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Bigger Bets, Fewer Gambles: Getting Core Publishers Back on Top of Mobile

"It's outright embarrassing how totally unrepresented many of the industry's biggest players are," says Bandai Namco's new head of mobile

Almost on cue, the start of a new year has brought with it new promises that smartphones and tablets are at long last ready to deliver console gaming experiences. There's a quiet, unflinching narrative among many of us in the core game making scene that, someday, finally, mobile is going to get it - that the old way of making games is going to give mobile the legitimacy it's always needed.

As if one of the fastest growing segments of the industry needed our help in that regard.

In reality, the opposite is true. We need mobile to legitimize us. In the past two years, only one traditional publisher has cracked the list of the top-grossing iPhone and iPad apps in the US: Electronic Arts, thanks largely to The Simpsons: Tapped Out. No Ubisoft. No Square Enix or Activision. No Take-Two or Bandai Namco. For all of our weight - our money, our reach, our brands and expertise - it's outright embarrassing how totally unrepresented many of the industry's biggest players are in the mobile arena. For what is supposed to be the most fluid, evolving, and democratic platform in gaming, it's staggering how little movement the top of the charts has seen in the past 12-24 months.

"For what is supposed to be the most fluid, evolving, and democratic platform in gaming, it's staggering how little movement the top of the charts has seen in the past 12-24 months"

We have to change that in 2015. If we're going to compete in this new environment, we have to bring mobile-quality development practices to our own organizations. That means taking more control - more responsibility - for the quality of our products and our relationships with players. It means developing internally before expecting success externally, investing our talent with the structures and support that they need to compete against the current chart-toppers. It means taking a long-view approach to mobile, spending big on development and marketing without doing so ignorantly or intermittently. It means bigger bets, but fewer gambles.

The old wisdom for building enduring gaming franchises says you throw a bunch of things at the wall and see what sticks. Develop a game, get it out there, and maybe it does well, maybe it doesn't, but your role in the matter is over either way - you've got the next game to think about, after all. Now that a successful mobile game not only needs to be updated frequently, however, but needs to do so for years at a time, that model has to go.

Perhaps the one thing that companies like Supercell and King understood from the start is that, as the business model with the consumer evolves from a transaction (single upfront payment) to a relationship (on-going payments over several years), good mobile game development isn't mobile; in fact, it's remarkably stationary. Nothing matters more post-launch than maintaining that bond with your audience, especially when you consider how hugely important good localization is for global success.

So for our part at Bandai Namco, addressing that new reality has meant looking inward at our own capabilities and taking the time to slowly grow quality in-house teams in both the Bay Area and Bucharest. Making great games is hard; attempting to do so over multiple locations via splintered teams and mercenary outsourcing is even more difficult, and it's a bad habit old PC and console giants hoping to survive on mobile need to correct. It's not just that you need great teams - it's that you need great teams that will still be together six or 12 or 24 months later when your audience, built carefully and deliberately through advertising and outreach, is hopefully still demanding more.

"Core developers and publishers have been losing for too long because we've counted on the sole power of our influence to carry us through"

There are generally two reasons why companies shy away from making games in house: the fixed costs and the need for more titles than one can develop on one's own. But it's here once again where we're held back by our old models. Although a huge portfolio built on familiar brands and decent quality used to cut it, having just a few high-quality games is often a stronger bet on mobile nowadays, especially in free-to-play, where a bust can often mean close to zero return. If you adopt a company philosophy that focuses on investing when necessary - aiming for profit rather than strict growth - you can build those fixed costs slowly and responsibly while maintaining the creative control you need to keep quality at the forefront.

And that quality is crucial, because while a brand still helps get players in the door, if there's no compelling reason to spend money in game, there's nothing a brand can do. The Simpsons: Tapped Out performs so well because EA didn't gamble on it or treat it lazily - they committed to a long-term strategy of updates, communication, and respect for both the brand and the audience. That kind of achievement isn't easy or guaranteed, but it's the calculated product of a team with a fun product and the will to make it work. And that's the challenge we have to meet.

Core developers and publishers have been losing for too long because we've counted on the sole power of our influence to carry us through. It doesn't matter how many mobile games you put out in the last two years - if you didn't launch them with the resources, talent, and intent to keep them thriving today, you didn't take the market seriously enough. Mobile may seem like it moves quickly, but recent history has showed us that it's won by those who play the slower, longer game. 2014 was a year in which those in the lead consolidated and entrenched their positions - but they've yet to design a product that someone won't put down for something better.

Jeferson Valadares is the newly hired GM/VP of Product Development at Bandai Namco Entertainment America Inc. His 10-year career in mobile and social game production includes work for companies like EA, BioWare, Playfish, and Digital Chocolate.

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