UK mobile developer Future Games of London hit it big on iTunes last year with its survival action title Hungry Shark, which fast went on to spawn two sequels. FGOL also did well out of Snooker Club and Pool Bar: Online Hustle, and all-told its userbase is now big enough that it's launched The Future Games Network, an in-app promotional system designed to tempt players into trying other games on the network - whether from FGOL or from various indie devs who've joined the platform in the hope that it'll lead to greater awareness without having to run the traditional iTunes gauntlet.
Here, GamesIndustry.biz chats to FGOL's MD Ian Harper about the thinking behind the Network, hot-from-the-presses figures on how it's performing and why something like this is necessary due to the marketing strangleholds big publishers increasingly have on the App Store charts.
Q:How's the network going? You put out your first game very recently...
Ian Harper:Yeah, Say What?, the music app. It's doing really well - we're 14 in the free games chart in the UK already. Haven't checked the US yet, but it seems to have been a great launch actually.
Q:What led to it placing that high in the iTunes chart? Is that the effect of the network at play, or did you get highlighted by Apple?
Ian Harper:Yeah, we've been talking to iTunes about it quite a lot, because it's music-based and they're quite interested in that sort of thing. So we've been keeping them in the loop on everything we're doing, and we sort of held back the launch date a bit so they could have a look at it a bit more. I don't know if they actually have featured it though. Mainly the promotion comes from our Hungry Shark series of games. They're all free at the minute, so if you download any of those you'll see a little pop-up for Say What? come up. We've got about a million daily active users, so we've pushed quite a few links.
It sort of works well as a launch promotion, that's the most critical moment really. It works fine as a one-off promotional boost sort of thing, but after a couple of days it drops down pretty quickly because the message only comes up once - we don't want to spam our users and that sort of thing. So that's where the main drive comes from, but as well as that we also used Free App A Day to promote it, so they've been pushing a lot of links as well. They're pretty good, it depends on what sort of game you're launching but they are very good.
We don't guarantee to publish anything that anybody sends us - we're very much cherry-picking what we want to promote
Q: How do you get those guys on board?
Ian Harper:Well, our Hungry Shark Part 3 has been one of the most wished-for games on Free App A Day, so they were very keen us for us to do that. We did that recently, and for some of the Future Games Network we're using them as well. So we get on quite well with them, they're very happy to have our games there so that's the great. The Shark game part 3, which we just turned free, did about a million downloads in about a week and got to number three in US games chart in 48 hours. Say What? looks like it's tracking about the same volume as well, which is brilliant.
Q:Do you expect the network to go beyond your games at some point - putting those pop-ups in third-party apps?
Ian Harper: Hungry Shark and Snooker Club is basically the base that we're seeding it from, but all the apps that we put out through Future Games network do include our messaging technology and things like that. So every new app we put out sort of increases our install base. The more we put out there, the more we can promote our own apps and other people's. It should work quite well - we did about 21 million installs with the Shark one last week, so there are quite a few out there. We're looking to do about 50 million by the end of the year.
Q:Do you have any sense of what kind of proportion of those 20 million are looking at the games recently and regularly rather than just when they first install them?
Ian Harper: Yeah, the 21 million is overall install figure across iPhone and Android. In terms of active users, we're looking at about two million a week and monthly it's about six million. So there is a decent amount of volume there. Hungry Shark Part 3, there are about 300,000 people a day playing it on iPhone. So we're getting a huge number of links from that going to Say What?
Q:And what about the click-throughs, how many people who see the pop-up are following them?
Ian Harper:I've just got the first 24 hours of data in, so let's have a look...
Q:It's incredible how quickly these kinds of reports come in now.
Ian Harper:Oh, it's absolutely brilliant. I have no idea what people did before them, they were literally just shooting in the dark. The feedback now is amazing. OK, so we're tracking every single message we send out... In the first 18 hours, 177,000 people were clicking the link and going direct to the App Store. 878,000 clicked on the 'dismiss' link, which is working out about 17 per cent clicking. Just under 1.1 million links so far, in just under 24 hours. The reason this works is just that so we can drive so many links so quickly - it means we can basically avoid an app just disappearing from the App Store.
It's really an alternative to going cap in hand to Chillingo or one of the other big publishers and doing some terrible deal
There are so many links that enough are going to click through for it to at least chart. After three days it tails off a lot, but really it's the first three days where you have a chance of organic growth and people seeing it. That's a real benefit.
The other thing we're doing as well is putting custom banner ads in the game, but that's sort of a passive thing, driving a few links through, maybe just a couple of thousand a day, so that won't do much to move chart position especially but it pushes a few through.
Q:And once you're on the chart, there is that chance it could really snowball because people are noticing it outside of the network.
Ian Harper:Yeah, that's just it. Basically any developer who hasn't already had a hit on the app store faces that challenge, 'can I get anybody to play it in the first place?' I think if you can get people to see you're in with a fighting chance, but the issue nowadays is lots of big social media games companies are coming into iPhone and buying huge numbers of CPI [cost-per-install] installs and advertising, essentially buying their way up the charts, which really kind of crowds out the space for other people quite a lot. That's been getting progressively worse in the last year, to the point where now it's very, very difficult to get an app seen at all.
So the Future Games Network, we'd done this anyway just to promote our own software, and then we were 'oh, y'know, actually other people might be interested in using it.' We're independent developers, we like the idea of general moral helpfulness - we've done quite well on the App Store and we'd like to see other independent developers doing quite well too, so we'd like to help them. It's really an alternative to going cap in hand to Chillingo or one of the other big publishers and doing some terrible deal with them where you end up with quite a restrictive contract, potentially having to give up your IP or something like that. So this is just to give people an alternative.
But we don't guarantee to publish anything that anybody sends us - we're very much cherry-picking what we want to promote and that's really because we don't want to promote apps from within our own games that we don't think are that good. There's not much too point in doing that. So we've had developers emailing us through their apps and things, and every so often we get one that looks really good. So we're chasing one up at the moment, we're looking to see if we can raise some capital for the Network now. We're not actually funding anything at the minute, that's in the next month or so.
Q:What's the revenue split you've got going on?
Ian Harper:It's just a straight split. Basically, we negotiate it individually with each developer, but it's a sort of 20 to 30 per cent deal, depending on the app, what funding we need to put up, how complete it is. It'll all vary based on that. That's just from the money the developers have actually seen - Apple have already taken their 30 per cent at that point. I think it works out something like we get 21 per cent per download, Apple get 29 per cent and the developer gets 50 per cent, something like that. We're very keen to make sure that the developers always make more money than we will out of it - we're not trying to fleece people here. We're just basically trying to promote some nice games and potentially grow our own install base.
Q:Do you take that cut from total sales, or just the proportion that happened as a result of click-throughs from the Network?
Ian Harper:It's total sales, but the developers are free to leave at any point. We're not forcing them to be in the network or whatever. So if they don't think we've done anything, fair enough. But we've only done one app so far, and nobody's upset yet! It's very straightforward, we're not trying to tie people down. It's very much if someone's got an app and they want some help on the marketing and promotion, we're happy to provide that service if we like the app as well. As well as that we're helping people with conversions to Android and other platforms, talking to mobile phone operators and that sort of thing. So they can get some quite wide distribution on it.
Q:Long-term, how dependent is this on continuing sales and downloads of Hungry Shark and Snooker Club? If they suddenly tailed off in popularity, will the Network remain viable?
Ian Harper:Once the Network's up and running, the products we put through it should provide enough push for the new games going forward. Although obviously we'd be very upset if none of our games were selling themselves... At the end of the day the Future Games Network is not where we're going to make our core money. And any developer we're working with is going to be making at least twice as much as we are from it. We'll make more money making new games ourselves than we will through the Future Games Network. But it's just a very useful way to grow our install base and promote the apps really.
The key thing is that we're not publishing people's apps - we're basically doing what Apple do, which is act as a medium. They still own their IP and everything like that, there's no attempt whatsoever to try and take rights from the developer. If the app's doing really well we may want to collaborate with them in some other way, but we're going to keep it very honest and straightforward. It's made by independent game developers for independent game developers.
Ian Harper is MD of Future Games Of London. Interview by Alec Meer.