You may have missed it amongst all the big budget ads, half-time obscenities and, you know, football playing, but Words With Friends co-creators Paul Bettner and David Bettner managed to snag a seconds-long cameo during that geek-packed Best Buy spot. The ad was the latest in a recent string of high-profile mentions for their popular word game, including a name-check during a self-effacing Alec Baldwin sketch on Saturday Night Live. We sat down with Bettner to discuss his move from Halo and other Microsoft franchises to mobile gaming, and where the industry stands in 2012.
You did the Super Bowl ad cameo. How glamorous is the life of an app developer at this point?
It's funny, I've been making games for 15 years now, and I've worked on some of the biggest games like Halo and Age of Empires, when I was with Microsoft Game Studios. I used to think, "Oh, this is so great. All my friends want this job. It's the most fun thing, and I wake up every morning and like coming into work." But this is a whole other level. There's Alec Baldwin doing a skit about your game on Saturday Night Live. And now, with this, the Super Bowl. An article came out about the Giants playing [Words With Friends] in the locker room. Some told me, "If the Giants win are you going to get credit for that?" Sure, I'll share a little bit of credit for that, if I helped them sharpen their wits for the game, and then they said, "What if they lose?" Well, I guess I'd probably have to take credit for that too because maybe I ended up distracting them.
Do you feel you're having a broader impact now than you did working on games like Halo?
Oh yeah, by far. It's just incredible. Like most game developers, entrepreneurs and tech folks, we all have t-shirts. We love our t-shirts. Every product I've ever worked on has multiple t-shirts associated with it. I wear those t-shirts out in public. I'd wear the Halo t-shirts and shirts from various other games I worked on, and never once would anybody say anything about them. Maybe, if I was lucky, one of my geek friends would be like, "Oh man, that's a cool shirt, can I get that shirt?"
If I wear a Words With Friends shirt now and I go to JC Penny or walk through the security scanner at the airport -- for some reason, airport security, I don't know, they must just have a lot of time on their hands -- but every time, if I'm wearing the shirt and I go through I get stopped by multiple people. They say things like, "I talk to my son-in-law with the game. I would never talk to him, but now we play every day." It's just this thing that is such a part of their lives and I've never experienced that in my career before, even in huge franchises.
Everybody is a gamer now in one way or another.
Yeah, but none of those people would call themselves gamers. If you ask my mother-in-law, who plays the game multiple times a day, "Are you a gamer?" she'd say, "No way."
How did you make that jump from console and PC gaming to casual gaming?
It was a little bit scary. The thing that made it easy was, when the iPhone first came out and I saw it and I got my hands on it, I realized it was the future and that I had to make a game for it. That certainly made it easy. It was so cool to work on, but at that point I had no idea that the thing that would be the most appealing about it would be the fact that I get to make games for everybody. I never even knew that was something that I cared about or wanted. Now I'm totally hooked on it, and that's all I want to do.
Nintendo has made a pretty big point of dragging its feet when it comes to truly casual gaming. Is there going to continue to be a place for console gaming or is everybody moving in that direction?
I'm a huge fan of console games. Games like Mass Effect 3 and Skyrim, these games are works of art. As a player and a consumer, I don't think those games are going anywhere, but the interesting thing that's happening is we're teaching people, these sort of new audiences, to engage with the games. I've been playing games my whole life and there's so many wonderful game mechanics and design moments that we haven't even begun to bring over to the mass market. I don't think it's going anywhere but I also think that the social market is going to continue to innovate and take the best of that and make it broadly appealing.
In light of the recent Facebook IPO announcement and opportunities like this Super Bowl ad, do you feel you're doing the same job as you always have done? How much has the industry shifted as of late?
It's really interesting because the Facebook market is a little more matured there now, in terms of marketing strategies that work. What you're seeing happening now on Facebook is that it's a lot more about innovation with new types of games. Mobile is still the wild west of monetization. We have a ton of ideas for things that we want to try, and the thing that I always tell the teams when we're working on it is, I just want to put as much effort into being creative and thoughtful and sort of trying to create this joyful experience when it comes to monetization as we do when it comes to what makes a game fun.
Some of the best games that monetize are the ones that do it so that, when I pay for something in the game, I don't feel annoyed that the game blocked me so I have to pay my way past it. Instead, it's like "Hey, I'm having all this fun," and I see something that I can pay for where I can even have more fun.
Does it still feel as hands-on as it did when the company was a one or two person operation?
No, it's absolutely still like that, and I kind of worry about when the other shoe is gonna drop. I've been in the industry long enough to have gone through those kind of cycles, where you start off in a particular genre with a small team and four or five people can do something amazing and even change the world, which is kind of what happened with Words With Friends, and I've seen that evolve like in the console market now. There are still indie efforts [on the console side], but on mobile it's still absolutely that way, and our studio here in Texas as a kind of remote studio of Zynga.
It's still the same shop that it was two years ago, where we're taking small teams of about five people and we're putting them on big, bold new ideas, and we're saying "Let's crank out a product in four or five months and see what we can do." It's totally a blast. I don't know if that's going to change. I kinda feel that, like what you see happening on mobile, is that the products that are really popular are still as simple as they were two years ago. The complexity hasn't gone up a lot, maybe because the screens are small, because they have to stay simple so you can just touch it with your fingers and play with it, so I hope that that continues because that's a fun kind of industry to work in.
In a lot of ways, the video game industry operates like the rest of the entertainment industry, in that you find a successful franchise or formula and work with that for as long as it's popular. You've got this incredibly popular game and there have been different versions of it, but are you interested in creating as many different gameplay opportunities as possible?
I've seen and been through those moments, and I actually think you can see that an industry's growth starts to go down when that starts happening. It almost killed the film industry when they got into that model early. They said, "Oh, we've got a formula and we've got these big studios and we're just going to crank these things out," and all of a sudden people said, "Hey wait, where'd the money go? What's happening here?" And they had to reinvent themselves. That's maybe happening a little bit in the console industry as well, although I do think there are really cool things going on there. But as far as on mobile, it's just not there at all yet.
The company that comes to mind is Rovio. There are something like 800 Angry Birds games. Obviously, the franchise is doing well, but are they hammering it into the ground?
I definitely see them taking that approach, and I'm not sure what I would do if I were them, because they have this huge brand. They haven't created something new after that but, man, the bar is really high, so if they release something that isn't Angry Birds, and it doesn't do well, that would be devastating. But from my standpoint, there's so much more interesting stuff for us to explore. Words With Friends wasn't supposed to be the end-all and be-all; it was really supposed to be just another game on our platform. We set out to create a board game for the digital age and from that standpoint there's hundreds of more games I want to create and hundreds of new social mechanics that we haven't even begun to tap into. Words With Friends is a one-versus-one game, asynchronous, turn-based. There's so many different ways to do that, not just with new games but with new sorts of social mechanics and ways to connect.