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"Premium is dead. That's a fact, so let's deal with it"

With Lost in Harmony, Digixart's Yoan Fanise confronted the death of premium on mobile, but that shouldn't mean the death of variety

When visiting an emerging development scene, the concept of national identity is never far from the mind. This year's BIG Festival in Sao Paulo showcased dozens of games from indie developers from nearly every country in Latin America, each of them with the potential to bring something of their unique regional perspective to the international games industry. If it's reasonable to suggest that there is something distinctly British about Lionhead's Fable series, or distinctly Russian about Ice Pick Lodge's Pathologic, would we also encounter something distinctly Brazilian in the halls of BIG.

Yoan Fanise, co-founder and CEO of Digixart Entertainment and a former content director at Ubisoft, had been pondering the same thing. "It's interesting," he says when we meet, just in front of a cluster of booths that represent the BIG Festival's French delegation. "Maybe the French touch is in the story, the narrative. More specifically, with my studio, we want to tell you something deep if we can - to add a layer of something meaningful inside."

"The good thing is that Apple and Google, they are willing to help those games. If you are willing to stand out from the big crowd, if you take that risk, they will help you"

There is a resonance to Fanise's theory, a line that can be traced from Eric Chahi's Another World, through the games of Quantic Dream, right up to Dontnod's Life Is Strange. Valiant Hearts, the bittersweet World War I adventure game that Fanise directed for Ubisoft, can be placed in the same lineage, as can Digixart's debut game, Lost In Harmony. When last spoke to Fanise, he described Lost in Harmony as an attempt to prove that unique and meaningful games could find an audience on mobile - a platform that was saturated with content, sure, but saturated with, "the same type of game we've seen many, many times."

That was several months before Lost In Harmony launched, and he now confirms that the goal was always to, "try and reach people who have never played a game... a casual audience, and not necessarily gamers. So we went mobile, because everybody is on mobile. I knew mobile was hard to handle, to understand, to monetise, so I wanted to start with the big difficulty and to learn. And we learned a lot of things."

Of course, not everyone will agree with Fanise's assessment that the variety of experiences in mobile gaming is disappointingly narrow relative to the size and breadth of the audience. Nevertheless, it's still fair to say that Lost In Harmony, a visually splendid rhythm game with a nakedly emotional story, stands apart from the abundance of alternatives. That much was recognised by Apple and Google, both of which featured Lost In Harmony numerous times in recognition of the many ways it departed from convention.

"The good thing is that Apple and Google, they are willing to help those games," Fanise says. "If you are willing to stand out from the big crowd, if you take that risk, they will help you. That would be my advice to other indies: don't be afraid of the big crowd - 2,000 games per week, something like that - don't think about this. Put it aside, or you will be too scared.

"What I'm sure of is that the way we communicate [to players] on these games is to not mention this layer; to just surprise people. Specifically on mobile, with the casual audience, they don't care about that. They don't say, 'okay, I want to play a game about cancer.' We just let them play. They have to find and like the game as it is, and then there's something deeper inside."

Where Lost In Harmony also broke with convention was in its pricing. It launched on iOS at $3.99, and opted for what Fanise describes as a "basic" spin on the freemium model for the Android version. "We knew if we went premium on Android it would get hacked and we would make zero," he says, and so the Google Play version is free to start with a payment required if the player wants to see the end of the story. Fanise maintains that there was no other way to make Lost in Harmony function as a free to play game without compromising the design or the story, though he admits that the game's pace could have been a better fit with the "shorter" attention span among mobile gamers.

"With premium, it has a value, but now we have seen that premium is almost dead. Honestly, premium is like death"

"It's shorter than on console," he says. "On mobile, you have to hook them up more quickly. If the story comes in after ten minutes it's too late. You can see the drop in people... I now have to learn more how to monetise [mobile games], otherwise we cannot continue. We have to find a way to monetise better."

The question for Fanise - and, indeed, for many other designers who hold similar ideals about the potential of the medium - is how to do creative, daring work under the only business model that the most populous marketplace in the history of gaming will tolerate. Fanise admits that it is "very weird" to weigh up the "crazy amount of work" it takes to create this kind of game, and to then implement features that will allow it to make money with no upfront cost. "When you release it for free you have a weird feeling," he says. "With premium, it has a value, but now we have seen that premium is almost dead. Honestly, premium is like death."

Fanise presses the point one more time, as if to highlight it as the lesson he has learned on Lost In Harmony. "For us, we have now answered this question: premium is dead. That's a fact, so let's deal with it. Let's find a way to reimburse the cost of the game."

In that respect, Fanise says, a great deal more innovation is required in the mobile space: not just in design or genre, but in the way games can be monetised after being downloaded for free, because limitations in that area will naturally lead to limitations in the kinds of content available. "I understand there are business guys, they want to make money, and so they are looking at Candy Crush and Clash of Clans," he says. "But we are quite the opposite. If we can find a way to pay for the game, that's it. I don't care if it's free to play or whatever. If we finished it and we can afford to make another one? Awesome."

"I don't care if it's free to play or whatever. If we finished it and we can afford to make another one? Awesome"

Lost In Harmony has now been Greenlit on Steam, and though Digixart is working on a significant expansion that will also be available for its mobile versions, it's clear that Fanise has lost some of his former conviction that games of this kind are viable on mobile. The next game from Digixart will be "something way bigger," similar in scope to Valiant Hearts, and targeted at platforms like console and Steam. For mobile, the studio will focus on smaller experiences that can be made more quickly. "Like a laboratory of ideas," he says, citing the freewheeling imagination of Peter Molyneux as a key point of inspiration.

What it won't lose is that desire to, "tell you something deep if we can." Fanise mentions religion, slavery and various difficult periods throughout history as the kind of subject matter Digixart wants to explore, regardless of the platform. Apple's notoriously difficult content guidelines don't faze him, either.

"We're going to go there," he says. "With Lost In Harmony we started in a light way, and now we see, 'okay, this works.' We have the support, so now let's ramp up." is a media partner for the BIG Business Forum. Our travel and accommodation costs were provided by the organiser.

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Latest comments (10)

Ethan Einhorn Director of Marketing, Sidekick VR5 years ago
This is sad to read for those who love the craft of video games. Lost in Harmony is a fantastic mobile experience that dramatically out-classes anything in the current Top 150 Grossing charts. Since game releases of that caliber have become increasingly rare on my phone, I have embraced the VITA. I carry it around wherever I go. VITA games live forever. They exist on physical media, so they can never be sunset. And now that I have a collection of more than 100 VITA games, I can reject cost-obfuscation (via virtual currency and blind packs) and sun-setting for the rest of my life. It's a wonderful 'opt-out' solution for consumers, but I recognize it doesn't solve the problem for developers. Hopefully Nintendo's NX will ensure that we continue to see high quality portable games.
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Christophe Danguien games developer 5 years ago
Tiring to have those people throwing at us something like it's the truth just because they want it to be....
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Rogier Voet IT Consultant 5 years ago
So easy, don't build one of those soulless, investment banker, money grabbing Free to pay endlessly games for mobile but make something fun (and premium) instead. Forget mobile and F2P and the gaming world will become better.
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Show all comments (10)
Rafael Brown Creative Director/Co-Founder, Digital Myths Studio, Inc5 years ago
Sadly premium is indeed dead in mobile. Its not like the truth it is the truth. To make money at premium mobile you basically have to win the lottery. Except the lottery you win is to cover your budget. Face it, mobile users are mainstream and they don't want to pay direct costs for games anymore than they do for tv.
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To continue what Rafael said, consumers do not want to pay for their music anymore either. At least the way they used to in the era of physical music medium. Music industry did everything it could to kill digital distribution but eventually they saw that it was happening no matter what they did.

It's same in games having become F2P. Telling game developer not to make F2P but "real" games with a price tag up front is like telling a musician to only publish his music on vinyl and deny all those soulless digital channels like Spotify and Youtube.
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I think if you're making a mobile game and your design suits a F2P model (and attendant short play sessions) you should probably try to make your game free to play. For one thing if you need investment, the dead-behind-the-eyes sector of the industry gets noticeably more animated by F2P titles than any paid game.
So always go free right? Well, events and circumstance can and do conspire to make choosing F2P hard even if devs know it's the smarter play. A lot of game designs won't sit well with the need for monetisation or adverts, for instance if immersion (I know I know, that word) is a key part of your game's experience. Further to an often very heavy design footprint, F2P games are also lumbered with expensive trappings such as the need for data analysis, a back-end, lots of post-release upkeep etc, never mind the pornographic amounts of money you have to hand over to advertisers. All this stuff just isn't feasible for small teams, start ups or graduates trying to make their first game. It's no accident that the one area of F2P that Indies do regularly attempt is data-light puzzle games such as match-threes.
I'm pretty sure these factors, rather than stubbornness, dictate why many Indies still choose to make stuff in a 'failing' category like paid games. It's also why paid continues to hold its own in the experimentation and innovation stakes of the mobile ecology. It may even be why premium, though vastly outmanned, outgunned and outperformed by the F2P sector, just refuses to actually die. For many devs it's just too easy to experiment with.
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Ryan Leonski Indie Dev 5 years ago
In many ways I can see the games industry go toward a Netflix model as well, pay a subscription and get unlimited amount of games. It has tried a few times (onlive being one of them) but has not broken into the mainstream. If it does then I think premium-like content will see a greater attach rate on mobile and streaming devices (apple tv, roku, etc.).

There are games that have done very well as premium titles from indies like Simogo's Device 6 and inkle's 80 Days so it is possible but like some people said it feels like a lottery at times.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 5 years ago
I still think some of thee games need Steam or other format releases just to see how they'd do with the pay one price crowd. LiH looks like fun and the user created stuff would do well (I think) on PC.
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Rafael Brown Creative Director/Co-Founder, Digital Myths Studio, Inc5 years ago
The mobile market has gone so mainstream that most consumers don't expect to pay directly for games and those who do often have a hard time connecting to the premium games. The signal to noise ratio is so bad that many premium game devs cannot make money where they used to because either their audience can't find their games or their audience has been converted to F2P because they haven't been able to find good premium games in general.

Here's some commentary on exactly that:
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I don't think it's crazy to see premium continue it's march towards hardcore gamers i.e. those who buy a lot of games, own consoles, read gaming websites or take recommendations etc. A much smaller sector for sure but made up of titles that won't fit a F2P or casual model or audience.

I think as an industry we expect too much when comparing both markets anyway. Because F2P game X and Paid Game Y share the same platform, we may have fooled ourselves into thinking the two forms share some essential essence, when really any two titles may have as much in common as two from any genre on any platform. Even the terms we use are crap. Does calling a game a "paid" game tell you anything whatsoever about it? Other than it means "Not free to download", I would say not a damn thing. The actual stuff on sale under "paid" could not be more diverse yet if a mobile RPG fails, the headline reads "Paid Game Fails".

Instead of comparing apples and oranges, judging utterly different games under the same criteria as though bedfellows, it might be healthy to start see the markets as different as they really are.
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