Play First Casual Games

by R.E.Curtice

How does one become an entrepreneur? What is the next big thing for Hewlitt Packard or Cisco? No simple answers, but take someone who is very bright and well educated and turn him loose in the business world and no telling what he or she can do. There is also the point of not being a little cog in a big wheel that motivates some people. A case in point is the head of PlayFirst, a casual games company.

Video games in all their manifestations are big business, generating some $6.35 billion worldwide. The term "video games" usually engenders a vision of a hard-core nineteen or twenty-two year-old techie deep in a dungeon hard after garish monsters. There is, however, another genre of video games that is very popular: Casual Games. Coffee break games or Web games are other names for these games. These embrace puzzles, word games, arcade games, sports and racing simulations. Quickly learned, they can be played intermittingly without losing positions either as individual games or in contest against others on the Internet. And they cost a lost less to construct with the average casual game being built in nine months, often by a team of three to five people at a cost of about $100,000.

John Welch, CEO of PlayFirst Inc. of San Francisco, was conveniently placed in San Francisco and was gracious enough to grant us an interview.

Since you graduated from MIT one would assume you would have joined a top firm and stayed there, but you didn't.

My first job was with Anderson Consulting. But to back up a step, I have been a software guy all my life. I sold my first system at the age of sixteen! I was working at an amusement park. You are just supposed to stand there on rainy days and be bored. I got caught working on a source code beneath the counter, in the days when you used to print it out. This was at Riverside Park, Massachusetts. So they took me in the back room, sat me in front of their computer and said, "Okay, fix ours." So I wrote an inventory system for them. That was my second system even before I went to college. I got formal training in computer science at MIT and went on to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts with the intention of being a professor of computer science. And discovered that I didn't like academia. I thought academia was a pure world where you could collaborate and do wonderful things and the business world was cutthroat and evil. I found the academic world to be cutthroat and evil, and got my job at Anderson Consulting and found it to be collaborative. Then I got further and further away from coding and became an integration consultant, project manager, product manager and then business manager. They had everyone on a track and you couldn't get much ahead of where they wanted you to be.

It looks like you had your future all set at Anderson. What happened?

At that time, at MIT, it was strange if you went to a small company. I graduated in 1992, and if you were anybody you were going to Hewlitt Packard, IBM, DEK, or maybe that small company, Microsoft. And at that time we thought is Microsoft a big company who just not what they are today. I went to graduate school and by the time I got to graduate school I worked for Anderson Consulting and I think what happened was I was getting sick of the establishment. So friend and I decided to move to California where this "Internet thing was going on." Incidentally on the day I got to California and was looking for a job and a place to live I met my wife-to-be on the night. I tried to impress without knowing she was currently a computer science student at Stanford.

My friend and I ended taking jobs for a start-up company. Why didn't we look for a big company? I think I was because the Internet had started to be exciting. MIT learned from those times what with Google and the others being so successful, so MIT today is very entrepreneurial. They made a big purposeful transition to that attitude. The kids are now focused on it. I had fraternity brothers who made a FaceBook competitor and sold it for ten million dollars. It is unbelievable that kind of change occurred. It was partially the administration encouraging entrepreneurialism and it was partly the alumni who graduated, started their own companies and hired the undergraduates in the competitive job market.

What is the model for your game site?

We have simplified Web versions that you can play in your Web browser that's totally free. Then there is an ad that advertises that the download version is full screen and more features. That version has sixty minutes of play and after that time you must purchase it or go back to the Web version. We try to keep the Web version small and most of the file size of the game is the artwork.

Who are playing these games?

Worldwide over the entire industry, fifty-one percent of those playing are females. That means in the Casual Game space it is mostly women, while in the console space it's less women. Our audience has been described as 70% female. On our website it means younger but older in terms of purchasing. So our typical viewer might be a fifteen-year-old girl; our typical purchaser might be a fifty-five-year-old woman.

In your presentation at Game Developers Conference you advanced the idea that Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft will eventually find that there consoles are obsolete. What is your thinking?

I do. I look at Nintendo and they only look like a big company if you are at this conference. A truly big company is Dell or Hewitt Packard or Cisco. They are looking at the home: the network, wired home. As games become a primary form of entertainment and becomes as important as Television, reading and music, then the companies that are important companies in entertainment, hardware, connectivity, software and services will have vested interest in gaming as well.

I would look at Nintendo differently than Microsoft or Sony. The harsh reality for Nintendo is they are going to lose the proprietary advantages in terms of competition. They are going to have to become a software publisher. They are going to have to compete with Electronic Arts. In Microsoft's case they might use the Xbox as a launching pad. If the game console goes, Microsoft will make it into a music and video player. Let's imagine I connect my PC to my television: that's a Microsoft eco system right there. The hardware that is going to emerge in the living room we kind of know what it will look like already. Microsoft is going to be fighting to make it a Microsoft operating system. Because of the need to secure the rights, the DRM (digital rights management), there has to be a black box in the living room. ||