According to normal people Rob Murray would seem like a bit of a contradiction. On one hand he spends his days playing with games but on the other he was selected as a finalist in the prestigious Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards last year.
And to understand his success you have to understand the role that Apple and its exploration of the internet cyber world has had in the fast growth of Firemint.
For those who would not consider themselves as gamers, this company is responsible for two unbelievably popular computer games called Flight Control and Real Racing. Their popularity has come post-GFC with Murray taking the entrepreneurial move in 2009 to bypass the conventional route to market via big name publishers, instead taking the Apple iTunes channel to its potential customers.
To understand the success, a little while back Multimedia Victoria were singing the praises of the company.
“After achieving one million downloads in the first three months of release last year, Flight Control has now reached a new milestone – reaching two million sales in just over 10 months,” the Victorian Government department proclaimed.
Firemint released the game Flight Control for iPhone and iPod Touch in March 2009, and it became one of the App Store’s biggest success stories to date. Average daily sales of about 6000 were achieved with Flight Control achieving number one status in at least 20 countries including US, UK, Australia, Germany, France, Canada and Japan.
This was a bold innovation and change of business model, which now sees the company employ 40 full-time people.
Before we get to the present and the future, let’s go back in time to where it all began.
“I started my first business when I was 17-years-old,” Murray recalls. “I deferred my first year of university to focus on making a game with my business partner but we weren't ready for it at the time.”
He then studied Engineering at the University of Queensland and received the highest marks in his year.
“After two-and-a-half years I was offered a job at a game development studio, Torus Games, and it was too good an opportunity to refuse,” he explains. “I worked there for about four years rising to a senior position, but ultimately resigned to pursue my own ventures.”
The company was founded in December 1999 as a one-man band with Murray doing various programming contracts, both in the games industry and elsewhere. In 2002 the first game he had designed, developed and produced from end to end was launched, and that led to more games work.
The growth started with a few contractors. Then as the business grew from doing subcontract work for other developers to direct work for smaller publishers and then for the world's leading publishers, developing premium titles that were mostly mobile phone games, Firemint’s workforce grew. By 2008 it had about 40 full-time employees in the company.
“Then in 2009, we completely changed our business model and released two self-published games, Flight Control and Real Racing, on iPhone,” Murray says. “The change came about because we finally had an avenue for publishing our original games.
“We had previously developed original titles but the Apple App Store gave us a channel where we could actually commercialise them ourselves.”
The Apple offering meant that Firemint now could fulfil all the roles that a publisher normally takes on, such as marketing and support, in addition to development.
The gaming industry has around 1200 people working in it and has been undergoing a transition.
“The game development industry in Australia has been a part of the global transition over the last few years, which is seeing a shift towards digital distribution and broader demographics,” Murray reveals. “Traditionally, Australian game developers have done a lot of fee-for-service work and that model is suffering now.”
And while he recognised the positive roles played by the Victorian and Queensland state governments, and the general support for exporters from the federal government, other countries are doing more for their game developers.
“There are many governments around the world that are providing significant incentives to game developers, such as many states in Canada,” Murray points out. “Australia has an excellent opportunity to build a highly competitive industry with very low barriers to exporting globally because there are no physical products involved.”
However, the battle for Australian companies is the often-strong resource-driven local currency and the usual barriers of time zone differences and distance from the major markets.
That said, the arrival of the iPhone and iPad has been the biggest break Firemint could have had.
“The Apple App store model has made it possible for developers like us to publish their own software directly via iTunes and profit from the exercise,” he says. “There have always been a number of ways for small developers to distribute their titles, but few of them have been viable and few of them have offered the level of freedom that the App Store provides.”
Despite the very hi-tech nature of games distributed on the internet, it was an old-fashioned marketing technique which explained the success of Flight Control.
“Flight Control's success has largely been due to word of mouth recommendations from people who love it,” Murray says. “It is really an example of the game selling itself to some degree.”
The idea for the game came to him over the Christmas break in December 2008.
“I had been experimenting with using the touch screen for finger painting or drawing and how that might translate into a game,” he says. “At the same time I was thinking about building a game based around an actual job, in this case one of the most exciting jobs in the world – air traffic control.”
So, how did the GFC affect the business?
“The economic downturn could have had a much more negative impact on our business if we had not transitioned to a new business model,” Murray explains. “At the same time as we were focusing on our original games, the work-for-hire model started to decline due to the GFC and other factors including the subsequent return to strength of the Australian dollar, all of which meant that publishers were increasingly reluctant to commission games.”
The Firemint story underlines how important it is for businesses to look for innovations, especially marketing ones, when challenges arrive instead of pulling your head in and not taking entrepreneurial risks.
Murray thinks there are two trends that will revolutionise the game development industry over the coming decade. The first is the personalisation trend.
“I believe that wherever possible, people will value personal media more than shared or public media,” he says. “An example I use to support this rather abstract trend is the evolution of music, which started off with public performances.
“As technology advanced, music moved to the lounge room with the record player and then HiFi. Sony’s Walkman took music on the move, and now Apple’s iPod defines the most significant consumer use of music.”
Games followed a similar path from arcades to mobile phones.
The second trend is the widening of the audience for games. Murray sees it as the re-introduction of games for everyone.
“The bulk of the games industry still services what has been termed the “hardcore” market, people who self identify as gamers and will readily invest into some fairly complicated games experiences,” he says. “I believe these two trends, combined with the rapid growth in the power of personal computing will see a convergence in the games industry between those who create large hardcore console games and those who develop for the wider audience.
“I believe that the winners will emerge into a truly mass market industry that is no longer perceived as niche or only for the young.”
The Apple iPhone and iPad and those that copy them will dictate the future of this industry and that means the App Store will also be critical. And of course, there will be the ongoing role of the internet.
“Applications have been around in some form for many years. It is the unique combination of features and polish of Apple’s App Store that make Apps work so wonderfully,” Murray insists. “Access to the internet no longer is just something for work or home but is expected everywhere.
“As the price reduces and bandwidth increases, games and apps generally will be able to explore more ‘always connected’ experiences.”
The difference for iPhone and iPad, Murray says, is that those connected experiences could always be with you. For the games industry this will provide opportunities for richer and more socially interactive experiences. The impact on computing more generally is even more significant and I don’t think you need to look far to find speculation on the future of cloud computing and other internet enabled technologies.
On Firemint’s future, Murray is not low-balling.
“In the medium term, I would like to see us grow to a $200 million company in the next three years, but that growth will follow on from our products which will follow on from the skills growth and talent of our people,” he said.
On his advice for other entrepreneurs, he does not see a lot in failure.
“For those seeking to be entrepreneurs I would say that contrary to popular opinion you don't learn all that much from failing,” he says. “Your goals should not lead you to spectacular failure but rather to moderate successes.”
And on what and who inspires him – there is no surprise there. It’s Apple and its creator, the late Steve Jobs.
“He not developed Apple from a template, he wrote many of his own rules and built a culture that clearly works,” Murray insists. “I am not so much inspired to copy him, as I am inspired with the confidence to shape our own culture and way of doing things.”
Spoken like a true entrepreneur.