Industry Perspectives: Q&A With Don Traeger, Founder of Portable Zoo

Last month we profiled new start-up building games for the iPhone called Portable Zoo. Started by EA veteran Don Traeger and four associates from his days at THQ, the company has been making headway with two games already under its belt: Letter Bug and Quick Turn. We recently spoke with Traeger to hear more of his thoughts about where the company has been, where they are, and where they’re going next.

[Inside Social Games] Thank you very much for taking the time to chat with us. So we have to know: Coming from a company like Electronic Arts – how would you describe the experience since then? Just how different is iPhone app development?

[Don Traeger] Well….so far the games we are doing for the iPhone are a lot less complex than the high-end console games depth of games like EA Sports titles! Instead of years and 20-40 million dollar budgets we are doing games in a matter of weeks or months. And, I think they are a lot more fun for your average player!!

I kind of think of the iPhone as about equivalent to the Sega Dreamcast. However, for the casual mass market, games are less sophisticated than those titles were. At Portable Zoo, we would eventually like to “up the ante” on the sophisticated side and are working on some pretty mind blowing proprietary technology.

Another neat differentiator for me is that with iPhone games you are always in touch with your audience. You can put games out and get feedback, update and tweak. Really cool. As an ex marketing research guy…..I love the contact and feedback from users.

[ISG] Very true, we’ve seen a number of good games become great through iteration and feedback. That said, what can you tell us about the design process for a game such as Letter Bug? Obviously with EA Sports titles, you did a lot of iterative development year after year, but I’m sure it felt a bit stifled.

[DT] What I love most about what we’re doing at Portable Zoo right now is that we are a totally independent entity making the kind of games we want to make with no interference. Letter Bug was really a game of passion for the guys and our Chief Creative Officer Matt Winalski. In a bigger Publishing-type environment ….who knows, that game might never get made? (And we reached #2 in Word Games just behind the mighty EA with Scrabble!!)

[ISG] When we last checked in on Portable Zoo, you had said that the business has changed “drastically” toward platforms like the iPhone. How do you feel that shift is taking place so far?

[DT] Yeah, the paradigm shift I really see happening (and have observed over the past couple years) is that the old high-end console model is broken. Too many high priced games coming out and not enough interest. Especially in this economy, how many $70.00 retail games can kids afford to buy and how many $60 million budget games with 5 million unit breakevens can publishers really afford to do? It has really gotten pretty insane. And, this was happening even before the economy went south.

Of course, you also have the coming shift to digital distribution and the advent of the iTunes App Store. All this is kind of happening at the same time and when this happens, you usually get these sudden turns or paradigm shifts in industries. Like the music business in the 90s, I think this is happening to our industry right now. And free, $0.99 or $1.99 games on the iPhone is a great response to that!

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