F2P game design consultant Mark Sorrell has revealed he will be joining Rovio Stars in June.
Taking on the role of senior product manager at Rovio’s publishing arm Rovio Stars, Sorrell is its third recent high profile hire – following Playground Publishing executive Wilhelm Taht and Wooga's head of marketing Eric Seufert - also author of Freemium Economics - to Helsinki.
We caught up with Sorrell to discuss why he made the move, what the role entails and what the future holds for the company.
Pocket Gamer: Why have you decided to move to Rovio Stars?
Mark Sorrell: I haven't had a full time job for a long time, quite deliberately because I've been enjoying consulting.
That said, one reason I have been considering a move to a full time position is because when you're hired as a consultant, you don't get to dig into stuff. You're hired because people don't know a lot about the industry and they need to find out about basic stuff.
So you don't have the opportunity to get stuck into things too deeply, or to learn, which is something I've been wanting to do. In that respect, Rovio Stars has turned out to be a really good choice.
What does your role entail?
I'm going to be a senior product manager, which because it's at Rovio Stars is about external publishing.
This is the area of the company I'm most excited about as it isn't so much to do with the Angry Birds IP, it's explicitly about exploring new territory and finding new ways of doing things.
I get really excited about that because this is 'my thing' - whatever it is we're doing, there must be a better way to do it, so let's try and find out what it is - basically "how can we do what we're doing better".
The next step in free-to-play games is working out new ways to make new things work.Mark Sorrell
At the moment, I think free-to-play games are in a weird place as we've moved from most people not knowing anything to knowing some things that work.
So there's been a movement from literally copying games wholesale to starting to understand how this particular bit of that game worked, and copying it.
The next part of the process - the exciting bit - is understanding how that bit of that game worked and then working out new ways to make new things work.
Is it like if you consider free-to-play mechanics to be an engine; when you understand how the engine works, you can start swapping components in and out?
Describing it as an engine is definitely right, but in a literal sense it's a little more like how we learned to perform surgery. We had to cut people up in order to understand what was going on inside and then try to work out how to fix things.
An engine has been expressly designed, whereas free-to-play games are an intersection between design and human psychology. The games have to work in the way that humans do.
And as much as you are trying to influence behaviour, you can't always do so. It's like a meeting point – some of it is up to us and some of it is fixed.
Where did you hear about the Rovio Stars role?
Well this ties into one of the reasons I was so excited about taking the job. I've known Wilhelm Taht - Rovio Stars' head of external products - for a while through personal friends.
We got on and had a very similar view on where things are going and how to address the future. This is a very young area so there is a lot of room to move in and a lot of room to make leaps forward. So when Wilhelm went to Rovio, it piqued my interest and made me think there was something more to Rovio than I had assumed.
Then we started to work together on a freelance basis, initially on Rovio Stars' Plunder Pirates, after that the relationship kicked off. It was kind of like flirting.
When Eric Seufert joined Rovio Stars and I was like 'Wow'. I have the utmost respect for Eric. There are very few guys you can point to in free-to-play who you'll say 'They know what they're talking about' and Eric is undoubtedly in that group.
So for Eric to up-sticks and move to the cold, cold north really made me think 'Bloody hell'. If anyone is going to be selling the games I'm making, then I'd rather it be Eric than anyone else.
It seems like Rovio Stars is putting together a superstar team. Do you think that's a fair way to put it?
It's an interesting question. There are some people who get free-to-play and some people who don't and some of them are publicly known and some of them aren't.
I think if you talk about assembling a super star team, that's likely to consist partially of people that are well known as commentators on the industry and have a public face - like Eric and me - I guess fall into that category to a degree.
But there'll also be a whole bunch of people you've never heard of, who are completely brilliant behind the scenes. So in terms of getting the best team, will it always be well known people? No it won't.
Although you've said you're not working on it directly, what's your view on Angry Birds
The Angry Birds licence is enormous. It's still a huge, huge thing and there are hundreds of millions of active users - I think Rovio has like 170 million monthly active players and most of that is from Angry Birds products. So it's a huge piece of IP - having that available is astonishing.
Supercell and the other really big dudes don't really have that sort of IP.
There's a point that's been made recently which I think is incredibly true, or at least incredibly smart, and a good thought to mull over.
Supercell isn't a game company doing free-to-play, it's a free-to-play company doing games.
If you look at Rovio in the same way, you could say that it's an IP company doing games, doing free-to-play. And it's slightly my job and the job of the company as a whole to switch the word games and free-to-play around.
Do you think it's possible for Rovio to recover its position as the mobile gaming market leader?
Well, I mean the position they had was leader of an industry that doesn't exist anymore. They were the leaders of premium games on mobile, which is an industry that is not.... well it does still exist, but it's not the industry they're in now.
Rovio Stars has the opportunity to accelerate time compared to Rovio's internal development.Mark Sorrell
I think Rovio Stars has the opportunity to accelerate time compared to Rovio's internal development, perhaps. We get to do a lot of titles. A small number of people can have enormous reach and enormous influence, because it is external production and publishing.
So there are a lot more titles for us to learn from and we can learn a lot quicker and iterate a lot quicker. It's about this state of transition, going from premium, to free-to-play, to getting as good as anyone at free-to-play, and then taking it to the next level.
The important part is that next step - from being just as good, if not better at free-to-play than everyone else - to doing things that no-one else is doing.
I think it's that step which Rovio Stars' external production is in a really great place to fulfill - thanks to an amazing team and an incredible bunch of products.