When Mike Ouye and Peter Hawley founded Red Robot Labs, the enormous popularity of Google Maps and Foursquare seemed to highlight a new direction for social games. With most social developers and publishers in agreement that smartphones were the future of the space, a gap was opening for products that incorporated the unique features of the devices.
In this interview, Ouye and Hawley talk about the studio's debut release Life Is Crime, the benefits of choosing Android over iOS, and finally putting the 'social' into social gaming.
Q: Mobile is still an emerging platform to some extent and location-based games are an emerging field within it. How did it come to be your focus?
Peter Hawley: Mike and I worked together at CrowdStar. We ran the studio there: Mike ran the business side, I ran the products and people side. Mike's background was over at Playdom, and mine was four years at EA, and before that PlayStation. We had sort of got tired of Facebook gaming, and both went out one night and started talking about what we felt was really awesome and exciting - the next big thing in games, y'know.
Google Maps had proved to be pretty awesome as a service, and the Foursquare app had got traction with 10 million people. We just had this really creative itch that there was more to going to places for the sake of gameplay; in terms of doing something cool, but also persistent and engaging over long periods of time.
Q: Why wasn't social gaming scratching that creative itch for you?
Mike Ouye: I think there's going to be a big shift in social games in general over the next two or three years to mobile, and I think a big part of that is going to be location. It's really going to be a macro change, and we saw that coming working from the inside of the social industry. I think it's going to be the next generation of gaming.
There's a lot of pulling games off Facebook and putting them on mobile right now, which always happens when a new platform opens up. But we're different because we're trying to innovate on location.
The real reason that we got so excited about it is because it's the right time in smartphone adoption; people just understand how to check-in. There's a lot of social utility in letting people know your location, but I don't think there's a lot of social gaming around your location. We think it's a soft spot in a market of great opportunity.
Peter Hawley: First and foremost we're a game studio. My background is console, and when you look at Xbox Live as a platform and you look at the core, competition-based gameplay on there, and how aggressive it is, and how that drives engagement... We just felt that audience was pretty horribly under-served. Okay, this month's pretty awesome with Battlefield 3 and all the other stuff coming out, but generally console hits are pretty sparse, and Facebook games are generally pretty light, and apps tend to be fairly casual and puzzle-based.
We're actually really passionate in our feeling that the 18 to 35 male audience was under-served if you walk around with a phone in your pocket. And what better way to serve that need than to build a game that's all about competition based on location, and build a parallel crime theme around it.
I think there's going to be a big shift in social games in general over the next two or three years to mobile, and I think a big part of that is going to be location
Mike Ouye, CEO, Red Robot Labs
Q: The audience you're talking about has played crime-themed games before. Does the location aspect give Life Is Crime enough of an edge?
Peter Hawley: I think so. Well, we know so now. When we were working on the initial ideas...we made a lot of assumptions. I had no idea whether people would be bothered to play a game based on location, and Mike had no idea whether we could make any money from it. So we set off on a real creative endeavour. There was nothing sinister about it.
Crime, as a theme, has been very over-played, but the reason why we chose it is that it plays perfectly to location. If you're going to ask your players to compete for buildings and real estate, you don't have to explain that to them. It's well understood, so we could spend most of our effort on building the map and the location pieces.
When it comes to the virtual goods side, we really wanted to innovate there. We wanted to ask players to move virtual goods around the world: pick stuff up, drop it off at locations, search buildings for interesting things that other players leave behind... It's really social, because it's people in and around where you live.
Q: You're talking about the mechanics there, and for many that's where the great mystery of location-based gaming lies. I've used Google Maps, of course, but the systems necessary to turn that into compelling gameplay seem fairly obscure.
Mike Ouye: We really wanted to build a game world on top of the real world. That's one of the main premises for the game, is building a game layer, and then building that geo-game index behind it. The second is taking some of the strong elements from Foursquare and some of the strong elements from Mafia Wars and combining them to build something that had a really strong basis around location.
There are location games out there that have tried to crack it, but haven't been able to because location isn't core to the game. In Life Is Crime it's everything. It matters. Only one person can own a particular place or a particular location, and that's really important.
Peter Hawley: One of the first things we said when we raised out angel round, we made a creative promise that it wasn't going to be Google Maps with some shitty icons - we're going to make a game out of it. It's still map tiles, and it's familiar to people, but it looks very different. It should feel like escapism when you look at it.
Q: Is this kind of project more of a creative challenge or a technical challenge? When you talk about competitors, we're really only dealing with a handful of games that have even made an honest attempt at this, so there's very little to crib from in terms of creating an experience that's just functional.
Peter Hawley: The first question we asked was, 'How can I have fun playing this game in Winnipeg?' We didn't want to launch one metro at a time, because it's not good for our business, it's not good for our players. There's a liquidity problem: if you've got 700,000 locations and 1000 players it's going to be crap. So, year, creatively it was very difficult.
On the geo-indexing side, if you look at most databases there's about 16,000 categories of places and locations for navigation - all kinds of weird stuff. So we just chose the things that would matter to players, like coffee shops, stores, restaurants, bars, train stations. We built the world sensibly, and then added our own landmarks to make the game stand out.
Q: How is the game performing?
Mike Ouye: The game is performing pretty well in the US. It's the 14th highest grossing app, and the number one grossing crime game on Android right now. And we recently passed the 400,000 registered accounts milestone. It's got four to five stars on 5500 reviews or so.
Peter Hawley: Very engaged players, which is the goal here. We push new features every couple of weeks.
Overall, we felt that people primarily would fight each other, and I would say that has definitely turned out to be the case. We thought when we launched the game it would be every man for himself - you against the world, out on the street, fighting for a landmark.
And now we've pulled people together into small street gangs of four, where they can wear the same clothes and get a bonus. We ran an East vs. West Coast bank heist mission for two weeks, where everyone in the gang went out and robbed banks, and that money would be pooled. Every time you rob a bank you make $400 or $500, and over two weeks our game community stole $8.5 billion.
It proves that the next step is to pull our players into regions and cities. It's going pretty well. We're very happy with that.
Q: So there's quite a high level of engagement on the developer side as well? Creating scenarios that will mobilise your player-base?
Mike Ouye: The biggest thing for us with regards to location is that we're striving to make this a very social experience. Social gaming is kind of a misnomer, just because it's on Facebook. The social experience in social gaming is really sending each other Facebook requests and gifts. With us, we're actually having these people interact with each other, and find each other according to location. Also, with our gang feature they have live chat, if they wear the same things they get bonuses.
The things that people engage with are not necessarily games. I mean, they do, but I think games are often a conduit to interaction with each other. That's where you get the real long-term engagement, is those relationships.
The social experience in social gaming is really sending each other Facebook requests and gifts. With us, we're actually having these people interact with each other
Peter Hawley, CCO, Red Robot Labs
Peter Hawley: I spent over a decade making console games, where you're generally trained into perfection. One of Microsoft's milestones is 'ZBR', right: zero bug writing. It's a very different mentality.
So we launched the game knowing that the US was populated with 700,000 locations, the core gameplay feedback loop and progression curve was in, the leaderboard system was done, and the movement of virtual goods was complete, so for us it was good enough. Let's get it out there.
It's free-to-play, it grows quickly and virally, and then we have a feature roadmap for the things that, I guess, if we sat around for a year or two years we would have shipped this perfect product. But it's great to build it with players, as opposed to sitting around guessing for a year or two.
Q: Peter, what has your background in AAA brought to the table?
Peter Hawley: Ultimately, in console, whatever you're doing, the thing you're concerned about the most is the players. You dedicate every minute of every day to the experience they'll end up with. You can't teach that to people, and that's been the easiest part of moving to mobile, that mentality, whether it's next-gen graphics or not; that sort of commitment to engaging players and community is very like-for-like.
Q: You chose to launch on Android, when most mobile developers tend to lead on iOS. What was your reasoning?
Mike Ouye: It was a big decision for us, but we felt that it has a growing user-base; there are actually more Android devices out there than iOS. On top of that fact, it's also much more wide open. There are a lot of companies jostling for one of the top-ten highest grossing spots on iOS.
On Android we felt it would be easier to stand out, and we also felt that it was under-served - because of the big focus on iOS the Android players really deserved something better than what was out there. And to be honest, it has been really great working with the Android team as well; they're actually featuring us on the marketplace this week.
Peter Hawley: When we started back in February/March it was pretty immature. The payment system hadn't come through, so that was a real gamble for us. But we could see where Android was going, the price-points were pretty amazing for most Android devices, and the market was huge. But generally you looked at the marketplace and it was full of crap, really... We were aiming for real high quality, and that sort of console approach to QA and support, and that has paid off for us. Android has turned out to be a win, but earlier in the year it was a risk.
But iOS is just behind. We're going to be out in November on iOS in North America and the UK, and all of our gameplay is client agnostic so they'll be able to fight against Android players.
Q: The big question developers are asking of the Android Marketplace is how to make money from it, but your example suggests that it's just a matter of the right product, with the right focus, at the right level of quality.
Peter Hawley: If you look at review scores on the App Store, the 1 out of 5 reviews are generally for force closes and crashes. Those reviews on Android tend to be from people who got piss-poor support, and a lot of our five star reviews on the marketplace are saying it's because we're heavily engaged. And I think that's awesome, because players will forgive some of the problems you have if you just get back to them and the updates are consistent.
You're asking people for their time. Even though it's free-to-play you're still asking them for their time. I know it's a cliché, but it's so important.
Q: The other aspect to Red Robot Labs' business is the R2 Gaming Network. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Mike Ouye: So, in general we are a geo-gaming studio, but we feel like we want to bring a lot of great content to our users, and build a brand around what we're trying to do. The second part of our strategy is to produce a geo-gaming network, and in January we'll be opening that up to third-parties. We really feel that the hard work we put in for about six months building our geo-layer and our geo-backend, that we can really accelerate the whole space for geo-gaming, and allow people to build faster, better, more high-polished games without worrying about how to build a geo-index or a geo-spatial database.
Q: So you see a healthier geo-gaming market as a win for your company, even if that be due to third-party products?
Mike Ouye: Yes, that's what we're trying to do, and our contribution to that is the R2 Network. We're actively looking for third-party developers, and we're already talking to a couple. I think we'll see some very interesting results early next year.