Indie devs in fighting spirit at London Mobile Games Week
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