Q&A: One year into the job, Big Fish president Jeff Karp aims to transform company with ‘fewer, bigger, better’ games

Big Fish President Jeff Karp in his office, where Gutsy McDivot, the gopher mascot from Fairway Solitaire watches him work. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Jeff Karp came on board as leader of Big Fish Games during one of the most uncertain times in the history of the 16-year-old company, an icon of Seattle robust gaming industry.

Big Fish reeled Karp in just a few months after the company changed owners — Churchill Downs, operator of the famous Kentucky Derby racetrack, sold Big Fish to Australia’s Aristocrat Technologies for $990 million in late 2017.

The first few months of Karp’s tenure included a cross-town headquarters migration to the Seattle waterfront; shortly thereafter the company laid off about 15 percent of its workforce.

Today, Big Fish has around 600 employees, most of them in Seattle and Oakland, Calif., down from about 735 a year ago.

Things have settled down for Karp and the 20-year veteran of industry giants such as EA and Zynga is starting to make his mark on Big Fish.

He wants to go back to basics and focus on the categories of games that helped establish Big Fish as an important player in the industry. The company decided to jettison some games in development in the real-time strategy and RPG genres and instead focus on what Karp calls a “fewer, bigger, better” approach to game production.

“Before I got here, we were trying to be everything to everyone,” Karp said in an interview with GeekWire. “And right now I think our goal is to really be leaders in social casino and casual games.”

As part of the layoffs, several key executives departed from Big Fish. In recent months, Karp has brought in a number of new executives, including some of his ex-coworkers, with a focus on “functional experts” across the process of building and marketing games.

Even the view outside Karp’s office is changing. When the company moved into the new building on the Seattle waterfront, the Alaskan Way Viaduct was a concrete barrier to picturesque water views to the west.

Fast-forward a year, and the portion of the Viaduct outside Big Fish’s front door has been mostly knocked down. The same way the Viaduct’s demolition has unlocked new potential for the waterfront, Karp hopes the renewed focus on Big Fish’s historically strong categories will unleash a new wave of creativity and growth at the company.

A remaining piece of the Alaskan Way Viaduct sits next to Big Fish Games’ Seattle headquarters. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Big Fish just released one of its most important games in recent memory: Toy Story Drop. The title is a “Match Three” game in the vein of Candy Crush and a product of a recent partnership between Big Fish and Disney.

The game follows an interesting trend in the business: infusing a popular entertainment franchise into a game to bring in a wider audience. Niantic, which has a huge engineering presence in Bellevue, Wash., capitalized on the strategy with the smash hit Pokémon Go and just released the new Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.

Big Fish powered rapid growth of 245 percent for its parent company Aristocrat’s digital arm in 2018. Big Fish accounted for $495 million in bookings in 2018, up 8 percent over the prior year, per Aristocrat’s financial disclosures. The company had 3.6 million daily active users in 2018, according to the document, which was down 10 percent from the year before. Big Fish says it has 12 million monthly active users across all its titles.

With a year under his belt at the head of Big Fish, Karp sat down with GeekWire to talk about what the company is up to, the state of casual games and more. We also discussed his on-the-nose name, and a similar coincidence at Nintendo with his pal Doug Bowser.

The conversation has been edited for style, clarity and length.

GeekWire: You’ve been on the job for about a year now, how has the adjustment been, and what is your impression of the company so far?

Jeff Karp: The adjustment has been great. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been in the gaming industry for close to 20 years now: Electronic Arts for about 10 years and Zynga for a couple of years, pre-IPO. And then I was at GSN for a couple of years. So it’s a space that’s near and dear to my heart.

Big Fish is an amazing company that Paul (Thelen) started here. I have a ton of respect for the great content and great work that they’ve created, and what we’re trying to do is get to that next level of growth and that next level of entertainment. I feel very fortunate that a lot of people have worked here many years creating an amazing foundation. And now we’re looking at how can we get to that next level of growth and offer the next level of entertainment to consumers and continue to build on the great things that they started here.

GW: What do you have to do to get to that next level?

JK: Number one is making sure everything we do has a maniacal focus on the consumer and understanding their needs and desires. And then really challenging ourselves to figure out how do we do fewer, bigger, better games that really have that opportunity to reach new levels. I think previously there was an abundance of games delivered that probably weren’t the production values we’ve seen in other games. So the new games that we’re offering, we’re really kind of challenging ourselves to hit new production values, hit new levels of entertainment and hit new creativity.

If you look at Toy Story Drop as an example, our most recent launch, the production values challenge any game out there. We are bringing Toy Story to life in a game and expressing it in a different way. I think all those things give us the opportunity to tap into a new audience and create new entertainment.

You’re getting Collectibles in the game that are scenes, and then these scenes unlock and you’re re-expressing fiction in new ways. So we’re taking something that is familiar and pushing it to new boundaries within the game and taking those characters and offering new storytelling that you haven’t even seen in the movie before. So if you’re a Match Three player and you love the fiction of Toy Story, which is about 80 percent of the world, it’s an opportunity for new entertainment in new forms.

Toy Story Drop. (Big Fish Games Photo)

GW: How are you putting your stamp on the company?

JK: Our goal is to craft top games and inspire and connect players. Big Fish has done a great job of leading in certain categories, but our next level is figuring out how we create top 20, top 50 games in the industry. And I think that goes to creating entertainment that’s innovative and has amazing production values, and pushing on boundaries where things haven’t been done before, and getting a lot of people rallied around those efforts.

In my previous experiences at Electronic Arts and Zynga, they made leading games in the entire industry. Big Fish created great games that are category leaders. What we’re thriving on next is creating entertainment that pushes the boundaries of gaming.

GW: It sounds like Toy Story Drop is an important game for the company, tell me how that developed?

JK: The discussions were in progress and then about a month or two before I was here, we were able to close the deal. I was fortunate enough to have that in place and we were able to close the deal and work on a great partnership with Disney and Pixar and tap into that audience.

Since then, we’ve brought on new talent that will help us tap into the entertainment part of it, tap into the marketing part of it and tap into the relationship with Disney and do everything we can to optimize the game performance and optimize the opportunity.

Big Fish Casino. (Big Fish Photo)

GW: Aside from games like Toy Story Drop, what is happening at Big Fish? How would you describe the company’s top initiatives to people who don’t know the industry?

JK: Before I got here, I think we were trying to be everything to everyone. And right now I think our goal is to really be leaders in social casino and casual games. So there are other categories that we’re not going to be focused on: RPG, real-time strategy action games.

When we look at social casino, we think we have an opportunity to continue to extend that leadership and broaden our appeal. Casual game types like Match Three or Interactive Fiction, Hidden Objects. What we’re trying to do is be very focused in certain categories and take leadership in those respective categories. The mindset is once again, doing fewer, bigger, better in certain categories that we feel like we have a right to lead.

Hidden Object games is where our premium business started. So we’re looking to get back to a leadership position there, and we’re looking at some new things in Solitaire as well. We’re looking to reinvigorate and reinvent ourselves and take a leadership position in genres where we feel like we understand what they’ve been, we understand the history of them and now we have to continue to invest in them to offer great experiences for our consumers and our players.

GW: In this new fewer, bigger, better focus, what areas are you moving away from?

JK: There are certain games that we had in development that we’ve decided not to pursue, and there are other games that we’re just doubling down on. What we’re trying to do is really kind of pick certain games in certain genres and make sure we invest in those genres in the right ways rather than spraying everywhere. How do we kind of take a leadership in each respective genre category where we feel like we have the right to lead, we have the experience and we have the talent to get us there as well? And where we don’t have talent, we’ve made some nice investments in people and talent to really kind of get us to those levels to provide the leadership and the skills needed to be successful.

We had some RPG games we did previously that we’re no longer pursuing, which is a pretty big lift, and we had some action games that we were working on. Some of them came to market, some of them we actually sold back to the respective studios who were developing for us. On some of them we stopped development. We just redirected the resources into areas where we felt we could be more successful.

The Big Fish Games office, decked out in Toy Story stickers. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

GW: How does Big Fish make money?

JK: We’re fortunate that we have five evergreen legacy products that continue to do quite well for us. And that’s our social casino products: Big Fish Casino, Jackpot, Magic Slots. Gummy Drop is still extremely healthy and doing very well. Cooking Craze, which is a time management product, continues to grow and scale accordingly and have great success. Almost two years later, Fairway Solitaire continues to hold its own.

Categories like Fairway have been around for almost seven years now. We’re looking to reinvigorate them and figure out what could be next and what could be new. We feel like Gummy Drop and Toy Story Drop together make a really exciting franchise and brand that we think we can continue to develop.

GW: And these are mostly free games with in-app purchases?

JK: In-app purchases, and we have some reward video that’s opt-in for the consumer. Offering them different value propositions that they deem best for them. So whether it’s that they want a microtransaction that helps them accelerate or whether they want to participate in a reward video, we provide them that option in a lot of games.

The Big Fish Games Seattle office, complete with a big fish tank. GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy

GW: What is your take on the casual games industry right now?

JK: You’re seeing continued consolidation. The cost of game development continues to rise a bit, but the real cost is discovery of games. Depending on the numbers you’re looking at, there are between 2.5 and 3 million apps. How do you make sure if you have a great quality game that people are aware that the game exists?

Production values are higher than ever. The cost of entry is higher than ever. Years ago you could get away with what we were calling a minimal viable product. And I think today the consumer has much greater expectations, and the build has to be that much greater.

I think you’re also starting to see what we call mashups, where are you starting to see genres blend together, where something might be a slots game, but it might have a metagame that ties in a builder. You are starting to see some things that are a little bit more indicative of some RPG and real-time strategy games starting to come to casual games. And then I think you’re also starting to see more and more IPs, because discovery is hard. Whether it’s Harry Potter or Toy Story Drop, there are a lot of brands out there that people are looking to leverage to see if they can break out and help with storytelling.

GW: Niantic’s new augmented reality Harry Potter game is the story of the industry this week. What do you think about what Niantic has done, first with Pokémon Go and now Harry Potter, and the potential of AR gaming?

JK: Ironically, everybody thought VR was going to be first, and then everyone got surprised by Pokémon Go. So this is kind of Pokémon Go 2.0 with a Harry Potter twist. I think it’s great for the industry that there continues to be innovation and creativity. Kudos to Niantic and Warner Bros. for creating that great content.

To me it’s accretive to the entire industry. I look at it as just different ways to deliver content. I remember years ago when I was at EA, everybody thought the console would be dead. The console is still very alive and mobile games are very alive.

The reality is it’s about share of time. I don’t think we’re competing against each other. When I was at Zynga a lot of people said we challenged other games, but in reality it just grew the category. What did suffer was like, soap operas. TV suffered because we actually made it a larger addressable audience. Things like AR and VR expand the audience and give an opportunity for the industry and gaming to continue to grow substantially.

(Harry Potter: Wizards Unite Images)

GW: So you don’t see Pokémon Go and now Harry Potter as competition?

JK: I think it continues to grow the accessibility of an audience. Playing a console game to me is like going to the movies and mobile games are like watching TV. They’re just different experiences. Consoles tend to be a little secluded, and mobile games are for when you’re on the go and you know, you get 10, 15 minutes of escapism.

GW: So who is your competition?

JK: To me, anything in entertainment is our competitor at a macro level. Then you drill down and say, what are people playing? And then I think about how can we lead versus a competitor in each respective game and each respective genre so that we feel like that we are earning our keep. Every day we have a responsibility to our consumer make sure we’re doing our best to attract them and keep them engaged.

We get a daily report card about how many people are coming back to our game who’s willing to pay for that content. And that’s the way they vote everyday, which is, are they coming? And are they willing to pay for the content that you’re creating?

GW: And who are you competing against at that micro level?

JK: In Match Three, the big one is Candy Crush. They’ve done a great job, but we feel good about some of the new mechanics and storytelling that we’re offering. But they’re the leaders that we have to continue to look at every day. We have a ton of respect for them, and we realize that they keep us on our toes. We’re focused on how can we beat them and compete against them day in and day out.

In Hidden Objects there are games that have been out there, but I think there’s an opportunity for us reinvigorate a category that’s lapsed a bit in recent years. We feel the same way in Solitaire.

In social casino it’s us and Playtika at the top with Huuuge. Day in and day out, we’re always trying to figure out how we can offer new experiences. We launched a new mechanic in Big Fish Casino and Jackpot Magic Slots called Collectibles. Chips come and go, but treasures are forever. So we’re offering something that’s persistent; when you’re in the game you can earn rewards and treasures that you get to keep with you as you’re playing. They’re highly social and include everything from the way you appear as your persona as you play the game to your avatar, giving you a social status that’ll add to conversation.

(GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

GW: Your social casino games, as well as those of your competitors, have been caught up in online gambling lawsuits in Washington state. Are these court cases a threat to one of your most popular genres?

JK: I can’t comment legally, but the way we look at ourselves, we’re an entertainment company. We’re just providing people great entertainment experiences. Our goal is to continue to challenge ourselves day in and day out to provide entertainment. There are many people that play a game for free and enjoy it. And we think that’s awesome. And there’s other people that choose to pay and, and I think our job is to continue to just provide compelling content.

GW: Big Fish recently did a round of layoffs. How has the company reorganized since?

JK: We’ve done everything possible to focus on the games themselves. We have the studios, and their job is to make great games and provide them the proper support. And we’ve actually added more talent there. We’ve added some people from Electronic Arts, from Zynga, from GSN, some industry experts that are really going to help us continue to craft great games.

We’ve hired people like Andrew Peterson, who is somebody I worked with at GSN and was one of the original founders of Pogo, which is arguably one of the first social games ever created. We’ve added different designers and producers from Zynga, GSN, etc.

We have two sides of publishing. One is basically user acquisition. And then we have another area which is kind of more about brand marketing and that’s where we hired David Silverman. David is a colleague of mine that I’ve known for almost 15, 20 years from EA. The team builds some of our best brands out there and really connects directly with consumers and forms those relationships.

And then the third part of our org is our central part, and that’s meant to enable games. So what can we do to create a platform and let the teams worry about the creativity and innovation and get the blocking and tackling down as best as possible? That’s everything from localization, to quality assurance to customer support. We’re trying to do everything possible to create great experiences and establish a solid foundation and let the studio really focus on innovation and creativity.

So it’s create great games, do everything we can to optimize those games and then enable them through central engineering. We’ve looked at each one of those areas and tried to hire functional experts and then really double down on a lot of the talent against the games and the studios themselves to create the great content.

(GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

GW: We’ve talked about where Big Fish is investing, but where has the company pulled back in terms of staffing?

JK: Churchill Downs had a lot of centralized teams that were working on things that didn’t necessarily align with what Big Fish was trying to achieve. We literally at times had almost 150 projects in central engineering that weren’t even being integrated into games that maybe were more advantageous for Churchill Downs, but not necessarily advantageous for Big Fish. I go back to fewer, bigger, better and looking at prioritization and what projects that we really can double down and leverage across each game.

We just hired an SVP of engineering that comes from Disney and Fox, Eric Lippke, and he’s really an expert on building that core foundation, looking at things like getting deeper into the cloud and how we can provide a more secure SDK. And how can we create better benefits of direct-to consumer messaging and provide benefits to the consumer that we can leverage across all games? So we’re looking at people that are experts to help us navigate and do our best to think about the player first and deliver what they want rather than what we want.

GW: Let’s change directions a bit. Your name, it’s so perfect for the company. Was it just a big coincidence or something more?

JK: When I got up in front of the company in my first meeting, my opening line was ‘A Karp at Big Fish, coincidence or destination?’ So that was the first thing I said. But yeah, it might be destiny.

GW: Which one is more on the nose, you at Big Fish, or (Nintendo of America President) Doug Bowser?

JK: He’s actually a good friend of mine. We got together at EA. We’ll probably have a drink over it and talk about it with each other. He’s good people.

I think it is quite coincidental. I think the Australians think it’s funnier than most Americans. We’re owned by an Australian company and every time they see it, they think it’s the funniest thing ever that a Karp is running Big Fish.

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