As the casual game space continues to grow and draw more big players into the market, highly-specialized firms with a history of success in the genre can offer a lot of insight to those interested in cashing in on gaming’s quietist multi-million-dollar sector.
I had the opportunity to speak with Jessica Rovello, Chairman and Co-Founder of Arkadium, Inc.. Arkadium’s been around since 2001, focusing originally on “skill games,” then expanding to the casual sector and adver-gaming. What follows is the conversation we had.
The Escapist: Tell me about Arkadium. How did you form? What have you been doing since then?
Jessica Rovello: Arkadium was started in 2001, by me and my partner, who is my husband. It started as a skill-gaming company; [skill games allow] you to wager money on games of skill like chess and backgammon, casual games like Bejeweled. We started that in 2001, and we spent two, two and a half years building that part of the company. It was early in the skilled gaming industry. We’re one of the original players in the stakes. When people were doing their research on [skill gaming], they were saying that it was going to be a $10-15 billion industry by 2004 or 2005. When we saw that the numbers weren’t panning out, we wanted to start thinking about ways to grow and shift the business away from skill gaming.
By 2003, we had close to 50 casual games we had created in house … which were plugged into this backend skill-gaming engine. … People started being interested in [our games], just as single-player flash games, so we shifted the business to be a little bit more about licensing games and licensing intellectual property and less about the skill gaming side of things.
So, [we now have the company] divided into three divisions. The first is the Casino division, and that handles the creation and licensing of casino software to actual offline casinos. We also have really great multiplayer poker software that we license just for play-for-fun. The second division is the Agency division, which services all of the major advertising agencies, as well as big brands directly, and that’s primarily adver-gaming focused, so we take all of the intellectual property we own … and we re-brand them or re-fit them for companies who are looking to [release] adver-games. And then the third part of our company is the Consumer Products division, and we have a casual game website that’s based primarily for women [aged] 35-plus, called Great Day Games. It’s free online casual games, and we’re also creating our first downloadable title, which will be available in 2007.
TE: On the skill-gaming side, with the recent legislation banning online casinos in the U.S., wagering on games like that is illegal now. Did you guys see that coming when you got out?
JR: No, we didn’t see that coming in 2003; I think a lot of people who are traditional gaming/casino providers didn’t see it coming, unfortunately, which was a pretty hard hit for them. It’s been interesting, because¬ we’ve gotten a lot more inquiries into the skill-gaming side … since the legislation. The reason we got out of skill-gaming as early as we did, which I’m happy we did, [is] it’s not going to make nearly as much as traditional online games or casual games or traditional gaming. It’s kind of in the middle, and there’s not a lot of people that you’ll find who are willing to put down a $5 bet on a game of solitaire. You know the people who are the poker players are there, will they wager on black jack, poker, on back gammon, sure, but that cross-section of the casual gamer and the person willing to put their money where their mouth is a very rare thing to find.
TE: You also mentioned you were working with adver-gaming. What kinds of clients have you had so far?
JR: We work with the big agencies, so we’ve worked with Edelman, Ogilvy & Mather, Deutsch Interactive. … Our work’s been on CBS Sportsline, NBC, GE and Hearst Magazine. So lots of Fortune 400 and 500 companies.
TE: Do your adver-games target women, too, or is that mostly on the Great Day site?
JR: We tend to get clients who want to target female gamers specifically. However, we can create anything for anyone. So, for instance, if someone says, “We want to create a game that appeals to 13-year-old boys,” we can absolutely do that, but our forte tends to be that sweet spot of casual gaming, which is women, 35-plus.
TE: Do you design specifically for women, or is that just how the games tend to spread demographically?
JR: I think it’s a combination of both. I think that women tend to be the majority of people playing these games, but I also remember reading that women represent 52 percent of online casino gamers, which was surprising to me. So, I think women are just playing more online games compared to console games, but I think there’s an equal, if just slightly lesser, amount of men … who have moved away from being core gamers.
We designed Great Day Games with women in mind, but we don’t design each of our particular games asking ourselves what’s going to appeal to a 35-year-old woman, because I’m probably a much different 35-year-old woman than a lot of people out there. We try not to generalize in terms of the aesthetic.
TE: Now, with Great Day Games, how is it designed for women?
JR Number 1, the games that we’re offering. In study after study, women have said that the genres that appeal to them are puzzles, strategy and work games, and if you look at the site, the majority of games we offer are those types of games. Although we do offer arcade-style games, they’re probably less popular and less in number than the strategy puzzle type games that we’re offering.
Number 2, in terms of what you hear women saying they want to do when they’re online, … a lot of it tends to be toward an escape from the everyday: relaxation, forgetting about the worries of everyday life. So when we designed the site, we kind of designed it with that in mind, so the colors are very soothing and cool, and if you look on the home page, you’ll see an inspirational quote.
Number 3, we have a rewards system for our players, called the Treat System, so the more you play, the more treats you earn, and you can cash in your treats for [to enter] sweepstakes and [win] prizes. All of our sweepstaking and prizing tend to be toward that core demographic of 35-puls. So the prizes are things that they’re looking for, like gift certificates to Bath & Body Works, even practical things like gift certificates to Wal-Mart. Our gamers have told us, “I love my Bath & Body gift certificate, … but I also have diapers I need to buy, so give me a Wal-Mart gift certificate.”
TE: How do the treats work? The more you play the more you get, something along those lines?
JR: Correct; we liken it to an airline miles program. … The more you play, and depending on how well you play, the more treats you’re going to accumulate. And then you can cash in those treats for entries into sweepstakes which will give you prizes.
TE: You said your most popular genre is strategy and puzzle games. Has any genre surprised you? Has one game you threw out there and thought, “Maybe someone will like this,” and then all of a sudden, it’s one of your most popular games?
JR: We have a racing [game and a] pool game, and both are doing very well, which is slightly surprising because those fall outside of the genre. But they found a following, and the following that they have loves to play them.
I think that kind of goes back to the whole casual gamer thing being a little more wide than people think it is. Because you know all the stats that come out say 52 percent, or in some cases 70 percent, of people … playing these games are women 35-plus, but I think there is also a following of casual gamers who are mature men who are at work and don’t have … the Xbox 360 or whatever it is they’re playing at home every night, who are going online and playing pool and playing these racing games. They’re doing it for the same reasons women are doing it, because they have a couple minutes and they want to do something that’s fun and relaxing and makes them forget about work, and they don’t have an hour and a half to get into something like WoW, where they might be intimidated by what’s going on.
TE: What is your profit model on Great Day Games?
JR: Advertising. It’s purely advertising-based. The reason we did that was that after experimenting with the skill-gaming model, one of the things we realized was that people loved these games, and in the years since the internet started, a lot of people have gotten used to the concept that content on the internet is free. … [But] people are more than happy to sit through a 30-second or 15-second ad to get content for free.
TE: Do you do anything on the social networking side? I noticed a profile section on Great Day Games.
JR: We’re starting to get into that more and more, less about the social networking because we’re trying to strike a fine balance between people understanding that there’s a community there and [becoming] overwhelmed or intimidated by it. We want people to understand that they’re part of a collective experience, but we don’t want them to have [to deal with] people that are trying to pick them up, which I think a lot of people, especially older people, are weary of.
What we’ve really tried to get into a little bit more is the Web 2.0 idea of customizing the site to be more … personal to you. So we’re going to start rolling out improvements for that over the next couple months. But if you look, for example, on every page, you’ll see we have the ability for you to subscribe to an RSS feed for that page, so you constantly know what level you are in terms of the leader board and if your stats have changed. We’re also going to get into people be able to customize the games that they play, so that they make more sense to them and they can share them with other users.
TE: You guys target the 35-plus age group. A lot of those people haven’t grown up with games surrounding them. In 10 years, the 35-plus demographic will be on the outer edge of growing up with a Nintendo or Super Nintendo in their house. Do you think people are going to remain as casual in 10 years, or do you think the genres that you create will have to change to adapt to people who grew up playing platformers or shooters?
JR: I think the industry is bound to mature, and it’s bound to change, but I think just as with online games, we’re going to need to get a little more sophisticated. … [We’re still a held back a little because] of technology restraints and bandwidth restraints and things like that, so as those things start to fall away and as gamers that grew up with an Xbox in their house start to mature, then its bound to change.
However, I don’t necessarily agree that people our age didn’t grow up with videogames in their lives. Me being 32, me and people a little bit older than me, I think, were probably the first generation that really had videogames in their lives. I mean, I was at the arcade all the time. I had the Atari 2600, I had a Nintendo and I had a ColecoVision. … We were really the first generation to have videogame systems … be a big part of our lives. … I think a lot of the people playing our games are the people that had an Atari in their house growing up.
TE: Do Atari clones do well? Like, a Pitfall remake or something along those lines.
JR: I think that yes, those games tend to do pretty well. Again, it depends on who the audience is. For my audience, we have match-three games that are very popular, we have games that are similar to games that came out in the ’80s that do pretty well. I think they do well for the same reasons that chess and solitaire do well: People are already comfortable in things they already know how to do and they don’t want to take the time to learn how to do them from scratch.
Our thanks for Mrs. Rovello for taking the time to speak with The Escapist.
Tara Derveloy contributed to this article.