How Big Fish Games is focusing on its core business of casual mobile games
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It’s been eight weeks since Larry Plotnick left his job as Amazon’s Prime Gaming boss and became the president of Big Fish Games, a top 20 competitor in the $16 billion casual games market.
And now he has a handle on how the company plans to double down on casual games as it enters its 20th year in free-to-play mobile games. In the new job, Plotnick will manage teams that have created recent successes such as EverMerge and Gummy Drop. All told, Big Fish Games has more than 300 people.
It’s not an easy time to make casual games, as the market has become extremely competitive with studios around the world moving into the market. And Apple made it tougher for developers to target ads at paying players by cracking down on privacy.
Big Fish recently moved its social casino games business to its Product Madness sister division, as its parent company Pixel United owns those studios as well as Plarium. That’s a good thing as the state of Washington considers some social casino games to be just like gambling. And that move leaves Plotnick free to focus on just one thing: casual mobile games.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What were you doing right before this?
Plotnick: Eleven and a half years at Amazon, working on Amazon Gaming. I was running Prime Gaming for the last six years at Amazon, building the Prime Gaming business. Before that I was part of building our studios organization, building AWS services, our game engine. I was involved in the acquisition of Twitch. Basically anything that had to do with the digital gaming space, I was probably in some way involved.
GamesBeat: What attracted you to Big Fish?
Plotnick: It’s interesting. I’d say a couple of things. One is I loved the idea of a business that was solely focused on games, as opposed to being part of a large organization where gaming was one of very many things they do. I saw that in Pixel United broadly, and certainly within Big Fish. Two, I liked the size of the company. It’s small enough to feel very entrepreneurial. It can be more nimble. But it’s large enough to have the broader skill set, the investment model, the services you need to run and grow a large company. That size attracted me. Three, I like the space it operates in, especially the current focus from Big Fish on the mobile casual game space, which I think is where there’s significant opportunity. While the industry today is focused elsewhere, I see an opportunity for growth.
GamesBeat: Do you see different opportunities than what was being pursued by Jeff Karp?
Plotnick: Well, somewhat it’s a continuation, although I think it needs to be more focused, with more prioritization. The business started down the path of mobile games several years ago. We launched Evermerge two years ago, May of 2020. We’ve seen great success. But the business at that time was still very focused, I think, on too many different things: casual games, the PC business, social casino games, and then looking at other opportunities outside. The key is fine-tuning our business model to focus on what we know, which is the casual game space. Big Fish has 20 years of history, starting in PC and moving into mobile, in that arena. The prioritization and focus on that space is critical.
I’d also say that the business did a very nice job several years ago, starting with Evermerge, looking at how to not revolutionize, but evolutionize the casual game space. Evermerge was a good sign of that. But they haven’t done enough since then to continue down that path. One thing I intend to bring to this organization is a real focus on how we can evolve this casual game space over the coming years. It doesn’t require a revolution.
I think there’s a lot of focus in the industry on revolutionizing it through blockchain and NFTs and all these other components. Those companies may or may not be right. I’m not making a judgment. But what they’re missing is the focus on the player experience itself. There are 3 billion people today playing mobile games. We want to focus on those people that are looking for great gaming experiences.
GamesBeat: What does the post-IDFA landscape look like to you right now?
Plotnick: It’s evolving, and it will continue to evolve. It’s been a challenge for the entire game industry, and specifically mobile games. It affects us in two ways. One, obviously it affects the way you advertise and find players. That means it’s either more costly, which changes the way you have to monetize the game. That’s one approach. A lot of developers are focused that way. And then another way you focus it is you spend less on user acquisition while you build smaller games. You have to monetize individual players more.
I don’t like either one of those solutions. The real impact of all of this is going to be scale. Scale will matter a tremendous amount in this industry. Having expertise and focus in a certain area allows you to learn more about your customers where you own the data, and then you can help find a new player base as you launch new games. That will make it much more difficult for single-game studios, for indie studios, to find a player base. We hope that as we build our publishing arm in the mobile casual space, as we did in the PC space 20 years ago, we can be a place that can help great games find an audience. That’s going to be a significant change in the industry that will be required in the post-IDFA world.
GamesBeat: I’ve seen a lot more pivots or acquisitions happening.
Plotnick: We certainly went through a lot of that over the last two years. That’s slowing down significantly right now because of the world economy and everything that’s going on there. But again, it’s one reason I liked what I saw in Big Fish and Pixel United as a whole. It’s the willingness and the capital to continue to look at acquisitions. We still intend to be very aggressive in this space in the way we think about studios that we either partner with or acquire as we move forward.
GamesBeat: What are some of your priorities when it comes to new projects?
Plotnick: In my first seven weeks that’s been a big area of my focus, understanding what is the road map right now. We do have games in the concept phase today, what I would call evolutionary approaches in both the merge and match-three categories. I don’t think the business has been aggressive enough. We’re working on how we can expand that, mainly through partnerships in the early stages, partnerships with external developers. But our intent is to launch two or three games a year in the future. We have to build up that product road map to get that done.
We’re looking for games and partners interested in the casual space. Not necessarily copycats, but partners that think like we do, that want to evolutionize the player experience. You see a lot of that happening now, where developers are bringing new mechanics to old genres, let’s say. That’s a huge upside opportunity in the industry.
GamesBeat: How many people are at Big Fish now?
Plotnick: Big Fish employs roughly 300 people across our various studios here in the U.S. and abroad.
GamesBeat: What’s the biggest part of the business right now? Is it some of your older games or newer ones?
Plotnick: Bigger is an interesting one to define. It depends on how you look at it, whether it’s dollars or players. But the driver of our business right now is mobile casual gaming, a combination of Evermerge and Gummy Drop. Those two games have combined for roughly 80 million downloads. They’re the number one driver of our business. But that doesn’t mean we ignore the other components of our business. We still have a healthy PC casual business on bigfish.com. We still have healthy titles like Cooking Craze that are almost 10 years old now. But to answer the question, the core of our business today is mobile casual, and it really comes down to Evermerge and Gummy Drop.
GamesBeat: I see more of the triple-A companies extending their franchises into the mobile game space. What do you see there? Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Call of Duty, things like that.
Plotnick: It’s a logical progression. There are 4 billion people walking around with a mobile phone. If you want to find a player base, it’s the right way to do it. There’s plenty of space with 4 billion players to play games. My instinct is that it’s great. I don’t think it’s a negative to us. It’s a positive. The more people that see their mobile device as a game device, that’s a good thing.
We play in a different space than they do, though. These core developers coming to mobile are still building a core experience, in games like Call of Duty Mobile, where people are spending significant amounts of time. The mobile casual space serves two purposes. One is for players that just aren’t interested in that core experience. They’re not interested in shooters and the like. They want a more casual experience. I don’t see triple-A players coming in and changing that. And then for the triple-A players, they’re still looking for experiences with short gameplay. Just because you play Call of Duty doesn’t mean you’re not also playing a match-three game when you have 10 minutes on the bus. The audience just continues to grow, and it’s a positive to see new and better genres coming into the space.
GamesBeat: What do you think about where mobile games are being made now? What are some of the hot spots as far as countries and regions?
Plotnick: Obviously mobile games are being made globally. Pretty much every country in the world. There’s a lot of development studios in Europe, both eastern and western Europe. In Asia, now in South America and so on. One of our core strengths is the ability to manage studios around the world. Today we have studios in both eastern and western Europe, here in the U.S., and we work with studios in Canada as well. We’re looking to expand on that.
The challenge for most new startups or new developers in the space is learning how to manage studios around the world. It’s the way of the world today. It’s a unique skill set, I believe, to be able to do so. Communication, time differences. How do you manage a creative process across a 13-hour time shift? That’s complicated. But I don’t think that’s going to slow down. A lot of companies are looking for partners outside of the U.S. today, for lots of different reasons. One is just creative space. The second is lower cost. There are lots of reasons to consider those. We’re focused on finding partners that share the same objective that we do, wherever they are in the world. As I said, we’re working with partners in half a dozen countries today.
GamesBeat: We see places like Turkey rising in casual games and match-three games. That’s been interesting. Every country seems to be getting its turn.
Plotnick: We’re seeing a lot of interesting things happening in Turkey, in Germany, in Spain. Really all the way across Europe. We have contacts with individuals across Canada. Montreal and Canada are very hot locales right now in the casual mobile space. A lot of the Latin American market is working to get into the space. It’s still early stages there, but there’s a lot of quality people with a lot of creative ideas. There’s a tremendous opportunity there as well.
GamesBeat: Do you think you would spread out some of your development, then?
Plotnick: We’re already spread out and we intend to continue that. I don’t believe we have the mindset that all the creative genius in how to make fun games sits in Seattle, Washington. It’s why we work with developers around the world today. We fully intend to continue to do so.
GamesBeat: Is the leadership there all staying in place? Have you made any changes?
Plotnick: No, no changes. I don’t see big changes coming, other than maybe bringing in more. The business is looking to grow. We have a good solid foundation within the organization, but we need to hire a lot more people. We’re running two meaningful mobile games today. I’d like to see that number be 10 mobile games in the next couple of years. That’s going to need a much larger team and a much larger leadership base. But I don’t see a need to make meaningful changes in the near future.
GamesBeat: It does feel like some trends have passed their peak now. Hypercasual games seem to be struggling.
Plotnick: Hypercasual is an interesting category. It’s an interesting definition as far as what it actually means. But they’re short-playing games that rely on in-app advertising rather than in-app purchases to drive monetization. That’s a tough business. It’s a very tough business. I think it’s limited. I don’t know that it’s declining so much as there’s just not as much growth as people thought there would be. There will continue to be innovation there.
I don’t see that necessarily being a place that we will play, though. We want to create deep player experiences and long-term engagement where IP matters. I don’t know that hypercasual would be a place I would focus. But I agree with you. It was a buzzword a year or two ago, and I think that’s slowed down tremendously over the course of this year.
GamesBeat: When it comes to original titles versus brands, where is that going for you, and where do you think that’s going for the larger industry?
Plotnick: I guess I’ll tackle the industry broadly first, and then how we intend to react to that. Brand and what we might call valuable IP matters, whether that’s licensed or built internally. The reason it matters, going back to your question about IDFA–it’s harder now to find a player base. Having a recognizable brand or license can help offset some of that. The challenge with it is, one, there are only so many brands or licenses that really matter and can have that level of impact. Two, they’re expensive. It’s down to a balance between what a brand is worth versus the value of helping to find that player base. That’s the key.
For us, we definitely see value in IP. We’re going to evaluate how we can continue to extend our own IP. Do we take Evermerge and turn it into a sustainable brand across many titles, or not? That’s a decision we have to make. I think it makes sense to do so. Then we have to look at licensing opportunities. There are plenty out there. The fear is, what we see in early stages is there’s too much being put into the value of a license, and then it doesn’t pay off. We will be very cautious with external third-party licensing. It’s not something we won’t do, but we’ll be much more cautious than others. The data doesn’t support the value statement.
GamesBeat: Is it about the terms that brands tend to ask for?
Plotnick: Yeah, yeah. You’re paying a royalty on a license. The question is, is that offset by the lower cost of acquisition or faster growth? That’s a balancing act. I don’t believe there are as many licenses that have real value as people want to believe. A lot of them are owned by organizations I have no interest in doing licensing with. You take a company like Disney. Their licenses have tremendous value and they manage them very carefully.
GamesBeat: How much change might happen with things like the open web, as opposed to the Google and Apple app stores? The EU just made a big move this week with the requirements that they open their platforms for sideloading and discounted advertising deals elsewhere, off the stores. What’s your early take on that opportunity?
Plotnick: First of all, it’s all good for players. That makes it a positive. I’m very supportive of that. The ramifications of that, it’s a couple of things. It has the potential to reduce the cost of acquisition when you’re not paying a 30 percent royalty to iOS, for example. The downside is it distributes a broader base for discovery. If you want to scale your game to millions of players, who has millions of customers and millions of eyeballs? A lower fee, but only a thousand eyeballs, does not help you find an audience as a developer.
I think what this means is it just shifts the way companies work with the large-scale platforms today. I don’t think people will walk away as developers from iOS or from Google. They need the eyeballs. The Amazons of the world, the Apples of the world have hundreds of millions of people on their platforms every day. There’s tremendous value there. The difference is, what does this mean for the purchase of a product through the game or off the platform? I think you’ll see more and more developers moving to web-based solutions, whether that’s mobile browsers or PC-based, where customers can purchase things for the game – battle passes, subscriptions, in-app stuff – off the platform and remove the 30 percent royalty share. That’s going to be the trend. It’s already happening. We already see that. You’re going to see that start to escalate, and I believe it’ll happen pretty quickly. We’re definitely following the trend very closely, and we already started developing the technology we would need before I even came to the organization.
GamesBeat: Effectively, is that your own store?
Plotnick: Yes and no. Let me be careful about how we define a store. You can have a store like the Big Fish store today, which has hundreds of titles. We act as a publisher. That’s one path in mobile that we could consider. I can’t say for sure if we’ll go down that path. The other option is individual game stores. You see this today. Epic obviously was the very visible one with the Fortnite store, and then they turned it into a broader game store supporting other games. You already see signs of that.
We definitely intend to do the latter there, individual game stores. The question is, do we go broader? Do we take our expertise and what we learned in running a PC game store for 20 years, and then apply that to mobile? That’s an open question, and I don’t have an answer for that.
GamesBeat: What do you think it would take for blockchain technology to become more interesting?
Plotnick: That’s an interesting one. Blockchain as a technology is not a bad thing. Today in gaming it’s very small, less than a million users across 4 billion people playing games. It’s come down to two things. I don’t think anyone has figured out how to create a fun game that incorporates blockchain or vice versa, creating a blockchain game and then making it fun. You have to make a fun game first. That’s what’s hard. It’s also what people want. You have to start there.
Two, there has to be an interest in digital ownership. You have NFTs, which I don’t believe have broad appeal over the long scale, but pure digital ownership where I buy things in a game and just own them forever, I think there’s a tremendous amount of interest there. I see that happening. The technology has to improve. How it engages with games has to improve. But most important, developers can’t start there. They have to start with great games and then figure out how to incorporate that technology. Otherwise it will never work. And it’s not the trend today.
GamesBeat: Is there anything else we should expect from Big Fish this year?
Plotnick: The only other thing we didn’t talk about, Big Fish intends to be a casual mobile game company. A part of that that hasn’t been discussed broadly is that we are moving our social casino business to our partner business, which is Product Madness. Pixel United is a conglomerate of brands: Product Madness, Plarium, and Big Fish. Product Madness has already built social casino for a long time. They have a lot of expertise in the area. We’re going to transition the ownership of our social casino games to let them own that business. Plarium is focused on Raid and the mid-core business. It allows Big Fish to focus on the casual business. The biggest change you’ll see in the near term is going to be this shift to really get focused on a category, on a player base, and on mechanics that are going to work in that space.
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