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Interview: Making Plans For Zeebo

Interview: Making Plans For Zeebo Exclusive

May 20, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

May 20, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

During this year's Game Developers Conference, Brazilian firm Zeebo, Inc. (a firm created by Brazil-headquartered distributor Tectoy and BREW creator Qualcomm) detailed the upcoming full launch of its Zeebo console, a product aimed at the middle class in developing markets where the Big Three consoles are prohibitively expensive.

Players obtain games for the $249 system exclusively through digital distribution, thanks to a built-in 3G wireless connection -- a move intended to sidestep the piracy issues that frequently impact Zeebo's target markets. Each game is expected to run between the equivalent of $5 and $10.

Partly due to the familiarity of its BREW-based system architecture, powered by Qualcomm processors, Zeebo has already lined up a number of ports from established game makers like Electronic Arts (Need for Speed Carbon, FIFA 09), id Software (Quake, Quake II), Capcom (Resident Evil IV), and Sega (Sonic Adventure).

In advance of the system's official Brazilian launch next month, Gamasutra sat down with Zeebo CEO John Rizzo, founder Reynaldo Norman, and Qualcomm games and services senior director Mike Yuen to discuss the system's target market, its plans for original titles, why it's not competing with Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, and why North America isn't yet in the cards.

There has been no mention of the North American market. Do you have any plans for it yet?

John Rizzo: No immediate plans, certainly not this year or 2010 -- maybe 2011, but nothing in the short term.

There are a couple reasons. Number one, 3G coverage has got to get really pervasive in North America. It's not quite there yet. Number two, more importantly, there is a lot of entrenched competition with existing gamers who are used to Wii and Xbox and PS2 and PS3. As a result, there's already a pretty well-established market here.

So I think we have a chance to be successful in the emerging first-world markets because we're re-applying the ruleset, but it's hard to redefine the ruleset in North America.

Mike Yuen: If you just get into those emerging markets -- Brazil, India, and China of course, but also the rest of Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, as well as Latin America -- which is what we believe we could do, then we could very well survive there. We don't want to go all over the place.

With the launch titles, there's more of an emphasis on ports than I initially expected. But there's Zeebo Racing, which must be an original Tectoy property. Which direction do you want to go?

Reynaldo Norman: When it comes to most of the audience, they don't know most of the games we are showing. For us, Quake or Tekken 2, well, we played that ten years ago, right? But for most of these guys, they might be playing for the first time. And as we were impressed by these games before, we believe that these guys will be impressed by these games today. It's a different market.

As for the original titles, we can't announce many of them yet, but we are working on good stuff and original titles for Zeebo. It will be both. It will be catalog titles ported from other platforms, and original titles as well. But we need to get closer to the launch of those titles to announce them because there's more involved.

MY: On the traditional console platform, like the PS2, it's not until the tail end that [developers] really master the hardware. So, the first couple years, there may be one or two titles that kind of come down as, "Wow, that's really impressive." But usually it takes a while to get going. We really don't think it will take that long [with Zeebo].

It's not going to be that five years from now, people are really starting to mash with the Zeebo, because it's not a complex development system in the sense of being a Cell processor or anything like that.

We believe we'll see original content, which is key because it's native and it goes faster and it exploits the system, won't be at the tail end of the life cycle. We'll probably see it, like Reynaldo said, coming up later this year.

Is it only Tectoy that's making original stuff right now or other studios as well?

RN: No, other studios.

JR: Some of the titles that are shipping in June are originally-produced content.

It's not as strong as it used to be, but there was a very strong arcade culture in Brazil, so getting something like The King of Fighters series and SNK Playmore's games would be a selling point.

RN: Exactly. On the arcades in Brazil, as you know, most of the titles that are popular today are titles from the 90s. Even Daytona is still very, very popular, and Sega Rally -- the ones from '93, '94, '95. We are working with other publishers, and we are trying to bring the titles that are relevant to each country.

MY: Right now it's primarily a one-time download model; you buy it and own the whole thing. But since it's a BREW-based device as on varieties of phones, there is a variety of billing methods. With the arcade style being popular still, they could get The King of Fighters and put it on there with a token model, pay-per-play. Or if they wanted to move to subscription, they could do that.

I noticed that when you did the live demo at GDC and deleted Quake, it warned that you will have to pay to download again. So you will have to pay to re-download titles?

RN: This is in the manual in the first version in Brazil. Right now, we are rolling up a new UI that will remove this feature. What we want to do in the future, and probably will coincide with our full launch in Brazil, is that if you previously purchased that game -- Quake, as an example -- the server will know that you already purchased it. Then, you just download it again and don't pay anything.

Hasn't the console already soft launched in Brazil?

JR: It was publicly announced to the press, but it was not shipped. The ship schedule was publicly announced in November. The ship schedule was Q2 with limited retail availability, so that's where we are right now. It will go into Rio de Janeiro in June, and then there will be a big roll out. The key date to get ready for is Children's Day, which is October 12th. That's the beginning of the Christmas season. It's a whole massive retail rollout.

Mexico is second for launch. Is that for language reasons or for market reasons? It's easier probably to transition from Portuguese to Spanish.

JR: We want to get Brazil locked and loaded and running, and then switch to Mexico. We're actually in active conversations with partners in Mexico now, we just haven't signed them yet. We'll be ready for the October retail season in Mexico.

MY: We actually were in India a few weeks ago. But with places like India and China, politically and culturally there are lots of pieces. Mexico is a little simpler.

RN: Latin America has the same game culture in general. So, multiple games that we use in Brazil, we can use in Mexico. We can roll them out for them as well. India is more specific -- different content, different approach -- so it will take more time.

India in particular is interesting because it's a slightly unproven game market. How do you figure out what content to release there?

JR: We started ten months ahead of time. We spent a lot of time with the content producers, people in the film and entertainment business. We talked to consumers and started early.

MY: It's not about, "There's EA and Activision, all the gigantic Western catalogs, and we'll just find some way to bring it into another country and spread the word." There's certainly some of that -- cricket, say, if it's India. Maybe FIFA. But the whole goal, like John says, is to go to the right local developers. We don't just have to take everything in the Western world and force it on people in another world.

It seems like the difficulty is that you're not just trying to push specific content. You're also trying to push the idea of a console. Sony has paved the way there to some degree.

MY: But it may not even be a known or called or marketed or positioned as a console, because then you get put in a bucket of video game consoles. So, sure, in Brazil, with the heart of gaming culture, maybe it's more gaming-oriented. But that whole UI can be changed.

When we were there, we found that the educational theme is so strong. All these kids are trying to get into certain colleges, or when they're younger, they're just starting to learn math. So perhaps, it's a fun and learning box.

JR: We had dinner with the head of Qualcomm India who manages thousands of people; he lived in America, was American-educated, wants to buy a PS3. Well, it's not acceptable in India necessarily to buy a pure-play video game console because kids need to be educated. There's a big emphasis on education. The fact that it runs Blu-ray Discs means it's really not a video game console. It's a Blu-ray Disc player.

In our case, with the Zeebo, because it doubles as a wireless 3G modem in the future -- we can upload that software -- if I've got a netbook, I can now surf the internet using Zeebo's modem. Or I can plug it into my TV, plug a keyboard in, and use it as a browsing device. So, it has some utility beyond simply gaming.

We have some customers in India saying, "It could be great if I could allow my kids to learn math or physics or science, and then reward them with Crash Bandicoot for half an hour, or a Bollywood game for half an hour, after they've done all their homework." It's going to be positioned slightly differently in that market.

Another key thing about India is distribution channels. They're not well developed for video game consoles. But they are well developed for other products like televisions, refrigerators, satellite set-top boxes, and so on.

So we're talking to all those key players to see if we can partner from a distributor's perspective, just like we have in Brazil. Because in Brazil, it's the Tectoy Zeebo. It's not the Zeebo Zeebo. And in India, it will be the X Zeebo. In Mexico, it will be the Y Zeebo. It always comes with a brand that's trusted by the local customers.

RN: In other words, in India, it needs to be a console for the whole family, with appeal to everyone that is a decision maker, and everyone in the family.

MY: Which is critical, because in those markets, they have one TV in the home. If they're going to share it, the father or mother might say, "Well, I'm buying it for my kid, and my kid is just playing shooting games. I saved all this money over 18 to 24 months to buy this thing, and he's taking time away from all of us, and all he's doing is playing these violent games."

By positioning it a little differently and offering the right type of content for the whole family to enjoy, whether they play it together or whether it's edutainment, we can do that. Mickey Mouse Teaches Math for the younger kid, something about college for the older one, a Bollywood soap opera trivia thing for the mother, cricket information or whatever for the dad.

Then you create something of value that the whole family sees, and there's not really an issue of, "There's one hour less during the day we're using the TV because there's only one TV in the house."

You said if you reached America, you would have to lower the price point potentially. That means that the perception is that in the lower-income market, you don't have to.

MY: We have this mass market chipset, and our next-generation chipset is getting faster. What we announced, [Qualcomm's] Snapdragon [chipset], is going to netbooks; it bumps it a few notches above that. The cell phone business, including us, is never going to build a processor that's going to match or surpass what the video game guys do. So, why chase that?

When this thing turns on, it's as quiet as unplugged. It doesn't burn any energy. The position if we came into this market wouldn't be, "We're trying to get close to the PS3 and catch them."

It's about a different demographic. Maybe it's a different type of contact. Think of Jakks Pacific, those guys sell millions of those $20 or $24.99 things.

[UPDATE: Price of Zeebo updated on launch specifics.]

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