Why indie developers need to focus on games and not becoming Disney

Industry Voices

Simon Moller

Simon Moller

Mobile game developers nowadays are confronted with a crazy scene. Mobile has singlehandedly upended established business hierarchies, as well as patterns of development, distribution and monetization. Monster franchises like Deus Ex are releasing full games on mobile, and free-to-play is even being adopted by industry heavyweights like EA.  

This industry-wide disruption has caused a ton of noise and generated countless theories on how to react. As the chief creative officer at Kiloo, which has seen over ten years in mobile gaming, I've experienced the whole range of the business. From near bankruptcy to smash success, I've personally ridden the rollercoaster of mobile gaming. To help fellow independent gamers avoid common mistakes, here are some things I've learned about making great games.

We're in a good business
While it is true that issues like discoverability and monetization can be serious obstacles to success in mobile, today's developers have a lot going for them from a traditional business perspective. 

Mobile games today are approaching less friction. Nearly everyone has a smartphone in hand, they can download your game for free (if you opt for freemium, which I strongly recommend) and in under a few minutes start playing.

Traditional advertising costs and campaigns are largely not relevant in this space. The people playing it on the bus, in the office, and wherever, are all advertising your game by telling interested friends and strangers what they're playing. Getting to the point where a critical number of people are playing and advertising your game can be hard--but marketing costs can be re-routed into game development.

Games can also be fantastically sticky. If built right, your game can hook people and generate a loyal following. Building a sticky and compelling game is made easier because the mobile platform allows for intense data analysis and much quicker feedback than console-based development. As developers we can analyze just about every aspect of player-interaction, pick out the important details, then refine the approach and get better.

Rah rah, Rovio?
To date, much attention has been paid to Angry Birds and its creator, Rovio. Rovio is one of the first mobile game development companies to have an outright smash success in mobile with Angry Birds. In the press, much attention and excitement has been paid to Rovio's decision to emulate Disney and focus on merchandising, instead of focusing on creating new compelling games.

Mobile success can certainly be finicky as attention spans eventually run out. This is a stark contrast to console gaming, where a successful title can sell millions of copies at $60 a piece and validate a $20 million development process. Mobile success can certainly be fleeting, as proven by companies like Glu Mobile (NASDAQ:GLUU). Even with the best mobile games, people are going to lose interest eventually. 

When you lose focus, you lose everything
While it can obviously be tempting to monetize through non-game related channels, expanding your company's strategic investments in any direction away from game development takes attention away from your core success: games-as-a-service, making good games. Ultimately everything suffers if you build your brand away from your games.

Obviously the game engineers won't have to worry if the Angry Birds sweatshirts are made with lead, have to navigate the maze of contractual arrangements for the Angry Birds movie or align business interests with the right brands to create a positive Rovio brand identity. It is the high level management that spends brainpower on this, and can distract them from the heart of the company, because these are complex business maneuvers.  

With the C-level team looking for other revenue streams, games become secondary to the company's strategy. However, the licensed products--like soda, sweatshirts, candy and movies--will all fade in success because they're only as engaging as the product behind them. Without high-level vision and decision-making, the games stop being innovative and stop introducing thoughtful and meaningful content updates, and instead leech onto the same tired themes that once succeeded. As the games lose value to the player, so does the brand.

People want innovation and creativity. Don't you think we'd have heard the good news from Angry Birds Friends and the Angry Birds cartoons if there were any good news to share? The general theme since the release of the original Angry Birds has been a spike in popularity lasting a few months, and then progressively less time spent in top grossing apps.

So what?
Small developers should not look to Rovio as a success story to emulate, but instead see it as a cautionary tale to stay focused on making games. Keep your team lean, organized and focused on the details. Work with your core team to release a game after six to nine months, because you don't want to over-work a game to death. Even though releasing a bad game can be a great step in the learning process, it can also erode the trust in your brand if games are rushed out every two to three months. 

Planning and hard work pay off, so watch the market for what you think you will succeed in the near future. Above all, make games you'd want to play and don't compromise your vision.

Simon Moller is the chief creative officer of Kiloo.