Trip Hawkins Bags on Apple Gaming, Thinks Browser

Trip Hawkins, former Apple marketing exec and legendary founder of Electronic Arts, is tense with Apple’s App Store, and encouraged game developers to think about the Web browser for future games. Mr. Hawkins, who has in the past praised the iPhone itself (and the App Store by extension) as a “spectacularly pleasant surprise,” lashed out against both Apple and Nintendo for their (unrelated) practices.

Mr. Hawkins’s problem with Apple today is that the App Store is overcrowded. According to CNN, the gaming exec said at the Game Developer Conference last week that “[Apple has] over-encouraged supply,” and that Apple has only crated the illusion of a viable business model for game developers.

Digital Chocolate CEO Trip Hawkins

Trip Hawkins, former Apple Exec, Founder of EA, Digital Chocolate CEO

Looking at Apple’s own numbers, Mr. Hawkins pointed to the (more or less) $4,000 per paid application that Apple has paid out on average to developers of apps on its App Store.

“Four thousand per application: Do you see a problem with that?” CNN reported he asked the audience at a panel on game development at the GDC. “That doesn’t even pay for a really good foosball table.”

He added, “If we can’t figure out how to make it a healthy ecosystem, it’s not going to be a great business for developers to be able to remain employed in.”

He didn’t specify what had changed since 2009 when he was more upbeat about the iPhone and the App Store, but since 2009, Apple has approved more than 250,000 more apps for the App Store.

Back in 2009, his current company, Digital Chocolate, had four #1 gaming titles and five of the top grossing games. Today, he said, the overcrowding in the App Store has made it hard for games to get noticed and become popular.

Mr. Hawkins also laid into Nintendo for changing the very economics of the gaming industry in the first place by instituting licensing fees for the privilege of making games for its consoles. Nintendo was the first to do so, and the model was quickly adopted by Sony, Microsoft, and others.

“We used to have a free and open game business,” Mr. Hawkins said. “And then Nintendo came along and introduced a thing called a licensing agreement.”

Of course, as ConsoleDigest pointed out, back when “we used to have a free and open game business,” which is the 1980s and early 1990s, console makers like Atari and Mr. Hawkins’ own company, 3DO, couldn’t make any money.

The licensing system started by Nintendo (and adopted by others) had the effect of locking out small development studios (that couldn’t afford the fees), but it allowed the console maker to offer hardware at a lower cost and to have a degree of control over game quality.

Today, Apple’s fees don’t come in the form of large per-title licensing fees, but rather in the form of a US$99 per year developer agreement and 30% of the take from its App Store. Apple’s control over its platform eclipses even Nintendo’s or Microsoft’s, which itself carries both benefits and detriments to consumers (depending on who they are and what they want).

Still, Nintendo offers one benefit that Apple doesn’t, according to Mr. Hawkins, who said, “At least Nintendo had the courtesy to tell you up-front that you were going to be screwed.”

From “spectacularly pleasant surprise” to “screwed” in less than two years.