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 starting a video game company for the post-console era. “When we first started talking, we said, ‘What if we use a smart TV as a platform to do console gaming?’” says Crowley. “As we got further into it, we realized that the iteration and innovation in TVs wasn’t happening fast enough for what we wanted to do. We saw what was happening in mobile phones, and gelled on the idea of leveraging the mobile backgrounds of Karl and myself.”

But Crowley says he and Townsend didn’t “know anything about the gaming business.” So they reached out to Crowley’s middle-school friend, Huang, who had sold RedOctane to Activision back in 2006. Huang said he’d never want to try building another console game.“It was clear when you looked at the technology stacks that there was more innovation going on in the iOS and Android stack than anywhere else, and if you were going to go out 10 years in the future, you wanted to be on that stacks.”

But for Huang, the best video games are social—witness Guitar Hero, which for a time replaced the foosball table as a fixture of every startup’s rec room. The problem with mobile games, he says, is that players spend most of their “staring down into the device, in their own little world.” So the challenge he thought the new company should tackle was building mobile games that “recreate that experience of playing games together and share that experience with friends.”

Thanks to the torrid pace of development in the mobile semiconductor business, today’s smartphones are more than powerful enough to run high-fidelity games on high-definition TV sets. A typical Android or iOS phone or tablet, Huang says, has chips inside that are “somewhere between the Wii and the Xbox 360” in terms of their video-processing power. “But they’ll soon be surpassing Xbox 360 and getting on toward the PlayStation 3. The innovation curve is much steeper for mobile than it is for consoles.”

Green Throttle Games LogoA bigger challenge for Green Throttle is the fact that mobile devices, and the games that run on them, aren’t designed to accommodate multiple, independent controllers, the way all video game consoles are. “We’re talking about allowing four controllers to connect to the same device, and having the device know who Player One, Player Two, Player Three, and Player Four are,” says Huang. “That use case doesn’t even exist in mobile. We had to add a layer of tech”—the Arena app—to enable it. (Arena also converts the video frame rate of a typical mobile game—30 frames per second—to the 60 frames per second that’s standard for big-screen games.)

By the way, while Huang says he’s impressed by all the recent progress in mobile devices, with their fancy touchscreens and accelerometers, he still thinks there’s something to be said for old-fashioned buttons and joysticks. “Five years into this fantastic mobile revolution, almost all games are still touch, swipe, and tilt,” Huang says. “There are many ways you can play a game, and the idea that you are confined to touch and swipe as the only ways to play seems to me rather limiting.” That’s why the phone or tablet itself, in Green Throttle’s scenario, isn’t the controller—it takes the role of the console, tethered to the TV by an HDMI cable and communicating with the Atlas controller wirelessly via Bluetooth.

Right now, the controller and the Arena app are only available to developers, and Green Throttle is recruiting as many of them as it can find to create games that will run on the platform. But the 10-employee startup is also a game studio unto itself, and has several games in the works, Huang says, with plans to bring out the first crop in early 2013.

“The first question I always get is, ‘Are you making Guitar Hero or another music game?’ and the answer is no,” he says. “I made enough of those for a while. We like old, classic arcade games of the type we grew up playing, so a lot of [Green Throttle’s first games] are themed around that.”

Atlas and Arena are compatible with a range of Android devices, including Samsung’s Galaxy line, HTC’s EVO 3D and One X, Motorola’s Droid Razr and Xoom, and Amazon’s Kindle Fire. Huang says Green Throttle started out on the Android operating system because it’s open-source, and because it allows background processes like the one needed to communicate with multiple controllers.

But if you’re an iPhone or iPad owner, don’t despair—the company has plans to go cross-platform as soon as possible. “There is nothing in the technology that should prevent us from working on iOS,” he says. “I think there are probably some business policies that Apple has that we will need to negotiate with them. But beyond that, we should be able to support every operating system and every mobile device out there.”

Ultimately, Huang thinks Green Throttle will evolve into an Apple-style company that makes tightly integrated hardware and software. It’s hard for a small company to do both of these things well. But he’s pulled it off before, at RedOctane—after all, Guitar Hero wouldn’t have been nearly as fun (or profitable) without the special guitar-shaped controller.

“We do tackle a lot,” Huang says. “But we believe we have to build the hardware and the interaction and the content to convince people to see our vision of the world.”

Here’s a video made by Green Throttle introducing the company.

Introducing Green Throttle Games from Green Throttle on Vimeo.

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

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