In an overcrowded mobile game market, why aren’t more developers making digital playthings?

Clumsy Ninja

Clumsy Ninja is the App Store hit which turns the titular assassin into a kind of physics-powered virtual pet.

With so many studios lamenting the current state of the mobile games market, it’s a little surprising to find so few actively trying something different. Many millions of new iOS and Android devices were unwrapped and eagerly filled with new apps this Christmas, and yet, compared to the great flood of infinite runners, free-to-play town builders and other familiar mobile fare, apps like Clumsy Ninja and Toca Hair Salon represent the tiniest trickle.

They’re digital toys rather than videogames, and their chart performance suggests that creating interactive entertainment for tablets and mobile needn’t rely on traditional videogame structures. If anything, breaking free of familiar game ideas – of challenge, testing player skill, progression and failstates – opens up a broader, more freeform and ultimately more accessible kind of play.

The studios behind these games, NaturalMotion and Toca Boca, appear to have have understood this more than most. Clumsy Ninja, Toca Lab and Toca Hair Salon 2 have been fixtures near the top of the App Store charts for weeks, and for good reason – they are all smartly designed apps with high production values and cheery playfulness at their heart. And yet compared to the number of games going live on the App Store every week, there’s a surprising lack of these playthings. Or at least, there’s a surprising lack of digital toys this good.

“There are so many blue oceans – unexplored genres that are ready to be invented or re-invented,” says NaturalMotion CEO Torsten Reil. “We’ve never understood why so many studios just clone other games. You end up competing for the same audience and spending more and more cash on user acquisition. The only way to get off that hamster wheel is to create something new and fresh; and preferably something that can’t be easily copied.”

NaturalMotion’s willingness to break free to familiar videogame tropes has earned it another App Store smash, following on from My Horse and the colossus that is CSR Racing. It won’t be quitting free-to-play anytime soon.

NaturalMotion’s Clumsy Ninja – a cute, pet sim-like plaything powered by its impressive physics tech – is still riding high in the ‘top free’ and ‘top grossing’ App Store charts, and could be considered more game-like than Toca Boca’s playthings. The Swedish studio’s apps are similarly beautiful to look at and intuitive to interact with; amidst so many licensed apps of dubious quality, it’s heartening to see good design appreciated and rewarded with chart success.

The latter studio’s co-founder Emil Overmar agrees that game developers are missing out on a big opportunity to apply their skills to this kind of app. “I would really love to see more apps as playthings, not just for kids but for people in general,” he tells us. “Especially since smartphones and tablets lend themselves well to be just toys. The question I would like game designers to have in their heads is: ‘is the experience I’m envisioning better with game mechanics or does it work better as a toy?’ I think the Japanese are much better in understanding playthings and taking them for what they are, even as adults.”

The two studios certainly don’t agree on how to sell their products, though. After generating some phenomenal revenues through free-to-play downloads like My Horse, CSR Racing and now Clumsy Ninja, NaturalMotion is very much a free-to-play specialist; Toca Boca, on the other hand, continues to charge upfront for its apps. It’s an increasingly rare and defiant stance.

“Kids are not stupid and they appreciate good design,” Overmar tells us. “I think our success proves that there are enough adults around that appreciate the products we make and think they are worth paying for. We’re really glad they like them so we can continue making the experiences we believe in, instead of products that make money in the most efficient way.”

Toca Hair Salon 2 is an effortlessly charming demonstration of what Toca Boca does best – beautiful, intuitive freeform play. Hair by my nephew, Dylan.

Scale is vital to NaturalMotion’s business model, so despite the console-grade polish applied to its apps, it’ll never charge for its games at the point of download, says CEO Reil. “Our first five games were paid apps, and the average ROI was five times – so paid games can definitely work,” he tells us. “However, a free-to-play hit like CSR Racing will blow these ROI figures out of the water, and your audience will be much larger, making it possible to build new brands faster. It’s therefore unlikely we’ll return to the paid model.”

Toca Boca isn’t against free-to-play, as such, though Overmar raises questions of parental trust where in-app purchases are concerned. He prefers to tackle a tricky marketplace by conceding that his studio’s paid apps will attract fewer downloads, but inspire better word-of-mouth, better rankings in the charts and possibly attract the attention of kingmakers Apple, Google and Amazon – and lead to a ‘featured’ slot.

“It’s harder to stand out and get people to notice your product if you put it in the ocean of free apps that all spend lots of money to acquire users,” says Overmar. It’s the developers defying prevailing trends that’ll be rewarded, he says. “I think we’re seeing a creative decline in the App Store right now, unfortunately from the burden of free to play,” he continues. “I want game, app and toy creators to invent new things, experiences that enriches our lives through play. These experiences does not seem to work well in a free-to-play world so I think we as creators need to take risks and create the things we truly believe in, and hopefully people will see their value and pay to able to enjoy them.”

NaturalMotion boss Reil shrugs off these criticisms of free-to-play. In fact, we ask him if it’s getting a little tedious sticking up for free-to-play. Clearly, it is. “We stopped defending free-to-play a while ago,” says Reil. “Most critics have since gone through all five stages of grief and are now accepting free-to-play for what it is: the dominant business model for games in the future; not perfect, but with attention and ethics an incredibly rewarding way to make games, both financially and creatively.”

Toca Boca’s apps for kids often revolve around role play, extracting fun from playing at being a chef, hairdresser, train driver, doctor, tailor and more.

Though they disagree on the subject of how to sell apps on digital marketplaces, both Toca Boca and NaturalMotion make a compelling case for other creators to snap out of developing familiar, reliable, traditional videogame types to dabble in the world of digital playthings. Where branding, user acquisition and often sheer luck have all become factors in whether a mobile game makes any money, these studios appear to have done so by focusing on quality design and simple, accessible fun. A heartening trend.