[Interview] Bigpoint CEO Khaled Helioui “Successful games = strong communities”

Jun 5, 2015
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Bigpoint Games, which was founded in Hamburg by Heiko Hubertz in 2002, was one of the early leaders in online, browser-based games. Over the years the company has been through many twists and turns. A couple of years ago, France’s Khaled Helioui, a lifelong games enthusiast and pro-gamer, with a finance and private equity background, became Bigpoint’s CEO after having been brought on as Chief Games Officer. Helioui stepped in and has defined a new, bolder and more international future for Bigpoint. I sat down with him recently to get his thoughts on the often challenged, but still massively growing games sector, Bigpoint’s plans and France’s games ecosystem.

What do you think sets games apart from some other tech sectors?

Things that happen in games often happen in other tech sectors two to three years afterwards.  Gaming is much more advanced in the sense that things like free-to-play or freemium, for example, emerged from gaming. The level of sophistication that goes in to building monetization systems into games is much more advanced than what you see in any other market. With a game, you have to figure out where within the game people will pay and why they do so. You’re literally asking theses questions all the time. Eventually, this type of thinking had to be extended across all parts of the game – not only monetization, but also user-acquisition and retention.

bigpoint2What are some of the newest trends you’re experiencing in the sector?

What we’ve been seeing in games is a move away from lead-generation and user-acquisition models where you basically outspend your competitors to win.  For example, Riot is spending very little in user acquisition, yet they capture the market. Instead, they invest in building communities. This phenomenon that I’ve observed in gaming is now far beyond what I’ve observed in other sectors. This is mostly because the level of competition in gaming is so high and the level of commoditization is becoming such that if you don’t have social components which motivates people to stay within your ecosystem, they’re not going to stay. As a result, we’ve invested a lot of time in changing our approach and the KPIs we track, focusing instead on areas such as CSI (consumer satisfaction index) or NPS (net promoter score).

I’d also say that gaming has really gone from being a product to a service. There is a product at its base, but now you’re basically providing events and content, and, generally, servicing an audience around that. In that regard, you shouldn’t think of your users as customers anymore, as people you’re just selling something to. It’s an audience that you have to entertain and take care of. Gamers have a passion for what they do and they’re really invested in it. The most successful games have been those that have been able to build the best and strongest communities. It is extremely hard in games to create a successful product – a game that works. But when you do, the key is making sure it survives as long as possible. Building communities is the best way to do that.  King did this very well with Candy Crush and Supercell even surpassed it with Clash of Clans.  This approach has not reached all parts of the games industry yet, but you still have much more attention on building communities than you find elsewhere.

What’s the state of play with Bigpoint?  What are your areas of focus?

If you look at Bigpoint historically, we’ve primarily been known as a browser game company. We were the first company that introduced that in western markets, and we’ve been very successful at that. The company went through a very tough period due to a number of factors – growth of mobile, increasing move towards a hit-driven market but fewer hits, and increasing expectation of gamers online. We took the decision to aggressively expand in every way possible – to various new territories, on mobile, etc. However, it was clear what the focus was or should be. So we refocused on our core – reinforcing our games and game development. We have also shifted to being platform independent. The mobile market is obviously growing extremely fast, but the PC games market is still $35B and growing at 7% per year. There is a massive opportunity there that people are underestimating by going 100% mobile. We’re obviously not ignoring mobile. Our gamers are, of course, asking us to be on mobile as well. We purchased a games studio in Lyon last year, Little Worlds Studio, to support that. So, our strategy is to be multi-platform.

bigpoint3On the game side of things, we have two games in development, Shards of War, a MOBA title with WASD controls and Games of Thrones, a MMO which will be released later this year, in addition to 6 mobile games which are mostly casual and midcore.

Previously, Bigpoint was expanding everywhere but Asia. Asia is now 45% of the industry and 82% of the growth. A lot of games such as, Clash of Clans, League of Legends, Dungeon Fighter, are all doing great in Asia. It’s not a market that can be ignored any longer. It’s too big, growing so fast and too important. China, which is mostly free-to-play, is going to be $22B this year, which is bigger than the US!  So, we opened an office in South Korea last year and signed our first partnership with Tencent to launch Drakensang in China later this year. I see a lot of potential for our games in this market and, expect that it’ll be where most of our growth comes from.  If you want to be a leader in this space, you definitely cannot forego China or Korea. Japan is a bit more of a challenge and you really have to invest even more into dedicated content, but it’s still a market I would be very reluctant to ignore. So, we have three main areas of focus:

  • Triple A games across the board
  • Strong focus on competitive and MMORPG on PC
  • Strong focus on differentiated games on mobile
  • Aggressive growth in Asia

What are your thoughts on the games ecosystem in France?

It’s tough. France had a great ecosystem with the success of Ubisoft, Gameloft, and Arkane Studios for example, but the ecosystem didn’t manage to make the transition from free-to-play first and then to mobile. Of course, one of the first players in mobile was French, Gameloft, but they were really on the pay-to-play side and didn’t get free-to-play. Despite that, France still has a very strong legacy of incredibly creative game development talent that should be leveraged.  Right now, though, many French game developers are moving out. The government should be strategically targeting this sector for development. This talent is one of the reasons I wanted to invest in the ecosystem, with our acquisition of Little World Studio. There’s a base for this ecosystem to get much stronger than it is. There’s some great examples of French game companies that have done really well here recently, such as Pretty Simply Games. It’s not obvious how many great studio there are, but I think there’s room for many more.