Global conglomerates like Samsung dominate the tech landscape. But when it comes to games, they’re underdogs. Samsung knows this, and that’s why it recently announced at our GamesBeat Summit 2016 event that it is extending its Made for Samsung program for promoting apps to independent game developers.
Mihai Pohontu, vice president of emerging platforms at Samsung, said that Samsung has been providing developer services for the past year to app partners, such as The Weather Channel, CNN, and others. Now, it will extend those same services in the hope of getting exclusive titles from indie mobile game developers, too.
Samsung faces a big competitive challenge. It has the Galaxy Apps Store on all of its Android smartphones and tablets, and it has the leading market share on Android. But to date, most people get their mobile apps either from Apple’s iTunes App Store or the Google Play store. Those platform owners take a 30 percent chunk of revenues from billions of app transactions. Now, Samsung wants to provide an alternative to those stores and help developers succeed as well.
The goal is to get access to content that differentiates Samsung’s ecosystem. And gaming is an important part of that, Pohontu said. Closely related to games is the company’s Samsung Gear VR mobile virtual reality headset. The company recently announced it had sold more than 1 million units since November.
Here’s an edited transcript of my on-stage interview with Pohontu.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that Samsung is a giant company, but in the business you’re in you’re an underdog. It’s a weird juxtaposition there. We’ve heard a lot of lessons from platform makers — Robbie Bach, Tim Sweeney. I’m curious about some of the things you’ve learned in getting ready to create your platforms.
Mihai Pohontu: Samsung has been in the software game for far longer than it’s given credit. It’s a little-known fact that Samsung has more engineers than Facebook or Google. Over the years, the quality of our work has improved, especially as of late with the ascent of Dongjin (DJ) Koh as the president of our mobile division. We found that we needed to focus on software. It made my life a lot easier to have someone in the top leadership that understands R&D. He was the head of the R&D group prior to taking his current job.
Getting the leadership to understand the importance of the software ecosystem is crucial. At the Samsung Developer Conference that just took place last week, he was clear that software is the future of Samsung. From the largest hardware manufacturer in the world, that’s a refreshing statement.
We’re still definitely an underdog. We have a lot to learn and improve on. But we’re making strides in many ways, particularly in games. That’s been a renewed focus for us. It’s been a decade plus since we’ve heard about games at one of Samsung’s impact events, when we launch a mobile flagship device. You’ve heard about a number of things, including the game launcher, a folder that services games on our devices and a place where we can promote games. We heard about the integration of our Vulkan technology, graphics acceleration embedded in our operating system.
Additionally, we heard about a renewed focus on engaging with the gaming community. One expression of that is that for the first time in many years, Samsung will have a major presence at E3.
GamesBeat: At SDC you talked a lot about the Made for Samsung co-development initiative. That was mostly about apps. You’ve had good results with that, though, and you’re extending that to games.
Pohontu: That’s right. The team that I’m managing is focused on extending the software ecosystem around Samsung products. It’s important for us in order to differentiate our hardware. Software is the soul of the machine. We want to have the best software out there. So we started a program called Made for Samsung with the idea that we’d work with innovative startups and top brands to create exclusive products for our platforms. Not just mobile, but mobile, tablet, TV, wearables, Internet of things [IOT], and VR.
This program has been very successful. We’ve already launched eight differentiated apps, and we have a lot more in the pipeline. It’s growing very nicely. We’ve worked with CNN, Expedia, Lyft, and many others. But we haven’t had a focus on games within the Made for Samsung program. I’m happy that’s changing. Effective immediately, we’d like to extend this co-development program to indie game makers around the world.
We offer heavy and sustained promotion to game developers in exchange for exclusivity for their games. You don’t necessarily have a good chance of getting promoted in the traditional app stores. We offer a window into the world. We merchandise the store in the U.S., and we think we can generate 30,000 to 40,000 installs per month for the games we promote in our system.
Those numbers pale in comparison from what you get if you’re featured in Google Play, but you only get a short burst there, perhaps a week. Our strategy is to be a store that’s more like your neighborhood record store. It’s a very boutique offering. We’re focusing on indies and on high quality. We want to promote these apps and games for the long haul. Google Play has a wonderful place in the Android ecosystem. They’re the Wal-Mart of applications. We’re an alternative experience.
GamesBeat: You have some services here that are going to be good for developers as well — testing, co-marketing.
Pohontu: That’s where we differ from Google Play. Google Play is a storefront. There’s an amazing team behind it, and we hope to collaborate with them more closely in the future because what’s good for Samsung is good for Android as well. But we’re not about the store solely.
Our team has been structured to map the entire journey of the developer through the Samsung ecosystem, all the way from developer onboarding — we organize events like the Samsung developer conference for example. We’re a regular presence at major conferences throughout the year. Additionally, we have a publishing team that merchandises the store in the U.S. We have a business development group that connects developers with the right deal within Samsung. We have a production team — engineers, artists, producers — who work with developers to create these exclusives products. We have an operations group with development services like quality assurance, customer support, deployment, and analytics, in addition to just pure promotion and marketing.
If you’re in a co-development relationship with Samsung, it’s not just about getting your app promoted. It’s being a regular presence at trade shows. I’ll take you with us on the road to CES, to Mobile World Congress. That’s fantastic exposure, way beyond the boundaries of the game industry.
GamesBeat: That’s a lot of expense for you guys, but you’re not doing investments in game companies. You’re not going to put cash out there for exclusivity.
Pohontu: That’s not our team’s model. I’m not saying investments aren’t possible within the Samsung organization. One benefit of working with our group is that we can act as your advocates within the broader Samsung system. Samsung is a company with infinite resources and possibilities, but they’re hard to harness. Any of you who’ve worked with Samsung know that we’re large and complicated, as befits a company with 350,000 employees.
GamesBeat: Do you have results worth talking about yet, some apps that are already out there?
Pohontu: Unfortunately, nothing in terms of games necessarily, but CNN has been very successful. We launched them in September 2015. Since then, in less than six months, they’ve had more than 2 million installs. What CNN has done is a good case study for game developers. They haven’t just launched a mobile app. They’ve also created a wearable app. We’ve preloaded the wearable app in the Gear S. They launched a VR experience with us. We can promote all of these different apps that are hopefully interconnected and create a unique customer experience. We can promote them in every channel. We merchandise the Samsung section of the Oculus store.
When I talk about 30,000 or 40,000 installs, I mean U.S. installs. That’s not the same thing as an equivalent number of installs in China. That’s a meaningful number. I also think that if you look at the Android space, Samsung devices clearly over-index everything else. We’re the higher-end echelon of Android.
Developers may ask, “How do I get to be promoted internationally? It’s great that you’re doing stuff in the U.S., but how do I go international?” We can help with that as well. We don’t control the stores around the world, but we partner with governing bodies for the Galaxy S internationally, so we can advocate on your behalf. Additionally, there are all these smart things you can do to get in with Samsung at a very meaningful level.
For example, we’re very big on Vulkan. If you integrate your games with the Vulkan technology, you can bet you’ll be promoted internationally and heavily. That 30,000 to 40,000 installs per month can become a much more meaningful number.
Galaxy Apps in the U.S. has 20 million [monthly active users (MAUs)]. It’s a good number. We’re happy about it. That’s up from 6 million MAUs when we took over the store. It’s a much prettier store than it’s ever been. We’ve done good work with the content. And there are 90 million MAUs plus worldwide. It’s a great opportunity. It’s an alternate experience. We’re far more likely to get your game featured and promoted heavily to our store.
If you’re an indie developer — [Vlambeer’s] Rami Ismail was saying yesterday that for you guys, $100,000 doesn’t mean anything. It’s pocket change. You spend that much money coming here first class from Europe or whatever. But for an indie developer, it means a lot. We want to offer that material benefit to indie developers. They take that money, put it in the bank, and they can make the game they want. Hopefully, they’ll get promoted in Galaxy Apps because they already have good performance. They have something to show for their craft. That’s what we’re here for.
GamesBeat: Tell us more about VR. We’ve heard different expectations. Samsung has the Gear VR on the market. Developers are coming to you and asking, “How do we do VR right?” What do you guys have to say?
Pohontu: I wish I had a great answer for that, but I don’t think we know just how to do VR right yet. As far as what we can offer developers, though, we’re pioneers in VR. We’re heavily invested in Gear VR. The team I’m part of is building VR software. Milk VR is effectively Samsung’s 3D video channel. We’re working with filmmakers and content creators to get their work into our store.
For game makers that are starting to create VR content, we’re trying to help them. If they bring their content to Gear VR, we’ll promote their mobile app in our store. It’s one way to subsidize their VR investment. We’re finding some traction there. We have great content, great games, already on Gear VR. We hope that will continue.
The Made for Samsung program is the umbrella for what we would normally call co-development. It’s geared toward mobile first and VR second. Having an ecosystem play as part of the contract road map is very important for us. Everything we’ve done in the non-game space is very much a cross-platform experience and hopefully, a connected one as well. We hope to replicate that in games. Mobile and VR make perfect sense for games.
We can think about wearables and IOT as an auxiliary experience. I don’t know that anyone has cracked that nut. Utilizing IOT in the context of games — lights flickering, doors opening — that could be something interesting for a particular experience, perhaps.
GamesBeat: What do you think of the concerns over open and closed platforms out there? You guys are on Android. You have Tizen, which is pretty open.
Pohontu: Tizen is very open. It’s an open-source stack. Like the PC today, it’s one of the platforms where there’s no revenue share. It’s growing rapidly. We’ve deployed it in India, obviously. We saw a good number of devices there. We’re expanding it internationally. It’ll be a presence in many emerging markets. That will happen this year. Tizen is becoming more important for us. It’s one of the ways we can sell smartphones at very low cost in emerging markets.
Also, Tizen powers our TVs. It powers our wearables and IOT. It even powers our security solution, KNOX. We’re very serious about Tizen. It’s a wonderful operating system. We’re committed to Android, though. Our high-end handsets will run Android for the foreseeable future.
GamesBeat: You guys have this image that goes from the refrigerator on this side to the Galaxy S7 on that side. Do you have games running on everything? Is that the idea?
Pohontu: Play games on your fridge while you’re waiting for a drink. Maybe? I see the smart fridge as an IOT controller. Maybe you want to set up your living room to be [a] perfect gaming pad. That means lights and maybe a certain temperature, the window blinds coming down. If you want to control that from your fridge, sure.
Question: About Gear VR, what is Samsung going to be doing to grow the market share and accessibility of Gear VR in the consumer space?
Pohontu: As you know, we’re in mobile VR, which I think will be the first mass-market VR device, thanks to price point. The quality of the experience is quite good for what Gear VR is intended for, which is primarily video. Obviously, we have games, and we’ll continue to have games.
The good news is that every year our flagship mobile device becomes more powerful. We’ve grown by leaps and bounds. Our chip technology is improving quite significantly from year to year. In our R&D organization, we now have a dedicated graphics task force that’s geared toward making the mobile device be absolutely beautiful at running high-fidelity graphics. I mentioned Vulkan, which is a really important initiative for us. We hope that more developers will jump on board with Vulkan.
Our estimate is that our mobile flagship device, the S series, will surpass the PlayStation 4 in 2020. I know Samsung loves to over-deliver, so it could happen sooner than that. Imagine console-quality graphics on your mobile phone, which also acts as your VR support. That’s a very exciting time, and not just for VR but for what you can display on TVs.
Injong Rhee, who’s the head of our R&D organization, has said that Samsung is also working on an untethered dedicated VR experience. There’s a lot of excitement around that in the company. We have more stuff happening in AR as well. If you watch Samsung, it’ll be awesome to see what we have coming to market in the next few years.