Big Fish, Growing Pond

Casual developer angles for mainstream with Mystery Case Files: Shadow Lake, starring Lea Thompson.

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Video games, like movies or books, are defined by genres for marketing purposes. And, like movies or books, some games don’t fit neatly into their genres, but the labels we've given them are intended to help people determine what it is they should spend their time and money on. The label "casual games" isn’t as useful a genre label as "FPS" or "RTS." It's often conflated or interchanged with the labels "arcade," "casino," "social" and sometimes "mobile." The "casual" label is so broad, it lacks meaning.

"Casual is more about what it’s not than what it is," Big Fish Games founder and CEO Paul Thelen says over coffee at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco. It’s taken him 30 minutes to arrive at this statement — after carefully separating his personal gaming passion from his company's history, and his company's history from the casual games genre. "It's not for kids," he continues. "It’s not mid-core, strategy/war. It's not hardcore."

The list of what the casual games genre is not goes on: it's not social (except when it is), it's not multiplayer (but it can be) and even if it's not for kids, kids could play it because it doesn't require a great deal of dexterity and literacy.

Casual games, one could argue, are games for everyone.


Mainstream and Money

"We took a pass on social. With the power Zynga had at the time, it was kind of a 'bet the company' strategy."

What makes something "mainstream" is almost as hard to define as what makes a game "casual." Part of it can be defined by demographics. The majority of the planet's population falls between the ages of 20 and 70, relatively evenly split between male and female. Create a product that appeals to this category, without breaking it down any further, and you've got something that's arguably "mainstream" — it's for everyone. Mainstream can be identified by scale: If only two million people out of the 311 million in the United States are doing something, it's hard to make the case that it's mainstream — especially if the activity is largely invisible to the 309 million Americans not doing it. Mainstream is also distinguished by money — how much a product makes, how large an industry it can support. Here, video games easily meet "mainstream" requirements — on launch day, sales of Halo 4 reportedly broke $220 million.

Whatever the casual games genre is — and is not — it's made big money for Big Fish. Thelen founded the company in 2002 at a time when he said the casual games industry was "vibrant" on PC, with people still purchasing physical box copies of games or downloading them from nascent games portals. Prior to that, he'd been at RealNetworks for six years, building the internet media delivery service's games distribution platform.

"I thought I could be a game developer again," Thelen shrugs. He seems almost embarrassed by the fact that he's been programming games since he was a 10-year-old living in a house with no cable TV. When pressed, he claims he's not a "real" programmer — he just codes in his spare time for fun, or with his 6-year-old son as a project. "I started Big Fish as a hobby and after about a year, I was doing so well that I was able to hire real programmers and start scaling the business organically. In 2005, we took some angel investor money — mostly from friends and family — and we did a [$83.3 million series A] round in 2008. We didn't really need it, but figured it'd be nice to have a bigger balance sheet so we could have bigger opportunities to sell more games."

And Big Fish sells a lot of games. The developer puts out one new game for PC and Mac nearly every day on its portal; as of 2012, their games library exceeds 4,000 titles — most of which are premium download, only around a quarter of those free-to-play. Their games have been downloaded over 65 million times to date, and the Big Fish Games web portal sees more than 14 million unique visitors every month. To date, the developer's demographics are split almost evenly between male and female players (65 percent female, Thelen says) between the ages of 25 and 75 .

PaulBig Fish CEO Paul Thelen

The rapid releases and broad audience have a clear impact on Big Fish's bottom line; annual revenues have grown every year since 2002. The bulk of that money comes from the downloads business; visitors to the portal can play a trial version of most games, but must pay between $10 and $20 to download the full game. On iPhone, iPad and Android phones, players can download any Big Fish mobile game for free and unlock full versions for between $0.99 and $1.99 (up to $6.99 on iPad). Thelen says mobile game sales made up 30 percent of revenues in 2012, up from just 5 percent a year ago — making this Big Fish's 10th year of consecutive revenue growth.

With all of those games and financial success, even during the downturn of the economy from 2008 to 2010, it's hard to believe that Big Fish could've flown under the radar for anybody — player, investor or member of the media. Surely, with the explosion of casual games on Facebook and smartphones, somebody would've mentioned them in the same breath as "Zynga" or "Rovio." But because they didn't make a move on Facebook during the platform's growth period between 2008 and 2010, and didn't make a fuss in the media about its success on the App Store or Google Play, Big Fish's big splashes go largely unremarked.

Again, Thelen can only shrug. "We took a pass on social. We did launch a couple of social games in the early days and realized that, with the power Zynga had at the time, it was kind of a 'bet the company' strategy," he says. "In retrospect, it was a good move even if we did get some criticism at the time."

Even so, the rise of social games did what demographics and a decade's worth of consecutive revenue growth couldn't do for Big Fish — it made them mainstream.

"Mainstream was more ambiguous for games because no games were mainstream," Thelen says. "We had a tremendous [casual games] business in 2003 to 2005, but nobody really knew we existed because our players didn't talk about them. Social [games] created awareness that games are for everyone again."

Social Games take Casual Back to the Future


Over a third cup of coffee, Thelen takes us back to the early Atari days and the golden age of Pong. Those games, so simple in interface and with no real barrier to entry besides quarters or home entertainment systems, used box art to invite people of all ages and demographics to come play. An ad for an Atari 2600 circa November 1977 might look a lot like a promotional image for a Wii U today — a multi-generational family clustered around a console, clutching controllers and smiling.

But from about 1985 through 2005, the mainstream audience was cut off from video games. "Mainstream became alienated from games as a product of limited shelf space," Thelen explains. "Whatever sold, you got more of and that was games that appealed to young males. Core games took over and made it an alien experience for women and older men to go into a retail game store. The internet was the great equalizer and we built a robust casual business on the people alienated by the retail stores, but it wasn't a mainstream audience in terms of scale."

The turning point came with the rise of Facebook. During the games craze on the platform between 2007 and 2009, there were no restrictions in how game developers could use Facebook to attract people to its games. This gave developers like Zynga access to a massive audience, most of whom hadn't set foot in a retail games shop in over 20 years, if ever. Even if the early games on Facebook were relatively simple web applications — click to harvest corn, click to race pets — they reintroduced a generation and a half to games. Showed them how to play games with mouse and keyboard, how to enjoy games without feeling guilty or embarrassed. It also made the sharing of game activity socially acceptable, bringing in even more people that didn't necessarily recognize themselves as "gamers."

At the height of its most explosive growth between 2008 and 2010, Facebook game players made up half of the social network's more than 600 million monthly active users. Since that time, expansions to the platform and changes to the game developer ecosystem have slowed the growth of games dramatically on Facebook (now at 1 billion MAU, the site estimates roughly a quarter of its audience plays social games). But the most successful social games — most notably FarmVille — won the "mainstream" label and brought it back to Big Fish Games.

“Mainstream became alienated from games as a product of limited shelf space."

"We profited tremendously from the growth of social," Thelen says. Not only did social games rehabilitate alienated mainstream players, it also educated them on the various types of casual games available. Even if they weren't fans of Facebook games — or only played because their friends did — it gave many of them the impetus to seek out other types of game experiences, some richer and more immersive, some exclusively single-player. Many of them wound up at, apparently; Thelen says the company's revenue growth has grown proportionally to the growth of social games.

"The future [for us] is the cloud," Thelen says. With the launch of their streaming service this year, Big Fish's games can now be played almost anywhere. At this point, no other company can offer such ubiquitous access to casual games to such a broad audience — except for perhaps PopCap Games, which Thelen considers out of the casual games distribution competition after the company's 2011 acquisition by Electronic Arts.

Name and Facial Recognition

Just two years ago, it would've been difficult for Big Fish Games to sign a celebrity to promote or appear in one of its games. There are plenty of examples of celebrity integrations with video games, from scripted roles like Mark Hamill in the Wing Commander games to entire franchises based on their personas like 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand. But signing a celebrity is about budgets — and the game's ability to hook a celebrity.

Lea Thompson, an American actress who earned cult status for her role as Lorraine McFly (neé Baines) in the Back to the Future trilogy, marks Big Fish's first-ever celebrity integration into one of their games. It's been 22 years since Back to the Future III, but looking at the box art for Mystery Case Files: Shadow Lake, she's easily recognizable.

"Discovery is always a challenge for single-player games."

What’s not so easy to recognize is that Shadow Lake is a video game and not a movie. The box art looks like a suspense film poster, with Thompson sitting across a fortunetelling table, her unmistakable high forehead tilted forward in an intense stare as seemingly unconnected images fan out from behind her in sepia tone. At the bottom of the image, tiny print reads, "Big Fish Games presents in Association with ThinkLab a Mystery Case Files production," directed by Kale Stutzman, starring Lea Thompson, with code by Ben Schofield and Garth Bonikowski.

Save for the word "games" and the mention of code in the fine print, there is nothing to indicate that Shadow Lake is a video game and not a movie. Nothing on the cover even suggests what kind of game it is. Certainly not the next installment of a top-selling hidden object PC download game. Certainly not the latest from an independent game studio that brought in over $180 million in revenue last year. The only way you'd know that is if Mystery Case Files or Big Fish Games were as recognizable as the name Lea Thompson.

"Discovery is always a challenge for single-player games," Thelen says. He points out that Big Fish's premium download games are inherently non-social, because they depend on keeping the player immersed in the experience. "The [celebrity] integration has the discovery element. And it creates more immersion."

Shutterstock_99303752_lea_400x608Lea Thompson, 2012
"I like a game that involves my imagination."

That Big Fish has the budget to afford some star power is obvious, but it took several hooks to lure Thompson to Mystery Case Files. The first is similar to the motivation many social game players have when they migrate from Facebook to Big Fish's port — the promise of a more intimate and complex experience.

"I play a few little time-killing games," Thompson admits. "Mystery Case Files is more appealing, like reading a book and playing a game at the same time. I don’t like to just fritter away my time, I like a game that involves my imagination and gets me thinking — about the story, about the possibilities. I think that's why these games are so popular. People love to read mysteries and you get to solve puzzles — it brings a bunch of different aspects of gaming and entertainment together."

The Mystery Case Files series challenges players to solve puzzles while collecting hidden objects. When the franchise first started in 2005, the "mystery" part of the game was less significant than the puzzles and hidden object gameplay. As the developer experimented more with using actors and full motion video to tell the games' stories, however, Big Fish started to push the boundaries of connecting the story to the gameplay. By using a mystery to drive exploration, Mystery Case Files now offers players branching possibilities in the storyline. That, combined with the rich graphics and high product values, completely immerses players in the experience in a way that other casual games don't.

"I have a giant fan base of so-called science fiction nerds or iconoclasts that like Howard the Duck — and a lot of them like video games."

"We use full motion video for everything we're doing," says Kale Stutzman, the game's director. "It's not something that a lot of people do any more. I think in the future, it would be really interesting to push into things that have been up to this point triple-A sort of motion capture stuff and 3D actors that are voiced by [themselves]. [LA Noire] was a game we were playing while we built this game and thought 'oh yeah, this is next!' As we're able to get up to that level, that's the direction we want to go."

That's the second hook for Thompson — the attention to the actors' role in the gameplay experience. "When I talked to Big Fish about [the full motion video], they said their research indicated that women don't respond as well to animated faces as real faces. That appealed to me as an actor, because we want to keep our jobs," she says. "We process somewhere like 1,000 pieces of information every second when we're looking at someone's face. We're taught to appreciate the subtleties and the nuances of human expression — which is a forward-thinking way of making a game."

Another hook: broadening her fanbase. Thompson is a cult icon of the historically young male-dominated science fiction community, and so her audience for that work is limited to fans on Twitter and people she meets at sci fi conventions. More recently, however, she's broadened her audience by appearing on ABC Family as Kathryn Kennish in the TV series Switched at Birth.

"I have a giant fan base of so-called science fiction nerds or iconoclasts that like Howard the Duck — and a lot of them like video games, you know," Thompson says. "Fourteen to 20-year-old women [who watch Switched at Birth] are not my usual fanbase, but those are the ages of my daughters. So it's been awesome being on a show [aimed at] new people."

To not-so-young-anymore men that love Back to the Future and the young women that watch Switched at Birth, Thompson can now add Big Fish's big audience: men and women 25 to 75 that play Mystery Case Files. Though Thelen and Stutzman declined to share the primary demographic information for the series with us, they both point out just how long the series has been running — seven years — and that it's on multiple platforms, including mobile. That counts a great deal toward scale and recognition.

"Actually, her first appearance in anything was in an interactive murder mystery," Stutzman muses. "If you go look it up in her profile on IMDB, she was in this laserdisc game [MysteryDisc: Murder, Anyone? ]. So it's like she’s come full circle."Babykayak

Image credits: Big Fish Games, Shutterstock