Today, my humble suggestions on what Zeebo will need to do to overcome those challenges.
1. Speed the Approval Process
Zeebo, the local carriers, and the game developers need to work together to create a fast-track process for game certification and local approval. Otherwise this is going to open the door for the first rival consortium that is able to put such a process together. Make a target of 30 days for game approval from the date of submission by the developer, leaving about three weeks of that time frame for the government to work through its part of the process.
2. Experience, Baby: Get Gamers Out of the Internet Cafe and Into the Living Room
Those much younger than I will probably not recall the days when the only place computer games could be played was in a slightly seedy joint crammed full of stand-up game machines. The one I hung out in was called Westworld (named after the 1973 Michael Crichton science-fiction film), two doors down from the landmark Fox Village Theater and a block south of the UCLA campus in Westwood Village.
Westworld started out pretty cool. And then, over time, it got seedy. It stopped being a wholesome hangout for the neighborhood pre-teens and it started to attract an element that was, well, incompatible with what our parents saw as a good crowd to hang with: creepy chain-smoking adult monomaniacs who blew their paychecks on beer, smokes, and Galaxian, and regarded us underage gamers on tight monetary rations as irritants or suckers. The management didn't care.
It was this phenomenon - which I think parallels nicely what has happened in a lot of China's Internet Cafes - that led to the emergence of home gaming consoles from Atari and Mattel (MAT), and eventually home computers (used heavily for gaming) from Apple (AAPL) and Commodore.
It took a while - the first generation or so sucked. But by the time we got our Mattel Intellivision in 1978, the experience was good enough that we never really missed Westworld.
This is the real opportunity for Zeebo - give parents an affordable device that will get their kids out of smoke-filled Internet Cafes, while giving the kids an experience that is as good as - or better - than what they would get in their local wangba.
The Zeebo presentation at the Game Developers' Conference leaves us in a bit of doubt. We will know better when the first devices hit the market - in Brazil. But the experience will be critical
3. Mr. Jacobs, Tear Down These Walls
The initial Zeebo, as currently envisioned, uses its networking capacity only to discover, purchase, and download games into the box.
That's not going to cut it. Many of us in the West may have grown up with discrete, solo gaming experiences. Some of us still prefer it that way (no crude comments, please.) But in China, online and multiplayer gaming is the rule, not the exception.
Yet just as important as offering a networked, multi-player gaming experience is offering the other major advantage of a truly online game: seamless cross-platform play. Play at home on your Zeebo, then when you leave the house, continue playing on your mobile phone, and maybe even continue play on a computer.
This is the gaming triple-play, the promise of a game that follows you wherever you go and is always ready for you to pick up where you left off. Zeebo needs to be a part of that mix, not the heard of a separate gaming universe.
4. Don't Make Zeebo China All About Helping Foreign Game Companies
Success will come for the platform when Zeebo does more than give EA (ERTS), id, Glu, and Digital Chocolate a way into the Chinese market. Sure, giving them market access is nice, and some people here do enjoy playing "global games." But as with music, literature, television, and movies, we all want stuff that is relevant, not just cool.
Getting lots of local developers of all sizes on the platform has to be an immediate priority, even before plans are announced for China. Near-term Zeebo needs to think about splitting the offering 50% localized non-Chinese games and 50% locally produced. Longer term, that needs to shift to 25/75. That means getting busy. Now.
5. Staff Up
You may be able to develop a product with five full-time employees, but the time has come to start selling the sucker, and you will need reinforcements. Resist the temptation to scoop from Qualcomm folks (as smart as they are), and instead find people who understand how to market these kinds of devices globally.
6. A Brief Digression
Some years ago, I was speaking to a colleague in Hong Kong about the prospects of a major international game company here in China. He knew the guys inside the company fairly well, and there came a point in the conversation that I realized the company had a huge blind spot in its plans. Rather than look around at the market conditions, the culture, the economy, and the opportunities, they were determined to do the same kind of business in China that they did in the US.
What I suggested to my colleague was this: the company should give up on localizing games created for the American market and trying to sell them in software stores. Instead, the needed to go to the cable TV industry in China and work on a system whereby online version of their games could be delivered to cable televisions all around the country.
The cable operators had the bandwidth, were building digital systems that allowed for interactivity, and needed the revenue. Kids in China were used to playing online games but there were a lot fewer home PCs that there were cable households.
My colleague humored me, told me they'd never go for it, and promptly forgot my idea. And the company has now been chased out of China.
The big loser in all of that is going to be the cable operators, I think, because it looks like Zeebo is about to lead the telecom companies into the future of online console gaming.
If, that is, Zeebo and its guides can forget about what they think China needs, and start thinking about how to make Chinese gamers drool.