GDC Online 2010: Interview with Newtoy's David Bettner
Last week, during GDC Online in Austin, Texas, I saw a panel run by Newtoy's David Bettner. Later in the week, Bettner himself met up with me to talk about the company and its popular Games With Friends titles for the iPhone. Though the company is doing great with its own App Store games (Words With Friends has over 10 million downloads and a surprisingly active user base), the first game that I asked about was actually We Rule. Newtoy designed that one for Ngmoco, and it's become one of the pioneering "freemium" titles on the App Store, using in-app purchases to fund a free-to-play Farmville-style game.
Bettner told me that We Rule was the product of two companies, not just a work-for-hire. "It was a fun collaboration with Ngmoco," he said. "It was not the typical publisher/developer kind of a relationship. It was more of a collaboration of ideas." The idea for "mojo," the in-app product that pushes We Rule's gameplay forward, actually drove the whole project, both from a design and a monetization standpoint. "It was a fantastic sort of thing where as soon as you use mojo on a crop, you're like oh, I get this now, " Bettner said. "It's this magic thing that I can do to speed things up." Players have been split on the use of microtransactions in App Store titles like that, but Bettner said the model very much appeals to iPhone developers -- "the total lack of friction" on in-app purchases makes it easy to sell items in-game.
Of course, We Rule is currently operated by Ngmoco. Bettner says things ended well, and "there's a sharing" between Newtoy and Ngmoco, though obviously he couldn't speak to details of the relationship. But meanwhile, Newtoy has come into its own with the Chess With Friends and Words With Friends titles. In Bettner's speech, he mentioned that there were tons of ideas the company had to keep the brand going, and while he couldn't go into details yet, he says there's no shortage of possible "With Friends" titles. "I think that there are an entire universe of games that people haven't started thinking about yet" for the social space that Newtoy inhabits, he said. "So we're really excited about the potential there."
The company gives Fridays to its employees in a program called "Indie Fridays," in which they can do whatever they want towards the goal of improving their craft. Lots of developers chase down pet ideas on those days and share them with others, and those ideas are slowly turning into Newtoy's future titles. "We have at least three prototypes that are up and playable," Bettner told me. "We're iterating on those and trying to find out what's really sticky."
The company also plans to include some kind of third-party social features. So far, everything they're using has been made in-house, but Newtoy is looking at both OpenFeint and Game Center to "figure out the best solution" and "make it easier to figure out who's playing. Right now you probably have five friends playing Words With Friends, but you don't know it. So helping you figure that out" would be the goal of including a third-party system.
Finally, I asked Bettner about Words With Friends' Words With Pirates variant -- the free app was a Talk Like a Pirate Day joke for the company that showed up on the App Store and actually did pretty well. "I have to give all the credit to the main artist on the Games With Friends team, Andy Gotcher," Bettner said. "He came in one day and said, 'Hey, I was teaching my kid to say pirate words.' She's like 3 years old and he was teaching her to say, 'Arrrr.' " After some early hesitation on whether or not the idea would work, they eventually made the app and released it on the store. But it's for a limited time only, warns Bettner. "In my opinion, it's the kind of thing that's fun for a week or two, but not lasting gameplay like Words With Friends, so it's not something we wanted to support for a long time." Soon, players won't be able to begin games in the promo app, and soon after that the servers will go off completely.
Bettner says he and the company are considering their lessons from that game, though. While it was originally created just for fun, the company did get some promotion and recognition from it, and Bettner did laugh at the idea that he might be the first iPhone dev to purposely kill an app that made it into the top 50. But there were solid technical benefits -- if nothing else, Words With Pirates served as a beta test for a future patch of Words With Friends since the free app had new code in it. So, says Bettner, "it was kind of an opportunity to put new code out there and make sure it was as solid as we thought it was."
Newtoy is moving right along -- we'll keep an eye out for what they're up to next for sure.