Stepping into unknown territory, mobile game developer Glu Mobile announced last week that it had developed a word game, Spellista, for the Google Glass wearable device.
From Google’s perspective, games could be crucial to the future of Glass as games often become the biggest moneymaker on any new digital platform. Once the price of Glass comes down and apps such as games proliferate, the platform could in turn become an important market for game companies. At least that’s what Glu is betting on.
Above: Spellista snow
Niccolo de Masi, the chief executive of the publicly traded San Francisco company, talked with us about it alongside Sourabh Ahuja, the vice president of Glass development at Glu, to give us a full picture of the game. The company worked closely with Google as a top Glass developer to create the game for the Google Glass GDK beta program. In our interview, de Masi said he believes Glass may deliver “an iPhone moment” in terms of big changes for gaming that are as significant as the introduction of the original iPhone in 2007.
The title may never make money. But it is an experiment worth trying as mobile game companies like Glu are always looking for a new frontier and a chance to steal an advantage on rivals. Glu is riding high off of its Deer Hunter 2014 title today, one of the rare action-shooter games that has been successful on mobile devices. While such games can generate $50 million a year for Glu, experimenting in the unknown remains critical.
Let’s find out why in the edited interview transcript that follows.
GamesBeat: Could you give me a picture of where Glu Mobile is now?
Niccolo de Masi: Well, some exciting news on that front. We did our Q3 earnings a couple of weeks ago, and we’ve guided Q4 2013 to be the largest, by revenue and by profitability, in our 12-year history. We’re very pleased with the fact that Deer Hunter 2014, which launched in September, is on track to be our best performing game in history. We’re also pleased that for the fourth year in a row now, we’ve shipped the biggest grossing action shooter of the year on the mobile platforms. I’d argue we have a 50 percent market share of that genre, whether it’s with Deer Hunter, Frontline Commando, Contract Killer, and so on.
Big things in store for Glu in 2014. We’ve guided to 20 percent growth year on year, at least. We’ve guided to break even or profitable. The new management team we focused on bringing in over the past year has begun to make a positive impact on our ability to not only improve average revenue per daily active user (ARPDAU) on our games, but also things like retention. We’ve made the right investments in the last year. We’re doing a good job on talent attraction these days.
Above: Deer Hunter 2014
GB: I never would have predicted a revival for Deer Hunter — once a big PC game hit — on mobile.
de Masi: Remember, though, that Deer Hunter 2012 – Deer Hunter Reloaded – was, I would posit, the biggest grossing shooter of last year. That one surprised everyone too. This one is even bigger. It’s been hanging out in the top-grossing for considerably longer than the first one.
The market’s bigger now. This phenomenon is happening across the app stores. The market is doubling every year, but the top 10 games are getting bigger at an even faster rate. We went from 2010, where a $10 million new game like Gun Bros was a big game, to today, where it’s a $50 million game if you’re in the same grossing position. That’s been helpful for a company like Glu that’s invested a lot of time in original IP franchises and trying to build barriers to entry around the stuff we’re really good at.
I would say that in the last four years, the stuff we’re good at has been action games and Android.
GB: Tell us about Glass.
de Masi: We’ve been a big partner with Google for six or seven years. We were the first company to build Android games in 2008, 2009. We have a board member in common with Google. We’ve consistently been the pioneer for every new technology enhancement, evolution, refinement — whether it’s hardware or software – that they’ve brought out.
Glass is very much an extension of that. We think there’s room for this to be a phone replacer in the long term. We always want to be early to things we believe can go somewhere. We think there’s room for the price point to come down and drive interesting adoption of this long term, especially when you think about Moore’s Law and the reduction of form factors. It’s a brand new paradigm for interactivity, so it’s a brand new paradigm for games.
If you haven’t seen the game, you have to try it out. It’s voice commands and head movements, rather than using your thumbs. We’re pretty pleased with the ability to innovate with new technology protocols and the new GDK that we’ve helped them establish. Our game is taking more advantage of everything that Glass can do than all the other apps that were demo’d there. It’s significantly more advanced in its use of the technology. We’re innovating in ways like the ability to send levels from Glass to Glass, and the ability to not only play the game, but also construct levels in the game.
Above: Google’s Sergey Brin is an early investor in 23andme
GB: So if Android took four or five years to pay off, are you expecting something similar around Glass?
de Masi: Android started paying off in 2011. They brought in-app purchasing in March 2011, I think? We were the first doing that too. So that’s a fair statement. I guess we were three years earlier on that one.
Sourabh Ahuja: It’s wearables in general. The watches are starting to pick up – the Samsung, the Pebble. The wearables double up on your battery life, so it works both ways. We have delivered three innovations here. We have a voice tutorial, peer-to-peer messaging, and user-generated content. You can create your own levels. Once people get the hang of it, they just want to keep going. It’s fun. You start getting the words. Initially you think, “Uh, what am I doing?” But then it sticks.
de Masi: The game is built for one- or two-minute sessions. Wherever you are, you can say, “OK Glass, play a game.” We’re the only game in the store.
Ahuja: We did a lot of brainstorming with Google in the beginning. Google wants this device to be something that’s not in your way, that takes away your focus for a maximum of one or two minutes. It gets you what you need and you’re back to what you’re doing. It’s the same way with the game. It’s not supposed to be a really involved experience for 10 minutes at a time.
We shipped with nine pre-set levels, and then you can create as many levels as you want, by taking a picture and speaking words associated with it. You can make them public or private. They all go to spellista.google.com. I can log in with my Google account right now, browse the public levels created by the community, and send them to myself. You can create them on your device as well. Then you can log in to the website and send it to a friend or to a Glass device.
Say you want to wish somebody a happy birthday. You just take a picture of a cake, you say your statement to the other person, and it goes to them as an encoded message. If you’re playing and you don’t get a word for 30 seconds, a little gift box drops. You can catch the box and it will just put the word right there in front of you. Or you can tap to skip a word and move on to the next one. We didn’t try to build any competition into this game. It’s just fun and engaging with your friends. It’s more focused on socializing than competing for the best time. We wanted to encourage user-generated content.
It’s amazing how that lets us scale the game. We don’t have to have artists constantly making new levels. We ship with those nine levels, and now all of a sudden, on spellista.google.com, even if you’re not a Glass user, you can create levels and send them to your friends who are Glass users. Just sign in with your Google account. You can have up to five levels per account stored on our servers – edit them, add words, change images, and send them to your friends. You almost have picture messaging, except the fun part is that the message doesn’t just show up. You have to decode the message.