Disney acquired Tapulous, the company behind the hugely successful Tap Tap Revenge mobile gaming franchise, in July 2010. Since then, little was heard of the company until last month’s launch of the Tap Tap Revenge Tour game, with saw Tapulous founder (and now SVP & GM at Disney Mobile) Bart Decrem boasting of how “we got rid of a lot of crap and clutter”. Given shares in FarmVille creator Zynga have started to tank, are music-based mobile and social games about to go the same way as Rock Band and Guitar Hero? Tim O’Brien argues there is still room for growth as such games are huge driver for music sales (the Coyote Kisses remix of Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ had 1.5m downloads in the first week of the Tour game), but warns new start-ups here will find it increasingly harder to license content.

Disney bought you two years ago. What’s changed?
“Everything and nothing! Obviously we’re part of one of the largest media companies in the world and what’s changed is that we have a lot more resources and access to the best IT in the world.

We have produced a new game called Where’s My Water? which has become one of the biggest hits this year in mobile games worldwide.  We also doubled down and reinvested in the Tap Tap Revenge franchise and the new game, Tour, is the first new title in 18 months.”

 Bart Decrem described the game as having less “crap and clutter” than previous games. What does that mean in reality?
“We had some features in the game – like chat and online gameplay – that we felt were taking away from the centrepiece of what we wanted to deliver to the consumer, which was interactive gameplay focused around music.

We removed some features from the game and poured our engineering resources into developing better scenes and video interactive scenes that we’ve never done before and came up with the idea of tours.”

 Why take 18 months to launch this game?
“None of us had ever worked in large companies before. We were entrepreneurs and artists so we had to adjust to Disney and its ecosystem and then it was a matter of building the right studios and team and putting that all in place.

We were also focused on some other franchises. This product [Tour] was under development for about a year. It had a really long development cycle.”

 Does being part of Disney make it easier to get other labels to sign up?
“I was one of the first people sitting down with the likes of Universal in August 2008 when no one was pitching music apps at that point on iOS. That was a major hurdle in the beginning but once we got the initial licensing formula in place – and I remember that Warner was the last major to come on board – for that second year we were pretty efficient in licensing as we were generating real revenue for the labels and publishers.

When we got acquired it was actually a little bit more challenging as I think the major labels maybe thought we were going to change our rate structure – but we continued as the same. Then there were some niche artists who thought we were going to rebrand the entire thing as Disney and have Disney logos on the games. We wanted to keep true to the brand we had built.”

 Has the attitude of the labels and publishers changed in regard to mobile content?
“I think it would be much harder today going in as a brand new start-up to do licensing. My understanding is they [copyright owners] are doing very little licensing of music on mobile right now.

What happened was there was a big wave of companies who started doing music games on mobile and a lot of them didn’t make any money. A lot of them aren’t here today – just three years later. For example, EA’s Rock Band game is now disappearing from the Apple App Store.”

 Is that a sign the market is dying?
“Folks have had a challenge monetising music around mobile gaming. We were lucky we were able to build such a large installed user base of over 80m now and build such a brand that we can continue to invest – and we also have the resources of Disney now – and to continue developing the franchise.”

 Are such apps at the mercy of what genres are popular and, for the moment, rock isn’t?
“It’s so natural to play Tap Tap to dance music and Tap Tap Dance is still our biggest premium seller of all time. That came out at Christmas 2008. We have done dance music for a long time in the game but it’s now weighted heavier than the average.

We still run rock in our games and it does quite well. It’s the difference between putting out an app with music in there but not doing anything with it and the Tap Tap model, which is running the game as a live service. On a daily basis, we talk to our community, give them more content and update the app. They are just different business models.”

 There are over 300 tracks in this game. Why so many?
“It is tricky trying to find the balance between free versus premium content in a game launch but I think we did it fairly well here. We have over 300 free tracks at launch. Every day we are committed to launching a free song in the Tour game.

We have never given away top 10 hits like this from acts including LMFAO, Carly Rae Jepsen, Selena Gomez, Skrillex and other A-grade artists that are available from day 1 when you come into the game.”

 How do you decide what music to use in the games?
“The great news is that it’s not just me any more! I have a team of folks who help talking to labels and artists who aren’t on labels. We are seeing a lot more dance and electronic music because of the marketplace now.

The advantage of being part of Disney is that we have big teams on the ground in every market around the world and we will spend time talking to people in, say, Korea and the UK to find out what is relevant there.

A lot of the free content that you will see coming through on a daily basis is stuff that is emerging in markets that may not be in the charts yet or may not be on a major label yet. And then some of it will be stuff that is charting. Tap Tap Revenge Tour is localised in 10 markets now. We do the best we can to bring in local content and in 2013 you’ll see more of an effort on our end to do deeper localisation.”

 How does it tie in with the marketing being done by the labels?
“Most of the artists will hit their Facebook and Twitter to talk about it. This is the most artist participation we’ve ever had in a Tap Tap launch. We have been tracking the artist tweets and saw substantial downloads.

A couple of years ago it was fairly difficult to drive traffic from the web to mobile and convert that to a download. Because so much of Twitter and Facebook’s audience is smartphone-based now it is becoming a significant channel in terms of marketing and driving downloads.”

 Bart Decrem also said mobile games would kill console games. Is he right?
“I just think that mobile is changing the dynamics of gaming. The emergence of new platforms is so fast, adaptive and innovative, it’s not only increasing the number of console game players, so I don’t think it is going to go away. I think there will be a core group of gamers who are always going to want an experience that is deeper and more immersive.

I just think that mobile has changed the dynamics. For $50,000, you can build a game on a smartphone right now that potentially could return $20m or $40m. I also think mobile and social are bringing in new gamers. The 30-45-year-old female has become the most prevalent gamer on Facebook but was previously never a gamer. What will be interesting is when companies start rolling out truly cross-platform titles.”

 Are you focused just on mobile? Or will you look to develop cross-platform games?
“Disney operates across all platforms, so you will see Tap Tap on some other platforms in the next 12-18 months.”

 Can mobile games break new acts? Or is it just a showcase for major acts?
“There have been multiple tracks throughout the history of Tap Tap that we have put into the games before they were breaking. The reality is that if we feature a track in Tap Tap Revenge on a Thursday, which is when we add new music, we can send a push message out to over 13m devices and we will activate marketing across out entire network for that song.

It’s still a very powerful channel and we will drive tens of thousands of installs via iTunes for that song. It’s competitive to get that slot.”

 Why do music apps not take off like other sectors?
“Right now there is Tap Tap, Smule and SongPop all in the top 25 of the US charts. There are three big music apps right now but when you get into music licensing, it is expensive and it is challenging. There are still entrepreneurs who are passionate about music and are willing to fight the good fight.”

 What really drives dwell time?
“That’s one of the main reasons we introduced the tour feature. You want to come back every day for your next free song. We also built the wall feature so users can populate their wall with custom items. That helps them engage every day.”

 How has the apps market changed from your early days here?
“It is much more competitive. There are companies now that have real networks in place – like ourselves and Zynga – who have the ability to turn on that network and push an app right up the charts. It has become much more difficult to acquire customers. But it is still amazing that a handful of people – an engineer, a designer, a backend guy – can have a cool idea, build an app and have it go straight to number 1 based on word of mouth or viral impact and make an incredible profit.

Even though the largest organisations are out there and building networks, putting their app together and having network power, you can still come out of nowhere and go to the top of the charts. It’s an amazing platform to operate on. And every three weeks something changes. Apple or Android will change the dynamics or do something with their algorithms, or a new business is built or a new start-up emerges; it is ever changing.”

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