Decoding the Secret of iPhone Game Popularity, With William Volk, Playscreen

Story by Benjamin F. Kuo


It's an intensely competitive market in developing games for the iPhone and other mobile platforms, with thousands and thousands of titles competing for attention from users. How do you figure out how to get past all of that noise, and create a popular title? We had the chance to speak with William Volk, Chief Creative Officer of Playscreen (, who talked how his company is looking to crack the code with Crickler 2: Daily Word Puzzle, which is among the most popular puzzle games on iTunes, and recently number one in free educational games. William is in San Diego, and is a longtime gaming vet, having been at Activision in the days of The Manhole and Return To Zork.

How did you get into iPhone development?

William Volk: I've been in the industry since the late 70's. My first game was published in 1980. My partner, who led to this, is Sherri Cuono, started working on real, online casinos, and is in Oregon. We actually met while we were working for James Cameron in 2000 and 2001 on an TV internet project. We started in the mobile area in 2003 and 2004, and in 2006 we formed a company, MyNumo LLC, which initially started as a portal for artists to publish their ringtones, mobile videos, and more. As part of that, we did a flash game to promote MyNumo called Free Paris Hilton, which did really well. We were looking for the next thing to do, and saw that the iPhone was coming out. We did a game, iWhack, which featured Steve Ballmer of Microsoft popping out a hole like Whack-a-Mole, and where you could whack him over the head, and we had 10,000 people pointing to it. In 2010, we sold the game assets and name PlayScreen, which we had acquired, and formed a new company with some solid financial and technology guys. So, we worked on the launch of the very first iPhone game and titles, before there was even an app store.

Talk about your other titles?

William Volk: One of our other real big hits is Bocce Ball, which was our first Playscreen title in January of 2011. It did very well, and had millions of people in it. Prior to that, the big title at MyNUMO was Match 3D, which was a very ambitious title in 2008, and was a premium game. We also have a bunch of casino games. The other thing we did is we launched a poker title, which was pretty and nice, and allowed you to play poker for fun, with social game play. We then tried to figure out where people wanted to with that, because we wanted to become the leading poker title. We paid attention to user behavior, and Poker 2 went live. Crickler was originally licensed way back in 2004, because we believed in the title, but the platforms at the time couldn't handle it. In 2007, we tried to launch it for the iPhone web, and the platform still couldn't handle it. It had originally been a web-based, flash game, so we created a facsimile in 2010 with a list of loyal users. We re-launched it a month ago, with new categories and subcategories, and it became the number one educational title for some time. It's an amazing title, and it's very unique because it's content driven. Every day, puzzles are created on all sort of subjects--popular films, sports, to politics. We also are seeing multiple puzzles submitted every day by users themselves, who want their puzzles published.

How do you approach this market and get above the noise?

William Volk: This is a entirely hypercompetive market, because there are so many apps out there. It's hard to establish a niche. What we did with Playscreen Poker 2, Crickler, and Bocce ball, was look at what was out there, and figure out what their strengths and weaknesses were. So, for example, with our Bocce Ball game we saw that people didn't like the interface of other games out there, so we looked at creating a very good, swipe interface based on interfaces that people liked in other popular games. With Crickler, where I've known Michael Crick since the 80's, we literally spent months looking at user behavior in the app store, and figure out what people were doing, to make Crickler the success it is. This market is not ship-and-forget: you have to treat your title as a living, breathing organism. Plus, marketing is key, which is extraordinarily difficult on the iPhone.

What do you think is the secret to creating a popular title?

William Volk: It's hard. Crickler is our highest rated app, and I think it has round 4.5 stars, mostly five star reviews. The thing is, it's a very demanding audience, even when you're talking about apps that are free with in-app purchases. In our game, users earn game currency in order to play puzzles. Even then, users are very demanding. We had to figure out what people care about on this platform, which is not exactly the same thing as developing something for the Sony Playstation or Xbox. This is a very different audience. It's very broad, and casual. You have to think about how and where people are playing these games. Crickler was one of those things, where we realized that people are not always playing and solving something and quitting. Often, they will play for a little bit, return, and might have multiple puzzles working at the same time. You also have to work very well in airplane mode. Once a person starts, they might go on a plane and complete a puzzle, and letting them do that is a critical thing. Many poker games only work on the network. So, we have the ability to play on an airplane and in practice mode. The graphics have to be top notch. The user interface has to be top notch. You've got to understand marketing and what is doing well, and why. Execution here is absolutely critical. You have to stay in touch with your users to make them loyal. Understanding the user can make or break you.

Can you talk about how you approached Crickler, and choose a free game over a paid model?

William Volk: With Crickler, we tried something different. It's free, with in-app purchases. It's a free to play model, but there are things you have to do to continue playing it. We did things like, if you want to watch this video ad, you can earn credit; if you want to brag about your game on Facebook or Twitter, you can earn credits. That gives people a chance to get credits in other ways aside from spending money. We've had a huge number of our players participating because of that. If you look at someone like Zynga, who is public, they have about 1.3 percent of their monthly players doing purchasing. We're at up to 10 percent every day who are watching a video ad or doing something else to bring in credit. It's also a way for us to broaden the base of the product, particularly since it's such a broad demographic, ranging from teenagers, to adults 35 to 55. On a paid product, doing that is really difficult. We have one in the works, but with that, you really have to hit a home run. You've got to be so damn good at execution, and uniqueness, and fun that it takes off. There are some great examples of that, with Tiny Wings and Angry Birds, but there are lots of paid titles out there that are just drop dead gorgeous but never success. That's the truth.

Having been in this industry for awhile, how has mobile development been different from your prior experience?

William Volk: It's interesting to compare this to doing Nintendo cartridges back in the late 80's. In the entire history of that entertainment system, there were only 785 cartridges released for the US and the Americas. Today, there are 800,000 apps for the iPhone. That's a very different world than has ever existed. The biggest moneymakers now are free apps with in-app purchases. It's almost as much running an e-commerce site, as you are running a game. You've got be to be very focused on user experience, on your user funnel, and the overall experience. We've been very happy that two thirds of our users have opted to receive messages in Crickler, but we've been very careful, because if you send the wrong message you could lose them. With Crickler, we only send messages that are relevant to them--that a new puzzle has been create that they might want to play, or that there's a new contest. We recently did a contest puzzle about the Hunger Games for a couple of days, where people who actually solved it could brag about it, and we gave them a copy of the Hunger Games.

So, we've had to do things all the time to promote the game, compared to back then when you could ship a pretty-good Nintendo game and still make money. Even in the early days of the PC, your game could just be somewhat okay and you'd do reasonably well, because there were not so many competitors, because your cartridge had to be approved with Nintendo. As long as they approved it, and you had allocation, and unless you did a really horrible job, you'd do okay. With the iPhone, you can spent lots and lots of money on a game, and you can fail. People do it all the time. The users and their pattern of behavior is very different. It's a casual, social games market. Also, communications and sharing are very important, and you've got to integrate into the social graph. We integrated Crickler with Facebook, Twitter, and GameCenter, and we've found that has been very important. The market is super-competitive, and your quality has to be amazingly high. That said, I think this is the best time for the game industry, because anyone can creating something great. There is so little barrier to entry. That's a two edged-blade -- it's harder to compete -- but it also opens up the market to new and different concepts and new people, which I think is really cool.



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