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Building the Electronic Arts of Casual Gaming: PlayFirst CEO John Welch (Part 4)

Posted on Thursday, Aug 2nd 2007

SM: Sounds like Shockwave was a great place to experiment and learn!

JW: During this time I built a friendship with the principal software architect of the project, Brad Edelman, who is now co-founder and CTO of PlayFirst. I also met three other great people who now work at PlayFirst.

Unfortunately, Shockwave spent most of its ~$50 million in venture financing not on games but on making cartoons with Hollywood folks like the South Park guys. The idea was to give the ‘talent’ free reign as well as millions of dollars and see what they came up with. What they delivered was so filthy we couldn’t even air it on the internet. The joke was on us. We also had two chefs on staff and hired a new person every day. The company nearly went out of business when the bubble burst, which is exactly when things started to go right.

We went from 400-something people on staff at one theoretical point during the acquisition of AtomFilms to 33 people after the last layoff. Everyone expected us to fail. Instead, we got smarter and we rebuilt using more efficient and leveraged models. The company also became a much more fun place to work at. We worked smarter not harder, though we still put in long hours occasionally. A year or so after I left, they sold to Viacom for $200 million. Today, Shockwave.com is one of PlayFirst’s top partners selling our games.

A few months after we launched the first premium game download on Shockwave.com, things started to get hot in Seattle, where web game developers PopCap and GameHouse launched downloadable versions of their Bejeweled Deluxe and Super Collapse games on RealArcade. I brought their games over to Shockwave.com as well. Other developers sprang up, as did other competitive web portals. Game on!

The $0 of consumer revenue in 2000 and < $1 million in 2001 grew to tens of millions of dollars in 2002 and now exceeds $1 billion annually. Casual games are all the rage, having replaced ‘mobile’ as the hot category of gaming globally. In fact, casual is now the dominant form of game monetization on mobile platforms! It is no longer a crazy statement to say that casual games will some day be bigger than the ‘core’ game industry in every market globally and on every game-capable platform in each market. Brad and I saw this coming and started PlayFirst in early 2004 with the vision to build a business that would both ride and propel the wave of casual gaming. The proposition was simple: start the first casual game publishing company, build a portfolio of high quality content, build a distribution practice across all of the important channels including a direct web site, and once these ingredients are in place push the envelope in terms of user engagement and new business models to create a compelling, unique and incredibly scalable user experience. That time is now. (to be continued)

[Part 1]
[Part 2]
[Part 3]

This segment is part 4 in the series : Building the Electronic Arts of Casual Gaming: PlayFirst CEO John Welch
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