Trip Hawkins Talks NanoStars, iPhone’s Popularity Surge

New ideas may not come along ever day, but at Digital Chocolate they seem commonplace. For the company that brought us Kamikaze Robots, Tornado Mania, and Crazy Penguin Catapult, creativity and adaptability have always been part of their game plan. Now, they have a new concept for in-game items that are also characters, powerups, and collectibles, called NanoStars. We talked to Digital Chocolate CEO Trip Hawkins to find out what this means for iPhone gaming.

Digital Chocolate already has a presence well beyond the world of iPhone games. Their website has served up over 100 million free online play sessions of their games, and their non-iPhone mobile gaming business is still going strong. Plus, Digital Chocolate is starting to expand to home console systems as well, as 3D Tower Bloxx Deluxe will soon be appearing on Xbox Live Arcade.

For their next project, Digital Chocolate wants to tie together different ideas that have big commercial potential. “NanoStars are characters that are basically virtual online creatures that can be mapped into different games, do different things in different games, and transform into different things in those games,” Hawkins told us.

In this way, NanoStars seeks to tie together in-game purchases, powerups, and characters with personality. The core idea is that one NanoStar will appear in numerous games, and to kick it off we’ll soon have a card game called NanoVerse Castles.

NanoVerse Castles, the first game to be announced using NanoStars, is an online card game based on a regular 52-card deck. Your goal is to make a hand of all the same face cards, but you’ll also have access to Nanostars that can alter your cards or your opponent’s cards. For example, Hawkins said, “a character named Robin Hood, one of our NanoStars, allows you to steal from the rich and give to the poor, so you take one of your opponent’s best cards and stick him with one of your worst.”

In other games in the NanoVerse, that same Robin Hood card would do entirely different things. “Because of what Robin Hood is all about, maybe he’ll help you with your weapon’s accuracy, or maybe he could be a roleplaying character that’s particularly stealthy,” Hawkins said.

“At least initially, we’re just trying to get a few games to market that illustrate the idea. We’ll let people play free versions of each and every one of those games,” Hawkins said. Some of the NanoStars will be available in the free version, but to use all the features they must be purchased in packs.

While we couldn’t confirm that NanoVerse Castles is coming to the iPhone, it makes sense given Digital Chocolate’s recent history of bringing new games to that platform. But don’t expect NanoStars to be limited to just one platform, either.

We also asked Mr. Hawkins about how he thinks the iPhone has changed the mobile gaming landscape. “There are a couple of really fabulous trends reflected in what’s going on with the iPhone,” he told us. “One of them is just people having a completely different experience with the device, where they’re discovering they really do want a mobile content platform.”

“They’re much more engaged, in talking with other people about what they’re doing with it, and showing them, downloading and trying more applications. So that’s really, really exciting,” he said.

“The other exciting thing is the web shifting over to the mobile side. The things that made the web famous for enabling discovery and trial, a lot of that behavior just didn’t happen for the Western world on mobile phones in the first couple of generations of networks and phones. It is happening now on the iPhone.”

“In some way it’s happening in a fashion similar to what’s been going on in Japan and Korea for some time. In Japan they’ve had mobile web for ten years and Korea’s had microtransactions in games for a long time. Consumers in Japan and Korea think of the web as more of a mobile thing. In fact, there’s more email in Japan sent from mobile devices than by PC.”

In the U.S., Hawkins said, “it took something like the iPhone to really open up that kind of customer behavior.”

To read more about NanoStars and Trip’s view on the mobile industry, check out his official blog.

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