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”. You can find all eight parts of the series below:
Before The Start (this post)
Before The Start: Why Mobile?
In the fall of 2002 I sat down with longtime friend and business collaborator Monty Kerr to talk about a new venture. I already had two game startups under my belt, and I’d just come off a one year break (most of which was spent living on a catamaran). I was recharged and ready to dive into something new.
We didn’t have any idea at that point what kind of games we wanted to make, but we had two requirements: it had to be in a relatively new space, and it had to be games. So I got on a plane and made a three city tour of the west coast — Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles — to chat with friends and colleagues about the state of the industry and where things were headed (we also spent some time with folks here in Austin).
There were three sectors we were considering: casual downloadable, mobile, and boutique MMOs. All three were fairly new and unexplored at the time, but each looked ready to explode (indeed, in hindsight they all did). We ultimately chose mobile almost by reduction:
- Boutique MMOs were much more costly than the other two ($500k – $1m a pop) and would require raising capital.
- Casual was exciting, but it felt like we could do this sort of startup any time — shareware games had been around almost 15 years at that point and it didn’t seem like anything was going to make entry into this space more difficult in the future (although that turned out to be wrong).
- Mobile had a small window that had just opened up. If we wanted to try it, we had to go now.
The clincher was actually a conversation I had with Mitch Lasky, then CEO of JAMDAT (which later became EA Mobile). Mitch gave me a thorough rundown of the value chain and how money flowed through it, and talked about the various challenges of building games for handsets. And he shared some data. What was most interesting, though, was that the first mainstream color handset had just launched (the Motorola T720), and people were suddenly starting to buy games. Real money was flowing.
Building The Plan
I spent the next two months diving into all manner of research about mobile games: carriers, publishers, developers, technology providers, handset makers, and so forth. The way I like to do this is to write an operational plan, of sorts. The goal is to create a document that covers how the space works and how we’re going to build a business that can thrive in it. But it’s not as organized as a business plan and isn’t trying to pitch or sell anyone on the concept. It doesn’t even need to be complete. The purpose is to identify all the moving parts and look for opportunities on which to build a strategy; the act of writing it down forces one to see everything and articulate that strategy clearly.
Knockabout’s plan was about 200 pages and unfinished. And it was never looked at again after we launched. That wasn’t because parts of it became slowly invalid over time; rather, it was because the process of putting it down on paper had effectively committed it to memory. We knew it inside and out.
There were four basic parts to our strategy: product, business, funding and development. Next time I’ll dig into our product strategy.