Looking for Killer Apps

I have found it useful, when adventuring after killer apps, to use 5 thought filters.

Ship early
It is no accident that so many defining applications launch in the first year of a new platform. The “feeding frenzy” of press and early adopters makes it easy to get ink and word of mouth. These people are hungry to sell magazines and gain street cred by being the first to discover the “new new thing.” For these people, there is nothing better than demoing to agape and envious others.

Most customers feel more intense emotion about their hardware “investments” than their software “consumption.” So the second need of new adopters is to justification. “Look how smart I am (how dumb I am not!); I got this new (insert hardware model here) and it can do this!!!”

The strategy for a developer aiming at early adopters is to get to market first. Of course, the problem is that most software shipped into the first holiday season of a new platform is not good enough to last. The software rushed to market in August and October can feel very stale by March.

Some games that were “first to market” with proven game types on new platforms include John Madden Football on Sega Genesis; Need for Speed (driving) on 3DO and Playstation; Battlefield 2 (combat) for PC online; Godfather for Xbox 360. On the iPhone, some notable “feeding frenzy” successes have been Super Monkey Ball and Tap Tap Revenge.

For those of you who misses the first month of iPhone app downloads, this is still a useful lesson. The earlier you ship your first app, the sooner you can get to great. And there are still new territories, new languages, and probably new hardware and software releases to be early against.

Be first to digitize a hobby
In the history of videogames, it has been new game categories, not new technology, that has attracted new customers. Pilots bought computers to play Flight Simulator. Paint Ball fans went online to play Doom. Sci fi movie buffs installed CD-Roms to help Mark Hamill succeed in Wing Commander. Doll housers got into gaming for the first time to play The Sims. Dancing Queens bought floor pads to play DDR. Rock fans bought plastic Fenders to play Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

The best development strategy is to build a team with to fans, and trust their decisions. A self-described “girly girl” designer was key to the success of The Sims. Ultima Online was designed by a core of experienced text MUD designers (multi-user dungeon).

But a little research never hurts. I recommend a simple “concept test” approach, which consists of giving potential customers a list of 10-30 one line concepts of a game, and let them rate or circle the ones they think they would “definitely check out or try.” EA Sports “NBA Live” was conceived when “5 on 5 NBA Basketball” was the number one pick two years in a row in the mid-1980’s.

Popular vertical interests usually have their own communities, opinion leaders, magazines, web sites and blogs. Software that delivers the first “authentic” digital experience of a hobby wins the community and the word of mouth quite handily. It certainly seems to have been the case with iBeer!

Discover a new demographic
Geez, I remember when “all gamers” were anti-social male loners…nerds…way back in the 80’s. Then Nintendo and Sega happened, and overnight, junior high school presidents were into gaming. “Cool” games like Punchout and Test Drive, Road Rash and Skate or Die, Desert Strike and Doom were killer apps for popular boys.

In the 90’s, the Playstation went after 20-somethings with its “You are not Ready” challenge, which, along with Sega CD, opened the door to more grownup themes like Twisted Metal and Resident Evil, Night Trap and Mortal Kombat, and eventually all the way to the mature content of Grand Theft Auto.

Pre-teens swarmed to Pokemon and Neopets in the 90’s. Casual games from labels like PopCap and Pogo brought gaming to women in the past decade, with titles like Bookworm, Lottso, Bejeweled and Snood. And then the most surprising of all, Brain Age and Sudoku on the Nintendo DS brought videogaming to grandparents. It is a lot cheaper to get a story in AARP magazine than buying a commercial spot on the Super Bowl. But who can prove that the latter is more valuable?

No one seems to have mined a new demographic among iPhone fanatics, in the US at least. Does iTunes usage define a new audience class? Is Is iPhone the first application platform for people who want to game away from their couches, desks or backseats?

Harness New Tech
While new tech garners more headlines than new hobbies, it tends to inspire new features, instead of altogether new categories. In other words, it is a good, but not great, development strategy. “16-bit” brought us sports simulations with real statistics, and grew the sports category. CD-Rom added “interactive movies” to story games, but didn’t expand that segment. Internet and 3-D video cards turned shooters into FPS, helped RPG’s become MMO’s and turned car racers into “virtual item” games, but again, replaced existing markets. Analog controllers led to “Freestyle” in NBA Live rather than a new sport. Motion controllers gave us the full-body swings and touchdown dances of Wii Sports and “Family Play”, but within football and golf themes.

iPhone brims with new technology for mobile gaming, from the multi-touch interface to accelerometer, always connected wireless, proximity and light sensors, web browser and smart typing. The physics of the GUI is breath-takingly cool, and must be considered. We’ve seen lots of tilting to date, and Spore is great, but so far there haven’t been many apps that successfully use multiple iPhone tech advances. There are hints of new discovery categories using maps, and new social innovations using contacts, but we can only hope for untold surprises ahead.

Align with the Brand Position
The platform owner/manufacturer is very likely to have its own positioning bias, that arises from the corporate personality rather than the technology. Xbox went after core gamers and so Halo was a killer app, literally. Microsoft pushed CD-Rom capabilities in PC’s and was the launchpad for Wing Commander. Nintendo wanted gender balance with its lighter, pinker DS, and so Nintendogs won the show. Sega wanted to position around speed with Genesis, and so Sonic the Hedgehog grabbed the brass ring(s).

What does that mean for iPhone developers besides dressing your avatars in black turtlenecks? Beauty and style matter on iPhone, perhaps moreso than on any previous interactive platform. And of course, an iPhone app should leverage the best of iPhones new tech and interface, be intuitive, gorgeous and polished to a superior luster. It must be pleasing to touch, playful to tilt and twist, puckish to pinch. In short, your iPhone app should be “insanely great.” But if you’ve read this far, you probably already knew that.

Killer Platforms, Killer Apps

bing-2Bing Gordon joined KPCB after 26 years at Electronics Arts, where he was Chief Creative Officer from 1998 to 2008. Bing joined EA in 1982 and helped write the founding business plan that attracted KPCB as an initial investor, later heading EA marketing and product development for 16 years. Bing’s blog posts will focus on the gaming and social opportunities of this new platform.

I worked through the launches of several dozen meaningful game platforms since 1983, from the Atari 800 and C-64 to Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii…as well as some bumps in the road, like PC Junior, CD-I, Sega CD and Dreamcast. The iPhone 3G launch was as good as it gets. You go, iPhone!

Apple seems to have learned from history:

  • The “first party” must be the Market Maker, as spokesperson, evangelizer and brand driver. No platforms succeeded when brand owners faltered.
  • Critical mass or die. 20 Million units sold has been the minimum US audience for a meaningful game machine. Pretty good start with the 3G!
  • 3rd party software provides creative breadth and energy. I believe Apple invented 3rd party “evangelism” with Guy Kawasaki several centuries ago.
  • Best “Frenemies” Forever! When their game platform takes off, console companies have historically battled their 3rd party developers for market share and profits. Apple’s early and open support of the Dev community is a veteran move, and commendable.
  • Early is usually expensive… and lame. iPhone’s development tools have successfully reduced early development costs. But it is typically the “second generation” titles which are memorable and lasting.
  • It takes “Killer apps” to attract new customers and define a platform. The App Store is definitely killer. Now it is up to developers to invent some never-seen-before game and social experiences.

This is a spectacular new era for gamers and developers. Apple and other open platforms have unleashed a creative fervor that reminds me of the first days of computer games, with software being programmed in garages, dorm rooms and spare offices.

Let the games begin!