The mobile and tablet market has grown tremendously in the last several years. The number of apps on Apple's App Store and Google Play is downright mind boggling, and if you're an app developer... well, best of luck to you. As the new survey from App Developer Conference organizers revealed this week, piracy and discoverability are making it incredibly hard to succeed. Nearly half of the app developers surveyed made no profit at all.
So the question has to be asked: after years of flocking to mobile, are developers actually retreating to the PC and console space? Devs GamesIndustry International spoke with were torn on this, but none would deny the massive challenges of developing apps today.
"I speak with lots of mobile devs regularly and most are moving away or at least thinking of it, either to other platforms or out of the trade completely," Paul Johnson, managing director and co-founder of Rubicon, told us. "Having to give your game away for 69 cents a throw (after Apple's and Google's cut) and then competing with 1000 new apps each day is hardly a draw for anybody. We've reached a point now where even those slow on the uptake have realized the goldrush is over. It's actually been over for a few years."
Jeffrey Lim, producer, Wicked Dog Games, agreed: "The mobile space offers certain advantages, like having the largest customer base and relatively low development costs. However, there's no doubt it is getting harder to be profitable with the ongoing piracy and discoverability issues."
"We do think developers (especially indies) are considering going back to develop for the PC - and even game consoles"
"So yes, we do think developers (especially indies) are considering going back to develop for the PC - and even game consoles. The cost of self-publishing on these platforms has dropped significantly, and console makers are also making their platforms more indie-friendly now," he added, alluding to efforts on next-gen systems like Sony's PS4.
Chillingo COO Ed Rumley isn't quite of the same mind as Johnson and Lim, but as a publisher, Chillingo has noticed that too many developers simply are failing to make high quality games, so it's no wonder that their titles are being ignored.
"The number of games being submitted is growing, as is the number of developers contacting us. I'm not sure if some are being scared away, but we know from experience that some developers underestimate the time and quality it takes to make it in mobile now. Consumers are a savvy bunch and spot second rate games a mile off. You can't just knock something together in your spare time, upload it and wait for the money to roll in anymore," he warned.
Michael Schade, CEO, Fishlabs Entertainment, acknowledged the big challenge in mobile, but he doesn't think developers are going to have to look elsewhere.
"Sure, mobile's not an easy market to breach into, but then again, which market really is? No matter what business you're in or what product you're trying to sell, you'll always have to work hard to gain your ground and make a name for yourself," he noted. "So that alone shouldn't scare you away from mobile, especially when you keep in mind that no other platform in the history of digital entertainment has ever evolved faster and born more potential than mobile! With more than a billion smart connected devices in use and hardware capabilities on par with current-gen gaming consoles, today's smartphones and tablets constitute by far the most widespread, frequently used and innovative gaming platform the world has ever seen."
Schade also remarked that the last few years of veteran developers getting into the mobile scene has made things more difficult. "The fact that more and more established PC and console veterans open new mobile gaming studios and more and more traditional publishers port their titles to iOS and Android, doesn't make it easier for one particular company or product to stick out. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, as it clearly shows that the trend goes towards mobile, rather than away from it," he said.
For every developer we spoke with, the discoverability issue reared its ugly head. There's no doubt that this is a major concern. While building a high quality game can help, it's simply not enough. In the world of apps, you cannot let the game do the talking for you.
"I think many developers have the misconception that it's simply enough to release the game and let it speak for itself. They underestimate the importance of a marketing/PR campaign leading up to the game's launch," Lim stressed. "As a result their games fail commercially; not because of the quality, but due to lack of visibility. Hence the marketing/PR campaign should be seen as an integral part of the game's development. An appropriate portion of the overall budget and effort should be allocated to increasing the game's visibility, and if developers do not have the experience or time in marketing/PR they should consider hiring professionals in this area to lend a hand."
Gree vice president of marketing Sho Masuda concurred that marketing is becoming crucial to mobile success. "They have to spend more time thinking about marketing and post-launch efforts in addition to building the the games. Fortunately, there are a lot of tools and services available for devs of all sizes to ensure that they can get the direction and support they need in these areas. Additionally, the mobile dev community is a very, very tight knit community and there is an amazing level of information sharing and support," he said. "We encourage mobile devs of all sizes to talk to their peers, take advantage of all the meet-ups and events, and get to know all the services available to help get eyeballs on their games."
A number of devs also believe that platform holders have a larger responsibility that they've been shirking so far. "For platform holders (e.g. Apple's App Store), they can start to curate apps released on their store because there are too many clones of existing games that are taking up the traffic. They could attempt something like Steam Greenlight; although it is still an imperfect system, it's better than not having any curation at all," Lim commented.
Paul Johnson agreed, telling us that he'd really like platform holders to have a much more active role, as the discoverability issue has "about reached terminal" for unknown devs.
"If Apple don't pick your game out for a feature, and you can't drum up enough interest before launch yourself, then I'd say you're pretty much screwed. It doesn't matter how good your game is if nobody ever sees it and downloads it. They can't tell their friends about something they themselves don't know about!" he stated.
"The only thing I think the platform holders could do to help is stop allowing crap to be released. There's only so much space for features and the end users only have so much effort in them to look under all the categories all the time, so I really don't think adding more of them would help much. Maybe more apps for shorter times, but this is all a drop in the ocean really."
"The one thing I've come up with that would make a real difference is for the platform owners to charge five grand for a developer license. All the utter crap would disappear and there'd be less apps fighting for space," he continued. "And the end-users wouldn't have to waste time downloading the crap as nobody who makes stuff they don't believe in would dream of fronting that license fee. It's Draconian but it's really the only thing I can see having any noticeable effect. Anything else is just lip service."
Discoverability issues aside, another major - and possibly growing - problem for devs to contend with is piracy. The App Developer Conference survey showed that 26 percent of devs had their apps pirated and a similar amount even had in-app purchases stolen.
James Vaughan told us, "Plague Inc. has a piracy rate of about 30-35 percent, which equals millions and millions of copies, but I don't consider piracy to be a problem; it is simply a fact of life and I don't get too worked up about it. Piracy is a byproduct of success and I choose to focus on the success which has resulted in piracy rather than the piracy itself. (The best way to stop your game from being pirated is to make a crap game!) I focus on continually improving and updating Plague Inc. which makes the game even more valuable to the people who have brought it (and encourages pirates to buy it as well)."
For those devs who actually do lose sleep over piracy, there are some ways to combat it, Lim said.
"If I was starting again now from a blank slate, without an existing fan base, I wouldn't touch mobile with a ten foot pole"
"There's no question that piracy is prevalent, and I think it will continue to be so for a long time to come. In fact, with high-speed Internet access and the wide spread use of file-sharing software nowadays I think this problem is going to get worse," he observed.
"The first way to deal with piracy is to implement the appropriate business model, and I think free-to-download with micro-transactions is the right way to go. Making the game free for download can work to our advantage; it allows us to reach out a larger customer base. And if players are hooked by the game, they can be enticed to buy additional high-quality content for a minimal price."
"The second way would be to build a strong rapport with our customers - e.g. through frequent interactions on social media, events or even email. Developers of notable games (e.g. Hotline Miami and Game Dev Tycoon) have addressed piracy in this manner. By having a loyal customer base which is appreciative of our efforts in delivering quality content, they would empathize with us and be more willing to pay for the games in support of our development efforts."
The good news for iOS devs, at least according to Schade, is that Apple's store is less prone to piracy. "Having lived through the 'dark ages' of Java and made it out of there with two black eyes rather than one, piracy has been a very delicate topic for us at Fishlabs ever since. Based on our own experience, however, it is not as much of an issue on the App Store as it is on other platforms," he noted. "I guess that's mostly because Apple still has a lot of 'premium' customers willing to pay for high-quality content. Of course, we're well aware of the fact that neither the closed iOS environment nor the Free-2-Play model will ever be able to eradicate software piracy entirely, but at least they are doing a comparatively good job at containing it as good as possible."
If developers can effectively navigate the problems of discoverability and piracy, there's no doubt that the potential is massive. One look at the overwhelming success of Angry Birds, Temple Run, Clash of Clans and others proves what's possible. But for the vast, vast majority of devs, that's a pipe dream.
"From the consumer angle, it's a golden age. The amount of good quality games that can be bought for laughable prices is fantastic and there's a ton of money being spent on this platform as a result. The problem for developers is that each individual cut is tiny. This isn't even remotely sustainable and I don't know what the future is going to look like. If I was starting again now from a blank slate, without an existing fan base, I wouldn't touch mobile with a ten foot pole," said Johnson.