Veteran game developers Mike Nelson (Falcon 3.0) and Larry Holland (X-Wing) began development house Timelapse Mobile in early 2005 and are now close to releasing their first title, Bodacious 80's Challenge. In this interview, Games On Deck talks to Mike Nelson about their switch to mobile, problems with offshoring, and their new title.
Games On Deck: What's the philosophy behind Timelapse Mobile?
Mike Nelson: Even when you're recruiting employees, it's believed that videogames is where it's at, but we believe, and we think that a lot of other people do too, that it's really games which you can play for five or ten minutes and you don't have to devote your life to them.
GOD: It's interesting because both you and Larry (Holland) who started the company made your name in the traditional video games business. What led to such a drastic switch?
MN: It's sort of interesting, but it's much more of a mass market opportunity. I'd been looking at the mobile space since several years ago, and every time I talked to anyone in that area, people would always say, "The mass market is several years away." So I kind of talked myself out of it, but then I took a hard look at it myself, and when I really looked at the hard numbers, well. When I was in the video games business you always judged things by installed user base - when I was president of Microprose, we primarily made PC games but we did port to Mac. I killed that, because the installed base of Mac machines out there was just far too small. And videogames, well, you're talking in terms of the PS2 having 35 million machines out there installed at its peak.
Mobile phones, however, there are a billion and a half, to two billion out there, and even when you only think about the ones out there which are really capable of doing games, it's still 600-700 million. It boggles your mind when you look at it that way. And if you really want to take advantage of that, you're going to have to offer a mass market product.
So really it was the enormity of the potential market we could reach. And then, it takes us back to when Larry and I really started, particularly Larry, he was a programmer working on Commodore 64 stuff! And if you look at the level of most handset today, it's really similar. It takes us back to basic gameplay. You've got to have an addictive product that people can understand and get into quickly, and that's where gaming started off.
Games On Deck: There is a massive user base out there, but they're all using different types of phones, different carriers. How can you reach them all with that level of complexity?
MN: Well, to me, a lot of times the bigger companies, and there's nobody that's really that big, if they want to do an international launch they've got to do, like, 1500 handsets. And that's a challenge, more of a challenge than I thought going in.
But that's not the leverage. The leverage is the ability and understanding of how to make a really good game. That's what really engages people, and if you can figure that out, I guarantee that getting it onto all handsets is a cakewalk.
We're doing our first game, and we're learning as we go. We're just working on the US market currently, until we get over some of these hurdles, and we've picked up almost every carrier for our first game in the US, and we're into the porting process and it's a heck of a lot more complex even than the early days of PC gaming, when you had to deal with Radio Shack built PCs and all kinds of different configurations. But once you have the right tools, it's not as complex as people might want you to believe.
We've made some mistakes. We used an offshore company based in India that just didn't work out for us, and now we're using someone US based and we're developing our own tools.
GOD: What happened with the Indian company?
MN: Well, when we jumped in, I decided it was important for us to understand the offshoring system. One, there was the perception that we'd at least get it done cheaper, and two, that the ability to source high quality talent anywhere in the world and manage that is an asset.
But the reality, it's not just "offshore talent" it's the "right offshore talent." If you can get the right group that has experience with US carriers and the ability to test US carriers beyond an emulator, then it can work. I had gotten some recommendations, and I don't want to name names but it was a company that had done work with EA in Europe and so on and had a pretty good reputation, and we liked working with them and we had the process of working with them down, but the reality was they didn't understand the US carriers such as Sprint, and they couldn't test. We had to do all the testing ourselves. I literally had to hook up 40 phones myself and use two full time testers here just cranking through and that was a complication we really hadn't planned on.
We learned from that process, and we started looking at US based porting houses, and we came across one where the price actually turned out to be about the same. Now, that's either I didn't negotiate hard enough with the previous company, or prices are beginning to normalise. I've heard that they can get titles ported for something like $200 per handset, but I've learned my lesson. I'd rather get someone I can depend on.
Having said that, I haven't given up on it! I just made a mistake by not having enough diligence when selecting a company.
GOD: Can you tell us about Bodacious 80's Challenge?
MN: When we looked at an entry point into the category, we did some research and we looked at the casual game market, and we saw that the market on PC was really about 70% women, and the 25-45 group was actually one of the largest groups of players. And when you look at that and you say, well, women are going to be your primary target, and look at the genres available, there's puzzles, strategy, trivia, etcetera, and our aim was to pick a category where our product could truly be the best of breed.
Bodacious 80's Challenge
We planned to test our product against at least the two leading competitors in its category, and if it couldn't beat them, we weren't going to go with it. Unless the customer tells us our product is superior to what's on the market, we're not going to introduce it.
We found that the trivia category was really under represented, there was Trivial Pursuit, which had done very well, there was Pop Trivia which was sort of innovative, but it wasn't over-crowded and there hadn't been any innovation in quite a long time.
Initially we looked at doing a product that was a little bit younger, and did some focus groups and found out that if you're looking 18-24 that's not a group with strong interest. But 25-45 there was a strong interest, so we went after the "nostalgia" market.
We've also tried to innovate rather than just do "here's a question, here are four possible answers." We've done matching questions, opinion questions, and so on, and have really created a whole list of different ways to engage people. We've also based it entirely in pop culture rather than Trivial Pursuit style questions, because we thought that would bring more people in.
We also have an in-built reward system with wallpapers and ringtones, because we want instant gratification, so as you progress through the game and collect points, you can go to the prize zone, and if you have enough points you can preview and download these to your phone.
We've also licensed some music from the 80's which play through out the game, such as Mickey, and we did deliver on what we said we were going to do. We hired an independent research company and tested our game against Trivial Pursuit and Pop Trivia, and we had a 90% preference for our product in the category.
Bodacious 80's Challenge
GOD: When does the title launch?
MN: It's probably launch in early July, in fact, one of the problems we ran into was getting dropping out of Sprint's test cycle thanks to our offshore problems, but we're still going to get it out there and we're going to have a promotion with Sprint, and we'll be on Cingular and T Mobile and then Bell Mobility probably shortly after.
GOD: What does the future hold for Timelapse Mobile in general?
MN: Well, I think we've got a different sort of strategy from many other companies out there. One of the reasons we didn't go for funding and have remained independent is investors have a different model and they want to make ten times what they put in. In order for that to happen, our company would have to grow exponentially, and that would force us to do certain things, such as using what I call the "tonnage" model - throwing as many games out as possible and hoping that they stick; licensing anything we could get our hands on, and that's something we don't want to do.
Our strategy is targeted, and really about building some IP for ourselves, not rehashing old products (not that I wouldn't have loved to still have the rights to Tetris) and Bodacious 80's Challenge is our first shot and we've got a couple of other products built using the same technology that we think we can build on. So really, fewer titles that are the best of breed that offer the best value. Really a different sort of strategy.
I think the market is changing. So much garbage has been launched that I think by now, with games costing 6 or 7 dollars, you really have to offer something quality. Bodacious 80's Challenge has about 25 hours of gameplay. There was a similar product launched recently, I think it's called I Know The 80's, an MTV license, and it had about 2 hours of content. Really one of the worst products I've seen on mobile. We really want to provide superior gameplay and superior value.
It's a different way of looking at the world, I suppose.