5 Minutes with Paul Gray, Director of Marketing at Bubble Gum Interactive

Bubble Gum Interactive is an independent developer of children’s entertainment services. The Aussie startup is currently working on an original virtual universe for kids called Little Space Heroes. Little Space Heroes is a virtual universe for kids aged 6 to 12. It’s a safe, fun and inclusive social gaming experience built around a freemium model. In the game, kids create their own hero, make new friends, strap on their jetpacks, fire up their starjets and explore a galaxy full of adventure. We speak to Paul Gray, Director of Marketing and Community Management at Bubble Gum Interactive.

Paul, you have a Bachelor’s degree in commerce, an MBA, and you’ve spent twelve years in the entertainment industry in Europe and Australia. How did you come to be involved with Bubble Gum Interactive?

Like many startups, it all began when a group of friends and I got together on weekends and talked about our ideas. We’d all worked in gaming, entertainment, media, children’s services and online communities, and in January 2011 we kicked into gear and started on our journey.

In your role, what has been a highlight so far?

My remit generally could be described as ‘customer experience’ and each day I might be working on something new. Over the past year I’ve been involved in planning how our players interact with our site and helped define key aspects of the game itself. I’ve also worked on how we deliver customer service, something we place great importance on. Then of course there’s helping to take the message out about Little Space Heroes to the world – talking to kids and parents as well as journalists and bloggers. There’s a lot of variety to my role and that’s the highlight for me.

What role did market research play in your decision to go ahead with the business idea?

Market research has played a very significant part in creating Little Space Heroes. We know that it’s meeting the needs and wants of our audience that will define whether we’re successful or not. It helps that all of the founding team have had significant experience in designing, developing, deploying and managing products and services before and we understand full well that successful services are those that meet the needs and wants of customers. For this reason, we placed customer insights at the centre of development right from our earliest days. We held focus groups and playtest sessions when the game was mere concepts and basic functional demonstrations. We asked kids AND parents what they were looking for. We also observed their media consumption habits and did a lot of secondary research.

What, if any, were the problems that were identified?

Entertainment is an interesting space from a product management perspective. Product managers love to define ‘problems’ and then devise solutions that solve these problems in ways that provide a great overall experience for customers. But what is the problem that watching a movie solves? What is the problem that an iPad solves? I think the word ‘problem’ by its very nature gives you a context that seems somewhat at odds with entertainment.

That said, we know that there is a continual demand for great entertainment experiences. People long for experiences that are fun, surprising, delightful and which are delivered in ways that are enjoyable, positive and give them a sense of satisfaction. More specifically in our case, we know that kids are drawn to strong stories and character driven experiences, but increasingly they’re wanting to play in a social setting rather than just on their own. Parents want their kids to have fun and enjoy themselves but they want to know that the experience is suitable, age-appropriate, safe and value for money.

Knowing this has helped us create Little Space Heroes entirely with the needs and wants of our customers at the very core of the experience. We’re already seeing great traction and we think it’s because of the way we work.

How much time did you spend on the market research stage and what tools did you use?

Secondary industry reports haven’t played a huge role for us as they tend to be incredibly expensive, and in our industry, they’re either out of date or not specific enough. Secondary research is useful however but I’ve found that simply scanning on presentation sites like Slideshare as well as using basic social mention alerts can give you enough tidbits of information to start gleaning together key insights. We’ve found that our direct efforts have been more rewarding – actively engaging with and speaking to kids and parents through focus groups, one-on-one testing and now in our beta program where players can give us feedback quickly and easily as they play the game.

How did you go about conducting competitor analysis?

With consumer products and services it’s quite easy to carry out competitive analysis. Simply signing up for and testing a competitive product can be easy and quick to do. It can be taken to the next level by involving the right people and looking for answers to your own specific questions. We distilled it down and analysed our competitors from different angles – we looked at their basic product offering, then how it’s delivered – what channels or distribution methods are used? We look at pricing and how this varies. We compare messaging and positioning and build a clear picture using some basic spectrum to compare and ‘fit’ competitors.

That said, we’re focused primarily on our customers. While it’s important to know what your competitors capabilities are and where they are headed, but it’s more important to remember that it’s your customers you need to create and deliver for.

Who was involved in the product planning?

The entire team is involved in product planning – this was very easy in the early days when the team was just a handful of people, but now that we’ve grown we are trying to find out how to get ideas and input from all members while not ending up in ‘design by committee’ approaches.

It helps that we have a very clear vision as to what we want to do and a good understanding of our customers. This allows us to be very ruthless in quickly deciding what features we choose to build and what we cut out. We’ll review ideas and areas for development focus in core management team meetings and then prioritise from there.

You seem to have two customers that you have to satisfy – children and parents – how did this impact on product design and development?

It’s a classic buyer and user situation – Little Space Heroes is a game designed for children aged 6 to 12, but its parents that give permission for their kids to play and it is parents who decide whether or not to enjoy the free version or to upgrade to premium membership.

By continually talking with kids and parents, and involving them right from the earliest days of product development we’ve been able to make sure that we understand the nuances of each of their needs and wants and have been able to cover all the important factors. We try to balance the needs and create something that both can enjoy. We also know that some parents are or were gamers themselves so we have built in many story elements and characters that have appeal to kids and parents – there’s lots of cheeky jokes and references that parents might get as well as some old-skool gaming classics that parents might like such as the Asteroids Mini-Game.

Were there other factors that had to be considered along with satisfying the identified needs of your target market? How did this impact design?

Competition and how you fit into the market is important to note. There are also mandatory and voluntary regulatory and legislative critera that we have considered. Many of these relate to privacy, online safety and security of information and we have made it a point to go far above and beyond the minimum expectations.

We’ve had the game rated by the ESRB and have secured an E-for-Everyone rating which means that its entirely suitable for anyone aged 6 and over. We’ve got Verisign certification across our site, we’re PCI Compliant and are finalising steps to secure COPPA Compliance by working with TRUSTe. Beyond this, I’ve been actively engaging with parenting groups and organisations to show them Little Space Heroes, get their feedback and secure their endorsements. FamilyFriendlyVideoGames.com is a leading parents resource site and we recently secured their Seal of Approval which was a great result for us and helps to validate the efforts we have placed on not only meeting, but exceeding parent expectations.

Customer service plays a big role at Bubble Gum Interactive? Why is this and how does this influence your product design and development?

I firmly believe that a fantastic product or service is one that meets the needs and wants of customers and delivers with flair.

I place a great emphasis on getting the basics right – try to focus on what it is that customers want most, and then give them this. Give it to them via the channels or distribution means they use and provide it ‘with a smile’, that is, add a bit of friendly personality to your communications and interactions. We’ve put a huge amount of effort into making it as easy as possible for customers to play and engage with Little Space Heroes. If they run into any difficulties we have lots of tools and information that can help them which are easily accessible online and my team is there to help them further with any question they have. We’re working on more ‘self-service’ tools to give parents even greater control and we actively reach out to and ask kids and parents for their input on the game and their overall experience with us. Many features of the game came as a direct result of ideas and suggestions from kids and parents.

Creativity is obviously necessary and constant innovation to create new and fresh storylines and characters for the games. How do you build this creativity into your product design and development process?

The team at Bubble Gum Interactive is a very creative bunch – all members of the founding team are wannabe writers of some form or another. We all have scripts or screenplays, novels and comics in various states of semi-completion in our homes (all of which are on hold while we focus on Little Space Heroes!).

Creativity is fundamental to our entire business, and our passion for storytelling comes through in the game setting, its characters, themes and plotlines. We draw inspiration from many sources – favourite books or cartoons when we were kids (and keeping tabs on what kids like these days), music and novels, movies and real-world events all inspire us. We are a very collaborative team and regularly get all of us into a room to bounce ideas off each other. This was really easy in the early days – now that we have around twenty employees it can make for very colourful and creative ideas indeed!

We also know that our fans enjoy storytelling and we want to help encourage their creativity. We offer various arts and crafts materials for free on our site and have plans for many more activities. We’re excited to involve our fans even more and encourage them to draw pictures, write little tales or comics and help tell their own Little Space Heroes stories.

Blast off for adventure at http://www.littlespaceheroes.com