One phone call. One week. One meeting with a bona fide A-List celebrity. One marquee partnership for its first ever mobile game. Moonshark is not your average mobile entertainment studio.
Moonshark is a project co-founded by Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and Qualcomm to identify, develop, finance, and market mobile game ideas in partnership with high-profile artists. After more than six months in stealth mode, the venture is launching its first game app today alongside mega-star singer, dancer, actor, and “American Idol” host Jennifer Lopez, as well as dance crew sensation the Jabbawockeez.
DancePad for iPad is an addictive finger-dancing game that mirrors the live performance styles of the cult arcade sensation Dance Dance Revolution and hit video game Guitar Hero. The concept for the game was inspired by the finger breakdancing meme which has reached viral status on YouTube.
A soundtrack of top artists has been assembled for the game’s 100 levels, including Mayer Hawthorne, Vintage Trouble, Nabiha, The Whigs, Saint Motel, Shu Sho, and the Bangerz, who are best known for providing the soundtrack behind the Jabbawockeez.
DancePad is free for download and comes with the first 20 levels unlocked — each a single musical track. The remaining 80 levels can be purchased for $2.99. Additionally, each track can be purchased through iTunes directly within the game. Kozlov sees plenty of other monetization opportunities for this and future titles. The CEO is already preparing merchandizing and complementary branded content should DancePad be the hit he expects.
With the resources and guidance of its partners at CAA, Kozlov is doing everything possible to make sure this one is a runaway hit. The company is releasing two videos promoting the game, which it’s a fair bet will go viral. The first, called Hand Party, is a take on the YouTube finger breakdancing videos with some game play woven in. The second is more of a music video featuring celebrity partner the Jabbawockeez. In the future, the company plans to run best finger dance video contests and other promotions.
“Moonshark was formed to connect uniquely talented artists with the best independent mobile developers to bring amazing ideas to life as mobile games,” said CEO Matt Kozlov. “The is the biggest challenge with mobile games is typically discoverability. We think we’ll have a huge advantage in that regard.”
The making of DancePad illustrates one of several paths a Moonshark game can take to market. The concept was originally conceived by Bounce House Games as an undergraduate project at the University of Southern California (USC). The company became aware of the idea, licensed the rights to the early version, and engaged Triangle Studios to complete further development. With the game complete, talent meetings were then scheduled, and a partnership with JLo was eventually signed.
“DancePad is based on rhythm, creativity, and fun,” says Kozlov. “We thought that it was a perfect fit for Jennifer [Lopez] and her spirit. Thankfully she agreed.”
Alternatively, Moonshark both conceives of its own game ideas and also takes inbound concepts from celebrity talent. At this stage, the studio does not have an internal development team and therefore contracts with various independent developers on a project by project basis. Kozlov compares the model to that of a film studio which brings together a raw concept with the right screenwriter, director, producer, and talent.
Moonshark has several projects in the pipeline beyond DancePad and has teased a few involving YouTube superstar Phillip DeFranco and martial arts legend John Woo. Kozlov predicts releasing up to a half dozen titles by year’s end and says that his firm has a full line-up of releases planned for 2013.
The model is to build a portfolio of titles and mirror the in-app promotion done so effectively by mobile gaming juggernauts Zynga and Rovio, but to add in a decidedly Hollywood twist. “Rovio is basically Disney 2.0,” says Kozlov. “They have done an unbelievable job taking Angry Birds off the mobile screen and building that brand through merchandise and now an upcoming movie.”
Speaking of his experience developing with Moonshark, Woo says, “The collaborative development process at Moonshark has been an outstanding experience. We worked with Moonshark to find just the right development team to bring these characters and concepts to life in an immersive, engaging game.”
With access to CAA’s vast resources and deep relationships in entertainment, Moonshark is able to bring together novel ideas with high profile artists to drive audiences in mass to their games. The company is not the first to work with celebrities. Most famously, self-service mobile app platform Mobile Roadie has created titles with Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Madonna, Dallas Mavericks, and Cirque du Soleil. That said, few can move mountains to the extent that CAA can.
“We created Moonshark as a vehicle through which [artists] can develop their ideas into mobile games and apps,” says CAA head of business development Michael Yanover. “Moonshark offers amazing new opportunities for talent to connect with their fans in a whole new way.”
CAA recruited Kozlov to lead Moonshark (named Creative Mobile Labs at the time) after the concept and funding were already in place. Kozlov left a position atop Sony’s digital media division, where he first developed mobile websites and more recently mobile games for the company’s celebrity partners. While there he created the first ever celebrity-branded app with pop singer Pink and later released the massively successful Slayer Pinball Rock game.
Moonshark is an independent company and won’t always be as deeply tied to CAA as it is today. As Kozlov sees it, being inside the walls of the agency’s glitzy LA headquarters is a big advantage in the early days. Going forward he’s committed to developing Moonshark’s own corporate culture and identity. The result is likely to include less suits and ties in the office on a typical day and certainly less $40 valet parking. In the meantime however, Sharing a wall with Yanover and being able to literally bump into Grammy and Academy Award winners in the restroom has its advantages.
CAA is also making a bigger push into incubating novel companies and ideas, many of which are in the technology space. Yannover teased several additional of these being developed in stealth within the agency’s walls. “We are always looking to create new ways for artists to deliver the most engaging entertainment experiences,” he says.
The definition of a gamer is no longer a 19-year-old guy living in his parent’s basement, says Kozlov. “We’re developing with both my eight-year-old niece and my 60-year-old father in mind. The smartphones and now the iPad have made this possible in a way that never was before. Mobile is fucking awesome!”