Back with a vision

For a games industry expert, Trip Hawkins has had a bumpy career. He was one of Apple Computer’s first employees and one of the founders of Electronic Arts in 1982, before leaving in 1991 to initiate the ill-fated 3DO console, which eventually slipped into bankruptcy. But Hawkins is not the type to mope, and, after being inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Science’s Hall of Fame last month, he has resurfaced as chief executive of Digital Chocolate, a developer and publisher of mobile phone games.

The mobile phone sector, with its huge potential market and relatively low development costs, is the fastest-growing area of the games industry.
Typically, though, Hawkins has a different vision from his rivals.

“A lot of our competitors are approaching mobile as though it’s just like console videogames, but our reference point is the internet,” he says. “Entertainment products on the internet ... tend to be used as social communities, like Habbo Hotel, Neopets and fantasy sports. We’re trying to use Java games as a starting point and quickly move towards more ambitious lifestyle applications.”

Hawkins thinks mobile gamers are not looking for powerful handsets with console-like gaming, but want to enjoy their built-in network abilities. “That’s a huge advantage that mobile phones have compared to other media,” he says. “They are always with us, they are ubiquitous and they are hooked up to all the server power in the universe. We’ve made more than 30 games so far, many of them casual. But we have also started to build our Mobile League, which allows our whole family of games to talk to a server .... That’s the first step towards social gaming. We want to continue to advance that with features like head-to-head play, chatrooms and instant messaging.”

But Hawkins also concedes his vision will involve “smart-casual” gaming. “The next step is to have the actual program logic on the server and to try to shift the model,” he says. “With server games, you’ll define your strategies, pick your players ... and then check in to find out how you’re doing. You could have alerts that tell you when things are happening that you need to respond to. So it could be smart-casual, but still a very deep, compelling form of gaming.”

Personalisation is one of Hawkins’ buzzwords, and he believes it will give the next generation “more elaborate applications, all the communities you hook into and how you define relationships with other people”.

“That leads to a big dream of mine, which is to put the DNA patents to work,” he says. “The concept is that you’ll be able to buy packets of digital characters. If, say, you bought a Batman character, it could unlock an exclusive ringtone and a screensaver. Then, suppose you have an avatar that represents you in a chatroom, you could apply your DNA characters to that, and each of them would change the avatar’s appearance.”

But Hawkins still believes the royalties console manufacturers charge publishers are too high. And he acknowledges the games industry has changed beyond recognition in the 23 years he has been involved. “It has become a lot like the film business, which is accused of a lot of the same things,” he says. “I think it’s a shame the whole industry has wound up that way, and it’s related to the high costs of production and distribution.”

Hawkins is happy, however, to have found a new niche in mobile gaming. “If you look at human history, the different millennia each featured a different primary tool that you would carry around,” he explains. “Initially, it was the rock, then the sword, then the gun and now it’s the mobile phone. And the phone’s primary function is to help you to be socially connected, not to go and kill, so we are making some progress.” - Guardian Unlimited Â

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