Kim Soares is the founder and CEO of the Finnish mobile game developer Kukouri Mobile Entertainment. Kukouri’s Tiny Troopers games have more than 11,000,000 downloads on iOS and Android, with their most recent game in the series, Tiny Troopers: Alliance, was released in October. He reflects on the current state of the industry.
A Non-Existent Barrier to Entry
The game industry has been living a revolution for last few years. The mobile game market that has emerged, combined with tools like Unity, have made the barrier of entry practically non-existent. Anybody with some skill and few hundred bucks can get a game into App Store or Google Play.
This is huge change compared to the situation just a few years ago. Games were made either for PC or consoles, and budgets were millions. Founding an indie game developer required a substantial team, a lot of capital, and at least a year or two to get your game to the market. If a publisher or platform owner didn’t like your game, you were screwed with no way to get your product to the market. Steam and other digital channels were the first to disturb this model, but the real revolution came in the form of the mobile market.
This, of course, is a good thing in many respects. New mobile game developers with new ideas and fresh perspective have sprung out in the hundreds. In mobile, there are no gatekeepers like the console platform owners who would dictate who gets to the market and who doesn’t. Gamers have never had so many games available to them in the history of video games. And most of the mobile games don’t cost a dime! However, there are downsides too, and some of them threaten the stability of the whole mobile games industry.
Discoverability is a Huge Issue
More than a thousand new games are released on App Store every single day. The fact that follows is that for the most part, your game is invisible to the consumers. If you don’t land Editor’s Choice or at least Best New Games placement, then users have next to zero chance of stumbling on your game in the App Store.
In that unfortunate but very common situation, the only way users could find your game is if they somehow have a previous knowledge of it. Instinctively, many developers turn to the different mobile gaming sites, looking to get their game reviewed. However, traditional gaming media does not make much difference any more. The majority of the users, especially those under 20, cannot be reached via traditional gaming media sites. Mobile gamers do not read print magazines. They just don’t. PC and console gamers, the older ones, might still read reviews from print magazines, but even there, the younger generation has more or less abandoned print. If you look at the impact of even the biggest internet gaming sites on mobile gaming, it is often non-existent. So even a great review on all the top mobile gaming sites will not really matter. I’m sad to say this, as my own background is from print gaming media.
For anyone under 20 years, the Youtubers are the media they follow, and it is the best way for your game to get enough exposure. I have paid close attention to how my teenage daughter and son, along with their friends, decide what mobile games to play. It’s always either ”I saw Youtuber X playing it” or ”I saw my friend X playing it”. It doesn’t have to be PewDiePie; there are many others who get a huge amount of views for their videos, too. A thing to consider though: many Youtubers expect to be paid for having your game on their show. But hey, that’s what you have a marketing budget for.
There are two ways of getting users to download your game that are far more effective than anything else. One costs a lot, the other one is free.
Paid user acquisition can get as many users to download your game as you desire. It’s going to cost you a pretty penny though. That is the reason why start-ups need investor money. Many companies who are in the top grossing charts making millions actually feed a good portion right back in the system in the form of ads in other games.
Cost of paid user acquisition has been out of hand for a long time now. In the early days, the mobile space was the Shangri-La, where small indie developers could match and even beat large publishers. All you needed was a good game. That has changed and even though the initial barrier to entry, in the form of making a game and putting in on store, is still as low as ever, the real barrier is the cost of user acquisition and that one is very high indeed. Because of this, surviving in mobile game space can be even harder than in PC and console games.
The free way of getting downloads is organic growth, i.e. word-of-mouth. It is as simple as players showing your game to their friends, telling them how they like it or wanting to play your game with other people. It is not easy to do, but you can build your game to optimize the organic growth.
One example is Flappy Bird, which really took off like a wild fire. However, you cannot just copy what has worked for others. Flappy’s devilish difficulty was a major factor in its success, but just making your game infuriatingly difficult does not mean it would take off like Flappy Bird did.
It is easier to design your game to have opportunities for real social interaction. If players really want to send challenges to other players, invite their friends to play with them, exchange goods with other players, etc., that can give your game a huge boost for both the organic growth and retention. An example can be found In Tiny Troopers: Alliance. In the game, the player alliances fight against each other in weekly wars. An alliance cannot hope to win unless the majority of its members take part in the war effort. This will result in active players joining together and people telling their friends to download the game and play together. It’s all about people having something to do that they can do better with other people joining them.
Publishers are Still Needed
Another way to increase your chances in making it is to get a publisher for your game. Good publishers have a portfolio of games that can have tens of millions of active users. They use this user base to cross-promote their games. With the right publishers, this can be worth millions. The downside is that the publisher will take around 30-40 percent chunk of your game’s revenue.
You have to make the decision if losing a portion of the (potential) revenue is acceptable in exchange for increased number of downloads your publisher can (potentially) get for your game. Many publishers out there are small and cannot really drive large enough downloads to justify you giving them that royalty share. The deal works for them, as they are getting revenue from the many games in their portfolio but at the same time, the individual developers in their portfolio could all be going bankrupt. So if you are going to use a publisher, use a big one.
Money is in F2P
Pricing is a crucial decision. Free-to-play is here to stay, and users have shifted to it whether we like it or not. You can get very good revenue with a paid game still, but the potential of F2P games is way better. If you take a look at the US charts at any given day, the most downloaded paid app will be on around 60-100 position on top grossing charts. Even if your paid game is the most downloaded paid app, you are still way behind the F2P titles.
The gap between the F2P and paid games is even wider than you might initially think, looking at the chart positions. A game on position 100 on a top grossing chart might make only around 1/2000 of what the game on position 1 is making. Revenue distribution is extremely polarized and the difference between the revenue, even inside the top 10, is very much skewed to the top 3.
Some indie developers say that they are not in it for the money. If someone is in a position that they can do games for free, that’s great for them. However, if you are running a business, you are looking to stay in the business and hopefully even make some profit. Even though you can be able support your company with a paid game too, investors are not interested in companies that just stay a float or make modest profit. This is an important thing to consider as well, if you are looking to raise some funds.
What Platform to Choose
Chances are that you are using Unity3D, the weapon of choice for most mobile developers. With Unity, it is comparatively easy to develop your game for multiple platforms. You will always start with one platform though, and you have to consider if porting your game to other platforms is worth the extra work.
So, what is the best mobile platform: Android, iOS, Windows Phone? Android does have largest install base of devices and it’s especially prominent in Asia. However, Android users are notoriously hard to monetize and most of the revenue is still coming from Apple’s App Store i.e. iOS.
Another problem with Android is that it is a very fragmented platform. This means a lot of extra work optimizing your game for myriad different device-OS combinations. Then again, in my experience, as much as 80 percent of the downloads on Android can come from 4-6 leading devices. So it could be a good decision to just set the bar high and not support all the lower end devices.
As for Windows Phone, it is very marginal compared to either Android or iOS. Also, there is a lot less competition, but making a living out of WP game is not likely. One thing to keep in mind is that the more exposure you have for your game, the better: there’s synergy in having your game on multiple platforms. For example, when we released Tiny Troopers on Android, there was a clear increase on downloads on iOS that had been out for six months already, too.
Most game developers in the mobile industry don’t make it. That’s the harsh truth which is easily forgotten when reading Cinderella stories of companies getting millions of investment money or making millions revenues. But you have a better chance of making it if you realize this truth.
You can improve your odds a lot by not just rushing forward. There is gold in them mountains, but you have to be prepared to work for it. The days when you could just pick the nuggets from the ground are long gone.