Why tablets are a prime target for Xbox creator Seamus Blackley

July 4, 2012
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Blackley wrote the initial memo for what became Microsoft’s Xbox. After taking a detour through Hollywood as a videogame agent at CAA for seven years, Blackley’s returned to gaming. But he’s not alone. He’s assembled 11 of the most recognizable names from Atari’s arcade era of gaming and focused them on developing exclusive new games for tablets and smartphones. 

Ten games are in the works due out this summer under the new developer’s brand, Innovative Leisure. The titles will debut on iOS devices but then expand to other portable and traditional gaming platforms. 

While sticking his neck out to convince Bill Gates to enter the games business was a nerve-wracking experience, investing his own money and reputation into mobile games in an increasingly crowded field has Blackley both excited to be programming again and worried about the risk. 

In an exclusive interview with TabTimes, Blackley opens up about the game industry today and why he’s taking a gamble on tablet games. 

What role do you see games playing in the tablet space?

Technology has now progressed to the point that you can make really awesome games on devices that have pretty average computing power. As the visual target of television-like picture becomes easier and easier for more and more mainstream hardware to get to, you see the exclusivity of purpose-built hardware for games dropping off. With the computing landscape, as devices get more powerful you don’t need a specialized device to play awesome-looking games and almost any device can play an awesome looking game.  

Furthermore, what we’re seeing now is that a device can’t even really be successful unless you can play awesome games.  If you can’t release a smartphone or tablet or anything that’s not going to play awesome games, it’s going to fail. Gaming is the primary thing that people are going to want to do with it. 

What impact do today's more powerful tablets have on traditional console gaming devices?

That exclusive handhold of the consoles is gone.  Simultaneously, you’re seeing the console manufacturers do a bunch of weird stuff like trying to emulate social networks and try to emulate acceptable media behaviors elsewhere, which is a little weird to watch and I don’t know exactly what it means. But there’s still so much headroom for visual computing and so much headroom for interesting console-like behavior that I think that we’ve got at least one more generation of consoles. I think that the lesson of iPad is that any device that we give people now has to become a game console, and it might just be the case that the most successful game console is just whichever device happens to be most prolific.

What opportunities are all of these new touchscreen tablets and devices opening up creatively for the types of games that you guys are developing?

We have 30 games – we have 10 greenlit and there are seven going right now.  They’re all totally different and you’ll see our take on this technology soon, but I think it’s driven by being able to provide awesome gameplay. 

Developing for these devices is on the one hand really limitless in terms of what you can do, but it’s also very limited because you need to provide super high quality gameplay experiences that are worth coming back to. The thing that is really missing from a lot of games out there today is that they’re not quality experiences. The games that do really well and are worth the time and money players put into them are really, really hard to make. It’s not a process of trial and error.  It’s not a process of building a line of distribution or branding or marketing. Games that succeed in the mobile space succeed because of word-of-mouth. It’s a really honest business and you’re just exactly as good as the experience you deliver.

It’s really, really frightening for people in the game business today, but the demographic of people who aren't frightened and actually excited about it, are these old guys who are used to that from the arcade days. Back then, people spoke with their quarters. If a game sucked, people wouldn’t put another quarter in it. 

What are the challenges today when it comes to the mobile gaming space?

Well, it’s a challenge and it’s an opportunity. The challenge is that there’s a lot of noise. The opportunity is that most of the games are crap. Differentiating yourself with quality has never been easier, but that’s the issue. I think the real danger is that he who doesn’t pay attention to history is going to repeat it. Why did the videogame business crash?  Well, it crashed because of opportunists releasing an unrestricted avalanche of crap and the audience got tired of it and walked away.

And as I look at what’s going on – not so much with iOS because they’ve hired some really smart people to curate the App Store for games now – but you look at the open markets for this kind of stuff, and the same thing that happened to casual games can happen in mobile. Browser-based casual games were really hot for a second, and then it just became so random and choked with bad content that was full of viruses, you couldn’t really do it anymore. Now you have to go to a trusted place like Steam or iOS to get content and even there, there’s just a lot of crap.  

What are your thoughts on the fremium or free-to-play business model?

I think free-to-play and micro-transactions are a great business model. The danger comes if we are too opportunistic in attempts to just milk this new audience that we’ve created out of all their cash right away. It’s like ugly Chinese-style coal strip mining. We shouldn’t do that. We need to develop the products that we give this audience along with their evolving tastes, and these are new gamers and they love games, and that’s fantastic. It’s the greatest gift ever. 

So let’s respect them and give them really good games that excite them in the same way that we were excited when we first discovered games.  Let’s give them experiences that validate why games are such a powerful media. 

I will argue it has absolutely nothing to do with business models. It has everything to do with offering value for money to these people.

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