What does the world have in store for the mobile games market, and how do mobile games developers look at the world? We sat down with Josh Hartwell, CEO and Founder of Mobile Deluxe (www.mobiledeluxe.com), the Santa Monica mobile games developer behind such titles as Solitaire Deluxe and Big Win Slots, to talk about the company, how it made the transition from games on handsets to the world of iOS and Android, and what Josh thinks the next thing will be in the sector.
Tell us about Mobile Deluxe and the types of games you develop?
Josh Hartwell: We do premium casual games for mobile devices. We cover all mobile devices, not just iOS and Android, like most people do nowadays, and we even do old 9-key phones running BREW and J2ME. We've been around for ten years, which is why we do these old school phones. The cool thing about MobileDeluxe, is you can get our games on any phone in the U.S. and on most phones around the world.
What kind of games do you develop?
Josh Hartwell: We have always focused on casual games, and we like to say we create games you know are done right. What that means for us, are games like Solitaire Deluxe, one of our perennial best sellers, which consumer are very familiar with, but where there are social features like leaderboards, multiple forms of the game, and all the features on top so that a user can go as deep as they want into a game they already know and want to learn more about, or they can stay at the surface and just play for the purely casual experience. Some of our other titles are Big Win Slots, and another big seller is Big Win Blackjack. One of our most recent titles, using the freemium model, is Jewel Factory, a sandbox game with a great mini game within.
Talk about how you went from JAMDAT to Mobile Deluxe?
Josh Hartwell: We officially incorporate in 2003, though we started laying groundwork for the company in 2002. I took my first meeting with JAMDAT back in 2002, almost ten years ago to the day. We started back then, because my other co-founder and I had worked very closely with JAMDAT on JAMDAT Bowling and Fifa Soccer. I had been a developer, working at a software publisher as a software developer working on consule games, and wanted to get back into publishing. We saw a huge opportunity with phones, because we did not want to sit through the two year development cycle that console games are subject to. We saw that we could get product and games out faster, that it was a new industry, that there was tons of potential, and we could also develop relationships with carriers to get products on deck. That was the name of the game back then, and a really huge opportunity back in 2002 and 2003. really, that opportunity has only recently been realized fully with Apple in 2008, and later with Google.
Speaking of Apple's iPhone and Google, it seems like you're one of the few mobile game firms for phones which has made the transition more or less smoothly into this new world of iOS and Android. Can you talk about how you managed that?
Josh Hartwell: The changeover was tough. When iTunes started selling games in 2008, it coincided with one of the biggest market corrections, one of the biggest global economic corrections in our history and in my lifetime. That was tough for a lot of our competitors. I think we were able to effectively transition, because our technology platform. At the time, our platform allowed us to build our games, and have one game which we could send to multiple devices. It was just a matter of process to add iOS, and later, Android to the output, and start designing games for the larger screens, later bringing those games down to run on BREW and Java after that. Two, we've also been a full service, publishing and development house. We've always invested in relationships with partners, whether they were Verizon or AT&T, where I'm on the developer advisory council for them. That meant it was in our DNA to start relationships with new groups like Apple, Google, and Amazon, which aided in our transition. Finally, the types of games we've always been focused on have been premium casual games, which lend themselves well to any device size. That definitely aided in the transition. It's actually been beneficial for us, and enabled us to get lots of features we were working on for BREW and Java, and get those more easily in iOS and Android. Those included things like downloadable content, and analytics, and things like sharing games with friends, which we were doing in the old days, but which are much easier now with social networks.
It looks like you guys have recently switched your games to free to play?
Josh Hartwell: Free-to-play is definitely the way we see things going now, and in the future. It's pretty clear that right now, that is the model of the present. We believe it's the future, too. We're working on bringing our back catalog to the free-to-play model as much as possible, which is one of our strategies for growth in 2013. The reason why, is it allows people to really interact with and identify with a game, and become a fan of the game. They can play as much as they want for free, or they can enjoy other features of the game by spending, as well. It allows people to get in as much as you want, go really deep into the game, or just stay at the surface level. The biggest thing that has done for us, is it has finally enabled us to not just do marketing through the normal sales channel through Apple or Google, it is marketing to consumers directly. The big different between business now and business back then, is we have this huge base for marketing. We're able to get thousands of downloads per day on our products, a far cry from the BREW and Java days.
Your firm is unusual in that it's bootstrapped in a world that has been venture backed. What have you learned form that experience?
Josh Hartwell: When I was starting out, I was not as familiar with the venture world as I am now--one of the reasons we didn't go that route. We actually started getting approached by VCs after we started showing traction, and as we've grown more and more, we've gotten more interest. However, we've been profitable and growing, so we have not had to pursue that road. That said, it's sometimes difficult to compete against better funded competitors. Especially when you're trying to get as many downloads as we can. It hones our focus a little more. We have to be very detailed and analytical about how we are spending to acquire users. We have to always be able to find ways to find a new user, and find new ways to cross-sell and monetize. It sharpens our focus and makes it much more important to do things really crispy and cleanly. It's always going to be difficult to be bootstrapped, but at the same time, it forces you to be disciplined, which benefits you down the road. Ten years in, I now know how to manage a company without gargantuan sums of money, and we know how to manage it through downturns globally, and through boom times, that's been a real advantage for us in both iterations of our company, pre-iOS and post.
Speaking of iOS and Android, what's the future of platforms?
Josh Hartwell: In the near term, it's iOS, Android, and Amazon. Amazon has shown an interesting blueprint of how someone else can get another app store to be competitive in the market. Theirs is great, and their revenue per day per active user is really tremendous. They've show this template, but no one is following it except them. They've also got some different advantages over others. Then again, Microsoft conceivably has the same advantages, but hasn't seen the same level of success. They and Research In Motion just haven't been able to attract developers to their platforms. So, for the near future, I think it's those three. Long term, it's probably not. In just ten years, we've seen this go from a very closed system controlled by Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, where only a hundred publishers were even allowed in. Then, Apple opened that up significantly, but still had some gatekeeping duties. Google has opened that even more than Apple. It seems so far, the more open you are, the more market share you can grab. I'm not sure if you can get more open than Google.
In terms of marketing, however, other players with new operating systems might be able to get a foothold in India, in China, or Brazil, and start to do significant business there. If someone could do that, they could start overseas with that traction, and build from there. It's an opportunity. The one thing we've learned, besides openness, is that nothing lasts forever, and you have to be very nimble and dynamic to adjust to the changes in this industry. It's tough to envision how new systems might come into being and take over from Apple and Google, but we know it's definitely possible, and probable.