Legendary game designer Sid Meier recently released his first mobile game, Ace Patrol, for iOS. The veteran designer best known for Civilization is intent on meeting the players and his fans where they are. He's already taken a stab at the social market with Civ for Facebook, and now with Ace Patrol, an air-combat strategy title, he's helping publisher 2K Games make a concerted effort in the booming mobile space. GamesIndustry International got on the phone with Meier to discuss his views on mobile, free-to-play and the industry as a whole.
Fans of Meier's works know that his games have his name in the title, and Sid Meier's Ace Patrol is no different. Interestingly, though, Meier agreed when asked about the cachet (or lack thereof) his name carries in the mobile world. This isn't the PC gaming space.
"I think [my name] probably does not carry the same cachet in the mobile market that it might in PC. What we're seeing is that a lot of those core players are getting iPads or they have their phones and are looking for things to do that have the strategy element and the gameplay of some of the games they are used to on PC or console. That's really kind of the market we're going after, the player who is looking for strategy but they can't take their PC with them everywhere," he noted.
The challenge of mobile discoverability is certainly still something to overcome, and Meier hopes that high quality gameplay and word of mouth, not his name, helps to solve that issue. "There certainly is a discoverability challenge with mobile, and we're hoping to let our core gamers know that our games are going to be available on the iPhone and iPad, and maybe they'll tell their friends and help us with some discoverability. Every market and every platform has its own challenges and things that it does very well. So we're not looking to become mobile; we are looking to bring some of the same ideas that we've explored in PC and console to mobile, and we think we'll meet some of our core audience there and hopefully can even expand that audience," he continued.
"The serious gamers are much more stable, and they're going to be around for a long time and will keep playing games... it reinforces for us the value of our core gaming audience and how important it is for us keep in contact with them"
That idea of meeting the core audience on mobile is a key one for Meier. While some companies in the mobile space have produced very casual fare, geared towards a mass market non-gamer audience, Meier stressed to us that game designers - and the industry as a whole - must remember that the core is the foundation of the business. Casual may come and go, but the core will always be there, he said.
"I think we've seen historically that the more casual gaming platforms and markets do have a kind of rise and fall pattern to them, whereas the hard-core gaming market... The serious gamers are much more stable, and they're going to be around for a long time and will keep playing games," Meier explained. "I think it reinforces for us the value of our core gaming audience and how important it is for us keep in contact with them and reach out to them, and in this case to kind of follow them to where they are going now, from PC to playing some mobile games; wherever else they're playing games, we want to be there and meet them on those platforms."
Since Meier's chief target audience remains the hardcore crowd, he's fully aware of the stigma associated with free-to-play and cheap mobile apps. Many core players would tell you that these experiences simply can't match up to what they're used to on PC or console. Meier's way around this is not to assault players with a barrage of micro-transaction opportunities in the game, but instead to offer a demo-like model where the full game can be unlocked with one purchase.
"There is a lot of suspicion attached to the free-to-play label. The way that we look at it is on PC for a long time we had the demo and purchase model where you can download a demo for free and play it for a certain amount of time or to a certain point and get a feel for whether you like the game or not. Then if you like it you'll go ahead and purchase the full game. We are really using a similar model for our mobile titles. It's free in that you can play for a while and get a good feel for what the game is all about, and then the rest of it is for purchase. If you like the game, then you'll buy the rest of it. It's not something like a constant stream of purchases every day, but it's more just unlocking the rest of the game and then you are done," he noted.
"Building monetization into your game design is not a totally comfortable thing; we really don't want to get into a situation where the two are in conflict, where to make my game more fun I would do this and to make my game earn more money I have to do this. I'm looking for places where those two are in agreement," he added. "Yes, to make my game more fun I'm going to do this, and that also in the long run should make it more appealing and have a larger audience. We're trying to look for approaches to monetization where they help the game be more fun and don't conflict or be opposition of the game. The game should be as fun as it can be."
For Meier, one of the elements that's going to ultimately make a game more fun is to polish its design. And with the way the console industry has evolved, Meier now believes it's easier and more effective to get more design done on a mobile title.
"It's just a fact of life that in AAA in order to compete you've got to have awesome graphics and full multiplayer network support and a seamless interface and awesome orchestrals and sounds; that's really what it takes to compete in that marketplace," he said. "There's nothing wrong with that, but it's just that the proportion of design time versus the time to create all those other pieces [is much smaller], whereas in iOS there are lots of cool graphics and sounds but it doesn't have the same time investment to do all that, so you get to spend more time doing design; it's just a different paradigm."
"We can make games more quickly in the mobile space but there's still almost the same amount of design that can be done... A lot of what we're doing is designing and iterating games, the core stuff of making games and less of the other parts of it. Being able to get a game done in under a year and do a lot of the game design and programming and AI myself is part of the appeal to me. I can just do more games in the space than I can in another space."
"We can make games more quickly in the mobile space but there's still almost the same amount of design that can be done"
Meier was quick to point out, however, that just because he's excited by the mobile market now doesn't mean he's abandoning the PC gaming marketplace. The traditional, grand scale game hasn't lost its allure just yet.
"It really depends on the idea that I'm excited about and where I can bring it to life most effectively. I could see myself doing a PC game next or a mobile game or console game; it's really not platform driven. It's more idea driven and where that's going to work best. As a company, Firaxis is committed to PC - that's been our bread-and-butter and where a lot of our audience is - but we're interested in console and we're interested in iOS. As our players evolve and move and embrace new technologies, we're going to meet them there. So to me, it's not platform driven, but it's about how a game comes to life most effectively," he explained.
What does the future hold for Meier? Would he consider self-publishing, using a platform like Kickstarter perhaps? After all, with big names like Tim Schafer, Brian Fargo, Chris Roberts and others successfully funding their games via the community, couldn't Meier get in on the trend? From what Meier said, it sounds like he wouldn't touch Kickstarter with a ten-foot pole.
"You've got to convince people to support it and create trailers or whatever it takes to get the support. I think you kind of lock yourself into a lot of ideas early. I really enjoy the luxury of changing my design and evolving over time. I'd be a little concerned with Kickstarter if I committed to X, Y and Z and I found out down the road that Z didn't work very well, I kind of promised to do this. I think it's great for people who want that indie environment, but there are advantages and disadvantages to each situation," he noted.
Meier is more than happy to let 2K Games handle everything on the business and promotion side so he can focus on what he loves: good game design. "They do all the stuff I don't want to do; they allow me to make games and really focus on that part of what it takes to get a game out there. I get to design games, I get to program games, I get to work with the artists and the sound guys and do the fun stuff. They worry about testing it and publishing it and promoting it and selling it - whatever it takes to do that I would be really bad at, they do. So more power to Chris Roberts and the Kickstarter, but having a great publisher is a real asset and allows me to focus on the things that I can do and not worry about all the other stuff that needs to be worried about," he said.