mobile game development
What Games Are

Mobile’s “One Game Wonder” Problem

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

One of the best Michael Palin bits from Mothy Python And The Holy Grail goes:

Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built in all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up!

Game development is often like this. Whether you’re working on one game for a long time and trying to make it work, or you’re on your 51st game when you suddenly hit your stride, an enormous amount of effort goes into building things that sit on quicksand. It’s not just the design of the game itself that you have to worry about. There’s platform timing, technology constraints, cultural readiness and many other aspects, and not all of them are really in your control.

It’s hard, plain and simple, and those that do make it are often justified in feeling their success. Their next problem is continuing, expanding and so on, which is also hard. Historically game makers have tended to approach that problem by franchising. You don’t make one Final Fantasy game, you make an endless number of them. You don’t make one Halo, you keep spinning release after release until the end of days. Thus are billion dollar corporations formed.

It’s no different today. However what is different is that more modern platforms make that franchising aspect much harder to achieve than they should. We seem to be living in an age of one-game-wonders, especially on mobile, and I think that’s a problem.

Franchising 101

We often say that games are a hit driven business, but the reality is games are a franchise driven business. When physical retailers dominated the landscape, the continued success of the franchise was all about selling boxes, and often still is. A big publisher like EA or Activision spends a lot of cash and effort ensuring that their biggest games are able to be annualized because they know the value that franchises can bring. It’s rare that a game arrives from nowhere and sells 10m copies cold, but over a few releases and building of brand and intellectual property (as well as good games), momentum leads to greater and greater success.

As systems got connected the rules changed but the essential reasoning has remained the same. Games like EVE OnlineWorld of Warcraft and League of Legends update much more frequently and charge on an ongoing basis compared to retail, but still they maintain a continuance. Although many an attempted MMO or MOBA has sunk into the swamp, the ones that stay up generate tons of value for their owners and will do for years to come.

Most franchise games retain their long term intellectual property value through the connective tissue of brands and characters. Like comics with superheroes or movies with actors, names like FIFA Soccer or Resident Evil transcend individual releases. They establish a value distinct from whether one release is better than another, and become the go-to game of their genre. The resulting relationship can last decades and it provides a degree of stability to a game maker.

Whether at the small level of Erepublik or the heady heights of Riot Games, the long term prospects of a gaming company (and its value to shareholders etc) always come from franchising, from the ability to spin 10 releases out of 1 with a reasonable clue as to how well they’ll be received. But to do so the game maker needs to have a strong level of connection with the audience, or else they become a one-game-wonder. And that’s happening a lot in mobile.

The Difficult Second Act

It’s barely a year since King unseated Zynga as the number one game maker on Facebook. A long-time purveyor of casual web games to a relatively small audience (30m according to Wikipedia), King had its one game wonder moment with Candy Crush Saga, a match-3 game not dissimilar to Bejeweled but innovative on its own terms. Beautifully produced and highly addictive, it transformed the company’s fortunes and led to a couple of other “Saga” games that rode its coattails. King floated an IPO at $22.50 and seemed unstoppable to some.

But then, not unlike Zynga, suddenly the news has turned sour. Despite generally-increased metrics across the board, revenue expectations have been missed, leading to a confirmation of the suspicion that the company isn’t able to grow. The fear is that the motherlode game has peaked, and with no obvious contended to replace it that means the party could well be over. And so the stock price fell (at time of writing it’s at $13.53).

Of course this was met with some defense-action quotes from executives (attributing the decline to possible seasonality etc) but still. Haven’t we seen this kind of difficulty a few times now? Zynga rose very high on a surge of cross-promotion over its Facebook properties until the day that just stopped working, and its efforts in mobile haven’t really propped up what it was. SuperCell sold itself at the height of the Clash of Clans craze, which seems a very smart move as time goes by. The company’s still not having amazing success beyond it and Hay Day, again leading to the sense that it’s peaked. Gung Ho’s made a fortune from Puzzle and Dragons, but it’s next chapter is uncertain. Even Rovio seems sort of stuck trying to reignite flagging interests in all things Angry Birds.

For these and many more companies the world of mobile (and, relatedly, social) seems very flash-in-the-pan. They seem to get maybe a 12 or 18 month window in which they might have an isolated hit, but they’re not building on them in the same way that publishers in other areas of the market can. Candy Crush may have had millions upon millions of players but it’s not making the dent that many Sony games do, and that’s not all about graphics. Over the longer term the franchising aspect of these new games seems problematic.

The Gaps

The games press has long been, and remains, a vital part of understanding how the big video games industry works. It has long been a very active press that previews and reviews games and is directly responsible for building the narratives of the medium. In their early forms they existed on magazines, but today they’re mostly on blogs, community sites and YouTubers. Not unlike the Hollywood or Silicon Valley beats, the games beat (sorry Dean!) spreads the word and magnifies the personalities, leading to a sense of culture and tribe. Just as tech in a sense created Elon Musk, so the games press created Peter Molyneux.

However the games press doesn’t give a frack about mobile. I’ve previously talked about how there’s a culture gap and how, despite the explosive success of some titles, the games press is generally not that interested in the space, and neither are its readers. The culture factor really can’t be underestimated for franchising success across most forms of gaming, but in mobile it’s almost entirely absent. Instead the gaming press tends to regard mobile as akin to how the movie press regards television soap operas: Yes they exist, say the journalists, but so what?

Business wonks care about sales numbers and metrics, but what journalists care about what games represent, and – bar the occasional Monument Valley or Year Walk – mobile games often lack that dimension. They’re just pastimes with little to say, and the press would rather write about something genuinely commentary-inspiring like Mountain than yet another tech-features-numbers story from <insert mobile game maker here>.

So that’s a big gap, but it’s not the only one. There are also community gaps to contend with. Every platform is unique, of course, with different controller types, separate customer bases and distinct usage patterns. Perhaps most important for this discussion is the degree to which the platform subsumes the game and interposes itself in the conversation between player and maker, and thus causes a community gap.

Sure, mobile marketplaces are chart- and ad-driven because of the discoverability issue, but these are just the natural outcome of how users behave when presented with overwhelming choice: Some love to take the choice, but many opt for what they see in front of their faces because it’s just easier. The math of the long tail and the short head both play out as they are wont to do, but they would regardless of how the platform were set up. That’s not the community gap, however. The community gap is whether the developer is able to meaningfully communicate with users that have overcome discoverability. As it stands, mobile absolutely sucks in that regard.

Gaming in PC long ago moved on from its strict retail roots (on console not so much, and it may yet come back to bite them in the ass). Steam, for example excels is in bringing players and game makers together. Every game has a Community Hub attached, an individual page wherein the developer can post content like build notes, artwork, videos, and make announcements. So can players. Players can post guides on how to play, or fan artwork. They can respond to developer posts and have side discussions all their own about the game. So Valve essentially provides a part-web forum, part Facebook page, part gallery for each and every game, all within the environment of the platform. Thus is engagement born (much more than asking players to head on over to a web forum ever manages) and that more than anything is why so many interesting games still come from Steam.

In this I think mobile platforms could take a large lesson from Steam. Right now their approach is more a combination of a big retail store mixed with Xbox Live circa 2007. The only relationship they really permit at this time is Amazon-like, wherein the player buys the game and can leave a review, but from that point the relationship tends to be with the product and the platform rather than the maker. He can’t really connect to the game maker except through some lossy outside link (like a web forum), and this significantly dents long term franchising potential. World of Warcraft players can easily find each, clan up and form a very vocal culture around the game. Clash of Clans players can do so too, but not nearly as easily. And that’s where the weakness in mobile shows.

Beyond the more touchy-feely community gap, mobile also lacks in cross-promotion. Facebook had many issues brought on by being powered by with thin games of poor quality but one area that it did explore very well was cross-promotion. Players often used to (and still do) play multiple Zynga games, for example, by logging into one and then browsing to the next and the next via a promotional bar. They also found it easier to do so than through Facebook’s official discovery channels. There are a ton of advertising solutions available in the mobile space, but they’re is not quite the same thing. Ads are instanced and often dismissed without really thinking about them, and devices often don’t have enough screen space to make a permanent cross-bar worth doing.

One-Game-Wonder Syndrome

My point is that because mobile lacks significant cultural coverage, on-platform community building opportunities and has no use for cross-promotion, it’s much more likely to engender one-game-wonders that can’t go to franchise. Just about their only vector for success is mass attention, and mass attention is forgetful. Lacking the ability on the back end to convert potential fans into true fans even the largest game makers stay barefoot and pregnant. Can it be solved?

I have hope that Apple’s charge toward iOS8 will signal the start of some next generation mobile thinking. App previews are welcome of course (video > image) but they’re an extension of the existing sales process. A potentially transformative change might be app bundles, as they represent cross-promotion after a fashion. The smart developer that gets a free game onto a device and then includes prominent link to bundles of her paid games might well find a path to franchise-style success.

But really the missing piece is community. Apple, Amazon et al have tried to figure out services that bridge games such as Game Center, but they don’t yet provide the right kind of communication. They need to expand into the kind of community hubs that Steam offers, supporting maker-to-gamer communication, uploads, fan community stuff and more. Moreover to then provide an API to developers that allowed their games’ community hub (much as they can load in-app Safari or Mail) rather than necessarily going into Game Center itself. This, I feel, would be the true bridge.

Mobile could then become as community-powered as PC has become, perhaps even facilitating a version of Early Access gaming etc. Then the press would start to pay attention as developers felt more able to experiment and in turn generate interesting stories rather than going back to PC. With a decent dose of community that could all change, and we might get past this one-game-wonder phase.