"The biggest change we've seen is that games are just getting better," Wildlife Studios CEO Victor Lazarte tells GamesIndustry.biz when reflecting on what he's seen in the mobile market since he co-founded the Zooba developer a decade ago in Brazil.
"With better devices and better internet connections, there are a lot more things that are possible and people are taking advantage of that. In the beginning, multiplayer was hard. The first step was asynchronous multiplayer because it was not so demanding on the connection. And then connections got a little better, so we started having synchronous multiplayer. And more recently you started having synchronous multiplayer with a large number of people playing at the same time."
Just as the gameplay of successful mobile titles has evolved, so too has the business driving them.
"It's now harder for independent studios to break out because marketing and user acquisition are just so competitive... I think that's why the top charts have become more and more stable"
"One thing we're observing in the industry is that it's now harder for independent studios to break out because marketing and user acquisition are just so competitive," Lazarte says. "And if you have a sophisticated infrastructure to acquire users, you're at a big advantage.
"I think that's why the top charts have become more and more stable. Bigger companies with more sophisticated distribution and larger marketing budgets have an advantage over smaller players."
At least in hindsight, the gameplay evolution Lazarte spoke of seems logical. But it also seems to have hit a wall, with no natural next restriction to shed, no obviously new realm to explore if only the technology would allow it.
So with already successful companies tightening their grip on the top of the charts and no clear next step in gameplay to disrupt them, has the mobile gaming industry hit maturation? Is it at risk of stagnation for the perhaps the first time?
"There's always that danger, and I think those of us in the industry have to constantly fight against that," Lazarte says. "I'm optimistic, so I think there's no greater force than human talent. Human talent will find a way to overcome this.
"There's a structural force that is making it harder to innovate, because there are now big advantages to scale and complexity. If you're a company able to run 1,000 A/B tests a day and able to run a bunch of live operation events, you get a massive advantage over other people. So these companies naturally tend to occupy a lot of space in the top of the charts.
"And typically, if you have a market with a few large companies, it will be less innovative than a market with a bunch of smaller companies. So there's a trend in that direction. But then there's an opposite trend because some people are trying to figure out a way around that."
Lazarte considers Wildlife part of that counter-trend. Even though Wildlife carries a valuation in the billions on its own, he says the company is doing what it can to help small developers compete with, well, companies like Wildlife.
"Over the past couple years at Wildlife, we've invested a lot in creating infrastructure that allows small game teams to produce amazing games," Lazarte says. "That's been a theme for us. And now that we had this technology and this great infrastructure, we started thinking we could serve not only our internal studios but partner with the best game creators in the world and help them create the best games out there."
When Wildlife completed a round of Series B funding in August, Lazarte said the company was going to spend $200 million over two years "to make Wildlife the go-to place for the best game designers in the world."
Part of that investment was detailed earlier this month, when Wildlife announced the launch of Never Forget Games, co-founded by studio creative director Ray Mazza (Merge Dragons, The Sims) and studio director Michael Duke (The Sims).
"[As development tools] become more self-service, you're able to serve more people. You're able to scale your internal platform, if you will"
Lazarte is coy about the specific ownership of the studio, but he says Never Forget is part of the Wildlife family and the studio will "share in the economics." He also said he expects more such partnerships with developers in the coming years, and Wildlife is exploring a variety of ways of structuring those deals, including starting up new studios or working with pre-existing ones.
One thing that seems to be key to those deals is that the developers will have access to Wildlife's development tools and publishing platform.
Never Forget marks the first time the company has had what are essentially outsiders given access to those tools. With plans to make it a more common occurrence, Wildlife has been working to ensure those tools are approachable for new teams.
"Over the past couple years, internally we have been migrating toward a service-oriented architecture," Lazarte says. "So we started serving our teams through standard APIs and a collection of services helping our teams grow. When we started doing that, it was important to create a lot of documentation so the tools become more self-service. And as the tools become more self-service, you're able to serve more people. You're able to scale your internal platform, if you will.
"I think bringing in this external studio is another step in the journey, and for that to happen, we need to be even more disciplined with this movement."