Mobile game developers have all kinds of heroes and role models who have shown them how to be successful, but Lasse Seppänen may be one of the first to publicly salute the founder of Coca-Cola, John Pemberton, as an inspiration.
As unlikely as it sounds, the CEO & co-founder of PlayRaven recently suggested that the early days of soda pop were not unlike the app ecosystem that has grown over the last few years. And Coke specifically represents the kind entrepreneurial thinking developers need to create stand-out apps and mobile games in 2016.
Speaking at last month's Slush conference in Helsinki, Seppänen pointed out how the original soda foundations were largely a selection of generic flavors such as lemon, vanilla and strawberry. Creating great soda required some skill in making the right mixture, but Pemberton changed that dynamic entirely. With Coca-Cola, he not only developed a new flavor, but used a thoughtful strategy based on analytics to ensure the engagement was what he wanted it to be.
"He would bring it to one place, and watch how it was consumed. He tracked usage," Seppänen said, suggesting more mobile game developers should be similarly hands-on in how they assess their audience. Of course, one measure of Coke's success is how it wound up being installed in soda foundations alongside the more generic flavors.
"Wouldn't be cool to create a whole new category in the app stores?" Seppänen said. "The best marketing is built right into the product." A soda fountain -- or an app store -- should simply amplify it.
Plan to Stand Out From The Very Beginning
This thinking has informed Playraven's approach to its mobile games, which include 2014's Spymaster. According to Seppänen, this includes:
A globally appealing theme: Spy stories are always popular, and Spymaster specifically focuses on World War II which, though many years ago now, is "something already in people's minds" due to its depiction in movies and books, Seppänen said.
A distinctive art style: Spymasters used black and white photography to stand out from other mobile games, and aimed towards human faces rather than simplistic animations.
Fresh and memorable gameplay: Seppänen said it's all about "doing spy things" like shooting guns, but also driving cars across ice and snow rather than traditional terrain.
An American angle: It always helps to appeal to the dominant markets for mobile games worldwide, and Spymaster's storyline and characters fit that bill.
Seppänen said Playraven had its "Coke" moment when, shortly after Spymasters was launched, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) created an App Store list of "Apps For Secret Agents," which reinforced the power of its theme.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
Even with all those elements, however, it's difficult for indie developers to stand out if they can't continue to refine their mobile games and keep them as fresh as possible. That's one of the main focus areas for Maxplay, a startup that's trying to help developers take a more cloud-based approach to updating their work.
"The current platforms were built 10 to 15 years ago," said Sinjin Bain, Maxplay's chief executive. "The goal is to iterate faster, to be able to deploy your game to a device in real time. You should be able to push a button and see it on your phone instantaneously."
Bain said Maxplay has already signed agreements with developers such as Finger Food studios, which will use its platform (based on a service-oriented architecture) to have a sort of "Google Docs for games" that streamlines the process of modifying development across distributed groups.
"The reality is, development now is distributed. Eighty percent of teams are distributed," Bain said.
Think 'Platform' As Early As Possible
Another way to potentially stand out from the crowd is to take a successful mobile game and build it into a platform that can be used by other organizations. It's not something most developers would think about at the outset, but that's what happened to Maximo Cavazzani, founder of Etermax.
"We didn't start as a gaming company. We started with an iPhone trading app for TD Ameritrade," he said. "After some years, didn't want to work for banks anymore. We wanted (our work) to be massive, something everyone understood. Either a game or a social network. Or something in between."
The result was Trivia Crack, which today boasts 20 million active users, 200 million downloads. 66 days spent in the No. 1 spot in U.S. app stores.
Part of Trivia Crack's success came from having lots of great questions -- so many that it would have been impossible for Etermax to do it alone. That's why it opened up the process to its users, who can sort them based on the quality of the question, if it's boring or if it has grammatical errors.
Things really changed, however, with the launch of Trivia Crack Kingdoms, which Cavazzani said drew requests from the Red Cross for an app to train their team. "Then newspapers wanted their own. That's when we turned it into a platform," he said, describing Trivia Crack Kingdoms today as "a YouTube for Trivia." And as a platform, the game's elements can be harnessed by an organization with a million users or just a handful. Either way, it's an easier way to grow than launching one title after another.
"Nobody wants 1,000 apps in their phones," Cavazzani said.
Maybe not, but they'll always make room for those few mobile apps and games that really stand out.
Header image: ThinkStock. Headshots courtesy of PlayRaven and Etermax.