Mobile evolution will make today's market irrelevant
Free-to-play specialist Teut Weidemann says disruption of smartphones is just getting started, AAA already out of fashion
"Why Everything in Games Today is Irrelevant."
That's the topic of Ubisoft senior online game supervisor Teut Weidemann's session at GDC Next in Los Angeles next week. It's an attention grabbing statement, and one that Weidemann was concerned could be misconstrued. Speaking with GamesIndustry International in advance of the talk, Weidemann stressed that he is only working for Ubisoft as a contractor, so his opinions are not official representations of the publisher in any way.
Like many, Weidemann believes that the introduction of the smartphone is reshaping the gaming industry. But Weidemann believes that statement actually shortchanges the impact of the device. The smartphone is the single most successful device humanity has ever created, proliferating through the population at an unprecedented rate. He said it has reshaped the fundamental relationship between humans and electronics, likening the impact to Johann Gutenberg's invention of the movable type printing press.
"For the first time since I've been in the industry, you have access to a worldwide market without ever having to leave your office. I remember when I had to make appointments with 30 publishers when I had to sell my game."
"For the first time since I've been in the industry, you have access to a worldwide market without ever having to leave your office," Weidemann said. "I remember when I had to make appointments with 30 publishers when I had to sell my game. And when they said yes, you had to release your game under heavy pressure and influence, and then the publishers did whatever they liked. Now you can do this worldwide yourself."
Obviously, digital distribution has played a role in this as well, but the smartphone has exponentially increased that impact in a relatively brief time frame.
"The reach the smartphone gives us into territories where we'd never done business before is so immense, and still growing," Weidemann said.
The closest the game industry has ever seen to this sort of disruption came nearly 30 years ago, Weidemann said, when home computers like the Commodore 64, Sinclair Spectrum, and Amiga quickly fell out of favor.
"They died really quickly because there was something called the Super Nintendo coming from Japan," Weidemann said. "Everybody saw the quality and the advantage playing on the Super Nintendo, and there was a huge shift of the industry to it. It basically killed the home computer, so the only thing left was PC gaming."
That's not to say consoles and PC gaming will go the way of the Commodore 64. To the contrary, Weidemann expects them both to continue growing, but the market will overwhelmingly shift to mobile. The AAA and boxed retail models are already "out of fashion," and if the mobile market is where the money is being made, Weidemann asks what's going to keep AAA developers tied to a less lucrative market?
To put that into perspective, Weidemann pointed to SoftBank's recent acquisition of majority interest in Clash of Clans developer Supercell. The $1.5 billion paid for a 51 percent stake puts Supercell's valuation at about $3 billion. Weidemann said that puts the developer's value at nearly triple the market cap of a major AAA publisher like Ubisoft, and said the studio could eventually grow to the size of an EA, which has a market cap of about $8 billion.
"Apple at some point has to decide what their app store should be. Currently it's very monopolistic. It works, but it shows it is not the major business of Apple."
It's not all smooth sailing for mobile, however. Weidemann acknowledged two major flaws in mobile today that could hobble the market's long-term growth.
"The first challenge is there is no access barrier to the market," Weidemann said. "And that means there's a whole lot of [junk] on these app stores. This usually is a problem for healthy markets. If there's no access barrier, the markets sooner or later collapse."
Weidemann said the lack of barriers to entry was a main culprit in the demise of the Atari 2600 and the related gaming crash of the early '80s. There was no quality control to keep wreckage off the system, so the shelves became glutted with terrible games. One of the reasons Nintendo succeeded with its own post-crash entry into the console market was its notoriously hands-on approach to platform curation.
That ties in to the second big problem Weidemann said the mobile markets face: app discovery. Charts and featured placement on iTunes and the Google Play store help a little, but Weidemann said it isn't good to have the gatekeepers essentially determining what succeeds and fails on their platforms.
"Apple at some point has to decide what their app store should be," Weidemann said. "Currently it's very monopolistic. It works, but it shows it is not the major business of Apple. I think it's time for some innovation in that section."
There are also other, less pressing concerns with the state of mobile games today. For example, Weidemann took exception to some of the more aggressive approaches to free-to-play, as well as any games that rely on psychological techniques common to gambling.
"They don't sell a game; they sell a monetization platform," Weidemann said of such efforts. "And if you do that, the game might do really well in the first couple months, but later on it will actually fail. If you're in it for the long run, you should actually have a healthy mix."