Being Trip Hawkins
By Mark Frauenfelder, Wed Mar 31 10:45:00 GMT 2004

If anyone in the electronic gaming world is on intimate terms with both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, it's Trip Hawkins.

One of the first employees at Apple computer, Hawkins left in 1982 to found Electronic Arts (known today as EA), virtually inventing the gaming industry along the way. In the process, EA grew into the world's largest video game company, and Hawkins became a zillionaire.

The $700 Game Box

But Hawkins had even bigger dreams. Frustrated with the power that console makers like Nintendo and Sega held over game publishers, Hawkins left EA in 1991 to start a new company, 3D0. With a grand vision to create a powerful CD-based game console, Hawkins intended to win over game publishers by charging a lower royalty per game than Nintendo or Sega did. Despite investments and partnership deals with AT&T, Matsushita, MCA, Time Warner, and Hawkins’s alma mater, Electronic Arts, 3D0 was never able to achieve escape velocity. (For one thing, the 3D0 game console entered the market with a price tag of $700, nearly triple that of the competition.) In May 2003, after eating up nearly $20 million of Hawkins’s personal fortune, 3D0 filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

When the Going Gets Tough, Have Some Chocolate

But Hawkins wasn't ready to call it quits. In fact, he's ready to take on a new industry -- mobile phones. He and the nine other employees of Digital Chocolate are gearing up to become the Electronic Arts of mobile computing. The company is stationed in the offices of the Menlo Park venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, who, along with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, ponied up $8.4 million for Digital Chocolate's startup capital.

Now well into his third decade as a gaming industry veteran, Hawkins shows no signs of industry ennui. In fact, during our phone conversation he sounded positively ebullient over the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead.

Mobile phones, Hawkins said, are "turning into the largest computer platform in the history of mankind." And he believes he's getting in the game at the right time. In the last few years, mobile devices have made huge leaps in terms of memory, processing power, connectivity, and display color and resolution. Digital Chocolate may be something of a latecomer, but it could be that other game companies have moved in too early. Hawkins' timing might be right on target here.

New Platform, New Rules

One of the things that excites Hawkins the most about mobile gaming is that it's still "a new frontier in a new media," which means that once again, he has a chance to make up the rules. When he was running EA, for example, Hawkins pioneered such innovations as putting games in boxes that had compelling artwork on the covers. Before that, games came in nerdy ziplocked plastic bags.

Hawkins said Digital Chocolate, too, will practice "out-of-the-box thinking" when it comes to creating applications for mobiles. For example, with the right application, you can turn a mobile phone into a metronome for music students. It's not a game, but it is the kind of useful little application that people might like to have.

Don't Forget Half Your Market

Hawkins also described a service offered by NTT DoCoMo that allows a woman to fill out an online survey to determine how likely it is that her boyfriend is cheating on her. Developing programs for women are high up on the Digital Chocolate things-to-do list. Unlike EA and 3D0, which focused almost exclusively on making toys for boys, Digital Chocolate isn't going to neglect female mobile phone users, who make up 50 percent of the market.

The company is still operating somewhat in stealth mode, so Hawkins didn't give too much away regarding actual products under development. He did hint at work on creating a collection of digital characters that could be "used in multiple applications," and who would show up in a phone's icon set, in ringtones, in screensavers, as avatars, etc. "It's a good social community application, like NeoPets," he said.

Avoiding Potholes on the Chocolate Road

I asked Hawkins what Digital Chocolate's biggest challenge was. He gave me three. One: finding a niche in the marketplace. Two: gaining support of the industry. And three: turning "data services into the tail that wags the dog." Sounds like Hawkins has learned a lot over the last 20 plus years in the gaming business, from both his victories and defeats. Digital Chocolate is definitely going to be a company worth watching.