Interviews

Will Luton on Mobile Pie's ambitious all-singing, music-themed, operator-backed, location-based, alternative reality, social, freemium iPhone game My Star

Singing a new song

Will Luton on Mobile Pie's ambitious all-singing, music-themed, operator-backed, location-based, alternative reality, social, freemium iPhone game My Star
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| My Star

The days of developers releasing a paid-for game for a single platform are failing fast.

It's become clear that unless you have access to a licence, publisher, marketing cash or the tech to port to multiple platforms quickly, it's hard to stand out from the crowd.

UK developer Mobile Pie isn't just upping the ante however, it's turning it up to 11 when it comes to My Star.

As well as being backed by a UK mobile operator, the game - already labelled FarmVille meets Foursquare meets The Sims with a dash of X Factor - squeezes in lots of mobile gaming buzzwords.

It's freemium with in-app purchases and subscription elements. Plus there's a strong viral and social element, location-based activities and check-ins, and you can receive email, SMS and phone calls from your virtual star too.

Good thing creative producer Will Luton is on hand to tell us all about it.

Pocket Gamer: What was the inspiration for My Star?

Will Luton: We were talking with our partners about some other projects and they showed us this tech and asked "What would you do with this?"

They had some ideas and they were very much Alternative Reality Games (ARG). At this point Tag's Astro Ranch had been out for a while and it was just before FarmVille came over to iPhone, so we were watching social and freemium really closely.

We took this idea called Star Manager to them, they got it instantly and we both ran with it, it expanded, and became what we're building now.

It seems very ambitious in terms of technical and commercial scope. Why do you think it will work?

The core gameplay isn't reinventing the wheel. It's some really solid sim social mechanics at the heart of the experience - stuff such as avatar and environment customisation, sticky timed tasks, dual currencies, levels etc. So we have these sturdy foundations on which to build the innovation, such as phone elements, which are almost from the ARG world, and the check-in type mechanics.

Commercially we're ambitious, sure. We did something really niche with B-Boy Beats. We set out with that indie spirit saying we're going to make the game we want to make right now. We got loads of great press (including a Pocket Gamer Silver award, cheers) and that raised our industry profile a ton, but ultimately it never got great traction on the App Store. It's opened doors for us and we wouldn't be doing My Star without it.

But My Star is really about bringing what we do to lots and lots of people, with the backing of a fantastic partner. People are getting excited about the commercial potential and we've had some big (really massive) players in the music biz approach us and we aren't even out yet. So the commercial side is there for sure.

Why do you think music is a good topic for such a game?

I think FarmVille has been a huge success because of the refined mechanics, not so much because of the theme. There's interest about our food and where it comes from, but I don't think that it's in the public consciousness to the extent where it makes FarmVille a success, it's just a good justification for the gameplay.

Even AstroApe's Office Heroes seems to have done pretty well despite what is a very drab subject matter, whereas music has glamour, aspiration and emotion. It really connects with people.

In between B-Boy and this we've also done a few high profile music apps as white label releases. We never set out to be a music games company, like Harmonix or Tapulous. It just seems we inadvertently get drawn back to it. It's weird.

Also. we're creating a fun experience on a device in which in one tap we can send a user to the purchase page of iTunes. In the second click they've purchased music or video.

Having millions of engaged music fans that close to content is really, really powerful.

Location based apps seem to work well as loose, irregular entertainment, but there are problems as you try to make them more strongly gamic, so how do you hope to overcome this?

You can play My Star without ever using location. In fact, we're launching without it and it'll be along as an update.

That's not to say it doesn't offer value to the user. In the game you place posters at a location promoting your star. Other users can come along, look at the poster, check out your star and your star's pad, then post over it, claiming that spot.

So it's part social, part zero sum competitive. It's about bragging and territory - you're flyposting.

If you're out and about in your area and you see the same star everywhere you check-in and you see they have the best clothes and the biggest, swankiest pad, how do you feel? You'll want to take their spot, right? You'll then get more XP and cash to spend on being better, but you'll need to work to keep your spots.

We think that's going to be a massive pull back to the game - much more powerful than Foursquare or SCVNGR. Neither of them have really hooked me and that's because they sit alone. The mechanics work, but the user drive is too week and isolated for the mainstream.

As a freemium game, what's your take on virtual items and in-app purchases?

It's utterly essential. We're very aware if we don't get it right, no matter how fun and sticky the game is, we won't ever make money. That's a scary thought. We spent a long time, months in fact, fretting over whether B-Boy Beats should be £1.79 or 59p. Now we've just invented a whole economy which we have to design a game around.

Where we think things are really exciting is with sponsored goods and virtual product placement. The music industry needs new revenue streams and ways of promotion right now. We've heard from labels and music consultancy groups how important they think virtual items are.

How will the subscription elements work?

The subscription will be for the Star Phone, so getting calls and SMS from your star asking for your help. Users will always get emails for free but the SMS and calls they'll have to subscribe to.

This offers an advantage as there will be perks for responding the quickest to your star's request, which plays out as a mini game, so either you spend all day refreshing your email or you subcribe to the Star Phone service.

On top of this, the user will get extra perks for subbing to a Star Phone package, including special items such as gold instruments, in-game cash and an avatar badge. We think the subscriptions will only be taken by the most hardcore players, but we'll offer a range of price plans.

How will the ARP part of the game - email, SMS etc - work without being a huge cost in terms of deployment?

Out partner is taking care of the deployment and the experience will be monetised as I mentioned. All the subscription packages are designed to operated at a set margin, so we know how profitable each package will be.

Why is this sort of game interesting for a mobile operator to be involved in?

That's not really for me to answer, I'll leave it to talk about this when we launch.

However, our partner shares a very similar vision to us. It loves games and it wants to be a part, not just of the business side, but of shaping the future. We own the IP. It's our game, but it sees the potential and is helping us to turn that into success.

It's currently labelled as an iPhone game, but can you take it cross platform?

Sure. There's nothing about this which wouldn't work as a Facebook, Android or Windows Phone 7 game. We're also interested in what Intel and Apple are doing with app stores for netbooks and OS X respectively.

If there's a good billing system in place and prominent OS placement then casual and freemium will invade that space and will eclipse the likes of what Steam and other traditional content providers are doing on those form factors.

Have you played the Fable III Kingmaker game, and what do you think you can learn from it?

Yes, briefly. I think we can learn that you need to make an experience that is both accessible and well considered.

I was pissed off just getting in. I put in my email and password and hit register, was then asked to create a username, put in my email again and then enter my password twice, was then returned to the login page, entered my details, was told I needed to activate on an email, exited the app, opened email, clicked the activation link, then restarted the app and entered my email and password again. And every session, you have to enter your password again.

These days, if you ask a user of a free game to go through five minutes of admin before they see any of the content, let alone play with it, you're going lose 50 percent of your potential market.

You need to get people in and having fun straight away, otherwise they go and do or play something else. Probably your rival's product.

In My Star, all the player needs to do is name their star, which doesn't have to be unique, and choose a gender, then they're in and playing.

Kingmaker just felt rushed and more a preamble for those who had pre-ordered the game. The user interface was dreadful, and nothing about it made me want to buy Fable III.

Kudos to Lionhead for trying it but perhaps for Fable IV they'll pick up the phone and call us. If you're reading, Pete, we'll do you a good rate.

Thanks to Will for his time. My Star is due to be released before the end of 2010.