With countless mobile games studios struggling to become the next big thing on smart devices, everyone is hoping for fresh disruption to shake things up. James Batchelor finds out how the market is predicted to change from some of the leading firms that currently define it
Mobile remains the biggest and toughest market for any developer. The charts are dominated by the same giants, discoverability is a nightmare and the increased hardware segmentation – particularly on Android – makes it harder than ever to tailor your game to the entire audience.
With so many studios targeting the same audience, a period of predicability has settled in. But that may soon change.
A rise in brand advertised games (the Kim Kardashian title for instance) may change how the charts look, and push up the cost of mobile marketing.
Then there’s Asia. Japan’s big mobile creators struggled to succeed with their card-based titles in the West, but Korea and China’s RPGs might stand a better chance. And when you consider the money at these company’s disposal, that’s an exciting prospect.
But the most significant trend that’s changing the dynamics of the modern mobile market, is the mid-core.
Many major firms, including Zynga and King, believe the next step for mobile is with the mid-core market, an oft-touted term that is still unclear to some.
Aaron Loeb, Kabam’s president of studios, defines mid-core as “competition and skill, but through a game that doesn’t require the long session times of core console and PC titles”.
He adds: “John Earner at Space Ape defines it as a core game that works on your schedule rather than its schedule.
“This audience is having a huge impact. If you look at the top grossing charts in China, US, South Korea and Japan, they’re dominated by mid-core. Many of the Japanese mid-core games look casual due to their play pattern and art styles, but they’re deep RPGs.”
So what about the most lucrative of all markets – the hardcore?
Christian Reshoeft, head of studios at InnoGames, says: “That’s perhaps the last demographic that mobile hasn’t provided a satisfying platform for.
“This will bring along with it a rise in mobile eSports, and a focus on not just gameplay, but also spectator modes.”
THE FREE ECONOMY
So what about business models? Free-to-play continues to dominate, but it’s faced its critcs.
“The huge growth of the free-to-play model shows that the vast majority of players accept and like it,” says King’s Candy Crush producer Andreas Olofsson (pictured below).
Wooga’s head of studio Matt Roberts adds: “The most engaged and valuable mobile players demand games that deliver many years’ worth of gameplay. That depth of content is something that no fixed-price retail game can deliver indefinitely. Service-driven, IAP-based games allow players a flexible way to pay developers over time and finance ongoing content.”
Of course, long-term success in the free-to-play market seems to go hand-in-hand with securing a position in the upper echelons of the charts – a feat few can accomplish outside of King, Supercell, Machine Zone et al.
“I don’t think indie developers can really compete with those companies in the grossing or download charts,” InnoGames’ studio director Dennis Rohlfing says. “And without a major publisher, successful marketing is near impossible. They need to rely on PR.
“But they can succeed without directly competing with them. For indie developers, it’s easier to create innovative games as they don’t have as many constraints. They can also develop games faster due to less overhead. If a small studio manages to play those advantages, it can be successful on a smaller scale.”
Loeb adds: “Brands are now in control of the mobile charts. Hardly anyone has gotten into the Top 10 without using a recognisable brand in years – Kim Kardashian, Marvel, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and so on. A small studio without access to brands will have a very hard time competing.
“They should do what small studios do throughout entertainment: find unserved audiences, local content that’s targeted at specific demographics.”
Opinion is a little more divided on the fate of premium games.
Yet Blue Byte’s Cyril Voiron (pictured left), who recently worked on Assassin’s Creed Identity, says devs might be surprised by the demand for full-price games.
“The core audience is used to premium,” he says. “We originally soft-launched Identity for free but, based on feedback, we switched to premium, which was better accepted. And it is working really well right now, as we are highly-ranked in the charts.”
However, Rohlfing warns: “If you want to generate profit, that’s clearly possible. If you want annual revenues of $20m for a couple of years? No chance. The top paid games are not present in the top grossing charts.”
Future Games of London’s MD Ian Harper agrees: “Consumers have voted with their wallets, relegating the market for paid titles to a small niche.”
So mobile is the biggest platform in games, but also the hardest to break into. But the message from our experts is unanimous: it can be done.
“This is true mass market,” concludes Voiron. “Today, five billion people are carrying a potential gaming device. And within five years, every human being on the planet will be.”
So what tech do mobile devs believe will impact smart devices the most?
“For us, it’s Vulkan API,” says InnoGames’ Dennis Rohlfing. “This technology allows us to bring an even more amazing graphical quality to modern Android devices while allowing the players to still have a native experience.”
Kabam’s Aaron Loeb says: “The major thing on the horizon is mobile VR. For the first year, it’ll be an opportunity for innovative, smaller companies to define the play patterns that will propel the next several years.”
Finally, Wooga’s Matt Roberts points to wearable tech:
“It’s hard to predict how wearable tech games will evolve,
but we’re excited by the interesting constraints of the Apple
Watch, and the potential around instantly accessible,
hyper-compact, body-aware, internet connected computers on our wrists.”