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Interview: King.com Co-Founder Toby Rowland On Taking Casual Games Freemium

It’s not just newspapers and magazines that are gradually making the transition from free to paid online content: according to web entrepreneur Toby Rowland, casual games are now increasingly turning to freemium business models as online advertising’s growth falters.

His own new venture Mangahigh.com offers (disconcertingly difficult…) maths-based casual games including Pyramid Panic for free, but the site charges £60 a year or £14.95 a month for premium membership which gives access to the advanced level of its National Curriculum-compliant Progidi maths quiz and GCSE score predictions. Rowland tells paidContent:UK in an interview: “The education industry is great for someone that loves e-commerce because people are prepared to pay for good functionality and good content…”

Casual gaming going freemium: “More and more people are turning to some kind of freemium offering,” says Rowland. “Everyone wants those features in their games now and as CPMs continue to fall, I don’t see why that trend should stop.” Casual sites have enjoyed phenomenal user growth in recent years — King.com averaged 12 million monthly users in 2008 – but can it continue? “Individual players might have plateaued (in terms of usage) but as an industry it’s still exploding.”

From B2C to B2B: Though Mangahigh is primarily aimed at individual schoolchildren who might prefer playing “games” to doing their maths homework — but Rowland says education institutions are interested too: “Schools are already asking to either trial or pay for the product so I definitely think we’ll have a B2B market, but the numbers so far suggest there’s a real B2C market too.” He says the private tuition market, booming in well-heeled suburbs across the country, is another potential market. “It’s hard to set homework and reliably have kids do it, but if you ask them to get an achievement in Pyramid Panic, they are going to be more responsive to that.”

Why education? Rowland grew King.com into one of the world’s leading casual games sites with its bingo, card and puzzle games, so what inspired the switch to learning-based games? “What I noticed over the last six years of running King was that the players developed incredible skills through casual games and started to think, if we make slightly different types of games, they could still be as good but the players would take away even more skills.”

Social networking delay: Users can currently sign in to the site via Facebook, Google (NSDQ: GOOG) and MSN accounts — but Mangahigh is oddly lacking in the ubiqitous content sharing and commenting features found on most consumer sites. Rowland explains: “That’s less a function of a our strategy and more a function of the fact that getting the curriculum and mathematics right was a much bigger job than we originally envisaged.” Facebook has been responsible for much of the recent growth in social games — but Rowland points out there’s just one problem there for an education site: “Every school in the country bans Facebook.”

Growth opportunities “Mathematics is the largest subject in education and education is the second biggest industry globally after health so I have big hopes for this.” No word on exact revenue or user targets, but the site could be an attractive proposition to educators looking to hold the interest of bored youngsters. The question is whether the games market so saturated by console and PC games as well as online casual games that there’s precious little room for a newcomer — especially one that ultimately children to learn.