Uken Games co-founder Chris Ye and I meet at the shop on King and University. We navigate through the dim labyrinth of the PATH tunnels (reminiscent of Pacman’s own maze) to get to the Uken offices at 69 Yonge Street. On the way there, we chatted about entrepreneurship, StarCraft, and real estate prices.
Naturally, we move on back to some more serious topics for the substance of this interview.
TRADITIONAL GAMING INDUSTRY
We start off with the traditional gaming industry. Will they be able to adapt to the changing landscape?
“I think that they are, but it’s going to cost them a lot of money,” Ye grimaces. “It’s going to be a painful process for a lot of them. It’s a bit different, but it’s sort of similar to how the music industry wasn’t able to adjust; they went from a $40 billion business to a $10 billion business.”
Ye breaks it down to a difference in style; traditional gaming companies are used to huge budgets to build games, certain methods used to construct games, team sizes, amongst many other things, whereas independent social game developers are much more nimble and lean.
“A lot of them are going after low-hanging fruit, which is bringing their console titles over to mobile, and leveraging the brand to sell those titles. But there are new models out there, like free to play, virtual goods, and in-app purchases that totally have changed the game.” Hard to believe, but we both miss that pun at the time.
“But they’re big, and a lot of them have a lot of money, so they’ll adapt,” Ye adds. “It’ll just be painful," he concludes.
Chris Ye highlights the same challenge that XMG’s Ray Sharma did when I spoke to him a couple of months ago: the hypercompetitiveness of the mobile gaming industry. Where Sharma elaborated on his own strategy, fewer games and higher polish, Ye points his finger to the community as Uken’s competitive advantage.
“You want to create an environment in a game where people get more value playing with other people,” explains Ye. “That creates a lot of stickiness that would be hard to create just through the game itself.” In other words, the community has become a strong retention strategy.
Often times, gamers either sign up with a friend who they already know, or end up meeting and playing with other people that are in a similar level or experience level at that point in the game. Uken simply is the catalyst, and introduces elements like clans, which naturally elevates the level of collaboration and interactions that gamers have.
Traditional gaming companies have already recognized the power of social spaces as well. Ye points out that Blizzard has been doing it with Battle.net, Microsoft with Xbox Live, and so on.
“In the past, we release games pretty early on, with pretty basic mechanics. We’ve always just watched for feedback, measured a lot of different analytics ... we made adjustment based on user feedback, and how users were reacting,” says Ye.
“For the most part, we collect all actions within the games. Any click, or any action, or view, we’re collecting that data,” he continues. “If we’re putting out a new feature, there are certain KPI’s that we measure. Things like retention, things like engagement, time spent on the app; we measure a before and after effect of that.”
I remember when I first set eyes on a Uken game, what would make this game fun? As Ye mentioned, it had a very basic interface: lots of buttons, very little flash at that time. What was so appealing about this?
As I thought more about it, Pokémon didn’t exactly have cutting-edge graphics or the most action involved in it either. Yet it took the world by storm and became one of the world’s most beloved franchises.
Uken simply managed to stumble upon this insight, and use it to their advantage.
As we wrap up the interview, I’m reminded of the first time I played a WiiWare game called Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King (the review I linked to said it was “more addictive than crack cocaine”). It was a challenging, fun game that served as a mind-intensive alternative to most motion-oriented Wii games, and yet Nintendo didn’t really capitalize on that type of game (virtual goods cost as much as the game itself, plus there were few social elements integrated into it).
Ye predicts that there will be an opportunity in the next three to five years for a gaming company to step up in a major way. I’m just as excited to see what companies like Uken will be up to throughout that time span.