July 11, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Interview: Bart Decrem, Creator of the Mega-Popular ‘Tap Tap Revenge’ Music Game Apps

Way back in August 2008, when apps were still in their infancy, Tapulous Tap Tap Revenge – a rhythm game that many likened to “Guitar Hero for the iPhone” – ruled the school. Over 1.2 million iPhone users installed it in the first month it was available, back when that was still a ridiculously big number. (Remember, the iOS app store itself had only just launched during the previous month).

Tap Tap Revenge spawned a slew of sequels — everything from Green Day Revenge to the iPad-only Tap Tap Radiation. Meanwhile Tapulous was acquired by Disney. Despite not releasing a single game in 2011, the Tap Tap Revenge franchise remained exceedingly popular, with the number four game in iTunes.

Tonight, Disney released the first new version of this preposterously successful app, Tap Tap Revenge: Tour.

Evolver.fm caught up with Tapulous and Flock founder (now Disney Mobile senior vice president and general manager) Bart Decrem to find out what we can expect from this game; what it’s like working on rock ‘n roll apps within the Disney corporation; and how he thinks Tap Tap Revenge will stay relevant, even as Guitar Hero and Rock Band no longer capture the public’s imagination the way they once did (interview edited for length and clarity).

Eliot Van Buskirk, Evolver.fm: For starters, what have you been up to for the last couple of years at Disney, since it acquired Tapulous?

Bart Decrem, Disney Mobile senior vice president and general manager: Number one: build high-quality games. Number two: build a network, or at least connective tissue between the apps. We’re sitting at number one and number four with Where’s My Perry and Where’s My Water. What we did there is we have a fanbase for Where’s My Water, we have a huge fanbase that follows Phineas and Ferb, probably just about the most popular television show on the air. It’s one example of connective tissue between apps — we’re trying to connect those apps in a variety of ways. ["Perry" is a character on the children's show Phineas and Ferb.]

Evolver.fm: Do you run into any obstacles with Apple? They won’t let developers get users’ email addresses, and they like to manage that relationship. Has it been easy to cross-promote the apps?

Decrem: It’s been four years since iTunes app store went live [on July 10, 2008], and I think July 11, 2008 was the first time I hit number one on the app store with Tap Tap Revenge 1. So this will be the 17th game that we will hopefully get to number one. What happens is, the platforms have evolved and gotten more sophisticated, and our understanding of how you build a community and how you price apps for optimal distribution — that’s evolved. For Where’s My Water, we have the bulk of the distribution on the paid side at a 99 cent price point. We’ve gotten more nuanced about when you make something free [with in-app purchases] and when you make it paid.

The other thing I’ve gotten more sophisticated about is: What does it mean when you’re building a network? A year ago, that was all about boot-up interstitial [advertisements] and push notifications — that sort of really aggressive cross-promotional stuff. And of course Apple’s really good about policing its ecosystem — they monitor that stuff, and they force people to dial it down if it really gets in the way of the user experience or the integrity of the app store. So when I think about network value, there’s the IP layer — do we have an analytics system that lets us understand who the user is, and monetize them over time without violating privacy rules et cetera, so that’s one piece of it. But another piece is to say okay, we’re the Walt Disney company, and we’ve created intellectual property that has a following [and so we make apps that focus on these various characters in different ways].

Evolver.fm: The big comparison people used to make with Tap Tap Revenge was that it was like Guitar Hero for the iPhone, because you tap along with the songs. It hasn’t gone very well for Guitar Hero and Rock Band. How are you going to avoid that trap? How do you keep people into this?

Decrem: In 2011, we did not do any new release of Tap Tap Revenge, and Tap Tap 4 was the fourth- biggest game on the app store. Only Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, and Doodle Jump were ahead of us. That was really one of the drivers for accelerating and doubling down on Tap Tap Revenge. As I think about Rock Band and Guitar Hero, I think we — being the iPhone and Tap Tap Revenge — were part of disruptive forces that got in the way of those titles. Gaming went from being a core phenomenon that gamers do in their living room on expensive devices, and it’s become something that everybody does all of the time, for 30- or 60-seconds at a time. The app store was a big driver there, and Tap Tap Revenge was really the first gaming franchise that really figured it out, and then Angry Birds took it to another level. The short answer is that Tap Tap Revenge is still relevant, and it’s because we’re on the platform, and we’re engaging with users the way they want to be engaged with on the platform — 60 seconds at a time, or three minutes at a time.

And with the new Tap Tap Revenge: Tour, it always has new music in it. We’re adding a free song every day, at least for the next 90 days, so that’s a huge commitment of new music, and part of why the game [will be] exciting and relevant. And then look at the music we’re offering in there: We have a huge thing with Katy Perry — obviously she’s all over the news with her new movie, and she’s very much of the moment. Next week, we’re giving away a song called “Call Me Maybe,” that’s probably been the biggest song on the radio this summer. All the hits are in there.

Evolver.fm: What about the gameplay — how does the new version differ in that regard?

Decrem: It’s about focusing and cleaning up the experience, and enriching the game. We got rid of a whole bunch of peripheral features and enriched the in-game experience. We’re starting out with just a few, but we have video themes now — so for Katy Perry, LMFAO, and a few other songs, we have video clips embedded as you play the song, so it feels like you’re playing inside a music video. We also added a feature called swiping, which is like the flicking you have [the iOS game] in Fruit Ninja, and that feels really fresh and fun. And then there’s the Tour feature, which is essentially a very simple career mode where you can go back every day, unlock the free song, and then work your way up the leaderboard and show off to your friends. There’s a little bit of a freemium economy around it so you can earn energy or buy it. It’s back to basics. We said, it’s all about the music, so let’s really nail that. And it’s all about that music gaming immersion experience, so let’s make that better with the videos and the flicking, and then let’s offer career mode for people who want to invest in it longer.

Evolver.fm: So what are the economics of the music? Do artists, labels, and publishers consider Tap Tap Revenge to be promotional, or do you have to pay them?

Decrem: On the free side, a lot of what we give away is indie music from indie labels, and they are looking for promotional value. It’s pretty good music, but these are artists who they are trying to break and find an audience for, so that’s that value. And then on the paid side, it’s real revenues, because we sell a lot of music in the game. And then we get to do one or two big tracks that we give away each week, like “Call Me Maybe.” People see the promotional value [of that], and we have really good relationships with the record labels.

Evolver.fm: What does the future of Tap Tap Revenge look like?

Decrem: We have some other big plans for this next year — we really are doubling down on this, recognizing the value. It’s so hard to build one of these massive game franchises, and it’s one of the five biggest games on the [iTunes] app store. We’re trying to make Where’s My Water and Where’s My Perry become one of those huge game franchises, and Tap Tap Revenge is already one of them. At Disney, we’re in the business of building hugely successful game franchises on a platform that’s really strategic to the future of the company.

Evolver.fm: So I guess we can expect the Tap Tap Revenge movie next year? I’m just kidding, but that brings me to my next point: What does it do for you to be at Disney? Do you have easier access to certain artists, or how does that affect things?

Decrem: We do. In Tap Tap Revenge: Tour, one of the free songs that comes with the game is by Selena Gomez, and she’s on Hollywood Records, which is part of the Disney family. So there is some Disney music in there, but in general, you can see that the game still has a lot of really great rock and indie music in it, and the core of it is around the pop music and Top 40 songs — and that’s been the case for a couple years now. But there’s both — there’s a lot of incredible indie music, and our hardcore community tends to be there, but in terms of our casual gaming user base, it’s around the Top 40 music.

The other thing that Disney does for us is it’s a huge platform. If you look at Where’s My Perry, we had Where’s My Water, which is original iPhone IP [intellectual property]. We connected that with Phineas and Ferb, and now it’s sitting there at number one without moving — because of the brand affinity, and because we’re talking about it on Disney.com and the Disney channels. That’s the power of the Disney platform. What Disney does is it creates really great characters and intellectual property. It has a very high-quality creative environment, and it knows how to market it… also because of the commitment to technology. Disney was the first company to put TV shows on iTunes and make movies available for download. Bob Iger is our CEO, and he’s on the board of Apple now, so there’s a lot of connective tissue there with Apple, and commitment to the platform and technology.

(Read more interviews on Evolver.fm.)

Artists included in the game:  LMFAO, AVICCI, Selena Gomez, Goyte, Carly Rae Jepsen, Kaskade (feat. The Neon Trees).  The free music store rotates through over 300 tracks, “in addition to 17 bundles of new premium content available for in-app purchase ” including hits from Flo Rida, Carly Rae Jepsen, Katy Perry, Maroon 5, Lil’ Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Drake, Nickelback, Skrillex, Fun., Justice, Martin Solveig, Far East Movement (feat. Justin Bieber), Demi Lovato, DEV, Lady Gaga, LMFAO, Zedd, BigBang, and “Disney Channel favorites” from the Shake It Up and Austin and Ally series.

Here’s a gallery of images from Tap Tap Revenge: Tour, released today on the iTunes app store, as well as the promotional video, both courtesy of Disney:

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