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 how Knockabout’s plan played out can be found here.
So some of the things we did worked well. It didn’t play out perfectly though. A number of problems presented themselves:
- Our costs rose with each round of titles too. Not as much as the funding, but it was a couple years before we finally closed the gap.
- We chose to emphasize quality over everything else. We had a limited number of resources, so that meant delivery date was not #1 (we would rather slip than be less than great). I had a theory that, assuming you have the talent to deliver, the difference between a good title and great title in the traditional game space was perhaps 2x in development cost. But it was 5x in sales, and those sales would cure all sins. Except in mobile it wasn’t 5x, it was more like 1.2x, which doesn’t justify the development math. We were making licensed sports titles for the #1 publisher in the space and garnering the top review scores. It didn’t matter. Consumers had trouble differentiating titles prior to purchase (14 characters for your game’s title, and no screenshot or other information), and didn’t seem to value them very differently beyond that (not enough for word of mouth to take off). The COO for one of the major mobile publishers told me flat out that he’d rather have two mediocre titles for the same budget as one great title.
- We were slow. This turned out to be Knockabout’s achilles heel. Yes, we sacrificed time for quality. But it went beyond that. We couldn’t hit a date to save our lives. I don’t have a good explanation for that. In my first company we had taken people who had never shipped before and got them to hit every date, so part of me thinks I took that for granted — after all, our team had a ton of experience shipping product. Or maybe our choice to go with more junior managers was wrong. Those all feel like thin excuses though.
- Platform support, over time, became the critical skill to have as a developer. We were building reference builds — i.e. a version of the game on 4 or 5 handsets that represented a sample of the possible memory and screen configurations. The publisher would then send those off to a shop in India or Russia to have them ported to 200 handsets at $300 a pop (these days it’s more like 5000 handsets). We couldn’t compete with that porting price. But the developers who won were the ones who built a framework that could spit out ports at a push of a button. The publisher would pay them the porting money, and they’d have no additional cost. Of course, they had to limit their products somewhat, or choose ones that didn’t push the envelope like ours. But by the time we realized we had to take this approach it was too late.
- We eventually hit a development budget cap. We were getting the top rate in the space, but the return wasn’t there and publishers stopped increasing their per title development budgets.
All of this led to some difficult decisions. We were trying to split our time between our own games and those for our publishers (our own titles were self-funded, we always dedicated resources to our publishers for the duration of our deals). But as deadlines slipped, we applied more of our resources to our contractual commitments, and eventually had to can everything but our pinball game. Bye bye breakout and blackjack.
And since we were bootstrapped, we had no capital to address the porting framework problem or to bring in more resources. We were living a typical hand to mouth existence, with payroll dependent on hitting every milestone. There was no buffer, and at 16 people, we couldn’t personally cover the difference.
I have quite a bit of game design experience, and that’s the role a played for Knockabout. But I was also the CEO, which meant I was responsible for various business development and operational functions, plus managing the guys managing the products. In addition to not having the time to actually do all that, it created a really awkward situation for the producers: I was their boss, but I was also the guy on their team they needed design work from. I had a good rapport with individual developers, but it undermined the managers.
Hiring junior managers was probably a poor choice too. We saved money, and the guys were talented. But I never spent the time to help them grow into their roles, throwing them in the fire and devoting cycles to business and design issues.
Our assumptions about distribution were also a little off. While many of the carriers were encouraging developers to go through publishers, Verizon asked us point blank why we were using JAMDAT and not going to them directly. In the long run I think that would have been hard to sustain (and we certainly couldn’t have gone direct to every carrier), but we might have been able to capture more short term revenue.
There were some unexpected staffing complications as well. We gave a small signing bonus to one engineer we hired; he took it, quit a month later and refused to repay it. Another engineer came to work for us and quit after two weeks because a competing company made a better offer. That’s random stuff that just happens: both guys came in on personal recommendations from people already working for us. In a startup you always have to expect the unexpected.
Next time: Knockabout’s demise.