Shockwave.com's Shockwave Minis announcement was interesting for a handful of reasons. For one, it's the first example of Flash being given a big push as a North American mobile gaming platform. For another, the subscription-only, "buffet style" monetization of the service is unlike anything yet attempted in the Western mobile market. Lastly, Shockwave.com's parent being MTV Networks opens up significantly licensing and marketing opportunities simply not available to others in the mobile space.
We spoke with Atom Entertainment's Games Senior Vice President Dave Williams about the news, the importance of the Flash Lite technology, and what's next.
GamesOnDeck: First, can you tell me a little about Adobe's Flash Lite? How long has the technology been around, and what makes it a fit for mobile gaming?
Dave Williams: Flash Lite version 1.0 has been available for a number of years, and has been used extensively to create great mobile gaming experiences in Japan. The current 2.0 version based on the Flash 7 player was recently released, and of course is just now available in the US through Verizon Wireless.
We think there are two main benefits here which both converge towards one ultimate goal – a high quality, mass market mobile gaming experience. The part users will notice right away is the look and feel of the games. The graphics are enhanced, and the flow of the games seems natural.
The second benefit of Flash Lite is aimed at the content creators, but will ultimately serve the users. Developing mobile games currently has a huge barrier – porting cost for each handset model has pushed the development and deployment cost for a single game into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Each handset requires a new game file, so mobile developers end up spending far more on creating handset files than actually developing a game. With Flash Lite – all you have to do is optimize the file for screen size and resolution – that's it. We expect Flash Lite to revolutionize mobile the way Flash revolutionized online gaming. You're going to see a whole lot more developers throwing their hats in the mix, and it's going to lead to much more diverse – and ultimately much more creative game experiences.
GOD: I see that right now only a select few handsets support the Flash Mini Platform. What kind of adoption does Shockwave.com anticipate for future handsets? Can you share any concrete plan to roll out support for more handsets? Is Flash support something that can be included in existing handsets via updated firmware?
DW: We can't share any concrete plan for rollouts – this is really more up to Adobe, Qualcomm, Verizon Wireless and hopefully other carriers further down the line. We can say that Verizon Wireless has shown some true innovation and foresight in launching Flash Lite, and our belief is that they will support it heavily as they roll out new handsets in 2007. Right now there are four popular handset models supported including the Motorola RAZR and we hope to see this number double by the end of the year. Today, Adobe does work with several device manufacturers to ship mobile phones with Flash Lite support out of the box – for example, Nokia.
GOD: Flash seems to lend itself to relatively simple, arcade-style pick up & play titles. While its true that the majority of mobile games are simplistic, some are considerably more complex. Is Flash capable of being a platform for more complex titles, or is it intended to remain a platform for the more casual, one-button style of gameplay?
Flash can be used for both, and we think you'll see that in upcoming titles. Shockwave Minis is definitely centered on casual gaming by design - but not necessarily because Flash Lite required simple game play.
We think that the mobile environment is better suited towards casual play at the moment – but at some point the hardware has to catch up with the software to provide a complete experience. We've seen mobile games approaching or equaling 1st generation console experiences already, but they haven't been widely adopted – at least part of the reason for that is the tiny key pad users have to navigate to play them. Shockwave Minis using Flash Lite are designed with consideration of the entire mobile gaming experience – this is why we’ve focused on one-button style play for now.
GOD: Tell me a little about the existing 30 "Shockwave Minis." Were they developed internally, or by third parties? If a small company (or just an individual) was interested in creating a Shockwave Mini, is that an option?
DW: Most of the first 30 titles were produced internally and developed using in-house and third-party developers as part of our Shockwave Studio. Shockwave has a history of working with a lot of third-party game developers – both companies and individuals - to bring great game experiences to the web, and we aim to replicate that model for mobile. So yes – absolutely – we are very interested in hearing from developers, big or small, that have great ideas for Shockwave Minis. Interested parties can get started by emailing [email protected].
GOD: Shockwave Minis are especially interesting because of how they are monetized. Tell me about the decision to essentially build a gaming portal or gaming "buffet" instead of selling titles in a more traditional manner. Why does Shockwave.com believe that was the proper route to take? Were alternatives considered?
DW: The pricing model for Minis went hand-in-hand with the game development – this is a new model through and through. Shockwave Minis aren't just mini in screen size – they are meant to be mini games by design. Minis are meant to provide a ‘snacking’ experience. They are easy to pick up and start playing but we bet you won’t play just one. The real value comes in the knowledge that after you're done with one, there's another new, fun game concept right behind it.
We feel the best model for this is the subscription, where the consumer gets the value of unlimited access to the catalog of games with new games added to the service every month. Initially, we were only going to offer the subscription model, but through research we learned that some people just want to own their media outright – which is why we introduced Shockwave Minis Arcade, where you can buy credit packs redeemable for games in the catalog.
GOD: Do you believe this business model a unique fit to Shockwave Minis, or could it be part of a broader change in the mobile gaming market? If perhaps a traditional mobile game publisher offered access to their entire catalogue for a monthly fee, for example, or if a mobile content portal did the same.
DW: In many ways, this trend is happening today across many mobile content types. Most successful off-portal content services operate in a subscription model today where the consumer gets a certain number of ‘credits’ to be redeemed against a catalog of content. We don’t necessarily believe that one model is right for every type of content, company or user. As with other media, various business models will exist to provide maximum value to content creators, distributors and users. We all need to innovate to drive more consumer adoption!
Existing mobile game publishers will find it difficult to offer a Shockwave Minis model given DRM issues and licensing arrangements with IP holders. A traditional mobile publisher could offer their catalogue for a monthly fee – but I can't say it would fit together as well as Shockwave Minis where the content and pricing... that is the entire value proposition – were developed together.
GOD: Shockwave.com's parent being MTV Networks allowed for Pimp My Ride and SpongeBob Minis to be available from day 1 - are there any plans to leverage other Viacom brands?
DW: Absolutely. Working with the folks at MTV to get these first few titles out was a great experience we plan to replicate, so expect to see many more MTV Networks titles coming to Shockwave Minis over the next year. We're building these titles from the ground up just for Minis, so users can expect the same quality, fun, just-for-mobile game play in our branded titles. Since it's hard to show what game experience is like during the purchase process, we've seen some branded titles on mobile platforms that sell well because of brand recognition, but feature lackluster game play. We've got time to invest in creating great titles, and will not sacrifice the experience for anything. I think you can see that in the two branded titles we've got out there already – they're really fun games!
GOD: The service is still very new, but are there any numbers that can be shared about initial adoption, or metrics about the download and/or play of specific titles?
DW: We can't share any specific numbers just yet, but we have been very pleased with the initial adoption rates – frankly they are blowing away our forecasts. We expect Shockwave Minis to help grow the penetration of mobile gaming beyond the 5% of consumers that download mobile games today.
GOD: Beyond plans to make more Minis available monthly, can you elaborate on future plans? Is there a desire to "retire" the less successful Minis, or is it essentially "the more the merrier"? Is the addition of new Minis how Shockwave.com intends to retain subscribers?
DW: While we feel Shockwave Minis addresses many of inhibitors to mobile gaming growth, there is one big challenge that we all need to work on in the future: merchandising. It’s still extremely difficult to communicate a value proposition for a new service like Shockwave Minis on the carrier deck so we want to work on that challenge. Look for us to leverage our audience of 19 million monthly unique visitors to help drive the adoption of Shockwave Minis in the future.
And yes – we expect the addition of new games to the service to retain higher than average subscriber rates. This is a true subscription service – you get more than just access to the same content every month, you get brand new content as well. On the mobile side, we really feel like we offer a great value and mobile gaming experience to the average consumer. Since we began this project, we've heard a lot of talk about mobile gaming being "broken" - we're hoping Shockwave Minis is a step towards a new model that works for everyone.
[This interview was produced in association with Modojo.com.]