We investigate the young London social start-up and talk advergaming, film and tech
Based in the heart of London is one of the UK's newest and perhaps most unique gaming start-ups, We R Interactive.
Two-and-a-half years young, and self-dubbed a social entertainment company, the firm was set up by CEO and former Psygnosis studio manager David Rose alongside some more unusual suspects in the game industry with backgrounds in advertising, TV and film. Key partners include Working Title Films co-founder Eric Fellner and Abbot Mead Vickers BBDO founder Peter Mead.
The company now boasts a 50-strong team, and also works with film production outfit Big Balls Films, based just few a steps away on the office floor above, which works on all the video content for I Am PlayR.
The studio's first game was browser title I Am PlayR, released officially in October 2011 for Facebook. The browser title sees users take on the persona of a professional footballer on-and-off the pitch from a first-person perspective.
The game features live action video and interactive storytelling, powered by its proprietary tech Muse - which strings numerous potential plot pathways together based on the users' actions - and bases much of its financial success on 'advergaming'.
This concept has brought in numerous advertisers into the game including the likes of Nike, Red Bull and Alfa Romeo to act not just as paid-for advertising, but as part of I Am PlayR's core experience.
Studio CEO David Rose tells Develop that weaving brands into the story, which relies heavily on video content, was an interesting challenge, but one that appears to have paid in dividends.
“Where it then got interesting from a business side was to weave brands into that story and make contextual sense,” he explains on I Am PlayR’s inclusion of in-game advertising.
“So if you become a Nike athelete, that’s something you actually feel proud about, and you’re happy to share that with your friends because in this world of celebrity that’s how we all imagine the world works, and it does.
“So it was weaving and telling these stories in first-person in both 3D – traditional 3D gameplay – and video, but with brands at its core in an additive and aspirational way, and that gave us two strings to our bow when it came to a business model.
"We weren’t just relying on the small percentage of players that pay in that freemium model, but was also gaining value from everyone else. Typically we just have value in their virality and the ability to tell their friends ‘hey, it’s a good game’.
“That was the proof, then I Am PlayR was the result of that and it launched just over a year ago. We’re very happy, incredibly happy with how it’s gone. We’ve been played by seven and a half million users, we’re one on 1.2m monthly average users at the moment, and we have also extended the game into mobile.”
Rose highlights one example of I Am PlayR’s use of advertising as a core focus for the experience as its deal with UK car manufacturer Alfa Romeo. A player could be invited into the chairman’s office, and told the company is a new sponsor for the football club. The user is then tasked with scoring five goals before their rival to be given the keys to a car as part of the sponsorship deal.
Players are then presented with numerous sales details on Alfa Romeo, and the game also uses the manufacturer’s own car configurator to set up a vehicle to their own specifications, information which is then passed back to Alfa Romeo as useable data on preferred features.
And Rose says that there has been tremendous feedback for the model so far from players, with 90 per cent of users even asking for more advertising deals to bring in new game features and opportunities.
“That brand model really sets us apart business wise, and over 90 per cent of our users are asking us for more advertisements in the game, because they don’t realise they’re being advertised to,” he says.
“So our average engagement each day is 44 minutes of gameplay. So for a brand to have the users engaged for that length of time is unheard of. So we’ve got some really compelling case studies now coming from how we’ve set the product up, which gives us then the opportunity to set up more games of this ilk and tell more stories and set this up.”
Despite the success of the business model, Rose says the company has turned down numerous potential advertising partners that the studio felt would not be authentic to the in-game experience.
“You’re game makers first in the scenario, and the editorial that we’ve got is key,” he states.
“So if it doesn’t pass litmus test of whether its aspirational, authentic or valuable to the user, then it’s not going in the game. It’s that simple. I think you can look at everything we’ve done so far and say it’s beneficial to the user.”
Kicking off with mobile
With the apparent success of its first title, We R Interactive is already moving on to other games such as I Am Star and mobile and Facebook title Lyroke, in which players watch a music video and must guess the correct lyrics as the song plays.
As well as these two confirmed titles, there are currently also three more unannounced games underway, typically with ten developers on each title in full production, and Rose says the studio is looking at potentially using US sports as a key focus, specifically Basketball.
But while the studio’s roots are firmly based in Facebook gaming, the developer is looking to lead its new wave of games from mobile, although Rose says browser will remain an important platform for the company.
“If you wind the clock back two-and-a-half years ago and you looked at where the audience was - we have a great relationship with Facebook, and Facebook is our most important platform today, and will continue to be a very important platform for us - but people play games in many, many places,” says Rose.
He adds of leading on mobile for some of its games moving forward: “It's classic console development where in a way you develop for the least common denominator. So if you were looking for shorter game experiences in that time, and the essence of what's at the heart of many of the games, then mobile is a great place to start.”
This doesn’t mean We R Interactive doesn’t realise the need for differentiation in play schemes, given the unique user interfaces provide by browser, mobile and tablet.
Rose explains that although football matches in the browser version of I Am PlayR are designed to be a three or four minute activity, users often play the title for up to 20 minutes at a time, citing browser as a deeper and more engaging activity than just sitting on the train and playing a quick distraction game.
The mobile version meanwhile is substantially different, with the developer taking into account the different ways and different locations people play games using their smartphones.
“What we're doing on web is that bit deeper, complex and a larger scale development. So they are natural product extensions,” says Rose.
“And the interface, design and everything to package a great mobile product needs to be really tight, and once you have that tight on mobile it's an easier step to go and broaden that for a web experience. I don't think we see either as more important but there's a natural development path that makes sense.”
Musing on tech
Part of We R Interactive’s success is down to its own proprietary tech that underlies I Am PlayR, known as Muse. The tech was designed to help prevent linear storylines and players from experiencing the same impersonal story by attaching preconditions – or predicates - to each story element.
Each of these predicates is a “truth statement” about the world state of an individual player, based on what the user has done in the past. This can then unlock new plot avenues in future, such as if the player has been unfaithful, this may affect their relationship with their girlfriend.
We R Interactive CTO Alex Whittaker says new stories with added video content are still being implemented into the title post-development, and can be slipped into the game at any point thanks to the tech without upsetting a player’s own specific story.
“The Muse engine we have in place allows us now to add new story elements in the game, and those story elements can be quite constrained,” explains Whittaker.
“They might be directed to people who've been engaged with the game for quite a long time, it might be people who are in their second or third season, they might be people who are new to the game or who haven't played the game for a bit, and we can add those elements to the game safe in the knowledge that it will only be presented to them when it's meaningful and makes sense.
"But also we can add those elements so they will update the world status laying the ground-work for something new.”
Whittaker cites this constant updating of a game and developing for social media in general as being more like maintaining a fair ground than producing a box product. He says that developers in the space are constantly having to give users new content to keep them entertained and keep things fresh.
As well as using Muse, We R Interactive also, like other social game companies, makes use of a wealth of analytical tools. But as Rose points, the use of analytics can only take a game so far, and it’s just as important to have a creative vision for a game rather than just relying on raw data from features that already exist.
“The truth is, people can only comment and give you feedback on the content that you serve to them,” he states. “And yes, trust me they can give you feedback about whether they like it or not, how they engaged with it, are they engaging with it the way you thought they would or are they using it in a totally different way.
“But what any focus group or even game analytics always struggle to do is have the vision to say what else can we do or what sort of things can we do to delight the audience and comment on new features.
“In many ways it's common sense. We track 19,000 data points on PlayR alone, which gives us a wealth of information and we're far better armed to make feature decisions to balance the game than we've ever been in the past. Nut it still doesn't take away the importance of having a vision and creative direction and somewhere that macro plan as to where we want to take the game.”
Given the unique set-up of We R Interactive and the tech to back up its unique story-driven interactive titles such as I Am PlayR and the focus on ‘advergaming’, the studio certainly looks set for an interesting future.
Plans are already afoot to move to a new office in an effort to bring sister-company Big Balls Films, which currently sits above We R’s office, onto the same floor. And while Rose says he is satisfied with the size of the studio as it stands, if the developer’s audience continues to grow with new titles, there could be an opportunity to further expand its employee count.
He cautions however that expanding to quickly like some other companies have in the past could prove detrimental to its success, and is keen for the studio to avoid simply aiming to churn out as much content as it can and rather focus on a core set of games.
“I think I would rather concentrate on building long-term relationships and platforms and fewer titles to maintain that quality,” he says.
“I think there's been a perfectly valid business model that says 'I'm going to build many titles that are going to be short, distraction properties and when the user gets bored, as long as I've got somewhere else to take them, that's fine'.
“There's nothing wrong with that at all. But if I take football as a case in point, if you're a games fan or a football fan and we continue to serve you interesting football related content, new challenges, new competitions, new features, then I don't mind if you return infrequently, as long as you're coming back regularly to see what's new, continuing to be entertained by PlayR then that's great. And that's a much longer-term philosophy than many social games.”
For more information on We R Interactive, visit the official website.