Client Story

Backbone

Designing the #1 best-selling mobile game controller for iPhones

Launching an award-winning, industry-defining mobile gaming experience.

Smartphone gaming revenue is projected to surpass $100 billion by 2023. Game designers and manufacturers are eager to capture share in this ever expanding, fast-growth market.

Backbone, a platform powering game streaming and core gaming on mobile devices, envisioned a new portable gaming controller for mobile devices that would utilise a phone’s high-resolution and tap rich features, for a more optimised game-play experience. The company reached out to Astro Studios, part of PA Consulting, for our industry-leading experience designing dozens of products and brands in gaming, generating billions in new revenues for our clients, including Xbox, Alienware, and WD Black.

Our team partnered with Backbone to create an ergonomic mobile gaming controller that easily adjusts to fit different iPhones. We provided product and industrial design, start-up strategy, user experience, and overall consumer electronic design and development to support Backbone One, which has gone on to win a 2022 Red Dot Design Award.

“If you want to go from product launch to dominance in gaming, this is the design partner of choice,” says Maneet Khaira, CEO of Backbone

backbone control
backbone controller

Key successes

• Designed and developed Backbone One, a portable mobile game controller for iPhones, to lead the category within a year

• Released October 2020, Backbone One has become the #1 best seller on Amazon in the cell phone gaming controllers category

• Backbone worked with Sony to develop the Backbone One: PlayStation Edition

Mobile gaming is poised for take-off

Smartphones are made for gaming. They’re ubiquitous, easy to use, and always with consumers. In addition, the fidelity of imagery and features get richer with every product release.

During 2020, consumers were trapped at home due to the pandemic. Mobile gaming use surged 63 per cent, as consumers looked for ways to relieve stress and tedium and connect socially. In addition to playing games with friends, family, and strangers, consumers also watch top gamers livestream on platforms such as Twitch. Even as the world returns to normal, mobile gaming activity remains high, as new behaviours have become entrenched in our lifestyle. Further, consumers can use a product they already have for gaming, rather than purchasing a dedicated system, opening up opportunity to more people.

Understanding the limitations of gaming on mobile, Backbone One enhances mobile gaming with better inputs and software. That means high-fidelity mobile gaming is comparable to playing on a high-end console, offering an amazing clarity of vision and a more elevated experience overall for years to come.

“We had a vision for a device platform that could power the future of gaming, which in our view was centred around mobile. Just as Roku built a business out of bringing all the video services to one place and Sonos did for music, Backbone aims to do so for gaming on mobile devices,” says Maneet Khaira, CEO, Backbone. “Little did we know that cloud and core gaming on mobile would experience exponential growth, resulting in a groundswell of excitement around this vision.”

black controller

Bringing a compelling vision for mobile gaming to life

Our team captured Backbone’s vision for creating a gaming experience that would harness the Apple iPhone platform. There was an opportunity to launch Backbone boldly, create industry noise, and potentially, own a category. Our team brought consumer lifestyle insights, gaming and controller design expertise to bear.

“With all projects, we apply a five-step methodology for driving end-to-end product innovation. This enables us to use a structured process to uncover new insights, develop and test the best ideas, and overcome any roadblocks along the way,” says Norio Fujikawa, Executive Creative Director, Astro Studios, part of PA.

Leveraging deep experience in gaming and controller design, we built working prototypes that we challenged and validated, determining what the final product experience should look like.

“This team brings everything to the table: a deep understanding of emerging trends, consumer lifestyle design, gaming and hardware design,” says Khaira. “Their vision for the industry is unparalleled.”

Next, we moved into concept generation, creating sketches and foam core studies to understand form, proportions and sizing. We needed a flexible product design to support a wide range of devices. Together with Backbone, we created a hinge mechanism connecting controller handles and expanding and contracting to accommodate different iPhone sizes.

“The team’s approach to design is highly collaborative,” says Khaira. “They encouraged us to offer ideas, participate in design reviews and also prototype on our own. We appreciated the opportunity to co-create.”

After dozens of physical mock-ups, we winnowed down concepts to the two best options before moving to Computer-Aided Design (CAD) imagery. We also began focusing on device attributes, such as size, colour, surfacing, texture, materials, and button size and placement, balancing user comfort and device portability.

Backbone One’s hardware complements the incredible Backbone app. The Backbone app, a top 100 social app on the App Store, acts as a home for core gaming on mobile devices, allowing users to play all their games in one place, share gameplay clips, and play with friends.

Ingenuity timeline

  • We immersed ourselves in the market opportunity and requirements (October 2018)
  • Developed product concepts and unique hinge mechanisms (December 2018)
  • The final design was fully developed, then moved to production (summer 2019)
  • Backbone One is launched in market (October 2020)
  • Backbone One is bundled with the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate in xCloud game streaming service (June 2021)
  • Backbone One is named a finalist in the Fast Company 2021 Innovation by Design Awards (September 2021)
  • The Backbone app breaks top 10 in social on the App Store (December 2021)
  • Backbone One wins the Red Dot Design Award (July 2022)
Multiple backbone controllers

Designing the ultimate mobile gaming device

Since the product was launched in 2020, it has received rapturous praise from the media. TechCrunch calls Backbone One a “killer iPhone game pad.” TechRadar says it is “the very best way to play games on your iPhone,” while The Verge says it is “the best mobile gaming controller yet.” An even bigger vote of confidence came when the Backbone team notched a partnership with Microsoft. Backbone One is being bundled with Xbox Game Pass Ultimate in its xCloud game streaming service, bringing the controller to Xbox’s huge audience. As a result, Backbone One has already become a category leader, being named a finalist in the Fast Company 2021 Innovation by Design Awards and winning a 2022 Red Dot Design Award in the Mobile Gaming Controller Category.

The bridge mechanism and overall design we developed has differentiated Backbone in the category, with competitors raring to replicate its functionality.

“The team is unique in that they really know how to break through marketplace noise and create a product that’s super-exciting and sets the industry on notice,” says Maneet Khaira, CEO of Backbone. “The opportunities that our company is now experiencing are due in part to the exceptional hardware design of our controller.”

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