Interview: PlayFirst CEO John Welch talks iPhone games

And why they have more potential than Facebook

Interview: PlayFirst CEO John Welch talks iPhone games
The excitement around iPhone's App Store is spreading to existing casual gaming firms, with the likes of PopCap and PlayFirst already releasing titles for the iPhone.

PlayFirst entered the market with Diner Dash this month, but according to CEO John Welch, that's just the start. We fired some questions at him to find out more about the company's plans for iPhone.

In your announcement of Diner Dash, you talked about the way you can go direct to consumers with iPhone, rather than through mobile operators. Is that why you're publishing games yourself on iPhone, rather than pursuing a licensing model as with mobile?

Yes. The mobile ecosystem is quite complex and different from our primary platform, the internet connected PC / Mac. Therefore, we work with licensing partners who are focused on mobile and experienced at customizing designs for each device and securing placement with carriers around the globe.

However, the iPhone looks more like a Mac than a phone to us. It is a mostly homogenous platform, and similar enough to a Mac that we were able to port our Playground SDK to auto-magically generate playable games.

We partnered with Other Ocean to specialize the ports for the device because they're one of the top iPhone developers. Other Ocean invented and perfected device-specific input controls while keeping the classic Diner Dash gameplay perfectly intact.

Apple gives us direct access to a global market, so there wouldn't be any value added from a third party distributor.

What else about iPhone has got you excited? What features are particularly interesting for PlayFirst?

The iPhone is the first mobile device popular and powerful enough to allow us to bring every last detail of our games to life for players on the go.

You play on a smaller screen than your desktop or laptop monitor and use touch interface rather than a mouse, but nothing in the game had to be edited out or compromised. The gameplay is extremely authentic.

Personally, I'd rather play our games on the go - but previously that meant compromising quality; now players get the best of both worlds. We're also reaching new players, which is always exciting.

The Diner Dash announcement also mentioned your belief that iPhone will have more impact on games than Facebook. What's your thinking on that score?

People buy stuff on the iPhone and they don't buy stuff on social networks (yet), so the iPhone is a better fit right now for companies that make and sell games.

Facebook and other social networking services are appealing opportunities, but you're talking about two completely different play models, which support completely different business propositions.

PlayFirst games are mostly single player, with the notable exception of Diner Dash: Hometown Hero. They are expensive and complicated to make and have robust characters, stories and mechanics. In fact, we call our franchises "story worlds". People play the games.

Good Facebook games today generally have low (cheap) production values, shallow mechanics and little or no narrative; the fun factor derives from social interaction among friends that must be the basic design fabric of the experience. People play with each other; the game is merely social lubricant.

Social requires mass adoption, which precludes up-front payment. Real money will not be made with Facebook games until there is a ubiquitous micro-payment currency where people can play for free but quickly and easily pay a dime or a quarter for an aesthetic or gameplay boost.

This is coming, but it's not here yet. Until there's a way for game creators to make real money on Facebook you'll continue to see schlock not worth paying for. Fun schlock, don't get me wrong, but not the type of experiences on which PlayFirst has built its reputation.

Facebook games remind me of the time before paid downloads where online games were fun, sure, but shallow and not worth paying for. Once we had a functional payment model we could afford to make better games, and that propelled the industry forward.

As with any platform, if and when it has economic promise and synergy with our creative direction PlayFirst will be 'playing' there! What will get us excited is when we can marry our high production value characters, stories and mechanics with friendly social interaction.

Think about it: an economic simulation game like Chocolatier screams out for being able to trade goods amongst players, but $0.03 CPM ads aren't going to pay for development of such a game. Now, if users could buy virtual ingredients for real-world dimes and quarters…

So what are your plans now for iPhone - what games are you bringing to the platform, and how will it fit with your wider roadmap (for example, simultaneous launches, or even iPhone-exclusive games?)

As a leading publisher, we are committed to making our games available everywhere our consumers want to play.

We are very bullish on the iPhone, both in general and because our catalogue and technology fit it so well, so assuming its great momentum continues you'll likely see all of our top properties there.

I can't wait to play Chocolatier, Dream Chronicles, Parking Dash, Cooking Dash, and … oops, can't talk about that one yet!

Contributing Editor

Stuart is a freelance journalist and blogger who's been getting paid to write stuff since 1998. In that time, he's focused on topics ranging from Sega's Dreamcast console to robots. That's what you call versatility. (Or a short attention span.)