Hall of Fame

Hall of Fame: Ben Liu

Pocket Gems' CEO on identity through Street Fighter II

Hall of Fame: Ben Liu

US developer and publisher Pocket Gems was founded in 2009 by Daniel Terry and Harlan Crystal.

Following stints at Disney, Pandemic/Bioware, EA Mobile and Playdom, Ben Liu joined as COO in 2011, becoming CEO in 2012.

One of the pioneers of the free-to-play social-mobile games, Pocket Gems is best known for games such as Tap Zoo, Tap Pet Hotel and Tap Paradise Cove.

More recent releases have seen it enter the hidden object genre with Secret Passages: Hidden Objects and city-building PVP with Epic Empires.

During 2013, it also expanded its business model, publishing third-party titles such as Twyngo's Amazing Ants and Dreamfab's Chasing Yello.

Pocket Gamer: What were your favourite games as a kid?

Ben Liu: My earliest memories of games are the ones I played with my younger brother Tom. He and I are only a year apart in age.

When we were growing up, we did everything together and dressed almost exactly the same, sometimes getting mistaken for twins. One Christmas, after a year of begging our parents nonstop, we finally got a Super Nintendo. Because we were both extremely nearsighted, my mother would only allow us to buy one game per year.

The first year we decided to ask for Street Fighter II because it was a game we could both play at the same time in versus mode. We chose well. The game was incredibly fun and entertained us for hundreds and hundreds of hours. We started off by both playing the same character, Blanka, a Brazilian fighter who had the ability to fly through the air as a ball.

All our lives my brother and I were told how similar we were. While playing Street Fighter II, I began to realize we were more different than people thought.

Ken and Zangief from Street Fighter II

Over time, our differences started to show in real life and eventually in our choice of characters.

He ended up specializing in playing Zangief, a wrestler from Russia whose best move was a 360-degree spinning piledriver. I hated playing Zangief but I loved playing Ken, a martial arts expert from the US. We had many epic battles growing up, making Street Fighter II my favorite game.

When did you realize you wanted to make games as a career?

My early experiences with gaming made me realize I wanted to dedicate my life to creating the same kinds of memories for others. Gaming not only brought me closer to my brother, it also gave me the opportunity to express myself in new ways.

The motivation to create memorable experiences for people took me to my first job in games at the Walt Disney Company and eventually led me to Pocket Gems.

Pocket Gems has gone through incredible growth since I joined, but we've never forgotten that our games are about the basic human desire to express one's self and have fun.

What was your first role in the industry?

My first role in the entertainment industry was with Disney about 10 years ago. After that I worked on console games at Bioware/Pandemic, where I helped build Destroy All Humans! 2.

At Bioware/Pandemic, both leading up to and after its acquisition by Electronic Arts, I worked as a producer on several other console games that focused on multiplayer gameplay. Not too long after the acquisition, I moved over to EA Mobile to work on its still-young iPhone games business as the first lead product manager.

I joined Playdom just as Facebook and social games were taking off. I ended up running the largest game studio and things came full circle for me when Playdom was acquired by Disney in 2010.

Over the past couple of years at Pocket Gems, I've helped grow the company into one of the largest mobile game developers in the world, going from 10 employees to 175 in the last three years.

While many other developers in the space have had ups and downs, we've managed to avoid such struggles by thoughtfully managing our growth and executing well.

What do you consider your first significant success?

Looking back, I think one of my proudest achievements earlier in my career was building City of Wonder at Playdom.

To ensure the game's success, I had to manage a cross-functional team across the globe, provide players with the customization choices needed to support a free-to-play model, and run the game as a constantly evolving and changing service. To complicate matters even more, Playdom was acquired by Disney a few weeks before launch.

Playdom's City of Wonder

The game ended up being both a critical and commercial success. I was really proud of my team and really touched by the response from our players.

At Playdom, I learned a lot of lessons that I took with me to Pocket Gems such as the importance of foreign markets for Western developers and how to build a global games company.

When did the potential for mobile games become apparent to you?

A few things stand out in my mind.

The first time I saw an iPhone is something I still remember vividly. I recall having a feeling that smartphones could end up being a truly remarkable gaming device.

Apple's introduction of the App Store - where developers could reach players directly - really clicked for me. Prior to that, a lot of gamers were at the mercy of their service providers to offer what kind of mobile games they could play, the experiences were quite limited, and there was nowhere near the kind of ease and accessibility that the App Store offered.

Lastly, when I helped build the first in-app purchase storefront for EA, the power of the free-to-play model became clear to me. It gave mobile games limitless potential, turning anyone with a smartphone into a mobile gamer with nearly infinite choices.

I truly believe that the mobile device will be the greatest gaming platform in history and I'm very excited to be a part of this business at such an incredible time.

What do you think is the most significant event in mobile gaming?

I think the introduction of the iPhone and the ability to offer free-to-play games through the App Store really stand out for me here. Both of those things have revolutionized the industry and Pocket Gems' success has been a direct result of being a pioneer in free-to-play smartphone games.

I think a more recent noteworthy event in mobile is the mass migration of traditional gamers and development talent to mobile platforms. This has drastically changed the mobile gaming landscape, helping to raise the bar on what gamers expect from their mobile experiences.

To-date, what are you most proud of? Any regrets?

I'm most proud of everything our team has accomplished at Pocket Gems.

We were just a tiny start-up betting it all on the rise of a totally new type of game (free-to-play) and a new platform that people hadn't quite figured out yet (smartphones). Since then, I've watched this team go through some incredible growth and really push the boundaries of what is possible on mobile. This has only been possible because I get to work with the kindest, smartest and most-driven people I know.

One of Pocket Gems' recent releases - Epic Empire

Also, the fact that we've managed to stay an independent developer, answerable only to ourselves, has significantly influenced the culture of our company. This has allowed us to keep a strong focus on our company values, prioritizing fun above everything else in our games.

As far as regrets go, I think in our early days we were more hesitant to kill new projects than we are today.

Which mobile games have you most enjoyed recently?

There's so many quality games out there today and I'm constantly playing. A recent favorite of mine was Puzzle & Dragons. I was really impressed by the level of innovation and depth that GungHo was able to put in that game.

What are your predictions for the future of mobile games?

I think there a few important trends on the horizon for mobile gaming. A big one is that mobile devices, like smartphones and tablets, will surpass consoles as the premier gaming platform for both users and developers. As mobile games continue to evolve and offer deeper experiences, more players will view their mobile device as their primary gaming device.

In terms of trends inside the mobile gaming space, I think 3D graphics will become the norm for mobile games in the market. Today's players are looking for triple-A experiences on mobile and 3D graphics are an integral part of that.

We'll also see synchronous multiplayer games become more prominent on mobile. Modern mobile gamers are ready for deeper, more polished game experiences. These kinds of games will more readily lend themselves to real-time multiplayer than their predecessors have.

In which area of the industry do you hope to make a difference in future?

We're still in the early days of mobile gaming and we're on the precipice of some incredible market changes.

I think we're going to begin seeing a shift in player habits where people will begin playing fewer games that are generally higher in quality. Now that things like 3D graphics and synchronous gameplay are becoming easier to implement, the quality bar for mobile games is rising at a rapid pace.

Developers will have to keep up with rising user expectations in order to keep their players happy. I see the future of mobile games shifting to quality over quantity and we're ready for that at Pocket Gems.

Starting out in simple monochrome in the days of Snake and WAP, the past decade has seen the mobile games industry kaleidoscope into a glorious, multi-billion dollar sector that's driving global innovation.

So it's high time we celebrate some of the people who helped make that journey possible - something PocketGamer.biz is doing in its regular Mobile Gaming Hall of Fame feature.

You can read our previous articles here.

Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at PG.biz which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.