[As we continue to try to sail the sea of game development, talking to some of the salty sea dogs out there, Digital Chocolate's Trip Hawkins is certainly one of the saltiest. Game Developer EIC Brandon Sheffield recently caught up with him to discuss theories on where gaming is now, and it's always a.... trip?]

Game industry pioneer Trip Hawkins has had a long and storied career, now spanning over 25 years, with his resume including being the original founder of Electronic Arts, and a long and strange trip launching the 3DO console.

Following a shift to solely developing games for 3DO as a company and its eventual shutdown, Hawkins has been laboring on his current venture Digital Chocolate since 2003.

As the cellphone game company transitions to meet the challenge of the crowded iPhone game market, and even converts some of its games such as Tower Bloxx to PC, it's obvious that Hawkins is trying a more diverse platform strategy based on this new paradigm.

Thus, in this in-depth interview, we ask Hawkins about the current state of the industry, his feelings about the changing face of consumers, handicapping versus luck, and his concept of the "omni gamer":

The Rise Of The Omni Gamer

As a guy who has been through a lot of tumultuous times. What do you think...

Trip Hawkins: I've seen it all.

Yeah, what do you think about the current situation in the game industry? What kinds of companies do you think are going to weather your storm, and what's going to close, and how? Talking in the general here.

TH: You know, if you're just talking about the gaming industry as a bigger picture, we've had this fairly substantial increase in cost in development, and that's been going on for the last twenty years, particularly when you went from media like cartridges and floppy disks to CD, you know, optical disc media.

You have a lot of memory in the machines and a lot of processing power, and it almost is like, if you use the storytelling comparison, it would be one thing to be in the book business and to write a good novel, and it's another thing if you have to make film.

And it's another entirely thing if you have to make a special effects film, to have a really big budget for special effects. Frankly, even Hollywood, they have to be really careful. One of the reasons why you're almost always stuck with a pre-existing brand like a comic book hero or a book hero is that when they make a big budget -- especially special effects -- film, it's because they're desperately trying to figure out how to recover their costs.

And this same scenario kind of got the game industry backed into a corner. And it's okay if you're making a really great game that's an established brand and that serves a big market like Grand Theft Auto or Madden Football, but over time, it obviously made it very, very difficult for the game industry to innovate.

And there's something going on right now where clearly, because of the economy, you can't assume you can spend as much money as you'd like, and it's going to be harder to get a customer to pay a premium price point for an elite performance. And you see this with filmmaking, you can put that really big budget special effects film in a movie theatre, and most people won't go to it.

In fact, the average American only goes to a movie only four or five times a year, in a movie theatre. And what's going on, I call this trend omni media, and it's very pronounced in the last five year. And there's this trend that affects music and film and television and web and games.

Basically, we're going from five years ago, when digital interactive media was pretty much limited to a 100 million customers. So, in a really good cycle, that's how many consoles Sony could sell or how many handhelds Nintendo could sell. Maybe at a 100 million people playing games at a PC at home.

Think about it, when you've got a population of six billion people in the world, you're only really scratching the surface. And what's happened in the last five years is this explosion in a new type of media that's consistent in crossing different forms. You've got music videos, TV, whatever, and games.

And what it's about is the fact that people are now comfortable with computers. They may own one. They may have a mobile phone that has become one. They may have a camera that has become one. They may have one at work or at school. So they don't necessarily have to be affluent people that can afford a new PlayStation or a hot PC at home.

Everybody has pretty much gotten comfortable with computers, and all these people are not inclined to dive deep into a really immersive hardcore game. They're kind of intimidated by that.

I think that's kind of the first law of omni media, that less is more. It's partly because the consumer, their motivation is that they want something that is simple enough for them to handle, and they want it to be really convenient, and they're interested in making social connections with it.

For example, you see this right now with the iPhone, where one of the reasons why they get so many downloads is because people are talking to their friends about what they're doing with their iPhone. And it's exciting for them to be able to feel like they're doing something fashionable and that they're discovering really cool new things all the time. Some of them are stupid like the fart applications, but it's still a laugh, and you can get some social value by giving your friend a laugh.

So, for the game industry, what this suggests is that the heartbeat of gaming is going to shift. It's not going to be just around the bug budget productions. It's going to be more about these simple, convenient omni games and how they get onto all the platforms that omni consumers are using because they're not just using one platform.

In fact, I think all these customers are going to start to expect to see the same brand names crossing platform boundaries and they'll expect it to be in their hand when they're walking around, and when they get home, they'll expect it on their computer, they'll expect it on their console, they'll expect it on their TV, they'll expect it in their hotel, they'll expect it on their airplane seat.

I think that's shifting the requirements where companies that make smaller, simpler games that appeal to a larger audience. They have lower pressure budgets, they have more agility across all these platforms, and they are designed more from a social standpoint.

Just think about it, "Okay, how do we get this to be socially enabling?" Again, you look at Guitar Hero, you look at Wii Sports. Those are two of the most interesting innovations in the game industry in the last five years, and they're not 3D immersive hardcore things at all.

A Multi-Platform Approach Works?

But agility across platforms requires a lot of resources and manpower.

TH: It's gotta be properly organized. We made a commitment to be a technology company in the very beginning in a time when maybe other companies couldn't see the logic of that, and you had to have a really long-term view to make it pay off.

You're talking about Digital Chocolate?

TH: Yeah. And if you just work with every developer in the world, they all have their own tools, they all have their own software libraries, they all have preferences about why they want to do things the way they want to do them -- and they've got logical reasons for it.

But what you would get then is a bunch of assets that are very much handmade and would have to be manually rewritten to get to any of the platforms.

Of course, the game industry -- and this is true about every segment of the game industry -- typically has a history of digging in and trying to get native on a platform to get the most performance and squeeze the most out of it, and of course, then it's hard to be agile also because you're so wedded to it.

World Of Warcraft is a stunning application, but it's pretty much married to a broadband PC. It would be very hard to translate that experience effectively elsewhere. And I think you can say that same thing is true about even, in theory, a game that's not an MMO.

Like Madden, again, a great game, but it's pretty much depending on whatever console resources, and it wouldn't translate as well if you just wanted it to be a free web game or moved it to be a mobile game. You could make something, and you could put the brand on it, but it's not really going to be the same experience.

But with the sort of omni thing, isn't that more about... isn't it kind of more about brand extension than actually having the same game across all experiences? I mean, at this point, because it doesn't seem very easy unless you're going for kind of the simplest level to get the same experience because interfaces are always different.

TH: Let me illustrate. Again, this is kind of a mobile reference point, but in the history of mobile games, there has been a lot of discussion about well-known brands, which have typically dominated, and generics like solitaire, bowling, poker, and original games, like the games we made.

It's been very difficult for the industry as a whole to make a lot of original games, and there did not appear to be a lot of demand for them. The phone companies didn't really want them.

There are mostly deck placement issues and things like that.

TH: Yeah. And so, for example, if you were fortunate enough to make the first solitaire game, and it did well, and you could convince a carrier to let you have that category, you're getting kind of an evergreen thing, but you weren't really inventing anything new. You're sort of trading on the brand equity that a generic name like solitaire already has, but you can make a lot of money that way.

Or if you had some big license, maybe you could make money that way, although unfortunately, it's proven that a lot of companies have overpaid for licenses and have end up getting hurt as a result.


On The Importance Of The iPhone

But here's what's happening now on the iPhone that's completely turning that upside down. This leading edge of omni media is consumers that don't think of themselves as gamers and that probably five years ago weren't using games of any kind.

And for them, a platform like the iPhone is exciting because they feel like their part of a fashion trend. And they want to discover not the generic solitaire game, not the traditional brand that everyone's known about for thirty years, they want to discover something that's new, and it becomes a topic of conversation. It becomes a conversation starter for them.

They also have an impression that this is a new kind of platform, which it clearly is. And therefore they're saying, "Hey, what does it do that it should do based on what it's really about?" By the way, the same thing happened on the web. In the early days of the web, all the traditional brands like CBS or EA or Sony are coming over to the web, and in the long run, that didn't really dominate the web.

It was the new companies that got invented, the Yahoos, the Googles, and more recently, the YouTubes, and MySpace, and Facebook. You take those latter three examples, those are three companies that are less than five years old. They've got hundreds of millions of customers. There's nothing ever like the growth in users on a site like Facebook. And those three are in the top ten in web traffic, whereas CBS can't crack the top 1000.

What's happening on the web, I think the iPhone -- and it's not just the iPhone by the way. As they disclosed last Tuesday, through December, they've sold over 13 million iPod Touches. And the iPod Touch is an incredible product.

I mean arguably, it's a more impressive product than the iPhone because any consumer can afford it, and there are no monthly charges for using it, and its WiFi proliferates. There's a little sweet spot there from a gaming perspective about a really sexy device that is really lightweight, fits in your pocket, and has a sensational display and a touchscreen, and it can play movies and music, and do all this stuff.

And with the proliferation of WiFi, having broadband access a lot of the places you go, and of course they just announced last week, they're now going to have bluetooth peer to peer gaming, so we could be playing together right now.

That's one heck of a gaming platform. So what's happening is that originality is now rising to the top. That's what allowed us to have three consecutive games hit number one in the App Store, and that's a hard thing to do. You know, there are 25,000 apps all competing to be number one, and there's a new number one every couple of weeks.

So, that means in the entire history of the app store, maybe 20 or 30 games have been number one, and we've had three in a row. Again, it's because they're original, and we've been able to get to the platform fast because the power of our technology is organized.

Earlier we were talking about things like MMOs, and free-to-play. Most of these areas that are “the future” and that are going to make money are of zero interest to me. Facebook social games and all that. As a player of games, it's all just so far out of my realm.

TH: What are your favorite games?

I'm an arcade gamer still. So, Street Fighter IV came out, and I was very excited. I really like it. I'm having a good time playing it. But those kinds of experiences are truly riskier than ever.

TH: Well, you know, here's a distinction. If you want to talk about, say, the hardcore gamer versus the omni gamer, and how they think. I think the hardcore gamer wants to pay for the game, and if they can, they like to pay for it once. And then they want the game to be really deep, really immersive. They want to play it for hours and hours, and they want to really master it.

And if they happen to be playing with other people, they want to beat them. They want to compete, and they need to win. I think for that hardcore gamer -- and of course, I am one -- for me that part of gaming has always been about wanting to prove that I'm competent. You know, I don't want somebody to beat me because they spend more money on virtual items, right?

And also, I don't want to feel like I'm stupid, so I don't want to pay every month. I think I should be able to buy the game and just play it once, you know? Switch to this omni gamer, somebody that's really not that competitive about it. They don't have the time to spend a lot of time on a particular game. They don't want to be overwhelmed about it.

They kind of like it to be free. They're much more interested in the potential social connections they're making with other people. And when they make those social connections, they don't want to have somebody come in and crush them that's viciously competitive.

They want to have it be a much more casual experience. And that is the audience that's more likely to pay for the virtual items when they decide that the items give them style or allow them to be more competitive without having to make the time investment.

Of course, that's something that really irritates the [World Of] Warcraft customer, and that's why it's such a battle for Blizzard, trying to figure out, "Well, what do we do about the fact that Warcraft is so successful. We're attracting this more mainstream audience that doesn't want to spend all the hours doing gold farming in the game. They want to just go buy some gold and get on with it."

Yeah. It's quite difficult.

TH: But I think if you build a truly omni game, which is the way we'll approach it, it might not be something you would want to play, but it will reach this other audience. And some of the hardcore gamers will still come in and do it in the same way that those hardcore gamers bought the Wii, they bought Guitar Hero, and they invited their friends over.

Yes, that's not a hardcore experience. It's serving a different need. It's not serving their need to be competing and winning and feeling competent. Somebody once reminded me that most games involve either themes of omniscience or omnipotence, so you've got that part of it.

And when you go out to play these casual games, it's almost like you want to lose sometimes to make sure your friends have a good time. In my whole history as a game designer, I have constantly worked on more social games that are multiplayer, that have handicapping built in so that there's always the surprise of the least experienced player sometimes [winning].

The Omni Gamer And Difficulty Balancing Issues

Do you consider that handicapping or luck, because...

TH: Sometimes both. In game design, you have four things to work with. There's luck, there's dexterity, there's skill, and there's strategy. So, for me, the perfect game has all those things. And one of the things you get when you have some luck is the spectator element.

Again, if we just played a card game like Poker, you have to ask yourself -- it's not even considered a game of skill, that's why it's considered a form of gambling because it's so lucky, but clearly some people can get to be pretty good at it.

But there's a spectator element even when you're playing, where, "Well, what's that next card going to be?" There's going to be pathos and humor... So, maybe a hardcore gamer is like, "No, I want more strategy. I want to be the mastermind figuring out the better strategy." Or, "I want it to be a demanding arcade game so I can master the skills of executing all these moves."

So, the hardcore gamer will move kind of in that direction. Personally, I just think it's really cool they have a little bit of luck involved, and sometimes the luck even things out, and sometimes handicapping helps even things out. For me, it's always been about just getting more people to play because everybody should be playing.

I feel like there are ways to kind of marry those two experiences, kind of like gateway products where you have these hardcore elements, like... I've been talking with a friend of mine, David Sirlin. He's the guy that rebalanced the HD remake of Street Fighter II. The question that we were discussing is that is a game like that... Is it about memorizing combos and how fast you can inputs in, or is it about a chess like experience of, "Oh, he's doing that move, so I have to do this?"

TH: I mean, you have to have the skill to do the first, and you have to have the strategy to do the second.

Right. But which is more important? Are the dexterity and the memorization -- is that something that's core to the enjoyment of the experience?

TH: You know, you can only answer that question by genre because if it's an arcade game, it's both. On the other hand, there are a lot of gamers that cannot stand games that require dexterity because they don't feel like that plays to their strength. So, they'd rather play an RTS or a turn-based strategy game or an MMO that isn't as focused on that.

So, it seems to me like you should be able to create, say, a versus fighting game in which players can actually be on an even field without really having to master all of these moves.

TH: Well, when I created Madden -- this is very much on my mind because I grew up playing games like Stratomatic where there's no dexterity. It's cards, it's dice, but it was a pretty good simulation of games like Baseball and Football.

And I enjoyed the spectator element because you're playing with two heroes, and you're rolling dice so there's luck. And, yeah, it was really cool, like if you played that baseball game and you had a no-hitter. Or you won a game in the bottom of the ninth.

You still have the drama in all that.

TH: Yeah. So, with Madden, I thought, "You know, I don't want to leave any part of the audience behind," so basically the game would just play itself. So, if you just wanted to play it thoroughly as a turn-based strategy game, you just click the play, and the AI would run all the players for you.

But you clearly could see how well... You could be having a ten year old who's just focusing on dexterity, and their father is focused on strategy, and it would be kind of a level playing field, playing with different styles.

And then a more serious gamer would say, "You know what? I'm going to master some of the skills so that I know how to move my quarterback out of the pocket and stay with tacklers. I know how to pitch the ball and sprint that guy around the outside. And I know how to tell if he's going to blitz with that linebacker.”

You can figure out how to use those skills, but you'd better be a good play caller, too, right? And you better know what to do when it's fourth and two at the forty-yard line.

I wish there were more of that because with the World of Warcraft example, how do you deal with the fact that you have all these level 70 characters wandering around, and I want to start the game now, and here I am at level one. What do you do with that? There are instances and all, but that's a really difficult thing to reconcile.

TH: Yeah, it's a problem with social organization. Hopefully, game developers are just now realizing that, yeah, that's a very important thing that they're responsible for figuring out.

I do think that to some extent, these omni gamers as you're describing them do want competition, they just don't want the same kind. Like with Pogo and their badges that they have. It's a casual game portal.

When you win... You can have a friend and see what badges they got on something, and it's kind of competitive, but even though you may think, "Wow, that person is better than me," it's not like, "That person is so unfair because they headshotted me five times in a row, and there's nothing I can do. Everytime I spawn I die."

TH: If you think about it, with professional sports, okay, you've got thirty teams, and only makes the Superbowl and all the others have to feel like losers. That's going in the other direction, right? [laughs]

Yeah, definitely. I forget with whom I was talking about this, but the idea of death in games is a strange thing because it's so punishing.

TH: I know. We always talked about that and always played with that over the years, thinking, "Okay, what if you really can't play the game if the character dies." We were so creatively intrigued with that idea but so terrified to actually do it.