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Mobile barriers to entry have risen - Tommy Palm

Former King games guru helping a new generation of devs with Stugan accelerator

The free-to-play business model has lowered the barrier to entry for consumers in recent years, but it's raised the barrier to entry for developers. That's one of the reasons former King games guru Tommy Palm co-founded the Stugan accelerator, which last week began accepting applicants for its inaugural program.

"If you compare the mobile games market, what it was three or four years ago, it was much lower barriers to entry then," Palm told GamesIndustry.biz. "You could make a premium game and you had a chance of getting it to the top grossing charts. I think that's extremely hard to do today. We're seeing more and more games become freemium, and that is much tougher to work with. It demands more knowledge on analytics and marketing, charging for things in your game, running the game as a service, etc. So the challenges are bigger in 2015 than they were in 2011 for sure."

"You could make a premium game and you had a chance of getting it to the top grossing charts. I think that's extremely hard to do today. We're seeing more and more games become freemium, and that is much tougher to work with."

There's some reason for hope, however. Tools to help developers come to grips with those challenges are getting more robust all the time, and people who have already found success in the industry--like the King, Rovio, DICE, and Avalanche veterans behind Stugan--are increasingly looking to provide the next generation of developers with mentorship and support.

"We are a bunch of people in Sweden that have been successful from the games industry and kind of felt that this was a very nice way of giving back to the people who are starting out now," Palm said. "It's a project mostly funded by individuals from different game companies in Sweden, which I think is a really cool part of it. It's very democratic funded project from many different companies through these individuals cooperating."

Stugan was founded last year by Palm, Rovio Stockholm general manager Oskar Burman, and King director of product Alexander Ekvall. Its lineup of supporting talent also boasts Avalanche Studios founder Christofer Sundberg, and EA DICE general manager Karl Magnus-Troedsson, among others. They are far from the only group of industry veterans looking to nurture up and coming talent in an accelerator or incubator setting, but the Stugan pitch has a few uncommon wrinkles.

For one, Stugan is a non-profit organization. Any developers accepted into the program--a two-month summer camp in the Swedish countryside with accommodations all paid for--will be able to participate without handing over any ownership rights to their project or their company.

"We talked about it and from the beginning, the idea was that it would be great if there was a house where people could come and work on their projects and you didn't have to make a decision if you wanted to sacrifice something of your game idea," Palm said. "It simplifies it so much that you don't have to make an initial commitment from the games team's point of view."

"Eight weeks of Stugan can be a space where you can be really creative, meet creative people and try angles that would be a little bit outside your comfort zone."

As for what Stugan is looking for in applicants, the group is accepting pitches from aspiring developers around the world with an aim to have a good amount of cultural and gender diversity represented in the final group. Teams can be no larger than three people, and the program is capped at 20 entrants. Personally, Palm said he's looking for pitches that surprise him, ideas that feel innovative and fun.

"It gives people some breathing time to try out something new and dare to risk something," Palm said. "If you had to quit your job and think about paying rent and things yourself, then you might need to be really focused on the economics of it. Eight weeks of Stugan can be a space where you can be really creative, meet creative people and try angles that would be a little bit outside your comfort zone."

Helping would-be entrepreneurs seems like a natural step for Palm, who left King to found VR studio Resolution Games, his fifth company.

"It was a tough decision," King said of leaving the Candy Crush Saga maker. "I really love King; it's a super great company with a lot of great talent. As you might know, it's been awarded best employer in Sweden several times. But I am at my base a start-up guy. I really like starting up new ventures."

When asked if he thinks he has a better chance of being involved with the Next Big Thing at a startup like Stugan or Resolution than King, Palm demurred.

"A big company with a big audience has a lot of advantages for reaching the now rather mature games market on mobile," Palm said. "A big part of the challenge is making people discover your game. But I definitely think that small teams have other advantages they can work with, and that's all around being fast and daring to experiment on new technologies. Being big doesn't necessarily mean you're bad at adapting. It's a lot about the culture in the company."

Culture doesn't just play a role in the success of a game developer; Palm said it plays a role in the success of a game development scene. Sweden is home to massively successful developers like DICE, King, and Mojang, and Palm, a multifaceted group that has shown success across genres, platforms, and audiences. He attributed the local scene's success to a number of factors, not the least of which was a very strong engineering culture in the country and an unanticipated helping hand from the government.

"Being big doesn't necessarily mean you're bad at adapting. It's a lot about the culture in the company."

"One important thing for us now was a political program in the '90s where the government subsidized computers to people's homes," Palm said. "It certainly wasn't meant to play games on, but that's how they were used in a large sense. Many of the talented guys I worked with started out there by playing games on the PC, going onward, becoming interested in programming and the demo scene."

Climate also plays a part in that success, Palm said, noting that neighboring Finland (home of Supercell, Remedy and Rovio, to name a few) is no stranger to successful developers, either.

"Playing games is something people have been doing for a long time as the weather often is cold and not-so-friendly outside," Palm said. "And a lot of us started becoming interested in games that way."

Unfortunately, that particular advantage may not be passed on to Stugan participants, given the program will take place this summer. For those interested despite the lack of environmental adversity, applications will be accepted until March 31. Details can be found on the group's official site.

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