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Kixeye moves to mobile, shows free-to-play done right

The social game developer's first title for iOS -- Backyard Monsters: Unleashed -- comes at a time when its browser and mobile-based games are becoming too big, and too good, to ignore.

The waiting room at Kixeye's headquarters in San Francisco. Kixeye

SAN FRANCISCO -- Walking through Kixeye's headquarters here in downtown San Francisco, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in the offices of a triple-A studio.

Military sound bites blast out of the speakers of its bunker-themed elevator waiting hall, a space awash in glowing red light and protected by an actual armed guard. Once inside, old-school arcade machines pop up around every corner, and row upon row of vertical code-filled monitors are paired with white walls of concept art for one of the many titles in the development pipeline.

The company is still very much a startup; it doesn't have its own building or a workforce of more than 9,000 like major publisher Electronic Arts, from which numerous Kixeye employees have jumped ship. But for a six-year business built off the backbone of Facebook social gaming, it's become a leader in taking the image of free-to-play away from tacky gambling and farming with friends and closer to the hardcore community interested in strategic combat games.

It now occupies five entire floors of a towering Bush Street skyscraper and has ballooned from around 100 employees roughly two years ago to more than 500. In 2011, it posted 11 times more revenue than the year before. The year after, it broke $100 million.

And on Wednesday, Kixeye pushed out its very first mobile game, Backyard Monsters: Unleashed for iOS. It's an updated and touch screen-oriented iteration of Kixeye's most successful browser-based game, a Facebook tower defense title that launched the developer to the forefront of the burgeoning browser-based free-to-play market and still has millions of monthly users. Free-to-play, thanks in part to the success of Facebook games, is now a model adopted by even the largest developers, from Valve with Dota 2 and EA with Star Wars: The Old Republic to Sony Entertainment with its latest version of EverQuest.

The gaming industry now sits on the cusp of a new generation of home consoles that rely on an increasingly difficult, strenuous, and expensive model of game development. Kixeye is on the opposite end, a no-longer-so-scrappy startup that's able to move faster and respond to player demands quicker than even the most well-equipped gaming juggernauts pumping out Xbox and PlayStation franchise titles on an annual basis.

And at its core, it's still as anti-Zynga as the most traditional of gaming companies. It has what it describes as a long-standing feud, both legal and philosophical, with Zynga over the free-to-play model and the ways in which the crumbling Farmville-creator has tarnished the moniker. For Kixeye's goal lies in convincing not just kids, but older players -- those with a craving to play who perhaps don't have the resources or time to invest in hundreds of dollars of hardware -- that it's a team of serious gamers making serious games, not cow-clickers.

"I have not met a single person here who is not a gamer," said Caryl Shaw, Backyard Monsters' executive producer. "Even the finance guys," she added. Shaw left rival social games company Ngmoco to work for Kixeye, and previously spent years at EA working for its subsidiary Maxis, the creator of SimCity. She ditched the realm of major game publishing and development because it moved painfully slow, and involved years of working in a bubble only to release a game with little to no reassurance that it would be well-received.

"I worked on one game for three years," she said with slight exasperation. But right then, she noticed the time and promptly left the meeting room to travel one floor below -- to the Backyard Monsters mobile team -- so that they could prepare for the game to launch in yet another market when the clocked ticked 11 that morning. The game has only been in development for a little under nine months, but it's already ready to roll, and has been racking up responsive users in markets like Canada and New Zealand.

And it will only get better from here. That's because launching a free-to-play game is not a chance to move on to the next project, but just the beginning.

Moving to mobile without sacrifices 

Donna Tam/CNET

"Two and half years ago we weren't really thinking about mobile because frankly we were having too much success with the browser," said CEO Will Harbin, who came to Kixeye from social network-building company Affinity Labs. That was in 2011, and Kixeye had just rebranded after growing tremendously thanks to the original Backyard Monsters' success in 2009.

Before that, the company was known as Casual Collective, a much smaller outfit that got its start when developers David Scott and Paul Preece began designing flash games in 2007 as Facebook was gearing up to launch its social gaming platform.

But Backyard Monsters wasn't the first mobile title for any particular reason other than "it was the first one ready," Harbin said. Kixeye had originally commissioned Ngmoco, from which it would later snag Shaw, for the job after the company offered to tackle the port, but the end result was so tattered and unusable that Kixeye killed it. "We scrapped that relationship and build and started from scratch on our own," he added.

The challenges for Kixeye weren't in the platform, though working with Apple does impose speed limitations. Rather, Harbin said, his company had to ensure it wasn't diluting its core mission by jumping to mobile. That would be a move that the CEO said would fall in line with many mobile developers, but would be yet another way in which free-to-play preys on gamers. For instance, the more profitable mobile platform funnels development into a hit-and-run approach where games try to maximize downloads and keep users purchasing in-game currency, but with little incentive to keep playing.

Will Harbin has been a controversial and outspoken source in the world of social games, specifically after Kixeye launched a profanity-ridden takedown of competitors in this satirical recruitment video. Screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET

"It's about maximizing fun. It's not just trying to artificially inflate retention," Harbin said. "You've got to continue to delight millions of players week after week." For Kixeye, that means working on new features constantly. To this day, 2-year-old games like War Commander are updated frequently to keep the experience rewarding.

"Mobile is not the end all of be all to gaming platforms, which is why we're still doing browser and PC download," Harbin admitted, "because there are certain genres that will not work and there are certain genres that we simply want to make because we want to play them."

"If this was just a business exercise, which it is for a lot of people out here making mobile games, we would just make mobile games," he said. It's no secret to game developers nowadays that mobile is more cost-efficient and drives more profit and revenue.

"That's not good enough for us," he said. "The reason why I'm doing this company is because I want to make great games."

'We're not afraid to get in and rip the guts out'

Where Kixeye's true strengths lie are in listening to players, tinkering, and getting titles to take off long after they've already been launched thanks to the low barrier to playing. It's a strategy that is utterly impossible for triple-A game studios making home console and pay-to-play PC titles.
Brandon Barber, Kixeye's chief marketing officer, at the company's San Francisco headquarters. Donna Tam/CNET

"We're not afraid to, after the game launches, get in and rip the guts out and put it back together again if we think there's a better direction to take it," said Brandon Barber, Kixeye's chief marketing officer. Barber spent a chunk of his career at EA, which he ultimately left because it was "so painful to move that battleship." At Kixeye, he notes that titles like Backyard Monsters and Vega Conflict languished for months until the teams were able to get the titles to catch on.

"It's not about swinging for the fence on our first release. If we get a double or a single even, we're going to learn a lot, and that's going to set us up for our next release," Barber added.

Harbin also acknowledged that Kixeye has been late to the party in terms of getting to mobile, where games like Clash of Clans, "a rip-off of Backyard Monsters," he said, have reached massive success as deep multiplayer strategy games.

"People invest a lot of resources and money in making a game, get to first launch, and it either fails or succeeds," Harbin said. If it does fail, he noted, developers will often leave it behind and move on.

"We don't do that here. We're always about learning and iterating," he said. It's Kixeye's free-to-play DNA -- an approach just now being fully realized by the gaming titans that have long ruled the industry -- that gives it that flexibility.

"We're not going to reclaim the throne with just one launch, but we're in this for the long run," Harbin said. "It's not about winning against competitors. It's about delighting gamers."