The bulk of the video game industry is based in the United States, but for Xavier Carrillo-Costa and his Digital Legends Entertainment company, Spain is a great place to play.
Its Medieval warrior fighting game Kroll was a big hit for Apple's iPhone and the iPod Touch, and is on tap to generate more than $1 million in revenue this year. Carrillo-Costa has deals with Finland-based Nokia for a new mobile dance game and South Korea-based Samsung for a high-definition version of Kroll, both scheduled for later this year. And it's working on a new game it hopes to have ready for the iPhone by the end of the year.
"Being in Barcelona, I have to travel to meetings more often," says Carrillo-Costa, 36, founder and CEO of Digital Legends. "The closer you are to your publishers, who tend to be in the United States, the easier it is. When we have a meeting, we have to take a plane and cross the ocean. But that's OK. Because we are in Europe, from a creative perspective, we bring something different."
The mobile industry has long been more advanced in Europe and Asia, taking advantage of faster, more powerful networks. Carrillo-Costa says U.S. publishers know this, and look to small firms such as Digital Legends for advanced graphics and technology.
Reviews for Kroll — which won the People's Choice nod from the International Mobile Gaming Awards — raved about the look of the game. Gaming site IGN.com called it a "visual stunner," while blog PocketGamer said it "established a new visual standard."
Carrillo-Costa last week slashed Kroll's price to 99 cents, from $7.99. "We want everyone to play it," he says.
Bucking the downturn
The global downturn is said to have hurt Spain worse than anywhere in Europe, with 20% unemployment, but Carrillo-Costa says it hasn't affected his company dramatically.
He currently has two employee teams in different offices on the fifth floor in a building in Barcelona's Eixample district, but intends to move to a larger facility. "We work in an industry that is growing, and there's a huge demand for what we do," he says.
Still, video game publishers are "traveling less, so we have to travel more," Carrillo-Costa says. "And their decisions take longer."
Along with much of the gaming industry, Carrillo-Costa will be visiting the U.S. next week, for the big E3 gaming conference in Los Angeles. It was nearly a year ago, on another overseas trip, that Carrillo-Costa introduced Digital Legends at Apple's developers' conference in San Francisco, to offer a sneak peek at an early version of Kroll.
Apple executives in Europe had seen his team's work. They asked him, late on a Friday afternoon, if he would be available to chat with Apple executives in California later that evening on the phone — 3:30 a.m. Barcelona time.
"Of course I said yes," he recalls. "Apple could have called someone else, and we wouldn't have had the opportunity."
Apple asked if he could be on a plane the following afternoon, to go to headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., for a week — with no guarantee that he would be able to present his game at the conference.
He and programmer Unai Landa Bonilla boarded the flight, and Apple liked what it saw. Carrillo-Costa released the game in September, and it made back its investment in three weeks, he says. Appearing on stage with Apple brought "huge visibility," he says, and several big meetings with U.S. companies.
Next up: Dance Fabulous, a game making its debut this summer on Nokia N-Gage phones worldwide. (The phone is available here via Nokia's website, but not currently offered by the major wireless carriers.)
Nokia and Digital Legends are working with Universal Music to launch a new artist, Cindy Gomez, via the game. Four of her songs, produced by Eurythmics co-founder Dave Stewart, are included. The game features an animated dancer modeled on Gomez, grooving to music uploaded to a phone. Users choreograph moves, and can share the steps with friends. No price has been set for the game.
Kroll HD was previewed in February at the GSMA Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the major worldwide trade show for the mobile industry. It will be featured in June on the new Samsung 18910 HD smartphone (formerly called OmniaHD), a multimedia device that can shoot 720-pixel high-definition videos and display them on a 3.7-inch screen.
The phone was just released in the U.K. and is coming to Europe and East Asia later this month. There are no plans yet for a U.S. release.
Work isn't all play
Carrillo-Costa formed Digital Legends in 2001, initially focusing on console games. Its first project was a soccer game for South Korea-based NCSoft, followed by a fighting game for Nokia.
The company — with 35 full-time and 20 part-time employees — is a mix of young artists, who begin the games with sketches and renderings, animators who bring the visions to life and programmers who make it all happen.
Even though Carrillo-Costa is Spanish-born and speaks five languages, English is the official office language. His staff includes employees from the U.K., Poland, France and South Korea, and he says it's easier to speak one common language.
As the CEO of a gaming company, Carrillo-Costa theoretically has the dream job — he gets to come to work every day and play. But that's not how it really is.
"When I play, I'm working," he says. "I'm checking a game, analyzing how they did it, looking at the production values. I play much less than I should."