When Andy Kleinman, CEO of the startup Wonder, called the famous industrial designer Yves Behar to solicit his services, Behar offered a warning. “You don’t realize how hard it is to do this stuff,” Behar said. He asked Kleinman to remember, in a year, when everything would seem impossible, that Behar had told him this. Kleinman, a long-time gaming software executive with companies like Zynga and Disney, said he was up for it. And he had a big idea: to build a smartphone made just gamers.
Kleinman, a wavy-haired Argentinian with seemingly boundless knowledge of politics, pop culture, and gaming, knows his target users. They’re the kind of people who dissect the latest Game of Thrones and search for hacks in PUBG. They love music and movies, obsess over their favorite athletes and YouTubers, game anywhere and everywhere. Kleinman has been building products for them for more than a decade; he’s one of them. And he’s confident that at least a few others like him are tired of what he calls “the sea of sameness,” the iPhones and Galaxies that all have the same features and blur together. Andy Rubin saw that group and created Essential to capture the cool kids. Kleinman built Wonder for the geeks.
So far, the company has raised $14 million from a wide group of investors. Some of them are the standard Silicon Valley money-pourers, like Greycroft Partners and TCL, but Kleinman’s investor slide also includes Shakira, Kevin Spacey, and Neymar, along with Atari inventor Nolan Bushnell and former Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama. Wonder needs fans and followers, and these folks have cachet to spare.
“The biggest task for Wonder is building a brand that’s recognized by the community of gamers as a brand that speaks their language,” says Emmanuel Seuge, a longtime marketing exec and another of Wonder’s early investors. “If you do it right, they’ll be very welcoming. They’ll make the product and the brand better.” It’s a tough balance, though: Gamers can be brand-friendly to anyone helping grow the community, but smell cynicism a mile away.
Long before Wonder launched a product or even revealed itself fully to the world—which it’s only doing now—the company opened up signups for a mysterious Alpha program. Thousands of people signed up. Those early users are now in forums, where they talk about TV and gaming and the other things that unite them. They also investigate and follow the nature of this mysterious company. Kleinman took this approach from Elon Musk, who opened forums for Tesla owners before anyone owned a Tesla. “It’s about making sure that the community is engaged,” Kleinman says. “Then we can start giving them something that they want, but also getting feedback, so we can improve this product over the next few years.”
Ultimately, Kleinman’s vision for Wonder goes far beyond smartphones. He hopes to build a massive new tech brand, for a particular kind of user. Kleinman and his team looked at virtual-reality hardware, augmented-reality hardware, tablets, wearables, everything. But first, they have to make this phone work.
Trial and Error
The “phone for gamers” has been made many times before, but all have failed. Sony’s Xperia Play debuted to much excitement and little success. Ditto Nokia’s N-Gage. Kleinman says he’s spoken to people who worked on the Xbox Phone at Microsoft and the Playstation Phone at Sony, and believes both companies regret letting those devices spin into mainstream flops. More recently, PGS raised big bucks on Kickstarter by promising a high-end smartphone on top of a fantastic game controller. And almost immediately, PGS realized it couldn’t make the device it promised.
If Kleinman and his team want to succeed, they’ll have to learn from this long line of failures. One early lesson: You can’t build a phone that looks like a toy. “We want something that looks very geeky-entertainment-gaming-focused, but it can’t be a Game Boy,” Kleinman says. “You need to be able to go to work with it.”
Rather than build everything into one device, Wonder’s thinking more like Nintendo. Its phone will be the center of an accessory ecosystem, through which you can play on your TV, with a controller, and more. Or you can disconnect everything, and have a phone that looks like a phone—just bigger, overclocked, and with more blinking lights.
The biggest challenge for Wonder won’t even be the hardware. All those other phone-console chimera failed less because of industrial design and more because they had no games to play. Mobile games are made for touchscreens, not controllers; controller-based games are made for supercomputers like the Playstation 4, not phones. Kleinman and Carper swear they’re not on course to become a game studio, though they are working with studios to make games specifically for Wonder devices. There’s also a huge library of old-school games available for anyone who knows what ROMs are and how side-loading works. What if Wonder could make that easier? They think maybe they can help developers better monetize their games, too. And they’re encouraged by the fact that everyone’s favorite game right now, Breath of the Wild for the Nintendo Switch, runs on a mobile processor. The days of high-end mobile gaming may be coming.
Wonder’s plan involves bundling hardware, games, music, movies, TV, and even wireless service, into a single package for something like $100 a month. None of the details check out yet, but Kleinman hopes to ensure Wonder users can all access the same stuff, play games together, and keep running the latest gear.
The “what if Wonder succeeds” story is enticing. It’s a story about community, about the power of finding people who love what you love, and about making your smartphone the center of a gaming ecosystem the way everyone else has tried and failed. But Wonder hasn’t succeeded yet. It hasn’t even launched yet.
A year after their first conversation, on a sunny summer afternoon in San Francisco, Behar and Kleinman sit at the end of a long table in the offices of Behar’s Fuseproject design firm, reviewing a pile of polycarbonate prototypes. Behar picks up one model, holding it horizontally, his thumbs on the device’s oversized bezel. “Ultimately, this started to look more vintage, I think.” Another has slightly angled top and bottom, giving the subtly an almost trapezoidal shape. “Interesting idea,” Behar says, “didn’t really work.” Another, almost exactly the same shape as Sony’s PSP, without an obvious place for speakers or cameras; another looks like a giant iPod, a failed experiment in modular attachments.
With each prototype, Behar and Kleinman tried to find the right balance between phone and console. They tried bezel-less phones to match Essential or Samsung, but found that gamers need somewhere to put their thumbs without obscuring the screen. “We’re always exploring more changes,” Kleinman says, a bit resigned. He tells a story about a three-hour meeting in China over 0.2 millimeters of phone thickness, which Behar interrupts by handing Kleinman an iPhone with a matte screen protector and trying to sell him on making the Wonder phone matte. Wonder’s will be the first phone Behar has ever designed, and he seems to want to try everything.
Right now, Wonder’s scheduled to launch its phone early next year. Kleinman and his team are nailing down final designs, testing first prototypes, and finalizing software designs for their so-called Wonder Mode, which will transform your device from a normal smartphone into an overclocked gaming and entertainment powerhouse. Then, once it’s ready, Kleinman gets to do the thing he’s been waiting to do since he started the company two years ago: give a bunch of gamers a phone made just for them, and ask them how to make it even better. And if Kleinman knows one thing about gamers, it’s that they’ll have ideas.