Interview: Fishlabs talks publishing, pirates, iPhone and N-Gage

Michael Schade gives us the lowdown

Interview: Fishlabs talks publishing, pirates, iPhone and N-Gage
It's fair to say that Fishlabs boss Michael Schade doesn't mince his words when it comes to mobile games publishers. "Some of them are living out of reality!" he says.

"That's why work-for-hire is not a good business case for a developer like us. We did 12 pitches last year, and publishers always say they want a great Fishlabs-quality gaming experience. So you do your quote in the $300,000-$500,000 bracket depending on how many platforms they want, and then they come back saying 'We have $250,000, and it has to cover one more platform, and you have to do the 2D version as well."

He pauses for breath. "How do they sleep at night?! By the time some publishers have done that to us five times, the relationship is completely burned. For some, we won't pitch any more unless we have a secure budget and know who we are pitching against."

In the last few years, Schade has been as outspoken about his firm's focus on high-end 3D games as he is about work-for-hire projects. Happily for him, the industry appears to be coming round to his way of thinking

New platforms like N-Gage and iPhone, not to mention new retail channels like Sony Ericsson's PlayNow Arena, are providing new opportunities for the Hamburg-based developer. Schade is particularly enthusiastic about the new initiatives from handset makers to sell mobile games.

"It is tough to make money from high-quality games on the operator decks," he says. "They're not the best channels for us. The OEM channels are where you make your money, and here in Europe, that means making deals or special promotions with Nokia and Sony Ericsson, who have 70-80 per cent of game downloads market share."

Although Fishlabs has signed publishing deals for its games with the likes of I-play and Player X, the company is already veering back into self-publishing its titles wherever possible, which includes working even more outside the operator portals.

"It's what we've been waiting for," he says. "It's a great opportunity. "Four weeks ago I was in San Francisco at the Mobile VentureBeat conference, and VCs were saying that anything with mobile is hot, but only if the mobile operators are not involved. They were saying they wouldn't invest in a company where another entity is ultimately deciding whether they're going to make money at all."

Perhaps the most intriguing recent experiment by Fishlabs was using pirated mobile games websites as distribution channel for its new Rally Master Pro game. By releasing a free version of the game through various pirate sites, the company generated 40,000 active players who between them downloaded more than 2.2 million tracks for the game in just eight weeks.

The idea was simple: distribute the game client for free, then monetise the track downloads. "We wanted to have a great number of users, to help us understand how many people will connect, what the churn rate is, how many times they'll play each track and so on," he says, explaining that it hinges around a virtual credits system.

"You get 20,000 credits for free, and use them to unlock additional tracks. But sooner or later, the balance is empty, and you have to fill it up."

Schade says that 70 per cent of activity through the pirated version of the game came from countries like Russia, China, Ukraine and Poland, although of the people who actually registered, the bias was more towards western markets like Germany, the UK, Sweden and Spain.

It's all tied in with the company's myFishlabs community, which, besides the credits system, also includes online high-score tables and contests, and allows users to get game files emailed to them, rather than download them over the air. Haven't operators got shirty? After all, Gameloft famously canned its Gameloft Connect D2C service after operator complaints.

"Of course we've had complaints from operators," says Schade. "They say we're taking the business away from them! And I just say 'What, us, tiny Fishlabs, are taking the traffic business away from you, the operators? Which, by the way, we don't get a revenue share from. Y'know what? We don't care about your traffic business!'"

He goes on: "It's like they live in an ivory tower! They complain that we take traffic business from them, but we don't get a share of that traffic, so why should I care? And then they say they'll punish us by not launching our games, but do you know how little money we'd lose if that happens? People will just go straight to our site..."

In truth, Schade isn't anti-operator by any means. In fact, he says some operators have expressed a desire to offer Fishlabs's free demos and extra content system themselves – "but it would take them ten years to be able to launch it".

In the meantime, Fishlabs is also planning for its first branded mobile game, based on the movie Gladiator.

"Paramount called us to suggest working together, and we picked Gladiator because we love the film, and because it suits what we do," says Schade. "You can argue that it's an old licence, but everybody knows it, and the games managers [at the operators] love it, so I think we will secure deck placement. It's an experiment to see if the licence adds extra performance to our downloads."

That said, Fishlabs continues to try and build its own brands, starting with the sequel to its well-received Galaxy on Fire game, which is due out soon. Here, too, Schade says operators are keen to take the game, despite the lack of an associated brand.

"They understand that they need a different offering," he says. "If you have these kinds of games, people say 'oh, it's a great experience, I will go back for more'. It's about providing a truly outstanding game experience."

Can the iPhone provide that too, though? Fishlabs was one of the earlier iPhone SDK developers, but Schade says the company hasn't yet released an iPhone game firstly because it wouldn't have been ready in time for the launch, and secondly because he's wary of the App Store itself.

"Our technical guys are a bit sad that we didn't do something for launch, but if we come out with an iPhone game, people will expect a certain level of quality," he says. "But we're watching what's happening, with the slashing down of prices and the fact that a lot of games are being rushed out."

Instead, Fishlabs is seemingly focusing its resources more on N-Gage, despite the hype around the App Store (and the excitement of all those VCs).

"We decided to take our time and try to make a good game that works well on N-Gage," he says. "Sooner or later, N-Gage will catch up to the big hype of the iPhone, because it's a dedicated gaming platform. iPhone is good, but N-Gage will be successful for sure."
Contributing Editor

Stuart is a freelance journalist and blogger who's been getting paid to write stuff since 1998. In that time, he's focused on topics ranging from Sega's Dreamcast console to robots. That's what you call versatility. (Or a short attention span.)