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Making Games Easy for Developer with James Gwertzman and PlayFab

James Gwertzman examined how in-game events can help boost monetization and retention in free-to-play games to a Casual Connect Asia audience. “Events are ways to keep your game fresh and interesting and exciting to encourage your players to come back and spend more time in the game,” he says. For tips on setting up in-game events and details on how they can help, see the video below.

James Gwertzman is a bit of a kid at heart. Even though he has more than 15 years of experience in the computer game industry, has created three startups, and has a wife and three kids, he still retains a youthful energy and drive.

He geeks out over everything Disney and has been to every Disney park. He starts his day wake surfing. And he has a library, which may sound very adult at first, until you realize it has nine hidden compartments, each with different opening mechanisms which, according to James, “is like a real-life Myst.”

James also retains his youthful fascination for the intersection between art and technology. As a kid he dreamed of working at places like Industrial Light & Magic and Disney Imagineering. Now, as an adult, he’s helping bridge that intersection between art and technology with his latest startup: PlayFab.

Making Things Easy

James founded PlayFab in early 2014 because he wanted to give game developers an easy way to launch and run their live games without getting bogged down building backend technology from scratch each time. “I helped PopCap go through the transition from premium to freemium, and it was a massive, wrenching transformation,” he says. “There had to be a better way, and I think with PlayFab that we’ve created it.”

With PlayFab, game developers get all the advantages of backend services without all the hassle of doing it themselves. Features such as receipt verification and cross-platform authentication are available as part of their free tier, with additional features such as virtual currencies, leaderboards, multiplayer support, and custom server-side game logic available in their paid tiers. PlayFab supports both iOS and Android, as well as Facebook, Steam/PC and consoles.

James brings a lot of experience to the table at PlayFab. In addition to his work at PopCap, he has an abundance of experience in the gaming and technology industries. With a degree in computer science from Harvard, he jumped right into the tech world at Microsoft. He went on to create two game studios, the second of which was bought by PopCap, propelling him into the PopCap world. His first studio, however, proved to be a bitter but important learning experience.

Bittersweet Lessons

After realizing he wanted to make games, James plunged head-first into the gaming industry and co-founded his first studio, Escape Factory, with Ed Allard in 2000. However, when Sierra Games, the studio’s publisher, imploded in 2003,  Escape Factory went down with it. “There’s nothing worse than having to let your entire team go, a team you’ve carefully assembled over several years,” he says.

Despite the difficult closure, he remains proud of the way he and Allard went about dealing with the situation. “We were completely open with the team during that entire period. Everyone knew exactly what was going on; there were no secrets,” he recalls. “And so when, finally, we realized we would have to shut down, it was a relatively calm and orderly process with no surprises.”

James has striven to bring this level of transparency to all his business dealings, even when others suggested it might not be a good idea. For example, when he agreed to set up shop for PopCap in China, he was warned not to share secrets with the Chinese team because they would be leaked.

He insisted, however, that keeping secrets was no way to run a creative studio and treated the China team the same as his U.S. team. Even though employees had full access to source code and early versions of games, there were never any problems with leaks. “I’ve never been disappointed with treating my team members like adults, being open and honest about what’s going on,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons that transparency is one of the core values at PlayFab.”

The Right People

It’s clear that James has learned a lot about building teams and the importance of getting the right people and the right culture to drive success. And now that PlayFab has secured funding with Benchmark, a prominent venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, finding the right people for PlayFab’s next stage of growth is priority number one.

The type of people James seeks are those who can combine technical knowledge, business expertise, and creativity: who are passionate, smart, and show initiative. “We want people who will immediately dive in and start helping to make us better, without needing to be told what to do.”

At PlayFab, James also has the opportunity not only to create talented teams for PlayFab, but also to work with other talented teams and individuals in the gaming industry. “Working with game developers and publishers is absolutely (my favorite thing about my job),” he says. “The whole reason we started this business is to help game developers be more successful, and it’s great to see that actually happen.”

Milestones and Making Plans

With all of his success at PlayFab, James concedes he should probably say that his proudest moment is something like watching the first game using PlayFab go live. However, while he admits “that was a great day,” the personal highlight of his career is a bit more sentimental and nostalgic. “My proudest moment so far was probably watching Feeding Frenzy, the game I helped create, pass the 1 million copies sold mark, back in 2004,” he says. “Ed and I had always said our goal in entering the game industry was to one day entertain millions of people, and with Feeding Frenzy we could finally say we had done that.”

As for what’s next for PlayFab, James looks to live games, noting that they account for roughly 30% of all revenue generated this year, but by 2020 he expects that number to rise above 90%. “Right now there’s a huge knowledge gap around how to build and run those games effectively. At PlayFab, we want to make operating a live game as easy as we’ve made launching one, and that means tackling that knowledge gap with new tools and resources. It also means pre-integrating with a growing list of industry partners, so that developers can immediately plug into whatever other products or services they need to succeed.”

Adapted from Casey Rock's article on

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