Seattle’s status as a tech hub is well-documented, as is its reputation as a home for some of the biggest game operations such as Valve, Bungie, Nintendo and Xbox. But what sometimes falls under the radar is Seattle’s casual gaming scene, where numerous companies in the region turn out those easier-to-pick-up titles that appeal to a broader audience beyond hardcore gamers.
For years, the Casual Connect conference, with a focus on casual gaming, was a mainstay Seattle event before going on the road in 2012. The conference is back in Seattle this week for the first time in five years, and FlowPlay CEO Derrick Morton is happy to see it. Morton has been involved with Casual Connect since its inception in 2005.
“I feel like it’s come home,” Morton told GeekWire in an interview at the conference Monday. “This is the original starting place of the convention, so it’s great to have it back.”
FlowPlay is one of many Seattle casual games companies, and its most popular title is a social casino game called Vegas World. The 11-year-old company has been profitable for the last six years, and it has spent the last 18 months moving its entire platform away from Flash. With that project is done, the company is working on its next big project, a social sports game where people can talk about their favorite teams and make virtual bets.
The 65-person company was out in full force at Casual Connect. Morton sat down with GeekWire to talk about the trends in casual games today and the impact tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft are having on the industry.
GeekWire: What is it like for you to have Casual Connect back in Seattle?
Derrick Morton: I feel like it’s come home. I think that was said during Jay Inslee’s speech, welcome home. This is the original starting place of the convention, so it’s great to have it back.
Certainly in many ways, this is the home of casual games. There are so many big companies, influential companies in casual games that started and continue to be here. PopCap, GameHouse, which became part of RealNetworks, RealNetworks obviously, WildTangent, Big Fish Games, DoubleDown to some extent. In the early days of casual games, which was around 2001, when they started coming into their prime, it was mostly happening in Seattle.
GW: How has the casual gaming industry changed in recent years?
DM: The game industry, like most tech industries, is always changing, mostly through tech platforms. There’s also lots of trendy things happening along the way. In the late 2000s you saw Facebook was a huge trend in casual gaming. Mobile obviously picked up steam really quickly after the release of the iPhone.
Probably two years ago, AR (augmented reality) was all the rage, and people were talking about AR and VR. I guess today we’re still in the throes of the eSports trend, that’s where a lot of focus and energy are. It’s always interesting to see where things are going. Us as a company, we kind of ignore the trends. We know what we do well and we do that thing. We sort of ride below the crest of all the other trends that come along and just do what we do well and have a steady ship.
GW: What are you spending most of your time on these days?
DM: We spent the past 18 months moving away from Flash. We’ve been around for 10 years, since 2006, and we were a Flash company. We had over a million lines of Flash ActionScript code in our main game Vegas World. It all had to be completely rewritten. We’ve just finished that project.
We are quality assurance testing the HTML5 version of our product right now, and we hope to have it live by the end of September. It will be pure HTML5 on the web, native iOS and native Android on mobile. We’ve dedicated a lot of resources to it, a lot of engineering time, so it’s really distracted us from doing anything really new in terms of releasing new games or products. We really had to get our platform rebuilt.
GW: Why are you moving away from Flash?
DM: We’ve known for a while that Flash was going to be sunsetted some day, so we started looking three years ago at different technologies that would help us move away from Flash. We looked at Unity, we looked at doing HTML5 and then wrapping HTML5 and players would be allowed to play on mobile. Nothing seemed to be the best fit.
We found a really amazing cool tool called Haxe. It’s all open source and the same code base allows you to compile for HTML5, iOS, Android, Windows executable, Mac executable, PlayStation. You name it you and you can build a game with the same code for any platform you want to play on.
GW: Some of the area’s biggest casual games companies like Big Fish and PopCap have been acquired in recent years, what do you think that says about the Seattle gaming scene?
DM: I’ve worked for four game startups, this is my fourth, and the other three all got bought. It’s just part of the lifecycle of a game company. You put together a team, you have a concept and a strategy around what kind of games you want to build and what you’re good at, and if you’re lucky you get successful at that. The goal of a lot of that success is to hand it off to a big company that can do something much larger with what you’ve created.
In the case of PopCap giving that over to EA, it went from being a mostly PC downloadable and mobile company to getting on a console and being much bigger than when they were just a studio here in Seattle. To some extent, the guys over at DoubleDown being acquired by IGT gave them access to a huge catalog of really cool slot IP, that was very important for the growth of their company as well. So I see it all as a positive. It’s just part of the typical lifecycle every game company wants to achieve, and if they are successful does achieve.
GW: What trends you are watching right now?
DM: The only thing we are paying attention to as a trend, is the daily fantasy sports industry, the DraftKings and FanDuel guys. I think they had a great idea in terms of trying to tap into the sports fan market with casual games.
I think the real money gambling approach was probably the wrong way to go. Once you introduce real money play you pull in a lot of people who aren’t fans, they’re just gamblers. And then you pull in people who are mathematicians who can figure out ways around your system to beat the little guy.
We are really interested in what you can do to make games for sports fans because that’s a huge community of people that are by their definition super-interested the sports they are fans of. If you can create products for them, that’s a very interesting market. But I don’t think anyone has quite hit it directly except the season-long guys like Yahoo.
GW: What other trends are out there in the gaming world?
DM: In games in general, the only trend that’s really hot is eSports, but that’s not really a casual thing. That’s mostly a hardcore and midcore movement. It may spring out to places that are more casual.
Minecraft is a pretty casual game in terms of its gameplay and the people who play it, and it’s huge in terms of the audience on Twitch and the people who watch other people play Minecraft. That’s the biggest thing happening in games, the growth of Twitch and the dominance of Twitch and other platforms where you can watch other people play games. That’s super interesting and a powerful thing in games today.
GW: What impact are tech giants like Amazon and Microsoft having on the industry?
DM: From what I’ve read, Amazon actually seems to think there is a casual play to be made in the Twitch arena and watching other people play games. I’d like to see that happen.
I don’t really have an opinion about how successful Microsoft might be at it. I think they might be a little late. Twitch as part of Amazon has been in this market for so long and been so strong. They’re going to be hard to beat. But Microsoft is a big player too, and they might be able to pull it off.
GW: What is the split of mobile versus desktop games?
DM: Our market is about 50-50. Of the people who play our kind of games, casual games, 50 percent of the revenue is generated on desktop and 50 percent of the revenue is generated on mobile, so it’s about evenly split. It was moving strongly toward the direction of mobile for the last year, year-and-a-half, and it sort of settled at that point, for casual games anyway. It’s still at about 50-50.
GW: What are your thoughts on virtual reality and augmented reality in gaming?
DM: I think it’s still way early for VR. We have an HTC Vive in the office, and for the first month people used it, and now it’s just collecting dust. So even in an office of 65 people who are game enthusiasts, nobody uses our VR equipment. Every Friday, there’s a D&D game in our office where people are rolling dice, playing a traditional Dungeons and Dragons game on our conference table.
Things like Pokémon Go have shown there are some AR possibilities if you want to call Pokémon an AR game. Nobody has found a real breakout consumer hit that will make VR take off today. They haven’t found their secret weapon. We are doing a project with the at guys Linden Lab that made Second Life, building 3D objects for their new VR version of Second Life, called Sansar, as a way to dip our toes in the water to play around with it.