Interview

Playtika's scale is inspiring to us says Wooga's Jens Begemann

Playtika's scale is inspiring to us says Wooga's Jens Begemann

A lot can change in a year. After a troublesome period that included layoffs and a company-wide restructure, hidden object games studio Wooga started to turn things around in 2017, finally returning to profitability.

Showing good growth and strong numbers, the Berlin-based developer was picked up by Israeli games company Playtika for more than $200 million in December 2018.

Nine months on, and though the obvious elements such as financing and reporting have changed where they’re directed too, the company’s strategy has seen little to no change.

That’s the consensus shared by Wooga CEO and co-founder Jens Begemann during a chat at Gamescom 2019.

Begemann is keen to talk all about the Playtika acquisition, privacy issues concerning Facebook, whether streaming is actually here for the long-run and what 2019 has been like for Wooga so far.

“I’m happy that since Playtika acquired Wooga at the end of last year, we were able to deliver really good results in the first half of this year,” said Begemann.

“The standout is clearly June’s Journey – doubling in revenue and in terms of users over the last 12 months. We also had dark times years ago, but so far it’s been really good.”

10th of the size

In comparison, the Wooga studio is a 10th of the size of Playtika, so the German developer aims to use the social casino giant’s experience and knowledge to better itself - hopefully without any negative side effects seeping into the culture and workspace.

We want to benefit from the Playtika knowledge, especially to improve our live games service to make them even bigger.
Jens Begemann

“We are currently in the process of doing a number of workshops to benefit from Playtika and we are actually looking to bring some learnings from Wooga to Playtika,” says Begemann.

“To us, what is most interesting and most inspiring is the scale of Playtika, which I believe is 2,500 employees in total. There are very big game teams. That’s the scale we have never seen at Wooga which is quite inspiring – especially now that we have seen very strong growth in the last year.

“How can we continue that growth and how can we do more features, more content so we can deliver more to our players? We have already had a number of smaller things where we have benefitted from Playtika knowledge.”

As a strictly story-driven and puzzle concentrated games studio, having a larger company like Playtika - which is known for its social casino style titles - one can be forgiven for thinking the new owner’s strategy may bleed into Wooga’s foundations.

“We make games that are easy to get into. Types of games that our audience typically doesn’t consider themselves ‘gamers’,” says Begemann.

Hidden object game June's Journey has doubled in revenue and users over the last 12 months, according to Begemann.

“We have new games in development and all of that remains unchanged. We want to benefit from the Playtika knowledge, especially to improve our live games service to make them even bigger, but the overall strategy stays the same.”

Storytelling still key

One of these key aspects that has been a staple of Wooga since launching back in January 2009 is its knack for storytelling.

“So it’s not just the dialogue or the actual narrative, it’s the whole world where the characters are fully-developed,” says Begemann.

“It’s like an iceberg. You see the tip, the visualisation of the character on the device, but below that there’s this super deep background story. What did they do 20 years ago? What happened in their childhood? All of this makes the world feel much more consistent.

“Players actually have a desire to know what’s happening, so for the types of games we do it’s extremely important as users continue to play because they want to know what’s happening next in the story. I think this is a trend in the industry.”

For our users which are 70 to 80 per cent female with an average age of 45 years old, they will not be the early adopters of streaming.
Jens Begemann

Employee culture

The biggest takeaway from the discussion was that Wooga clearly want to take the experience of Playtika and apply it to the studio. However, one issue that has become more prevalent in sizable game companies is hostile environments and toxic workplaces.

“Our employees and our culture have always been very important to me,” says Begemann.

“We keep a very open communication channel. Small things, like I don’t have my own office. I sit with others in the open space. We start every week with a company start up where the whole company gets together and transparently share what everyone is working on.

“We do an employee survey every single month. That is anonymous, as we do it with a third-party service provider where employees share, rate and answer different questions with one to 10 ratings. But also text fields that allow us to have a clear idea of what the issues are - if there are any.”

Begemann continues: “Then HR is on stage every month, sharing the scores from our highest to our lowest and what we are doing to address them, whether that be the work environment or stress. All of those things.
“August is the mental health month and we have a number of measures at the moment including training, courses and awareness for employees.”

Of course, one of the most discussed topics in the industry right now is surrounding streaming. Though Wooga believes the prospects of the technology are intriguing it’s not something they can see their audience moving towards anytime soon.

“For our users which are 70 to 80 per cent female with an average age of 45 years old, they will not be the early adopters of streaming,” says Begemann.

“I personally believe that there is great potential in streaming because you can deliver higher fidelity, higher resolution, deeper graphics and bigger worlds that today you can either not do or can only do on the most high-end of PCs. I think the potential is great, whether it will work will be the proof in the pudding.”

He jovially mentions that he even has a pre-order down for the Stadia founder’s edition to see for himself.

GDPR

Still another concern that has reared its head with all of these new technologies and one that impacts Wooga directly is privacy. Though Wooga’s games can be found on the likes of the App Store, Google Play, and Amazon, the company utilises Facebook to a large degree and at one time was the fifth biggest game developer for monthly active users for the platform.

“All of those devices you can choose to login on Facebook or not. If you choose not to login to Facebook, we have very little personal data of you – basically just an anonymous device id,” states Begemann.

“If we have more personal data from you, we only take what we need,” adds Begemann.

“We take GDPR very seriously therefore to us we think we can deliver great game experiences while respecting users at the same time.”

Wooga has two new games in early to mid-sized stages of development

Going forward Wooga will continue to utilise the free-to-play model, even if the studio has experimented with “subscription services” in the past.

“We have two new games in early to mid-sized stages of development,” Begemann alludes to while hinting at a further reveal nearer to GDC 2020.

“It’s really about how we can continue the healthy business growth we had over the last 12 months, how we can infuse live-ops knowledge we are getting from Playtika and obviously keeping employees happy, such as high morale. Also working on the two new games we have in development.”

“A few new things that we haven’t done before. Both games are not exact replicas of things that already exist but we’re trying a few new things. I’m hoping those bets will pay off.”

We previously caught up with Pearl’s Peril lead product manager Annelie Biernat following the hidden object game's sixth anniversary.

Staff Writer

Matthew Forde is a freelance writer from Yorkshire, who's work has been published for Tech Radar, Nintendo Life, Kotaku UK and more. He regularly attends Smash Bros. tournaments, while trying to keep up-to-date on everything pop culture related - particularly superheroes. You can find him on Twitter @Forde999.

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