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Digital Chocolate's Trip Hawkins

The CEO on Apple, Nintendo and why free-to-play will always win out

There are few names more synonymous with the evolution of gaming than that of Trip Hawkins - the man who founded EA, nearly broke himself on the wheel of 3DO and pre-empted the huge market shift to casual with the launch of his current enterprise Digital Chocolate.

He's a man who splits opinion with almost every sentence, but he's also proven time and again that ignoring his advice is something done at your peril. Here, Hawkins speaks to GamesIndustry.biz at last month's Gamelab event in Barcelona, discussing App Store curation, where to hunt for whales and why not everyone wants to be a pilot.

GamesIndustry.bizLast time we saw you speak was in the Social Developers Rant Back session at GDC earlier this year. One of your main thrusts in that presentation was that Apple needed to start curating the App Store more stringently in order to maintain levels of quality. There seemed to be something of a move towards that goal with the rejigging of the ranking algorithms - is that the right idea?
Trip Hawkins

I think that the idea of controlling the content, that idea seems to fit a company like Nintendo pretty well. Nintendo, for example, if they make a product like Nintendo DS where they're targeting children of a certain age range, maybe over the life of that product there'll be 100-200 products which really target that platform and customer base.

It kind of makes sense to have it really organised and really controlled. In most other cases it makes sense to have a completely open market and to have free speech - to really not interfere with it.

The world wide web is another example where there's a tremendous amount of content out there because it's open. Good luck to anyone who tries to control that. It's true about the written word, it's true about music. The guys who invented some of the music platforms... If you look at MP3, at Redbook audio on CD, even LPs before that. Generally the music industry gave the platforms to the industry and let everyone support them.

If you're a pressing plant and you press a CD, you have to pay a licence fee that goes back to the consortium who hold all the patents to do with the disc. You'll maybe have to pay a penny or two - it's no big deal. It's no like you're paying €10. So when someone comes along with a licence agreement and says you're going to pay €10 and we're going to control everything, it really doesn't turn out to be better for everybody.

It turns out to be better for the guy who pulls it off, but nobody else. I think we're getting to the point now where there's this enormous new game audience, and if you're only dealing with niche markets, if the Nintendo DS is only targeting this group, or for that matter a really high-performance PlayStation 4 would be targeting a niche group that really cares about high performance.

I should have said this in my talk. There are a certain amount of people who want to know how to fly an airplane. Some of them will even own an airplane. Then there's the rest of us. We just want the convenience of travel - let someone else do the flying for God's sake. Sometimes we want the Peter Pan fantasy - keep it simple so we don't have to know too much about how to do it, but give us the thrill of flying.

I think that's how we view media. You want to read a story? You want to read a great book that's going to make you feel all kinds of wonderful things because the writer is a really gifted story-teller. That's how you want to feel when you go see a movie. How you want to feel when you play a game.

The thing about good game design is that it's interactive. It's much more demanding, like flying an airplane. So there are some players who want the challenge of being thrown in the deep end of the pool to see if they can swim, and hey! Throw a shark in! Let me show you I can handle a shark. But the rest of the public is going - you're kidding me, there's a shark in there?

I don't care what category it is, any segment of the games industry on any platform - if you make it free-to-play with virtual goods it'll be better, financially.

Everybody likes to play. There's so much more potential for these vast audiences. So much more potential for value to the public if it's open. Apple has already managed to track so many applications, I think it's beyond reason to try and control it. There's too much stuff there.

Even though they've tried to control it, they still have thousands of farting applications on there. The single most important application that they have is Facebook, and it's very badly broken. It cannot call the application's API from Facebook. People touch that all the time, even by accident, and it hangs the application.

How's it working if you have thousands of farting applications and you end up with your most important application hanging your phone all the time? Is that what you really want? It's almost an impossible problem. That's why Facebook said, okay, we're going to go to HTML5 and make sure that our stuff works.

GamesIndustry.bizSomeone else who talked about the need for curation to improve standards was Chair Entertainment. They've just launched Infinity Blade in Asia as a free-to-play game. Previously they'd seemed like they were making a stand for high-price games on iOS - is this a climbing down?
Trip Hawkins

Well, I don't care what category it is, any segment of the games industry on any platform - if you make it free-to-play with virtual goods it'll be better, financially. You'll get more people to try it, you'll get more revenue from more customers, in the end.

I know in the MMO market this is where it's most difficult for them to believe in it. There are so many customers - the personality of many hardcore gamers is that they want to feel better about themselves because they're dominant in the game. They're willing to put in hours and hours and hours to create a level 65 character in LOTRO and then they get mad as heck when LOTRO decides to go free-to-play and let people buy virtual goods. That drives them crazy, right?

It's the same with Warcraft. Warcraft listened to their core customers for years saying, don't allow people to trade stuff. You might remember, there was a company based in LA, created by a game named Brock somebody. (Brock Pierce, founder of the successful but ill-fated IGE.) He was actually a child actor. He started the first marketplace where a WOW customer could trade their position and turn it into money.

So this was very upsetting to Blizzard because they had customers saying, hey wait a minute - you can't let these guys buy their way in! But very quickly this company had over $100 million in revenue. Just from helping people trade.

But they had a lot of accounts in the inventory. So Blizzard come in and say - wait a minute, this company owns these accounts, not an individual. So they just go boom, boom, boom and start killing the inventory. So they had to abandon that. Then they moved it offshore so it was based in the Phillipines and had to work more like real estate agent.

So a real estate agent never really owns your home. Someone wants to sell it - they arrange it and take a fee. Then of course eventually Warcraft had to give in and say, okay, we need to do this ourselves. So eventually that's the way it's going to go.

And yeah, there'll be a small number of customers who'll fight against it, kicking and screaming because it takes away an advantage they have - they can put more time in. They're still going to put the time in. They're still going to play the game better than anybody else and they'll put some money in to make sure they're better.

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