Row Sham Bow CEO: 'This isn't just a profession' [Interview]

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Row Sham Bow CEO Phil HoltFor Phil Holt (pictured), CEO of Orlando-Fla.-based social game start-up Row Sham Bow, social games have been a part of his professional life for far longer than the nearly seven months since he co-founded the studio. During his second, 5-year stint with EA at its Tiburon studio, also in Orlando, Holt has seen the company adapt to social gaming's effects on the industry at large.

Only little more than six months before Row Sham Bow released its first game, Woodland Heroes, Holt realized that social games are the future of the industry. We sat down with Holt recently to find out what specifically drove him to co-found his own studio, what he hopes Row Sham Bow will change about these games and where Woodland Heroes goes from here.

On the company website it seems that the team disappointed with the state of social games. If that's the case, what is it about the space that has drawn you in?

I think it's a fascinating space. I was trying to describe this to somebody the other day: You have zero barrier to entry on an open platform-anybody can develop for it. You don't have to become a licensed developer, nobody is reviewing your content--approving or not approving it. Literally, if you've got the wherewithal to deploy on the platform you can.

It's measured in hundreds of millions of people, and the technology everyone uses is off-the-shelf. It's widely available. That I think is unique in the history of technology: That a marketplace that is that big, is that wide open and has such a low barrier to entry has never happened before. To me it's like, "Holy crap, that's a massive audience." The innovation in the social space is more focused around how data can drive design decisions.
Woodland Heroes concept art
What is it about social games industry specifically that you hope to change with Row Sham Bow?

We hope that we're going to go into this space and learn very rapidly, and use the trail blazed as way of not repeating a lot of the mistakes. With that said, we feel like the games are more--if you talk to people that play a lot of social games, you listen to the way they describe their experience. They're like, 'Yeah, I'm still playing Game X.' They sort of sheepishly admit the fact that they're playing.

You start digging deeper and it's like, 'Well, I can't really tell you why I'm playing.' And they never use the words like, 'I'm having a blast.' It's more like, 'I just can't stand leaving whatever I'm building alone.' It's a compulsive experience. It's more akin to the people you see in a casino late at night still dropping nickels in the slot machine--it's the psychological compulsion that drives people to play these things rather than, 'I'm playing it, because I'm having a blast.' That pure entertainment and pure fun I think is really lacking in the space, and that's the kind of thing we're trying to bring. At the same, we want to learn from the people who came before us.

Do you think that the Facebook platform is capable of merging compulsion and joy of play?

Absolutely. I can't think of anything that would prevent it. I'm a child of the '70s, and I spent a lot of my youth in the arcades. Those games, from a technology standpoint, are so primitive by comparison to any of the games out there today. Yet they got a few simple things right: The games are instantly learnable--you learn how to play and arcade game with one quarter. [They're] instantly accessible and impossible to master. Brilliant game design.

That's a very rewarding experience. Now, arcade games are based on dexterity. The Facebook platform I don't think is going to reward that type of play mechanic, at least I'm not going to do it. The thing that we try to do is that you need to make decisions in the game, and things need to have consequences. At its base terms, I think is the foundation of creating strategy. And that I think creates a compelling experience.

I think that what you do, as a designer, is create an emotional attachment to the experience--you've got some level of commitment to the game. I think that one of the ultimate challenges in the free-to-play space is there is no financial commitment. So, the design has to create the commitment, and one of the ways to do that is you become emotionally invested in the characters or your progress or the purchases you've made. And if you feel like, if the stakes are high enough, that you're going to lose something like that, then you're going to care.
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Woodland Heroes on Facebook
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What are Row Sham Bow's goals as a studio? Do you hope to take the fight to Zynga and EA, so to speak, or carve out a niche for yourself in the space, and what's your battle plan?

Well, you can never out-Zynga Zynga and out-EA EA. That is a losing strategy. No matter how big you are, I think you have the define your way into the world. We certainly feel like there are some under-served parts of the market. I think it has to do with blending more traditional game mechanics with the data-driven design that's prevalent on the platform. What I think the existing players have done so well is ease-of-use, a good first-time user experience and really ramping people up.

The thing I haven't talked about is that the art in our game--I would put it up against any game on the platform. I think it's stellar, and that used to be a huge motivation for people playing. The reason I loved games like Diablo 2 is because you wanted to see the next character, the next level. That sense of discovery through art is a major play motivation, and again most people have glossed over that.

Where did the team come up with the idea for Woodland Heroes?

When we started the company, many of us had experience in the space, and quite a few of us didn't. We wanted to create an environment that would get us up to speed quickly. So literally the first thing we did was release a game. And if you searched for it, you're not going to find it--it was a rock, paper, scissors game. We just wanted to go through the exercise of start-to-finish. And we learned a lot.

The other thing we did was play like literally everything out there in a very guided way. We sort of broke down the competitive titles. We also had a number of concepts that we had come to the company with. I didn't want us to be the kind of company that sat around and talked about ideas, but I wanted us to react to stuff that we could actually play with. So, we prototyped.

We spent about three week wherein anyone in the company could work on any idea and every few days we would get together and review what we had done. We slowly kind of whittled down to two ideas: Woodland Heroes was one of them, but it was called some different at the time. Woodland Heroes initially started as a space conquest type game. Somebody in the studio said, 'If we want this to be a little more broadly accepted, why not animals instead of space?'

The thing that we liked about it was the battle mechanic. We thought it was a great mechanic that we could build from. We started at the center of the game with what was going to be a fun, core loop that players would be involved in, and we built outward from there.

Woodland Heroes characterI haven't seen many social features in the game, so is there anything particularly compelling about them, as opposed to most social games?

Probably not yet, but today is actually our six-month anniversary. I'm just damn proud of the fact that in six months we were able to start a company, and hire a team. We opened our code editors and literally the first line of code was written six months ago. From zero to game launch in six months I think is pretty cool. So, we've got lots of ideas about what we want to do with social features, visitation and interactions with friends.

Again, we think there's more than just 'go visit your buddy's farm.' We want meaningful interactions that take place between friends, and whether that's cooperative or head-to-head, we've got plenty of ideas. We're going to try some stuff and see how the audience reacts. This is the fun part: Now really a key partner at the table is the audience, so we're going to build a game that the audience is reacting to. Ultimately, the audience is going to determine what the game becomes.

Does the game's strategy gameplay and setting set a precedent for Row Sham Bow, or will the studio pursue different genres and themes in the future?

I think one of the things that really is appealing to all of us is just how much creative freedom we have. Being a start-up, being in a space where you can build a game in six months you can just take a lot more creative risks. I don't think we're going to be bound by any set of genres, settings, character styles or art types. So, we're just going to use the same process that we used to create this game.
Woodland Heroes environment
Can you talk about any future plans for Woodland Heroes, or future Row Sham Bow games?

Right now, we're on a weekly cadence of major content updates. We're trying to push new things to the game every Tuesday. So, we're going to be on that cadence for awhile, continuing to add to the game and responding to the major issues that we see. There's some stuff we want to do around the world map where I think that usability is a little on the low side.

Ultimately, it's going to be where the audience is playing, what the data tells us about the audience and how we think we can best engage them. From the get-go, our focus has been on, 'How do we build a game that we've always wanted to play ourselves?' It's not that we've sat for years thinking, 'Man, it would be great to be a raccoon and fight some bears,' but just make a really fun experience. We're gamers ourselves--this isn't just a profession.

Thanks for taking to time to talk with us, Phil.

[Home Page Image Credit: Orlando Business Journal]

Have you tried Woodland Heroes on Facebook yet? What do you think of Row Sham Bow's strategy and goals, and can the company carve out a niche for itself amongst the mob of social game makers? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.
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