Fast Gets Faster: Zipline’s Moai Seeks to Speed Up Mobile Game Development by Knocking Down Language Barriers

4/4/11Follow @curtwoodward

It seems like the pace of mobile and casual game development is already pretty fast. But the folks at Seattle’s Zipline Games think it could be faster.

Today, the startup is unveiling the beta version of its new Moai mobile-game development platform. The idea is to take friction out of game-building by offering a single open-source platform that will allow developers to produce both the front-end elements seen by consumers and the back-end infrastructure by using a single familiar coding language. And after the game’s deployed, Moai offers cloud hosting to keep everything running.

Why is this noteworthy? As CEO and co-founder Todd Hooper put it, publishing a game can require mastery of separate coding languages for iPhones, Android devices, and the back-end architecture. Moai’s open-source platform is based on Lua, a common gaming language, allowing it to serve as a digital translator between all the other languages.

That could speed up game development by allowing even small companies to deliver their product without having to find someone with different coding skills to do the translating for another device or the cloud-based hosting portion.

Zipline’s attempt to help make game development even quicker comes at an interesting time in the growth of mobile, casual, and social games. There’s a bit of tension in the gaming world between bigger console producers and the smaller, startup-oriented mobile and social developers.

This was embodied by Nintendo President Satoru Iwata’s recent keynote speech at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in March, where he questioned whether cheap, simple games would erode the ability of higher-end games to charge premium retail prices. Among his notable quotes: “Our industry has certainly expanded, but it also gives me concern because I feel our business is devalued in a way that threatens the continued employment for those of us who make games for a living.”

Peter Vesterbacka from Angry Birds maker Rovio recently responded with his own tart comment: “If I was trying to sell a $49 pieces of plastic to people then yes, I’d be worried too.”

Zipline’s Hooper and co-founder Patrick Meehan, the company’s chief technology officer, have a pretty nice endorsement for their beta test announcement: Jordan Weisman, the game-industry veteran who once served as creative director for Microsoft Games, is using Moai as the platform for a new “stealth mobile project.” The partnership came pretty quickly after a demonstration from Meehan, while Zipline was shopping the platform to studios.

“Within 48 hours they said, ‘We would like to use Moai,’” Hooper says. “So we said, OK—we’ve got something here.” He says other studios also are using Moai at this point, but declines to name them.

So where’s the money in this? Moai is open-source and will have a free entry tier for the cloud hosting service, but the company plans to make money from successful games by charging for increasing usage on the hosting side. The hoped-for development of a big, active developer base could bring other opportunities to make money.

Zipline also continues to develop games itself—it put together a simple version of Wolf Toss, an Angry Birds-style game, in about five days to use as a demo at the Game Developers Conference. The next offering, still in development, is a time-traipsing dinosaur adventure called Chronosaur. The company is backed by investors including Founders Co-Op and Benaroya Capital.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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