Is mobile success now impossible for small developers?
Enormous budgets at the top end don't have to mean the end of the dream for everyone else
Is there a future for smaller developers on mobile devices? That's an awful question to have to ask, yet it's one being asked - with some variation in the phrasing or the approach - in quite a lot of contexts recently. Mobile platforms, once seen as safe refuge from the drastic collapse of the mid-range PC and console market, are now themselves displaying the same symptoms; soaring budgets, dependency on franchise or licensed IP, and a market increasingly dominated by the tiny percentage of games which "hit", leaving not even scraps for the vast number of games that "miss".
We watched that happen to console games over the course of the last hardware generation. It's a vicious cycle and it can be hard to tell where it begins; did consumers stop buying sub-AAA titles, leading publishers to stop funding them? Or did publishers, spooked by rising development budgets, throw all their weight behind a handful of "sure-fire" hit titles, starving sub-AAA development of finances, resources and ultimately, existence? A little from column A, a little from column B, perhaps; though I suspect it had more to do with column B, for reasons which are now being recycled in the mobile industry.
There's no doubt that costs at the top end of the mobile business are soaring, with development and - more notably - marketing costs trending upwards at a rate which makes the rise in console development costs through the 2000s look positively leisurely. Companies like King and Supercell are spending up to half a billion dollars a year on marketing alone, and margins are tumbling as costs outpace revenue growth. This creates a twofold barrier to entry for newcomers. Firstly, the rapid advancement of mobile technology has pushed up basic development costs - say what you like about the console model, which freezes hardware advancement in five or six year increments, but it does at least give a long-term level playing field that gives developers an opportunity to master and ultimately profit from the systems.
"even if you can afford the now much more expensive development process for a top-end mobile game, the chances are you can't afford to market it"
Secondly, even if you can afford the now much more expensive development process for a top-end mobile game, the chances are you can't afford to market it - not when you're facing an onslaught of expensive marketing from the likes of King, or takeovers of some of the world's most famous public spaces by Supercell. Winning mindshare from those giants isn't within the grasp of a plucky startup; much as we'd all love to pretend that it's all about the quality of the games, the reality is that at the top end of the market, it's more to do with brand recognition, amplified by the "flocking" behaviour that's endemic to social games.
To some degree, these companies are victims of their own past success. Much of the marketing spend that's inflating their operating costs is not aimed at supporting the launch of new games, but at sustaining the growth of games that first launched three or four years ago. Clash of Clans remains Supercell's big hit; Candy Crush Saga is still King's biggest revenue stream. GungHo has Puzzle&Dragons, Zynga has Farmville. These are all old games, yet they are the marketing focus of their respective companies. This is actually not just a feature of those companies, but a feature of the market overall; a look at the top charts on the iOS App Store reveals that many of the games which remain most popular now are games that date back several years. That forces mobile developers to view sustaining the growth of their old hits as being just as important as developing new hits; more important, actually, because the old game is already a proven success, while all money spent on new development is, by definition, speculative.
It's a tough balance to strike - focusing resources on your existing games, risking having no new titles to take up the slack when the old star finally fades; or focusing on developing new games, effectively re-rolling the dice that gave you boxcars in the past, but with the ever-present risk that you'll never see anything but snake eyes again. This has echoes, actually, of a similar balancing problem that console publishers faced - which brings us back to the question of how the vicious cycle that killed off mid-range development got rolling in the first place. Faced with rising development costs, publishers had two choices. They could keep funding lots of games, knowing that plenty of them would turn out to be sub-AAA and might lose money; or they could dump all of their resources into a handful of titles, "guaranteeing" that each one would be an AAA title through sheer force of finance, spending money to bulk out the feature lists in a quest to stamp out every market risk imaginable.
"Faced with rising development costs, publishers had two choices. They could keep funding lots of games, or they could dump all of their resources into a handful of titles"
We all know which way that went. We sometimes say that companies like game publishers are averse to "risk", but that's not the whole truth; they're actually averse to one specific type of risk, operational risk - the risk that a game will bomb and lose money - while being entirely too relaxed about another form of risk, financial risk - the risk that grows as a game's development and launch gets more expensive. Essentially, publishers (and big companies in general) are remarkably comfortable about spending enormous amounts of money on things; they'll pump endless amounts of cash into the development of a game in order to tick every box on the feature list, telling themselves that they're reducing operational risk ("it's got multiplayer now, people love multiplayer! It's much less likely to fail with multiplayer!") while ignoring the now catastrophically high level of financial risk which means that, should the game actually fail, it threatens to take the whole company with it.
I digress, but this is as much about the careers of the company's managers and producers as it is about the health or culture of the company itself; managers make a perfectly rational calculation that operational risk is much more dangerous to their careers than financial risk. Being in charge of a small game that flopped looks pretty bad, and being in charge of a small game that did well is a career positive but not an enormous one; while being in charge of a big game that succeeded is a career-making move, and being in charge of a big game that flopped is actually not all that bad either, perhaps no worse than being in charge of a smaller flop, since the industry tends to respect experience of managing large projects, no matter how badly they did in the end.
That's what happened in the console and PC games business, and it was nothing short of apocalyptic for the small development studios which had once been the backbone of the industry. Many of those studios and their staff saw mobile development as a liferaft; yet here we are again. The raft is sinking into the same sea that consumed the mid-range development sector on console and PC. Budgets are rising, launches are getting more expensive and, from what I can gather, publishers are responding just the same as before - throwing more and more money at a smaller and smaller selection of products, trying vainly to insulate themselves from operational risk while all the while constructing a huge, shaky tower of financial risk. If anything, it's even worse on mobile than it was on console, since one of the best things about mobile - the long tail that means successful games can keep on being successful for ages - conspires to give publishers a whole new way of avoiding operational risk, by dumping money into old, proven games rather than new, risky ventures.
"publishers are responding just the same as before - throwing more and more money at a smaller and smaller selection of products, trying vainly to insulate themselves from operational risk"
If that sounds bleak, though, I'd urge you to consider the flipside of what happened on PC and console. The mid-range disappeared, yes; it was upsetting, it wrecked people's lives in many cases, and it narrowed the kind of games available for quite a long while. Yet at the same time a whole new low-end of games (and I mean "low-end" in budget terms, not quality) emerged. The indie scene blossomed, from a new generation of bedroom coders through to a whole new wave of small, creative, innovative studios who have done more to push the medium of games forward than almost anything else in the past decade. Not every indie game was a success, but most of them were sufficiently low-budget that their failure could be chalked up to experience and the creators could move on to the next thing. "Fail again. Fail better"; Beckett's words could be the slogan of the indie game scene.
Moreover, and crucially for how we choose to perceive the change in the mobile games industry, these "low-end" creators have a different concept of success to a large publisher or studio. Sure, Notch made billions and bought a Hollywood mansion; but while much of our attention gets focused on such enormous successes, the truth is that for most indie creators and small developers, "success" looks like the bills being paid, the paycheques being sent out and the funds for working on the next title being secured. Never mind billions; many smaller games would comfortably cover their costs and pay their creators a healthy wage with a few hundred thousand dollars in revenue, or perhaps even less.
On mobile, too, far away from the giant marketing budgets and multi-million-dollar development plans of the big players, such a sector can and will thrive. We are rapidly approaching the point where everyone in the developed world, and a healthy percentage of people elsewhere, will carry a smartphone; that's a whole lot of niches to be filled, a whole lot of niches to be satisfied, an almost unimaginable number of daily moments to be brightened with a spark of entertainment. It's nonsense to imagine that King, or Supercell, or any of the other huge companies dominating the top end of the market, are going to release games that satisfy and enthral everyone with a phone in their pocket. For those plucky, interesting developers who challenge themselves to fill the cracks and flow into the niches, there's absolutely a living - a good living - to be made. There are challenges, the greatest of which may be discovery, but just as PCs and even consoles have seen the flowering of indie talent, the end of the mobile device "gold rush" doesn't mean the doors are shut for smaller developers; as long as your dream is to make a living from creating games, rather than to buy a Hollywood mansion and a private jet, your dream is still alive.