Q&A: Does anyone <i>really</i> like mobile games?
EmptyJay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, and Dave Chappelle surely know Andy Nulman as the co-founder and former CEO of Montreal's long-running Just for Laughs comedy festival. Perhaps, too, as the author of the book "I Almost Killed George Burns!"
But these days, Nulman is dead serious about mobile video games and why they don't seem to be connecting with their intended audience. As CMO and president of 8-year-old, Montreal-based Airborne Entertainment, he believes that games for cell phones ought to take a different direction altogether.
In his keynote address recently at the Playback Magazine Mobile Entertainment Forum -- titled "Mobile: What Sucks and How to Fix It" -- Nulman ticked off some of the hurdles, which include insipid games that breed indifferent consumers.
HollywoodReporter.com columnist Paul Hyman chatted with Nulman about his prescription for creating mobile game fans ... and why he doesn't seem to be taking his own advice.
The Hollywood Reporter: Andy, your company has created mobile games based on licenses from Maxim magazine, "Family Guy," Marc Ecko, the National Hockey League, and Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, to name just a few. And yet you don't seem to think much of games based on licenses. Want to explain that?
Andy Nulman: You're right. And our third "Family Guy" game, which we're calling "Stewie's Arsenal," should be out next month. But what distinguishes Airborne from the rest of the mobile developers out there is that we are preparing to shift gears as soon as the marketplace allows.
THR: Shift gears to what?
Nulman: In my opinion, most mobile games are bastardized, shrunk-down versions of things that work better in bigger formats elsewhere -- on TV and computer screens. But because cell phones also have screens, developers try to replicate in a smaller format what works so well in other places. Hey, just because it has a screen doesn't mean that a cell phone is a tiny TV. I think that, as the market matures and becomes a bit more savvy, you'll see people making games for mobile devices that are completely unique and have no connection to what's going on in other media. But I don't believe the marketplace is ready for such a rapid, 45-degree turn. It's going to happen more gradually.
THR: You sound a little like Trip Hawkins at Digital Chocolate who is in favor of what he calls "social games."
Nulman: No, not necessarily. Yes, I agree that there needs to be a renaissance in mobile games. But, given the success of community Web sites like MySpace and Facebook, all of a sudden everyone thinks there needs to be "community" associated with everything. It's "community this" and "community that." Hey, have you ever heard of the game "Solitaire"? It's one of the most popular games in the world and it's just one person enjoying a game all by themselves. Nothing wrong with that.
THR: Then if you're not proposing "social" games, what are you proposing?
Nulman: We believe in inside-out gaming, where the phone becomes a tool to interact with things that are happening all around you. In that way, your phone becomes more of a mouse than, say, a desktop.
THR: Help me to understand. Give me an example.
Nulman: Let's say I have tickets to see the Tigers and the Jays play, and I'm sitting watching the baseball game in front of me. But imagine that I can then take out my cell phone and somehow interact with the game I'm watching. Maybe bet on who is going to make the next hit or who will win the game. Or right now, as I'm sitting here in a restaurant in Milan talking to you, I could guess what will be the next car that passes me, what color it will be, will the license plate be even or odd. Those are just analogies but imagine if you could play a game that involves the world around you. In that way, you'd be taking advantage of your mobile device in a way that console or PC games cannot not. I hope that makes sense.
THR: What would attract a gamer to that sort of game? I mean, you know very well that there's a lot of competition among developers for the space on the cell phone deck. Which is one of the reasons you're making a "Family Guy" game. It's a recognizable name that will attract gamers to it. What's going to attract gamers to something that lets you guess car colors?
Nulman: Probably nothing. And that's OK because we don't want gamers. I mean, gamers are a nice niche, but the other slice of the pie -- the slice of cell phone owners who aren't gamers -- is a lot bigger. We want to open up the market to people who never bought a single game in their lives. What we're hoping to lead is a massive revolution in what you can do with your mobile phone as a gaming device.
THR: You seem to be really down on conversions of games from PC and console to mobile. What's wrong with people who want to play, say, Madden football on their cell phones?
Nulman: Have you ever played Madden on a cell phone? You need a neutron microscope to see what you're doing. I have two kids who play Madden at home on a 42-in. hi-def flat screen set with Dolby sound. Now that's an experience. Can you imagine what it would be like for them to then go to the 1-1/2-in. screen on their cells and play Madden? Give me a break. One's the real thing; the other is just a reasonable -- or unreasonable -- facsimile.
THR: In your view, is that why the mobile games industry isn't making the kind of money it wants to make. Is that why people aren't buying ...
Nulman: Aha! You know why? Find me someone, please, find me anyone who's wild about mobile games. Find the mobile game fan who eats, sleeps, and breathes mobile gaming the way some gamers do on the PC or on the console. You can't do that because the passion isn't there.
THR: Maybe that's because cell phones weren't meant to be game machines. Maybe they should be used for things other than games and then there'll be no complaints.
Nulman: But that's exactly the point. What's the expression ... if you're a hammer, every problem looks like a nail? People in the games industry see that the cell phone has a screen, so they want to put a game on it. Forget the fact that it's 1/100th the size that it should be. They just try and make it work and, in my view, that's a misguided vision. Instead, the cell phone should be an interactive device that opens up your world. I say that it's time for "phase two." It's time for the next step forward in mobile gaming and that means using the cell phone properly.
THR: You've described the sort of game you think should be on a cell phone. And yet you're developing "Family Guy" games. When will you be taking that next step forward to build the sort of phase two game that you're describing?
Nulman: Oh, we're already doing that. We've got them ready to roll. But the problem is that it's hard to break through into a marketplace where carriers still want games licensed from TV and movies. They look at what we have to offer them and they just scratch their heads and don't know what to do with them. They don't know how to categorize them and they always ask how do you win? Sometimes there is no win. But they remain unconvinced. Hey, you just can't turn around a cruise ship the way you can a cigarette boat.
THR: You've actually developed these games?
Nulman: We have a good four or five of them.
THR: Excellent! So let's talk them up. What are their titles and how do they play? Maybe there'll be some carriers who read this and ...
Nulman: I'm afraid you'd need to sign an NDA first.
THR: So this is a game in search of a publisher? Is that what you're saying?
Nulman: No, it's a game in search of a market. I don't think the market is ready yet. But it will be. It just takes time. And we're patient. We've been in this business for eight years now and if we could hold out that long, we can hold out another couple of years if we have to -- at least until a more mature, perhaps more inquisitive gaming market comes along.
THR: What's your prediction? When do you think people will take the leap to a new kind of mobile game?
Nulman: Two years. In two years from now, everything's going to be different. The mobile phone will be used for very different types of games. Two years from now you and I will be having a completely different conversation.
THR: And until then? You and the other mobile game developers will be creating titles like "Family Guy" that are easily recognizable to the cell phone users?
Nulman: Exactly right. Right now we're selling what the market is buying. And that's with no shame. We have a lot of pride in what we do although I'm not going to say that we're making better games than anybody else. When developers say that, well, it's such crap. You're dealing with pixels here. How much better can one company's games be than another's. But that's not really the point. The point is that we all need fans. We don't want, say, moviegoers who see the latest film simply because it's Friday night and the theater is next door. That's what's happening now with mobile games. People play the top few games on the cell phone deck because it's convenient. They play "Tetris" or a game made from a movie because it's recognizable. Those aren't fans of mobile games and that's not the way hits are built. Hits need fans -- and eventually we're going to have to find them.
Paul Hyman is the former editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for more than a dozen years. His columns for The Hollywood Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.