The mobile market isn't what it was even a couple years ago. Consumers are demanding more, visuals are getting better and better, and business models (especially free-to-play) are evolving. While the costs associated with mobile development are still a far cry from the world of console and PC gaming, the team sizes are rising and the costs are too. EA's Chillingo publishing studio has seen this first-hand.
Chillingo general manager Ed Rumley explained to GamesIndustry International, "I think it's a fair comment to say we're seeing some pretty big budget games come through the doors now. Once upon a time if a developer came and they said 'we've spent a million dollars on this game' that would have been 'wow.' The amount of million dollar development budgets are very common now. There's no doubt about it, the [cost] of development is getting far greater but games are becoming far greater in terms of [quality]...the difference between good and great is massive.
"Those great games? They take a serious investment and you get the odd game, you mentioned Flappy Bird, you get the odd runaway hit like that but to manufacture a game now it requires a lot of work. The Californian gold rush of 'hey, we've launched a 99-cent pay-per-download game,' the market has moved on from that. That's why the business has had to evolve around it."
What some developers may not realize is that the initial cost of bringing a game to market is only a fraction of the cost in many cases. In today's connected era, games are more like services, and keeping those services running smoothly for a particular title's lifespan can cost a pretty penny. "The P&Ls of these games are very different as well... Because the service of that game could be... I was going to say half the cost, it could be 99 percent of the cost depending on how long it goes on," Rumley continued. "And these games do evolve and everything around it, the acquisition of users, often the marketing side, the investment in new features, in game modes, looking at the telemetry data..."
"We see a lot of very good quality games but we have to turn them down. And we turn them down because we don't feel we can monetize them and that's what's difficult now in the market"
Indeed, Chillingo needs to look long and hard at a product before committing to a publishing deal. Identifying talent or a solid game isn't always the easiest thing to do. In fact, Rumley fully admitted that if presented with Flappy Bird, Chillingo probably would have missed the opportunity.
"Flappy Bird is a very unique example, that could have potentially been our Beatles moment, do you know what I mean? If that came through the door would we have published it? I don't know, probably not, being honest. But it was highly successful," he said.
So what's the ultimate criteria for Chillingo? It has to be fun, first and foremost, and beyond that, there needs to be a strong structure for monetization. A great game is worthless if it's not properly set to be monetized.
"We do start with the most basic thing and it's all about the player for us. And we've got nothing to hide behind, so it's about fun. Is this game fun? And we've got games at the moment and we know they're fun, which are in production at the moment, and we know they're fun because we're all playing on them. We're working on these games for our jobs but we're playing them at lunchtime, in the evening, and we're having good fun playing. I think if you start with that it's a very good basis," Rumley noted.
"That said we see a lot of very good quality games but we have to turn them down. And we turn them down because we don't feel we can monetize them and that's what's difficult now in the market. You see great quality games but you've got to work out how to monetize them and what we're not going to do is force a square peg into a round hole and say 'look, I know it's paid but we've got to go free' and sometimes actually we've signed games that have been where the developer thinks that it's a free-to-play game but it feels like a paid game. Sometimes we go the other way. So we always do what's right for the player."
While Chillingo has certainly published its share of paid mobile games, there's no denying that the tides are increasingly shifting in the favor of free-to-play. Rumley said that 95 percent of Chillingo's games this year will be free-to-play, and "that would have been the reverse even only 18 months ago." Still, Chillingo takes a very careful approach to the business model. Rumley is more than aware of the negative connotations associated with the model and how some companies have used free-to-play as a means of exploitation.
"Like in any industry I think consumers will be more demanding and consumers will be more savvy. If I look at our games one of our important ethoses in the business is free means free and consumers don't owe you time or money. We can't expect them to invest in our games in terms of a 20-minute tutorial - we want them to get straight in and start enjoying that game. And neither do we expect them to have to pay," he said.
"It's a choice, consumers have a choice there and I think that's what it comes down to but as long as we remain with the attitude 'is this game fun?' and offer an appropriate service then we're doing well and we know we're doing that. Our consumer rating over the last 12 months on the App Store, our average player score was about a 4.2 out of 5 so we're doing something right there. I guess there will always be people who don't particularly like the business model."
Looking to the future, Rumley expects the business to pick up for Chillingo. With a crowded market and increasing sophistication in mobile designs, many developers realize that self-publishing is trickier than it seems.
"We're there to help service the indie community. I think for us the Chillingo name in my opinion is more valuable than the EA Mobile badge"
"If you look at it the number of developers coming to us is increasing on an annual basis and it's not just about discoverability now, there's so many layers to it. You've got to have a great game, you've got to have a great game that's going to monetize and then you've got to get it discovered. And I think you look at the three of those things, it's a complex business and I applaud people that self-publish and have the success but six or seven thousand games launching a month, it's a crazy, crazy competitive business and our job in Chillingo is just to help developers," he said.
"We're there as consultants and whether we work with an individual like Damp Gnat who made Icycle or a larger team such as Ninja Theory who made Fightback, it doesn't matter what the size of the team, we're there as consultants and we bring experience and knowledge that maybe they don't have but we've managed to gain through years of experience and trial and error."
Rumley also believes that the recent boom in the indie space is to Chillingo's benefit. He sees Chillingo as EA's indie-friendly mobile brand, which is why there's no plan to scrap the Chillingo name and just wrap it into the EA Mobile branding.
"I've been at EA for 12 years, but I'm incredibly proud of Chillingo and what Chillingo stands for. And I think Chillingo is respected in the indie community and look, ultimately, that's what it comes down to, we're there to help service the indie community. I think for us the Chillingo name in my opinion is more valuable than the EA Mobile badge. It's what we do, and I think Chillingo is known for that now."