FU­TURE GAMES OF L ONDON

EDGE - - THE MAKING OF... - How the min­nows be­hind Hun­gry Shark be­came a global mo­bile suc­cess story BY ED­WIN EVANS-THIRLWELL

Agrin­ning preda­tor bar­rels through a teem­ing ocean, chug­ging down any­thing and ev­ery­thing in its path, only ever a few sec­onds away from death by star­va­tion. Fu­ture Games Of Lon­don’s 230-mil­lion-down­load Hun­gry Shark Evo­lu­tion could be a metaphor for the ra­pa­cious world of mo­bile pub­lish­ing. Ac­cord­ing to a re­port by re­search firm New­zoo, global mo­bile game rev­enue will sur­pass that from PC games for the first time this year, but the mar­ket re­mains highly po­larised and un­for­giv­ing, with a tiny per­cent­age of stu­dios and pay­ing cus­tomers ac­count­ing for the largest share of earn­ings.

It’s a far cry from the year of FGOL’s birth. 2009 was a ban­ner pe­riod for mo­bile game de­vel­op­ers look­ing to build up their own in­tel­lec­tual prop­er­ties, with the App Store still rel­a­tively un­con­tested and the iPad launch a few months away. “We were very for­tu­nate,” Chris

Daw­son, the stu­dio’s creative di­rec­tor, ad­mits. “The iPhone had just come out; it had been on sale for a year or so. [The tech­nol­ogy] had ma­tured, but there wasn’t the level of com­pe­ti­tion that there is now. We man­aged to time our ar­rival well, and we got into free-to-play at the right time as well. As we know, the in­dus­try goes through cy­cles, and the tim­ing right now is re­ally dif­fi­cult for launch­ing a new game.”

If good luck has played a part in FGOL’s rise, much is also down to fore­sight and the abil­ity to cap­i­talise swiftly on mar­ket shifts. Hav­ing cut their teeth on more re­stric­tive pro­pri­etary ‘fea­ture phone’ plat­forms, the stu­dio’s founders were quick to em­brace the au­ton­omy af­forded by sell­ing di­rectly to play­ers on iPhone. They were also among the first to se­ri­ously com­mit to An­droid gam­ing, re­leas­ing the orig­i­nal

Hun­gry Shark on both Ap­ple’s and Google’s plat­forms si­mul­ta­ne­ously in April 2010. A hand­some, easy-to-con­trol ac­tion game in which play­ers scour a com­plex, colour­ful reef for prey, the game found a steady fol­low­ing, but the real break­through came with its stand­alone ex­pan­sion, Part 2, re­leased a few months later.

“We no­ticed ev­ery­thing in the free chart was pretty rub­bish,” man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Ian Harper tells us. “So we made Part 1 free with a link to

Part 2 [in Au­gust 2010], which was pretty unique at the time – ev­ery­body else was mak­ing ‘lite’ ver­sions of their apps that were kind of crip­pled.” The free ver­sion of Hun­gry Shark topped charts in 40 coun­tries, pro­duc­ing a “tidal wave” – Harper’s pun, not ours – of sales of Part

2 and es­tab­lish­ing the se­ries firmly in the US. FGOL also took the Hun­gry Shark name be­yond videogames early on, af­ter spot­ting ref­er­ences to the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel’s an­nual Shark Week event (now in its 28th year, with 49 mil­lion view­ers) in re­views of the orig­i­nal games. It be­came the event’s of­fi­cial app part­ner in 2012. “We’ve been able to ben­e­fit from Dis­cov­ery’s an­nual frenzy as the most prom­i­nent shark game on mo­bile, and they’ve ben­e­fited from our large reach on mo­bile to pro­mote TV pro­grammes on Shark Week,” Harper ex­plains. FGOL has since com­mis­sioned its own an­i­mated Pixar-style shorts fea­tur­ing Hun­gry Shark char­ac­ters to pro­mote the re­lease of this year’s Hun­gry Shark World, fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of Clash Of Clans and An­gry Birds.

Mind­ful of the risks of re­ly­ing too heav­ily on one brand, the stu­dio has re­leased a num­ber of new IPs along­side fresh in­stal­ments of Hun­gry

Shark – fore­most among them Pool Bar, which fea­tured at the New York iPad launch in April 2010, and Gra­ba­tron, a B-movie ac­tion game in which play­ers con­trol a klep­to­ma­niac UFO. The pres­sure to main­tain a broad port­fo­lio has less­ened, how­ever, thanks to the smash suc­cess of the free-to-play Hun­gry Shark Evo­lu­tion. Em­ploy­ing a mix­ture of ad­ver­tis­ing and op­tional pay­ments for pre­mium in-game currency, the game broke 25 mil­lion down­loads in June 2013, and went onto cap­ture mil­lions of play­ers in South Korea, Ja­pan and China via lo­cal part­ners such as Nexon and KakaoTalk. FGOL’s suc­cess in China is par­tic­u­larly strik­ing: it’s pro­jected by New­zoo to be­come the mo­bile game in­dus­try’s largest sin­gle mar­ket this year, with $10 bil­lion in rev­enue. Harper claims around three per cent of China’s pop­u­la­tion – 46 mil­lion peo­ple – has down­loaded a Hun­gry Shark game.

The se­ries’ com­mand­ing pres­ence in these ter­ri­to­ries might not have been pos­si­ble with­out Ubisoft, which ac­quired FGOL in Oc­to­ber 2013. “The Chi­nese mar­ket is huge and as an in­de­pen­dent de­vel­oper it was dif­fi­cult for us to ne­go­ti­ate con­tracts," Harper says. “Be­ing part of Ubisoft makes it an aw­ful lot eas­ier. We’ve got of­fices in Shang­hai, and we’re able to get good dis­tri­bu­tion pipe­lines set up.” The pub­lisher has ap­par­ently re­sisted the urge to in­ter­fere with how FGOL is run, though it has in­vited the stu­dio to work with some of its own brands – an As­sas­sin’s

Creed joke fea­tures in one of the new an­i­mated shorts, for ex­am­ple. “Their in­ter­est was very much that we con­tinue to do what we were do­ing,” Harper says. “They’ve sup­ported us in all the de­ci­sions we’ve made. For us, it’s about be­ing able to go out there with a great idea and take it to mar­ket, and Ubisoft helps in that re­spect. ”

A com­po­nent of Hun­gry Shark’s ap­peal is that the im­age of a shark en­joys global recog­ni­tion, but FGOL has run into some un­ex­pected cul­tural dif­fer­ences while lo­cal­is­ing Evo­lu­tion and World. “The big take­away was with China – the Chi­nese au­di­ence we polled did par­tic­u­larly go for the more cutesy sharks, which was in­ter­est­ing next to the US, where peo­ple were more into vi­o­lent-look­ing sharks. That then in­formed our mar­ket­ing strat­egy, which breeds we put in the screen­shots.” Ja­panese play­ers, mean­while, “like lots of text over ev­ery­thing – lots of con­fus­ing things hap­pen­ing at the same time”.

AROUND THREE PER CENT OF CHINA’S POP­U­LA­TION – 46 MIL­LION PEO­PLE – HAS DOWN­LOADED A HUN­GRY SHARK GAME

Once of Elixir, Ian Harper (left) and Chris Daw­son also made mo­bile ti­tles at Shadow Light Games be­fore found­ing FGOL

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