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July 22, 2014
Holly Liu is the chief of staff and culture at Kabam, overseeing HR and driving Kabam’s vision, mission, and values for its 800 employees around the globe. Previously, she was VP of people ops and user experience and led design for Kabam’s very successful game, Kingdoms of Camelot. Here she discusses her experiences with Kabam and her insights into the evolving game industry.
Entering the Game Industry
I entered the game industry because the free-to-play business model enabled me to connect directly with players. Before I started in the game industry, I had spent my time designing products that were based around the advertising business model. I had never been in the gaming industry before, so I’m not sure if I had any expectations. However, once I became involved in the industry, what I did learn was the fundamental difference between product design and game design. Product design can be thought of as blocks or “features” that can be stacked next to each other – not necessarily affecting one another; however, game design needs to be thought of as co-centric loops and a whole eco-system, where moving one piece will affect another, and expanding the game isn’t just “turning on features.”
The Creation of Kabam
Kabam was founded in 2006 initially as watercooler-inc, focused on things that people would talk about at work around the water cooler. We initially created the largest TV and sports fan communities on Facebook, which was so popular that when ABC wanted to distribute video, they called us rather than Facebook. That was the height of our fan communities. However, when the 2008 mortgage crisis hit, it adversely impacted us because our communities and business model were based on advertising revenue. We spent some time talking about what we should do given the climate for our particular business model. The first thing we decided was to stay in the game. We looked at three things: market opportunity, team capabilities, and passion points. First, we had a passion for games, especially our CEO, who loved PC-strategy-based games. Secondly, our team had over 60 years of cumulative experience creating and launching Facebook applications. And finally, we were realizing that Facebook games, coupled with the free-to-play business model, were growing during these trying times. That was what really our start into gaming.
Our CEO was frustrated with the lack of depth of the current Facebook games and wanted to bring a deeper game to the Facebook audience. So we started building the first strategy-based game for Facebook using the ever popular lore of Camelot. We used a lot of community building strategies we had learned from our fan communities to connect people within alliances. Today, our Kingdoms of Camelot franchise has grossed over $250 million dollars in revenue and was the top grossing application in 2012 in the iOS store. We have connected millions of players who have made lifelong friendships, connections, and marriages.
Lessons From Kingdoms of Camelot and Kabam
Through this experience, I learned that entrepreneurship is a full contact sport. Be ready to take everything you have learned – not only what you learned in books at school, but also on the playground and at family dinners, and bring it to the table. You are in the ring. The good thing is you don’t have to do it alone. Make sure you have the right team with whom you can do the best work of your life. With the right team, you can make sure you are getting the right product out the door, and you will be able to raise capital to make this happen. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
In the beginning, my role was to help design a game that was accessible for the Facebook audience. While we knew there were gamers on Facebook, we also knew that a lot of people with no gaming experience would be exposed to Kingdoms of Camelot. Therefore, I spent a lot of time on the first time experience, as well as encouraging the player to get help from and engage friends. I was really inspired by some of the Camelot lore we grew up with and by the idea of transporting the player back in time to the medieval age where there were kings, lords, ladies, princes, and princesses. The concept was influenced by many of the Asian PC-strategy based games as well as a little from Sid Meier’s Civ. The game certainly exceeded our expectations not only on monetizaton but also with the deep connections between players. Personally, what I most enjoy seeing are the connections and how this game has changed people’s lives. The interesting thing is we are changing the world one connection and one player at a time – and I’m not sure how you can change the world without changing people first.
Now as the chief of staff and culture, I am responsible for overseeing HR, internal communications, and knowledge sharing (as a subset of internal communications). Currently, my day will include various meetings on how we can increase knowledge sharing, syncing up with people, and check-ins with various employees. Larger scale projects involve defining the cultural vision, setting up the internal communications framework and executing upon it, and finally, knowledge-sharing projects and milestones. My day-to-day activities all support these larger initiatives.
The Evolving Game Industry
There have been three large shifts for the game industry in recent years. The first has been platform changes. With the astronomical growth of the smartphone, we have seen people shift some of their gaming time to the mobile phone. In the West in particular, we have seen this impact the portable gaming consoles. Also, with the accessibility of the mobile phone, the gaming audience has widened past traditional gamers who are well-versed with the controller, out of the living room and into people’s pockets. This means a whole list of issues on how to get distribution on this platform and whether there is a first mover advantage. Currently for iOS and Android, the platform is moving much closer to a retail store where shelf space is limited, given that there is only so much content that can be featured on a limited shelf space.
The second shift has been around the business model, particularly in the West. We have seen the model move from a consumer goods business model to a service-based micro-transaction model. Or in the mobile phone context: paid apps vs. in-app purchases. In 2012, Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North was the #1 Top Grossing app across the iOS store, beating out Facebook, Pandora, Yelp, as well as any other paid app. This really ushered in a new viable business model, as it was one of the first times an in-app purchase app had beat out paid apps for the Top Grossing spot on the iOS store. The implications of this shift have radically transformed how we think about game making. Rather than thinking about a game like a movie, we need to think of a game as a TV show. In movies, as in traditional gaming, the first week is crucial to how well the movie will do. Doing well in the first weekend is the best indicator to how the movie will do over its lifetime. For a TV show, the pilot is the beta and a lot of tweaking can happen along the way. Also, the revenue curves are not determined by the first night the show is aired. Therefore, with free-to-play gaming, we think a lot about how the game is created in association with players. We value highly what players do, so we have spent quite some time looking into player behavior. There are now things that we can quantify and see, whereas before, there could have been more of a religious debate. For example, in a paid app world, there probably is a large discussion around something that is fun. For us, we can see the effects of fun with our retention rates. Additionally, the game does not stop when it is launched – in fact, that is only the beginning.
The third shift is really due to the shift in the business model. It is more of a cultural and mindset shift to “games-as-a-service,” which is really a shift for the game industry in the West. This mindset and business model has been around for more than a decade in many Asian countries and is quite sophisticated in how they think of features and how they update the game. For some Asian games, there is a dedicated 24-hour hotline for VIP customers in their games. For free-to-play gamers, quality does not necessarily mean fidelity of art and graphics, it means consistent uptime, new content, and ultimately fun (or else they wouldn’t come back). Now with Games-as-a-service, when we design the game, we tend to think about how we will be able to extend the game. Much like when television writers write a story arc, they think of ways the story can be extended. We think of expansion packs and big feature releases similar to television seasons while tournaments, special items, smaller features, and events are similar to television episodes.
Challenges in the Changing Games Landscape
All game makers are facing two major challenges in this changing landscape. The first is distribution, particularly on the mobile device. On the web, folks just bought traffic or used SEO to drive traffic to their website, but now with the mobile phone (particularly for native mobile apps) it’s pretty difficult to repeat the same thing. The price of performance marketing has increased, driving many game developers either to partner or to focus on their business relationships with Apple or Google. The other challenge has been the ability to keep fidelity high while moving toward a Games-as-a-service model. Many game makers are coming from AAA console game development where a large amount of graphics and visual stunning art is what really helped increase revenue for the game. Console games were also built knowing that you had the players’ full attention – it was on the TV and there were controllers, so the games were more cinematic. But with the era of mobile, most players are not familiar with controllers. The game needs to be snack-able (i.e. you can be interrupted and it’s okay), easy to start and stop, and have a lesser amount of graphics that need to be downloaded.
Coming Innovations and How They Affect the Game Industry
I am pretty excited about wearable technology such as Google Glass and Oculus Rift, and the ushering of new gestures while maintaining an immersive experience. I’m hoping that the gestures will be more natural, which will do away with the alienation of the controller and widen the immersive experience of high-quality gaming. I’m also very excited about streaming and getting back into people’s living rooms. It is amazing that some people have canceled cable TV for streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix. And now with Google and AppleTV, you can fling a lot of content onto your TV with minimal effort, and latency fairly decently.
Coming Next From Kabam
Kabam is currently concentrating on making the next generation games. We have some pretty exciting games under development including some original IP as well as some Hollywood licensed IP, such as Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, and Mad Max. Kabam is also focused on building our platform by partnering with third party game developers not just to publish their games, but also to help localize and provide service operations to their games. And, this is all in addition to changing the world!
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