Disclosure: The organizers of Quo Vadis paid my way to Berlin, where I moderated a session with veteran game designers. Our coverage remains objective.
Chris Kassulke has been designing mobile games for more than 16 years. While many console game makers are just beginning to make the transition from hardcore games on the PC and consoles to more casual fare on mobile devices, Kassulke made that transition many years ago. And now he’s on the leading edge of what has become a $30 billion industry, according to market researcher Newzoo.
As chief executive of Handy Games in Wuerzburg, in Germany’s Bavaria region, he has built a company with 65 employees dedicated to games for smartphones and, most recently, smart watches. Kassulke is experimenting with titles for Android wearables, and he expects to launch Apple Watch games soon. He is also working on games for smart TVs and virtual reality. In short, Kassulke is willing to experiment on just about any emerging game platform. So far, that hasn’t resulted in a gigantic hit like Supercell’s Clash of Clans, but Handy Games is still trying.
I caught up with Kassulke at the Quo Vadis games conference in Berlin last week. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: When did you get started in mobile games?
Chris Kassulke: We started in 1999 with black and white games, preinstalled, no box at all. Just software. We were preinstalled on more than 50 million Siemens devices, to give you an example. Then we moved to J2ME, the operator business, even Brew and stuff like that. We had mobile Internet games for i-mode and all the other stuff. Then we moved to iOS and Android, as well as Windows Phone 8.
Now we’re talking about going beyond mobile. That’s more interesting for us, because we can use all our knowledge and IP on platforms like consoles. Our first games are coming to PS4 and we’re going to other consoles as well. We’re doing a lot of work with Google on the Android TV, as well as Amazon with the Amazon Fire TV. The next step will be wearables, mainly smart watches.
GamesBeat: When did you start on wearables?
Kassulke: The summer of last year. We already have around 12 titles out. We’re not only doing games there. We have a live watch face for Instagram, for example. As soon as you change an Instagram picture it changes here as well. It’s quite funny. We try to find things users will really want to try. It’s the same on the games side. We want to build something where we see an advantage in the smart watches.
We use features like timing how long you’ve slept. If you haven’t slept enough, your virtual dog here will be tired. It’ll mirror your behavior. It’ll see if you’re not walking enough. He’ll want to go out. If you want to take a sprint, we have a speed checker in the smart watch to see exactly how fast you’re running. Depending on that, you’ll get rewards in the game. It’s a perfect Tamagotchi type of game.
GamesBeat: Is this all what you’d call experimentation still, or is this a moneymaking opportunity already?
Kassulke: For us, we started with innovation, because no one believed in mobile games 15 years ago. We want to be pioneers in the business. We want to check out new markets all the time. We do a lot of R&D, checking out what will be the next big topics out there. We’re not just doing analysis, either. We develop some games or products and release it.
It’s quite funny. We’re fighting the perception here in Germany that nobody cares about smart watch games. It’s like the early days of mobile games, when everyone told me the same thing. “You’re crazy. Nobody will play games on a phone.” People say, “Can you really play games with that? You won’t even be using it as a watch anymore.” Yes, exactly!
We’ll be able to combine these games, too. Smart watch games can serve as a companion app to mobile games or even console games. Combining all these platforms together will be very interesting, using all of their different advantages.
GamesBeat: How is monetization going to work?
Kassulke: We’re experimenting in the market right now. Currently we release our games for 99 cents. We also have the live watch face for Instagram, though, and that’s free. We’re trying to see what the market will want. You can’t do in-app purchases on a smart watch right now or use advertising. You don’t really want to watch a video ad on your smart watch. So it will be a paid market for the moment, but it will change, just like the mobile market. First we saw the paid market, then the freemium market, then the ad-supported market. But we need to get to the next level of smart watches where that makes sense.
GamesBeat: How do you try to experiment with a market that’s going to take off big, versus something that’s probably going to stay very small? How do you spot what’s going to be the next big platform?
Kassulke: We’re looking in every different direction. You can see very fast, usually. How many units are shipping? What do consumers really want? We were really surprised by how well these smart watch games are taking off. We know exactly how many users have a smart watch at the moment. Compared to that, our download numbers are really good, and for paid games. If enough units ship out there, the market will be very interesting. Apple is releasing their watch and we know about a lot of others. Even Pebble. Nobody believed in Pebble, and now they’re shipping one new handset after another. The demand is there.
GamesBeat: Are you going to do Apple Watch games, then?
Kassulke: Yes, in the near future.
GamesBeat: And you’re also interested in virtual reality?
Kassulke: Yes. You can do something completely different there. I showed you that demo with walking around in a mocked-up building, something architects could use. It’s not only going to be for the gaming industry. It’ll be used in all kinds of ways. You can showcase something to a stakeholder that they wouldn’t be able to see normally.
For gaming, I believe Cardboard will be successful. You don’t have any wires. Everyone can use it. Even iOS users can play our games in 3D on Cardboard. Then you have a mass market, because you don’t have to buy a separate unit or use a powerful PC.
GamesBeat: So there’s going to be a high end and a low end for virtual reality?
Kassulke: For us, the low end will be everyone who has a mobile phone. There will be a low-priced entry point that’ll become a mass market. We see a huge market there. Oculus Rift is still pretty high-end stuff, I’d say. It won’t be a mass market. It’s not just something you can plug in and use. Cardboard, if I paint it the right color and sell it in the right place, you’ll buy it, because it’s just 20 or 30 bucks, and it’s a perfect fit.
GamesBeat: Would you say that the talent here is able to shift from one type of device to another? Making a smart watch game or a VR game or a mobile game, does that all require the same sort of talents?
Kassulke: We have different teams for different things. You can’t move one from smart watch games to VR. We use our R&D teams, though, combining them with our normal teams. They bring knowledge back to other teams, and they can develop games for a given brand that fit with a lot of different platforms. We’ll have one experience that fits well with VR, and then we can have a spin-off experience that might work on the smart watch side.