Simon Moller helped create the mobile game Subway Surfers.
You can understand the history of mobile gaming in three distinct waves. In the first wave, mobile game companies had to pass through the carriers themselves to get their games on feature phones. This was largely a contest of favoritism and shelf space, and there was no room for innovation because the carriers’ placement of your game was all that mattered. Basically, having cozy relationships with major carriers rewarded developers with prime placement and more downloads.
In the second wave, this feature-phone-centric world was upended by the rise of an open marketplace in smartphones. Developers bypassed the major carrier gatekeepers and fought for downloads in the Wild West of the app store. Everyone had equal footing. Developers became millionaires, and Indies challenged industry giants like Electronic Arts for attention and revenue.
Presently we are riding the third wave. The mobile space has matured — estimates put the industry to be worth around $70 billion, and things have changed again. With the combination of an open marketplace and an incredibly low barrier for entry (game-development engine Unity is free now), the market has been flooded with so many games that companies worry about a very basic thing — people actually finding their game.
Discover me, please?
Complaining about discoverability distracts from true nature of the predicament — some products just aren’t using mobile gaming’s advantages: easy virality through games that are fun and visually appealing. Mobile titles are like branded t-shirts. People use your product if they like it the look and feel of it and then promote the product they like in the world by using it during their day.
It’s even better than branded t-shirts; the barrier to entry in mobile games can be zero dollars! And they can naturally go viral. If you have a good game that’s aesthetically appealing, it will promote itself. Look in the mirror and honestly reflect on what you’re bringing to the table and how well that aligns with the marketing mobile gaming naturally affords.
Some lesser known studios have taken their games to be published by bigger name companies, trying to establish a market presence through brand association. This is a fool’s errand. Big companies encourage publishing with them because it is self-serving: they get to de-risk their portfolio with minimal investment and huge potential upside. The developers who signed a publishing deal get a rather meaningless veneer of credibility and a huge chunk of their revenue lopped off.
To return to the initial points about discoverability — if your game is good, it will do well without the publisher’s help. Angry Birds’ initial success was not due to being published by Chillingo (who put them on an offshoot label which provided minimal press). They succeeded because they made a great game.
Instead, what is much more valuable than traditional publishing is co-development. Co-development means both teams are invested and working together to make a great game, and one party is not using it as a low-risk means to diversify its portfolio. Co-development is the process that Kiloo used in working with SYBO Games to create Subway Surfers. Both teams leverage their unique talents and work to build the game in unison.
Rise of the gaming supergiants
Then there are the newly sprung redwoods of our industry, the towering mobile successes with massive valuations. GungHo (maker of Puzzles & Dragons) is valued at $9 billion; Supercell (maker of Clash of Clans and Hay Day) is valued at $770 million. And, long-time player but only recent headline maker King (maker of Candy Crush Saga) is eyeing an IPO and will probably receive a huge valuation if it does.
What do these valuations mean for the ordinary mobile game company? Not that much, really. The beauty of mobile gaming’s distribution model is that the small guys can still compete if they have good content. That’s what allowed Supercell, GungHo, and King to rise against behemoths like EA in the first place.
Surfing the third wave
What’s great about this era in mobile gaming is that it revolves around great experiences and empathizing with the player. A good-looking, fun game will sell itself and rise beyond issues of discoverability, publishing, or being squeezed out by the big players.
With Subway Surfers, we made a great game, but we didn’t stop there. We knew that people playing it would be bored if we sat back and just tried to figure how to better monetize them. So instead we decided to give them meaningful monthly gameplay updates.
Be honest; look at your game’s version history. How many updates are refining IAPs [in-app purchases] or other monetization techniques? How many are designed to enrich gameplay? Do you have a plan for delivering compelling content updates for the next three months? Six months? Year? Do they make sense within the world of your game? Building on your initial momentum is as essential to crafting the great game in the first place.
Simon Moller is chief creative officer at Kiloo, the Danish games studio that’s been a major player in mobile gaming since 2000 and is behind the breakaway hit Subway Surfers, produced in conjunction with SYBO Games. With nearly two decades of professional involvement in gaming, Simon is heavily experienced in optimizing app development processes, strategic thinking, and game and art direction. He is leveraging his extensive background in design and mobile to create top-notch games that strive for excellence.
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