Trip Hawkins, Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences Hall of Famer and head of San Mateo Based Digital Chocolate, recently sat down with us to chat about the video game leader’s foray into the world of smartphones and all things iPhone. Once primarily focused on dedicated gamers in other segments of the market the gaming gurus focus has gradually changed over the past few years.
Hawkins has an almost unheard of resume in the gaming community. His professional experience includes among many things time as an executive at Apple, founding game publisher at Electronic Arts, being a console maker and a mobile publisher. His unique background and experience make him both an insightful and highly respected industry veteran to comment on the smartphone and iPhone platform. Hawkins candidly offers his opinion on the future of the iPhone platform, the climate for developers and DChoc’s plan to jump in on the action.
1. Digital chocolate seems to be focused on mobile gaming but not specifically iPhone yet why?
Trip Hawkins: Until the App Store opened recently, there wasn't a good channel available for selling smartphone games. The iPhone is the first mobile content device that the mass market wants. Before, billions of people bought feature phones primarily for voice use and Digital Chocolate supported platforms like Java. But smartphones were for business use and the industry did not provide good channels for getting games to smartphone users. The iPhone and the App Store have changed everything. Now everyone wants an iPhone or something like it and there are new channels where we can merchandise smartphone games in general.
2. If so, how many titles? Will we see any before the end of the year?
Trip Hawkins: Digital Chocolate has multiple games in development for the iPhone and we hope to have our first launch before Christmas.
3. In the article we read in ” Slide to Play” it seems you have a wait and see mentality. Is that true? If iPhone is such a wildly popular market already why wouldn't you have jumped in feet first since day one?
Trip Hawkins: We need to understand how the sales channels will work to get games to the public, because that is out of our control. This has only really become clear in the last few months for the iPhone and smartphones in general. Digital Chocolate has already published 15 award-winning games so far this year and we support more than 1,200 mobile devices and have added Facebook, PC games, and smartphones to our coverage this year. We cover an incredible amount of ground and it won't take us long to scale up to take full advantage of the iPhone phenomenon which is still in its very early stages.
4. You say that “some small developers will likely get lucky and have some big hits and so will some big companies.” What do you attribute this kind of unpredictable success to?
Trip Hawkins: Nobody can predict which songs will be big hits and any song has a shot at breaking through because consumers can hear the song for free on the radio and on the web. Any game market where consumers know where to try games for free and then buy the ones they like is a wide-open market where any good idea has a shot at the big-time. Big companies will more often succeed with famous brands and small companies with innovative new ideas, giving the public a wide range of choices.
5. You mentioned that iPhone has a lot more in common with the web than with mobile phones?
Trip Hawkins: The iPhone market will work this way because of the web and the App Store. We prefer this kind of merchandising model because Digital Chocolate makes great games that are innovative, original and highly polished. In the last year we have harnessed the web to deliver over 100 million free trial game play sessions to our customers and now the trick is to enable our fans to buy our games for their iPhones.
6. How is that important in the long run for consumers?
Trip Hawkins: Today there are a billion consumers surfing the web from their PC and all of them will migrate this behavior to mobile devices like the iPhone. In addition, today there are another 2 billion mobile phone users who may not be able to afford a PC but will be able to afford an iPhone or something like it. The mobile web market will reach a much larger audience than the PC ever did.
7. What do you think is particularly special about iPhone there lots of smart phones with lots of Internet functionality and tons of apps in development ie Gphone or Blackberry ? And what do you believe is fundamentally different about the iPhone ?
Trip Hawkins: Apple did a great job with the device hardware, the software user experience, the networking integration, and the merchandising of applications. Competitors may bring out a phone with a touch screen but that is just the tip of the iceberg. As an iPhone user myself, I personally am the most impressed with how simple it is to use WiFi and email. But from a Digital Chocolate perspective, what we also have with the iPhone is a game platform that could reach billions of people, which has never happened before.
8. Do you find it easier to develop games for web sites like Facebook than iPhone? Why?
Trip Hawkins: Every platform is different. Digital Chocolate has always focused on improving social life and on being an agile cross-platform developer. So we were intrigued with Facebook and have had great success there with games like Tower Bloxx. We are excited about the synergy between Facebook and the iPhone.
9. With many developers offering games at 99 cents or for free how do expect that most developers will survive?
Trip Hawkins: Consumers should remember that ultimately you get what you pay for. Just like the PC on the web, the game industry will divide into a lot of amateurs making a lot of free games that are mediocre, and a battle for survival for the professionals who have to figure out how to make money. Like the web, it will take innovative thinking about the business models.
10. What's one huge trend that you've noticed in the app store other than offering apps for a reduced cost or free since the AppStore opened?
Trip Hawkins: Apple says it is against their policy to use a free app to promote or upsell to a premium paid version. However, many apps are doing this successfully and Apple has not shut them down. Apple might decide to officially allow this because it increases the availability of free trials for the public so they can know what they are getting before they choose to pay for it.
11. Do you think this is harmful to business environment?
Trip Hawkins: No, but again let the buyer beware. Just like on Facebook, there is a lot of junk that isn't even worth your time if it is free.
12. You also mentioned micro-transactions as a form of monetization that is vital to the "ultra casual" web gaming future. It's already widely popular with games like SIMS, 3rd Life, Habbo etc. but will this be popular with "ultra casual" players people aren't officially committed to these games either way?
Trip Hawkins: It can be a great business if free customers help grow the community of paying customers. Paying customers will end up with some benefits that may even convince "ultra casual" players to become paying customers. All people have disposable income and it is going to be spent somewhere. Smart consumers will shift spending to where they like the benefits.
13. You also mentioned "discovery" being a real problem in the App Store? Why?
Trip Hawkins: There are already more than 1,000 games so it is not realistic for a consumer to wade through all of them while in the App Store. We have seen similar constraints on other mobile phones and in cluttered environments like Facebook.
14. Is success with a game making it as widely available as possible?
Trip Hawkins: We have proven with AvaPeeps, Tower Bloxx, Rollercoaster Rush, Crazy Penguin Catapult and other games that wide availability across platforms, free trial, and viral spread can solve the discovery challenge.
15. In the article by Slide to Play you mentioned that you didn't believe that Apple's move into gaming was a part of a larger strategy. " I am not even sure how committed they are over the next 5 years." Why do you believe that? Why would you bring your company into a segment without the right support?
Trip Hawkins: Steve Jobs was my boss in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After I founded Electronic Arts, I continued to observe Apple and do business with them. I now have more than 30 years of experience with Steve and with Apple and have seen many opportunities for game industry leadership that Apple has ignored. The current one with the iPhone is the biggest and best one yet and I hope Apple finally decides to commit to games as a key strategy for the long-term.
16. What's the long term focus of Digital Chocolate as games in the U.S. become more mobile and web based?
Trip Hawkins: Digital Chocolate is already the Pixar of mobile games. Our technology model, like theirs, allows us to consistently improve quality and to become the most agile cross-platform game company. In the long-run we don't want our games to just be a fun way to kill some time being amused. We want our games to be fun and to also improve our social lives.