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Xbox Live Developer Interview: Game House, makers of Doodle Jump and Sally's Salon

WPCentral continues our Xbox Live Developer Interview series by speaking with Game House's Ken Murphy. GameHouse, a division of RealNetworks, is truly a casual gaming juggernaut, with too many PC games to count and three Windows Phone titles so far. In this interview, Ken graciously discusses the casual game genre, the Doodle Jump Achievement that nobody has unlocked, and lots more.

Head past the jump for the full, fantastic interview.

Please tell us about your role at GameHouse.

I’m the VP of Studios for GameHouse which means I oversee the creation and production of all of our games we create in-house as well as the sourcing of games we distribute across social, smartphone, tablets, online, and download channels.

GameHouse deals exclusively in casual games. Who are the primary players of casual games?

The PC download market has been predominately women who are 35 and over. However, we’re seeing the demographic broaden to include younger players as well with an equal balance of male and female players on mobile and social platforms.

What role do you think difficulty plays in the success of a casual title?

Casual games have historically been easy to learn but difficult to master. Casual games typically have simple mouse or touch-screen driven controls and the basic rules of game play are typically pretty simple so that players can feel successful in their first engagement. However, successful casual games tend to ramp the difficulty level or provide a range of difficulty settings so that the game remains challenging and keeps players engaged over time.

Are there any other ingredients you look for when developing or publishing games with mass appeal?

We focus on the basics – a compelling core game play mechanic with excellent physics, a compelling theme or story, high quality artistic production values, and great first time playability.  Beyond that things tend to get a little more genre-specific.  We want hidden object adventure games to be very compelling to our traditional casual audience.  However, for more puzzle oriented games like Collapse!,  we look for games that effectively combine a mechanic with broad appeal, themes and art that appeal to a traditional casual audience, and a healthy sense of competitive challenge for more universal appeal. 

Have you considered developing a slightly more complex title that bridges the divide between casual and ‘core’ games, like PopCap has done with Plants vs. Zombies?

The success of Plants vs. Zombies illustrates the potential of “cross-over” titles that push the boundaries of the traditional casual gaming mold. We will look to stretch these boundaries over time too, but since we’re well known for our casual titles and we’re focused on helping our GameHouse users connect with us on mobile and social platforms, we will be sticking close to our casual legacy for now.

What role do smartphone games play in GameHouse’s overall business strategy?

Mobile is an important part of our strategy because, as we all know, smartphones and tablets have revolutionized mobile gaming and they’ve contributed significantly to an expanding game-playing demographic.  We pivoted to a “smartphone first” approach to mobile game development about 18 months ago, and you can expect to see us working to bridge the social – mobile divide with our future titles.

Is there a website where our readers can go to learn about GameHouse’s mobile offerings?

We just re-launched GameHouse.com with a whole new look and lots of new features, including a mobile games tab.  Players can now find more than 100 mobile games on our Website at http://www.gamehouse.com/mobile-games.

Moving on to Windows Phone, your company has published Tiki Towers and Doodle Jump so far. Have both titles’ performances met your expectations?

We’re happy with the performance of Tiki Towers and Doodle Jump on Windows Phone.  We’ve exceed our original internal sales targets by a handy margin and we’ve been particularly pleased with trial-to-purchase conversion rates. 

Each of those titles was developed by Mr. Goodliving, whose doors closed in February. Which studio will create GameHouse’s Windows Phone titles going forward?

These games will continue to be developed out of our studios in Seattle and Victoria, most likely with the help of partner studios in the US and Europe that we have worked with extensively over the years. Together we will be building a new generation of mobile games that are specifically designed to interact directly with social gaming experiences. 

The Windows Phone port of Doodle Jump is missing a few of the themes (levels) of the iOS version. Will new themes be added in future updates?

We are working closely with our partners at LimaSky, the creators of DoodleJump, to bring the most compelling iOS themes to future WP7 updates.  In addition, we will be upgrading to WP 7.1 MANGO to increase our frame rate.  Our plan is to bring our WP7 version on par with iOS version, with the exception of the soccer theme.

Doodle Jump is ostensibly a casual game, and yet it’s widely believed to have the most challenging Xbox Live Achievements of any Windows Phone title. Was the demanding nature of those Achievements intentional?

Yes and no.  We added a lot of progressive achievements – jump on, around or shoot 5 monsters, then 10, then 30 – in order to keep things interesting and challenging for the Xbox Live audience.  But the UFO achievement definitely turned out to be pretty difficult and we’re likely to tone that one down a bit!

Speaking of which, we were hoping you could shed some light on the ‘UFO Abduction Survivor’ Achievement. How exactly do players go about surviving a UFO abduction?

I think it requires nearly superhuman capabilities!  The bullets and the laser beam are currently allowed to collide, which makes things really tough.  You will likely see a simplified version in a future update.

Your latest Windows Phone title is Sally’s Salon Luxury Edition. The game shares some similarities with Diner Dash. How is it different?

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The two games do indeed share many of the basic game play features that are common to the time management genres – serving customers through sequential clicking mechanics, moving through a level-based story, upgrading your shop, etc.  Our partners at Games Café, the developer of Sally’s Salon, gave the game some unique touches in the form of integrated mini-game experiences, like matching each customer with a specific hairstyle when arriving at the styling station.

What enhancements does the Luxury Edition bring over the original Sally’s Salon?

Sally’s Salon Luxury Edition addition adds five additional levels, the option to choose “drag and drop” or classic game control modes, and a higher [graphical] resolution to the already great Sally’s experience.

Do you think Sally’s Salon will appeal to male gamers as well as the ladies?

Thematically speaking, Sally’s Salon franchise was originally developed for the PC casual gaming audience and is pretty female-focused. Time management games are fun for all types of players, but we’ve stayed true to Sally’s roots so I’d be a little surprised to see any significant shifts in player demographics.  (For my part, I enjoyed Sally’s Salon much more than Star Wars Cantina. –ed.)

Finally, your company has published Nintendo Wii and DS titles under the RealArcade label. Now that you have mobile Xbox Live experience under your belts, have you considered dabbling in Xbox 360 development too?

Our goal is to create true cross-platform games - and we definitely have our eyes on all platforms - but for now we’re going to stay very focused on the intersection of mobile, social, and PC games. 

Special thanks to Deanna Leung-Madden for her assistance.

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Comments

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Terrin says:

so sounds like the plan to dumb down the achievement kinda like tentaicles is getting dumbed down gameplay to make it easier, Edit: I understand it is impossible to obtain right now I just mean its good news to do that but how are they gonna dumb it down. from what I can read it just sounds like the bullets and the lasers will not collide any more still be a tough achievement for a casual game as there other 2 titles are easy 200's

Paul Acevedo says:

The plan is to take an Achievement that is literally impossible right now (zero people have it months after the game's release) and make it actually obtainable. That is good news, ya silly.

Terrin says:

Also alot of companys are saying the xbox live titles always surprass expectations on slaes and the trail to purchase conversion right was much better then expected I would love to see those numbers compared to android and ios. I know the sales numbers compared to ios will not be close to to how many devices are out there but the sales conversion rate would be intresting

incendy says:

That would be interesting, Trials are done much differently on Windows Phone 7 than on IOS. IOS doesn't really have a true trial system.The trial system is actually one of the features that really make WP7 compelling, especially since every single Live title supports it.

Terrin says:

yea on ios some games hav ethe lite verison which is a trial but compare those 2 numbers and see how well the xbox trials do