Presented by: Matt Watkins (Creative Director, Mudlark Games and Digital Production)


I’d just like to point out, I’m not a digital native. Now, I’m going to develop that into reminiscence. I am a self-made digital, I’m a digital seeker. I actively sought out digital experiences. I’d want to cast you back now to my first digital marketplace. I come from a very small town in Cornwall called Bodmin, the other side of the country. Basically there was a place there called Shelleys, which is a pet shop. It was full of old ladies buying bits and bobs for their budgerigars, people buying sawdust for their hamsters and so on. The front of the shop looks like any normal pet shop, but in the ’80s, a lot of the young kids used to come straight through the shop to the back where there was a corrugated iron shed. An arcade full of computer game arcade machines – Space Invaders, Celestion and Outrun, all these various games that we used to play obsessively, and we used to all hang out in this little place, this little sanctuary we had, a speakeasy for kids. This was my first digital marketplace.

That’s the original model with video games – you are rewarded for skill acquisition (an intangible currency) by being able to continue playing.

And here I could put 10p in a machine and I could play a game. The currency of playing a game was, I’d put in 10p but I’d get a reward for being able to keep playing the game, as long as I was good enough. So skills in that position became a kind of currency – if I was good, I could keep playing, if I wasn’t, then I had to put another 10p in. A bit like a victorian business model. I’ve got something to show you in my box, give me penny to take a look. And that’s the original model with video games – you are rewarded for skill acquisition (an intangible currency) by being able to continue playing.

This has been re-instated and adapted by many Facebook games, for instance, things like Farmville, MafiaWars, these sorts of games work on the basis that you can either work really hard to get your farm up to scratch, or you can pay five dollars etc. to buy a tractor. Either you work hard and skill up, or you can pay for it. The difference between my pet shop model is that effort can be quashed with purchasing power.

Much of the traditional games industry has operated on the conventional model of a kind of physical object that is bought and sold, so tapes, consoles and CDs/DVDs, and it’s only in recent times that we have reached the point of – how do we make money out of these kinds of entertainment products now that the physical object is becoming redundant? Which is odd because the original object was always digital.

And so, it’s a big struggle we have, as a company, to try and do that. We have a number of different approaches to that. Mudlark is instinctively an experimental studio, taking risks and stretching the possibilities of digital platforms. We have driven competition via travel smart cards, taught Shakespeare on social media, conducted scientific trials on the iPhone and on TV, and maintained a pack game to support Indian and African mobiles. That’s my little description of the company.

Our clients have included the BBC, Channel Four, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Birmingham City Council. So, we have a mixed basis of building conventional games and working on commission. So, we don’t always provide that work for commission, people hire our skills to do so. And that really is most of our bread and butter – it is a kind of commission model of people wanting us to make stuff for them.

Chromaroma is our most successful product and Chromaroma is a game, essentially, that you play on the London Underground using your Oyster Card. We have 10,000 active users who are continuously collecting data, or playing the game throughout London on their daily commute and on their travels. The game provides your Oyster Card data with collection missions and social competition. Incidentally, Transport for London have accepted we do it, but we don’t have an existing business relationship with TfL. So, we have kind of done it through the back door. What we do is we scrape users data and they give it to us of their own volition. So, the challenge of this product is how to turn this thing into a business proposition when we work in a grey area.

We are continuing to attempt to address this, we’re having trouble getting London on board, even though they know it’s happening and they’re interested in it. We’re looking to licence it, possibly to Stockholm, Paris and Sao Paulo, well, we’re having talks with them. And another thing is to exploit what we do, we have got some beautiful visualisations of your journeys, and your history, giving you updates on where you have been, what you have been doing, what your friends have been doing, and so on. So, we thought we’d try and make more of that app kind of utility, about your transport and transport patterns. So, that’s still another option.

And the final thing is a system of items, where users can buy things in game, they can actually buy a ‘boost’ or a ‘leech’ (as we call them), so you can leave a gift for a friend, say at King’s Cross Station, or you could leave something that takes away all their points, at my station. Now, these are digital assets that don’t really exist, but people are paying 50p to buy them so that they can put it in the virtual version of Waterloo Station, for their friends.

We haven’t made a huge amount of money from this, but it shows a small business revenue from something that technically doesn’t exist, and it’s something we’ll continue to explore. So, what we try to do also is explore the nature of data ownership and sharing for mutual benefit. People are sharing their travel data with us, and we’re giving it back in interesting ways. There has been an argument, in that, TfL refuse give us access to the data, but, essentially the data belongs to the user, it doesn’t belong to TfL, and they know that, but they are still intransigent about moving to the next stage.

The problems we’re having is how do we persuade the gatekeepers? How can we provide clients more subscribers, prove the value of playful experience at making people choose different travel options? My final points are, in the world of freemium, how do we pay our mortgages? We’re still struggling to work that one out, and we’re looking for people who might have other answers. This sort of digital invention isn’t really driven by monetisation, that’s how banks work – it’s all about solving problems or entertaining people, or both. However most digital innovation has never been that far from money, it’s about doing something good and doing something that people like and are going to pay for.

So, one of the things that interests me are things like BitCoin, which is an online digital currency, and represents a move away from bank models, because there is no central issuer, the money is peer to peer. The point is: the music business has had a crisis, the film industry has had a crisis, the games industry is having a crisis, so perhaps the money industry needs a crisis as well. I’m not talking about a financial crash that means we bail out banks again and then it’s back to business as usual. But a true crisis of money supply itself.

My final thing is, Perhaps in the online world we will never know the best way to go, because, after all, Facebook still doesn’t have a proper business model.

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