Guitar Hero Creator Wants to Make Mobile Games Social, and Put Them on the Big Screen

12/17/12Follow @wroush

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starting a video game company for the post-console era. “When we first started talking, we said, ‘What if we use a smart TV as a platform to do console gaming?’” says Crowley. “As we got further into it, we realized that the iteration and innovation in TVs wasn’t happening fast enough for what we wanted to do. We saw what was happening in mobile phones, and gelled on the idea of leveraging the mobile backgrounds of Karl and myself.”

But Crowley says he and Townsend didn’t “know anything about the gaming business.” So they reached out to Crowley’s middle-school friend, Huang, who had sold RedOctane to Activision back in 2006. Huang said he’d never want to try building another console game.“It was clear when you looked at the technology stacks that there was more innovation going on in the iOS and Android stack than anywhere else, and if you were going to go out 10 years in the future, you wanted to be on that stacks.”

But for Huang, the best video games are social—witness Guitar Hero, which for a time replaced the foosball table as a fixture of every startup’s rec room. The problem with mobile games, he says, is that players spend most of their “staring down into the device, in their own little world.” So the challenge he thought the new company should tackle was building mobile games that “recreate that experience of playing games together and share that experience with friends.”

Thanks to the torrid pace of development in the mobile semiconductor business, today’s smartphones are more than powerful enough to run high-fidelity games on high-definition TV sets. A typical Android or iOS phone or tablet, Huang says, has chips inside that are “somewhere between the Wii and the Xbox 360” in terms of their video-processing power. “But they’ll soon be surpassing Xbox 360 and getting on toward the PlayStation 3. The innovation curve is much steeper for mobile than it is for consoles.”

Green Throttle Games LogoA bigger challenge for Green Throttle is the fact that mobile devices, and the games that run on them, aren’t designed to accommodate multiple, independent controllers, the way all video game consoles are. “We’re talking about allowing four controllers to connect to the same device, and having the device know who Player One, Player Two, Player Three, and Player Four are,” says Huang. “That use case doesn’t even exist in mobile. We had to add a layer of tech”—the Arena app—to enable it. (Arena also converts the video frame rate of a typical mobile game—30 frames per second—to the 60 frames per second that’s standard for big-screen games.)

By the way, while Huang says he’s impressed by all the recent progress in mobile devices, with their fancy touchscreens and accelerometers, he still thinks there’s something to be said for old-fashioned buttons and joysticks. “Five years into this fantastic mobile revolution, almost all games are still touch, swipe, and tilt,” Huang says. “There are many ways you can play a game, and the idea that you are confined to touch and swipe as the only ways to play seems to me rather limiting.” That’s why the phone or tablet itself, in Green Throttle’s scenario, isn’t the controller—it takes the role of the console, tethered to the TV by an HDMI cable and communicating with the Atlas controller wirelessly via Bluetooth.

Right now, the controller and the Arena app are only available to developers, and Green Throttle is recruiting as many of them as it can find to create games that will run on the platform. But the 10-employee startup is also a game studio unto itself, and has several games in the works, Huang says, with plans to bring out the first crop in early 2013.

“The first question I always get is, ‘Are you making Guitar Hero or another music game?’ and the answer is no,” he says. “I made enough of those for a while. We like old, classic arcade games of the type we grew up playing, so a lot of [Green Throttle’s first games] are themed around that.”

Atlas and Arena are compatible with a range of Android devices, including Samsung’s Galaxy line, HTC’s EVO 3D and One X, Motorola’s Droid Razr and Xoom, and Amazon’s Kindle Fire. Huang says Green Throttle started out on the Android operating system because … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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