RIM's Volker Hirsch on Blackberry's ambitious new vision
Having long been associated with business and corporate enterprise, Research in Motion is now planning to take on the world of mobile gaming with a more serious offering in the upcoming Blackberry 10, due for release early next year.
Develop sat down with RIM's global head of business development Volker Hirsch to ask how Blackberry plans to take on the gaming space, why now, and where it plans on positioning itself in a market dominated by Apple and Google.
So could you us a bit about Blackberry 10 and your plans for gaming?
I use to be ScoreLoop’s chief strategy guy, so when the folks from Research in Motion told us about what they had and were planning and how Scoreloop would fit in that, we were very quickly sold.
In the interim I’ve transferred to the general gaming team to build that gaming ecosystem. What we basically have with Blackberry 10 is a very powerful operating system, C++ and a lot of good raw horsepower for developers to use. The hardware is tremendously strong.
And then what we did is made sure that we supported all the tools that game developers want to work with, whether that’s Unity, Marmalade or Shiva, and also audio engines like FMOD, so that we don’t force people into some weird and wonderful way of a very customised experience. We wanted to make sure that it’s a very easy platform to support.
Which we have achieved I think. I’m quite confident to say we are probably the easiest platform to support today and Galaxy on Fire 2 HD for example was ported in a single day by one developer.
And you know how rich that game is, it’s a whopper of a title. It runs allegedly on a higher frame rate on the Playbook already that it does on an iPad 3. The Blackberry 10 handhelds have quite a bit more power than the Playbooks.
That’s gaming performance that I think people weren’t use to on Blackberry’s in the past, and that’s what we’re building. What we’re then doing on top of that is trying to address some of the big headaches developers have such as discoverability.
There we can use two things that only Blackberry has, one is Scoreloop, which will power the games app that is placed on the home screen. This is probably another first for Blackberry to place gaming so centrally in its proposition.
What it does then is provide you with an instant community of your friends for you to share your game experiences with, and for them to share there’s, adding that social discoverability component. At the same time there are peer-to-peer challenges as a Scoreloop standalone feature, which is probably the most successful way of engaging people, which makes so much sense of course.
Then the other big one we have is BBM, which today already stands at 60 million users, and the engagement rates are tremendous. When foursquare integrated BBM into its app on the current range of devices, usage went up 15x.
And again, the approach is a similar one, when you can provide from within the game, avenues to connect users amongst each other, that is probably as close as you can get to maximising that social discovery angle which I think we’ll be doing extremely well.
So all that has led to pretty much all the big boys and all the people you need to come on board and to deploy.
App World today has 103,000 apps out there, the gaming offering on playbook is already quite strong so we by no means start at zero.
You said it’s one of these easiest platforms to develop for, but why?
Because we’re all C++. Most studios write in C++, I don’t know a single platform you could port to from another platform in one day. So that is one thing, we’re extremely standards compliant, not only in Native, you can also use Webkit, we have the most HTML5 compliant browser or things like Air so it literally runs out of the box.
You also mentioned there’s a lot of horsepower, but can you go into any further detail?
PR – We can’t go into specific product features.
Why should developers go to Blackberry and not stay on iOS and Android where there are huge userbases?
There’s huge userbases, but there’s quite a few analysts that think that today the Blackberry App World is more profitable than Google Play already, and Blackberry has always been monetising better than others.
The return of invested monies to get to the platform is faster on Blackberry by I think a factor of two even compared to iOS, on an average basis. But at the moment we don’t have 100 million handsets out so you couldn’t have a single game that does have 100m downloads.
This will hopefully be different in two years time, but in the fundamental metrics, we’re virtually scoring better than others. That goes through all the way to the billing site. For instance you can bill already through 60 carriers or so, every single UK carrier is, or will be, supporting that piece, which unlocks all those people that don’t have credit cards.
There’s 1.8 billion credit cards, and six billion phones or so, so you are missing out on a lot of consumers. In Germany for instance people have credit cards but they hate using them.
It reduces friction and it makes it much easier. So again there’s a framework in place that facilitates that, and traditionally users have shown that price points are higher, the premium sector of the market seems to hold up better. You’re free to sell a game for free or 69p on Blackberry, but arguably you don’t have to.
I think there are two massive pain points on competing platforms. One is discoverability, and the other is pricing and making money.
This is not such a problem if you’re Supercell and Naturalmotion, but there are so many people that are struggling very hard and the price of deployment and launch marketing is just going through the roof, and I think that’s just one of the reasons why people do look to alternatives, and we think we have the best one.
How do you improve discoverability?
Scoreloop. which I think in itself is probably a very powerful way to do it. The games app, which you could say is how the games app should have been, is centrally place on the home screen.
I also think the way the App World is being designed is a better approach than what others do, but that’s probably marginal.
What we do on top of that part of the offering is we give tools to developers that they can use to integrate into their games to not only make sure people stay longer once they have it but also it allows the user to broadcast in a fairly unintrusive way to their friends what they’re playing.
On BBM you could send a download link to the game from within your app via BBM to your friends, and no one else can do that.
The alternative is, for example, I'm playing a football game, and I know you are a football fan so I make a note, 'must tell him about this'. I might forget about this, but because I like you a lot I go out of the game, into my messaging app, then I tell you I have this and that game, and I'm lucky I actually remember the accurate title, and say you have to try it out. Then you would receive that, then you would have to remember this and go out on the App Store. There's a lot of friction there.
So to take that one out is a general theme, it's probably the big theme for Blackberry 10, to make it a very fluid experience and bring the way you interact with media, applications and games much more closely to how you would normally act. If we would be sitting around a table I would be saying, 'have a look', and show you the phone.
How would this help if developers want to charge more for their products as well?
Dead Space 2 retails at the moment for a tenner on the Playbook. I can't give you the exact numbers, but it's selling a bunch, they're quite happy let's say.
But wouldn't the same situtation emerge as on other platforms that with more free/cheap games, consumers would move away from premium titles?
I don't know, there are 69p games on Blackberry today, but it seems to hold up better. It seems the Blackberry users are more accepting maybe.
I would deposit that even on competing platforms, if they would have known in 2008 or so where this led to they would probably reconsider whether 69p really is such a great price point.
Don't get me wrong, you can do this, you can run a freemium game, we provide you with all the tooling - we don't want to provide the business model to our developers, any developer is free to choose whichever business model they deem best.
The only thing I'm saying is the platform seems to be holding up better in terms of premium price points.
So why is Blackberry taking gaming so important this time around then?
It's arguably the most content category, and we're seeing this today. The most important category by usage and downloads normally is games, and this on a platform which today is not really being perceived as a gaming platform.
I think what many people have realised, and perhaps hadn't realised as much in the past, is the mix of users who actually do use Blackberrys, it's not only the corporate enterprise guys, it's people from many walks of life, although even the enterprise side still plays games.
There's so many stats on this and whoever you look at gaming is an important category and is something we feel we need to bring to the fore, and now with the new OS and hardware we can really shine.