Interview: Paulina Bozek
Along with the relaunch of Atari’s website, which features game downloads and browser versions of classic Atari games from Asteroids to Yars’ Revenge, the company is beginning to bear fruits from the sweeping changes in strategy it has implemented since part of its operations were bought by Namco Bandai earlier this year.
Photo Sauce, which launched in October, came before Atari.com, though. It was the first product made by Atari’s new London studio, led by Paulina Bozek, who was previously game director of Sony’s SingStar series. A simple and casual Facebook app which allows users to annotate their own and their friends’ photos with stickers and messages, it is an expression of the studio’s focus on social gaming – even if it isn’t a game.
We spoke to Bozek about how her experience in developing games has shaped Photo Sauce, about the contrasts between developing for PlayStation 3 and Facebook, and about her vision of the future of gaming on social networks.
Why has Atari, a game creator, made a photo app for Facebook?
We’ve seen social networks emerging as a major gaming platform, and that’s very exciting for a mass-market social game developer. We played around with several ideas and prototypes in the studio, and Photo Sauce was the third prototype we built. It was very fast to develop and we wanted to launch something quickly to get it out there and start learning. We also felt that it went to the heart of sharing because it’s based on photos. Facebook is the largest photo-sharing site in the world – more photos are uploaded to Facebook than Flickr – and whenever you’re tagged in a photo you always want to see it. And we saw a bit of a gap where we could do something interesting and creative.
What was the basis behind Photo Sauce?
Photo Sauce has a number of different angles to it. It’s a creative app – it lets you put stickers, accessories and speech bubbles on your photos – but we’re not focused on making a deep feature set of manipulation tools for photos – we don’t want to make Photoshop! The distinction is that it’s extremely easy to use and fun, with a focus on social interaction with friends. Our tagline is “you’ve been Photo Sauced”, so that describes where we’re focused – turning photos into something fun and playful.
How closely did you look to Nintendo’s photo manipulation tools on Wii and DSi? Did their popularity help you feel confident that Photo Sauce was a good idea?
We didn’t actually look at those as a reference, although the philosophy that something so simple can be appealing and fun is exactly the approach we’re taking with Photo Sauce. And to see it become popular on DSi is definitely very encouraging. In fact we see some Photo Sauced photos that look like they’ve been drawn on with the DSi software, so it’s interesting to see people using both. The fact that the DSi software includes the Facebook upload shows Nintendo’s emphasis on sharing – this is exactly what we want to build on and expand with Photo Sauce.
Photo Sauce is a lot better designed than most Facebook apps. Do you think that because you come from game development you have a different attitude to presentation and usability than many Facebook app designers?
Absolutely. We are highly practised in usability. I’ve always prioritised usability and it was such a critical aspect of my previous work on SingStar. We were engaging non-gamers who needed to understand the gameplay and the menus and features very quickly, and you had a controller to deal with so it was even more important to make it extremely intuitive. We approached Photo Sauce with much the same perspective. In fact the art director that’s working here at Atari with me now is from SingStar. So you can see its visual quality really comes from that. We wanted it to be easy to use and avoid multiple screens that can confuse people. On a social network site you generally have a short attention span – it’s easy to go onto something else – so you have to engage users of social sites from the beginning.
Do you think that high production values are important to ensuring a Facebook app’s popularity?
There are a lot of apps which do not have high – or any – production values and some of them do spread very fast. However, many of those are here today, gone tomorrow, and have very shallow engagement. I think you need to offer some quality in order to stick around on Facebook, keep people’s attention and build a product that generates revenue. You don’t need the type of impressive graphics that you might see on a console title, but people enjoy products which look good – whether that’s a cute pet, fish or cool-looking stickers.