PopCap Mobile Chief Giordano Contestabile: Games as a Service Transform the Industry

Giordano Contestabile started working in mobile gaming before it was cool. Way before.

Back then, the only available mobile games were based around sending and receiving text messages—something that brings in nice profits for mobile carriers, of course.

“I’d go out and pitch this game, and the game was an SMS fishing game. Already it doesn’t sound very exciting,” he says with a laugh. “But basically, the game was this: You had to send an SMS to a premium number—you paid a dollar or whatever, probably less—and you sent an SMS: ‘I want to fish.'”

Then, players were supposed to whip their arm forward in a casting motion—it’s a fishing game!—“and then you received another SMS with the fish that you got, which was basically random. And that was the game.”

“Pretty much every game was like that,” Contestabile says.

These days, Contestabile is on the lookout for much bigger fish. As the senior director of mobile product and business strategy for Seattle’s PopCap Games, he leads efforts to deliver a portfolio of games for smartphones and tablets. Mobile accounts for more than a quarter of the business for PopCap, which is being acquired by Electronic Arts (NASDAQ: ERTS) for up to $1.3 billion.

And, by the way, he’s one of our all-star panelists for Mobile Madness Northwest, Xconomy’s half-day forum on mobile innovation Dec. 6 at F5 Networks in Seattle. Get your tickets now—the special Early Bird rate is available until Nov. 12.

Contestabile took the lead on mobile at PopCap’s Seattle headquarters at the end of 2010. He previously worked for PopCap as senior business development director in Asia, spending three years based in Shanghai. It turns out that experience was perfect preparation, because Asian consumers were already accustomed to playing games for free, largely because of piracy. But they would pay for in-game extras and premium add-ons. That model was still seen as kind of weird back in the U.S., however.

“In 2007, the attitude here was a bit of, ‘Well, here we do those games and we sell them for 20 bucks,'” Contestabile says. “‘You guys out there in Asia do this crazy thing, and then maybe one day we’ll be interested for the U.S.'”

“What happened was, basically Facebook made free-to-play overnight a sensation in the U.S. So now a lot of what we do is based on that,” Contestabile says. “When people in the U.S. think that this is a new phenomenon and it’s a change that’s being initiated here, I like to remind them that it’s been the case in Asia for 10 years. And a lot of what’s happening here is actually replicating stuff that happened in the Asian markets.”

Ubiquitous, powerful mobile devices are one of the major forces shaping the future of the games business today. Along with the rise of games on Facebook and other social networks, the industry is seeing a near future where games will become always-on, connected services. That’s a big change from the traditional model, where gamers would plop down in front of a PC screen or TV to play.

Like so many other sectors of consumer tech, mobile gaming was revolutionized by the introduction of the iPhone. And Apple’s tight control over the device, software, and apps was a huge reason, Contestabile says.

Before Apple seized the lead, wireless carriers held the keys to mobile games (and all other services), meaning development was fragmented between a dizzying array of platforms and devices. iPhone’s market lead meant there was one powerful platform for developers to target.

Google started out with a more hands-off approach to its relatively open Android platform, which seeded that operating system on millions of smartphones very rapidly. But Contestabile says Google is now exerting more control over the ecosystem, which he sees as a boost for game-makers.

“I think by the end of 2012 there will be 600 million-700 million Android phones. What should happen, and we hope will happen, is for us to be able to target the vast majority of users easily through a few builds, a few channels,” Contestabile says. “And be able to have a market which is, as much as possible, similar to the Apple one.”

So how much work does Microsoft have ahead of it to catch up and play a vital third-place role? “Oh boy,” Contestabile says with a chuckle. The new version of Windows Phone, he says, “is really, really good. In terms of user experience, it’s on par with iPhone.” But success also depends on key hardware partner Nokia, producing good phones and pushing them through its distribution system.

Microsoft also should seize its strength in console gaming with the Xbox platform, as games speed toward a cycle of having players continuously involved—on their TVs at home, on their mobile devices on the go, and on their computer screens at work, for instance.

“If you were able to have full interoperability for free-to-play games between mobile and Xbox live, that would be a plus,” Contestabile says. “That would bring a lot of cross-platform capabilities, which developers are looking for.”

“I think that discounting Microsoft is wrong because they’ve proved in the past that they can come from behind and do a great job,” he adds. “Xbox being a great example of that.”

The rise of games as an ongoing service that spans consoles, web services, and mobile devices also means some really big changes for the way game companies operate, including the kinds of people they hire and how stable that employment is.

Think of it this way: In the past, game development could be more like mercenary work. You’d develop a title, bring on a big staff to execute the game, and then wind down when the project was delivered, with a bunch of those people being laid off until the next go-round.

Now, producing a game is getting much closer to the task of rolling out a TV show that you want to stay on the air for a long time—once the thing’s out the door, the work is just starting.

And you’re also going to have a much more diverse range of people working on the projects, leading to a lot more cross-pollination of skills in the industry, Contestabile says.

“Right now we have, for example, PhD’s in statistics that spend their time analyzing data and making us understand what it means. We have operations people that spend their time maintaining the servers and infrastructure and designing the architecture,” Contestabile says. “So we’ve seen a lot of people from traditional game development that have to probably adapt or pick up new skill sets to transition to this new model. But overall, I think this is going to be good for the industry.”

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