Interview: CrowdStar’s Peter Relan, On Building Social Games For Mobile (And Making Social Girl An iOS Hit)

CrowdStar, a social gaming company that got its start on Facebook, has been steadily pushing into mobile over the last year, with improving results. Today, it’s trying to drive that point home by announcing that its latest game, Social Girl, has reached a million downloads and reached #6 overall on iOS since launching a week ago.

That’s good for the company, sure, but the better news is how its overall mobile efforts have gone to date. I spoke with chief executive Peter Relan earlier today to hear more about it all. He’s one of the most publicly opinionated executives in the social gaming industry. Here’s the latest from on social, mobile, and expansion into Asia.

TechCrunch: So tell me about this year. You started out mostly on Facebook, but now you’re focused elsewhere — even though you still have more than a million daily active users on Facebook [according to AppData].

Peter Relan: We’ve seen a pretty dramatic uptick in mobile social gaming this year, to the extent that 50% of revenues now come from mobile. That’s because we got two big hits: top girl and social girl. To be clear, we’re exiting with 50% of our revenue runway coming from mobile, but not for the calendar year.

Mobile social gaming — free games that monetize through virtual goods — is probably going to make almost $500 million this year.

TechCrunch: That’s basically what the latest Inside Virtual Goods report says [see our previous coverage]. Can you tell me how that breaks down for you? How is Android doing?

Peter Relan: With Android, Top Girl is doing pretty well but we haven’t scaled it up yet. Everything I hear suggests that there’s something like $100 million coming in to free-to-play games on Android. The rest is iOS.

The thing about Android is obviously monetization. For example, on the Kindle Fire we’re already seeing much better numbers — average revenue per user, and the rest — even if it’s small. The thing about Android is that it’s sold by the telcos for free or cheap, almost like feature phones in terms of users. So compared to the iPhone, demographically, the wealthier audience is there versus the Android.

TechCrunch: But it’s not just audience, it’s how Google does payments, right? What do you want to see change?

Peter Relan: I would like android to accelerate direct carrier billing. Google checkout and wallet — that’s a very long term strategic initiative, but not likely to take off on a mobile device because they’re just behind.

Amazon already has 150 million credit cards on file, Apple has hundreds of millions. Android needs to leverage carrier billing very, very aggressively.

Especially for things like free-to-play virtual goods. They’re in-app. As the user is playing along, they’ll hit a point where they want to buy virtual goods. If you make the payment easy, they’ll keep paying. But if you the user have to go off and do five things, if you don’t have an account, you won’t buy.

That’s not the same for free games that make money on advertising, of course.

TechCrunch: What about Facebook’s latest mobile launch? How is that going for you?

Peter Relan: We haven’t heard or seen that much traction in terms of gaming, which I attribute to the fact that HTML5 games, which they’re supporting, are relatively immature as a technology. You can’t suddenly take people who have learned to build native client games on Objective C and Java and have them go build with fewer options. It just lacks the supply of high-quality games.

Changing to focus on HTML5 requires massive tech and workflow adjustments. Facebook is taking a long-term strategic directional initiative, which developers have to compare to the here-and-now money initiative.

TechCrunch: How are you adapting? You still have a significant business on Facebook, but that’s not where you launched this game.

Peter Relan: The biggest transformation has been our Project Trident strategy. So you can play anywhere, anytime. That’s our vision now. There are times where I’m simply not on Facebook or on mobile devices — China and Japan. Our games don’t rely on Facebook in those places.

At this point we’re looking at Facebook as one of three platforms versus the main platform, the other two being mobile platforms, and non-Facebook social platforms in Asia.

We’ll look at every Facebook game we consider building, and compare to opportunities to build social games on mobile or launch social in other markets

That’s been a change over the past year from our default-Facebook position in 2010. Zynga is the main other company that has been making this type of move to focus on multiple platforms.

TechCrunch: Game developers have talked over the years about creating a unified gaming experience, where you take your identity with you across platforms. Do people actually want that?

Peter Relan: We have both options in many of our games, but we find that actually it isn’t necessarily that the social graphs are shared right now.

We do allow players to play on mobile using iOS using their Facebook identities. What we’ve found is that the large majority actually prefer their mobile social graph. That’s part of why we changed to Top Girl from It Girl.

I think it was do with what mobile is — more about your virtual identity, like dragonslayer482 or whatever your online identity is.

In Japan it’s also a lot more about users’ virtual identity. That’s one of the reasons that Facebook has not done well in Japan.