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!

[ISG] Any predictions on the path it might take further down the road?

[DT] I don’t have a lot of insights or predictions on where all this is heading. But, there are a few things I’m excited about. I’m eager to see the new iPhone products in early June. We have been working with OS 3.0 now for a while and I’m really stoked about the ability to handle micro-transactions from within your game. This will be awesome. Apple has continued to do things that help game developers and from within the App Store, I’m really enthused about how that is evolving. We are also keying in to the social networks and are interested in expanding our community of players through the network and web. Last month we introduced Global High Scores to our games and also post IPhone High Scores to our web page. PLUG!! http://www.portablezoo.com/

[ISG] You’ve said previouslt that Portable Zoo was self-funded but was looking for some new outside financing. Have there been any developments along those lines?

[DT] Yes. Things are moving along. We are in active engagements with the investment community. I’m working closely with a firm right now out of San Francisco and we should have some news on this front very soon.

[ISG] So with this new funding, what sort of growth are you expecting over the course of 2009?

[DT] Through 2009 we are looking at growing from our current 5 person start-up to around 15-20, and ultimately, probably 50 people or so. Mostly development and marketing folks.

[ISG] For having only five people at the moment, you guys are certainly on the right track considering the popularity of your iPhone titles. What lessons have you learned since releasing them? Would you have done anything differently?

[DT] We are really happy with the initial launches of both Letter Bug and Quick Turn into the iPhone app store. They are fun games and we are learning a ton about this new market. I’m still blown away that with zero marketing budget Letter Bug blew through the word game charts and made it to #2 for several weeks behind only EA’s Scrabble. For 5 guys in start-up mode to be chasing EA in the game charts? As Don King would say: “Only in America!!”

The key thing we have learned is that when you release a game into the iPhone marketplace, you are always in contact with your players. You can listen to them and make improvements and tweaks as you go and end up with an even better game. We have recently added direct feedback buttons to our games. This has really improved our ability to work directly with our customers. I love the connection to players.

The other lesson we have “learned” that we knew going into this: Marketing is hugely important in this marketplace. You can’t very well drop games into the App Store without a sound marketing strategy. This is crucial.

[ISG] The irony with Letter Bug chasing down EA Scrabble is that you only had a one month turn around. Obviously, that’s not something that you always want to do, but there have been a number of new third party tools appearing lately (like OpenFeint, Greystripe, Raptr, SGN cross promotion network, Scoreloop). Have you had any thoughts about using these tools?

[DT] Yeah, Letter Bug was about a month or so in development. Quick Turn was more like 2 weeks!! Our engineers, Chief Technical Officer Rob Marr and Principal Programmer Mark Blattel have been doing sophisticated gaming tech on mainstream consoles for years. They have built a complete proprietary 3d engine and toolset for Portable Zoo, so we have no need to use other engines or tools or anything, in fact, we are looking at possibly licensing out our dev stuff for other developers to use. It is really great tech.

As far as some of the other distribution and advertising type support, I have talked to a few people there and I think we will be working this into our release strategies in future games.

[ISG] Word on the street is that you are currently working on some new 3D titles may be on the way. Is there anything you would be willing to share?

[DT] We have some killer 3D tech and some great looking demos. But nothing we can really show yet….you’ll have to trust me on this…..we have some incredible technology and games in the pipeline!

On the more casual side, we also have some fun new faster game apps coming out all the time, so keep checking PortableZoo.com for what’s new!!

[ISG] Hmm, more teasers I see…. Well, will any of the new titles play more directly into some of the hot topics of today? (Especially social connectivity using Facebook Connect and Twitter?)

[DT] We love the social connectivity of the iPhone. We’d like all our games to take part in the social computing revolution. Even our first games, with global high scoring and website score posting work this a little bit. You will see our games integrated more and more with the current social gaming trends….scoring and other messaging between game and Facebook, Twitter, etc. Yeah, that is really cool and fun stuff.

From a technical end, our main drivers on the social gaming side have been Ken Proudfoot, our Technical Art Director and our Assistant Producer, Lindsay Haven. We have made some headway here, but as we grow and take off, this area will be key for us.

[ISG] You also mention that new titles will be available on more than just the iPhone. What are some of the other mobile platforms you have in mind?

[DT] Right now we are solely focused on iPhone. And it will stay that way at least for the foreseeable future. We always keep abreast of what is happening out there in the real world….so, you never know. Or course, we watch what is going on with Blackberry and gPhone and potential new Palm devices. Online, web- based stuff is also interesting to us. Heck, I’m still a big fan of the PSP and the new DSI.

[ISG] All very cool stuff. But before we wrap things up, one last question: What is the future for Portable Zoo? Any thoughts on what is beyond the iPhone?

[DT] Our company is 100% focused on mobile gaming for high-end platforms. And, right now for us that means iPhone. I want Portable Zoo to become super-successful on the platform and really deliver top-notch games that look fantastic and give our players hours of fun. When we achieve this we can look at expansion and other potential areas for growth….but for now, iPhone, baby!