Most free-to-play (F2P) mobile game developers have two major goals. The first is to create a really good game. The second is to implement an optimal monetization system to generate maximum revenue. In order to achieve these goals, developers require a good game economy.
When MegaZebra started in 2008, they were pioneers. Along with making games, the company also had to create the market in Europe from the ground up. To top it off, the company’s founders came from Internet and mobile backgrounds as opposed to a more traditional gaming background. This ended up proving fortunate for the company as it helped them tackle problems in a unique way as the gaming industry evolved.
“Real money gambling is actually a lot larger than you guys think,” Jonathan Flesher said at Casual Connect Asia 2014. “People say ‘Oh, well, you know, you are limiting your activity to the UK alone.’ Just to be clear, social casino worldwide is approximately $3 billion, $2.9, $3.1, roughly $3 billion dollars. The UK online gambling market alone, just the UK, is $3.5 billion.”
Jonathan Flesher, the executive vice-president at Betable, leads the company’s business development group, which includes commercial partnerships and developer relations. He finds his previous work in similar roles at both Zynga and Electronic Arts an advantage now that he is at a platform for game developers to get into real money gaming. The last deal he signed for Zynga with bwin.party was especially useful, helping him to understand the intersection between virtual currency and real money gaming.
Keep It Authentic
Now that he has worked in both the video games industry and in real money gaming, he has come to respect some of the virtual casino developers who have voluntarily chosen to use real random number generators to determine all play outcomes, even during the first-time player onboarding experience. He states, “Some say it gives their game a more ‘authentic’ casino feel, which I agree with, but I also think it creates a more transparent relationship with the consumer. I’d like to see more F2P developers take similar steps in their games as appropriate to the genre or game mechanic.”
He emphasizes that Betable, as a regulated gambling operator, is required by law to determine play outcomes using certified random number generators. This is the industry standard and something Betable was already doing.
Growth Through Real Money Gaming
Flesher sees real money gaming becoming the next big thing in video games. This is why he joined Betable; it is the first and leading company enabling this intersection. He asserts, “We will see more and more interesting games that incorporate real money play over the next few years. They will bring a whole new level of entertainment to ‘gambling’ as we know it.”
For his personal gaming, Flesher has always preferred FPS on PC. But these days he has little time, so he usually plays on his iPad Mini, feeling,“It is the best blend between a tablet and a smartphone, giving you a decent screen size and better handheld playability.” He hasn’t yet found a decent FPS for touch screen, and actually hates virtual joysticks. So he is now playing a lot of casino games and poker for work, and, in his free time, he enjoys Real Racing 3 and Deer Hunter 2014. And he is very excited to play Hitman GO.
Immediate Consumer Feedback
F2P has really opened up the market and made it far more accessible and social to a large number of people, in Flesher’s opinion. Previously, there was always a price barrier that was a limiting factor in audience size in all but the largest franchises. F2P also dramatically expanded games-as-service, giving developers live feedback on content as they grow their games. These developers no longer had to rely only on experience, gut instinct, and play tests to find the right formula for success.
F2P has really opened up the market and made it far more accessible and social to a large number of people, in Flesher’s opinion.
However, he has also seen that F2P is typically supported by a very small set of payers who spend outsized amounts of money in the game. He says, “While it may be fine for a wealthy person to spend six or seven figures in a game, we all know the stories of players spending beyond their means or falling prey to other unhealthy behaviors.” He also states that he can easily see the entertainment value in a $60 console game such as FIFA or GTA, but it is hard to see the average F2P player getting similar entertainment value for that amount of money.
Flesher finds great satisfaction in working in an industry that he really loves and that brings smiles to the faces of so many people. He claims the proudest moment of his career came the first time his children visited him at work, saying, “I’m not sure I would have gotten the same response from my kids if I had still been working in financial services.”
When not working or gaming, Flesher is an auto/go-kart racer and advanced scuba diver, both activities he loves. To keep in shape, he wrestles with his kids, works out at a CrossFit gym, and takes occasional yoga classes.
Oliver Jones discussed reasons why an app may not succeed during Casual Connect Asia 2014. “This is not a list about common sense, or the obvious,” he said. “It is a collection of bits and bobs that myself and the team at Moonfrog Labs have learned throughout our gameography in developing our portfolio.”
Oliver Jones is Designer and Co-Founder of Moonfrog Labs, a company that emphasizes its commitment to radicalizing mobile gaming and bringing engaging entertainment to everyone. Jones believes starting Moonfrog in India was the best decision he ever made, although he had never intended to found a startup. But he says, “After a series of stochastic career choices, social connections and favorable market conditions, the stars aligned!”
Moonfrog is made up of a team of game industry veterans who recognized the potential of a fast-moving mobile company. Jones’ contribution to the company comes through his experience working in startups, where, he points out, he learned, “to craft quality titles and identify murky gray gaps in the market.” His years in the Free-to-Play market taught him to scale games to enormous proportions.
Always Ask Questions
Jones maintains that the ability to critique yourself and your work is the most important attribute a developer can have. “Once you learn to evaluate yourself and your work, you can catch yourself in the act of digging holes,” he says. He emphasizes the value of asking questions such as, “Am I too personally attached to this idea?”, “Am I catering to my target audience?”, or “Is my bias affecting how I am interpreting my data?”
Before starting Moonfrong, Jones was involved in a wide array of hobbies, including flying microlight aircrafts, sailing dinghies, and painting landscapes. One month he would be creating a simulation of the solar system and the next, learning to paraglide. He has discovered that finding a balance of physical and mental activities in his free time opens up his frame of reference when approaching problems.
Gaming is one of the things he does for mental exercise. He particularly enjoys the Wii, pointing out that it was the first console to prove the potential of casual gaming. Because developers during its lifecycle did interesting experiments that were largely unnoticed, he considers it a treasure trove of unrecognized innovation. Part of the fun for Jones is speculating about how the experiences could be made to fit the mobile platform. Currently on the Wii, he is playing Endless Ocean, a game about scuba diving, exploration, and discovery. He tells us he has fallen in love with the way it presents the ocean as a vast endangered world packed with chests and secrets. And he is asking questions such as “How could you chop an exploration game down to ten-minute sessions?” or “How could you intuitively use a touch screen?”.
F2P and Other Trends
Jones’ years of work in the Free-to-Play business saw him very successfully selling items costing $100 each. As a player, he is enticed mainly by virtual cars. In CSR Racing, he collected all the vehicles, the most expensive of which was the Venom GT, about $10 – $15. He also acquired a Coupe in Yoville, although he admits, “It served no practical purpose in the game, other than being fabulous.”
According to Jones, several trends are coming that will affect the games industry. These include $50 smartphones, internet chat networks, and connected accessories/wearable technology. At Moonfrog, they plan to respond to these trends by monitoring the viability of emerging markets. These include countries such as India and Indonesia, which are now in the Top Ten for app installs, but at the bottom for monetization. Jones feels that as problems with payments and device storage are addressed, these markets will become more attractive to developers.
He sees the biggest impact on the games industry coming from the Internet explosion in Asia fueled by cheap phones using post-paid plans. As a result, the economic center of the industry will shift to the southeast. Jones states, “It feels like someone is about to hit the reset button on genres developed in the last 25 years of game design. In new markets, users will have few preconceptions about how games should look and behave. A lot of us will have to start from scratch.”
At Casual Connect Europe, Sebastien Borget announced that by the end of February, The Sandbox will be available for Windows Computers through the Steam platform.
Sebastien Borget is the COO and one of four co-founders of Pixowl. Borget manages Pixowl’s twenty-five member international team. He also supervises the production and marketing of the studio’s future titles, with emphasis on the currently most popular IP, The Sandbox. This is a social world-builder simulation game to craft virtual universes — but also retro games — in pixels using physics. Featuring a large collection of User-Generated contents, the title counts over 500,000 players creations and drags a community of 400,000 Fans on Facebook.
Using Games to Teach
In 2013, they began seeing young adults playing the game while waiting in public places, children asking parents to allow them to play the game, and teachers using the game in classrooms, then posting videos on YouTube of their methodology. Suddenly, the target market for the game became much clearer.
Pixowl now is focused on establishing this game as the reference for educational social gaming and making it the best world builder platform for the K – 12 audience. He insists, “We believe teachers can use the power of our physics simulator engine to let students experiment in a fun, creative, and collaborative way.” They plan to embrace EdTech and reach teachers, parents, and students, empowering them with an innovative platform for learning physics.
Great Experiences with F2P
One of the greatest moments for Pixowl came when Apple picked The Sandbox as one of the “Greatest Games of the Year” on the App Store in 2012. Borget tells us it was celebration time for the whole team, because it was totally unexpected and the result of persevering against all odds with a game idea they trusted.
Borget is seeing a bright future for his company and The Sandbox title; he believes as the game is becoming cross-platform, it will keep expanding even faster on its original success. “We are looking to build a game that will last 10 years or more.” Borget also adds that game design should be be taught at school “This is not just about playing a game, this is also about learning logics: thinking of resolving puzzles and using the laws of physics and attributes of objects to solve concrete problems. It seems so obvious to me now how The Sandbox can become a truly educative simulation game”.
He also values free-to-play because it offers developers the ability to create multiple experiences for the same game. The game play can be focused on providing fun for a variety of player profiles, from casual to hardcore gamers. He emphasizes, “It is not a pure coincidence that never before in video-gaming history have there been as many gamers, and free-to-play has become the dominant distribution model on mobile platforms.”
The problem with free-to-play has resulted from some studios abusing this economic model, conveying a bad image. There are now players who rate a game poorly simply because it is free-to-play with in-app purchases. Borget claims, “I want to make a free-to-play game so good that even people who think like this will change their minds.”
Living in a Digital World
He believes that mobile and tablets have already deeply changed the way we consume entertainment, the way we work, and the way we play. The next step is to change the way children and adolescents learn in a digital world. This will be a challenge, because the way teachers are using the internet in their classrooms has not changed much over the last decade. But he sees The Sandbox as an illustration of the great potential for growth in the educational and social area of the games industry.
Incuvo is a game development startup created in 2012 by Wojciech Borczyk and Jakub Duda. Previously, they bootstrapped an indie gaming startup and successfully exited to lead a large console development studio for a major Polish publisher. However, they decided to get back to their roots and start something completely new. Jakub shared the story about its flagship project, Createrria.
It’s Always Been Games
I knew who I wanted to be in life when I was ten. This decision came shortly after I got my first 8-bit computer and started playing games. I didn’t have this “firefighter or policeman” dilemma. I wanted to create games – these magical windows leading into different realms. Their creators were giants to me. But at that time, I couldn’t fulfill my dream. Something scary, called 6502 assembler language, stood between me and my desire to create games. I eventually learned BASIC language, dropped the game developer idea for some time, and returned to it a few years later, sometime around 2004.
When we were looking for a new idea, I discovered that Wojciech and I share the same childhood experience: fascination with early computer games and frustration with the development learning curve. At the same time, we started looking at the rising popularity of tablets and amazing possibilities of touch interfaces. That decided us. We wanted to bring the fun of game creation to millions of mobile players who have no time or desire to learn game programming and master all the other skill necessary to create a game now. They could already create great photos, music, and even shape virtual pottery on tablets, but mobiles were still missing a great game creation app.
Thus, Createrria was born.
We wanted Createrria to be an easy-to-use, fun, no-skills-required game creation app for mobiles. From the beginning, we wanted it to be 2D experience designed for touch screens, not controller/mice/keyboard input. Also, it needed to be social – everything created should be instantly shareable with friends.
When we started Incuvo, everything was new: the company, the office (We worked without walls during the first week), the team (with some long time friends who decided to share this adventure with us), the platform (we were purely consoles in the past), the engine, and even the genre. The first few weeks were crazy. Things took shape slowly. We started with a cross-platform engine evaluation (Unity3D won!), then started working on a playable prototype. This prototype was to determine if our idea was at all achievable. We were afraid of ending up with something overly complex and hard to use, just another developer tool masked as a user app. Fights over game details went on for hours and were fierce. Then we started having our first moments of triumph (“The physics engine is working!”) and despair (“it crashes every ten seconds!”). But finally, our first tech demo appeared. With four graphic themes, several different gameplay types, initial cloud sharing (added as a last-minute hack), and early iOS and Android support. The biggest success was a lack of an external game editor. We initially planned it as a support for an in-app editor – but first attempts were successful enough that we could drop this idea entirely and design everything inside our app. This was a breakthrough and our first milestone.
Createrria was growing fast. Still accompanied by fierce and passionate fights over every feature, we iterated over every single thing. Long live agile development! The biggest challenges proved to be character design and cloud backend. The first challenge was strictly a design one. How could we create likeable, customizable and universal characters, also meant to be used as avatars, without copying existing games? We went through dozens of options, ranging from hamsters running in balls (easy to animate) to fully customizable avatars with exchangeable mustaches. Eventually, we managed to work out our own recognizable style: humanoid avatars, with detached limbs, based on one shape, but extremely customizable. Yes, we love them, and yes, we want to have more. Luckily, one of the cool things about mobile games is the easiness of updates – we can always add exchangeable mustaches later.
F2P or not F2P?
Free to play seems to be a very controversial topic these days. For most developers, free-to-play means robbery. Is it really that bad? Of course not! Createrria is a pure free-to-play game designed in our way: “Game first, money second.” Don’t blame the sales model – blame those developers who abuse it. We believe that well-balanced free-to-play games may bring pure joy to the players and pay our bills by the end of the day. Still, I sometimes feel like a dinosaur when I look at how much the business model has changed since we developed our first console titles.
The Journey Ends
Createrria‘s development was a long journey and great adventure for us. Now it is ready! It will be released for iOS in the second half of October 2013, with Android following shortly afterwards. We hope you will share the fun and adventure with us – playing the games we created with it and creating new ones we could never have imagined.
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