Over 70 million unique visitors visit the portals each month and the group's current portfolio consists of 2,000 free online games of all genres, including casual games, download games and casual MMOs (massive multiplayer online). With this in mind Justin Richards recently caught up with Lisette Schipper, sales director at SPILL Group, to talk to her about the group and the casual gaming phenomenon.
What's your current role and what does it involve?
I'm SPILL Group's sales director and I'm responsible for all sales related to our online advertising business model.
Tell us a bit about the company and its evolution and where it's going. How does it finance itself?
Currently we run 42 game portals in 13 different countries, with over 70 million unique visitors a month. Our business model consists of advertising, obviously. This can consist of just normal buttons and banners on the sites, but we also have advertising which we place before a game starts and that is becoming more and more popular. You have to wait for the load time anyway, so therefore why not just look at a nice advert instead of a blank screen.
What sort of companies advertise with you?
Well we work with large advertising networks like Double Fusion and Etype and also a company like Detford, who you might know since they're based in the UK, and also HiMedia, who are based in France. Because our portals are localised in each country, we make sure the advertisements are also local because every portal is in a local language. It's also important that the majority of the games that we publish are translated into the local language.
That must be quite a major task?
Yes, it is. It's all about usability basically. Content is the most important part of our portals and that makes it possible for us to continue to grow the traffic. We place, five new games on the portals, every day, and if they are not in the local language people lose interest and won't come back to the portal.
They do learn just by playing the games, but it's so much easier if it's in local language, whether that's English, German, Spanish, or whatever, people then know exactly what they have to do. And there's even a difference between Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese.
I guess some things can be quite easily lost in translation, particularly instructions? So what innovations do you feel you and/or your company have brought to this field of online gaming?
We are basically unique in this market because there's no other company like the Spill group with local portals. If you look, for example, at Addicting Games or MiniClip, these are companies who have a games portal online but they don't do the country-specific localisation and that is what we are strong in so, therefore, that has been our focus.
There is no other company with those local domain names. If you look, for example, at Addicting Games or Miniclip they have one big portal but they don't have everything localised with local domain names.
You've obviously got all these localised sites all over the world. How has the reaction to them differed across the different regions and countries?
The games portals which we set up first were based in Western Europe, so we had organic growth of those sites. At the moment they are the most popular; I'm speaking of course about the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and France. But we set up the portal Juegos.com online less than a year ago and basically they now have so many unique visitors a month it's unbelievable.
And also of course the international Spanish market; there are a lot of people who speak the Spanish language so we're not only targeting people from Spain but also from America, Argentina and Mexico, plus lots of other countries, making this one portal an international portal based on language.
In addition to localized country-specific portals, we have several other international ones such as the English language portal gamesgames.com, which is incredibly popular in the United States and, similar to our other portals, is also showing steady traffic growth.
Why online gaming? What's the attraction to you and why do you think it's become so popular?
I think people like to play a game and they just want to play it for a bit of fun for 15 - 20 minutes a day. What keeps changing is the social binding or social community associated with particular games. Gaming has become more of a social activity because of multiplayer games, etc. There's also more of an opportunity now to chat with other people online.
Can people chat with other people or players on your site?
Yes, but only if they're in a multiplayer game. So if you're playing a game like Bom Bom Mangoo, for example, that's a game which you can play together, then, yes, you can chat to each other, like 'hey man I’m kicking your arse!' Only there's no violence allowed! Actually, that's also a good thing about Spill Group, we don't have any adult related content; there's no blood in our games or any violence or anything related to that. We have a really strict policy on that.
What made you arrive at that policy? I take it there aren't any limits to access your sites?
We are like the Gumbro of the games industry. We serve people from 8 to 88! Gumbro and Hasbro are where you'd usually play those general family board games.
So basically you try to appeal to as wide a group of people as you possibly can?
Yes and what you find is that all different ages of people play online. We even have a lot of women above 25 on our portals.
Yes, since casual games are mostly played by people above 25, especially women. They often play the games during a lunch break in the office or in the evening to relax. They do play a lot of these casual games, just for a bit of fun.
However, since we have over 40 million players it's not only people above the age of 25, we also have younger people on our sites. To avoid offending people we tend not to have any games which parents wouldn't want their children playing. Hence, we started to make sure we don't have any blood or violence on the website.
One thing that's always cropping up in the UK media is failure of IT projects. What have you learnt from your involvement within the industry which might help our members?
Our commercial and technical teams work very closely with each other so I am aware of our project development side of things. The portal management team is not only about commercial activities but there are also a lot of IT people there.
The most important thing, which is a rule for the whole new internet business is that you should not always think about real concepts. For example, if we wanted to set up an all girl site, we'd think about what sort of colours to use and do a lot of research about a specific site, but basically I think the strength of Spill Group is that we just do it.
And that makes it possible for us to launch sites really quickly, unlike big companies who might do lots of research and then more research before they really know what kind of internet site they will publish. We, however, just do it and that makes it possible for us to launch a lot of sites in a relatively short time frame.
So you think some large companies are hampered by too much red tape and too much thinking about things instead of just getting on and doing them?
Yes, that's it exactly. We're not like those corporate companies who have everything, but go no where fast. We just go for it!
What's the hardest part of your job and what's the most rewarding?
I think the most rewarding thing is the team. Everyone here believes in what we are doing and we make sure everyone works together with the advertising and the portal managers and the line marketing team communicating constantly.
Everything is very structured, particularly when it comes to setting up a new site, for example. We are only 140 people worldwide but we work in those teams, which really makes it possible to bring a high quality site to market very quickly.
So basically you'd say the most rewarding elements of your job are working as part of a close knit team and seeing projects come to fruition and seeing that product being well received at the end?
Yes, most definitely.
Looking back, particularly with regard to your work with Spill Group, is there anything you would do differently?
With our management team we of course always talk about our strategic plans, discussing what are we going to do for both the near future and for the coming years. We, of course, especially focus on growing more traffic, and that's what most of our plans are based around growing more traffic to our sites.
Basically aiming for controllable growth then?
What's your company's take on professionalism in IT; do you select people to work for you based on their qualifications or on their experience?
Yes we do have a thorough application structure and process. For example, when recruiting for the IT and for the commercial departments you ask for different qualities.
For the IT department it's important that they have a lot of experience already across a lot of projects and it's important within our company that the IT department works closely with the commercial department. What you see lately is that universities and colleges, with regard to IT people, they didn't take into account that their pupils need to think in a commercial way.
For us, as a company, it is very important that we have people on board who are strong with regard to their IT knowledge but that they also have an idea about the commercial aspects too.
If we're looking for game developers they have to have experience in the gaming industry and they also need to have experience in a 'producer' kind of way. If we are looking for a webmaster then again it's a different kind of view to finding suitable candidates, and so it is with every kind of function within the IT department.
As someone who works within the IT industry what do you think have been the most important developments recently, particularly pertaining to your particular field?
I think the biggest difference between how it was a couple of years ago and how it is right now is that a lot of companies are more IT driven. The IT has become key instead of the other departments and I think that is becoming more prevalent and important, especially for companies like ours, within the gaming industry, where right from the start so many things are IT driven.
Would you say that IT has to be integrated more into companies?
Yes definitely. I can't now imagine a company without it being integrated into IT; it's becoming more and more important. It's really only those offline companies who don't have to integrate as much that can get away with minimal IT integration. When you're an online company it's really very logical that everything is integrated in to an IT solution.
The games side of IT is actually perceived to be quite a cool, hip, trendy area to be in. But IT in general, particularly in the UK, is perceived as being a bit geeky, or nerdy and of having a bit of a bad reputation. What do you think the IT industry could do to improve its image?
In Holland we have a lot of contact with colleges to make it more attractive to people to get into the IT sector because I think the problem with the IT sector is the image that they have, with the nerd, if you like. And it's really not like that.
There are a lot of people who we see every single day who are not nerds - they are great people with great solutions. I think it is very important that, when people are aged 12 - 18, they are more educated with what you can do with IT. That's the whole problem; they always think about someone programming something in zeros and ones and that’s really not what it's about. That's not the case anymore at all.
We're already talking to some colleges who integrate the IT with communications systems and I think that is becoming more and more important - we see this merging of disciplines as being a strength in Holland, that more and more types of studies are combined to fit more into a company.
I mean the kinds of people we need, they need to have the communication and IT skills together and it's sometimes difficult for people who are commercial to explain to an IT guy or girl to say this is what they want. If universities explain what is actually needed in business to youngsters it will become a more popular area to work in.
If you look at Eastern Europe or China there are a lot of people who really look for a job in the IT sector. They see that it's a successful market to work in and that if they study IT they will get a job because of the demand for qualified people. Unfortunately, in Western Europe it's not seen in quite the same way.
The BCS is currently pulling together a wide range of career profiles for the IT industry so that students and young professionals have a better idea as to what each role actually involves. Do you think this would be helpful?
Yes, that's good for people to know what different jobs do, because even people working in the industry don't necessarily know what a 'portal manager' actually does. This is especially important for students coming straight out of schools and universities to know; as job descriptions for various companies can be confusing, particularly if you have no direct experience of that kind of work.
What would you say are the biggest issues/challenges the online games industry faces now and in the near future?
We really believe in our company and still intend for it to grow. The challenge we face is finding the right people to fill the right working place. And that, I think, will become a bigger problem in the future. Right now we have 140 people but next year we would like to grow that to 250 and that will be a challenge for us, recruiting that number of skilled people.
So you think there's a shortage in IT skills?
Yes, definitely. For our company sometimes it's difficult to find the right mix of people. Finding the right people who understand what is going on in the online world. Do they understand the whole portal management structure, the growing of the portals - do they understand that game?
What do you think the future holds for online gaming?
I think there will be different communities. Some people will always want to play their games on the PlayStation, some on the Wii, or Xbox and then some will want to play casual games when they have a few minutes. The casual gaming industry will continue to grow as will the massively multiplayer online (MMO) sector. We don't just focus on casual game but on all possibilities. If you look at online games I think MMOs will be something important for us.
Who in the IT industry inspired you or made you want to become involved in the IT industry? Did you have any role models as you were coming up through the ranks?
Difficult to say because we have this really unique model of those local portals, and we said no one's doing this, so we want to do this. And that's why we came up with all those portals in all those countries. We didn't really have a role model and think 'this is the sort of thing we want to copy'.
Apple or PC?
Wii or PlayStation?
Open source or proprietary software?
Blackberry or Smartphone?
That's difficult because I've worked with both. But I would say Blackberry.
Geek or a nerd?
(Laughing) I don't want to answer! Neither!
Please note that the SPILL Group rebranded in August 2008 to become SPIL GAMES.