Big Fish Games Hooks New Revenue Streams with Cloud Service

7/24/12Follow @curtwoodward

Seattle’s Big Fish Games, a multimillion-dollar company that publishes and distributes casual video games, is taking a big step into the future of connected entertainment.

After months of work, Big Fish is unveiling a streaming game service called Big Fish Unlimited that lets players move seamlessly between their laptop, tablet, and smartphone. The subscription service, which charges $7.99 a month for unlimited access, also offers game developers and Big Fish itself a whole new channel for making money from their creations.

In a speech at the Casual Connect conference in Seattle, Big Fish founder and CEO Paul Thelen noted that connected, cross-platform gaming has been promised for many years but is just now starting to emerge in a real way.

“This is one glimpse of where we think the future is going,” Thelen said.

Paul Thelen

Now in its 10th year, Big Fish is a veteran of the casual games industry. And while casual games themselves have traditionally been whimsical, carefree diversions, such as Rovio’s “Angry Birds,” the sector is a serious business.

Big Fish, which publishes its own games and distributes titles from other developers, says it made more than $180 million in revenue for 2011, annual growth of 30 percent. The company has hundreds of employees worldwide, and seems to be on a path to becoming a public company in the relatively near future.

As Thelen told me in this recent interview, a big part of Big Fish’s success has been its relentless focus on data-driven marketing for the games it sells. The company’s storefront attracts millions of people, and Big Fish plans out the lifecycle of a game to know exactly when to fire up its marketing efforts or switch to a new type of format to rejuvenate sales.

That path has continued even as much of the casual gaming sector has moved away from Big Fish’s bread and butter of paid games and into the freemium model, where players start a game for free and buy enhancements or special add-ons. By giving the game away, a publisher can potentially attract a huge user base, making the slice of players who will pay for something more lucrative.

That business model started on Facebook, but has spread to the rapidly growing mobile platform. That shift has changed some of the fundamentals of the games business, which is moving from a publish-and-sell model to a business that offers video games as a continual service.

Big Fish has started to embrace free-to-play games on its distribution platform, and the new Big Fish Unlimited streaming service will have a rotating cast of a few free games that are supported by advertising. But the core business of the streaming service is the monthly subscription charge.

For that fee, players will get an experience that looked pretty slick in Big Fish’s demo at today’s Casual Connect briefing. A player can start their game on a laptop in the morning, and switch over to their smartphone as they commute to work on the train. Then, when they come home, it can continue again on a tablet or connected TV (Big Fish is partnering with Roku for that portion of the service, coming later this year).

Big Fish Unlimited remembers exactly where the player was in their progress, allowing them to pick up right where they left off when they switch devices. That’s made possible by some pretty advanced technology.

The game itself is actually being “played” on servers connected through the Big Fish service, and the only thing being sent down to the player is the video output. In return, their mouse clicks or touchscreen swipes are relayed back up to the cloud-based virtual machine doing the actual computing.

This allows Big Fish to adapt a developer’s game to all of these different formats with no changes in their game’s source code, said Will O’Brien, Big Fish’s general manager of cloud gaming.

Thelen added that casual games, with their focus on ease of play and relatively uncomplicated graphics, are “ideally suited for this technology.”

“There are a couple of people trying this with hardcore games, and they have a much bigger technology problem,” he said. “But we’re here, doing it today.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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