Guitar Hero Creator Wants to Make Mobile Games Social, and Put Them on the Big Screen

Next year, when you’re gathering your friends or family around the big-screen TV for some video game action, it may not be a PlayStation 4, an Xbox 720, or a Wii U powering the experience. It might the Android phone in your pocket.

That’s the vision behind Green Throttle Games, the Santa Clara, CA-based startup co-founded and led by Charles Huang, who’s famous among video game fans as the co-founder of RedOctane and co-creator of its most successful game, Guitar Hero.

Huang says he knows the idea of running high-fidelity, multiplayer video games on a smartphone may sound odd coming from the guy behind the biggest music video game franchise in history. But he says all the important technology innovation in consumer electronics has shifted to mobile platforms. And on top of that, he says, the economic case for spending tens of millions of dollars to develop a console game, in the hope of making it back by selling expensive game discs, has disintegrated for all but a handful of top titles each year.

“I’ve sold as many $60 game disks as anybody else on the planet, but the issue is that the business model is broken,” says Huang. “You can’t spend $20 or $30 million developing a game and expect to recoup it selling $60 discs anymore. Whereas on the mobile side, you can make great games for budgets that are doable for anyone, without doing the secret handshake with Microsoft or Nintendo.”

Charles Huang is co-founder and CEO of Green Throttle Games

Green Throttle Games co-founder and CEO Charles Huang

Huang and Green Throttle’s president and co-founder Matt Crowley—who’s also got some real Silicon Valley cred, as a product manager at Nokia and one of the developers of the Palm Pre—stopped by Xconomy San Francisco a few weeks ago to show me what they’re working on. We hooked Crowley’s Kindle Fire up to my Sharp HDTV, and within seconds we were playing ChronoBlade, a multiplayer action game coming out soon from San Francisco-based game developer nWay.

It looked great, and if I hadn’t known it was running off an Android tablet, I would have sworn it was a console game. But we were controlling it using a full seventh-generation gamepad, with the same directional buttons and joysticks you’ll find on an Xbox or PlayStation controller. Try doing that with Angry Birds.

“In the next 24 months, the smartphone will reach beyond the few inches of its own display to massively disrupt and cross over to previously independent platforms,” predicts Jason Krikorian, a general partner at the venture firm DCM. Together with Trinity Ventures, DCM funded a $6 million Series A venture round for Green Throttle, announced December 4. “I am thrilled to be working with such experienced innovators in reinventing the living room gaming experience,” Krikorian said in a statement.

The way Huang and Crowley explained it to me, the new ecosystem they’re trying to create has three components. First, there’s the Atlas controller, a slick black- and neon-green number that’s currently for sale to game developers for $45. The Atlas is built specifically to communicate with the second component: Arena. This is an app for Android phones and tablets that manages multiple controllers, launches Green-Throttle-compatible games, and communicates with an HDTV. “Arena is the interface that turns this into a television experience instead of a mobile experience,” Huang says.

Green Throttle's Atlas game controller

Green Throttle's Atlas game controller

Finally, there are the games themselves. Green Throttle is working on some of its own, and it has also released a software development kit that helps other mobile game developers equip their games for multiplayer action through Arena. Chronoblade, from nWay, is one of the first games to get this treatment. “What we’re telling developers is, ‘You don’t have to make your game work exclusively with our controllers, but you should make it compatible if you want to reach the broadest audience possible,’” Huang says.

The story behind Green Throttle Games goes back a long way—all the way to the 1970s, in fact, when Huang and Crowley first met as seventh graders. “We played games together in the basement of Matt’s house,” Huang says. “Mostly Atari 2600 games. That experience of sitting in a room playing games with your friends and family is really valuable, and it helped us build a lifelong friendship.”

Fast forward to 2011 or so. Crowley and a colleague from Palm and Nokia, electrical engineer Karl Townsend, were thinking about … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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