6 Feb 2012

Event Round Up - 28th Jan, Mobile Games - Part 1

Not just one round-up but two this time! We're very fortunate to have two complementary views of last Monday's event.

The first is from volunteer Valentina Ciolino that's @MissFog. Thanks for this most comprehensive-write up, Valentina - what's the story with the hats? Indeed!

With many thanks, once again, to our event partners, ICTKTN.

Oscar Clark
Having worked in video games and mobile, I could not miss the first London Mobile Monday of 2012. “Mobile Games” was the hot topic of the night, discussed by a great panel of professionals and chaired by Oscar Clark of Papaya Mobile. Not that one would want to miss any of these industry gatherings, but, for me, it was also the first time on the volunteer side. In fact, they even gave me the chance to blog about the event, so here I am.

While on the tube to go to the event, I was thinking about the topic. I personally feel that video games and mobile industry are converging towards something different, and mobile games development is driving the innovation. The new mobile and tablet platform allowed games to change, thanks mainly to three new features: touch screens, connectivity and portability. All the portable game consoles we used before the rise of the app stores lacked at least one of the three, not to speak about the powerful graphic of the new mobile screens. We now have tap/swipe/multitouch games, games paid by ads, a new type of social games, 5 minutes games (to repeat every hour). Before the event started, I wondered what other changes the panelists would forecast for 2012. The answer at the end of this post!

But back to the evening: Oscar, who was one of the two people in the room wearing a hat (pictured), made a good job moderating the debate and bringing on the table some alternative points of view of his own.

Credit is due to Oscar and to Mobile Monday London for bringing four panelists with different background and experience, always a good way to guarantee a nice and lively discussion.

Here their names and titles: Ian Baverstock (Tenshi Ventures), Struan Robertson (Product Director, NaturalMotion Games), Gareth Edmonson (CEO, Thumbstar Games), Georgina Mackenzie (CEO at Toytek). They are famous enough for me not to speak about them, but you can always click on the links to know more.

The icebreaker question regarded the current situation of the mobile games industry and its latest evolutions. Some 2011 changes in the market were felt as very important: first of all the rise of the Android platform and market, which grew and gained strength in terms of monetization. Android can be seen as a difficult market as it’s full of freemium products and shows high piracy and discoverability problems, but it offers many opportunities in terms of potential innovation. The hardware presents high fragmentation but the majority of the Android devices are powerful enough – in memory & chips - to allow for creativity. And the fragmentation can be addressed; in fact, Gareth mentioned that there are 6 versions of Android OS but 4 of Apple iOS. On the bad side, the gap it’s probably widening as Struan noted, and this could higher the entry barrier for developers. Moreover, even if sales on Android are big, the Apple App store is more predictable, continued Struan, and many developers spend much money on it.

Another 2011 hit was the tablet market, with the iPad leading the way. It is a “spectacular platform” as Ian said and features a type of games different from mobile, 3D games with great graphic and new additions to the user interface. It is also easier, Ian noticed, to get visibility on a smaller market such as the iPad App Store than on the larger ones, which is definitely an important advantage for games developers.

The Copy Cats
The third, less positive trend of 2011 was the increase of the number of “copycat” games on the market. Apparently, some big and medium companies (in order to avoid the risks of innovation, and the costs of experimenting with new channels, noted Georgina), prefer to reproduce famous existing games, replicating the gameplay. One of the possible solutions to this problem is to use the cloud to make social-mobile games for a large market, which is something that big publishers are already betting on. “Social mobile is going to explode”, said Gareth, “thanks to the cloud”.

Socification of games was the topic of one of the question from the public (by @torgo) which started a nice debate on if social games today are “really social” or not. People playing asynchronously on the same server brings a lot of revenues, said Oscar, and developers spend a lot of time to get people to complete quests, but it can’t be compared with the experience of multiplayer games. On a slightly different note, Ian noted that only few games, and mainly on consoles, are well-tailored for the multiplayer mode. The verdict on socificiation was, in the end, that it’s not bad as long as it adds to the game experience and don’t steal the fun out of the gameplay to increase sales or get new users.

The main discussions revolved around few topics: business models (freemium vs premium, ads), platforms and markets (emerging markets, operators, Windows Phone) and, of course, customers. I am really happy to report on this last theme because I think the panelists just put in words my thought: there are many kinds of gamers, gamers change all the time. As Georgina mentioned, the advergaming players, for example, “don’t consider themselves gamers at all”, but enjoy the experience anyway. Similarly, the console gamers may not be scared to move to TV games as long as the controllers stay the same, since, as Ian stated “console games are basically TV games”. When touchscreen emerged, the lack of buttons was seen as a problem for gameplay, but now there’s a large audience who won’t play with controller as they are too different and require a different approach. There are some psychological differences too, added Oscar, and different inputs works better for different games – and gamers.

Same story for business models: free games with ads appeal to some gamers, free games with in-app purchases appeal to others. The freemium model has been affected by a bad reputation as the UK industry is still not fully convinced it works, but maybe the developers just have to start adjusting the learning curve for their games to make them sell more. The “user training” tricks proved to be very effective for all the applications that use game mechanisms to engage consumers (the so-called gamification of apps). Struan made the example of LinkedIn apps where daily simple notifications ask you to recommend your colleagues, add a picture or complete your profile, thus explaining how to use the app itself. Other tricks used on gamified apps are the public leader boards and the awarding of badges. Oscar quoted a very effective explanation for gamification, which is how you get people to go back to the app, versus game design, which is the way you create fun. Not necessarily marketing people can make good design or even level design, and not all mobile developers know how to learn from games.

One of my favourite questions of the night was the following one: Is this a good moment to be a game development company? There are many opportunities, especially on mobile and tablets, but also a lot of competition. The barrier to enter the market is low, but the effort requested to make good games has increased. There are new ways to work across formats (web, mobile, consoles, etc), and this is driving a change in content and gameplay, but also new ways to market products, which is an opportunity that requires new people with marketing knowledge. It would have been good to ask to some of the experts at TIGA, who were between the audience, what’s their take on it, if it’s true, as Georgina reported, that of 147 development companies set in UK between 2008 and 2010, 131 shut down before the end of that period. How many of them were mobile developers, I wonder? And what’s the number of start-ups which develop games but have other digital products too (apps, or websites, or design, for example)?

The panel discussed a lot of other topics, and answered some 999 questions from the passionate audience, but I thought I’d better condense their words into a list of 8 kick-ass suggestions for UK mobile game developers:
  1. Research about your target market and decide the business model before stating to design your game: if you go web, you can have a “try before you buy” approach and make the first level teasing like a movie trailer or, if you are opting for the freemium approach, the gameplay must be compelling enough to make your audience play often and pay for in-app. That’s what Natural Motion did before releasing “My Horse”, and that’s a point on which all the panelists agree, the marketing must be integrated with the game design.

  2. Choose your coding language and engines with care: Objective C can limit your chance to port the game to other platforms in the future, warned Georgina, who suggested C++ for the core features of any game so they can be transferred, but only if you’re using the same core mechanics. The rest of the code could then be more quickly ported from one program to others. When someone from the audience asked if the panel would suggest developing games separately for each platform, the answer was unanimous: you can develop you own engines, but don’t underestimate the value of cross-platform engines such as Unity, Marmalade and so on.

  3. Don’t limit your business to only one market; try to plan your production so to include porting the game to other platforms and stores. Having one product on one app store is not going to be enough for funders to notice you, as Ian hinted, and, as in Struan’s experience, being an established developer on one app store also helps to get more users thanks to “internal” cross-promotion. As Gareth said “there’s an opportunity in throwing at different channels out of the app stores” such as operator’s markets, if you have good content, or, better, a network of content. But there’s a catch: be specific about the channel you address: don’t go for the common lower denominator, try to exploit all the hardware features.

  4. Make a clever use of analytics: pass the knowledge from the commercial to the production team and back, change your product price and game design according to the feedback from your customers. Never before the game industry has had such an amount of data, comments and feedback from the users, let all the people in your company understand the information you get.

  5. Have a roadmap for main changes, but be able to respond to the market. In the console world sales data were locked due to licensing and access issues, and both prices, design and were basically fixed. Now, instead, you can change your game’s design depending on the rise or fall in sales, so have an expert to look at your data and let your product evolve with them.

  6. Beware! When porting your product to the iPad, remember that it is used in a much different way and for longer game sessions compared with mobiles. Ian was the first to point that out: people use their mobiles to play on the go, shorter and simpler games, but if they can choose, they opt for the iPad as console and buy optimised games. Porting from iPhone to the iOS tablet is one of the simplest ways to differentiate, he said, and Georgina added that her company produces games with high quality graphic exactly for that reason. That applies to all the platforms.

  7. Don’t save on Q&A, or better, set a budget for proper testing. Ian pointed clearly out that many mobile developers unfortunately have no idea how much important that is for every release. I would add: test features that will make your product stand out from the crowd - original soundtrack, great graphic, vibration effects, multiplayer etc. Don’t be scared to be original and innovative, as long as your products are technically impeccable and fun.

  8. Apply for grants and funding. Abertay University, TIGA and ICT KTN periodically offer the chance to get some money for your ideas and support the applicants during the process with mentoring sessions. Someone from the audience even said he had won one of the challenges and got a fair amount for a mobile game! You’ve just missed the deadline for the contest to produce a game integrated with the SDK and marketed through the networks of Antix Labs and Turbulenz, so try not to miss the next one.
And here we are with the panel’s trends for the future of mobile games. First of all: social-mobile is going to explode, according to Gareth, thanks to the cloud, and big publisher are going to put big money on innovation and game content for the genre. But there are some cool features that can drive innovations, such as voice controls, added Struan, or Augmented Reality, said Georgina. Oscar bets on location games, if they move their focus from tech to the experience. What did Ian forecast for 2012? The boom of more expensive and higher quality mobile games. It’s time, I say.

Finally, I’d like to go back to the initial note about the chairman who was wearing a hat and add that the other person wearing one at the event was the host himself, Jo Rabin. May I assume there’s a fashion trend? Your opinion on this important theme will be very welcome.

That is probably the first time I have been accused of being at the forefront of a fashion trend :-) - Jo