PeopleFun takes on Zynga with freshman title Word Chums

After approximately a year of development, PeopleFun’s released its first social mobile  title, Word Chums. The company’s founder and CEO Tony Goodman took some time to talk with us about his transition from AAA games to the mobile games.

Goodman’s name may sound familiar to fans of strategy games, since he founded Ensemble Studios, the developer responsible for Age of Empires. Microsoft purchased the company in 2001 and shut it down in 2008, following several acclaimed releases like Age of Mythology, Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds and Halo Wars. After that, Goodman established Robot Entertainment, the studio behind the mobile hit Hero Academy and the popular PC/console tower defense game Orcs Must Die. For Goodman, the switch from mainstream games was a dramatic shift, particularly due to the production schedule.

“When we did Age of Empires, we’d take two years to do a game and then do a hundred million sales and then we’d do another game that would take two to three years. Learning the fast iteration process has been a challenge for us,” he explains. “We’re finding it real fun to release a game so quickly. It used to take 50 people over two years, now it’s 10 people in two months.”

A new take on the word game

The core gameplay of Word Chums is based around the word tile mechanics popularized by Scrabble. However, the game supports up to four players (operating individually or in teams of two) and also provides new powerups and tools to provide a fresh play experience. “Bombs” allow players to swap out their current selection of word titles without losing a turn, as well as play hints in order to receive vague suggestions about where they can play tiles for the largest point total.

Word Chums’s metagame adds a number of elements that will likely appeal to both core and casual players. When the game starts, players customize an avatar, with creatures like penguins, puppies and aliens to choose from. As players continue to play, they earn experience points, with bonuses seemingly provided on word length, bonus score multipliers hit and the final outcome of the game.  It should be noted this is not a pay-to-win scenario, since leveling up only seems to provide players with bragging rights. The game’s main menu also provides a gaming network that shows players’ avatars, the games they’re engaged in, leaderboards and the option to check out player stats like milestones and scores.

The game monetizes in a number of different ways. If players don’t pay for the premium version of the game, the free version displays ads each time a user switches between matches. An in-game store allows players to buy coins (which are also earned via gameplay) and spend them on vanity items like hats or accessories (in order to gain experience bonuses), as well as more hints, bombs and energy drinks (the latter provides temporary experience multipliers).

Staying competitive with Zynga by staying small

As of right now (and without any real promotion), Word Chums is already starting to appear on the U.S. iTunes charts, appearing as the No. 202 top paid iPad app, the No. 98 top paid iPad game and the No. 331 top grossing iPad game. Zynga’s Words With Friends currently has 13.6 million monthly active users and 5.7 million daily active users, proving there’s a huge audience for this type of game.

Even if Word Chums proves a runaway success, Goodman says the studio will remain small. Currently, the studio is fewer than 10 people and “our main idea was to form a small super elite company. What we can do is pretty inexpensively continue to make the game better and better.  Zynga is a pretty high-cost company right now, so we’re planning to use our size to our advantage. Whatever they can do, we can do better and faster. We’re going to try to avoid the trap of growing; the idea was to keep our company one team and that way we don’t have too many layers of management and too many layers of communication going.”

Goodman tells us there are plans to provide regular updates to the games (like a planned “lightning” mode that only gives players a minute or less to play a turn), and his success in AAA video games have provided him with the resources to fund PeopleFun “for years, if need be.”

Word Chums is currently out on iOS, but Goodman tells us there’s an Android version in the works and it will then come to Facebook.