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As a work-from-home gamer that sometimes has to step outside of the house into the harsh daylight, the rise of smartphone gaming has been nothing but a blessing. App stores are now filled with quality gaming titles that are each year getting closer and closer to those wonderful core gaming experiences we leave behind in our dark and dusty apartments. And even though we still have a way to go, I thank the mobile gaming gods every time I get to win an Ultra Extreme Fever in Peggle rather than stare across the train aisle at the guy not wearing any pants.

Madison, Wisconsin-based gaming studio PerBlue is working hard each year to further close that gap, bringing immersive and addictive mobile titles into the hands of gamers on the go since 2008. Its most successful titles have been in the location-based Parallels series, which allow gamers to build kingdoms, wage mafia wars, and even survive the zombie apocalypse cooperatively on maps of their own cities and neighborhoods.

I sat down with PerBlue CEO Justin Beck, who explained talked with us about the evolution of the game company he started in college and why gamers opposing free to play will come around eventually.

What is the backstory behind PerBlue?

We were in college at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and we were working on math homework and thought that we should make a game (this was back in 2008). We just had an idea to make a simple roleplaying game and throw GPS and maps into it and see what we could come up with.

We designed the first version of this at two o’clock in the morning. We thought the project was fun and really fascinating but it took us forever to get the first version out. What ended up happening was me and my business partner, along with our engineering friends who were working on the project, ended up having to cut a lot of the features of our product.

 

 

We eventually got a smaller version shipped and after we got it into the marketplace we started to get customers and traction. We realized that users really liked this thing and we began to really build a business around it. It took us about another year and a half for us to make money, after we introduced our virtual goods and currency. We’ve grown our team from five to 25 employees and our revenue from between $10-$20,000 a month to $3 million a year.

What’s the secret to making a quality location-based mobile game?

We’re targeting what we call a “midcore” gaming audience. These are players who own smartphones and tablets, but they are kind of retired core gamers: they used to play World of Warcraft and Starcraft and maybe still play a little League of Legends. Basically they want a more involved experience on their phones.

We end up packing a lot of good gameplay into the phone for them to utilize and to play. It comes down to core game moves that are fun: it’s important that as you do something over and over again it continues to be fun as you repeat it. You can take your assets that you’re gathering on the map and invest them into further fantasies. Each time the player picks a goal of what they want to accomplish, they can position all those things they choose to do in the game to go toward that goal. That’s where our motto, “freedom of play,” comes in.

 

 

How do you feel about the gaming community’s backlash when it comes to microtransactions and the freemium pricing model?

A lot of the backlash about freemium has come from core gamers, which to me doesn’t make a lot of sense. Before you’d have to pay $60 for a game and whether or not you like the game you still paid $60.

Whereas now with freemium you download the game and it’s free. You can play it and if you really love it you might spend $60 on virtual goods, but on average you’ll spend a lot less, and you get to only buy those things that you’re actually interested in. As gamers we actually get a higher quality game for less money out of our pockets; for gamers I think it’s a net positive.

For our game Parallel Kingdoms about 70 percent of customers don’t ever pay us a penny, and 30 percent pay us all our pennies. We as a game company are completely fine with that. We know that a whole bunch of customers are playing our game and not having to pay for it and we’re happy because they’re still contributing to the game and its community.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

At the end of the day, growing a game company is fairly challenging. You have to recruit talent, keep that talent motivated and aligned in the right direction. That’s one element, but the other is that you have to keep on making new products while also continuing to update old products. Managing that balance of R&D investments along with maintaining and showing lots of love to existing products is a careful and important one.

 

 

The third one is that the technology is really moving; smartphones are constantly getting better. For us to make sure that we’re investing in new technology so that we can do awesome things with our games is yet another thing to balance. It’s very easy to get distracted in our industry with everything that’s going on, so you need to have a focused strategy for what you’re implementing while maintaining a broader viewpoint of what’s good for your business.

What advice would you give to any beginning entrepreneurs out there?

Stick to your deadlines. A new gaming company should have a very pinpoint focus of what they’re going to try to do and set up a schedule for that. They need to stick to that schedule and get out to market and get their user base and community built.

There are so many things going on in order to make a game successful, but I think people tend to work backwards. People are always so caught up on their production and what they’re building and the dream that they forget about the community and the actual game. They end up building a whole bunch of stuff that nobody actually really wants, which I think is a tragedy.

 

 

What’s next for PerBlue?

We have some exciting things coming up. We’re working on our 3D gaming engine on Android. With that we made an awesome 3D skateboarding game for Android called Boardtastic. Next we’re going to be using that engine to make a very immersive multiplayer strategy game.

This in many ways comes from my passion for Starcraft 2, which when I play with my friends is just always a really good time. Bringing something that’s a little more intense and bringing multiplayer with 3D graphics to Android smartphones and tablets is our big push. At the end of the day that’s our new big exciting thing.

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