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Hawkins to industry: Think bigger

Trip Hawkins is at it again.
The CEO of Digital Chocolate is proselytizing, pushing what he calls “Mobile Games 2.0”-an effort to create next-generation titles that incorporate familiar themes like community, user-generated content and viral marketing. And in the process, he’s pointing out some of the things that may be shackling the market.
“The first phase of mobile games is this model where there’s a carrier with a deck, a bunch of a deck listings, games are sold on a one-off download basis and a user is using them for ‘KT duty’-killing time,” Hawkins said as he walked a reporter through a 14-page PowerPoint manifesto outlining the initiative. “Obviously, the idea of amusing people and killing time, that’s one thing, and it has a certain amount of validity. But what we ought to be chasing as an industry is a bigger idea.”
In these early days of mobile gaming, unconnected, pick-up-and-play titles dominate the market. From Tetris, which consistently tops the charts worldwide, to arcade classics such as Pac-Man and made-for-mobile games such as bowling, wireless gaming generally remains a solitary experience.
But for the segment to move beyond the “golden nickel”-the 5 percent of users who pay to download games to their phones, a figure the industry can’t seem to surpass-game-makers need to move beyond the current model into more sophisticated, immersive games. And they should put their resources into building good games, not into buying high-profile licenses, he said.
“You have a paradigm where only a handful of games can fit within the first couple of pages on the deck, so you see a lot of desperate behavior” from publishers eager to secure deck placement with a familiar title, Hawkins continued. “You have a lot of companies that blow all the money on the licenses; they don’t have the money to do the development.”
Which is not to say that publishers should forgo licensed games altogether. Most industry insiders agree that non-gamers are far more likely to plunk down $5 for a familiar name whether the property is an established console game or a blockbuster film. In an industry desperate to move from a niche market to a mass market, onlookers say, licensed games are a must.
“You always need licenses; you need a balance,” I-play CEO David Gosen said at 3GSM World Congress 2007 in Barcelona, Spain, several weeks ago. “We have about 70 percent-30 percent Split in licensed games vs. original IP. Then, the challenge is to sequel-ize those.”
The initial challenge, of course, is to sell them in the first place. Because newcomers to mobile gaming are more likely to go hunting for a high-profile title, lesser-known games should get feature placement, Hawkins said. Those looking for a branded game will still drill down for it, but may be inclined to pick up an unfamiliar game on the way.
The theory was proven last year, he said, by an unnamed carrier that rotated featured deck slots from week to week, switching between well-known games and original titles. While the click-through rate was higher when familiar names were offered, overall revenues increased when the lesser-known titles were featured.
“It’s a little bit like a grocery store putting the milk at the back of the store,” Hawkins suggested. “I think the industry has not elevated (the retail element) to that grocery store model. That’s one of the things that’s killing the industry.”
Other features the industry needs to embrace, the serial entrepreneur said, include the ability for users to recommend games to a friend, meet new people, create their own content and compete against others. And developers should build those features into games that can be played on today’s networks.
Hawkins is a god in videogame circles, but his impressive track record is not without its failings. A Harvard grad-he designed his own major in game theory-and owner of an MBA from Stanford, Hawkins was a front-office executive at Apple Computer before founding EA. But his second startup, 3DO, went bankrupt after consumers refused to shell out $700 for the gaming console.
Once a boutique developer, Digital Chocolate appears to be gaining ground, however. While EA continues to dominate the space, the San Mateo, Calif.-based startup is closing the gap and appears to be joining the group of second-tier publishers including Gameloft and Namco, according to market research firms. And the company is increasingly drawing raves from videogame-rating sites such as IGN.com for titles such as Tornado Empire, Rollercoaster Rush and MiniGolf Magic.
Whether Digital Chocolate-or any publisher-can crash through the golden nickel and gain mass-market traction is still unclear. But the more developers can exploit the connected quality of mobile phones and integrate features that have attracted users to Web sites such as PopCap Games, Neopets and even MySpace, the better the chances of growing the market.
“None of the mobile games have achieved anything close to SMS or to some of the Web applications we could name,” Hawkins said. “We’re still kind of in the early stages of making this work.”

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