Kobojo Co-founder: "Social = Mobile"


Interview conducted with Trista Bridges
I met with Franck Tetzlaff, CEO and co-founder of Kobojo, France’s 2nd larget social games publisher, to ask him about Kobojo’s vision for the year to come. It is a clear and hungry one.
Franck Tetzlaff believes that social games and mobile games are fast becoming one and the same thing. He also knows very well the design and technical challenges involved in producing games with a truly coherent experience accross devices, as well as just how tough competing on Facebook has become.

Social saturation

Zynga’s recent IPO*, and the slide in its stock price even in the face of big annoucements, shows that investors are doubtful that FarmVille-like city building games with more or less the same game loop can interest players forever. If city builders have been around for decades, they have also evolved very quickly. On Facebook however, innovation is rather the exception than the rule. It happens, sure, but the biggest successes don’t come from innovation. They come from good execution, a dose of cloning, and marketing power. Too much repetition though, however well executed, leads to fatigue.

Two games that have done really well recently are Draw Something (now part of Zynga), and SongPop. What these games have in common is to have a coherent gaming experience accross devices, and to be inherently social. The virality of such designs is exponential, and though the games they originate from are not new, their crystal clear implementation hits the spot. It’s no accident that Kobojo’s CEO states that to create a success, “everything comes down to simplicity and usability”. A concise lesson.

Next for Kobojo: casual and mass-market games

One of the defining successes of Kobojo is Goobox, a casual games plaftorm. After this, Kobojo went on to develop citybuilders, that met average to good successes (PyramidVille and Atlantis Fantasy). However, the recently launched Smooty Tales, sort of a Tamagotchi meets Ravenwood Fair, despite great art and reviews, is struggling to break much past 35k DAU. All in all, Kobojo can still boast close to 800k DAU, and some decent performances, but it hasn’t produced a hit since the early days of Goobox and PyramidVille. Meanwhile, increased competitive pressure means Kobojo has lost about 100k DAU accross its games in the past month, which represents over 10% of its total user base.
This state of affairs probably weighed in Franck Tetzlaff stating that Kobojo would return to the casual roots of Kobojo, with projects including some still undisclosed games, as well as a redesign of the most successful games in Goobox as standalone products. As he puts it, “Kobojo’s DNA is casual and mass-market”, and this mission statement goes hand in hand with doing games both social and mobile.

Social/Mobile Distribution 

While designing with social and mobile as a unified objective means that Kobojo is doing what many people wiser than me in the industry see as the way to go, Kobojo also needs to distribute to its core demographic – 35+ women. This far, Kobojo has both self-published and partnered carefully with publishers, wanting to find both the right business fit and the right people to work with. Kobojo’s partnership with Peak Games for the distribution of PyramidVille in the Middle East is a good example of one such successful partnership.
It’s an open question however if the current publication model of Kobojo will be the best fit for its casual social/mobile ambitions, and if its core player demographic will remain the same. What is sure is that Kobojo isn’t lacking focus for monetization, and even mild successes such as Atlantis have been more than financially balanced.

 Quality needs innovation

Though competition is rough, one thing that shines for Kobojo is quality. Their latest game, Smooty Tales, has graphics of a rare quality on the Facebook platform, and it runs so much more smoothly than Dragon City – a game with much inferior art and plenty of performance issues that nonetheless has reached 1.8M DAUs.
That quality is trumped by game mechanics is one of the painful truths that Kobojo has had to face. They have reacted constructively with their strategic choices of blending mobile and social, and going casual. This is the best hint that they have integrated this lemon lesson and are going for lemonade with their next releases.
Interestingly, when Franck Tetzlaff was asked about his 3 currently preferred games,Temple Run, a very casual mobile title, came first. Then innovative racing app CSR Racing and its stunning finish were second, and finally massive Facebook casual hit Bubble Witch Saga was third. Critically acclaimed Triple Town, did strike something as well for Kobojo’s CEO, but he was also critical – and looking at Triple Town’s declining numbers, so are many others. In all this production quality was cited as a reason for loving the game – and this is a very healthy view to have for long-term success – but quality of the mechanics and overall success seemed to also play a large part.
This dual focus on quality and success, coupled with their experience and their strategic switch to more promising genres in the current market, gives Kobojo more than a fighting chance. But if they want to score a major hit and catch up to casual giant King.com and its 11M+ DAU, they will need to innovate and take some strategic risks.
*Also, as Zynga and Kobojo are fighting in court, please note that any comments on Zynga are my own.