes instead of adventurers.

JG: It is more literal, and [Playdek and Wizards] arrived at that together. Agricola and Waterdeep are both partnerships and different partners want different things, and our primary goal is to make sure that each product has that Playdek level of quality. Waterdeep is more of a translation but it's a Playdek-quality game, I think.

OF: So if Wizards is happy, you're happy, sales seem to be good -- should we expect to see Waterdeep expansions soon?

JG: We plan on more content for Waterdeep in the near future. We've built a great relationship with Wizards and we're all happy to keep going. There's a lot of mutual respect and it's a good collaboration. Now it's just a question of deciding what we want to do together next.

OF: The most frequently-cited knock on Playdek is your post-release support, and I can see where those fans are coming from. We're still waiting for the first expansion for Agricola six, seven months post-launch. There's still guys on my forums clamouring for more Nightfall content. What grade would you give yourself on post-release support?

JG: What grade would I give? I mean, we talked about this a bit back in May, and back then I would have said that we come out with A+ releases and I think we did a D for updating. I'd give us a B at this point. Last time, we told you that we were going to have new content for Ascension and for Summoner Wars and we've done that. We've released three very big products this year and 13 updates. I think that's a record to be proud of.

OF: But you wouldn't give yourself an A? I don't think I would either, and it would be primarily down to the ongoing Summoner Wars problem where users can't restore their card purchases since iOS 7 came out.

JG: Yeah, that's something we're dealing with every single day. It's been unbelievably trying. We're still working diligently on this with Apple and we're talking to other devs and we're setting up peer reviews and collecting data to help understand the problem.

OF: On the phone, talking with Apple support to sort it out?

JG: That and more. We only see it in Summoner Wars and not in Ascension, which is mystifying because a lot of the back-end code is fundamentally similar. There's some change in the code between us and Apple that creates the problem. We really are trying to offset this problem for our customers. I can't give any time frame, I wish I could. It's frustrating for customers, and it's frustrating for us, too. Just today I talked to a competitor with whom we're friendly and they told us that they're having a similar problem. We're not the only developer that's been hit with this problem, just maybe the most visible one.

OF: What proportion of Summoner Wars players are seeing it?

JG: It's hard to say. There's a lot of Summoner Wars units out there and it seems to be a small number but we obviously can't leave it at that. If you're having the problem, we implore people to contact us directly. That's not what we want people to see. If it was ten people having the problem we'd be working just as hard to fix it. If it was one person we would, too.

OF: Tell me about some of your older announcements. It's been a while since we heard anything about Tank on Tank and Commands and Colors. Tank on Tank isn't even on your website anymore.

JG: With some of our partners, we're still deciding on timing and if some of those games are still right for us. We've grown, we've changed to adapt to that growth. So have the dynamics of the wild & wooly mobile gaming country. There's been partners and games we've talked about before where the relationship might evolve.

Tank on Tank, a light wargame once due out this year, but which may not see the light of day now. Tank on Tank, a light wargame once due out this year, but which may not see the light of day now.

OF: Is it that some of those games might be too niche? I mean, you've put out a Dungeons & Dragons game now. You're doing stuff like Tanto Cuore for the Japanese market. Is Playdek aiming for a different segment of the market?

JG: I don't think so. We've been very careful about growth since we took on that funding earlier this year. We're very careful about our culture.

I've seen you describe Playdek as going from a card game company to a board game company to who knows in the future, and I see the merit of that, but to us, it's all hobby gaming. You brought up Nightfall before. We love Nightfall here -- we wouldn't have licensed it if we didn't -- and we're really pleased with how that app came out, and we read BGG's forums. We read your forums. We know there's people that want more Nightfall, but we're still a business. We're still 20 guys more or less, and I think we've done amazing stuff for a company our size, but that does mean that we have to prioritise giving love to one game over another.

OF: One of the things that you as a company have talked about quite a bit is the Playdek unified platform that links all of your games together. The thing we had to make new Playdek logins for when Agricola came out. Where is that at?

JG: We've made quite a bit of progress on that front. Just getting the unified logins is a big part of it. Some customers were wondering why we needed another login when Game Center exists. But you can't use Game Center on Android or PC or Sony.

OF: Sorry -- Android, PC or Sony, you said?

JG: Yeah, Sony is a company that has some wonderful hardware and thinking about connectivity. And it's a company that we have a lot of connections to going way back. George [Rothrock] and Gary [Weis] and I all met at Sony.

OF: So what are we talking about specifically? Playdek games on PlayStation 4? Or Xperia phones?

JG: Stay tuned. We've got games running on other platforms besides iOS internally -- and you might see some of those in the wild in Q1 of 2014. Unsung Story will be a Day One multi platform release, more than just iOS and more than just Android.

Final Fantasy Tactics, one of Square Enix's most enduring hits. Final Fantasy Tactics, one of Square Enix's most enduring hits.

OF: Let's talk more about Unsung Story. This is a game you announced back in September that's an original property you're creating with Final Fantasy Tactics designer Yasumi Matsuno. How did that come about?

JG: One of our business advisors is Yoshi Maruyama, who's been in the entertainment business for a very long time and is superbly well-connected. He and I were having lunch in Japan a while back and just chatting about games. I had been waxing on and on about Vagrant Story, which is my all-time favourite video game and talking about how much I'd like to meet Yasumi Matsuno and Yoshi said, 'I know him. Why don't we all get together?'

Matsuno-san was in LA doing some work a few months later and we all went out to dinner with him and his translator Alexander Smith. It was amazing, it was a real fanboy moment for me, and we all got on really well. Since then we've had many meetings -- every time I was in Tokyo I met him for lunch and we had a lot of conversations and eventually he agreed to work with us. He saw what we were doing in the space and he though it was great.

We're all fans of Final Fantasy Tactics and these platforms are perfect for it. I know we can make a great tactics game. I wanted him to create a game world for us that we could make into a big, living breathing thing.

We've got the main tactics game planned for 2015, but before that we're planning on releasing a prequel card game in 2014.

OF: That's a very different challenge for Playdek, isn't it? Making something totally new without an established reference game?

JG: It's not unique to create a new property from the ground up for us. Only with our Playdek hats on. Because we've done it before in earlier incarnations as Incinerator, or at Sony.

OF: You said earlier that you see the market shifting and evolving. What's your perspective on the mobile market for games now that you've been in it for two and a half years?

JG: Free-to-play versus 'premium' has become completely polarised. It blows me away that 85 of the top 100 grossing games on the App Store are free-to-play. But that's a scary business model to be in.

When you're truly into free-to-play, you're building a service rather than making a good quality, packaged product. We're not going to be a freemium company, clearly. We make really good games and we wouldn't change our position for anything. Making DLC is a good model. There's so much cost involved with keeping your game at the top of the charts and keeping your game churning. We can't do that. We'll never do that. You see these studios with free-to-play games and they're slaves to the data. They're not making a game that feels good, they're making this clinical product designed to keep you pushing buttons. That's just not us.

Agricola, Playdek's most radical board game translation to date. Agricola, Playdek's most radical board game translation to date.

OF: You've experimented with different price points, though. Agricola and Waterdeep were pay up-front. Summoner Wars was free to try and then you paid for more armies.

JG: With Summoner Wars we had a great game to experiment with price points, but found we sold the core bundle in huge numbers. The number of people who just bought one or two armies was smaller than we expected, it was pretty much all or nothing.

OF: So it was basically just a premium game that you paid for slightly differently.

JG: Right. Our experience of the market and what we see around us tells us we're in the right pricing model. The success of the new-gen console launches reaffirms that people are happy to pay for quality games. One of our investors is IDG, who also invest in Telltale -- another company that makes premium products and isn't going free-to-play anytime soon. The idea that there's an impending death of premium experiences is wrong.
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