PlayFirst Partners with Big Fish; Still Has a Long Way to Go

This article was originally published on Site of the Gaming Dead, a now-defunct video game blog on January 26, 2010. I have attempted to recreate it here, complete with images (when possible).

In the words of the late, great Harry Snyder (founder of In-N-Out Burger, in case you didn’t know), “Do one thing, and do it well.” Some game companies have unofficially adopted this credo, namely PlayFirst, the makers of the mega-popular Diner Dash series of games. The bulk of their games are based on the same premise as Diner Dash and its successors: meet the criteria given to you by a picky customer. Meet it fast, and meet it while you’re also sweeping the floor, cleaning up tables/racks/counters, and letting others in. Whether you’re Flo in a diner or Sophie, the 1940s perfumer, the concept is basically the same. The vast majority of their games fall into this “time management” genre, although there have been a few notable titles (including spin-offs of their hit time management games) that add mystery, puzzle-solving, and adventuring to the list.

PlayFirst recently partnered with Big Fish Games, maker of Penny Dreadfuls: Sweeney Todd and Expedition: Everest and other “casual” games in many of the same genres as PlayFirst’s own titles.

Unlike their competitors, PopCap Games (makers of Bejeweled) and Playfish Games (makers of Who Has The Biggest Brain? and the Restaurant City series of games), PlayFirst has yet to really break into the world of Facebook apps-as-games. A recent post on their forums indicates a beta of Wedding Dash Bash, a Facebook-sized version of one of their popular time management-genre games in the vein of Diner Dash, is on its way to Facebook, but the game is not available through an Application Directory search, and supposedly is only open to a select audience through a special email promotion.

Many PlayFirst forum members cried foul, but even when the link was released by another fan in the forums, the game failed to please: those that could access it claimed it was a “Mafia Wars clone,” while others, such as yours truly, couldn’t even access the game, no matter what browser was used.

PlayFirst has got a long way to go before reaching PopCap or Playfish’s level of popularity, at least where Facebook is concerned. It’s known for its time management-genre games and it’s good at those, and the fans expect games in the same vein, with new twists on old favorites, rather than “clones” of other popular games or brand new style games altogether. PlayFirst doesn’t need to change its offering of “casual” games in order to be a success. Here are a few tips for them that might bolster its popularity.

For starters, it needs to actually open more of a rapport with its fans, not just posting one blurb in a single thread on its forums. While it’s got a small following of fans on Facebook, the vast majority of their posts lead right back to pages on their own site, rather than things for fans to do on Facebook. There are a few discussion threads where the people behind the PlayFirst logo have actually responded, but not that many discussions about the future of PlayFirst on Facebook.

Next, those fans–be they on the forums or Facebook–should be treated equally and with respect, since these are people that have gone out of their way to let the companies know that they are fans in the first place. It not only humanizes the fans by giving them a name (and usually a face, too), rather than just an order number or an account name, but it allows for direct interaction with the people lining PlayFirst and Big Fish’s pockets. That translates to letting all fans get in on the beta-testing action, and create an obvious, directly-linked space for testers to give their feedback since it’s the only way a game can improve and bring in more bucks.

Third, it has to take the one or two things it does well–those genres it excels at creating games for–and starting thinking of new ways for people to play them. Beyond Facebook, there’s the possibility of “mini-games” for phones, since smartphones like the iPhone and any of the Google Android OS-powered devices are hot right now. People don’t always think of games the second they park themselves down in front of a computer, but plenty of people find themselves bored and fiddling with their phones: what better way to introduce a way to pass the time than with a mini version of their hit games?

Plus, making games for the phone opens up new possibilities that it couldn’t with their classic computer games: multiplayer options, competition with other players either in the area or around the world, or even taking advantage of phone features like accelerometers or built-in cameras. Games where one just points-and-clicks aren’t the rage anymore: people want feedback, whether it’s audio, visual, or even just a simple vibration. Phones can do all of these things and more, which makes them an exciting possibility for game companies that have been pretty static with their game designs and genres.

PlayFirst and Big Fish Games teaming up is, overall, a great move. It makes a variety of games more affordable and accessible, and may even introduce fans of particular titles to new games and genres. But for the companies to become a paired powerhouse in the world of casual games, they may need to step their own business game up a notch.