"Every Platform, Every Territory, Every Genre"
After founding Thumbstar back in 2008, the Edmondson Brothers (of Driver fame) haven't been sitting on their laurels. Over the last four years, they've quietly forged over 140 different distribution channels for their games, crowned by a recent Chinese deal that will see them exclusively distributing games via China Telecom.
Armed with this network of channels, third-party developers and in-house studios worldwide, Thumbstar is poised and ready to become a heavyweight contender, and proudly showed off their newest games deep within the heart of trendy Camden Town. Keen to know what the future holds for Gareth and Martin Edmondson, I sat down with the two brothers to discuss their plans for global domination, the death of home consoles and the Chinese connection.
Jonathan Lester (Mobot): Considering your console pedigree on the likes of the Driver Series and Shadow Of The Beast, what inspired you to set up Thumbstar? And why are we here at Proud Camden today?
Martin Edmondson (CCO): The reason we started up Thumbstar in 2008 was mainly opportunity: knowing people and coming together. They were previously involved with the mobile space and, as it turns out, there's been a huge explosion of people playing games on mobile - four years ago, that wasn't quite so clear.
So this event here is about a big increase in our activity, basically. This is like the second level of Thumbstar. We've built a development studio in Newcastle which is where Reflections used to be, we've got offices in various places around the world now, and it's about leveraging what we've already built up over the last four years - 140 plus distribution channels with is very very significant in this business - but Thumbstar was very much under the radar.
You probably wouldn't have heard of us and now this is about making a lot more noise and pushing us into the public eye and towards developers in terms of exposure.
Mobot: I've tried out a fair few of your new games today, including Porkchop & Mouse, Clumsy Pirates, I3 and Fishing Trip. What stood out for me was the huge amount of variety. What do you look for when signing on new titles?
ME: We are actually open to almost anything. The reason for that is we're into so many markets, so many channels and on so many platforms. It's certainly not just about the iPhone, but we do a lot of business with Android because of our distribution channels. Java, believe it or not, which is declining but still important in certain countries. Blackberry, fifty percent of the market in Latin America and Indonesia.
Gareth Edmondson (CEO): There's huge, huge penetration there.
ME: So it's about taking games of any genre at all and really diverse. Partly because it keeps things interesting for us, and partly because the market is so colossal. If you look at PlayStation games, which we used to do, or even Amiga games, you could pinpoint the exact player base. But you can't do that any more. There's a chunk of players here, a chunk of players here and a chunk of players there. We aim to cover it all.
GE: Our philosophy is: every platform, every language, every territory, every genre. Our distribution is so big that if we've got a game that works well in one region but doesn't work well in another, we'll have another game that compliments it. We have to have diversity because we have such a large customer base. And it makes it fun!
Mobot: I bet! Right, down to brass tacks. I understand that you've just secured a major exclusive distribution deal in China. Can you talk us through the contract, and what does it mean for Thumbstar?
GE: China Telecom, who's one of the major mobile operators in China, has decided to take the issue of piracy very seriously. In the next few weeks, they'll launch a new platform and there's a real incentive for them to tackle piracy.
So the only way of getting copy-protected content into China will be through that platform, and we're the exclusive provider of content. That's the big announcement of the day! This is huge. It's taken a long time, a lot of travel and a lot of negotiations. We're ready to go with it now.
The initial rollout is relatively small: it's nine million subscribers in one town in China. To give you an idea of scale, O2 has 16 million subscribers in the UK, so that's just one town! We'll roll out across the rest of China, 130 million subscribers at the moment and growing by three million a month. It's a subscription-based service that we're the exclusive suppliers of. That's fuelling our ambition to be number one.
Mobot: While trying out some of your games today, I was struck by something that several of the developers said: "gameplay is king." Do you feel that this concept is being fully embraced by mobile gaming?
ME: First of all, there's so many games - there's 100 games plus per day coming out on the App Store. The problem is that there are so many games that you just don't see. I tend to get pointed towards a game, download it and it's completely brilliant, but you have to go out and hunt for it. They're being made by people who are developers, who maybe worked for a big team before their company went 'pop' and formed these smaller teams. These are people who understand games, so that's one of the reasons why there's so much creativity.
The second thing is the cost of development being small, the tools are amazing compared to what we used to have to deal with, and rapid turnaround. So there is a lot of poor quality stuff out there, but I'm constantly surprised by how much great stuff is out there that you don't see.
GE: It's always the same. Being 'good' isn't good enough to get noticed. It always comes back to content. It has to be good, it has to be fun to play or people will abandon it. The price points are so low - or free - that people won't stick with it if it's not good, they'll move on.
ME: People are spending 69 pence as a sticking point now. You can sell a game at £1.99, £2.99, £3.99 with a wave of expectation behind it, but even 69p is still a sticking point without seriously promoting it. You can't stick it on the app store and expect people to buy it.
Mobot: That's where you come in! I was actually talking to David J Owen, the developer behind Porkchop & Mouse, who reckons that you've been instrumental at securing exposure.
ME: I've got a horrible story from him, actually. One of his other games - there was nothing wrong with it, he put it out and he sold thirteen copies, and six of them were to his mates. It's quite frightening for developers, they've broken away from a company that's gone bust, maybe they've got some redundancy money and they're burning through that money producing their games. It may be a very, very good game, because they're good developers, but then it's about getting it out there.
GE: The other thing we offer for third party developers is editorial feedback. We're not like old-fashioned publishers who say "we won't publish you if you don't make these changes." We provide advice, we've been developing games for 28 years. We really understand development. Some of our guys who provide this service have been developing for years, so we're not like some guy at a publishers who just thinks that red should be blue. We understand it, so we can suggest,"change this," and know that it will be relatively little work and it will give you bang for your buck.
Sometimes we get games that are finished and we can put them out, but we want to be known as providing an absolute top-quality service to third party developers. It's all about content.
Mobot: What could Apple or Google be doing to make visibility easier? How could they be making your lives easier?
ME: Well Apple doesn't care of course. They're a hardware manufacturer, so the more apps on there the better. The more free apps on there the better. They want to hit a billion apps, ten billion downloads, twenty billion downloads, a quarter of a billion downloads, because it drives the sales of their hardware. I'm not sure how incentivised they are.
GE: Actually, with Apple, we'd like to see it more open like Android. A big chunk of where our business comes from is Android because it's open and we can distribute. Martin talked about our 140 distribution channels that we have, they're mainly direct with operators. So we put a game on 140 shops rather than two shops, and that makes a huge difference. We only have to sell a thousand in each. Sell a thousand in each, that's pretty good numbers for mobile games!
Apple is closed, it's one shop, whereas Android offers 140. That really helps, because we're reaching customers who you just can't reach otherwise. Maybe they're in territories around the world who don't have access to credit cards, or who don't want to use them, so we reach a massive number of customers that others can't get to. With Apple, you can't. That's something that Apple would... but they won't do it.
ME: They make too much money out of premium priced hardware.
Mobot: All of the titles on show are one-off purchases rather than free-to-play/freemium games. Will you be embracing the F2P philosophy, and is it the 'future of gaming' as so many currently believe?
GE: Free-to-play has already won.
ME: It's not even the future any more.
GE: In the last six months of last year, gross revenue for freemium games in the UK went from 25% to 75%. It has already won. Now there are markets and customers who don't want that - you've got to design your game for that, you can't retrofit it - but there's no question that it's a huge part of the market that we have to take care of.
All the games you've seen here are third-party single downloads, but we're just starting with our rollout of two games a week, we're keeping it simple for now.
Mobot: So you'll be fully embracing the freemium philosophy?
GE: Oh yes, absolutely. Even through some of our operator channels, the operators tend to be a bit slow at getting their heads around new business models. But in Asia, they want it now, they've really got their heads around it.
You know, there's always a controversial debate surround the freemium model. But the fact of the matter is that if the content is good and the customer is happy then they'll want to pay for it. There's nothing wrong with that is there.
ME: We also have to design the games for it. You were talking to the Fishing Trip guys, for example. A big mistake is getting game finished, done, and trying to retrofit purchasing within the game. Occasionally it works, but if the game hasn't been designed for it, it will fall flat on its face.
Mobot: What are your plans for Thumbstar over the next few years? Will you become next Chillingo? Or do you have higher aspirations?
ME: Beyond the immediate future, where we're trying to sign more and higher quality products, we would like to see ourselves expanding into other areas. Intelligent TVs, you know, other people have speculated that they'll be coming out with a very intelligent TV very soon. So expanding into more and more things that increase the interest level from a working point of view, so many different kinds of platform and different kinds of games, that's my personal view apart from the corporate ambition of the company. I'm the Creative Director, so I'm all about the products, all about the games and having different experiences in the home.
Like, that thing I just described to you. You can do it now, but it's not seamless. I want to come home, I've done my spreadsheets or what have you, fling [my tablet] on the coffee table, sit back and pick up my Bluetooth thing. I don't want to have to press anything - I want it to tell the TV to turn on, instantly stream it and have the full immersive experience.
GE: From a company point of view: number one mobile publisher in the next few years. It's the ambition of the company. There's no point being anything other than aggressive and ambitious. We're running two games a week. We've just secured this deal in China. I don't have to tell you how significant that is!
Mobot: There's a hot button issue going around the gaming community at the moment: are home consoles a dying breed? Will the next generation be the last, eventually replaced by mobile devices? As veterans of both console and mobile development, what are your thoughts on this?
ME: The problem for the likes of Sony and Microsoft and anybody else doing a console... there are a lot of problems... but one of the issues is that [mobile handsets and tablets] are developing so rapidly. The iPad 2 was so much more powerful than the iPad 1. The iPhone 4S compared to iPhone 4, the iPhone 4 compared to the 3GS. The situation I can see is the PlayStation 4 (to pick one of them) coming out and two years into its lifespan, the iPad 6 or 7 comes out and it's already twice as powerful as the PS4. I'm talking generally, we're talking about a couple of years' time or so.
So this thing sits on your coffee table. You use it at work, come home, put it on your table. You get your Bluetooth controller if you're a hardcore player, you airplay it to your television at 1080P over Wi-Fi and you've got something which is quicker, easier and probably more powerful than a PlayStation 4 but with a massive install base.
So that's kind of the problem. It's all delivered digitally, I'm sure the next PlayStation will deliver content digitally but then they're going to have to address all of their monetisation models themselves, they'll have to if they want to survive. But PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo can't react as quickly as [Apple and other tablet manufacturers] in terms of boosting performance while retaining elements of backwards compatibility.
GE: Of course, the other great thing is that you'll be able to play games on your TV, put down the controller, pick it up and play it on the train on the way to work. All of a sudden it's always with you. But console manufacturers have to come up with some new innovations beyond just horsepower, connectivity, motion sensing and all that stuff. They've got with something else in order to survive.
Mobot: So are we approaching the last generation of consoles?
GE: It could be the last generation of consoles, but you shouldn't underestimate how inventive companies like Sony and Microsoft can be. We don't know what they're doing.
ME: Well, Microsoft has just launched their new tablet, so who knows. Maybe they're doing the 720 and then focusing all their efforts on this.
Mobot: What do you make of the Surface, out of interest?
ME: At first I thought it was an iPad commercial with the flat thing and the way that it clicked on.
Mobot: Trendy, wasn't it?
ME: Yeah, I just thought they were copying it for a joke. I did like the way that it flapped down to form a keyboard, because I find the iPad keyboard fast and convenient to use, but it does take up a lot of screen real estate. So I did like the way it works, but I haven't played with it yet.
GE: You've got to keep an eye on these things, the same with Nokia Windows 7 phones. Nokia were the biggest handset manufacturer in the world. Microsoft's the biggest software company in the world. You've got to keep an eye on them.
ME: They have incredibly aggressive plans and forecasts, Microsoft and Nokia together. You can argue about whether they're realistic or not, but they will be significant. You've got to bank on Nokia and Microsoft doing something and taking some market share.
Mobot: Does that mean you'll also start targeting Windows Phones as another distribution channel?
GE: We'll keep an eye on it.
Mobot: So, I guess, one last question for the gamers. Throughout all the games you've worked on at Reflections, from Shadow Of The Beast to the Driver series, what are you most proud of?
GE: That is a very hard question. For me, probably, Driver 1. It was the first game I was producing and the first game I worked on and finished. Obviously it was a phenomenal success, but Martin's worked on it for far longer. I'm very proud of Driver: San Francisco, but it did take five years!
ME: If I didn't choose Driver 1, it would be Destruction Derby, because it was a real childhood passion. Our dad used to take us to these destruction derbies and we got a massive childhood passion for twisted metal and that sort of thing. The other key difference between Driver and Destruction Derby is that it was the launch of PlayStation 1 - it was the launch of 3D to the masses. For me, watching people's reaction to playing Destruction Derby was a key moment in the history of our company.
I enjoyed that game. At that point, I was making games for me rather than thinking too deeply about it.
GE: That's why all the old games are so hardcore!
ME: Yeah, that stupid garage in Driver 1, that was my decision! I lived to regret that.
GE: Or not, because everyone talks about it.
Mobot: To be honest, I was kind of expecting to see some driving games today.
ME: That's not to say that you'll never see a driving game from us. But we're trying to promote diversity. We can't talk about internally-developed stuff about the next event.
GE: But you'll see some interesting stuff and some surprising stuff!
Mobot: I can't wait! Many thanks for talking to us.
We'll have full reviews of Porkchop & Mouse, Fishing Trip, Clumsy Pirates and more over the coming days. Stay tuned!