Games for good: an interview with Playmob’s Jude Ower

By Debbi Evans

Jude_main-resPlaymob is an innovative games platform which connects charitable causes with casual game developers. The reasoning is to turn impulsive in-game purchases – potions, clothes, food – into real world charitable donations, and teach players about the causes being supported along the way (the principle is not dissimilar to Half the Sky, which we wrote about here). And when you consider that in-game revenues are expected to more than double to $4.8bn by 2016 , that pixellated power-boosting Panda hat could help both gamers and the WWF make some real progress.

Libertine caught up with Playmob’s founder and CEO Jude Ower, who is gearing up for the soft launch of the mobile platform in June. 

How did Playmob start?

I started a games company five years ago, building games for teacher training and education. We were constantly approached by charities so got some grant funding and built our first game. At the time, Zynga [the developers of Farmville] had just raised money for the Haiti earthquake – $1.5m in five days through in-game purchases. We realised that was the perfect business model. You can raise money for charities, and if you plant a tree in Madagascar you might then find out more about that project.

When we asked developers why they weren’t raising money for charity, they said they couldn’t manage the relationship or fit the development into their schedules. That’s where the platform came from – it makes developers’ lives a lot easier.

Tell us more about the mechanics of the platform.

The Playmob infrastructure is platform-agnostic; it can plug into an existing game. The developer can licence the plugin, sell an item to a player, decide what proportion of the proceeds will go to charity, and what the charity is. We don’t host any games, we just host that information. It’s a transparency platform – you can see in real time how much money is being made, what campaigns are live, where the money is going. That’s something we’re refining – players won’t just see that they’re helping Oxfam, they’ll see specific projects and locations.

It’s also an interesting part of the game story. I’m a big fan of tangential learning – if you’re playing and something triggers your interest you’re going to find out more about what’s going on outside the game. In the Fantasy Kingdoms project, you know when you’re planting a virtual tree that you’re doing the same in the rainforest. At the end of the game the developers send an update to players telling them exactly how many trees they managed to plant in Madagascar, with some information about the area. Players really engaged with that.

How does the business model work?

Charities sign up for free. Typically on an item sale there’s a 50/30/20 split. So 50% goes to charity, 30% stays with the developers and 20% is our fee. When we move into cause marketing on e-commerce sites, our percentage will be much less – we’re trying to work that out at the moment.  The developers can donate 80% if they want to.

Flash-message-resIs there any kind of game content you’d feel uncomfortable working with?

Some charities don’t care where the money comes from. In the past there’s been campaigns (not ours) run in Call of Duty to support Warchild – apparently there were only about 3 complaints, but they raised a quarter of a million pounds over a weekend. That makes a massive difference to a small charity.

Where do you stand on the clicktivism debate?

Some people just can’t afford the time or money to take six months off and work in Africa. (Laughs) I’d love to do that but I’ve got to pay rent. If we can turn clicking into awareness and that awareness into physical action that’s brilliant.

Something that we’re thinking about doing in the future is offering a reward for people who get more actively involved – they could go out and see what they’d helped build, for example, a paid-for trip in conjunction with the charity. Those trips are so expensive!

What’s the big picture for Playmob?

With the infrastructure that we’ve built, we’re not 100% restricted to games; our platform could be tagged onto any transaction online.  If you want to subscribe to something or download music, you can have a choice of where you donate money on top. It doesn’t just sit in the background – the big thing about us is that you learn about who you’re giving money to and see the impact. You could even tag donations to physical products – you purchase a coffee in Starbucks and pay with the app, and collect Playmob points which are used in-game. Over time the platform will be able to pick up where you are and find local projects to support, raise awareness of things going on in your area.