Machinima to Mobile
Fountainhead's Katherine Anna Kang
Fountainhead Entertainment, Inc. was started to capitalise on the concept of Machinima - the art of using 3D graphics game engines to create animation (mostly for entertainment, but sometimes educational or business purposes).
However, they soon turned to developing mobile games, a much more financially lucrative venture. The company's first title was an officially licensed version of Doom, re-interpreted in the role-playing game format. Their second title was also an RPG, titled Orcs & Elves.
Fountainhead's founder and CEO, Katherine Anna Kang, also co-founded The Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences and, prior to Fountainhead, worked as director of business development for id Software, creators of the Doom series. She has another connection to id: her husband is John Carmack.
Kang spoke to GamesIndustry.biz about the direction of her company, her thoughts on the nature of the still-fledgling mobile games industry in North America, and why the mobile platform is not yet suitable for fragfests.
GamesIndustry.biz: Since the founding of Fountainhead in 2000, are you now focusing solely on mobile phone gaming, expanding into other game platforms, or other markets tied to computer animation?
Katherine Anna Kang: Fountainhead's direction has definitely changed since its inception. Originally, Fountainhead's primary focus had been Machinima and what could be done with high-end game engines. Today, that focus has been re-directed towards mobile gaming.
The development cycles, along with the growth potential of the mobile gaming sector, made focusing on mobile games very attractive. This is an area where we can see steady and immediate results with very short development times.
Demand for mobile phone gaming looks stagnant in North America, especially compared with the European and Asian markets. Would you agree? What's your assessment of the current state of these markets?
I believe there's a bit of re-inventing the wheel that needs to be done in North America when it comes to mobile gaming. Similar to the early days of computer gaming, the mobile gaming industry isn't being taken seriously at the moment.
The service providers are in a similar place that computer manufacturers where in the early days. The primary objective of said devices were not to play games, but when good games came along, gamers helped drive the sales of computers.
The gaming industry is now a multi-billion dollar industry and gamers are an important customer base to computer manufacturers. Cell phone service providers will have to learn that getting good games to their customers will help drive sales of mobile devices, mobile services, and create a revenue source that can enhance their services and their bottom line.
What do you think is needed to make the North American market stronger and more appealing to mobile phone customers? Better games? Better phones? Better technology?
My thoughts on what I believe needs to be done to make mobile gaming big in North America:
Cell phone providers taking mobile gaming seriously and making games more easily available to their customers.
Great games. There are a handful of good games out there, but it's rare to find great games on mobile right now.
Original games developed for cell phones, rather than PC/console games re-hashed for mobile.
Better phones would be great, but I think getting rid of some of the arbitrary limitations on games are much more important right now. There's also the issue of porting and the added problems of Java/BREW development.
What are the major technical hurdles that developers of mobile phone games like your company have to deal with today?
Porting, porting, porting... Size limitations, device-specific hardware and software issues, and carrier specific software issues.
So pretty much everything?
Actually, not everything. The cool thing that we learned is the high-end phones are capable of outputting some really nice looking games. This fact makes the future of mobile gaming exciting because with time (maybe a year or two) the better phones will make their way to more consumers.
Unfortunately, right now, it's like having a million dollars in a nearly deserted island - unless developers want to severely limit their customer base, games for such high end phones wouldn't be a profitable venture. For now, we figured out it's best to develop for the low end first, then jazz up the high end.
What do you think of the graphical capabilities of the current generation of mobiles, particularly in 3D graphics?
Pretty cool, and it's getting better and better. We just wish we could take full advantage of what's available without having to tailor the game to the low-end phones.
Is there a particular mobile phone platform that you prefer to develop for?
As a pure development platform, BREW is great. Unfortunately, developing in BREW, you can end up developing a much higher-end game which limits the number of handsets that your games will run on. The good thing about Java is the freedom it provides - a combination of both would be great!
The first two mobile games Fountainhead created are RPGs - Doom RPG and Orcs & Elves. Why did your company decide on the RPG genre?
John Carmack looked at the limitations of the current handsets and his technical decisions drove the design. The primary goal was to make the game fun, easy to play, and addictive. A traditional FPS just would not have worked. An RPG made sense.
So would it be fair to say that Fountainhead didn't do a scaled-down FPS because of technological limitations of the mobile platform? Or was it simply personal preference?
Technical limitations isn't really an accurate account. Several issues come into play: How do you get a player to have fun playing games with a cell phone user interface? No mouse, limited keys, limited instructions. If you try playing an FPS using no mouse and using only your number key pad, you'll get the idea.
The providers are very strict about content. Historically, FPSes are thought as more violent and more realistic than RPGs. There are many things that we can get away with in a fantasy RPG setting that we probably wouldn't be able to in an FPS. Perhaps the term "role-playing game" makes people more comfortable than "first person shooter."
Personally, I don't like single player FPSes. It's the multiplayer aspect that gets me hooked. I think it will be a while before a mobile online FPS game can be fun.
So what were the challenges (for example, in terms of gameplay) that came with translating the RPG genre to a mobile phone platform? Are there any aspects of the mobile phone platform that contribute new elements to the RPG experience?
The biggest challenge to overcome in creating an RPG was getting our FPS minds to fit into an RPG. Most of us are FPS fans and trying to get our twitchy fingers used to an RPG setting was... Interesting.
In the end, the fact that FPS hardcore fans liked playing RPGs on the cell phone was a really good sign that we were doing something right. Though we have yet to take full advantage of the mobile gaming platform, we hope to be able to utilize its full potential soon.
Regarding the future of Fountainhead, what new games do you have in development for mobile phones? More RPGs, or other genres?
We have at least a couple more RPGs in store, but there are a few really neat ideas we're playing around with.
You first made a name for yourself as a Machinima producer. Are you working on any kind of Machinima related projects that utilise mobile phones? Do you feel there is real potential in the platform for this medium?
We utilise Machinima on our cell phone games all the time. The games would not be the same without Machinima. An in-game cinematic helps move the game forward, it aides in telling a story, and adds visual cohesiveness.
We wouldn't be able to provide the same level of game without it. I definitely see a possibility for mobile Machinima to make a big presence in the future.
What have you learned from your experience in Machinima that happened to apply well in your current role as mobile game maker?
We learned from Machinima that asset creation is the most expensive and time consuming aspect of development. Knowing this allowed us to forgo the creation of additional assets, thus saving space and time by utilising existing game assets to "show" players what we could not in-game.
Katherine Anna Kang is the founder and CEO of Fountainhead Entertainment. Interview by Howard Wen.