Big Fish Games Bets on Freemium Games, Streaming Service

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“In interactive video, the challenge is when you click—that click has to go up to the server, get incorporated into the video, come down, go through the buffer and be displayed. Five seconds is an eternity in gaming. So our threshold is 150 milliseconds.”

That’s actually easier than what some other streaming game offerings like GaiKai and OnLive, which focus on “core” game titles like war-themed shooting games. Playing a laid-back, animated casual game from Big Fish’s library allows for a little more lag time than some player spinning around in a room unloading a virtual machine gun, Thelen says.

“Our technology is fully commercial-ready now,” he says. “We’re just putting together the business models and rolling it out.”

When it was announced last month, Big Fish’s acquisition of Self Aware Games garnered a lot of attention because of the studio’s game CardAce: Casino, a top-grossing iOS title that put players together in an interactive virtual gambling parlor.

Casino games are gaining a lot of attention in recent months, ever since the U.S. Justice Department’s sudden relaxing of the federal government’s previous objections to online gambling. That change has opened the door to states possibly regulating online gambling for the first time, a tantalizing opportunity for game companies and big casinos alike. You don’t even have to leave town to see the upside: Seattle startup Double Down Interactive, which makes a popular Facebook casino game, was purchased early this year for $500 million.

Thelen says Self Aware’s real value was its social DNA. It’s no mistake, he points out, that the first companies to really capitalize on Facebook as a lucrative gaming platform—Zynga, Playdom, Playfish—started life as app developers, not dyed-in-the-wool gamers. Facebook and social networks generally are just a different system, and not one that traditional game developers and distributors were really ready for.

“No existing game companies really understood social at the time. And the ones who understand it now are acquiring their way in,” Thelen says.

Even though Self Aware’s biggest success is on mobile, not Facebook itself, Thelen says the company’s DNA in creating a community of players should translate well. Card Ace: Casino isn’t simple a gambling game with a bunch of people crowded around it, he says—it’s the inverse.

“We were looking for a differentiated product in an undifferentiated game space. There’s only so many ways you can do blackjack—its got a fixed set of rules. Same with Texas hold ’em, same with roulette,” Thelen says. “They put the social and community [aspects] first. The games are what you do with that community. Most others lead with the games, and by the way, there’s other people playing at the same time.

“That’s a large part of their success on iOS. There’s dozens and dozens of casinos on iOS, but you only see one in the top 10,” Thelen says. “That’s why we think it’s handicapped to be successful on Facebook as well, because it’s very different than the ones that are out there right now.”

The possibility of legalized online gambling? Big Fish sees it as more of a bonus that might become ripe. “What we bought was a stock,” Thelen says. “The call option on that stock is if gambling is legalized in more areas of the country.”

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