Heard of Miniclip.com You should have, it’s one of the top free-to-play game sites in the world, and they’ve expanded out with a new smartphone development division. In a long reaching interview, we talked with Rob Small, CEO and co-founder of Miniclip, and Antonio Sergio Varanda, director of the smartphone division at Miniclip, about the founding of the new division, their relationship with Apple and the App Store and marketing games simultaneously online and for smartphones.

Tell me about this iPhone venture for Miniclip.

Rob: The key news is the launch of the iPhone division, but we’ve had iPhone games since 2008. Most of the work has been with dedicated developers that have built things for the website. We thought it was the right time to get the iPhone development studio, mainly because we want to exploit our IPs on the iPhone.

The hardest thing about the App Store is getting into the Top 10, so what we’ve found is useful is getting our users to experience the Flash game on their PCs and linking them directly to the corresponding title on the App Store to get the game. We see a large audience that are interested in our sort of games on the iPhone; we’ve had over 2 million click-throughs this month.

Why do you think now is the right time to launch a smartphone division?

Rob: We needed to make sure that our user base has iOS devices and we were toeing the water with previous titles and sold 100,000 copies. The Monster Truck Rally game was particularly successful; that was one that was featured in the Super Bowl. It’s great to dip into our own catalog. We want to develop our own IP, but with Flash developers and struggling iPhone developers, we can help them with a leg up.

How did your game come to be featured in an Apple ad?

Rob: Well, one fellow we didn’t know called us up late on a Friday evening about it and we blurted out, ‘Great!’ The game was used on TV and rich media ads. It was the ad that had the air hockey game and they had our game because it used the accelerometer, so it was a really good way to articulate the feature.

I wasn’t sure it’d be a deal where they’d inform you or whether you’d be watching TV one night and ‘surprise’!

Sergio: That happened with one of our games! Nobody got asked about it, but it was at a WWC presentation in a folder.

Still, if that’s the worst thing that happens to you all week, you’re doing pretty well.

Rob: You get a lot of sales from that exposure.

Do you think there’s a lot of crossover between smartphone gamers and online casual gamers?

Rob: I think so, definitely. I think of the casual gaming audience as anyone from 5 to 95. It’s not just 14 to 30 year old males that are into shoot-em-ups. Now, everyone’s a casual gamer, so it really has opened up for us. For a lot of our users, the first thing they do on the App Store is see what content we also have available on Miniclip.com, so it’s a great way to move into the space.

And there are certainly some customers that are easier to reach internationally with mobile titles.

Rob: In Asia, a lot of the business we do is through the phone, and the iPhone is becoming a mainstay device, so it’s important to focus on that. Should another platform emerge we’ll focus on that too.

The whole gaming industry has really expanded exponentially of late.

Rob: Games have been central for me the past 10 years, and right now games are the hottest they’ve ever been. We want to develop intuitive easy to play games; for most people, time will be at a premium and we wanted a snack sized experience for them. They’re also very easily ported over because of their nature. They showed off one of our games on the Nexus and we’ve also made some of our games Nintendo Wii compatible.

Traditional gaming claims to be mainstream, but it’s hard to truly consider it that because for the millions of core gamers out there, there are tens of millions who aren’t that interested in those titles.

Rob: Yeah people dress up their games to make everything similar. Sometimes it takes a lot to simplify them! Designers want to design, so they want to make it more complicated. On Miniclip you click an icon and get a game; we know if a game is not easily accessible because we get immediate feedback!

Crazy Karts, one of the many titles on Miniclip.com.

You mentioned that you think the technology is proven now . . . go into more detail on that.

Rob: For us, with the release of the iPhone 4 and the polished experience, it helped make this the right time.

Sergio: With the new retina display and gyro, we can come up with more content and we want to focus on the new functionality of the device. As the devices evolve, expectations increase. That makes the conditions for use . . . well, it made sense for us to have a team right now for the highest level of quality.

Rob: I recently did some calculations . . . compared to my first PC, a Spectrum, my smartphone is over 300 times more powerful.

Sergio: Apple says they have 100 million users out there, including millions of iTunes users. It’s becoming much larger than the portable consoles.

Rob: The jury is still out for what impact this will have for the DSi. For parents, the first things their kids want to do is get on the iPhone, and for a buck a game they don’t mind paying that. For a DS game, if it’s $40 and they stop playing after a week, you’re going to be cheesed off.

Yeah, I saw young kids lately using an iPod Touch like it was the most natural thing in the world. But generally the desire is to have as few devices in your pocket as is possible, and Apple’s devices just have more functionality than portable consoles.

Rob: People already have too many devices. As for young kids and their intuitive ability… my two year-old son was using the iPad and he knew exactly how it worked. Traditionally, Miniclip has lots of young users, and for us it’s a gateway to that generation. Every kid wants to have an iPhone, so it’s a natural extension for them.

How are you looking to promote the mobile games with the online games and vice-versa?

Rob: We do a simultaneous release with the Flash and iPhone versions of the game. It’s launched on our game spot and that helps them to get many game plays. By launching [the two versions] simultaneously, it helps get attention and launches it into the top 10. With the website pointing to the App Store, it really gives them more leverage and enables it to do really well.

Some people try to grow their site by linking or by running a lot of ads, but oftentimes users find that they don’t have extensive services on their website. We’re 100 percent organic traffic, though, with a very active base. The value of our 56 million users is very high.

How will smaller developers benefit from this sort of arrangement?

Sergio: Many small developers have tried their luck in the wild, wild west of the App Store. They quickly lose viability, unless it has a big marketing push. What we can do for them is relaunch their game and launch a flash version that promotes the iPhone version, and many developers have done this in order to get it to the top. We’ve been working with indies on the portal for a long time and they know our reputation.

Rob: The revenue model is we share a certain amount of sales with that developer.

Sergio: Developers realize working with us is much better for them than launching on their own. We have a website with 56 million casual gamers looking for this content and you can talk with anyone and none of them have this sort of exposure.

Rob: We have titles like Fragger and we have fully free titles, so I think we have a good variety of games appealing to different users.

Finally, we’re curious why the new development studio is in Portugal. We’re aware that smartphone penetration in some countries is much higher than PC usage . . .

Sergio: Portugal actually has a greater than 1:1 ownership rate of cell phones compared to the population! We’re 15 minutes from the university that teaches programming and all of our developers were at the university — it’s a good hotbed of talent.

Good to know. Thanks to you both.