FUTURE GAMES OF L ONDON
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