Acton Stations

Mind Candy's Michael Acton Smith on Gaga drama, consoles and the future of Moshi

When last spoke to Michael Acton Smith, creator and CEO of Mind Candy, it seemed as if nothing could stop the entrepreneur or his wildly successful creation, the children friendly MMO Moshi Monsters.

When we caught up with him last week the game was still boasting an impressive 50 million registered users, and he was still keen to talk about his plans for the future, which are centred around turning his gang of monsters into an entertainment brand. But we also had to discuss the recent court battle between Mind Candy and the outrageous pop star Lady Gaga. A battle over the musical performances of Moshi Monsters parody character Lady GooGoo. A battle that Mind Candy lost.

Q: We last saw you in July, so what has changed at Mind Candy since then?

Michael Acton Smith: It's been busy! The DS game has been incredible, we're releasing it next month, and the pre-order sales are just bonkers. It's the number one DS pre-order and on Amazon four of the top ten products for pre-order on video games are Moshi related. The styluses, there's a little pop-it carry case and whatnot, I can't quite believe what's going on there. So hopefully that will be a big seller this Christmas.

We're thinking about what console platforms to go on to next, and whether to do another DS game and what time scale. Mobile is really important for us, so we're building that team at the moment, Moshi TV is coming together very nicely, should hopefully launch that this year. We've got the drama with Lady Gaga which has been quite entertaining. Big story, gone all the way round the world, so we are in discussions there.

We're still going to release an album, probably early next year now, featuring music from some of our other characters in the world. I think that will be massive. And we're working on a live tour for next year to bring the musical characters into the real world.

And we've got a few completely new projects bubbling away at an early stage. We love Moshi, we think it has massive massive potential but we want to, over time, diversify Mind Candy and this is such an amazing moment to build huge new brands. In the future it won't necessarily be starting with TV show or film it'll start online. And we've got this incredible infrastructure, all these amazing people, all these relationships with partners, and it makes sense to spin up new properties.

I feel so much confidence building properties in the digital space, because even if you get it wrong the first time, it's like moulding clay, you can tweak it

Q: Does that feel quite scary, to move away from Moshi?

Michael Acton Smith: A little, you never know what will happen. Again, I just feel so much confidence building properties in the digital space, because even if you get it wrong the first time, it's like moulding clay, you can tweak it and iterate and as long as your money doesn't run out and you still have faith you can get to that hook point where it suddenly clicks so much more easily than in the world of TV or film, or even traditional video games where it really is cross your fingers and hope it takes off.

Q: You mentioned the television brand - have you had a lot of interest from content producers?

Michael Acton Smith: Yes, I think it will be an amazing platform going forward. Because how frustrating it is if you've got an amazing idea, to try and get it on to traditional TV. The broadcasters want to take a huge chunk, that is even if you can get it on a platform, they control when it gets shown, you have to do this incredible delicate balancing act with the licensees and the broadcasters to make sure you're all synced up, and now just put it straight onto YouTube. Build an audience that way, and people are starting to do that. Or on a platform like iOS. I think it's a whole new exciting world out there.

Q: Going back to the Lady Gaga situation - didn't you worry about something like this when you created the Lady Goo Goo character?

Michael Acton Smith: We knew it was a little bit risky, but we took legal advice, and we were more confident that we'd win than not. I think a lot of people have been surprised by the judgement. I personally think the law in this area is too strict and there are people looking at it for review at the moment. I think it would have been fine in the US where parody is much more acceptable. I have a huge amount of respect for IP owners and Lady Gaga and other musicians and what they've done, but something that is an obvious parody and that's creative and enriches and delights a whole new audience I think is more positive. And it's not detracting from her sales or damaging her in my opinion, and so I think it was a bit frustrating. We shall see, who knows where it will all end up?

Q: Does it make you worry for any of the other characters, like Dustbin Bieber?

Michael Acton Smith: We're having discussions around that at the moment so I'm always up for a good battle if anyone else wants to do this. But obviously we do need to be a little bit careful, because the high court must be respected when they injunct something.

Q: Will it have a definitive effect on your future plans?

Michael Acton Smith: I think we will be a little bit more careful, but I don't want it to dampen our creativity too much. And we have some completely original characters, and some parody characters, and kids love them both, so I'd hope we can continues to use both of them.

Q: But you are still doing the album?

Michael Acton Smith: We are doing the album, we don't know whether we're going to change... we don't know quite how we're going to deal with it. There are different things we can do. It's all top secret at the moment, my lawyer would be screaming at me if I said anything.

We still think there's a huge amount of growth potential globally, so that's the next kind of area we're tackling, from the US to new languages

Q: Do you think you'll still play Lady Gaga at the Mind Candy Christmas party?

Michael Acton Smith: No comment.

Q: Back to Moshi Monsters, you're expanding everywhere, are you still seeing a growth in registered users?

Michael Acton Smith: We see a dip every year in September/October when kids go back to school, and that's common for a lot of digital properties. Kids play a lot over the summer and then have other things going on, but then it always picks up towards Christmas.

So Moshi is quite established in territories like the UK, but we still think there's a huge amount of growth potential globally, so that's the next kind of area we're tackling, from the US to new languages.

Q: Can you see Moshi heading for the Asian markets?

Michael Acton Smith: Exactly, we're having many discussions there. I think that's going to be a very important growth area.

Q: And you're doing so much licensing, do you think there's any limit to what you can do with the brand?

Michael Acton Smith: I think we have to be careful. We don't want to over licence the property, we don't want to over commercialise it and upset parents and so forth. But one of the great things about digital properties is the very broad audience that plays them. It's very rare for a property to appeal to girls and boys from age two to twelve. So that does give a lot of licensing potential. So we've done a hundred deals on the licensing side so far, and I still think there's many more to go. Hello Kitty has done thousands, Pokemon did about 500, so I think we've still got a bit of work to do there before it gets over saturated.

Q: Are you excited about future technologies and what opportunities they'll offer for the brand?

Michael Acton Smith: Very much. The world is changing so quickly, who knows where we can take this? And this is why I think it's exciting to be developing new products as a small, nimble, agile start up like ourselves, than it is for the big juggernauts of the world, the massive entertainment companies that can't. Smaller is better in this world.

Q: You mentioned console, and with big console games you can't tweak and iterate them. Does that feel unnatural to you?

Michael Acton Smith: It does feel a little strange. Creating this Moshling DS game was tricky, but we've got a lot of learnings around what our audience likes already from the online world, so it is a bit of an experiment. But the brand is strong enough now, and what we want to make sure is that kids are buying it not just because they know Moshi, but because they actually love the experience, because if we do that then we can release one every year and build a DS or console franchise with it.

Q: So a big Christmas for Moshi?

Michael Acton Smith: Hopefully. it's looking good so far.

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