Free-to-play is the dominant model in the mobile games market, and yet many developers lack the knowledge and resources to make the most of their ideas. Over the next 18 months, the German mobile publisher Flaregames will offer a solution: a €20 million accelerator program, designed to bring its expertise and resources to bear on mid-to-late stage projects from emerging free-to-play developers.
"Self-publishing is becoming more difficult every day - the risk profile in doing so has never been less attractive for emerging developers," says Fraser MacInnes, Flaregames' head of portfolio management, speaking exclusively to GamesIndustry.biz. "The cost of building a competitive free-to-play publishing infrastructure only has a positive ROI on a single title if that title is a fairly large success. But the product failure rate in this industry assumes that the ROI on building a publishing infrastructure alongside a development studio is probably only realised over the course of several launches.
"What we hear again and again from developers is that cash really isn't enough"
"This leaves even well funded developers with a simple choice: build one game and the infrastructure to launch it knowing that, if the game fails, your studio closes; or build one game and launch it with a publisher with enough left in the bank to take another shot on goal if it doesn't earn back its development cost."
However, even free-to-play developers with "the stomach" for the first option will struggle to compete with established publishers, which have already sunk millions into a structure that maximises the return from each individual game. This is the thorny context in which the €20 million Flare Accelerator will operate; a program that MacInnes believes will recognise and combine the distinct strengths of both parties to get the best result for both.
"Many of the developers we come across have a lack of proven free-to-play experience in common," he continues. "Often these are very experienced, successful people coming from the PC or console world, or even from the premium mobile market. They know how to make great experiences and how to run a smooth production, but in addition to all of the typical publishing activities they don't enjoy as a developer - marketing, business intelligence, and so on - they need help with aligning their game with the dominant business model in the market.
"What we hear again and again from developers is that cash really isn't enough. What developers really need is help with free-to-play monetisation, live operations best practice, and user acquisition expertise."
"Our style isn't to 'win' negotiations. The best deals are the ones that are truly equitable for both parties"
The Flare Accelerator will be open to teams of any size and collective history. The one stipulation is that the developer has "already built a sizeable chunk of their planned end product," allowing Flaregames to focus on assessing the business case and providing a suitable model for engagement. Selected projects will be assigned "dedicated points of contact" within Flaregames, covering every key area of its publishing expertise: design, product management, user acquisition, marketing, QA and more.
This will happen from day one of the contract, MacInnes says, and that support will continue through and beyond launch. The amount of investment a given project will receive from the Accelerator fund is not fixed, and once a project hits certain performance targets Flaregames will draw from a separate pool to, "assign much larger CPI sums than before."
According to MacInnes, these extra funds will only be awarded based on the company's expectation of positive ROI - an acknowledgement that not every project aided by the Flare Accelerator will be successful, and a commitment to back those that do without depleting the €20 million fund.
Flaregames will begin scouting for developers to take part in the Accelerator at GDC next week, and it will be "very selective" about which projects will take part. Like the investment in each game, the financial structure of the deals will be assessed individually, but MacInnes is keen to stress that this is a matter of general policy.
"All things are on the table," he says. "It's a tailored process because no two studios are the same. The goal is to ensure that all interests are aligned and that everyone participates fairly in the upside.
"Our style isn't to 'win' negotiations. The best deals are the ones that are truly equitable for both parties."