Will M&A shape the future of mobile game development?

Jason AnkenyInteractive entertainment software firm Electronic Arts last week acquired Firemint, the independent Australian mobile game development studio behind hits including Flight Control and Real Racing--the announcement follows just days after social gaming giant Zynga snapped up Wonderland Studios, the U.K. shop behind the smash OS title GodFinger. Both are interesting deals, no doubt, but not nearly as compelling as EA Interactive vice president and GM Barry Cottle's comments after the Firemint agreement came to light--according to Cottle, exploding consumer interest in mobile gaming and the unprecedented, out-of-nowhere success of titles like Angry Birds and Tiny Wings guarantees established gaming giants will keep their checkbooks close at hand. "Because of iOS in particular, and the ease with which small developers are able to get to market, there are more of these players surfacing in the market with real material market achievements," Cottle told The Guardian last week. "As the handset market has gotten more fragmented, so has the developer space. There's a plethora of really talented small shops out there able to get a breakthrough hit that people believe is repeatable. So this notion of small developers being acquired by larger players is probably more the type of acquisition that you're going to see going forward."

Cottle is coy on the question of whether EA is mulling other indie game developer acquisitions. "We're always looking at and talking to the independent third parties and seeing what type of relationship makes sense," he says. "It could be work for hire, a commercial relationship, or bringing them into the family. We want to be flexible." But it stands to reason that small developers want to remain flexible as well--many are doing just fine on their own terms, after all. A quick scan of the App Store's bestselling games countdown includes indie titles like Air Penguin, Fruit Ninja and Tiny Wings, and Rovio Mobile--the developer behind Angry Birds--is now contemplating an IPO. So here's the question: What role will publishers like EA play in mobile moving forward? 

A significant role, Cottle maintains. "The publishing relationship is going to get more and more important as this world continues to fragment and get chaotic," he says. "There is real value in publishing not just from a marketing and distribution perspective, but also scale and speed to market. There's a lot of value add that we can bring to third parties in a publishing relationship." (In March, the EA Partners program expanded to Electronic Arts' Chillingo and Playfish units, enabling independent mobile and social game developers to leverage the company's international publishing and distribution network--first established in 2003, EA Partners connects the firm with studios like Epic Games, Vanguard Games and Paramount Digital Entertainment, extending the company's slate of available titles across multiple platforms.) Cottle also anticipates the mobile gaming model will shift from conventional downloads to freemium titles supported by in-app payments, as well as paid games with regularly updated content, and says mobile game publishers will look to existing console publishing paradigms--e.g., studios willl evolve specific franchises over time as opposed to "just launching a game, then moving on to the next one."

This much is clear: Mobile gaming's future looks brighter than ever. Market research firm NPD Group reports mobile downloads now represent close to half of all full-game downloads--according to NPD, even among consumers using a console for online gaming, mobile represents the largest share of full-game premium downloads, followed by PCs, consoles, portables and other systems. Among respondents who purchased a mobile game in the past three months, 60 percent indicated they're still spending the same or more on console and portable games since they started purchasing titles for their mobile devices, with the remaining 40 percent spending less. Expect the consumer appetite for mobile titles to keep growing--and as long as subscribers are buying mobile games, publishers will continue acquiring the developers behind them. -Jason

P.S. The annual Google I/O developer event kicks off in San Francisco on Tuesday, and FierceDeveloper will be there with live coverage from the conference floor. Check our website Tuesday and Wednesday for the latest breaking news and insight.