Jens Begemann opens up about Wooga’s culture, expansion plans and its recipe for success

Game developer wooga is already a success on Facebook, with three titles on our lastest Top 25 games list, and it’s now starting to expand onto other platforms. At last week’s Casual Connect in Seattle, Founder and CEO Jens Begemann sat down to talk with us about the company’s culture, how and why it’s expanding into mobile games, what led to its recent departure from Google+ and offers some advice on how game developers can find success with mobile and social titles.

Stay in one area and encourage a “learning culture”

Although wooga is the No. 4 game developer by daily active users on Facebook, the company only has one office in Berlin with 200 employees. When asked if the studio had any plans to establish a permanent presence on the West Coast (as most social game developers do), Begemann tells us, “When it comes to game production and creation, we believe there are lots of advantages to having everybody under roof. The exchange of learning is so fast because we can just speak to each other.”

Begemann explains that learning is a big part of wooga’s culture. Every employee gets $2,000 and two extra days a year to use however they want, though these resources are mainly used for education. As a result, conferences like Casual Connect in Seattle and the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco are well-attended by members of the wooga family. Likewise, the game team has weekly meetings where members have ten minutes to describe what they’ve learned in the past week.

Leaving Google+

Wooga recently made headlines when the company publicly pulled away from Google+, which many outlets blamed on a lack of users. Begemann says wooga moved away from Google’s social network so it could focus on mobile platforms, as the developer wants to be on platforms with hundreds of millions of users. As a result, Begemann tells us half of wooga’s workforce is now focused on mobile development.

“We’re a small developer,” he explains. “Therefore, we have to make choices for the different opportunities out there. Many of the opportunities are really really good, but we have to make choices on where we think the biggest gross is. Even if a platform is good and profitable, we have to choose where our focus should be. Google+ is a good platform, but we’re focused on mobile now.”

Moving forward with mobile

Begemann tells us he believes critical mass is easier to attain with cross-platform titles and synchronized gameplay. Mobile is already proving a successful move for the developer: Diamond Dash came out for iOS in December 2011 and has been downloaded over 20 million times (a figure Begemann says was achieved without spending anything on marketing). At Casual Connect, the developer announced it would bring another popular Facebook franchise — Monster World — to iOS sometime this Autumn, with updated graphics and new in-game items. Begemann also says there’s a pipeline in place through 2013 for wooga to launch as many games as it has over the last 2 years, including mobile versions of established games and new IP.

Although wooga’s already successfully broken into iOS, the company announced it was going to start bringing its games over to Android (starting with Diamond Dash). Android is much more challenging to develop for because of the sheer variety of devices present on the market, and developers are encouraged to make sure their games are compatible with as many devices as possible if they want to be featured on Google Play. According to Begemann, the biggest obstacle with Android fragmentation is the varying screen sizes of all the different devices, then hardware performance and then different OS versions. Like Monster World, Diamond Dash is due on Android sometime this Autumn.

While mobile platforms are popular with game developers, there’s been a lot of recent attention on the Ouya console, which has made headlines for its success on Kickstarter. The system will be powered by Android and already has some big names and services from the games industry (like Robert Bowling — famous for his work at Infinity Ward — and OnLive) attached, though Begemann says wooga doesn’t have any plans to get onto the console but is very interested to see how it performs. Although wooga’s expanding onto the Android platform, Begemann tells us it has no plans to jump on the Ouya bandwagon because, “building a game for the game controller or touch or for mouse is very different. When you do the game design, you have to take that into account.”

“We just focus on making better games.”

Moving further into the mobile market means facing rising user acquisition costs, but Begemann isn’t worried about it. Instead, he says wooga relies on word-of-mouth recommendations and Facebook’s inherent virality to help its games succeed. “I think there are two different ways of looking at the industry,” he explains. “You can look at the user for money and optimize for the highest amount of money; that’s what a lot of developers do, but not what we do. We believe if you create something highly polished and social, you can succeed without relying on user acquisition.

“If your game is different, then you have to rely on acquiring users for lots of money, but we see that as a supplemental method. Spending money on marketing can reach new target groups, but the core of distribution shouldn’t rely on that. We just focus on making better games.”

While making a game great at the start is important in order to achieve initial success, Begemann also notes this isn’t the end of cycle. Instead, the post-launch support is arguably more important. Begemann says game developers need to listen to their player communities because, “the quality of the game and the attention you give your fans post-launch is much more important than it used to be.”