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TUAW interviews OpenFeint's Peter Relan, Net Jacobsson, and Jason Citron

Danielle Cassley and Jason Citron are the folks with their names on Aurora Feint, but as Danielle told us in an interview a while ago, Peter Relan is the real mastermind behind the growing Feint empire. Not only did he put the two together in an idea lab, but he's one of the driving forces behind the OpenFeint enterprise. Under his oversight, the Feint folks have swelled to become one of the major forces behind iPhone gaming (and thus, behind the iPhone's app ecosystem itself).

Netanel "Net" Jacobsson is a newer addition -- he's previously worked with Sony Ericsson on their mobile devices and Facebook on their own growing app empire, and now he's arrived at OpenFeint to help them use the lessons he's learned at the biggest online social networks around on their social software. Get the sense of how big this is yet? Relan, Jacobsen, and Citron all have pretty big ideas about where iPhone gaming is going, and as 3.0 comes down the pike and introduces a whole set of new features from Apple, they're in the best seat they can be in to do exactly what they want to do.

TUAW sat down with the three last week, and chatted about iPhone 3.0 and why it's such a big deal for developers, how they're going to approach microtransactions (carefully), and what's coming next for OpenFeint now that they've rounded up a whole stable full of developers implementing their backbone. Click "read more" to continue.

The last time I spoke with Danielle, we hadn't yet heard exactly about 2.0 and all of the stuff coming out with that, so the first thing I just wanted to check in on, even before we talk about 3.0, was how the release of 2.0 worked, and the new stuff it brought to OpenFeint and how that all has worked out for you.

Peter Relan: I would say that, at sort of two levels, the actual launch at WWDC was fantastic -- we actually had a panel discussion with four indie developers who were all launching their games with 2.0, including two top ten ones: one was Pocket God, which is number five, I believe, paid app, and the second was Stick Wars, which is number eight paid app. And then we had a few others -- there was a French developer from a company called BulkyPix, which is basically Vivendi's mobile division that basically moved out wholesale and started their own company. So I don't know if you heard that news, but Viviendi, who published Crash Bandicoot, the guys who published Crash Bandicoot all took off, all 10 of them, and started their own company called BulkyPix. And they just published with OpenFeint 2.0, a game called My Brute. My Brute is by far the biggest web game today, by a huge margin. It's two million daily players. And so they brought My Brute to the iPhone as their first game. So we were really pleased about that. Overall the launch was fantastic, we had iDracula, which used to be number one, and Knights Onrush, just submitted from the same publisher, Chillingo. We had Chillingo from the UK, we had a French developer, two US developers, and after the event, since the event, we've had 250 new developers registered for OpenFeint.

Can you just explain -- it's kind of tough to explain this to consumers, because obviously a lot of our readers aren't necessarily developers, just consumers, and maybe Jason you can jump in on this as well: what exactly do you do with OpenFeint? It's not something that consumers jump in and download, it's something that developers can use to put interesting features into their games. How do you explain it to people who play iPhone games.

Jason Citron: Sure, sure. So OpenFeint has obviously two sides so it. So we have our pitch to developers as to why it's worth including in the game and what the value is that you get from putting it in your game. But for the user, what you get is an identity that you can take with you across all of your iPhone games, connect it with your Facebook and Twitter friends and profiles, you get a consistent experience for leaderboards and achievements, chat rooms that go across applications, we're adding in support for social challenges, it's just going to keep growing. So OpenFeint is going to be something that, as a player, you can look to for a consistent and enriching social, competitive gaming experience in iPhone.

And at this point it's just game to game, right? You can create an identity and use it in other games, but there's no actual web interface or anything overall that tracks it that you can jump in on? Xbox Live is something that is often used to compare to this stuff, and with that you can track your own achievements, and do things like that. But OpenFeint seems much more distributed in terms of the fact that it's inside of games, but not that much outside of the games.

JC: I think that's sort of just an artifact of where we are in the lifecycle right now. We do have a very light, or I should say we are launching a very light web portal in the next week, where players can go and look at their achivements and their scores on the web, so it's moving in that direction, but OpenFeint itself is a service that lives outside of games, but people interact with it through games.

Can you talk a little bit as well about Aurora Feint as well, Jason, and how you're balancing Aurora Feint with this system that reaches across almost all other developers?

JC: We've been fortunate to have good success on the App Store, so we've grown our team to a few people. We have a couple of developers working on unannounced titles, and we have other developers working on the platform. Danielle and I personally tend to jump back and forth and sort of steer direction, and we have other people helping us with the programming.

And Net, how did you originally get started with this? You were originally working with Facebook -- how did you get pulled into this setup here?

Net Jacobsson: Sure, I left Facebook around three months ago, where I was running international business development and also mobile business development. And having seen the success of the Facebook platform when we launched that, and also rolled out the mobile services and the iPhone with Facebook Connect, I just knew that this is the platform, iPhone games. And someone that can grab that land in terms of becoming the social platform and discovery platform is going to have a lot of success ahead of him. Peter Relan here reached out to me regarding Aurora Feint a couple of months ago, and I was just blown away by Danielle and Jason in terms of developers, and how fast they'd managed to iterate and reach success in such short time, and also their interest -- they'd started up this hugely successful game, Aurora Feint, but also they needed to sort of think platform beyond that. Which means that they'd both understand the content side and the playing cycles, but also have the vision to see it as a platform going forward. And I was just so intrigued by it, because this was something that I'd have liked to do when I was at Facebook, bring in this very social engagement features and help discovery inside the platform.

Facebook is still a pretty fertile ground for games as it is, though -- Mafia Wars has really taken off on Facebook, and obviously Lexulous and Scrabbulous, and everything that's happened there. What draws you now to the iPhone as a game platform rather than Facebook?

NJ: I think that mobile is really the future. The Facebook platform is still representing the web, and with that platform and so on it's just taking a different dimension, especially with gaming. What I saw at Facebook was that once we launched applications or made it more available for mobile phones and services, the Facebook users got twice as much engaged, and started to post more status updates, and with the connection to Facebook Connect, all of a sudden you get all this socially relevant action into your newsfeed and people get much more engaged in the site. So I see iPhone app ecosystem as the extension, where we're going, and mobile is really the future, in that sense. And I have a background in Sony Erickson years ago, so I've always really loved mobile in general.

And there's no better mobile platform out there at this point than the iPhone. The big news this week is what we've all been waiting for since Tuesday, which is the big 3.0 release. Why don't we start off -- iPhone 3.0 is just gigantic in terms of what it does for applications. What are you guys looking at for OpenFeint specifically?

PR: So I'll just cover sort of the megatrends industry wide, and then Jason can cover the features we're coming out with. In fact, since you mentioned Facebook, I was just this morning at Facebook meeting with senior management there, because I'm also an investor in a Facebook gaming apps company. And your observation is correct, it's still pretty hot there, and there's a lot of stuff going on there in terms of just casual gaming. And as you know, Facebook itself is working on something called Facebook credits, which is their microtransaction system. So I think there are two elements of iPhone 3.0, first of all. There's the device, and obviously it'll have all of the stuff that people love about the Apple user experience, and we'll leave that to Apple. With the 3GS and everything, we'll leave that to Apple and AT&T. But from our perspective, the two big things are what everyone's been calling push notifications, which we think is a very interesting engagement mechanic, a re-engagement mechanic, but from a business model perspective, the bigger thing I think is downloadable content and microtransactions. Because what we're seeing, and I'm talking across the industry, whether it's at E3, or we're talking to a number of very large strategic game publishers today about OpenFeint, is that everybody is recognizing that the consumption model for entertainment and games is about to change. And that's a huge inflection point with microtransactions. And I'll elaborate on that a little bit, and then Jason can talk about the features behind it. But today, the word is out that unless you have something pretty phenomenal and outrageously good, pricing much above $2.99 for an iPhone game, it doesn't make much sense. Just think about that, what that means. And think about the fact that it's a 10X difference from what the industry is used to charging when charging for a title on a traditional gaming platform, right? Like $30, $50, $60.

JC: Yeah, you look at something like Peggle, which on XBLA is $15.99, on the PC it's $20, it was $1 last week on the iPhone.

PR: Right, so I think we're about to see a sea change, and I think that the big game publishers have figured out that if they don't cannibalize their own lunch, someone else will. I think that literally this 3.0 thing is the beginning of a new pricing and business model for a gaming industry. Starting with the iPhone, but I think it's going to back into all the traditional platforms.

I do want to talk about that for sure, but let's start with push notifications. One thing I wanted to ask you about was, with push, developers basically need their own server, and I assume what OpenFeint is planning to do is be that server, deliver that kind of stuff and send that out. Is that your goal with OpenFeint as a platform for push notifications?

JC: Yeah. The way that we view push notifications is like Peter said, it's a re-engagement tool. And one of the value props that we have with OpenFeint is that developers can get all of these services that require web servers, without having to deal with any of that stuff, so push notifications will get rolled into that. So we will host servers for people who want to use push.

The other question I had was just how have you seen developers use these things? I haven't yet seen one, we've heard of a few apps that do have them, but I haven't seen how they're going to be implemented. I imagine it'll start out as a very Wild West thing, where everybody will just throw out ideas and we'll get 500 push notifications for all different things, and then we'll settle down into a standardized plan for what you notify for, and how it works. I haven't seen a lot of directive on this -- what have you seen developers do with this service so far?

JC: The way that we're looking at push notifications, I guess the best example is social challenges. So you can engage in a game -- I guess, as an example, you play a timed mode, like a time trial against a certain level. You happen to have purchased that level for a dollar using microtransactions. I get my high score, and I send you a challenge to play against me on that level. And I send the challenge through OpenFeint. You're at Starbucks, drinking a latte, and you get a notification, it's like, "Jason just got this score on this level, play against him." So you click launch, you go into the game, and it's like oh wait, you don't have that level yet, if you want to play against Jason's challenge, buy it. So you're like oh, okay, I'll buy it, so you spend a buck, you buy the level, you get it, you play against my challenge and you send one back to me. What just happened here is push notifications caused you to re-engage in the game when you may not have, so you spend more time with the applications, and I recommended a piece of content to you indirectly, which you purchased, so it's going to drive more purchases of content.

Well this is something that I wanted to ask you about actually -- that model right there seems awesome for developers. They're selling content, they're getting players to recommend content. But I don't really see how awesome it is necessarily for players. It is kind of cool that, in real time basically, I can see what my friend is doing, I can see what my friend is playing. But on the other hand, I would like to opt-out, I would like to not get that message sometimes. And even on Twitter, you can do things like send a tweet and recommend this program, and a lot of people still consider that spam. So for developers it's awesome to sell that stuff, but it seems like there has to be some kind of balance there to say, what's the value here to players as you do this?

JC: Well the key here is that I'm not sending you a message that says hey, go and purchase the dungeon level. What I'm saying here is "try and beat my score on the dungeon level." It's subtly different. The communication to the player is not "go and buy this content," it's "play this game with me." As a user, I want to play games with my friends. And I'm not necessarily saying that I will, but I am much more likely to purchase new content if my friend wants me to play with them. It's not a direct advertisement by any stretch.

PR: And I think there's another part, which -- the specific example that Jason gave was one where a push notification is used and a content unlocking transaction is required, but you could still have a push notification "try to beat my high score," which does not couple with the microtransactions. So there's two different dimensions. And the three developers who we spoke to who launched with us with push notifications are all launching them without microtransactions, they're just launching push notifications with what we call social challenges. Also think about games like -- you mentioned Scrabbulous, right, and that's here from Facebook. One of the biggest reasons why I played Scrabbulous on Facebook was that I'd be checking my email, and get a notification saying "hey, it's your turn." So, at the simplest level, turn-based multiplayer games, which I would say have a huge potential enabled, and then at a more complex level, which I think will take a little longer, is the more microtransaction based content.

But even with push notifications, there are certain times and certain things where I will say, I don't really care what my friend's high score is because I'm busy doing something else or something like that. Have you seen any opt-out systems built in, would that have to be built into OpenFeint?

JC: It's actually built-in to iPhone OS 3.0. If you go to the preferences in iPhone, every application that registers to recieve push notifications, has an on/off toggle. So it's already built in, Apple already did that.

NJ: I also want to fill in here -- one thing that we saw when we launched the Facebook platform was that obviously, in the beginning, everybody was spammed by being bitten by vampires and so on. And Facebook learned from people what was considered spamming, and then changed their terms of service and developers adjusted, and a model grew, where best practices were taking place, and people learned the kind of best experiences for their users. And I think it's now still early days for the iPhone and push notifications, and over time, we'll see a best practice, because everybody wants this right.
Click here to read on to part two of this exclusive interview...

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