Sega has a very storied history in video games. Home to brands like Sonic the Hedgehog, After Burner, Crazy Taxi, and of course the first banner game for the iPhone, Super Monkey Ball. Some (like me) still consider the Sega Dreamcast the best video game system ever released. But Sega was also one of the first game developers to launch on the App Store. And now with Sega games seeing well over 1.1 billion plays on iOS, we talk with Ethan Einhorn, Director of Online Services, SEGA, about what it was like to launch on the App Store and the amazing response to Sega's first release, Super Monkey Ball.
148Apps: Sega jumped on the App Store right at launch. It was the first high profile game, and even set the bar for the initial price point for games in the App Store at $9.99. How did Super Monkey Ball come about?
Ethan Einhorn, Director of Online Services, SEGA: We had built a great relationship with Apple prior to the launch of the App Store with the release of Sonic the Hedgehog on the iPod (clickwheel). The controls on that version of Sonic were finicky, but the port was pixel perfect! We were planning to follow up that release with Super Monkey Ball, but doing 3D on the iPod nano proved challenging, so we shifted to iPhone. This gave us a chance to dramatically increase the game's performance, and let us take full advantage of the iPhone's tilt functionality.
148Apps: Super Monkey Ball was priced at $9.99 initially. How was this initial price point decided? Did representatives from Apple have any input on the price point?
Ethan Einhorn: We were initially concerned that the $9.99 price point was too low. After all, we were giving users nearly as much content in that game as we did in the $39.99 DS Super Monkey Ball game, and with better graphics! We asked ourselves: if we planned to bring games to iOS, DS, and PSP simultaneously, how would pricing be handled across the board? We didn't see $0.99 as a price point that would become dominant so quickly, never mind free-to-play (which wasn't enabled at the App Store launch). As for Apple, they gave us full control over our pricing, just as they do now.
148Apps: I remember seeing that Super Monkey Ball had sold 300,000 copies in the first month. That was pretty amazing back then, considering the price point.
Were you surprised by the initial response?
Ethan Einhorn: Yes. We expected the performance to be solid - we received phenomenal support from Apple, including participation in TV spots. But nobody knew for sure how gaming would take off on that platform. The device was still at a premium price. The iPhone 3G just launching. There were a lot of other games to choose from. But when we hit #1 on day one, and stayed there for more than a week, and we were blown away. We're very proud to have provided gamers with the first ever #1 ranked game on the App Store!
148Apps: Super Monkey Ball took full advantage of the iPhone hardware, utilizing the accelerometer for tilt controls, which was very inventive at the time. Was any other control model ever considered?
Ethan Einhorn: We talked about offering a virtual stick option. The accelerometer control was tuned to allow for high precision, but it proved too sensitive for a lot of players. Unfortunately, there was no time to implement that. The virtual stick came up again when we worked on Super Monkey Ball 2 (a better game across the board), but by then, the amazing team at Other Ocean Interactive (our developer) had perfected tilt control on the device, so we kept with that.
Here's Ethan Einhorn demoing Super Monkey Ball at the Apple Press Event, revealing the iPhone App Store in 2008
148Apps: In the five years since launch, the App Store has changed considerably. Number of users has skyrocketed along with downloads, prices for paid apps has stabilized at the lowest possible point, free to play has dominated the top grossing charts. What would happen if Super Monkey Ball were launched today?
Ethan Einhorn: It would probably look and feel a lot like the PS Vita game - higher visual fidelity, more mini-games. If you haven't played SMB on VITA, by the way, check it out - all original content, and playable with either stick or tilt controls. It's awesome! But the challenge is that it's not really a game that can be shifted to free-to-play, which is where we are focused at SEGA.
148Apps: Any predictions for what the App Store will be like five years from now?
Ethan Einhorn: My guess is that Apple TV will carry all of the benefits of mobile gaming to televisions, while allowing for seamless cross-play between iPhone and Apple TV. I think F2P will get even bigger, but paid games will swing back into vogue, once players spend $100-plus on a few free-to-play titles and recognize that $10 for a premium game experience is actually a steal.
Thanks to Ethan Einhorn from Sega for his time.
[ Photo Credit: Avery Photography ]