Reimagining Play: Interview with PlayMG’s Taylor Cavanah

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Last month, we brought you a review of the MG, an Android powered handheld gaming system designed for casual games. The combination of vanilla Android and the MG’s custom parental controls made the device a compelling option for gamers young and old alike, and its comparatively low price combined with the vast Android software library offered an unbeatable value.

The team behind the MG had obviously done their homework and targeted the product to a very specific market which was otherwise being ignored. Rather than throwing out a half-realized device that didn’t resonate with any particular use case, the team engineered the hardware and software experience to their target audience to great effect.

Taylor Cavanah

Taylor Cavanah

To learn more about the focus and vision which made the device a reality, we got in touch with MG’s physicist turned meta-gamer Taylor Cavanah.

Creating the MG

The Powerbase: Taylor, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Can you start by telling our readers a bit about yourself and your background?

Taylor: I’m a physicist and started my career in Nanotechnology at Zyvex.  After finding some success in developing the nanoprobing market for the semiconductor industry I decided to strike out on my own.  My buddies and I started our own software company – Locai – and a year ago we combined forces with the hardware and business guys from ACTScom to launch PlayMG.

The Powerbase: What exactly is your role at PlayMG? What are your day to day responsibilities like?

Taylor: My specific role involves game/app design, platformsoftware design, business development, innovation, and as is the case with all start ups – many more roles.  Day to day I was either talking with game houses, working with the hardware guys to design the user experience, writing the story behind our game within the gaming device app Origins, looking for interesting apps to work with, working with marketing to craft the messaging behind these features we were building, and testing devices in every possible way.

The Powerbase: PlayMG has no qualms about the fact it has targeted the MG to younger gamers. Why do you think the younger gamer is so important? What makes the MG a better option than, say, mom’s old smartphone?

Taylor: Every one has a slightly different opinion on this but for me the younger gamers make the most sense because they can’t have phones.  Whether their parents don’t want them or can’t afford the data plans, there are a lor of younger gamers who love apps but can’t get access to them.  The “hand me down” argument is definitely valid.  I can hand down my phone and just remove the plan and then they have a smart device.  That’s where our added benefits factor in to the equation.  You can’t get Family Collaboration, SpendSmart, or the Origins game in a hand me down.  And sometimes more importantly, you can’t get that “awe” moment when your son or daughter opens up your repackaged device from 2 years ago.

Android and the MG

The Powerbase: Its differences aside, the majority of the MG’s software is straight Android. Would it be safe to say that, if it wasn’t for the open nature of Android, the MG wouldn’t exist in its current form? Would have putting this same hardware out with a proprietary operating system have gotten you as far as Android has?

Taylor: There is no way we would exist without Android.  The barrier of entry previously was just too high.  We got a solid and awe inspiring product to market in 9 months.  Core to that was not having to build an entire OS.  Not just in terms of getting something to market but that greatly helped us focus our time and money where it mattered – on the added benefits like Family Collaboration and Origins.  This is what I love about open source – you get to make products with extremely well designed experiences where it matters.

The Powerbase: One of the biggest selling points early on was that the MG would be a vanilla Android device, meaning it would be as close to AOSP as possible. In the end the MG delivered on that promise, and is one of the few non-Nexus devices available running stock Android. Why was running stock Android so important for the MG?

Taylor: Part of that answer has to do with my previous answer – it’s just easier to not build stuff you don’t need.  I think everyone can point to some larger companies that have large engineering staffs that have to build stuff because those salaries are being spent no matter what.  Then you get a lot of customization away from stock.  But most of that is useless and provides no value to the customer experience.  A lot of engineers also like the job security that building all of this custom stuff gives them.  They will always be needed because only they know how this version of flavored Android operates.  For us it was exactly that overhead that we didn’t want.  If we build our own flavor of Android then every new app or platform we create down the road has to take that into account.  We had to keep our focus on what mattered for the end user.

The Powerbase: From a development perspective, stock Android is generally preferable to manufacturer modified builds, but what about the end user? It’s no secret that the most popular Android devices (such as Samsung’s Galaxy line) make use of manufacturer modifications to their interface and applications, so the public doesn’t seem to mind. Do you ever worry that shipping with stock Android rather than a build with more visual flair and streamlined functionality pleases the developers at the expense of the end users?

Taylor: I have never believed that popularity of a device has anything to do with how well it is designed or received by customers.  The large software guys have proven time and again that being big in a space and having a ton of money can make up for a lot of deficiencies.  I say this because I don’t believe customers buy the Galaxy line because of the manufacturer improvements – most customers have never seen stock Android so they don’t know any better.  My guess is the commercial bashing the iPhone (hilariously with the parents in line) did a lot more than the user experience.  From what I’ve seen all of the added modifications make little difference to the real end users (not us tech types who are too deep in the space).  We found you could do an amazing amount of things just using the widget system in Android to change the user experience – without huge teams to build and then manage modifications.

The Powerbase:  Some would say that shipping the device with vanilla Android only makes sense if it’s kept up to date with AOSP (such as the Nexus line), but the MG is still on 4.0.4. Why hold the MG back? Are there plans on updating to Jelly Bean (and beyond)?

Taylor: We will update to Jelly Bean.  But with such a low saturation of Jelly Bean and many apps still not upgraded for the experience it doesn’t make sense to expend the effort.  Again we’ve got to focus on that end user experience and the only people ever asking for Jelly Bean are analysts or the random parent who just saw some article that mentioned the new Jelly Bean thingy for Android.

Expanding Android Gaming

The Powerbase: One of the best features of the MG, at least for parents, is unquestionably the Family Collaboration System. While it currently sets the MG apart from the competition, would PlayMG consider bringing it to generic Android devices? Perhaps charging a monthly subscription fee when used on non-MG hardware?

Taylor: We are always weighing the pros and cons of releasing some of the proprietary apps to the Play Store.  Right now we only have to manage one device, we get to ignore fragmentation, and we have a competitive advantage.  I don’t see us releasing the apps until we are much more established.

The Powerbase: An advantage of putting out an Android based gaming system is, of course, that you aren’t responsible for developing or publishing games for it (unlike traditional game consoles). That said, are there plans to talk to developers about MG optimized games? Is that already happening?

Taylor: Nothing that I can talk about but we definitely have plans and some preliminary talks about using our PlayMG IP to create games.  Any game developers interested (especially if they want to do something outside of the normal bounds of gaming) should get in touch with us.

The Powerbase: You can’t talk about Android gaming anymore without mentioning the OUYA; while it’s aiming for a completely different market than the MG, are there any parallels you draw between them? Do you see families owning both devices in the future?

Taylor: Mine arrives in 3 weeks (if I had more time and money I would have gotten a developer version).  I would love to work with OUYA in the future and I do believe that console gaming and portable gaming will always be with us.  Where the hardware, software, and interfaces end up who knows but for now there are many opportunities that could be explored between the two companies.  For the next year though I’m guessing both of us will be too busy to pursue them.

Looking Ahead

The Powerbase: A common criticism of the MG is that it lacks physical controls. This was a design decision based on the intended userbase for the MG, but it’s also undeniable that there are hardcore gamers out there that would appreciate an MG-like device with physical input. Is this a challenge PlayMG might take up in the future? Perhaps a device like the Sony Xperia Play, but in a non-contract form like the MG?

Taylor: I don’t see that happening.  Our target user is not hardcore and in fact probably did not grow up with a game system that had controllers.  But at an even deeper philosophical level (get ready for the fan boy to come out) I think the portable gaming systems with controls aren’t just missing the mark but don’t really have a mark to hit.  Portable gaming is about the casual experience on the go or that little block of entertainment that you carry around in your pocket.  I have so many different serious game devices where I can have mind blowingly immersive experiences – but that’s not what you want in a portable gaming device.  At the end of the day we talked to a bunch of “gamers” in our demographic and they wanted a device they could put in their pocket versus a device that let them play games designed for pre-touch devices.

The Powerbase: If it’s not giving too much away, what can you say about the future of PlayMG and the MG itself? Anything current or future owners should be looking out for?

Taylor: We have some great plans for the Family Collaboration System – making it much more collaborative.  A lot of parents and even kids have asked for expanded features here.  I’m most excited about expanding the portable fun in the device.  The entire industry as a whole is barely scratching the surface of what you can do with portable gaming.  We have some very interesting things planned for making shared portable gaming experiences like no one has seen before.  Unfortunately I can’t say much more than that.

Thanks to Taylor and the entire PlayMG team for their assistance and professionalism while we worked on the original hardware review and this interview. We’re very interested in seeing where the future takes PlayMG, keep an eye out here on The Powerbase for future coverage of this unique company and its products.


Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: www.digifail.com .

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