It took a lot of vision in 2004 to appreciate mobile games as works of art that were worthy of an awards show. But in its 15th year, the International Mobile Gaming Awards (IMGA) has become a celebration of what has become the best games in the largest segment of the game business.
The IMGA continues to celebrate indie games and lone artists who show great creativity in what was a $61.3 billion mobile game business in 2018, according to Nielsen’s SuperData market research division. Maarten Noyons, founder of the IMGA, looks back on the start of the IMGA as a time when mobile games had to earn a lot of respect.
Even today, mobile games are routinely criticized by hardcore PC and console fans for not being “real games.” But Noyons believes that’s silly, like the people who look down on TV shows because they’re not as good as movies.
At the recent Game Developers Conference, the IMGA honored a wide range of games such as Florence, which won a Grand Prix prize, Best Meaningful Play, and Excellence in Storytelling. The IMGA’s 15-member finalist jury came from around the world to judge the titles in Helsinki, Finland. They chose 16 winners from a short list of 153 nominees, which in turn were culled from nearly 800 submissions. All told, more than 250 jury members helped with the process, and 500 voted for the people’s choice category.
More than 700 people attended the awards ceremony and party. I talked to Noyons about the awards and his perspective from reviewing thousands of games over 15 years. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Maarten Noyons: Looking back at when we started in 2004, when it was still very hard to get any games to enter, because there weren’t so many mobile games–or there were lots of games, but they were all Flash games. They were mostly in Japan. Japan was way ahead of us. We had Brew games, but we couldn’t play them, because we didn’t have Brew in Europe. Everything was very complicated back then.
A lot of people were making games for mobile, because it was a big challenge, a technical challenge, but also because they had ambitious ideas about mobile games. They saw that there were many more screens there than any other platform. If you talk to the early companies, the early creators like Michel Guillemot, who got into mobile games in the ‘90s, that was their motivation. It was the enormous reach and potential of the mobile market.
Then there was another group of people who were drawn toward mobile games because it was a great way to experiment with different things. In the early days you had location-based games, a lot of AR experiments. People were trying to do multiplayer games over the very limited bandwidth of the operators. It was a very experimental, challenging market, but it was basically tech-driven. My sponsors in the beginning were Nvidia, Texas Instruments, Qualcomm, Nokia. The money was on the hardware side, the phone side.
We always had the operators in the jury. We had three operators who stayed with us for many years — Orange, which was in the U.K., France, and Spain, and then we had T-Mobile and Vodafone. The operators in the first couple of years were the gatekeepers to consumers, because there was no sideloading. You could only get a mobile game over the mobile network. When the iPhone and Android came out, the whole thing changed, of course. But the early days it was pretty much an operator-dominated market, with a lot of innovation.
When the App Store and the Android stores launched, we grew the number of entries from around 300 to 1,000. As you witnessed, the judging became a lot more complicated. We had to play a lot of games to determine what was the best. But still, we wanted to be fair and independent, so we played as many games as we could. That’s still the case, although at the moment we have a big online jury. We have, in total–in China online we have about 300 online jury members, and for the global competition we have about 250.
Those people give their opinions and they help us make the pre-selection of about 150 games. Then for two days we try to play all of these games. You were there, so you know how difficult that can be. Especially judging multiplayer games. That was very difficult in the beginning. Right now it’s easier — it always works — but in the beginning we always had network problems and things like that.
GamesBeat: What was the first award ceremony like?
Noyons: The first awards, we were at the Hotel B in Barcelona. It’s just in front of the Fira. That’s where the Mobile World Congress was held. We wanted to be there, because all the operators from all over the world were coming to Barcelona once a year to attend Mobile World Congress. We wanted to be a fringe event, a side event. Of course we tried to make a deal with the organizers to have our show inside, but that didn’t work out.
We were on the roof of the Hotel B. It’s quite a well-situated hotel. There were about 150 people attending the event. It was a small event, but all the pioneers were there. They were people from GameVille, from NTT DoCoMo, all the early mobile game makers. And then a VP from Orange, the operator, who was also on the board of the GSM association, they came to the event and they wanted to shut it down, because they thought we were competing with the GSM association. I felt very flattered. I was doing this for the first time, and already this major worldwide organization was trying to shut me down.
In the second year we made a deal with the GSM association. We got a seminar tier inside the Mobile World Congress for a couple of years. We did a conference, a half-day conference, and the awards ceremony at the Fira in Barcelona. Then, when the operators were no longer important in mobile games, we moved the whole event to San Francisco.
There’s an interesting parallel to what happened there, because the first year when we went to GDC, in 2013, we wanted to be a side event with GDC. We rented a room in Union Square, at the Westin. Two weeks before the event, the hotel called us and said, “We’re very sorry, but we have to cancel our contract. United Business Media has exercised their pre-emption rights and they’re renting the space.” They also saw us as a threat to their event. We had to move to the Fairmont up Nob Hill. We had a lot less attendance there, because you had to walk 10 or 15 minutes uphill to get to the event. It was smaller than we expected, but it was still successful.
From there on out we went to the Minna Gallery, and that worked out fairly well. The last time we had huge attendance, between 700 and 800 people for the event and the afterparty. We were celebrating 15 years of the IMGA and 10 years of Angry Birds together. That was a major event. We’ve been at the Minna Gallery for five years in a row now.
GamesBeat: How many different awards do you have around the world now?
Noyons: Four years ago we had our first IMGA MENA, the Middle East and North Africa, and IMGA Southeast Asia, and IMGA China. IMGA China has been growing tremendously. It has a real impact. For instance, right now we have our own page on the app store run by Tencent, which is a major achievement. We’re also getting deals with many of the other channels. Hopefully we can announce a few in the near future. That’s going very well.
Southeast Asia is a bit of a problem in terms of sponsorship. We’re not getting enough commercial traction there. On the other hand, it’s really worth going there, because there’s so much emerging talent. You get this very interesting melting pot between the influence from China, Japan, Korea, and the west. The result is a very interesting mix of authentic local games, Chinese games, and western influence. I’d love to do it again, but this year it’s very complicated. It’s quite hard to pull it off. We may be forced to skip it this year. Middle East and North Africa, we’re still looking at doing that in November again. That’s a partnership with Zain, a local operator. China is in partnership with MyGamez, a Finnish/Chinese company that’s bringing western games to China.
Also, as you know, we have a very long-term relationship with the city of Marseilles. We were doing all of our judging sessions there. That came to an end, unfortunately, but we made a deal with the city of Helsinki, where mobile games were invented. We have a long-term agreement with the city, and a long-term partnerships with a couple of Finnish companies, including Supercell and Rovio. We’re very happy with this new agreement. We worked with Marseilles for 13 years, and hopefully we’ll have a long-term partnership with Helsinki as well.
GamesBeat: Was there another set of awards associated with the judging in the Philippines?
Noyons: Yeah, that was the Southeast Asia awards last year. We had that in Manila. For the first time we did the blockchain awards there. We want to do that again at some point. We looked at about 400 different games that were out there, but only a few of them were actually on test networks. The ones we could actually play, we judged. We’ve looked into that. They’re not mobile games — they’re PC games — but we’re interested because it has a big impact on the game economy. We’re looking into it again for the future.
The main challenge in the future, though, is to grow the team and grow our efforts significantly. Now that the mobile game industry is so big, we really need to get bigger ourselves as well. We need to build the IMGA further. I’ve been doing this for 15 years now, and I need the help of other people who are going to play a big role. My partners in China are helping make this bigger. Also, the city of Helsinki is dedicated to making it a more significant event than it is now.
The movie industry has the Oscars and the music industry has the Grammy awards. We’d like to become something similar, as the awards for the mobile games industry, by keeping our independence and fairness that we’ve shown up until now.
GamesBeat: How many games do you think you look at worldwide now, across all the events?
Noyons: I made that calculation a while ago. It’s around 3,000 a year. We don’t play all of them, but we’re looking at trailers. I have a lot of test flights. We get a lot of betas and early builds of games. Over a year, then, it’s around 3,000. Sometimes you’ll get really deep into a game, something that’s really immersive, and other games you can see very quickly what it is and what it’s trying to do, so you spend a lot less time.
GamesBeat: What do you think about this subculture of people who don’t think mobile games are “real games”? You see a lot of that in the console and PC spaces, where people turn up their noses at mobile.
Noyons: It’s true. It’s a bit like television and movies, or to a certain extent indie films versus big-budget films. I think there’s a lot more happening in mobile than in console, content-wise, and also technically. The challenges on mobile are very big. The console market has far fewer players and much bigger teams. The economy is very different.
As far as why people look down, I think it’s just a matter of, “We’re the big guys and you’re the small guys.” Like Hollywood looking down on independent film. There’s a bit of that. There’s also a bit of, “We were here first. This is our industry. You’re the new guys and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” There’s some of that discrimination. It’s funny. For me a game is a game. It doesn’t matter what kind of platform you’re making a game on. I don’t care about budgets. I don’t think a game that looks very slick and high-res is by definition better than a game that’s made by one guy, or a very small team.
If you look at Flipping Filip, from Iran, which won the honorable mention at the IMGAs, it’s a wonderful game. It’s very authentic and very new in terms of style. To me it’s better than many console games that I’ve seen over the past couple of months.
GamesBeat: It seems like mobile games are closing that gap as far as high-end graphics, though.
Noyons: That’s true. These distinctions are getting less and less relevant. The phones are getting better. The screens are getting better every year. It’s amazing, the kind of quality you can see now on the mobile platforms. We’re seeing hybrid games using all the different platforms, like Fortnite and others. That’s showing us the future, in a certain way. Maybe platforms will become completely irrelevant.
GamesBeat: The free-to-play business model can be very aggressive, and I think that turns off a lot of people coming from more traditional spaces. We saw that with the Diablo reaction at BlizzCon last year. Sometimes those complaints are legitimate. Maybe mobile gaming needs to do something about that.
Noyons: Yeah, especially around the business model. With the new subscription model that Apple is proposing, though, I think that the emergence of new business models will become possible. I don’t know what’s going to happen, what kind of control Apple wants to keep over the subscription business. But it does open the door for a lot of new ways to publish mobile games. We’ll have to see how that works.
It could be a very valid alternative to free-to-play, which is currently an economy that’s becoming more and more inaccessible to smaller teams. You just can’t do free-to-play anymore with a small team. It’s impossible.