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 first part can be found here.
The common perception of mobile phones at the time was that they were essentially 15 year old computers. This led to such nonsense as porting old titles to the device and severely underestimating hardware capabilities.
The reality was very different. Yes, the processor in the mobile device was very much like a computer from 15 years earlier (although the range was astounding — some devices were orders of magnitude more powerful). But the screens, while not large in picture resolution, were 12 to 16 bit in color depth and the pixel pitch was a good as any modern LCD. The keypad, with its 100ms – 250ms latency was like something out of the seventies (i.e. press a button and it would be 250ms before your software would get the notification). All of this meant developing games that understood this unique combination of hardware.
Misconception of hardware didn’t fully explain why mobile games were sheer crap though. Despite the odd platform, it was actually capable of far more than what was on the market. What we observed was that publishers and developers were unwilling to spend the money to fully take advantage of the device. To some extent this makes sense: the space was new and no one was quite sure where it was headed. But it was also a very narrow view, examining current sales to determine funding for tomorrow’s products. In a brand new space growth is rapid, often double digits on a monthly basis. Even with two to three month development cycles, this is a short sighted strategy if you want to remain competitive.
We also noticed that the value chain was really scattershot. The carriers were the gatekeepers, but all kinds of companies were participating in multiple layers, combining development with self publishing, or content creation with handset manufacture. There was also a crazy matrix of devices and carriers, hundreds of each and an absurd number of combinations.
We decided to look ahead. We thought this would all shake out, with different parties dominating different parts of the value chain, and a structure not too dissimilar from the traditional game space (substitute carrier for retailer, pre-iPhone, and that’s pretty much what happened) . So we decided to focus on one piece — content development — and be better than anyone else at it in anticipation of what was to come.
We knew it would be important to own our IP, but we also knew we’d need relationships with strong publishers (who would have the distribution relationships at a time when app stores were controlled by carriers). In order to insure they’d give our self-funded products the right amount of attention, we’d need to build products for them based on their IP (this would also help raise our profile as a developer). In theory, if we did good work and they wanted to keep working with us, they’d want to keep us happy by being fair with our own titles.
That was the other part of our product strategy: build the best possible product for the device, not the budget. Even if we were building a game to be owned by a publisher, we’d spend some of our own money to make up the shortfall of what they were paying us. Why? We wanted to hook them on the quality. Product cycles were short — we could eat some of the cost and raise our rates with each subsequent iteration.
So we decided to spend half our cycles on self-funded IP we would own, and the other half on publisher brands that were funded in the typical game industry publisher-developer model (advances against royalties that would never earn out). We decided that for publisher IP, we’d only work on very high profile or high selling brands (preferably both).
Next time: the business strategy.