Stay­ing mo­bile

In­die devs in fight­ing spirit at Lon­don Mo­bile Games Week

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Dis­cov­er­abil­ity con­tin­ues to be a se­ri­ous, of­ten de­bil­i­tat­ing, is­sue for mo­bile game de­vel­op­ers – a prob­lem we find Chan­nel 4 ad­dress­ing di­rectly on p16 – so it’s no sur­prise to see the topic front and cen­tre dur­ing this year’s Lon­don Mo­bile Games Week. While the five-day con­fer­ence, which is built around Mo­bile Games Fo­rum 2016 and also takes in Pocket Gamer Con­nects, is os­ten­si­bly a cel­e­bra­tion of the in­dus­try, many de­vel­op­ers warn of a dire sit­u­a­tion for small-screen de­vel­op­ers.

“Things should have got bet­ter by now,” Team Lumo game de­signer Jonathan Evans says dur­ing a Pocket Gamer Con­nects talk. “The tools got bet­ter, the hard­ware got bet­ter, and we’ve got so many more play­ers… but we seem to have in­vented the ‘zom­bie de­vel­oper’. The zom­bie de­vel­oper makes games, but he has no play­ers.”

Poor App Store sales are hardly un­prece­dented, but fig­ures put for­ward reg­u­larly dur­ing the week make for sober­ing read­ing all the same. Of the 150,000 games that launched on iOS in 2014, only a re­ported five per cent broke even. Like­wise, the me­dian life­time rev­enue for an av­er­age App Store de­vel­oper now sits at just $400 (£280). To put that into even starker con­text, Rovio es­ti­mates the av­er­age de­vel­op­ment cost of a mo­bile game to be around $25,000 (£17,500).

“What comes with a gold rush is also some clouds,” Rovio ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of games Wil­helm Taht says dur­ing his MGF 2016 key­note. “It’s just not that easy [on mo­bile]. That’s one of the com­mer­cial aspects of our in­dus­try. Un­for­tu­nately, there are signs of growth slow­ing down, at least in the western world, and player en­gage­ment is also drop­ping within games. Per player, it’s dropped to just 20 min­utes a day.”

Taht cites the in­creas­ing ef­fi­cacy of es­tab­lished stu­dios when it comes to re­tain­ing play­ers. While the num­ber of smart­phone and tablet own­ers con­tin­ues to rise, the dis­cov­ery of Candy Crush Saga or Clash Of Clans neuters their de­sire to try any­thing new. “Ev­ery Thurs­day comes a truck­load of new games on the App Store, and con­sumers are aware of that,” Taht adds. “It puts pres­sure on us to stand out.” It’s a sen­ti­ment echoed by Chillingo man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Ed Rumley. “Un­less you in­vest in a new genre, peo­ple are em­bed­ded in th­ese games,” he says. “And on top of that, the su­per-pub­lish­ers – the Kings, the Su­per­cells, the Zyn­gas – they know their gamers, and they’re get­ting con­sumers in and keep­ing them.”

But stand­ing out needn’t mean go­ing toe-to-toe with the likes of Su­per­cell. Slither­ine mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor Marco Mi­noli stresses how im­por­tant it is to think care­fully about your au­di­ence, even if the au­di­ence you’re tar­get­ing might not be par­tic­u­larly size­able. “To suc­ceed, you need to try and find the right an­gle,” he says at MGF 2016. “In­stead of sim­ply do­ing the game you’d like to, or wak­ing up in the middle of the night with the idea that a game will work, fo­cus on do­ing some­thing the mar­ket will ap­pre­ci­ate, and con­sumers will buy.”

Slither­ine em­ployed this think­ing when it launched World War II strat­egy ti­tle Bat­tle Of The Bulge in 2013. On re­lease, the game cost £7.99, ten times the App Store’s cur­rent low­est thresh­old of 79p. But Mi­noli ex­plains that, af­ter re­search­ing, the stu­dio chose not to tar­get the mass mar­ket and in­stead cal­cu­lated that there were enough strat­egy fans on mo­bile who were will­ing to pay a higher-than-av­er­age price for a gen­uinely high­qual­ity tank bat­tler.

“It’s all down to find­ing your own niche,” Mi­noli con­tin­ues. “Niche needn’t be seen as a bad word, ei­ther – it means find­ing the things that are unique to your own busi­ness. Pro­file the peo­ple you want to play your game; search for them on Face­book and nar­row them down. If you fancy mak­ing a game about the Napoleonic Wars, for in­stance, and there are 700,000 peo­ple listed as be­ing in­ter­ested in Napoleon on Face­book, then you’ll hit them all with a Face­book ad cam­paign eas­ily, and you’ll also know how much of the mar­ket you cap­ture when you re­lease your game.”

In­deed, MGF 2016 in par­tic­u­lar is coloured by the no­tion that it’s time for in­die de­vel­op­ers to pay more at­ten­tion to the busi­ness side of game de­vel­op­ment. And among de­vel­op­ers chat­ting in the halls at both events, there’s a sense that too many indies are ea­ger to blame mar­ket forces and larger pub­lish­ers

“We seem to have in­vented the ‘zom­bie de­vel­oper’. He makes games, but he has no play­ers”

– a prob­lem en­cap­su­lated by the term “in­diepoca­lypse” – rather than do­ing the leg­work re­quired to help a good game to sell. Soft launches, an­a­lyt­ics, PR and mar­ket­ing must all be con­sid­ered, and the bald re­al­ity is that sim­ply launch­ing a great game in a mar­ket where hun­dreds launch each week is no longer enough. Nor, some ar­gue, should it be.

“If you cre­ate a new game, how do you get it into a chart? It’s a big prob­lem,” Rumley ad­mits. Chillingo is re­spon­si­ble for some of mo­bile gam­ing’s most recog­nis­able and cel­e­brated re­leases, in­clud­ing Cut The Rope and the orig­i­nal An­gry Birds, and Rumley be­lieves that the strength­en­ing foothold mo­bile pub­lish­ers have in the mar­ket to­day is a di­rect re­sult of in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ers find­ing it hard to break into a space in which the charts of­ten rep­re­sent the stag­na­tion that comes about when a hand­ful of huge hits cor­ral the player­base.

“Is there any other en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try in the world where you could look at the top-ten con­tent from one year to the next and see hardly any change?” asks gamification ex­pert Gabe

Zicher­mann. “The only other in­dus­try is tele­vi­sion – a very pop­u­lar in­dus­try, but one that’s struc­turally com­pli­cated and has been com­pletely blind­sided by new plat­forms in re­cent years. The dan­ger is that this will hap­pen to mo­bile.”

Is it a ques­tion of shift­ing per­spec­tive? While in­de­pen­dent de­vel­op­ers un­doubt­edly face a raft of chal­lenges, the ma­jor take­away from Lon­don Mo­bile Games Week is that we may be think­ing about what qual­i­fies as a ‘suc­cess’ in en­tirely the wrong way. Sure, com­pa­nies such as King and Su­per­cell have se­cured the bulk of mo­bile game rev­enues for them­selves, but when the pie is so big there’s still room for oth­ers to earn some kind of crust from what’s left. If you can af­ford to make your game from the rev­enues of its pre­de­ces­sor, many sum­marise, then that it­self can be seen as a le­git­i­mate suc­cess.

“There are just so many op­por­tu­ni­ties for indies right now,” notes Jussi Tahti­nen, CEO of Ni­tro Games, dur­ing a PGC panel. “You just need to stay alive. Just get what­ever funds you can get to keep the com­pany alive in the short term, and then you can fo­cus on the longterm strat­egy, which is why you’re do­ing it in the first place.”

A sim­i­larly op­ti­mistic tone per­vades through in­die de­vel­oper Tim Con­stant’s pre­sen­ta­tion at MGF. Con­stant founded Pan­icBarn and de­vel­oped Tiki Taka

Soc­cer, which launched on iOS and An­droid last year. Though the prospect of tack­ling FIFA and other es­tab­lished sports games was daunting, he fol­lowed an old mantra and moved on what he saw as a gap in the mar­ket.

“Orig­i­nally the pro­to­type was built to solve a prob­lem I had with foot­ball games on the mar­ket,” he ex­plains. “All the big boys were try­ing to repli­cate a con­sole ex­pe­ri­ence on mo­bile, which doesn’t work well, con­trol-wise. Then you had new games – New Star Soc­cer,

Score and oth­ers – which all play re­ally well, but di­lute the ex­pe­ri­ence down to one or two fea­tures. I wanted a full foot­ball ex­pe­ri­ence with con­trols specif­i­cally de­signed for touch­screens… Suc­cess for me was pay­ing my­self a salary – that’s quite im­por­tant – and be­ing able to cre­ate it­er­a­tions and new ver­sions of the game.”

He also found a smart way of prac­tis­ing his board­room pat­ter. “I ac­tu­ally went on to Kick­starter and set up a cam­paign that I never in­tended to use be­cause the game is free to play, but the process of do­ing so asks you all the ques­tions an in­vestor will ask too, so it was re­ally use­ful in get­ting me pre­pared for seek­ing early in­vest­ment.”

Just as im­por­tant, Con­stant notes, is at­tend­ing as many events as pos­si­ble. Not only is it an op­por­tu­nity to get your game in front of po­ten­tial play­ers, and get feed­back on what does and doesn’t work, but you’ll also be able to chat to other de­vel­op­ers in the same po­si­tion and do some good old-fash­ioned net­work­ing in per­son, rather than via Twit­ter.

Con­stant and Tahti­nen’s pre­sen­ta­tions serve as up­lift­ing, and wel­come, coun­ter­points to the malaise high­lighted else­where. It’s not easy, but it re­mains pos­si­ble to earn a liv­ing from mo­bile de­vel­op­ment so long as you’re pre­pared to think about all of the aspects that might help make your game a suc­cess – how­ever you want to de­fine that. In short, there’s still hope.

“TouchAr­cade editor Eli Ho­dapp has been quoted as say­ing that when peo­ple say the App Store is 99 per­cent shit, they’re prob­a­bly not far off,” Con­stant con­cludes. “The up­side of that is, if you do the maths, there are prob­a­bly only a hand­ful of de­cent games amongst the hun­dreds that launch each week. Ap­ple has 16 fea­ture slots to fill and, be­lieve it or not, Ap­ple no­tices good games.”

“TV has been blind­sided by new plat­forms in re­cent years. The dan­ger is that this will hap­pen to mo­bile”

FROM TOP Chillingo MD Ed Rumley; gamification ex­pert Gabe Zicher­mann

FROM TOP Jonathan Evans, Team Lumo de­signer; Ni­tro Games CEO Jussi Tahti­nen

LEFT Tiki Taka Soc­cer is Pan­icBarn’s at­tempt to mix the ac­ces­si­bil­ity of a mo­bile game with the depth of con­sole main­stays such as FIFA and Pro Evo.

ABOVE One of Chillingo’s early suc­cesses, Cut TheRope was a pi­o­neer­ing App Store re­lease

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