Game Over?

By Michael Fitzgerald | Boston Magazine |

Though TapCity is free, the thousands of people already playing on their iPhones or iPod Touches are paying as much as $2.99 to upgrade their properties. It isn’t yet Angry Birds, which flew out of Finland in 2009 and has seen 500 million downloads, but it’s a start. Most impressive is the game’s suck-’em-in effect: People who actively play TapCity spend about 25 minutes a day with the game. Most businesses would be ecstatic to have a consumer’s attention for nearly half an hour a day.

The Tap Lab is now working on its second project — a title it says will also be based on maps. Their dream, Bisceglia says, is to “define Boston as the hub for social gaming on the East Coast.” Right now, he and Shao spend almost all their waking hours working and networking across the city. They’re hoping for the kind of viral success that led to Facebook and Zynga. But where Facebook famously left Boston to head to Silicon Valley, Bisceglia thinks he has everything he needs to build a large gaming company right here in Boston. “We’ve been down to New York and out to San Francisco, but we love [Boston],” he says. “A lot of folks are really into gaming, just because of the culture here.”

culture doesn’t guarantee sales. Neither, actually, does past success. Some offerings will attract millions of players and others will flame out, but even industry veterans can’t always pick the winners.

Even though Harmonix had a hit with the original Dance Central, Alex Rigopulos can’t be sure his sequel will sell. It’s possible that people who love the current version won’t want to upgrade. Or what if his customers have moved on to the next gaming fad? The industry is rife with failures and audiences that suddenly lose interest.

The hit-driven dynamic creates massive risk. A console game like Rock Band or BioShock for platforms such as Xbox, Kinect, or the PC might cost $30 million to develop, while building a big online world like those made by Turbine can run to more than $60 million. Spend that much and fail, and there might not be another game in your future. Which, by the way, is yet another reason that many developers are instead focusing on smartphone games, which cost a fraction of that to develop. When an iPhone game fails, you just launch another one. When it hits, you crank out a profitable new version. In this way, companies like the Tap Lab, not Harmonix, look to be the future of the industry.

Actually, that last bit of insight isn’t lost on Rigopulos. Just before Dance Central 2 came out, Harmonix launched its first-ever app game, VidRhythm, which costs just $1.99 to buy and lets users make their own music videos. It was developed in a few months, by a small team, working on a budget Rigopulos calls “tiny.” Harmonix is also at work on games for social media and mobile platforms, though Rigopulos won’t disclose any details. “Harmonix wants to be a leading creator of content in that domain,” he says. No kidding.

The Harmonix development studio has traditionally focused all of its resources on one big game, a dramatically different challenge than running multiple small projects, all with their own needs for creativity and marketing. Living room games like Dance Central won’t disappear anytime soon, but eventually, “physical distribution is going to wane,” Rigopulos says. That bodes well for our city, he adds, because “it eliminates one of the factors that impairs Boston as a hotbed of development.” What he means is that the distribution of big video games has long been controlled by huge publishers like Microsoft, Electronic Arts, and Activision — none of which happen to be based here. But publishers aren’t that important when it comes to getting iPhone games to market, or to distributing them on Facebook. So Boston, with its smart young people and its active game community, could be home to the next Zynga.