Jeff Gelles: Langhorne firm betting big on Retro World, its new "social game"

Gene Mauro, president and chief operating officer of Entertainment Games, a video-game companyin Langhorne that is about to launch its latest product, Retro World, checks a presentation of the new game.
Gene Mauro, president and chief operating officer of Entertainment Games, a video-game companyin Langhorne that is about to launch its latest product, Retro World, checks a presentation of the new game. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 10, 2011

Elvis Presley. Marilyn Monroe. John Belushi. Dick Clark. Could seeing their faces in a mystery-story game on your computer, tablet, or smartphone possibly be as engaging as planting tomatoes in FarmVille?

That's what Entertainment Games is betting $1 million on with Retro World, its brand-new "social game."

The Langhorne company has suffered as consumers have become less willing to pay $20, $30, or more for packages of games such as Drop, its Tetris-like falling-bubbles game, or collections of word games, puzzles, and mah-jongg.

But Entertainment Games has been planning its own reinvention ever since June, when it brought in game developer Gene Mauro and merged with his company, Heyday Games, also focused on the 40-plus crowd.

On Tuesday, Entertainment Games made its big move, introducing Retro World as a Facebook app. In coming months, it plans to launch the game on its own website, www.RetroWorld.com, and on iPhone and Android apps.

If you're a gamer yourself, or have children raised on fast-paced games such as World of Warcraft or Madden NFL, you may find Retro World a little, well, retro. It's a cross between a mystery story and a role-playing quest like Dungeons & Dragons, with arcade-style diversions mixed in.

Want to defuse a bomb that the Russian spy you're chasing has planted on a launchpad? To get there, you first have to play a short Mario-like game, Space Ape Race, that will allow you to scale the heights and save the day.

It's hard to explain Retro World without explaining the perspective that Mauro and his colleagues bring to gaming, or the business model under which they plan to introduce a new episode of the game, almost like a TV series, every 30 to 45 days.

Working with programmers in Massachusetts and writers and designers in California, Mauro and his colleagues, including CEO Jerry Klein and marketing director Rich Siporin, approached the game market as if it were a puzzle.

Only time will tell if they've scored or flopped. But they're trying to draw gamers into stories, so let's start with the one behind Retro World.

The concept. Despite the success of fast-paced games on the latest high-tech platforms, such as Microsoft's Xbox Kinect, Entertainment Games had struggled to sell games that appealed to its older market niche. Though publicly traded since 1995, the company had seen its annual sales peak above $10 million, then dwindle.

Enter Mauro, who joined Entertainment Games in 2005 as an outside director and formed Heyday last year with an eye on converging trends that gave both companies reason for hope.

One was the explosive growth of social-media sites such as Facebook and the success of gaming companies such as Zynga, creator of FarmVille and its high-flying Facebook app.

Add in the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, which enable gamers to steal spare moments for playing on a train or in an airport, and Mauro had the seed for his new concept: a social game designed to engage older players with a series of stories and challenges that will keep them coming back.

The game. Familiar faces such as Elvis and Marilyn Monroe are crucial to the look of Retro World - it's a safe bet that only the target demographic will recognize them. But Mauro says the real key will be the stories, prepared by a team of seven writers and designers in Los Angeles.

The debut episode is meant to evoke a comic spy drama like the 1960s' Get Smart. Players will find themselves immersed in a PG-rated mystery, in which the search for clues might take them to a hotel room - and a towel-wrapped Marilyn character.

Dialogue appears in cartoon-like bubbles, but the scenes aren't animated in the usual sense. Instead, they use a technology Mauro developed at Heyday that adds motion to still images, lending them a 3-D effect without quite bringing them to life.

The money. Zynga's success is built on pitching virtual goods such as "zebra unicorns" - imaginary items that cost real money to consumers, or sometimes to unhappy parents. Aimed at an older crowd, Retro World has similar goals but can't be accused of tricking kids.

You can play for free, but if you want Elvis as your avatar, it will cost $8. You'll also be offered useful or appealing items - gasoline, furnishings, golf clubs - as you play.

Don't scoff. Virtual stuff is now a $3 billion annual market in the United States, says Mauro, president and chief operating officer of Entertainment Games. And the company also hopes to profit from product placements and, eventually, subscriptions. But at the start, it's predicting revenue of less than Zynga's take of $12 a year per player.

Mauro says Facebook gives Retro World a huge potential audience, far bigger than the traditional gaming market. But he says the key to its success will be the game itself.

"There's nothing like this," he says. "We're going to stand out."


Jeff Gelles:

Entertainment Games' president talks about the company's latest product, Retro World, at

www.philly.com/retroworld


Contact columnist Jeff Gelles

at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

 

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|