Back in 2012, a Bay Area startup called Madefire introduced “motion books”–digital comics which melded simple animation and sound effects with traditional graphic storytelling elements such as panels and word balloons. They were available only on the iPad at first and, indeed, felt like they’d been invented to be read on Apple’s tablet.
Later that year, Madefire brought motion books to the iPhone. And now, it’s aiming to dramatically expand its reader base by launching its first app for Android phones and tablets. The company is announcing the new version at Comic-Con International in San Diego, where more than 130,000 comics readers (and potential readers) and creators are convening.
In the beginning, Madefire “used iOS to hone our point of view of reading on devices and keep a singular focus on what we hope is a benchmark reading experience,” explains cofounder and CEO Ben Wolstenholme. It did so in part by publishing its own motion books on its platform, including works by high-profile talents such as Dave Gibbons, the artist of Watchmen.
Next, the company rolled out its web-based tools for motion-book production, which are now used by everybody from big names like DC, IDW, and Valiant to the creative folks who make up the Deviant Art community, and concentrated on signing up creators and publishers. Arriving on Android is about “scaling up to wider distribution,” Wolstenholme says.
Until now, motion books needed to be formatted for pleasing presentation on iPhones, iPads, and Windows 8 PCs. Moving forward, they’ll also appear on an array of devices running Android, a platform which is famous for its fragmented nature–and which powers most of the oversized phones known as phablets, which provide a roomier canvas for a motion book than the iPhone’s 4-inch screen.
“Artists now have to consider the fact that audiences might be reading on a phone or a tablet at a variety of sizes,” says Eugene Walden, Madefire’s cofounder and CTO. “It’s a lot to expect a creator to manually deal with that. We abstract out the complexity of multiple platforms, multiple devices, and multiple aspect ratios.” That, he says, makes publishing on Madefire’s platform “future-proof.”
Besides its signature motion books, Madefire is also rolling out the ability for creators and publishers to produce what it calls “print books”–straightforward digital comics with conventional page layouts and no multimedia frills. The move should help it ramp up its offerings more quickly, since converting an existing comic into a Madefire print book requires less ambition than building a full-blown motion comic, and can therefore be done in higher volume at a lower cost.
“It wouldn’t make sense for [publishers] to do the whole of their catalogs in motion books,” says Wolstenholme. “They don’t have the sales in digital yet.”
By offering comics in a more old-school format, Madefire is competing more directly with the giants of digital comics publishing. That would be ComiXology and Amazon–two companies which became one even more gigantic giant in April, when Amazon announced that it had agreed to acquire ComiXology.
Shortly thereafter, ComiXology yanked the comics store built into its iPhone and iPad apps in favor of selling content to iOS users only on its own site. That maneuver brought it into line with Amazon’s approach for other content types such as Kindle books, and allowed it to stop turning over 30% of its in-app revenue to Apple. But it also ticked off creators and readers and appears to have hurt ComiXology’s App Store reviews.
ComiXology, according to Wolstenholme, “has done amazing things for comics. We wouldn’t even exist without the pioneering things they’ve done.” But its removal of in-app purchasing “is a real shame. Publishers and creators can’t sell their stuff on mobile, and readers have a worse experience.”
Following ComiXology’s lead and taking the store out of the Madefire app, he says, would “not be a tenable user experience. It’s not good enough.” And with the new reality of “Amazon and ComiXology as one channel, essentially, we’re firmly established as the alternative, as far as we’re concerned.”