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2009's Dark Horse Console Launch: The Story Behind Zeebo

2009's Dark Horse Console Launch: The Story Behind Zeebo

January 9, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

January 9, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC

No consoles are launching in 2009, right? Not so. Brazilian manufacturer Tectoy, most notable outside of South America for its long partnership with Sega and official distribution of its consoles in Brazil, will be releasing an entirely original product called Zeebo.

Centered around downloadable games distributed only over a 3G wireless network, the console is designed for emerging markets, and has high-profile partners and games including Electronic Arts's FIFA, Id Software's Quake, and Namco Bandai's Tekken.

It will save its small, standard definition titles, many of which will initially be BREW mobile game ports, to the system's internal flash memory. This is intended to sidestep the issues of piracy, home internet availability, and retail distribution of game titles.

The company is 57 percent owned by Tectoy and 43 percent owned by mobile tech company and BREW creator Qualcomm. As well as the above-mentioned larger companies who will release games for the console, Zeebo is hoping to attract independent developers as well.

English info on the console is exceptionally rare so far, with no launch yet slated for North America. But there is opportunity here; the firm feels there's potential for a repeat of the indie-led App Store boom Apple is currently seeing with iPhone.

Gamasutra recently had a chance to talk to Zeebo Inc. CEO John Rizzo, who heads up the operations in North America, as follows:

What's the market for the console?

JR: For the moment, our focus is Brazil first, and then Mexico. Then, selected parts of the rest of Latin America. Then a year from now, likely China and/or India. Those are a little bit harder to figure out, because the content in China and India is likely to be very different from content in Brazil. So we need some time to figure out what the content needs to be.

We work with developers in the local countries; I could imagine a Bollywood dance game with a dance pad. That would be fantastic in India, much more sale-able than Prey. Or in China, a game that teaches English as a second language would be really cool and powerful for that market.

It takes a little longer -- and then, of course, in China there's a ban on consoles, per se, that the seven ministries of the government need to lift -- and that's going to take probably six months to a year for that to happen.

Because our business model is one where we want to get a local partner in the country and put their name brand on it as well, that means it takes a little longer to get that all squared away. So, yes, we're going to those countries as well.

It's pretty much designed for an SD set up, right? Not high definition?

JR: In fact, it's really more designed for the cheapest, most resilient TVs you can find. [laughter]

With China especially, MMOs are king. Is it possible to play with other people across the network with Zeebo?

JR: Yeah, it is technically possible, and in fact, Ultimate Chess actually is going to be offered in two versions. It will be offered in a single-player version and a two-player version.

The two-player version is over the wireless connection. The reason that is going to be relatively easy to do, is that when you are playing chess, the only thing being transmitted is the move coordinates.

So, very low data density, you can compute how many times people are going to play chess; they're going to push it three hours a day -- or how many moves they are going to make in three hours. And you can figure out how many megabytes a day you need to buy to make that happen. Then, you simply make the price of the multiplayer game large enough to cover the cost of the data.

But the problem with an MMO game is you don't really know how much traffic there is going to be. And we have to pay for the traffic. So I think we will move into that domain, which is certainly very important, as you mentioned, in China and elsewhere, but it's probably going to be a different pricing model.

Right now, we use prepaid. It might be entirely a subscription model, and the subscription model might be constrained to a certain number of hours per day of play and anything above that, there's a super pack you can buy that jacks that up.

It seems like free to play, pay for items might be a useful model.

JR: Yes. We've got to figure all that and navigate through it. The other thing that's interesting, too, for us, is that I think that there is some percentage of people... I'm not sure if it's the majority or some large percentage, that play in the middle of the night.

And if you play in the middle of the night, with a cellular-based network, the data pipe is empty anyway during the middle of the night.

So, we might be able to work some kind of deal whereby the bandwidth we buy at 2AM is a lot cheaper than the bandwidth we buy at 10PM, in which case we could offer an MMOG that has a different pricing structure, depending on what time of the day you play.

So, you're still working on the business model.

John Rizzo: The remaining thing we're trying to figure out is the business model. Because the way it works technically, right now, is that if you fill the gigabytes in flash, and you go into the UI and say "delete", it will remove the game from flash, but it will leave a tag that says you already bought it.

Let's say six months later you decided that you wanted to download it again. The only question that we are wrestling with at the moment, which we won't solve right away, is whether or not it's free when you download it again or whether we simply charge you for the air time when you download it again because we pay for the cost of the air time -- and so that's the only question we're trying to work out.

In any event, the customer won't have to pay full price, there's no doubt about that. Whether or not they pay a buck or two to download it again is still something we're trying to figure out. and from my perspective, personally, as the CEO of Zeebo, I don't think people should pay for it again, even for the air time. Because if you fill up your Flash memory, that means you've bought 40 or 50 games.

We license the right to manufacture and sell the console in Brazil to Tectoy. So, if they do want to charge somebody to do the re-download, that's within their purview.

How is your model working so far for the publishers? Will developers be able to release stuff directly on Zeebo without going through a publisher, or rather, having Zeebo as the publisher?

JR: So, the interesting nuance of this is that all these things here [displayed on the screen], these are assets that are stored server-side. And we upload them into the console in the middle of the night, and they're cached. And these basically are like banner ads.

So if a publisher comes up with a new title, they can basically place their ad, if you will, on the stage. And the way the stage works is that every click of the paddle, the cylinder [of ads] rotates and, there's four [ads] in this case... as you move through this, so it's like this continuous thing.

So, it's a way for the publisher to directly market to the customer. Over time, as we get enough of an installed base, we might actually consider charging publishers for that access, but you could put videos here, you could put a GIF, you could put bitmaps and stuff...

I figured there would also be a clearer text-based list.

JR: Yeah, at some point, yes. Until there's a huge number of titles, we try to make it more graphically rich. But in this case there's cover art, and then you can sort by [headings such as] favorites, new, genre, and stuff. And then, this is a scroll up and down.

When you click on one you get the game description. In this case, this is just [dummy text] in, but the cover, in this case, the parental rating in Brazil, which is required by Brazilian law, and then the number of points required.

If you don't have enough points when you try to buy it, it will say, "Do you want to refill your console?" and you can do that by buying more points with a credit card, that we call a "scratch card". And then you use the joypad to key stuff in to the virtual keyboard.

In the future, we could plug the keyboard into the back, a USB keyboard, and then the publishers themselves, if they want to have a custom store, we could create a custom store that's made for them.

Can you multitask while the system downloads a game?

JR: No, the current limitation, [the system's] fully loaded, it fully occupies [the system, during] most of the downloads. But if you happen to pull the power during the middle of a download, it automatically recovers, so there's no issue with that.

And then, it's like [Amazon digital reader] Kindle. The wireless plan is built in, you don't actually subscribe to a plan, you don't know that a plan exists, the number of points effectively covers the cost of the download as well, and you end up paying for that. Everything is secure.

But to answer your question on the publishers' side... Either we've got a signed agreement in 80 percent of the cases, or a handshake agreement when we just won't do the contract now, [with] six of the top 10 publishers, and if a publisher wants to have us be the publisher, we can do that as well.

If a developer wanted to go directly to you, they could?

JR: Exactly.

I assume, starting out, it is mostly going to be mobile ports.

JR: Good question, good point. That's what we thought. [laughs] In fact, when we started the company we said, "Hey, there's lots of mobile games out there and they are easy to port, and let's do that."

What we discovered is that most of the sources we went to said, "Yeah, we can do that, but what we would rather do is take console content and port it down in Zeebo, because the gameplay experience and the graphics are richer."

So I would say in 60 to 70 percent of the cases it's more console content. If for example, you take the FIFA game from EA, that's an interesting port because a part of it was taken from mobile content. And then the voiceovers, we took from the PC.

In the case of Tekken, would that be a PlayStation port, or is that mobile?

JR: It's not a mobile port, I know that. But I don't know if it's PlayStation or some other platform.

I'm wondering how easy it is to strip down to this architecture, depending on what the time is.

JR: I'll give you a couple examples. In the case of the chess game, Ultimate Chess, it is strictly from a [Glu mobile] BREW port. That took four months. Quake, which was strictly a port from the PC, took about six months.

Some of these other games -- like Prey Evil, I think, is taking seven months, maybe. So I think the best case is three months, the worst case is like nine months. That's reasonably fast.

It's slightly longer than I thought it would be. But I don't actually know what the chipset and the SDK are like.

JR: It's just like BREW. Part of the reason for it, the length of the time here, so far, has been that we really didn't release an SDK to developers until June 1st. And the SDK that we released June 1st really didn't become completely stable and bulletproof until September 1st. So I think the titles starting today are going to be faster, I believe.

Are you encouraging original development over ports, or are you going more for name recognition?

JR: I think at the moment we have enough of the publishers and other brand name titles in the queue that, as we enter into 2009, we are going to start shifting into more originally authored, independent titles.

There is a possibility this becomes like the iPod Touch and the iPhone, where you get people that have never really developed before do so because they can reach a huge market and because the marketing cost is virtually nil. So we hope that's the case.

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