If you want to ascend to the summit of 30 St. Mary Axe - that's London's iconic Gherkin to you and me - you have to take two different elevators and a flight of stairs. After clearing the kind of security check usually reserved for long haul flights, the first of the Gherkin's lifts takes you up past the bulk of the building's 41 floors, before another seemingly more 'exclusive' elevator makes one more short trip up to the pinnacle. But your journey doesn't end there: a lavishly lit, curved staircase serves as your final hurdle before the skies above London come into view.
I've recounted this tale a good few times during the last week or so, for last week saw me - and a bevy of other people who make their living within the mobile games industry - make this very journey for the Mobile Games Forum 2015 launch party. There was free champagne. There was a DJ playing generic house music in tandem with a live saxophone player. And, most strikingly, there were an awful lot of dumbstruck people resisting the urge to take photographs of the view on their smartphones. After all, you don't want to look like a tourist, do you?
It put me in mind of the first time I got upgraded on a flight to Canada. Previously, I'd never flown anything but standard class, herded onto planes like cattle. Having received a last minute bump on a plane to Toronto, I had to compose myself, arriving at my seat last minute and surrounded by men in suits far more used to their surroundings than I. Having naively gulped down the free champagne assuming it had to be consumed before take off, it was a good hour into the flight before I dared press any of the buttons that controlled my lavish new chair, for fear of doing the wrong thing and outing myself as a mere 'normal' human being. I watched others, and tentatively copied their actions.
"mobile is in rude health and its influence over the rest of the games industry is growing, but some of its loudest cheerleaders are packing up shop and leaving, because it's a sector that serves the few, not the many"
As in the Gherkin, I was out of my comfort zone. MGF's launch party was a statement of power: mobile is on the bleeding edge of the games industry and, almost overnight, a collection of studios from across Europe, the US and more recently Asia have risen to become superpowers. They've undermined the giants that for decades dominated the console and PC scene and now regularly post the kind of revenues that make accountants blush. But, the bulk of the crowd taking in the peak of one of London's most beautiful buildings didn't work for King, or Supercell, or Rovio. They were small indie developers, casting their wide eyes across their surroundings in awe. During the two days that followed, these same developers would be treated to talks aplenty that detailed the disparity between those at the top and the rest: mobile is in rude health and its influence over the rest of the games industry is growing, but some of its loudest cheerleaders are packing up shop and leaving, because it's a sector that serves the few, not the many.
This, of course, didn't shock all too many in attendance at MGF. Rovio Wilhelm Taht's admission on day two that the average lifetime revenue figure for a game on the App Store is around $6,000 ("the median figure is even lower," he noted, pegging it at $500) didn't trigger any gasps around the audience, but nevertheless did serve as the perfect illustration of how it's especially hard to define, let alone achieve, success on mobile in 2015. Making enough to earn a living from seems utterly farcical for many - now just making any kind of money at all is a worthwhile goal.
"Don't mortgage your house on the promise of making a great game and Apple featuring it and you making a lot of money, because you'll more than likely fail"
Matthew Wiggins, Jiggery Pokery
"Don't mortgage your house on the promise of making a great game and Apple featuring it and you making a lot of money, because you'll more than likely fail," added Matthew Wiggins, formally of Zynga UK and now of Jiggery Pokery. Monument Valley, he reminded the audience, is not the 'indie hit' its been portrayed to be by much of the press, and it is in fact dangerous for anyone to push it as such. "They're not an independent developer in the way you think of an independent developer," he said of developer ustwo, which has multiple studios around the globe and a staff roster in the hundreds thanks to the main focus of its business: user interfaces. He also noted that Fireproof, famed for developing The Room, made a fair portion of the money it was then able to invest in its own IP through working for hire. "Those stories that you hear are not people working in their bedroom and having an overnight success - they are indie in the sense they're not owned by Sony, but they're not indie in the way you understand it."
Though he raised eyebrows, Wiggins' tough love tale was delivered with the best of intentions. His concern is that recent successes are giving newcomers to the mobile market a false impression of the state of play. The reality that Wiggins and countless others taking the stage at MGF wanted to draw attention to was that the gloss which adorns mobile gaming is casting a false light on numerous success stories, whilst leaving those less fortunate firmly in the dark. It's the latter group that, by some distance, represents the majority. Perhaps more worryingly, this isn't a traditional split between casual games making money and core games losing out - mobile has always been saddled with a reputation for playing host to titles aimed more at 'hockey moms' than your average Call of Duty player. But, as both ustwo and Fireproof have show, it's possible to make money on mobile with 'core' releases, but seemingly only if you have a fair stack of cash in the first place. The idea of mobile being a welcoming first port of call for fresh faced indies is dead and gone.
"Mobile is still strange to us - it's been very good for us, but we still wouldn't claim to understand it," offered Fireproof's Barry Meade on day one, in an especially sobering look at the health of a mobile industry he admitted he has no love for. "It seems like we haven't moved on much creatively since developers discovered social Facebook games would work on mobile. The grossing charts, for instance, are a bit of a joke - we have two or three games at the top and nothing much else seems to be getting a look in.
"Mobile is still strange to us - it's been very good for us, but we still wouldn't claim to understand it"
Barry Meade, Fireproof
"This doesn't suggest a healthy market to me, it doesn't suggest an audience that cares too much about what's getting released day to day or week to week. Mobile was always meant to be very competitive because anyone could release anything, but when you look at the top grossing charts, in reality no one else can compete there unless they already have hundreds of million of dollars to spend building their business. There's an awful lot of failure out there, whether you're doing paid or free-to-play games. There's just lot of people are abandoning the platform now. I'm beginning to see developers who love mobile games just giving them up."
Meade's assessment that scores of developers have found out the hard way that what was once a playground of opportunity has quickly become a field piled with carcasses is utterly accurate, but where he fell foul was in assuming that the answer to mobile's problems is more developers making more games like The Room. Mobile, he argued, simply doesn't offer up the kind of moments gamers remember for the rest of their lives, as console and PC does. It should be, he argued, and developers should be fighting to combat the rush of casual games sitting atop the charts,
"This seems to us what developers should be looking to achieve," he clarified. "As a developer, it's your job to try and translate what you love about video games to your audience, but then you run into this wall of noise telling you what you should be making, what audience you should be aiming at, and this is counter-intuitive to us. A lot of the way we're asking to think about mobile games and how to make them successful is actually there just to make investors feel a bit more happy about their investment - a lot of the games with big investments actually go on to become huge failures. It demonstrates a lack of creative ambition and lack of respect for the audience."
"The fact is, more mobile gamers will have cursed their rotten luck in Flappy Bird in 2014 than those who successfully navigated their way through Monument Valley or The Room 2"
While Meade's view is that there's far too much pressure on developers to ape what has gone before and to be risk averse, being creative doesn't mean always serving up a game on the same level as Monument Valley or The Room. While both games are perfect examples of bona-fide mobile classics, just as suited to the platform are the likes of Flappy Bird, Crossy Road and Threes. There's no room for snobbery on mobile - the platform lends itself perfectly the short and snappy games, and no game on any format last year has as big an impact on games as Flappy Bird did. Mobile's great advantage is that it can offer people fun in less than five seconds, and while Flappy Bird and the leagues of clones that followed it didn't have a life changing plot or even require any more of your time than it takes for your kettle to boil, that doesn't mean they're insignificant or in any way unworthy of a player's time. The fact is, more mobile gamers will have cursed their rotten luck in Flappy Bird in 2014 than those who successfully navigated their way through Monument Valley or The Room 2. Ignoring that - ignoring what mobile gamers want - won't help those developers currently at the bottom of the pile feel more at home at the top of the Gherkin next year.
It's not a problem that's limited to developers, either. In MGF's final session, a panel of games journalists - including yours truly, GamesIndustry.biz editor Dan Pearson, Intent Media's Michael French, freelancer Will Freeman, TouchArcade's Eli Hodapp, Slidetoplay's Jeff Scott and Gamezebo's Jim Squires - spent 45 minutes expanding how, for the mobile games press, the bottom has well and truly fallen out of the market. Page views are up, but ad money no longer pays the bills and journalists are struggling to adapt to consumers who see no need to read reviews for games that are either free or cost lest than a latte in Starbucks. Just as was stressed throughout MGF, the view is that mobile is having its mid-life crisis - such was the pace of its ascent after the launch of the App Store that the old models that governed its early days both in terms of the games that were made and the way the press covered them are firmly out of date. Aside from those at the top of the tree, everyone else is struggling to adapt.
"There will always be a market for deeper games like The Room on mobile, but I personally have no problem with the bulk of mobile games serving the casual market"
There will always be a market for deeper games like The Room on mobile, but I personally have no problem with the bulk of mobile games serving the casual market - the pick up, play and put back down again nature of the hardware itself means, for me, they'll always be the dominant force, and casual does not have to equate to 'bad'. I no more want to play a huge, grandiose adventure of the device in my pocket than I want to play Angry Birds on my next-gen console, and though I can't claim to have the answer as to just what mobile developers should do next, (besides putting as many eggs is as many baskets as they can by supporting every suitable platform) I do know that dismissing mobile for not serving up the kind of experiences prevalent on other systems is no solution.
Now's the time for everyone working in this sector to accept some hard truths: Mobile is a mammoth market, but the current number of developers pumping out multiple games on it just isn't sustainable. Consumers don't have the time nor inclination to peruse let alone download 300,000 games on the App Store. This isn't a case of mobile games not being good enough or being creatively barren - I challenge anyone who takes this view to step beyond the App Store's promo slots and actually meet with developers working on mobile and sample some of their titles. You won't find a more diverse bunch.
Rather, this is a game of numbers, and never before have we had to deal with a sector that sees hundreds of new games launched on it every single week - this is new ground, and no-one is going to be served by trashing the successes mobile has fostered to date. We just have to accept that mobile is one cog in the bigger gaming wheel and not a market that will pay the bills for most on its own, even if that means a smaller pool creating games that some wrongly consider uninventive and uninspired, and a few less developers standing wide-eyed at the top of the Gherkin next year.