UK mobile developer FinBlade has just released the casual-orientated Movie Quiz, its fourth title for Apple’s iPhone, with previous iPhone games from the UK start-up studio including Tennis Slam, Ernie Els Golf 2008 (published with Player One) and the top 10 Apple App Store hit Wordsearch.
We caught up with John Chasey, president at FinBlade and a mobile games veteran, for his take on Apple’s wonder-phone and to hear more about his plans for FinBlade.
You’ve completed four games for iPhone. How are you finding it as a platform?
Coming from a mobile background, it’s very refreshing to be working on a single target device rather than always having to consider tens or hundreds of handsets - you can definitely push things much more. That said, it’s still a mobile phone, so much of how we approach development is based on that experience.
The iPhone may be comparable to a handheld in power, but the way people use it is primarily as a phone, and that always has to be considered. An application that causes the battery to drain after 20 minutes will be quickly removed from the device.
We're using the Bedrock middleware technology from Metismo [another of John’s mobile start-ups] so our development environment is very similar to our usual mobile approach, although the target device is more powerful than most standard handsets.
Looking back to Wordsearch, your top 10 hit, can you give us a rough idea how that translates into downloads? Did you charge for it?
No, we didn't release it as free then suddenly start charging in order to bump it into the charts if that's what you mean! It was charged for from day one and got there on its own merits. Revenues have exceeded development costs and we're making a reasonable profit, although it’s not hundreds of thousands!
Back in the early days of mobile games with your start-up IOMO, you'd pitch games direct to operators, whereas now publishers are nearly always intermediaries with mobile today. Does the App store take you back to those days?
In many ways, yes - although in effect you are pitching to the consumer rather than Apple. Apple currently has no vetting for applications, so if you wanted to create yet another Bejewelled clone you are entirely free to do so. A carrier would refuse to take the 3rd or 30th one, not so Apple. However whether the 30th one makes any money is an entirely different matter.
The best comparison is to the days of mobile in 2002 and 2003 when operators would put up anything - they were desperate for content. As the decks became more crowded they began to be gatekeepers, and now only a few large publishers have access. But that is partly due to the manpower required for the largely manual processes required to deploy and report on mobile game sales.
Being built upon iTunes from day one, Apple's infrastructure is largely automated, so they can manage thousands of content providers. It may be that they choose to start vetting content for different reasons, however.
So you think we might see them vetting content in future?
I think this may come to pass simply because there is an expectation of quality from consumers, and unfortunately some applications on the App Store don’t come up to this mark. While the user reviews are a great way to provide feedback, I think Apple may ultimately come to the conclusion that setting a quality bar is a required step. The big problem with this is that 'quality' is very subjective, and it would be hard to have clear guidelines on this.
How big a success can iPhone ultimately be?
It's a great device. It doesn't actually have any technical features that have not been on other handsets before, but it manages to wrap them all up in such an accessible way that it appears revolutionary, when actually that’s 'merely' down to superb execution of standard hardware. But this is a typical Apple approach. I admire them for their ability to present technology in a user-friendly, non-geeky way, and to make it so appealing.
Do you think the mobile operators are responding adequately to the Apple challenge? What should they do?
Having been in the situation of running a company with hundreds of carrier deals and the fragmentation that causes, and then comparing to the ease of deployment with the App Store - once you have experienced it, it’s hard to go back to the old ways.
The closest the operators had was the job Vodafone Global did a few years ago aggregating deployment and reports from all the Vodafone territories - although much of that was a manual operation and not as slick as the App Store, it provided fundamentally the same service.
What about Google?
While Android are providing their own version of the App Store, initial reports suggest relationships and submissions will be handled by individual carriers - it would be a much more appealing proposition to developers if a central billing/deployment function was made available.
Unfortunately I think the desire for carriers to differentiate and present their 'own' store will overcome the more efficient approach of doing these things centrally.
Presumably Movie Quiz came out of the work you did for the Total Film mobile game. Can you elaborate on that - in particular, do you see the model going forward being one where you can own IP, or more of owning technology and then repurposing it?
A bit of both really. While it's great to own your own IP, it’s extremely difficult to establish that IP in the first place. As a company we primarily see ourselves as a third-party developer for publishers. While we’ve launched our own iPhone titles at this early stage of the device, as we go forward we expect a bigger proportion of our output to be working with established publishers on their IP.
What kind of demographic are you targeting with Movie Quiz? Does Apple give you any guidance?
Apple hasn't come out and said our customers are X, Y and Z, but the App Store and its user reviews, and the daily download reports all provide a very rich source of feedback for you to measure your sales and react accordingly.
How does a smaller studio like Finblade use that data to find the unexploited niches?
By working intelligently and selecting which titles to develop. We won't simply develop a title because we had a version on mobile, or feel the need to have a Sudoku title just because everyone else has one. Even when you have a concept that's under-exploited, it still needs to be executed well in a way that feels right on the iPhone.
While you were well-known in the old days of IOMO for the pub quiz games, it was arguably the far more technically challenging Tomb Raider that put the studio into the limelight. Do you see FinBlade following a similar path, starting with casual and then devoting more resources to more technical projects?
Absolutely. WordSearch was a deliberately simple project - our first on the iPhone - designed to take us through the full lifecycle of development, submission, release, updating, and so on. At the same time, we wanted to do something that truly had value and would appeal to the consumer.
Our subsequent titles are and will be generally much more complex, but we won't not do a simple concept if we think it will work. Less is sometimes more, as evidenced by Apple's general design strategy.
What sort of scale of resources do you have at FinBlade now?
We have a core set of people house - technology, art, coders, and project management - and we work with freelancers to supplement that as required. Numbers can vary considerably, based on what projects are live at the time.
Can you give us any idea of the team size and overall budget for an iPhone game, and your return on investment?
I'd like to give a simple answer - unfortunately there are too many variables at play. I've heard budgets range from £10,000 to £100,000 on the iPhone. Is the title developed solely on the iPhone, or do significant assets already exist that were created for mobile or handheld?
Titles can definitely be turned around more quickly than on mobile, simply because it’s a single device, rather than tens or hundreds of flavours. I'd say that perhaps a better budget comparison would be with a casual game of similar complexity on the web.
On that note, do you see FinBlade primarily as a mobile phone company, or are you looking at other platforms?
Primarily mobile, although as casual games have exploded onto platforms like the DS we have discussed bringing content to handheld as opposed to mobile platforms.
Finally, what are the biggest practical differences between running a mobile games developer start-up in 2008, versus 2001?
Probably the biggest change is that the number of publishers is diminishing rather than expanding. However this is on the 'traditional' mobile side of things - the number of publishers founded specifically for the iPhone has been very interesting, and the Apple's entry to the market has provided an injection of vitality into a mobile market that had arguably stagnated over the last couple of years.
Are you a glutton for punishment then?
Mobile has definitely dropped from its peak in 2004 and 2005, but the launch and interest in the iPhone and Android just goes to show that the mobile industry moves in cycles, like any other. I like to think that we're moving into an upside of the cycle, and the punishment won't have to go on too much longer!