You may scarcely be aware of it, but there’s a battle raging in your living room each time you sit down for an evening of entertainment: between American Idol and Rock Band, The Dark Knight and Batman: Arkham Asylum, 1 vs. 100 and … well, 1 vs. 100. Hundreds, if not thousands, of entertainment companies are vying for screen space each time you power on your HDTV, from TV networks to film production companies to videogame publishers. Individually, you may be just another guy with a few hours to kill after work, but collectively, that time and attention is worth billions. Worth fighting for? You bet your sweet, sedentary ass it is.
But while primetime may be the main theater of battle, smaller skirmishes are happening constantly. Maybe you’re on the bus to work and trying to decide between staying abreast of the day’s news or desperately trying to lower your Brain Age. Perhaps you’re on a coffee break with just enough time to catch up on a blog or two. Or maybe you’re trying to choose between completing that spreadsheet your boss assigned you two weeks ago and planting some virtual pumpkins in FarmVille – a task that is equally mundane yet infinitely more rewarding.
We’ve had these choices for the last decade and a half on the web, but thanks to smartphones like the iPhone, which offer ubiquitous internet access and a user experience that is quickly approaching the convenience and accessibility of a desktop, they now follow us wherever we go. The stakes are smaller, but when you add up all the brief interludes between home and work, your desk and the break room or, hell, one browser tab and the next, you end up with a pretty substantial chunk of time – and Digital Chocolate wants a piece of that pie.
Seize the Minute
Trip Hawkins is the founder of Digital Chocolate, a developer based out of San Mateo, CA, that has taken the world of mobile gaming by storm. But before he conceived of the company in 2003, he had already built a reputation in the industry as both a pioneer and a risk-taker. In 1982, he left his executive role at Apple Computers to found a tiny videogame publisher called Electronic Arts. What started as a handful of colleagues from Apple and other Silicon Valley firms quickly grew into one of the most influential videogame publishers in the industry.
In fact, Hawkins may be one of the people most responsible for positioning videogames as a competitor with other media like television and film. “When I founded EA, my big idea was to bring Hollywood principles to software engineering and establish games as a new entertainment art form,” Hawkins says. That meant appealing to the best developers by treating them as artists rather than technicians, offering them direct access to players by controlling their games’ distribution and giving those artists the technological resources to realize their creative visions. “In 1982, nobody offered any of those benefits to game developers, and they made EA the leader within a few years.”
Flash forward to 2003 – and past Hawkins’ ill-fated role as founder of the now-defunct 3DO Company – and Hawkins had taken on a new project: achieving the level of dominance in the mobile space that EA had in the living room. It was a risky proposition in 2003: Mobile carriers each had their own retail channel, and the diversity of phones on the market made it more difficult to develop games that would work correctly on every device. But with that risk came an opportunity that Hawkins couldn’t refuse.
“I don’t think anyone was surprised,” Hawkins says. “Everyone knows how much I love games and how willing I am to be out on the bleeding edge of new media. I think the surprise, to a degree, came later when Digital Chocolate emerged as a leader while hundreds of other mobile companies got chewed up. After 3DO, some industry observers thought I was over the hill and was ‘done.’ I wasn’t.”
The Game Has Changed
Hawkins recognized early on that Digital Chocolate wouldn’t just be developing games for a different platform – it would be creating games for an entirely new audience, one that Hawkins calls “omni gamers.”
“There is an enormous difference between a hardcore game and what we would call an omni game,” Hawkins says. “The omni gamer seeks social contact and wants a game to be simple and convenient with short play sessions. The hardcore gamer wants advanced, immersive performance that is a challenging form of escapism.” It was a lesson that contradicted decades of accumulated knowledge of AAA game development, but one that Hawkins heartily embraced.
“The irony is that the first rule of omni gaming is that less is more – the player is intimidated by immersive 3-D games and prefers 2-D cartoons like you see on Facebook and on the iPhone,” says Hawkins. “Traditional game developers are so accustomed to improving performance that many of them can’t stop thinking that way.”
Simply choosing to focus on the mobile space in 2003, when the market was still in its infancy and console games were becoming more complex with each successive release, forced Hawkins to reexamine the industry’s prevailing attitude about what constitutes a quality release. “Many developers make the mistake of thinking that more advanced technology equals more quality. Some of them even make the mistake of thinking, therefore, that a console is a quality game platform while a mobile phone is not. Big mistake,” Hawkins says.
“The real goal is customer satisfaction relative to their expectations on the platform they are using at the moment. If I bought and own any platform, I will have an understanding of what benefits I get out of that platform, and I will look forward to the best games that take advantage of those benefits. If I am playing on the train or in an airplane, it is irrelevant what a console can do differently, because the console isn’t there.”
Rather than attempt to shoehorn AAA gameplay into mobile devices, Hawkins opted to keep Digital Chocolate’s game designs more straightforward. “We chose from the beginning to invent new games that everyone could play with one finger,” he says. Take Crazy Penguin Catapult, for instance, one of Digital Chocolate’s top-selling titles. In it, you launch a fleet of kamikaze penguins at a pack of polar bears in order to rescue captured members of your colony. A single button press activates the catapult, while another press causes the airborne penguin to plummet downward. It’s simple almost to a fault – but it’s also stupid fun.
Crazy Penguin Catapult exemplifies Digital Chocolate’s overall strategy in the mobile space, which Hawkins defines as “originality, quality, ubiquity and file size”: “To get viral spread, you have to have something original that has news value to your friends and that will make you look good for sharing it. If it’s ubiquitous, you’ll share it with all your friends. And small files are more convenient, so you get more traction.”
The approach paid off: Even before the iPhone, Digital Chocolate achieved profitability in an environment where other companies were struggling to survive. But when Apple opened its handheld up to third-party developers, Digital Chocolate may have found the perfect home for its bite-sized gameplay.
The Tipping Point
Hawkins was initially hesitant to sell its games on Apple’s new platform – despite the official opening of the App Store in July 2008, Digital Chocolate waited until December to bring its first two titles, Crazy Penguin Catapult and Chocolate Shop Frenzy, to the iPhone and iPod Touch. But when Crazy Penguin Catapult became the number-one downloaded app for its first three weeks on the App Store, Hawkins’ skepticism vanished. Since then, Digital Chocolate has released a whopping 25 additional games for the iPhone, including another three titles that reached the top of the download charts.
It doesn’t end there. Earlier this May, Hawkins announced that Digital Chocolate was responsible for a full two percent of all downloads at the App Store, the highest of any developer on the platform. In fact, searching the letter “D” in the App Store yields “Digital Chocolate” as the top result. In a marketplace where achieving visibility amid a crowd of tens of thousands of other products is one of the main obstacles to profitability, Digital Chocolate’s early successes have paved the way for more number-one showings to come.
Despite these accomplishments, however, Hawkins is firmly committed to developing for a variety of platforms, not just the iPhone. In fact, he sees the iPhone’s role in mobile gaming as more of a trendsetter than the end-all-be-all platform. “Prior to the iPhone, the public in general did not think that they needed or cared about having a mobile content platform,” Hawkins says. “They used to think of their mobile device as a voice phone, but now they all know that they want mobile content and mobile web, and voice may even become secondary. … Because of Apple, we now have billions of consumers thinking that indeed, they do want and need a mobile content platform.”
You read that right: billions. Hawkins’ ambitions aren’t bound by Apple’s paltry 40-million-plus install base. “Apple today has penetrated less than one percent of the total available mobile market,” he says. Rather than wait for Apple’s growth to expand Digital Chocolate’s audience, Hawkins expects other carriers to quickly adopt the App Store’s approach. It’s already happening to some extent: Google, Palm and BlackBerry have all created similar digital distribution pipelines for their smartphones. But with over 75,000 apps currently available for the iPhone, Apple’s competitors have some catching up to do.
In the meantime, Digital Chocolate will continue creating delectable morsels of entertainment for a hungry public. Their next game, which Hawkins says will launch in October, will be “a revelation for CCG fans and Pokémon fans.” Comical characters plus collectible cards plus constant connectivity? Sounds like a winning recipe to me.
Jordan Deam is the Features Editor at The Escapist.