Crowded out: the plight of indies on mobile

iPhone

Increasingly, all indies can do is release the best mobile game they can and hope for the best.

Monday’s Big Indie Pitch event in London felt like a microcosm of the mobile games market right now. It was chaotic, overcrowded and hosted over 50 indies, all of whom lined up to present their game to judges in the hope of winning that most rare of prizes, greater visibility. Only a few would succeed, with the majority destined to be left undiscovered and uncompensated.

Among some derivative fare there were several intriguing and well-executed ideas. Schrodinger’s Cat was turned into a caped superhero for a puzzle platformer, and an adventure game described by its creator as a “mildly xenophobic space satire” raised a smile. Some former Ubisoft developers pitched Sleep Attack, a tower defence game with a neat twist and a cute art style. Tap Happy Sabotage, a party game riff on Snap played with several friends on the same iPad, also caught the eye. But taken as a snapshot of the creativity on show in the mobile games market, it wasn’t fantastically inspiring.

Maybe those devs complaining about discoverability in the market are the same people flooding app stores with low quality games, hoping one will somehow catch on. And for those not relying on hope and luck alone, there are plenty of companies offering indies a way of getting greater traction in these marketplaces, selling their games across networks or monetising them by stitching ads into their output.

Speaking to developers and service providers at the event, there seemed to be a fundamental tension between those interested in art of making games and the science of making money from them. There’s a reason we’ve yet to see too many critically-acclaimed free-to-play games, Plants Vs Zombies 2 being one of those rare specimens. Though it is the prevailing model right now, the mechanics of free-to-play simply don’t lend themselves to fluid and satisfying play and cannot be effectively supported by a small indie alone.

Android and App Stores have been flooded with free-to-play games, with some suggesting that paid apps are doomed.

There’s also a random element to climbing the charts that no amount of analytics and strategy can quantify, said one mobile advertising company. “Apart from being smart and using the right monetisation techniques, you have to be lucky as well and you cannot really predict that,” Sponsorpay’s Iuliia Stolbina told us. “You can do everything right and still not make the rankings, or make the rankings and not make any money.”

Lindsay Dover of WildTangent, another mobile services company, disagreed, but not all that convincingly. “I think it’s actually quite scientific how you can go to the market and make it to the top in terms of the research that’s done,” she told us. “I do think there is an element of being in the right place at the right time, sure, but I think that’s true in any facet of life. If a developer is building a game that they want to play, that’s going to help.”

Increasingly, successful mobile game development falls into two categories, free-to-play games smartly designed around player engagement through analytics, and studios just making the game they’ve always wanted to make. On one side there’s Clash Of Clans, CSR Racing and the much-maligned Candy Crush Saga, and on the other, The Room, Ridiculous Fishing and Badland.

Ask Sponsorpay, however, and it’ll tell you that the latter group is dying. “I personally don’t believe in paid games,” said Iuliia Stolbina. “You can look at the market and it’s not working at all. All of the developers that have been working on paid apps are moving to freemium – freemium means quality now, you will not be successful if it’s not a quality app.”

Running a free-to-play game requires scale and investment – two things most indies don’t have.

It takes scale and investment to make a good free-to-play game, said WildTangent’s Lindsay Dover, and most indies simply don’t have either the resources or the inclination.

“Developing a free to play title requires the ability to support a free to play title, so if you’re not a massive conglomerate company that can push out games – one a month – then it’s very difficult,” she tells us. “They have massive budgets for user acquisition, massive budgets for research and development, and they’re doing tons of A/B testing. Free-to-play is a whole new beast. Developers have also told me openly that doing free to play titles kind of feels like they’re selling their soul.”

So perhaps the best advice for small studios is to pick their battles – stand apart from free-to-play, carve out a niche, have an original idea and make the best game you possibly can. Then, do everything in your power to promote it through social media and the press. And finally, hope that quality is enough – many mobile companies might have a handle on the science of analytics and monetisation, but the art of good game development isn’t something you can acquire from a third party.