WildTangent: Q&A with Sean Vanderdasson

Sean Vanderdasson
Sean Vanderdasson

In the volatile world of casual games, where every wild success story overshadows fifty wretched failures, WildTangent have carved out a considerable niche for themselves, building up a catalogue of over 2000 titles in a plethora of genres, including some from well known studios such as Disney, Ubisoft and Popcap. Their games service is accessible on PCs and a range of mobile devices, now considerably expanded thanks to a recent partnership with the UK’s biggest mobile service provider EE, which will no doubt make good use of their 4G network.

We caught up with Senior Vice President Sean Vanderdasson to talk shop (literally). Sean is a charismatic figure whose wealth of experience in online retail, including working for Wizards of the Coast as the founder and Vice President of eCommerce, makes him the perfect person to comment on the increasingly thorny issue of digital vs physical distribution strategies, which has once more been kicked into the spotlight by the launch of the new consoles.


Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Sean, could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and WildTangent?

Of course, happy to. I’ve been in the games industry for 18 years, having worked at companies like Wizards of the Coast, and have been with WildTangent since June 2004 as Senior Vice President of the WildTangent Games Service business.

WildTangent has evolved dramatically over the years and today has three business lines: WildTangent Games, which is a multi-platform, worldwide, curated game service; WildTangent Media, which sells premium advertising in our games service network as well as outside our network through our value exchange advertising platform called BrandBoost, and WildTangent Studios, which is our publishing group that develops mobile games for iOS, Android, and Windows.

When I joined WildTangent, it had just started the push in the industry to sell casual games to consumers online. We saw several different business models offered by various companies, but they all suffered from significant limitations for the user in the form of either content selection or worse, the dreaded 30 minute trial.

As cliché as it may sound, digital distribution is the future, and the future is here.

Most of us at WildTangent are gamers, and we decided to create a solution for gamers that eliminated these issues. We wanted something we’d use ourselves and was fair to consumers, developers and partners. As a result, we created a way for game players to continue to play without requiring the full purchase of a game. After all, how many people can afford to purchase every game they enjoy?  So, we developed and patented the ability to rent games through the use of digital currency, called WildCoins. With WildCoins, not only can you rent game play for pennies, but every amount spent on rental also applies toward ownership of the game, making it a great choice.

From renting via digital currency, we quickly progressed to enabling advertisers to pay for a rental on behalf of a user. Our rationale was simple – for a game player that can’t afford to rent a game or simply doesn’t want to spend WildCoins at that moment, an advertiser can be the hero and pay the fee instead. All the advertiser would require is fair compensation in the form of the player viewing or engaging with an ad, and some recognition that they are providing the value to the user. We created the term “value exchange,” and our consumers and advertisers have loved it.

MMO Need for Speed World
MMO Need for Speed World

From our perspective, this offer really isn’t all that different from how people think about movies: some you want to own, some you want to experience but not enough to own (rent), and others you’ll gladly experience, but only if someone else is paying the fee (access via advertising). Except for movies, there is no single company that offers this full solution.

In recent years, we have taken this PC games business model and expanded it into mobile where through the WildTangent Games app for Android we offer a variety of game types, including free with in-app purchase, (which advertisers may pay for in-game items on behalf of the user) and paid games.

For over 10 years we’ve had relationships with nearly all the major PC hardware manufacturers around the world and in recent years have added mobile hardware manufacturers including Asus, Sony and Acer and mobile carriers such as AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint in the US and EE in the UK. Our technology, integrated advertising platform, and unique business models are the key reasons for this.

With you being in the business of digital distribution you clearly see that as at least one viable future for the industry, how do you see that future coming to fruition?        

As cliché as it may sound, digital distribution is the future, and the future is here. You can debate all you want over local downloads vs cloud streaming. What I am saying is that the days of inserting a disk into a drive are nearing an end. The massive growth of mobile has certainly been the key driver of this and I believe we will continue to see dramatic growth in the mobile space, along with the wearables space that should kick in this year. There is a myriad of new mobile devices and form factors, and the industry continues to work to find things people want. What will remain consistent across all devices though, is that people will want to be entertained and play games.

As it pertains to app stores today, I find them largely cluttered with too many mediocre apps. There is effectively no barrier to entry and discovery is rudimentary. Conversely, the WildTangent Games Service, which offers a curated selection of premium games, we believe is far better at bringing the best games to consumers and with better options for access.

Overall, we are still in the early days of an evolution – the evolution of hardware, software, distribution, payment vehicles, data analysis, and so much more. This will not decelerate anytime soon. One thing for sure though, the businesses that execute the best versus those that have the best strategy will reap the rewards.

Time Management Game, Island Tribe
Time Management Game, Island Tribe

With the next generation of home consoles pushing hard on digital distribution where do you think the future lies for bricks and mortar stores? Will there still be a place for them in 3 years?

I think most people have already noticed the massive decline in brick and mortar stores dedicated to selling games. They have rapidly become obsolete due to the consumer’s ability to purchase online or from their mobile devices. I don’t see the brick and mortar decline changing unless they evolve and reinvent themselves. An idea may be that they should focus more on entertainment experiences rather than game sales.  I also think there is opportunity with Virtual Reality now that it’s gaining momentum. Regardless, their strengths are gone and they need to change.

Microsoft had a shaky start by trying to remove all the benefits of physical media on the Xbox One, how do you think they could have better approached this goal?

On the surface, it looked like Microsoft with the Xbox tried to use its strong market position and believed that consumers wouldn’t seriously contemplate switching platforms. When you remove prior benefits and increase inconvenience (and distrust), however, then switching is on the table for consumers. In my opinion, Microsoft stepped over a line that simply wasn’t reasonable. As a result, they had to back down.

If Microsoft had instead positioned the changes as: “We’re very excited. We looked at the problems with today’s consoles and listened to what consumers wanted. The result is – we can make life easier, increase convenience and remove obstacles you currently deal with. However, if you’re not ready for all the changes, these benefits can easily be turned on / off. It’s up to you, but we think you’re really going to enjoy them.” For the DRM restriction, well, that really can’t be defended. It simply shouldn’t have been done.

Do you think Sony’s tact of pushing the PlayStation 4 as an accessible games platform was their plan all along or in reaction to the poor reception Microsoft initially received?

I think Sony saw the opportunity and tried to get some easy publicity after Microsoft overstepped. I imagine there were several people in the Sony PlayStation marketing department frantically re-writing marketing plans the night Microsoft made their announcement. If Microsoft hadn’t announced the limitations, “accessibility” wouldn’t have been a differentiator and wouldn’t have resonated.

Hidden Object game, The Fog
Hidden Object game, The Fog

After all the hype the next generation of consoles are actually very similar in design and specification. Could this be a sign that we could be heading to a single generic gaming platform for the generation following this?

While PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are similar in technical specs as it relates today’s consoles, I think the larger question to ponder is: What should a “console” mean?  To date, traditional consoles have been defined as what or how game playing is done via TV. I think this limited definition is about to either be made obsolete or redefined.  What I mean is, any device (even the TV itself) that powers game play should either be considered a console or provided a new term, such as “game source,” or something similar. Whether it is a tablet, smartphone, hockey puck shaped device or traditional console connected to a TV, game playing enablement is the measure. If you want to eliminate devices that can’t power resource intensive games from the list, that’s fine, but I think that lens is a bit old school purist and doesn’t account for the amazing games available today being created for mobile devices that can be played on TVs. Even the measure of a game pad input can’t be used since there are controllers that can be used with mobile devices and games.

So, to answer the question fully, I don’t believe there will be a standard generic technical spec that creates the definition for future generations. I think the enabling of playing games on TV will become the generic definition currently occupied by Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

From a personal stand point which platform appeals more, PlayStation 4, Xbox One or PC?

I’m a gamer, so the platform that appeals most to me is the one I have at the times that I want to play games. Whether I’m travelling and using my PC, tablet or smartphone, or if I’m home in the living room and I want to play on the TV – the platform most appealing to me depends on the situation, what I’m in the mood for, whether or not I’m playing with/against someone, and the type of game I want to play at that moment. At the end of the day, I don’t want to be boxed into any one device. I want gaming to be part of my life, and that means easy accessibility when I want it, not limited to a fixed location with a fixed display. My wife appreciates that as well.






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