GamesBeat

Guitar Hero co-creator unveils startup with a plan to mobilize the living room (exclusive interview)

green throttle 2As co-creator of Guitar Hero, Charles Huang shook up the video game world with cool new faux-guitar peripherals that injected new excitement into video games. Now he’s back with a different kind of game controller, hoping to the disrupt the world of video games again. If it works, we’ll all be enjoying cheaper, high-quality games on our TVs in a “mobilized” living room.

At Green Throttle Games, Huang is creating a new virtual game console for the television based on mobile phones and without the actual game console. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company is making a game controller that will work with Android smartphones and tablets when it debuts next year. The controller connects wirelessly with your smartphone or tablet, which can be connected via cable to display images on the television. The point is to make it easier to play the same games both in the living room and on the run.

“Mobile gaming is exploding, and new smart devices are becoming powerful alternatives to traditional consoles,” said Huang. “We just need a simple and fun way for people to play games both on the go and on the couch. Our mission is to create great game experiences that bring people together — a big-screen experience where you can just start playing games on a television, as simple as that.”

green throttle 4

Rivals in the battle for the living room

Other companies like Ouya and PowerA, the maker of the Moga controller, are doing something similar and appear to have a head start. But Huang said in an exclusive interview with GamesBeat that his company is seeking broader support, partly by building a full solution that includes a software development kit. The kit enables developers to adapt their games to work with the controller. On top of that, Green Throttle Games plans to partner with game companies to make its own first-party games that will allow two players to play the same game on a single television screen — much the way that today’s game consoles work.

“We want to change the phone into a full console experience so you can enjoy first-person shooter games and racing games,” he said. “You don’t need the game console for that. We are reimagining games for the living room.”

green throttle 9Huang said the full solution could usher in a new level of innovation for games and disrupt the existing $60 console game business at the same time.

This kind of battle could set up a larger battle — one that is already in motion. The likes of Samsung, Apple, Google, and Amazon are on one side.

On the other side are the existing game incumbents Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Electronic Arts, and Activision Blizzard. Microsoft has moved in the direction of Green Throttle with its second-screen solution, SmartGlass. But it is not fully supporting the idea of taking games from Windows Phone 8 and playing them directly on a TV set. By the same token, Sony is not about to take PlayStation Mobile games and enable them to play on a TV set in direct competition with Sony’s own PlayStation 3.

No single company stands fully in one camp or the other, but all of them are figuring out a way to dominate either gaming or the living room — or both. Dedicated game devices are in a war with broader-purpose smartphones and tablets. Bringing mobile games into the living room is tantalizing for the future of gaming. Most game consoles sell no more than 100 million units in their lifespans. Samsung may sell that many smartphones in two quarters, and Apple may sell that many in a year.

Into a perceived gap comes Huang’s 12-person start-up. He believes there’s a big opening here because some major types of games just don’t work well on mobile devices: first-person shooters, which require precision game controllers rather than touch-screen swipes, and racing games, which are more easily played with precision gear. Both of these are huge markets on the consoles, but they hardly exist on mobile devices, which finally have the horsepower to do justice to 3D games. Controllers with precision buttons and analog sticks are the best way to control most core games.

“Publishers might have a vested interest in the $60 game, but developers might be able to see what is possible,” said Huang. “The television wars are coming. There is a global set of players.”

green throttle 10How it works

Green Throttle tackles this problem by pairing a game controller with a mobile device using a Bluetooth connection. You can then attach the mobile device to the TV via a high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) cable. This solution works best since Wi-Fi network connections usually aren’t fast or reliable enough, said Huang.

green throttle 6That solves half the problem. But a lot of mobile games on Android and iOS are designed for just one player to play on a single screen at a time. The problem with mobile gaming, said Huang, is that it is currently a solitary experience without the kind of excitement that can happen when friends gather to watch two players duke it out in the living room.

Huang is in talks with video game developers to solve that problem so they can create mobile games that can be played by two people on a single big screen. Today, the company is making its hardware and software development kits available for developers. In the future, Huang hopes to make it easy to develop games for Green Throttle by integrating the SDK into game development platforms such as Corona and Unity.

Green Throttle is also working on an app that serves as the opening menu screen for a game console. The app will make it easy to scroll through a library of games and select the one that you want to play. It could also be used to play other kinds of media on the phone and project it onto the big screen.

The company is also working on a website. The Green Throttle Arena is a central hub where consumers can download all games supported by the Green Throttle controller, including those developed in-house, by software partners, or by third-party game developers.

green throttle 7Huang believes that developers are likely to be the parties that will be drawn to his solution since they will benefit from bypassing the consoles — and their royalty fees — and publishing directly on the arena. That support from developers is why the Ouya crowdfunding project was so successful (Ouya raised more than $8.6 million on Kickstarter for its Android-based game console coming this spring).

“We are building a complete ecosystem,” said Huang.

If anything, Green Throttle’s disadvantage is its lateness. The company was founded in February, and it is behind PowerA, which has launched its Moga mobile gaming controller this fall. Ouya is also set to debut in the spring. Green Throttle is only now issuing its software development kit today, and it hopes to have apps in the works to support a product launch in the spring. To succeed, it needs great games, great peripherals, marketing, distribution, and a great online service. That’s a lot for a start-up to tackle.

A billion-dollar track record

But Huang has a solid history as an entrepreneur. He and his brother Kai (who is a seed investor in Green Throttle) founded RedOctane in 1999. They teamed up with developer Harmonix Music Systems to release Guitar Hero in November 2005 on the PlayStation 2. The game, which came with a plastic faux guitar, let normal folks strum the instrument and pretend to be rock stars. It became a huge phenomenon, and Activision bought RedOctane for an estimated $99.9 million in 2006. In a couple of years, Guitar Hero became a billion-dollar business. But then the bottom dropped out of the fake guitar market, and Activision shut down RedOctane in the spring of 2010.

karl townsendHuang left at that time, traveled with his family, and contemplated his next move. Earlier this year, he got together with Palm veterans Matt Crowley (pictured above right, the chief operating officer and cofounder of Green Throttle) and Karl Townsend (pictured below left, the cofounder and chief technology officer at Green Throttle) to create their new start-up. Crowley and Huang started playing the Atari 2600 game console ages ago, when they were 12 years old. They’ve been friends ever since. Crowley worked on the Palm Pre and collaborated with product teams at Nokia while Townsend was one of the original creators of the Handspring and Palm Treo smartphones.

As he contemplated his next venture, Huang wanted to know what opportunity was big enough to become another billion-dollar business. That may be tough to do these days, but that doesn’t bother Huang.

“With Guitar Hero, there was a lot of skepticism,” he said. “I feel more comfortable with skepticism. If it were obvious, lots of people would do it. But the trends in the industry are moving this way. It is on an inevitable path. We are doing the next evolution.”

green throttle 5Huang and his brother provided the seed funding, but they expect to announcing venture capital funding in the coming weeks. Right now, they are building for the open Google Android platform, but Huang would love to talk to Apple about building for iOS.

Developer Chris Scholz, the chief executive of Free Range Games, likes the idea.

“Green Throttle is an exciting opportunity to bring console-quality games from your phone to your TV, with a real controller that is instantly familiar to millions of gamers,” he said. “It opens up interesting avenues for new cross-platform genres, games that offer different experiences when played on the TV and on handhelds but keep players in the same world. Imagine games where you ‘level up’ your character on your phone during the day and then plug in to your TV and adventure at night.”

Taehoon Kim, another developer and cofounder of nWay, said that mobile games like his company’s ChronoBlade are examples of how mobile titles are becoming a lot more like console games.

“It is possible to play these games on the touch screen with virtual joysticks while you are on the go, but it is nothing like experiencing the game using proper analog controllers together with your friends while sitting on a living room couch and playing on a big screen TV,” he said. “Green Throttle is reimagining how triple-A mobile games should be played at home, and we absolutely love it.”

Other supporters include development studios Mercenary and Monstrous. Consumer availability, pricing, and launch games will be announced later.

[Image credits: Green Throttle Games]


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