Trip Hawkins, CEO of Digital Chocolate, is no stranger to ambition, having at one time brought EA to great heights, and 3DO to a spectacular finish, as it were. Describing himself as an “industry cockroach,” who keeps coming back no matter what you do to him, Hawkins has taken up the mobile banner, and is currently taking the flag of innovation into battle, making his thoughts known in this GDC Mobile keynote talk.
He began by making sure everyone knew that mobile is a game platform, not just a phone with secondary capabilities. This was to be a theme throughout the talk, as he hammered home the crux of his argument: the current inferiority complex of mobile games is psychological on the part of the developers, the marketers, and as a result, the consumers.
Trip mentioned that last year, Mitch Lasky of Jamdat (now EA Mobile) described mobile games as a way for players to kill time. Usually killing time with something that’s a copy of something else, but simply worse. According to Hawkins, Lasky said that if you don’t have a big hit already, you’re finished. To that end, he reserved the 15-year rights to Tetris on mobile.
But Hawkins says he believes in mobile as a platform: “I’m kind of a slut for new media,” he said. “I also refer to myself as the industry cockroach – I’m still here. We need to create a new experience for a new customer of mobile.”
Claiming to be known for being early to markets and technology, he says that within a few short years, data use in phones is going to catch up to voice use, and he says bite-sized entertainment is the way to do it. If data catches up to voice, that’s a lot of money, he says. “Soon we’ll have three billion people with handsets.”
These people have migrated from voice, to SMS, to WAP, and they’ll discover how to do downloads, it’s only a matter of time. But it’s the industry that has to pus this forward, he says. An iTunes-like environment might help, or something as simple as putting known titles further back in the deck. He then sited statistics taken when a mobile platform measured results when big name games like Pac-Man were at the top of the deck, versus original games for mobile. They found that sales for those specific titles went up when the big titles were in front, but overall revenue was down compared to when original titles were on top. It turns out, says Hawkins, if people want the big games, they’ll scroll for them and find them. But if they’re at the top, they just grab that game, go away, and maybe never come back.
He also spoke poorly of licensed products. A licensor he spoke with charged 4% royalties for Game Boy, 7% for PlayStation, 11% for internet, and 50% for mobile. Mobile won’t go anywhere with that cost system, he says.
Almost two thirds of all mobile games are retro, or age-old games like solitaire or poker. If all developers are doing is giving people games they’ve played for years, said Hawkins, the industry is not going to expand the market. If that approach were taken for television, it would be nothing more than radio with a talking head. Every new media has to find what it’s good at and expand that.
In talking about how to find that sweet spot, he mentioned his time at EA, when the company was originally PC oriented. When he decided to move to console, he had to change the company culture, and some thirty people quit. As Hawkins described it: “One of our early values was quality – we dropped it, as you all know now.”
Mobile has its pluses and its minuses, he says, but for developers you have to have a craftsman’s mind. It’s like making games 25-30 years ago. But a lot of good developers don’t have the patience for that. They want more memory, better graphics, but this has an effect on mobile games. If all the top talent wants to move to console, mobile will be stuck in this rut. Mobile developers have to challenge themselves to do better, and innovate. “Every content media is a contact media. People don’t want to just play by themselves,” he says. If you give people something to talk about, they’ll talk about it. In Hawkins’ mind, the social element of gaming is key, as it is with Pokemon, the Xbox 360, and MMOs.
He finished with some requirements for getting this done. If you have mobile game with text enabled, you’ll have to filter the language. Concentrate on market segmentation – women are the best example, the leading mobile companies do well because they consider and cater to women. UI is a big factor, as is theme and gameplay design. Make the games casual, and if it has social value, user generated content is paramount.
The keynote ended with an irate developer asking how Trip could be talking numbers while talking innovation, and it was clear that GDC had truly begun.