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Develop in Liverpool 2010: Micro Studio Panel

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Last Thursday (25th November) I was very kindly invited to talk at the videogame industry conference Develop in Liverpool. Chaired by Will Freeman of Develop and billed as ‘The Rise of the Micro Studio”, I answered questions alongside Robin Lacey of Beatnik Games and Deejay of Binary Tweed on what it takes to make a success of a small team. The talk was well attended, with Phillip Oliver of Blitz and Michael Rawlinson of the trade body UKIE (formerly ELSPA) being spotted in the audience.

From left: Will from Develop, me, Dejay from Binary Tweed and Robin from Beatnik Games

There was a great deal of discussion on how to set up and run a successful micro studio (we like the term ’boutique studio’), with particular focus on balancing own IP projects with ‘work for hire’ or ‘contract’ work. The panel’s opinions ranged from the guys at Beatnik Game who only do original PC or console games, to Binary Tweed’s Deejay who took on web design to fund his excellent Clover: A Curios Tale. Here at Mobile Pie we take a mixed approach, with both our own projects, such as Oh, My Word!, B-Boy Beats, bada pool and My Star, and mobile games and entertain work for our varied clients.

Will raised what this approach means to the creative freedom of boutiques like us. It’s a great question and lead me to think back on our approach, where we have actively sought partnerships and worked with clients. There’s a very real risk on easily becoming isolated on a project and building something only the development team, having been on the journey of the production, wants. Working in partnership with other parties helps to ensure our goals and vision looks right to external eyes, so has become something we actively encourage. In fact, getting and interpreting feedback during development cycles has been one of our keys to success and something which is of really important to young, small creative endeavors.

We also talked on why being small means being more efficient and flexible, why small often means better in terms of quality and if micros like us could become the stalwarts of the industry as the big studios hit rough times. It was a very enjoyable 45 minutes with some great questions, debate and polite disagreement and I think we could have all talked on for another 45 minutes (we ran over by about 5 anyway).

Thank you to all who attended, listened, asked questions and gave such kind words after the event. I hope you got out of it as much as I did!

Mobile Pie visit Mobile World Congress

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

As February swings around each year, Mobile Pie directors Richard and I get a strange, perhaps innate, urge to travel to Barcelona. No it’s not the giant unfinished churches or the hilarious human statues we seek, but the world’s largest mobile industry gathering. Held at the Fira de Barcelona and boasting around 50,000 delegates, this truly monstrous event’s full title is GSMA Mobile World Congress.

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The MWC always promises to serve up exclusive previews of the latest mobile technology, and the big players always aim to be the ones that provide the game-changing story of the week.

Big players means the device manufacturers such as Sony Ericsson, Samsung, Blackberry, Motorola, and HTC, and the others forging their mobile strategy such as Google and Microsoft. Nokia were a notable omission – limiting themselves merely to an off-site invitation only suite – and got people wondering whether they really had nothing to show, were concentrating on their legal battles or were just fishing for Apple-esque enigmatic points (Apple historically never attend external events such as this – apart from their secret agents of course). We can never know the reason, but of those that attended, it was Google, Samsung and Microsoft that probably made the big impressions.

Samsung’s new Bada platform and showcase device the Wave looks to make a splash (Bada is Korean for ocean, we understand). Aside from the usual nonsense technology trademarks (e.g. TouchWiz interface, super AMOLED touch screen), it’s the potential of the integrated application store and developer focus which tickled our interest.

Microsoft announced their new platform Windows Mobile 7.0 and it looked like a decent effort that focused heavily on social network and Xbox Live integration. Users can play mini games on their phone which use their Xbox Live gamertag to earn gamerscore and achievements, which seems pretty cool. When Richard probed on whether this functionality would be open to developers, we were advised to look out for a “rich developer story” that would be announced in the near future. We will, and that may look something like this:

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The social side of the latest devices really seems to be taking center stage. We lost count of how many times a phone’s qualities were demonstrated to us by presenting the way in which a user’s combined contact, SMS, email, Twitter and Facebook information is delivered in one almighty integrated UI, and it looks like designers have been working very hard on this aspect. (The bias on this focus can really be seen in the phone TV ads too – which spectacularly took my ‘most annoying ads’ award from cars in 2009.) Notable examples of these socially-obsessed devices are the new Sony Ericsson Xperia X1, and its genuinely snazzy little brothers X10 Mini and X10 Mini Pro. However this Android family of devices told another, bigger story…

Slowly but surely Android has turned in a great year, and now has been adopted by most of the main device manufacturers. Google didn’t exhibit, but the talk by Eric Schmidt in the congress was all over the front pages of the MWC daily newspaper (yes, that really exists!). After the release of the Nexus One this year, he formally announced the shift of the company’s attention from desktop to mobile, and showed off the new Google Goggles app. Big talk.

The battle of the platforms is hotting up nicely, and seeing how it plays out will be intriguing. Also the mobile advertising industry is finally attracting major attention, with ad networks Admob and Quattro Wireless being acquired by Google and Apple respectively, and Orange delivering their brand new ‘Orange Shots’ service.

The MWC is also an opportunity for countries to show off their latest tech companies, with their own ‘pavilions’ – turning the halls into a kind of mini United Nations. One such outfit in the UK space showed off a new mobile typing technology that guessed the words you were going to say before you even started typing them, using machine learning. This could be impressive and/or embarassing! Outside of UK, it was the Swedish Pavilion which was our favourite. Hats off to them, they were they first to be dishing out the free alcohol on Monday. Swedish innovators myFC are looking to solve that ancient mobile power problem with their neat hydrogen powered FuelCellSticker technology. From what I could understand from the demo, you drop a magic pill into a pouch of voodoo-water to get 6hrs of battery time. Sounds great to us! At this point I’d like to add thanks and a shout-out to Caroline Karlsson of Swedish Trade Council for showing us round! Tack så mycket, Caroline!

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As documented in my South West Screen MWC blogs from last year, we were a little disappointed with the lack of attention on content and content providers for mobile, but this year we were more optimistic with the presence of App Planet, sponsored by Vodafone. However the 50 exhibitors inside were not much of an attraction and the representation of games was still woefully inadequate. It was a good idea and intention that maybe was poorly executed, we will hold out for next year!

All in all, it was a very interesting few days. It seems like there was a little more buzz about things than last year. Over the course of the congress the general ideas, concerns and hopes everyone has do sink in, and it’s good to take some time to think about the direction of the industry as a whole.

On a final note, away from the conference Richard continued his baffling ongoing international pursuit of saffron.

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OpenMic #4 – HTML5 v Native Apps

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Myself and Matt had a little day trip to the Innovation Centre in Bath on Thursday to attend another of the enjoyable OpenMic events. We found the previous event in Guildford to be interesting and useful so wanted to get in on the action again! Read on to hear our reflections on the many discussions… (yes, this includes iPad).

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First up we listened to an entertaining talk from old-hand tech journalist Giles Turnbull, on the evolution of news reporting in the context of mobile and the generally slow response of news editors to embrace the technology. He seemed to think that the iPhone had finally clicked on the light bulb for the people of influence in news, just by looking and feeling so good! Maybe true, let’s hope the new generation of editors etc. are a bit quicker to adopt new technologies… (AR news anyone?)

Next up Richard Spence gave us a quick run down of mobile development away from the iPhone, which was a handy reminder that the other platforms have remained viable. He pointed out that the success of Apple’s App Store has improved the world’s understanding and general consciousness of mobile apps (beyond only iPhone users), making it more likely to get your Java or Symbian app actually noticed and installed by the public. As developers who haven’t forgotten the skills we cut our teeth with, we completely agree, and if you want your app reach a large audience then you have to face up to this fact! You’re never gonna hit everyone but you can have a jolly good go…

After that, Bruce Lawson from Opera gave us a run down on Opera Widgets. Now, Mobile Pie have had plenty of experience recently with widgets, having developed over 50 of them so far, but we are always on the look out for tips from the experts.

The final session before lunch was a panel discussion, in which experienced designers / developers gave their views on iPad, which were a little mixed (we’re still going to get one!). The inevitable question mark over multitasking was raised. Personally I feel that this will not be so much of a problem for a lot of the potential audience (i.e. non-geeks). As web browsing and web-based email will be two of the most common activities for them, a web browser will maybe be all they need 90% of the time. Also, if web apps are due to make their presence felt over native apps in the way the rumour-mongers would have you believe, then that supports the point even further. However, maybe the Safari multi-tabbing capabilities might have to be made a little quicker/accessible than the iPhone version.

After a great noodle-break at Hong Kong Bistro, the format changed to bar camps, the purpose of which is for delegates to discuss among themselves the burning issues of the day (surrounding mobile development!). The themes are suggested by the delegates themselves; here Matt and I split up to get the most knowledge into the Pie databank as possible.

I attended ‘How to make money from apps’ – which threatened to be a lot of disheartened developers sitting around complaining – but turned out to be an interesting discussion on different revenue models and schemes, i.e. free/premium/freemium/ad-funded. We also came up with an interesting idea of borrowing the concept of certified standards for application stores. For example, if your app doesn’t drain the battery in 10 minutes, or can be used offline, it would be nice to have certain industry wide stamps on your app to demonstrate this. This helps the professional developers who put time into the design and user experience of their products get some recognition above the rest of the rabble!

Matt however, hadn’t quite had his widget fill for the day yet, and took in Opera’s Patrick Lauke discussing HTML5, widgets and Opera’s latest browser. He seemed pretty impressed with some of the demonstrations – how graphics can be composited onto video directly in HTML 5 and the content of vector graphics can be dynamically changed with media queries. The best thing on show though, was the brilliant demo video of Bruce’s turkish dancing. To get a feel for HTML5 they have some cool articles on their Opera developers pages, especially their Introduction to video in HTML5.

A good day and we look forward to the next OpenMic!

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