Archive for September, 2003

Handheld Game Software Business Strategy

Monday, September 1st, 2003

by Bill Mitchell

Originally published in Mobility magazine, September 2003.

When Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Golf for
was released in
1999, the deck was stacked heavily toward success.  Palm hardware sales were
doubling every 10 months, Tiger was the first major gaming brand on the Palm platform,
and there was almost no commercial-grade competition.  Best of all, for several
months, Tiger Palm was the only software cartridge available at the Handspring

How times have changed.  Today, with industry growth at zero
and more than a thousand games available, even brand names and commercial polish
are not a guarantee of success.  Most new titles simply vanish without a trace,
and neither great design nor promotion alone will change that.  If you are
serious about winning in this business, then what you need, more than anything
else, is a strategy.

What is “strategy?”  Most people think it’s synonymous with “plan.” 
But a great strategy means much more than just a plan.  At its heart, strategy
means this:  doing what customers value highly, but competitors can’t copy.

That’s a simple statement with a lot of meaning behind it. 
Let’s consider a couple of examples.

Say you intend to write the first PalmOS bicycle racing
game.  You are certain you can build a quality product;  moreover, since it’s a
popular genre not yet available on Palm, you figure you can probably get some
free publicity.

This constitutes a good plan, but not a strategy.  Why? 
Because anyone could copy you — and probably will, especially if your game is
initially successful.  A bad omen for the long run.

By contrast, a strategy, to use a whimsical example, would
be to publish your game while living in Nicaragua.  Rock-bottom living costs
would mean a decent return on your invested time and money, yet you could price
the game so low that no one in an industrialized country could ever compete. 
In general, developing a permanent cost advantage is a strategy, because it
increases your value to the customer in a way (lower price) that most
competitors cannot easily imitate.

Another strategy might be to obtain long-term rights to use
a branded theme, such as the Tour de France or Greg LeMonde.  The familiarity
of a known brand has great influence — it’s considered one of the few sure
things in the videogame industry.  But note the weakness in this strategy:  all
of your advantage results from something you are renting from another company. 
What the licensor giveth, he may eventually taketh away, or at least reprice to
your disadvantage.

To use a more subtle example, strategy could rely upon a permanent
distribution advantage.  For example, if you could obtain exclusive PalmOS
rights to the mailing list for a popular Macintosh-based cycling game, you
could simply contact every Mac user and ask them to download your new PalmOS
product.  Your product would instantly vault to the top of its category at
PalmGear and Handango, in a way that a competitor would then have great
difficulty copying.  Since most new visitors to PalmGear and Handango simply
download whatever is already popular, as shown by downloads, you gain a persistent
advantage on the basis of just a few plaintive emails.

Still more subtle is to “design” a distribution niche around
yourself, such that no one at all competes with you.  For example, if you set
up a table selling CD-ROMs to spectators at the finish line of the Tour de
France, you would have no competition at all.  Of course, you might not sell
many copies, either.  It’s quite difficult to come up with a distribution niche
that is both strategic and cost-effective, but if you can do it, the payoff is
great.  There’s more on this in the real-life examples below.


So how do you go out and develop your own strategy?  Coming
up with an answer to this puzzle is very hard, and rightly so:  it practically
guarantees success in any industry.  Start by thinking about unusual long-term
experience you may have, or unusual personal contacts, which might be of value
in developing or promoting your application.  If that doesn’t work, try
brainstorming unusual ways to develop or distribute;  ways to attract or
enforce customer loyalty;  or ways to gain benefit from the existing success of
someone else.  Crafting good strategy is a creative puzzle to match the best
problems in game design.  The key is to remember that it’s not enough just to
have something no one else has.  You must have something of value to customers
that no one else has today, and that no one else can easily copy,
even if they tried.

If you look closely at the sustained success stories in the
Palm software industry, you will see solid applied strategy over and over again
– whether on purpose or by sheer luck.  Here are just a few examples, all drawn
from the Palm economy, based on my observations of public information since

  • Astraware appears to use the mailing list from its initial
    megahit, Bejeweled, to promote its growing stable of products.  In effect, this
    list provides a permanent cost advantage in advertising any other product.

  • There are over two dozen golf
    scoring applications available, yet IntelliGolf consistently
    outsells most or all of them.  They did this in part by niche distribution:  airline
    magazines.  This was no doubt expensive, but it guaranteed that they had no
    competitors in their sales channel.  Since travelers are also often Palm owners
    and golfers, the tactic is a logical one.  It’s also a pretty good strategy,
    since it would now be very difficult for a second golf scorer to enter through
    the same channel alongside IntelliGolf.

  • PalmAid from Emcon Emsys
    makes money by virtue of a low-cost operation:  the company is based in India.  As
    long as the product they offer is of high quality, any Western competitor might
    as well just give up on direct competition.  To beat PalmAid, a new entrant
    would require some other advantage, such as cheaper access to advertising.

This is not to say product design doesn’t matter.  But the
Palm games business is so competitive that great design is simply a starting
point.  Many Palm games are released with adequate attention to design — and
sometimes promotion, too — but very few have a well-thought-out strategy.  By
taking that extra step, you can gain a jump not just on today’s competitors,
but on tomorrow’s as well.