SkyZone's Neil Haldar on the Hardcore Mobile Market
SkyZone VP of Content Programming and Strategy Neil Haldar explains why the company has put together a different product mix than its peers, and how specifically its attempting to satisfy the hardcore gamer...
Everyone knows casual games are the future of the mobile gaming space, right? Handsets just weren't designed to support popular PC and console genres like first person shooters, were they? Aren't hardcore gamers an audience that is just too finicky to be pleased with mobile play?
Where most mobile publishers see very tough questions, SkyZone Vice President of Content Programming and Strategy Neil Haldar sees opportunity. In any industry, only hindsight can accurately judge whether it was genius of folly to zig when everyone else was zagging, but Haldar is content to let all the other mobile publishers fill up their catalogues with "block games" without following suit.
"Making stuff like Duke Arena -- with crazy real-time multiplayer -- and testing it and servicing it, and keeping the MP server up and running is a pain in the neck, compared to making a block game," Haldar told Modojo Biz. "But the experience is something really worthwhile. I hope that someone who downloads it, and plays it, goes 'Hot Damn! I never thought I could do this on a PHONE!' and goes and tells 10 friends about it."
One of the great ironies of Haldar's insistence that there is a market for traditional, "hardcore" console and PC genres like the FPS on mobile phones is that console publishers have been running into the same issue, but just a mirror image of it. Nintendo has insisted that the Wii can appeal past young males and engage women, grandparents, and others. Microsoft has been making similar overtures with its Live Arcade service.
But now, the mobile climate is increasingly shifting its attention towards that casual, predominately female, audience. Reaching out to "core gamers" - the Xbox 360 crowd - would actually be expanding mobile gaming's reach.
"Half the audience is women gamers... but there's this gut feeling we've got about that other half of the audience that just plunked down $200 on a high-end TV phone with the multipixel cam, and he's gotta be thinking 'block game? I did all this for a block game?'" Haldar explained. "So we're trying to address the whole market, and do a better job of it."
Haldar is confident that the price of high-end handsets tumbling is going to see a huge number of these extremely capable phones in the hands of core gamers, and that when they experiment with gaming on that phone, they're going to gravitate to content and brands they're familiar with. He believes the technology is at a point where these experiences won't be disappointing for this audience that's obsessed with graphical fidelity and smooth gameplay
"These are extremely powerful devices. This isn't 'squint and it's almost like Myst'" Haldar said. "Duke Arena looks sharp - there are no mushy colors, and there's a lot of complex geometry in there - it isn't all blocky edges."
Duke Nukem Arena is the example Haldar returns to most often, but skepticism is to be expected. A hardcore FPS on mobile? Really? Really really?
"Duke Arena was absolutely a design challenge, but we've been testing live nationwide multiplayer, and it's been fantastic. There were a lot of worries, including controllability worries, but much of that can be overcome via level design. We designed our levels to exist primarily on one plane, with a greater emphasis on depth than height, for example. If you think about the landmark N64 FPS Goldeneye, it owes a lot of its success to the fact that the levels were designed around the controller's capabilities," Haldar said.
He continued, "We also had to get inventive with how specific FPS mechanics, like a sniper rifle, should operate. It wouldn't be a ton of fun to try and snipe someone across a map that would only be a few pixels high on a handset, so we instead provide keyhole objectives to target, like key tactical points on a bridge. It all comes back to designing your levels around your input capabilities."
SkyZone isn't opposed to more mass market opportunities - the company has titles like Extreme Hangman and Pop Trivia Deluxe rounding out its library. But it is clear Haldar is taking a different view of the next 12 months than most of his peers. Not many publishers are talking about "wading neck deep into hardcore territory" to try and come away with fun and familiar experiences for the core gamer.
Will it pay off? Only hindsight, and the famously volatile tastes of the hardcore community, will be the true judges.