Creating new gaming platforms has been Greg Canessa's bread and butter for much of his career.
In 2004, he brought digital game distribution to console for the first time with Xbox Live Arcade - first on the original Xbox and then from launch with its follow-up Xbox 360.
From 2009 to 2011, he headed up version 2.0 of Blizzard's Battle.net. This version ramped up social elements and allowed users to play several Blizzard games with a single, unified account.
And now he's at GSN Games taking charge of Sparcade, the latest real-money competitive gaming platform on mobile - following up Skillz and Cashplay - which launched in North America in October.
An old model, made new
GSN Games is not a newcomer to competitive, skill-based games. Launched back in 1999, its first attempt was the web-based World Winner.
Still active, Canessa reveals that World Winner “to this day gives out more than $175 million a year in cash prizes”.
A proven business model for GSN, Sparcade began life as an attempt to bring this to mobile and Canessa was specifically targeted for it.
“I was at Activision running Activision mobile, and I was actually approached by our CEO and our COO here at GSN more with a general thought [that would become Sparcade],” he recalls.
For all intents and purposes it's brand new, but it's an old model.Greg Canessa
“Today's generation of mobile gamers really have no idea that World Winner or Royal Games even exist, so for all intents and purposes it's brand new - but it's an old model.”
Sparcade launched with five games: Pac-Man, Scrabble, Tetris Burst, Wheel of Fortune and Solitaire TriPeaks.
For Canessa, the willingness of such big names to get involved with Sparcade right from the off has been encouraging.
“We didn't shoot for second or third tier brands,” he considers. “We went for Tetris, we went for these huge franchises.”
Occasionally, there was some difficulty involved in negotiating with IP holders and explaining exactly what Sparcade's proposition is.
“This is disruptive, this is not free-to-play,” says Canessa. “It's not the natural orientation of these companies.”
The home of competition
However, for the most part, he notes that it was a surprisingly simple process to get partners on board.
“There's a latent desire to embrace other business models in the mobile space,” he argues. “These are awesome franchises, but doing them in free-to-play is tough.
“And we all know that doing a $1.99 game is not the path to getting in the top-grossing.”
For IP holders, then, the appeal of Sparcade is twofold: a new way of monetising, and a breeding ground for “micro-communities” around these games.
According to Canessa, many of these are franchises that are strong elsewhere but “lack an organising principle on mobile”.
“Where's the home of the digital community for competitive Scrabble play?” he questions. “We want that to be Sparcade.”
More broadly, he suggests that there's a space emerging for competitive gaming with a broader audience than we've seen previously.
“That is a phenomenon that starts out in the hardcore like League of Legends, before moving into midcore with titles like Vainglory and Clash Royale," says Canessa.
"And we believe Sparcade can be that catalyst to actually popularise competition around casual games for the masses.”
Striking a balance
However, this desire to be a home for major brands is tempered by a focus on suitability and fairness by Canessa and the team.
Sparcade can be that catalyst to popularise competition around casual games.Greg Canessa
Each game is specifically adapted for tournament play. Tetris, for instance, ensures that each player in any single competitive game gets the same blocks in the same order to eliminate any randomness or luck.
This means that any game appearing on Sparcade must be able to survive these balancing changes with its core essence intact. He uses Plants vs. Zombies as an example.
“We would not pick Plants vs. Zombies if it required us to change the game at such a fundamental level that when the user came to Sparcade and played the game, it didn't feel like Plants vs. Zombies,” he explains.
As such, there's some degree of confidence in Sparcade's two latest additions - Centipede, which is available through the app now, and Two Dots which will be coming soon.
Old and new
“Centipede and Two Dots really emphasise Sparcade's depth and variety,” enthuses Canessa.
“You're seeing us not just doubling down on classic franchises, but also bringing more current franchises and more casual play patterns.”
Two Dots is what Canessa calls Sparcade's “much-needed match-3 game”.
A 2014 casual hit, it's also the only Sparcade game that made its name on mobile as opposed to another system - or indeed another medium entirely.
Centipede on Sparcade, meanwhile, is “not the Centipede of 30 years ago”.
Originally released in 1980, it's one of the lesser-plundered games in Atari's back catalogue - making it an interesting prospect to reimagine.
“It really hasn't been rewritten that many times,” considers Canessa. “It really gave Kenny [Shea Dinkin, VP of Design] and his team kind of an open canvas.”
The result is a game that's been graphically overhauled and now focuses on speed, challenges and points, eschewing lives.
“Dimensionalising the portfolio”
Adding these games is a crucial part of establishing Sparcade as a platform, according to Canessa.
It's about having the right games, not necessarily the max number.Greg Canessa
It's a case of what he calls “dimensionalising the portfolio”. Or, more simply, “putting a little something in there for everybody”.
“It's about having the right games, not necessarily the max number,” he adds. “Our plans are to build this smartly, to introduce games that really fill gaps and stabilise.”
It's still early days for Sparcade. The app is only available on the App Store in North America.
But Canessa is familiar with this nascent stage of gaming platform creation and feels confident that Sparcade is well-positioned for a global impact.
He's got the track record and Sparcade's roster is strengthening. But there's a long way to go yet.