Surviving High School: A Mobile Survivor Story
July 17, 2008 Page 2 of 4
This newfound flexibility could not have come at a better time for Centerscore. By 2005, many small publishers were being priced out of the market for brands by capital-rich companies that could afford to pay large fees up front, like EA Mobile, Gameloft, and Glu.
Many indie studios decided to quit while they were ahead and sell to big publishers, rather than struggle with the new barriers to entry. Others, like Centerscore, still had the wherewithal to take a few shots on original concepts.
Centerscore's principals left no avenue unexplored in their search for viable original IP. Although they produced several partial successes during this time, they didn't come up with any true hits, because they could never quite seem to get all the necessary factors together at the same time.
For instance, Alone: The Horror Begins seemed like a good prospect for a breakout, but survival horror turned out to be an awkward fit with the mobile games audience, which skews towards non-gamers and women. Plus, the game required a lot of graphical horsepower, which meant it couldn't run on many mass-market phones. The game didn't do horribly, but it didn't do particularly well, either.
Another product submarined by technical issues was Amy's Jigsaw, a game that allowed players to turn phone pictures into playable jigsaw puzzles. Centerscore failed to anticipate the difficulty of getting camera functionality to work across dozens of different types of handsets; it took months to write special camera code for each handset, killing any chance to break even on the game.
Centerscore almost hit on the magic formula on a third OIP title, Aquarium Pets. The game had a universally appealing theme, its title was self-explanatory, it was easy to play, and it was compelling in spite of its simplicity, just like a real aquarium might be. The game jetted onto T-Mobile's Top Sellers list soon after its release, and it performed very well on smaller carriers, too.
The problem this time was on the sales and marketing side, not the game side. Verizon Wireless didn't take the game because it had recently launched Glu's mobile version of Insaniquarium and was afraid of cannibalizing its sales.
Centerscore might have been able to secure competing placement with a stronger sales relationship, but without it, Aquarium Pets was stuck outside Verizon Wireless' promised land. This harsh lesson would pay dividends later, when it came time to market Surviving High School.
A New Hope
While putting together Aquarium Pets in mid-2005, Centerscore also started work on its most ambitious concept to date. When all was said and done, Surviving High School took a full nine months to bring to fruition - an eternity for a developer that had produced most of its games in a few months each.
Surviving's first twinkling came in 2003, when Centerscore pitched a concept based on the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series of books to T-Mobile. The carrier's representatives were skeptical of the brand's draw, which was enough to put the brakes on the project.
However, even if T-Mobile had liked the idea, it wasn't clear that Centerscore could have delivered on it. She notes that most mobile game downloads were limited to 64K at that time, which wouldn't have been enough space for a decent text-based game.
The idea for a text-based adventure went into cold storage for a few years, while Centerscore toyed with other concepts. During one particularly intense brainstorming session, the developers came up with an ideal theme: high school. "High school is universal. Everyone remembers it, and lots of people feel strongly about it," Miao explains. "There was a lot of passion behind the basic idea."
Centerscore Design Director Leighton Kan took the first crack at a high school concept with a "social RPG" called High School Kings. This concept looked like a cross between Final Fantasy and River City Ransom - you'd walk around high school beating up bullies, gaining levels, and shaking down fellow students for side quests.
These elements clearly would have appealed to experienced gamers, but the team wasn't sure it would do as well with casual players, who might be turned off by violent combat and RPG number-crunching.
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