Will Harbin is Mark Pincus’s worst nightmare.Here’s why the CEO of upstart gaming studio Kixeye is such a threat to Zynga, the giant of social games.
Zynga is having a lot of trouble trying to find a new business as its Facebook games stagnate or decline.
One direction it’s mulling over is producing a “hardcore” game that caters to a more male-centric audience, in the hope that it’ll make more money than the games it’s best known for, like FarmVille and Draw Something.
But there’s a problem—Zynga’s game designers will have to deal with Harbin’s Kixeye. Kixeye, based like Zynga in San Francisco, has been working on games like that for a while, and is already doing quite well.
Instead of trying to appeal to a massive audience of gamers that spend a few minutes clicking cows on breaks, Kixeye caters to a hypercompetitive audience with games that glorify explosions and heavy-duty combat.
Kixeye has a 250-person team going directly after that market with its own games like War Commander and Backyard Monsters. Its staff has some top game designers—including some former Zynga employees.
And they go after that audience with a kind of swagger you don’t normally see at a tech or gaming company. A recent recruiting video went for the jugular, mocking Pincus and the rest of the gaming world.
Even its new office feels like a video game.
Jump straight to a quick tour of the new office
We caught up with Will Harbin, CEO of Kixeye, to find out how things are going at Kixeye now that Zynga’s chokehold on the Facebook gaming market is slipping. Here’s what we found out:
- Kixeye is already working on four new games and plans on launching its own gaming portal. That’s a lot of confidence in browser-based gaming. Harbin says he is also bullish on tablets.
- Facebook games are far from dead. Because the audience is more competitive and skews male, they’re more likely to pay for in-game goodies than your average FarmVille player.
- Keep an eye on Kixeye’s next game. It’ll be “the first of its kind” for a browser-based game, Harbin says.
Here’s a lightly-edited transcript of the conversation:
BUSINESS INSIDER: What’s your story?
Will Harbin: I’ve been in tech for a long time, this is my first foray into professional game development. Games got me interested in technology and computers in the first place back when I was 6 or 7 years old. I started making games in my own spare time in high school after I learned how to program better. Found it pretty tough to break into the gaming industry, 12 or 13 years ago whenever that was. I set out to pursue my career in other areas of technology.
A couple years ago when Zynga started getting success, obviously for women, I thought it was pretty interesting that someone had proven the virtual goods model worked in Western culture. Why not do it with games I want to play rather than these games like FarmVille and CityVille?
Originally, Kixeye was another company called Casual Collective, it was two guys out of London. We decided to join forces and restart the company and really try to make good, free to play, hyperaccessible games starting with Facebook. That’s the first phase of the business. Pretty soon we’ll be launching our own portal. In the end, it’s really the intersection of hyperaccessibility and fidelity when it comes to games.
Photo: Business Insider / Matthew Lynley
BI: It seems like you guys are hiring pretty quickly.WH: I don’t think we’ve been growing insanely fast. There are many other growth stories that have surpassed us. We’ve grown from 30 people to over 250 people in the last year. There are other companies that have seen larger growth spurts. We’re making sure every new person coming in the door meets a very high quality minimum bar.
The business has really clicked since the release of Backyard Monsters almost two and a half years ago. We’ve been on this pace for a while, we’ve been very fortunate that we haven’t had a miss. We have War Commander, which is really kick arse, and another four games in development. We could have spread ourselves thin, going with the sheep going after mobile, but fortunately for us we’ve seen the vacuum of competition with the browser space.
“We could have spread ourselves thin, going with the sheep going after mobile, but fortunately for us we’ve seen the vacuum of competition with the browser space.”
It leaves us a lot of space for us to dominate. we’re growing at our own pace, taking our time, when we see a good opportunity we seize it. We stay focused on what we know how to do and build on top of previous success.
Our next game, it’s a [role-playing] game with a full 3D engine, really exciting, extremely ambitious, it’ll be the first of its kind to ever grace a browser. We’re maybe three or four months out from that.
BI: Not a fan of mobile?
WH: Well, there’s two categories: phone and tablet. For the phone, from a gamer’s perspective, playing on such a small form-factor device is not really satisfying for the kind of games we’re playing. We need a larger form factor that can accommodate the user interface. That right there is quite limiting for us. Look at it like a canvas, if you’re an artist you don’t want to be confined by a very small canvas.
We want to be unbound by canvas restraints. To create something that works really well and is super immersive, small form factors like phones are just not fun to work with. Sure, you can make a lot of cool things, but it’s not in our DNA to build games that limit themselves to that canvas. We are doing some tests to see how one of our games would translate to that small form factor, Backyard Monsters mobile will be launching in a little bit. depending on how that does, we might do more.
Tablets are perfect for games, it’s good hardware matched with good accessibility with good user interface. I’m definitely bullish on tablets as long as consumer adoption grows. We’ll probably have a tablet version of our RPG soon after it launches. For now, we’re in a world of constrained resources and infinite amounts of runway, we’re gonna stick with what we do best. There are far more laptop or desktop based browser systems than tablets, so we’re still going after that.
BI: You guys have a very unique marketing style. Where does that come from?
WH: We’re a video-game company, we can go crazy and wild. There are no expectations for us. We don’t have to behave a certain way. We don’t have enterprise clients, we can be crass and funny.
“We don’t have to behave a certain way. We don’t have enterprise clients, we can be crass and funny.”
It’s our collective personalities at the office, we’re really entertaining ourselves. We don’t give a damn of what others think, if they think it’s funny that’s great. If people are offended, fine, that’s their opinion. We’re speaking to our potential users and employees. That’s kind of a nice thing being in the entertainment business, that’s what this is.
BI: You guys produce “hardcore” games. Can you explain a little bit about what those are?
WH: The way our business works is like any other free to play company. We build up a quality title that’s free to play, we have a well-balanced economy in the game to where our user plays for free who’s equally competitive for someone who pays a lot of money. We focus on engagement in our game, that naturally encourages monetization if you have things properly balanced. It’s a very different system from what companies in traditional social gaming space do, it’s contrary to their approach. We never have things like an energy mechanic, when you complete an action you aren’t picking up stars and bubbles. We make good, solid, competitive games and so far have been very successful in the real-time strategy space. We practically invented the massively multiplayer online real-time strategy game space.
There’s a good match between our audience and the kinds of content that we’re making. I’d say the masculine sensibility inherently resonates with competitive game mechanics and we give them quality games with competitive game mechanics. There’s a tight match between the audience and the type of game we’re making versus a run-of-the-mill social game. It’s really audience resonating that drives the engagement. It’s not that we’ve laser-targeted the audience or found a person who’s gonna do this. The audience finds the game.
We certainly do a lot of targeting and marketing. But initially when you’re launching a game you have a good audience mix that touches the game. As you see what works with the game and what doesn’t, you certainly refine marketing to make sure you’re reaching out to those users and letting them know about it. We’re not trying to force a round peg into a square hole. We don’t necessarily sit around in a room and say, ok, we’re going to design this for 24-year-old males in Norway. We’re certainly broader than that, it just happens to find its audience a little more naturally.
BI: The market for Facebook games seems to be softening a bit, though. What are your thoughts on that? Is there still room for Facebook games?
WH: We’re definitely seeing an uptick in male browser gaming, I would still be relatively positive in social gaming if things are executed properly. You have to look at the total market. If you look at the total market size, I will defend social gaming.
It’s like asking EA how can they coexist with Activision, THQ and everyone else. It’s a big market. Gamers play more than one game. Backyard Monsters was innovative from a social gaming standpoint. There were no [massively multiplayer online real-time strategy] games before that. Our next genres that we’re attacking will be new and will be something that people haven’t seen on the platform. So far, as long as competitors are playing with yesterday’s products, or our yesterday’s product, I think we’re in good standing. Even if we had competitors launching products lock step with us, as long as we stay focused on making quality games we’re quite confident that we’re gonna come out on top.
BI: What are you guys working on now?
WH: We’re heads down on four new games simultaneously, we still have three games team working on our existing games. We have four completely separate game teams working on new games. We have our portal team working on the portal. There’s no secret battle plan beyond that, we’ve nailed half the distribution, the rest of the distribution will come with our portal. We’ve nailed publishing and marketing of our games, but really what I’m keeping the company focused on is really upping our game and producing a better product. My dream is to produce triple-a quality gaming inside of a browser or some other hyper-accessible platform combined with the free-to-play business model. I just think the days are over for having to plug in a console sitting in your living room, I think those days are numbered and we want to be on the forefront of innovation and advancement.
There's one more check point to get in to the company's headquarters. Obviously they are trying to get a message across.
As you would expect, it's a gaming company—so most of the company's employees play non-computer games, too.
Here's a big view of the dining area. Kixeye just moved in a couple of months ago, and the new office already seems packed.
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