This multi-part series examines the history of Knockabout Games, a mobile games startup I co-founded in 2002, near the start of the pre-iPhone “first wave of mobile gaming”. The start of the series can be found here, and last week’s post on Knockabout’s equity and staffing plan can be found here.
Sure enough, our method of meeting publishers long before pitching worked well to establish our presence in the space. By the six month mark, if I was introduced to a new publisher, they had almost always heard of Knockabout in advance. We hadn’t even shipped a title yet.
Early on we signed up with JAMDAT to build the next version of their solitaire game. Their first one was a great seller, so despite the lack of a brand, it seemed like good bet (and in the early days of mobile, just having a simple name for a title — e.g. solitaire or racing — was often more effective than long brand names that didn’t fit well on the deck listing). A few months after that they gave us their NBA title to build. In both cases, we overspent relative to what they funded.
We eventually signed on with a few other publishers, mostly to build games based on movies or sports. And we added JAMDAT’s NFL property to our list.
For our own IP, we built three titles: pinball, breakout, and blackjack. We received almost a dozen offers to distribute the pinball game, and ultimately signed with JAMDAT. Not only did they offer the best deal, but it made sense given how much work we were doing for them on their major brands.
We also signed a royalty-based OEM deal with Motorola to put our pinball game on a number of their handsets.
We constantly kept in touch with publishers and handset providers we weren’t working with, always looking for worthwhile deals. Our steady workflow, particularly with high profile publishers like JAMDAT, gave us walk away power in contract negotiations. We even dropped a potential deal with THQ in the late stages of negotiations because they refused to discuss a few critical parts of their contract (if anyone ever tells you “that’s just the way it is” in a game development contract, you should tell them “just where it is” they should shove it).
As expected, we overspent on our titles. We got the results we expected too: the games were very high quality, consistently rated #1 by reviewers in their respective categories; and each subsequent deal we did was higher than the previous, often doubling in size.
We managed our publisher relationships very well too. When things did go wrong, they were supportive and worked with us to find a solution. In one instance, where we knew we were going to miss a movie launch date, the publisher pulled the title and sent the assets off to a chop shop in Russia to get a quick product out the door. But they also immediately called us to try and lock us down for another title before we went to another publisher, going so far as to send us a milestone check before we’d even determined what the game was or had a contract in place.
Most of our staff were software engineers. We had one full time artist who was crazy fast, and the platform limitations put a severe limit on how many assets we could provide (max download sizes ranged from 100k – 400k).
It didn’t play out perfectly though, a topic I’ll cover next time.