PopCap Mobile Chief Giordano Contestabile: Games as a Service Transform the Industry

Giordano Contestabile started working in mobile gaming before it was cool. Way before.

Back then, the only available mobile games were based around sending and receiving text messages—something that brings in nice profits for mobile carriers, of course.

“I’d go out and pitch this game, and the game was an SMS fishing game. Already it doesn’t sound very exciting,” he says with a laugh. “But basically, the game was this: You had to send an SMS to a premium number—you paid a dollar or whatever, probably less—and you sent an SMS: ‘I want to fish.'”

Then, players were supposed to whip their arm forward in a casting motion—it’s a fishing game!—“and then you received another SMS with the fish that you got, which was basically random. And that was the game.”

“Pretty much every game was like that,” Contestabile says.

These days, Contestabile is on the lookout for much bigger fish. As the senior director of mobile product and business strategy for Seattle’s PopCap Games, he leads efforts to deliver a portfolio of games for smartphones and tablets. Mobile accounts for more than a quarter of the business for PopCap, which is being acquired by Electronic Arts (NASDAQ: ERTS) for up to $1.3 billion.

And, by the way, he’s one of our all-star panelists for Mobile Madness Northwest, Xconomy’s half-day forum on mobile innovation Dec. 6 at F5 Networks in Seattle. Get your tickets now—the special Early Bird rate is available until Nov. 12.

Contestabile took the lead on mobile at PopCap’s Seattle headquarters at the end of 2010. He previously worked for PopCap as senior business development director in Asia, spending three years based in Shanghai. It turns out that experience was perfect preparation, because Asian consumers were already accustomed to playing games for free, largely because of piracy. But they would pay for in-game extras and premium add-ons. That model was still seen as kind of weird back in the U.S., however.

“In 2007, the attitude here was a bit of, ‘Well, here we do those games and we sell them for 20 bucks,'” Contestabile says. “‘You guys out there in Asia do this crazy thing, and then maybe one day we’ll be interested for the U.S.'”

“What happened was, basically Facebook made free-to-play overnight a sensation in the U.S. So now a lot of what we do is based on that,” Contestabile says. “When people in the U.S. think that this is a new phenomenon and it’s a change that’s being initiated here, I like to remind them that it’s been the case in Asia for 10 years. And a lot of what’s happening here is actually replicating stuff that happened in the Asian markets.”

Ubiquitous, powerful mobile devices are one of the major forces shaping the future of the games business today. Along with the rise of games on Facebook and other social networks, the industry is seeing a near future where games will become always-on, connected services. That’s a big change from the traditional model, where gamers would plop down in front of a PC screen or TV to play.

Like so many other sectors of consumer tech, mobile gaming was revolutionized by the introduction of the iPhone. And Apple’s tight control over the device, software, and apps was a huge reason, Contestabile says.

Before Apple seized the lead, wireless carriers held the keys to … Next Page »

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