Ewan Meets Neil Wooding of Cascata Games

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Neil Wooding, the International Man of Mystery who runs Cascata Games, a North London based gaming company making in-roads over all the main portable computing / PDA platforms. Starting Cascata in 2002, Neil has had a long history in the mobile computing world beforehand, even to the point of interviewing a very young Ewan Spence for a job (needless to say, I didn't get it). So, it's time to turn the tables in another All About Symbian Interview.

Neil Wooding, not Jacques VilleneuvePurple Waterfalls

"Man of Mystery?" proclaims Neil, as I start chatting with him. "Maybe I should change my business cards! Seriously though, my official title here at Cascata is CEO." Not the normal CEO who lounges around on business trips around the world, Neil oversees the development of Cascata's Game Titles. What does this involve? "The necessary paperwork and admin, but this is the boring bit of the job. I get involved heavily in the various licensing deals, with Rights Owners, and helping the Design Team work on the concepts for our games."

With the ice broken, I catch up with Neil on what he's been doing since I was interviewed for Go32, and how he's found himself at Cascata? "I got started originally when I worked for Psion as Head of New Media (over 6 years ago) and was responsible for managing the main Psion.com website along with the Series 5mx and Revo websites developed for the launch of those products.

"I worked there for over 2 years and then joined Purple Software at the initial expansion stages of the business as MD of NetMaster Communications Ltd (a Purple Group company) where we created, developed and launched Go32.com - the first European Electronic Software Delivery software site for Psion, Palm and PocketPC software."
That's when I first met Neil, and the Go32 website rapidly became the Handango of the Psion world, with one of the largest ranges of titles on the internet. Go32 is, sadly, no more, so where did Neil go after that?

"I then did a stint as Head of Pervasive Media at Ogilvy & Mather in London where I was responsible for the development of a game for IBM on Palm for their sponsorship of Wimbledon before I looked at setting up my own business. Go32 gave me an insight into the business of developing games and applications for PDA's and mobile devices laying the foundations for Cascata."
That was in January 2002.

Starting Up Cascata

Why the name Cascata? Is it a case of a made up name to get a really good free domain? "It actually means 'Waterfall' in italian. And yes, the URL for the website was still available!"

"We launched with two of our own titles" (Master Thief and CubeHead for Pocket PC and Palm OS. There's no Symbian titles yet). and these titles were the first original games we produced. Master Thief pushed the boundaries of 3D gaming on the Palm device and is still a huge seller even today. It wasn't until March 2003 that we expanded our portfolio significantly with the addition of Purple Software's catalogue.

Cascata GamesTitles such as Chess, Backgammon and the horribly addictive card solitaire game "Home Run" were favourites with Psion Users. How did Cascata get a hold of the titles and go about updating them? "This all came to pass when we were approached by John Holloway (ex-Chief Technology Office & Founder of Purple Software) after the announcement that Purple Software had gone into receivership. John, and his new company ZingMagic Limited, now owned the rights to all the code for the games and exclusively licensed these to Cascata to be republished. We re-branded the games, reworked the designs and fixed a few bugs and re-launched them along with six new titles not published by Purple Software at the time."

Browsing through Cascata's portfolio of titles, you can't help but notice a few things. The first is the sheer number of titles. Cascata now have more than 90 games available to purchase and download. The second is that, unlike the majority of other software houses in the mobile world, there are titles available for both Palm OS and Pocket PC, as well as Symbian OS. Why's that?

"We've seen the market fluctuate between devices formats and focussing on different platforms has meant that we can remain abreast of the current development by spreading our load across these different devices. While the networks operators still demand Java as their main core development platform, new devices such as the O2 XDA II and SonyEricsson P900 has meant we have an immediate catalogue of games to introduce when they require them."

So every title is written out three of four times? "Nope," smiles Neil, "we have developed tools that allow us to create a single game across multiple platforms such as Symbian, PocketPC and Palm platforms since the core development kits we use are all C++ based. This allows a greater flexibility in porting games to other similar platforms when required. Java is the sole exception to this case..."

Cascata GamesOh look, another programmer talking about the lofty ideal of Java's "write once - run everywhere" principle. That seems to crop up a lot when talking to mobile programmers. But it strikes me Neil is in a very good position to answer the eternal argument on how Symbian compares to other platforms.

"I'm not a technical person but I see the value in being able to manage and develop applications that work on one common OS, is the key to creating games for different handsets." Much like your core C++ for developing titles over the multiple platforms? "Yes. It allows us to also create some unique features built into the games and applications when we take advantage of manipulating the OS of the device in ways that Java still prevents us from doing. This gives us the flexibility to create multiplayer games using GPRS, SMS and Bluetooth and other such concepts.

"I'd say the biggest disadvantage is, from a commercial point of view, and related to the limited uptake of Symbian handsets by network operators and those numbers of devices sold into the market. Symbian OS is still only around 10% of the current world-wide handset sales as far as I'm aware and not all operators want to sell our Symbian games to their public... which does limit their popularity."

It's all games - something else you notice about the portfolio. Which is the 'killer game' that everyone buys? "Sales fluctuate month on month but the most popular game overall I guess would have to be Backgammon. This world renowned game is a regular seller but new games, such as Pinball Challenge always make a bit of a splash when launched. If you look at the trend over time though, the classic card and board games always seem to sell steadily each month. The best platform would have to be Symbian in our opinion though - the Chess game embedded onto the Sony Ericsson P800 and P900 was originally developed by Purple Software and we're offering a free upgrade that includes 2-player Bluetooth support and some new bug fixes if anyone wants to get hold of a copy.

At which point I jump online to find the update - for those looking, send an email to gamesupport@cascata.co.uk. There's certainly a strong customer focus here, can you point to any other bundled app that gets updated for free by the third party authors? Speaking of others, which title does Neil wish Cascata had written?

"Difficult question to answer as I'd like to say all of them! I particularly like Lock and Load right now from Synergenix as its clean, smooth and challenging. I particular love the 3D aspect of the game."

Cascata GamesAre you staying with games, or moving into any other areas? "We already have developed a unique screen saver engine module and over 160 plug-ins which we are selling though our sister portal - www.mymobilescreensaver.com. We have some exclusive branded content including Mr. Bean & Basil Brush and we're adding some new content for the Symbian handsets from EMAP, the magazine publisher in the next few months. I'd recommend to your readers to download the free engine today!" Well he would, wouldn't he. Luckily there was a promo CD (with the engine and a selection of screen saver modules) pushed across the table towards me at that point. I suspect Neil wants me to review MyMobileScreenSaver...

It's time to finish up the interview. Where does Neil think the mobile market is going to take Cascata in the future? "We're seeing some trends towards multi-player games right now and are looking to enhance our existing portfolio of classic games into this area, together with some new and exciting titles. However, I'm not going to say too muchmore about that subject. We are however working on some new licences, including Blake's 7 for the new season. So keep your eyes peeled.

A new season of Blake's 7? On Symbian OS? I can hardly wait. Neil, thanks for your time.