Angry Birds mobile game publisher Rovio spun out an innovative startup named Hatch in November, and now that company has collected 50 partners with 90 games for a monthly subscription service called Hatch. The service promises to come with a lot of benefits for mobile game players when it debuts later this year.
Hatch will charge a premium subscription price for instant access to all of its games. It provides that instant access by using the cloud, or internet-connected servers in a data center, in combination with the rendering capability of your own smartphone. That cloud technology allows you to log into a game and pick up where you left off or engage in playable ads for games. It also lets you play a single-player game where friends can be spectators. If you get stuck, you can hand the controls off to a friend, who can start playing immediately.
I moderated a session with Hatch CEO Juhani Honkala and business development and partnerships chief Vesa Jutila at the Casual Connect Europe event in Berlin last week. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Vesa Jutila: What you see here is my phone projected on the screen. Hatch will be a streaming service for mobile games. Just as you have an app on your phone for Netflix or Spotify, you’ll have an app for Hatch. That’s the only thing you need to stream games and play them instantly.
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The first thing you see in Hatch is the live feed. That’s a very important aspect of Hatch that isn’t only bringing games on demand over streaming, but also making it a shared social experience with your friends. We allow users to share gameplay videos while they’re playing through this social feed. Like many social networking apps, you can like posts, add comments, and share them to other social media or email them to your friends. From the get-go, Hatch is built around the social elements of games. We want to bring people together around the games they love and let them play in new ways that haven’t been possible in mobile before.
Moving to the right is the “recent” section. It’s all the games I’ve been playing on Hatch. Since all these games are running in the cloud – nothing gets downloaded to your device – there’s no limit to how many games you can play simultaneously on Hatch. You can jump into any game at any time and continue where you left off. You no longer need to be tied to the storage limitations of your phone. You have an unlimited collection of games to access on demand at any time.
For discovering new games we have a couple of sections here. There’s a “trending” section, where we feature the latest additions and best-performing games on the service. We have a couple of genre-based groups, like adventure games and action games. All the games you see here are already signed up for the launch. We announced yesterday that we have more than 50 partners on board, with more than 90 titles lined up for the launch of the service this spring.
When you find a game you want to try – let’s take Badland, from our friends at Frogmind – you go to the game detail screen. You see the description of the game. I see here that 15 of my friends have been playing this game. You can also see what my friends have been posting about this game. There’s an instant social validation of games you might want to try. If I see that 15 my friends think this is a great game, I might want to give it a try.
You just press play. In the free model, we show a video preview, an interstitial. That’s the way we monetize games for the mass market, through advertising. These video interstitials are skippable, so I can skip that and get to the game. It’s as easy as any other streaming service. You don’t need to wait for games to download or install anything or wait for updates. Just press play.
GamesBeat: It seems to have a foundational layer using the cloud. You’re applying the cloud to mobile gaming. What kind of decisions did you make regarding what parts of the cloud you wanted to take advantage of?
Juhani Honkala: We didn’t really start the project from a technology point of view. It’s not as if we came up with a piece of technology and then tried to find a use case for it. We started by looking at where the industry was going. We could see that the mobile gaming industry wasn’t growing as strong as it was a few years ago. We started thinking of ways to expand the market and bring more possibilities for developers. We wanted to find a concept that could leverage current mobile game platforms, but improve them.
We found a few key things that we felt we could fix about mobile gaming. One was that we wanted to make it very easy for people to start a new game, so we came up with this instant play concept. Just like watching a video, it’s possible to start playing any game just by pressing play. That was one of the most important features we wanted to enable, and to do that we needed to innovate on the cloud technology.
We’ve seen that the cloud has become a very important part of many different domains. But this wasn’t a very easy project. We couldn’t just take existing cloud concepts and apply them to the gaming space.
GamesBeat: “Netflix with games” seems like a simple idea, but it’s more complicated than that?
Honkala: Exactly. The devil is in the details. The use case is much more demanding than video or audio streaming, because you need a two-way connection. You have interaction and traffic going back and forth all the time. You need much lower latency. We had to implement our own technology streaming that’s very unique, so that you can play games even over a 4G connection. We had to develop lots of new software, and innovate a great deal in the hardware space as well. Existing cloud solutions wouldn’t necessarily work for our use case.
GamesBeat: And now single-player experiences can become multiplayer.
Honkala: Right. Instant play was one technology we wanted to make happen, but the other key idea was making the service very social. People like to play together with their friends, so we wanted to make it possible for you to enjoy any game that way, even single-player games.
Jutila: To give an example, I think everyone here has played Monument Valley, which is one of the titles for the launch of Hatch. Any puzzle game, like Monument Valley–think about getting stuck in a level. You don’t know what you need to do next. In a situation like that on Hatch, you can invite a friend to join you in the very same game. I can invite you to join my Monument game session, and when that happens, we stream the same game to both your screen and mine. Then I can pass over the controls to you. If you’re a more experienced Monument player than I am, you can show me how to pass the level while I watch and understand what you’re doing. Then you pass the controls back to me and I continue to play.
That’s what we believe games should be about. It’s about having fun with other people together. We want to bring that kind of fun back to mobile games by allowing this kind of shared single-player experience in any game we present. It doesn’t need to be just two people joining the session. We can stream the same game screen to up to 16 players simultaneously from the same game instance. You can become an esports broadcaster, essentially, inviting your friends to join your game in real time and showing them how to master a game.
GamesBeat: And that’s how this can become a platform for influencers.
Jutila: Absolutely. These are features we’ve enabled for cloud gaming that wouldn’t have been possible with other models we have today.
Honkala: I used to play a lot of games with my friends and family when I was younger, but that really hasn’t happened that much in the mobile era. We see that people play more games than ever these days, but they’re playing alone. I feel like it’s important that gaming can be a medium for human interaction. If you can do something with your family or your kids, for example – when you’re traveling, you can have some meaningful interaction with your kids.
Everything is 100 percent synchronized – all the player inputs, all the audio. You can be in the same room and have the audio on with every device. It’s possible to play together in the same space, like a party mode. It gives us new opportunities to play together.
GamesBeat: Going back to the technology a little bit, the early cloud gaming companies like OnLive would render everything in the cloud and stream video down to players. They tried to do that at 60 frames per second and generally failed. It seemed like a good idea that needed more bandwidth at the time.
Honkala: Lots of investment has gone into companies trying to make cloud gaming, streaming games a possibility, but all of these companies chose video-based streaming as the basis of their service. That causes very fundamental problems. The latency of the architecture is very long. You have to render the game first on the server side, compress that into video, and deliver that to the end user in some way that requires a lot of bandwidth. Then you need to decompress the video and render it on the terminal. There are many steps, and all those steps introduce extra latency to the experience. Even with the best connections and best hardware, it’s still not very practical.
We chose a completely new approach for streaming. Instead of streaming video, we’re streaming rendering commands. What that means is the streaming is very low latency. We can already start rendering the frame on the user’s device while the server is working on the same frame. There are no extra steps, no video compression. You don’t need to have expensive cloud hardware handling video compression.
GamesBeat: You’re using the computing that’s on the mobile phone.
Honkala: Right. It works on a mobile phone over a 4G connection, although 5G is optimal of course. Unlike the video-based streaming services, we are the only ones that can do this on mobile and the only ones that can do this at 60 frames per second.
GamesBeat: You have some other interesting features coming from this basic capability, like playable ads.
Jutila: Right. I already showed you some of the social features, which we think will be very exciting for users. If you think about mobile games today, it’s hard to share the fun with your friends, share the best moments in your games. We make that very simple and intuitive.
Any time you play a game on Hatch, we’re always basically recording the last 30 seconds of your gameplay in the background, without you needing to initiate that. Whenever you do something fun – beat a boss, pass a level – you can hit the share video feature and access the last 30 seconds of your gameplay. We have a set of editing tools so you can crop, trim, add comments, and then share that stream on Hatch. As I showed you earlier, then you can further share it to Facebook or any other social media. We feel like enabling this social behavior, making it very easy for people, can trigger a new way of playing games, making it much more of a shared experience.
These social features, from the beginning, have been at the core of our design process. We also believe that the more fun the experience, the more shared these features will become between your friends and the people in your network of fellow gamers, and the more widely the service will spread. We believe this process can unleash a lot of excitement when we let people come together and play the games they love.
GamesBeat: There are other companies out there, like 1App, which has a similar approach of using cloud-streaming technology to do ads for games. They just share a link. Someone can share that link on Twitter, and then that goes straight into a gaming experience, an instantly playable game. They’re using the cloud for that. But they’re doing something different in that they don’t have an app the way you do. You have more potential possibilities since people have a way to get back to your experiences.
Honkala: It’s quite different. Playable ads don’t usually have the performance for great games. You can toy with it a bit, but it doesn’t give you the framerate or the experience that you really need. For us, everything happens in one application, inside Hatch. There are no extra downloads, nothing you need to install on top. It’s very easy to use, and that enables us to do some very clever things that weren’t possible before.
Thinking about multiplayer games and matchmaking, we can do matchmaking automatically. They don’t need to be in a certain game. They don’t need to wait in a lobby. We just know that these users are available to Hatch and we can send them notifications when a game session starts. They can respond and get in the game. It’s a completely different story.
Let’s say I want to play a game with Vesa that he doesn’t have. First I need to call him or somehow send him a message. Then he has to download the game, install it, and go inside to the lobby and wait for me. With Hatch I don’t need any of that. I can just start the game. Vesa doesn’t need to install the game. It doesn’t matter if he’s ever played before. He doesn’t need to wait. We believe this will make social gameplay in mobile very different, because all of these obstacles are going away.
GamesBeat: You have 50 partners here, other game companies, and 90 games. You’ve been successful so far at recruiting companies to join Hatch.
Jutila: We started to reach out to prospective content partners almost exactly one year ago. We’ve been having so many great meetings and discussions. It’s amazing to see how positive the response has been. It’s been a great starting point. We haven’t gotten everyone on board yet, but everyone we’ve met has given us positive feedback and encouragement in our mission.
We’re just getting started here, so of course these 50 partners and 90 games are just a starting point for our beta phase, which is starting very shortly. We’ll keep adding new games, which is a very important part of our content strategy. We need to keep bringing new titles continuously into the catalog. Our users always need to have something new to discover and try out. That serves retention in an important way. We have to keep the content fluid and dynamic. We’ll be observing what kind of games people like to play, what kind of games trigger social behaviors, what kind of games people want to share with their friends, and we’ll gear the game sourcing process to get more of those into the catalog.
This is an emerging front. Nobody has done this before. We can only guess right now as to what will actually be the best-performing games when we make them available on demand. But we have a lot of variety in our existing collection. We’re trying to serve all kinds of players out there with different types of games.
When it comes to the size of the catalog, we’ll be starting with almost 100 games when we begin real testing. But when all of these games are available on demand, how many do people actually start playing in parallel? How big is the optimal size of our collection?
GamesBeat: You spun out of Rovio, and you have a subscription model. You have to decide how many games should be available and how much to charge per month. It’s interesting to see a premium model coming back to mobile games.
Honkala: We’ve been talking about this concept with many game developers out there, and we’ve found that a lot of them are currently struggling with free-to-play. I personally have a very strong background in free-to-play game development. It’s a good model for some games, but there are lots of genres and gameplay types that aren’t really working that well with free-to-play. We’ve found that developers really like what we’re offering, because they see a new way of bringing back diversity in mobile games, bringing back games that are fun to play. We’ve had success talking to companies in the traditional gaming market, some of whom have very strong IP. They see this as a relevant way for them to come to mobile for the first time, because they couldn’t be as successful in free-to-play.
GamesBeat: The Japanese market has adopted some of these models. KDDI had its Netflix-like service that they charged a fee for.
Honkala: Right. It’s a familiar model for them, and they’re supporting us. We have lots of games from Japanese developers, lots of great IP like Space Invaders and Pac-Man. They’re games I used to play when I was young, and I’m very happy to see them as part of Hatch.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like you need to get more exclusives or particular games that will be a big draw for subscribers?
Honkala: Of course you need some titles like that, games that will draw a lot of press. We have a very strong portfolio. We want to have a balanced portfolio, though, so we have games for different kinds of audiences. We want to reach the audience that plays free-to-play games as well.
Jutila: If you think about Netflix, their success has been driven by original productions, having exclusive content available only on Netflix. We’ll be following the same model. To start with, all the games on Hatch have a different experience compared to what you have today, because all those games can now be played together in a totally new way. But we also have multiple approaches going. Some game studios want to develop an exclusive version of their game for Hatch specifically, to tap into some of the new social features we can offer.
We also have a number of totally new game projects ongoing, what we call Hatch Originals. These are new social multiplayer games tailor-made for the Hatch experience, fully making use of our play-together features to let people have fun with their friends.
We have a very straightforward and simple business model for our developer partners. On a quarterly basis we’re pooling all the revenues we get from advertising or subscriptions into one pool. Then we’ll divide that 70-30 in favor of developers based on the gameplay minutes for each game. We think that’s a fair model, because the better your game, the more people will play it and the more money you’ll make. So far we’re seeing a positive reaction from developers. It gives them an incentive to bring their best content to Hatch and monetize more effectively.
GamesBeat: What’s the hardest thing about executing on this idea?
Honkala: We started concepting this out a few years ago. At the time, I started thinking about what would be the next thing in gaming, and that’s what led us to these ideas around instant play and playing together. The real challenge came in building the technology – we needed to innovate and develop our own technology to make this possible. We also needed to find the right partners. We’re building on a model that no one else is using. It’s not just a matter of doing our own work. We needed to turn the whole industry around.
Beyond the tech, we had to deal with developers. We needed to educate them and make them understand that this is a new opportunity. It’s a better opportunity for many developers. We’re demonstrating with Hatch Originals that making multiplayer games for our platform is much cheaper and easier than making multiplayer games elsewhere, thanks to the benefits of our technology platform.
Next, we need to talk to consumers. We need to educate them on what gaming could be like in the future. I feel like Hatch is a more natural way of playing games. It’s simpler. You don’t need to install or download any applications. It’s easy to use, which we think will expand the audience available to games and grow the whole mobile industry.
We need to do all of these things at once in addition to pushing the whole mobile industry forward. It’s difficult to pull off, but I’m happy that we already have the technology in place. We have strong partners in that area. Our service is up and running and we’re very happy with the performance. We have key developers on board as our launch partners. Now it’s very easy to demonstrate to the public what this new experience is like. Once you start playing with Hatch, it’s hard to go back in time to when you had to download your games.
Audience question: When you built this technology, did you create something entirely new, or was it based on existing software that’s already available?
Honkala: We have a very strong technical background. My team used to build Rovio’s platform, which scaled up to 260 million users. We also built our own advertising system as part of the platform, and we’re building some other very advanced automated services. Hatch is not like any other cloud service that you can implement with APIs in other apps. We have very good technology, but we’ve built it in house. Everything related to streaming we built ourselves. We’re using different ways of processing on the cloud side. It’s more like computing things continuously on the server side. We didn’t have any existing solutions that could match our need. We had to work with our hardware and software partners to create a very unique hardware and software stack that’s not comparable to existing services.
Jutila: If I could add one point from the developer’s perspective, this is very simple for our developer partners to use. We’re running all the games in our cloud servers based on Android. If you have an existing binary version of your game running on Android, we can run it on Hatch. The developer doesn’t need to work with a new SDK. You can take your existing Android binary and we do all the rest. It’s basically a no-investment opportunity for developers who have existing premium mobile games on Android.
From the very beginning we set that as a very important goal. If we needed to ask a developer to build a specific version for Hatch and maintain a separate branch of their software, it would be a much tougher sell to keep them on board. We’re glad that we were able to build a model that can take existing Android builds and let them work with our streaming technology. In the long term, a developer only needs to support one version of a game on Android. We take care of porting the application to Hatch for multiple platforms. We’re starting with Android, but we’ll be moving to iOS and any platform that makes commercial sense.
Audience question: You described multiplayer gaming in a cooperative context. How does that work when you’re playing against each other?
Honkala: The Hatch platform provides very distinct advantages for making multiplayer games. Traditionally, if you want to make a multiplayer game, you need a complicated network protocol to synchronize the states of different sessions, because every mobile device or PC runs its own session of the game.
In Hatch, we run games on the server side, so there’s just that one session. Implementing a multiplayer game is as simple as implementing a game with support for multiple controllers. You don’t need to know anything about network programming. We have options to do things like present a different screen to each user, but in essence Hatch makes multiplayer games much easier, whether they’re co-op games or player-versus-player.
Disclosure: Casual Connect paid my way to Berlin. Our coverage remains objective.
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