Oberon Media's Don Ryan talks triple-play publishing
"We're really happy on how the rebranding has been received externally, and internally it's been quite positive, too," says Don Ryan, who was senior VP of publishing at Oberon when this interview was conducted, and has since been promoted to COO.
"We're taking the leading online publisher, Oberon Games, and the number one provider of content for iTV, and we're combining it with the great mobile assets that we have to start rolling in the same direction, providing a consistent set of products to consumers, and offering licensors a one-stop shop."
Are licensors ready for that development, though? It's unclear how many IP-owners are ready to parcel out their brands to one games firm across all those platforms. "Some are, and some aren't," admits Ryan.
"I would say the majority get the one-stop shop, if they have the rights available. There's been historical chopping up [of licences], and sometimes you have to wait a while for all of those to come back [to the IP owner]. Ultimately, they want to have a unified effort. Of course, some brand-owners just want the maximum advance today, and you're always going to have that type of licensor. But frankly we're looking for people that have the bigger picture in mind."
Ryan says an example of the latter is author James Patterson, with whom Oberon has signed a deal to launch his Women's Murder Club series as multi-platform casual games. However, Ryan stresses that Oberon is still prepared to sign single-platform deals when they're too good to resist, with one recent example being the North American rights to make a mobile game based on Deal or No Deal.
There's been some confusion around the recent rebranding, but the facts are these: Oberon Media remains the parent company, but I-play is now the consumer-facing brand for the games coming out of its publishing division. Meanwhile, Oberon's platform and distribution division remains the same, running portals for the likes of MSN, Pogo, France Telecom and Comcast.
"Oberon Media is a very respected name in the casual games industry, but it hasn't always been thought of as a game creator," says Ryan. "We tried to put a more happy face on Oberon with the Oberon Games brand and the parrot logo, but it still didn't have the marketing power of an I-play, which was the strongest of all our consumer-facing brands."
There has been some upheaval within Oberon as part of the reorganisation, however. Until recently, I-play and iTV firm PixelPlay operated as independent divisions within the company, but now they've been consolidated, particularly the product management side of things.
"If you're working in a large organisation and everybody's not working off the same set of goals, it's challenging," says Ryan. "Inevitably, independent divisions almost trump the larger group. But for me, it all starts with product management: understanding what the customer wants, the competitive landscape, and how to build and manage franchises over some period of time."
Ryan explains that now, with any new game Oberon starts by thinking about the consumer and what kind of experience they're going to have, and only then moves on to deciding how to reach them and with what device in contrast to having game ideas coming from separate mobile, web and iTV divisions rooted in those platforms.
Ryan is also hoping consolidating the different divisions will enable Oberon to take more original-IP games from other platforms to mobile, particularly using online to build awareness. One intriguing aspects is the newly-launched Games section on MySpace, which Oberon's services division is powering. Launching web games here and then offering a way to buy them for phones appears to be high on Oberon's priorities.
But what about social games games that utilise the very fabric of MySpace and Facebook? Ryan seems keen. "You definitely have to sit down and think about how to make the game more and more viral," he says.
"Pushing challenges out and being able to taunt your friends with your achievements and that sort of thing. Over time, you're going to see that connectivity start to span devices, so if you get a bunch of badges on the PC, you're going to want to at least check if one of your buddies trumped you from your mobile phone when you're out and about, or get a notification."
We're often told that 95 per cent of mobile game sales still come through operator portals, but clearly that will fall as D2C channels become more viable. Oberon is, predictably, keen to take advantage of this trend, particularly through its services division's client base.
I asked Ryan how he sees the mobile market, and in particular whether he thinks there's any future for pureplay mobile publishers. I-play's decision to sell up must surely have been rooted in its status as a mid-tier mobile firm looking to a future where operators would deal with even less publishers direct. Ryan agrees.
"At the end of the day, if you're a pureplay mobile publisher and you don't have scale, you're going to get aggregated, which makes your economics even more challenging," he says. "You're going to have to partner with somebody bigger to give you the [deck] placement. You've seen this with Digital Chocolate seeing a way to bolster their revenue by going to the PC. There's definitely money in that space, so diversifying their revenue stream is a sensible decision."
Are mobile firms who try to become multi-platform casual publishers in this way a threat to Oberon? Ryan says not, and points out that they're candidates for getting their games distributed by the company's services division.
"I love some of the third-party stuff, and there's plenty of opportunity for everyone," he says.
"I don't feel threatened by people coming over from the mobile space and delivering great product, because with my Oberon Media corporate hat on, as a company we have to deliver this amazing portfolio of great games. The challenge to my [publishing] team is for a good percentage of that to be internal, but the demand out there for games is so huge, there's no way I'll ever have 20 per cent of those games coming from my team."