"The games industry has never been sluggish," Outplay Entertainment CEO and co-founder Douglas Hare tells GamesIndustry.biz during a recent interview. "It's always been really fast-moving and challenging, but the mobile games industry is like the normal games industry on steroids."
Hare should know. He's been making games since the mid-'80s on consoles, PCs, and now with Outplay, on mobile. In that span, he's started to see some patterns emerge. One such pattern he calls "the march of IP," the seemingly inexorable tendency of brands and established properties to dominate a platform as it matures.
"If you actually think about coin-op, it stated as the leading edge of games, and there was this explosion of games: Space Invaders, Defender, Pac-Man," Hare said. "There was a huge amount of innovation that occurred there. Then if you watch the coin-op industry, although it still flourished, you had games based on franchises, you started seeing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Wars and the licensees come in."
Hare saw that cycle repeat itself on consoles and computers, and mobile has been no different.
"With the advent of the App Store alongside the explosion of games on the Facebook platform and inside the browser to begin with... When it started it was this clear, brand new, uncharted territory, and you saw this explosion of new IP around that early period," Hare said. "Licenses and existing IP took a back seat, and you could see the charts were dominated by new IP, whether it was Angry Birds or all these games that came in around that time.
"But over time, as that discoverability issue makes it harder and harder to cut through the noise of the marketplace, you start seeing the licensees and the brands come back in again, because obviously that helps. As you see with many, many companies that started with original games, they start to take on brands and apply them to their games."
That's exactly what happened with Outplay's latest bubble shooter, Angry Birds Pop. It's the first branded game Outplay has produced, and Hare said it was a product of a "serendipitous" meeting. He was attending a conference with a prototype of what had then been intended to be an original bubble shooter with a slingshot-like mechanic, and a Rovio employee he showed it to suggested it would make a perfect Angry Birds game.
"Working on licenses is something we can really enjoy if we're into the license," Hare said. "It just seemed like such a complimentary fit with the mechanics we already had for this game that we were working on and was getting close to launch. It just felt like an opportunity worth exploring."
"We tend to obsess about the top of the charts and what we forget is there are quite a lot of companies that aren't at the top of the charts and are making a ton of cash"
Angry Birds Pop is the first branded Outplay game, but it might not be the last. When asked if Outplay is expecting to team up with licensors more in the future, Hare simply said it wouldn't surprise him if the studio made further forays in the field. After all, he's had plenty of experience and good relationships with IP holders from his pre-mobile days. Hare's previous studio The Collective made a regular business of working with brands, putting out games based on Star Wars, Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and more.
But even if there's an opportunity for Outplay to ramp up its licensed game development, Hare doesn't think working with other people's ideas is the only way forward. It just seems that way sometimes because of the attention that licensed games and massive franchises command.
"I'm guilty of it as well, but we tend to obsess about the top of the charts and what we forget is there are quite a lot of companies that aren't at the top of the charts and are making a ton of cash," Hare said. "I suppose it may be harder [now] to have a Flappy Bird-style cultural social common currency event that lots of people talk about, but I think that's particularly hard for big companies to do, too."
So if the march of IP is a cycle that has been repeating for generations now across a number of platforms, when will mobile enter the next phase of that cycle, and what will it look like?
"I think it requires more of a significant platform shift to see that," Hare said. "Maybe AR or VR is going to herald in that initial wave of early, non-branded exploration again. But I don't think mobile is going away anytime soon, so I think you'll just see this mix of branded games and original games sitting side by side."
Some of the factors that led to established franchises and brands becoming so prominent in other markets aren't present in mobile, he said. For example, the cost of bringing a console game to market a generation ago was simply massive between development, manufacturing, distribution, inventory, and marketing, so companies were keen to lean on known franchises or popular IP.
"That cost of doing business and being able to get in front of the consumer tended to make that a dominant part of what was on offer, where that doesn't really exist in the same way on mobile," Hare said. "So I think you may have a possibly more healthy mix of some marquee or big IP type things alongside a continuing emergence of new IP in a way that was maybe harder to do in the world of retail."