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Oh the Games You'll Play

Chillingo Co-Founder Chris Byatte Sees Great Potential in iPhone Gaming

Chillingo is one of the most prolific game publishers on the App Store, with 30 titles, including lite versions, currently on sale. However, its name doesn't seem to pop up nearly as often as, say, Digital Chocolate, ngmoco, Gameloft, EA, Namco, or others, despite a download total that co-founder Chris Byatte told me is "approaching Digital Chocolate's announcement a few weeks ago." Those keeping score at home may recall that Digital Chocolate founder Trip Hawkins told me recently that his company has seen over 30 million downloads at the App Store.

Digital Chocolate accomplished that feat after arriving late to the App Store party, whereas Chillingo has been there since the beginning, albeit with a much broader spectrum of releases: from the tower defense game Defender Chronicles and the boxing game Touch KO to the role-playing game Dungeon & Hero and a realistic round on the links with Par 72 Golf. The company achieves such wide variety by inviting submissions from smaller developers, giving them an opportunity for more exposure than they could likely garner on their own.

"From our research and time in the mobile industry, which has been since 2001," Mr. Byatte explained, "we knew that the iPhone represented a huge disruptive force. The master stroke was for Apple to give away the SDK [software development kit] to the masses.

"The iPhone and the App Store have turned the mobile landscape upside down. Operators and manufacturers are scrambling to catch up with Apple. This is nothing short of revolutionary and, I'm sure, welcomed by gadget lovers and gamers all over the world."

When I brought up Sony's recent announcement of the upcoming PSP Go, which mimics the iPod touch with its use of flash memory and its ability to download games straight from the PlayStation Store, Mr. Byatte responded: "The PSP Go is Sony's attempt to grab a slice of this action -- I'm sure there will be many more to come." The device is smaller than previous PSP models and eschews the UMD drive featured in them, leaving it incompatible with PSP games already on the market. UMD was a failure as a movie format, however, so perhaps Sony figures the trade-off is worthwhile since the gaming world is moving toward digital downloads and away from the awkward inefficiencies of manufacturing, distributing, and selling physical media.


Whether the PSP Go can take away any of the thunder generated by the iPhone and iPod touch remains to be seen, however. "We have seen platforms come and go," said Mr. Byatte. "Apple has instantly fixed the fragmentation problems that plagued the Java world: developers and studios don't need to waste thousands of dollars porting to 800 different feature phones. Trust me, the iPhone 3GS doesn't represent a formidable fragmentation issue."

With the huge number of games released for the iPhone, some are calling for a premium section at the App Store -- "Fingers crossed for a premium section and a dedicated Apple gaming device," Mr. Byatte said -- as the discrepancy between high-end, complex games and more casual titles becomes clear. Mr. Byatte has already addressed that issue on his end by reserving the Chillingo name for what he calls "triple-A wow-factor deeper gameplay titles" and establishing Clickgamer for casual games. "Going forward," he said, "both brands will undergo our strict evaluation procedure for submissions."

There's been a lot of competitive price-cutting at the App Store, however, leading Mr. Byatte to comment: "Chillingo is associated with higher quality games, so ultimately the US$0.99 route isn't something that makes good business sense. Long term, we're confident that Apple will make the necessary adjustments to take into account other factors, rather than just total units sold."

Even bigger publishers, such as EA, aren't immune to that so-called "race to the bottom" of pricing. So can they dominate the way they've controlled other platforms? "In the pre-iPhone mobile world," Mr. Byatte said, "big companies could dominate as they partnered closely with carriers, controlling all of the shelf space, also known as 'carrier decks.' Apple has taken down those barriers, making things a level playing field."

He added: "A $1 million license has no guarantee of working on the iPhone -- instead, games have returned to their true form: quality and innovation. EA has been there from day one -- Apple even gave them the SDK before others (think Spore and so forth) and they have not dominated the App Store charts."

Chillingo has its own SDK in the works: Crystal, which focuses on social gaming. "It will be free for everyone to use: simple plug-and-play to enable leaderboards, challenges, achievements, and much more," said Mr. Byatte. More information isn't available at the moment, but interested developers can sign up for the Crystal mailing list at its web site. In the meantime, Chillingo continues to look for iPhone games to add to its stable, so Mr. Byatte recommends that interested parties get in touch with his company.

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