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Moving with the Latest Pendulum Swing: Right Before Our Eyes, Another Gaming Industry Transformation

April 4, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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Nick ThomasNick Thomas, CEO and Co-Founder of SomaTone, Inc., is a video games industry veteran and thought leader with 10+ years of proven executive leadership results with a focus on developing strategic industry partnerships, innovating creative outsourcing solutions and managing talented teams that contribute to more than 100 games annually from nearly all major publishers and developers, as well as independent developers. He discusses the transformation occurring in the industry in this article.


It’s happening again, right before our eyes; we’re in the midst of yet another era of redefinition and reinvention in the ever-evolving gaming industry. While the landscape is changing dramatically, history shows us that something new and good will invariably emerge. After all, (and despite many attempts), you cannot own or control creativity, or predict the future of gaming.

We at SomaTone are ten years deep as a leading provider of creative content for mobile, social, and casual games, working at the forefront of gaming over the last decade’s explosive growth. Having produced audio content on hundreds of games for many of the top publishers as well as for the indies, our vantage point gives us a sweeping perspective across the landscape of the games industry– from AAA console games, to MMO’s, to Social/Mobile, to Casual, and beyond.

We’re seeing the cyclical pendulum swing of innovation, homogenization, and reinvention continuing to keep the publishers of gaming content guessing as the smaller, faster, and more creative start-ups are yet again redefining the gaming industry.

Creative comrades in the face of an ever-changing industry
Creative comrades in the face of an ever-changing industry, SomaTone’s Nick Thomas with Tap4Fun CEO Kevin Yang at GDC 2014

The Ripple Effects of Converting Players into Users in Mobile Gaming

Casual games continue to go through a familiar pattern, and we are currently emerging from a decline of the smaller “Mom and Pop” game developers, who have been squeezed out by the realities of mobile publishing and the dominance of Free-to-Play (F2P) games. This economic model has sought to systematically convert game “users” into a currency that has been hoarded, sold, and traded in an effort to control access to “game players.”

As a consequence, the industry was stratified into large game publishers–who controlled the access to “users” and thus the majority of the market–and new start-ups and Indies, who were either being gobbled up by these same publishers, or self-publishing and hoping for a Flappy Bird-style anomalous hit.

The middle-class of game development–studios of 20-50 working on games that were sold via standard pay-to-play standards with supportive publishing partners–has suffered. With limited access to users, who are carefully controlled by game publishers, it was nearly impossible for mid-sized independent game developers to make and sell their own games and support their teams. The result was a polarized and stratified industry in which a small fraction of game publishers own the vast majority of market, making it extremely difficult for small game developers to independently make and sell their games without yielding to the requirements of the publishers, who will own the IP, take the lion’s share of the revenue, with no clear obligation to bring “users” to their game.

“Every time the industry has homogenized itself by the few having control of the many, a new era of gaming has invented itself.”

Now while all publisher models attempt to control access and distribution to customers (this is in fact what publishers are supposed to do), there is a dramatic new variable at play, with the F2P economy. This “race to the bottom” business model, which has led to disruptive game-play mechanics designed to extract fees from “users”, in their efforts to enjoy a fully featured game-play experience and be “players”, is highly dependent on publishers’ access to users, and their ability to monetize these users. Those “old school” game designers, who sought to develop great games, that offered fully featured immersive game-play experiences at the outrageously expensive price of $.99, never stood a chance against “free” games, which are developed by game publishers and promoted to their “users”, requiring players to pay for the features included in a 1-dollar competing title.

This Latest Cycle Will Induce a Painful Rebirth

This cycle of innovation, homogenization and reinvention is not a new trend. We have seen this same cycle in gaming in the past, with Big Fish Games‘ consolidation of the PC Downloadable market and subsequently, Zynga‘s dominance of browser-based Facebook, and in both cases, there was a painful rebirth of the industry. Those fastest to adapt to the new ecosystems survived, and those who could not evolve, died away.

However, it is also true that every time the industry has homogenized itself by the few having control of the many, a new era of gaming has invented itself. Just after Big Fish unequivocally took control of PC downloadable, Facebook came along and completely disrupted their reign. A few short years later, the kings of Facebook (Zynga, Playdom, Wooga) have been dethroned, only to be replaced by the current leaders of the mobile industry. With each successive attempt to control and “own” the industry, new life has begun.

“You cannot control game players or ‘own’ creativity. A new era is currently percolating under the thin crust of the mobile/casual games ecosystem, and by my observations, we are onto a new dawn of gaming.”

This reminds me of Jurassic Park. Life finds a way. In this case, creativity finds a way, and despite the attempts of the current reign of publishers to own and control this inherently creative marketplace, they are discovering, just as all others before them have, that you cannot control game players or “own” creativity.

A new era is currently percolating under the thin crust of the mobile/casual games ecosystem, and by my observations, we are onto a new dawn of gaming. One in which King.com, and Kabam, or perhaps even the Apple Store and Google Play store, will soon find themselves trying to catch up, and wondering what happened as the world they felt so sure of has shifted beneath their feet.

“Mom and Pop” developers, take heart. The pendulum swings both ways. And from our vantage point, which reaches from the largest publishers to the smallest indies, the playing field is leveling.

2014 will be a year of reorganization and consolidation, as the bubble of Mobile/Social games refocuses its efforts, and quality will retake its place as the leading factor in a company’s success, rather than simply a publisher’s control of access to users. And developing innovative and high-quality games has always been what the “Mom and Pop” game studios have done best and are continuing to do.

Look forward to the next installment of this series next month, a case study on Zynga’s Puzzle Charms!

 

News

Steve Meretzky Proclaims to GDC: “Nobody Knows Anything”

April 9, 2013 — by David Nixon

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Steve Meretzky and Dave Rohrl at Casual Connect Seattle 2012

The combined industry knowledge residing in the heads of veterans like Steve Meretzky, Dave Rohrl, and Juan Gril is impressive, but at GDC’s Free-to-Play Summit, Steve put a big question mark over the value of it all with the repeated message: “Nobody knows anything!”

Meretzky used the quote from Screenwriter William Goldman’s book Adventures in the Screen Trade to summarize why conventional wisdom is frequently proven wrong, and conclusions derived from past experience are not necessarily predictive. He pointed towards industry pundits’ flip-flopping on the viability of Hidden Object Games (“HOG”s) in Free-to-Play as proof and asked the audience, “Were the experts right before they were wrong, or wrong before they were right?”

Criminal Case on Facebook is an example
Criminal Case on Facebook is an example of the viability of Hidden Object Games in Free-to-Play

Joined onstage by Dave Rohrl, his partner in crime for the popular and evergreen “Social Games Year in Review” presentation, Steve and Dave mixed up the program in a few other ways as well. Instead of focusing tightly on the Social Games market (e.g. – Facebook), which Dave compared to Donald Trump: “Older, established, and there’s definitely some money there, but every so often behaves…well…odd.”, the duo expanded their subject matter to include Free-to-Play game services generally, with a focus on Facebook, iOS, and Android. Further, explained Rohrl, “Like the Thompson Twins and the Ben Folds Five…our group now has THREE members.”  For the first time, the established duo invited another speaker to join the fun; Online game industry veteran Juan Gril, Founder & CEO of Joju Games.

Juan Gril
Juan Gril

Even fully warned that “nobody knows anything,” it’s hard to discount the trends and observations presented by three long-time game industry veterans, supported by hard data from the Casual Games Sector Reports on Social, Mobile, Fremium, and Casino games (presented by the Casual Games Association and Superdata).  Some key observations included the relatively low success rate for Free-to-Play “sequels” (Meretzky), the power of collection and crafting game mechanics contributing to the success of the online CCG (Gril), and an interesting analysis of the relative stagnation of the Facebook top developers list vs. the iOS and Android lists, with a warning to devs that the mobile game market is congealing, so it’s time to get in or out (Rohrl). Rohrl also pointed out that success in Free-to-Play is neither easy nor fast, and often is as much about perseverance as any other factor, citing multiple early failures by both King.com and Supercell before they finally achieved substantial success.

DOWNLOAD GDC PRESENTATION SLIDES

As always, Steve and Dave, and now Juan, presented a well-reasoned, well-supported, and insightful look into the evolution of Free-to-Play games in 2013.  Steve may believe that “Nobody Knows Anything”, but checking out their past “Year in Review” presentations from Casual Connect you’ll see that for guys who don’t know anything – they get it right more often than not.

Steve and Dave presented their 2012 Social Games Year in Review at Casual Connect Seattle 2012:

Video Coverage

Escape Your Comfort Zone | Tommy Palm of Candy Crush Saga, #1 DAU on Facebook | Casual Connect Video

February 13, 2013 — by Catherine Quinton

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DOWNLOAD SLIDES

Tommy Palm of King.com, the creators of Candy Crush Saga (#1 DAU on Facebook), discussed at Casual Connect Europe 2013 the secrets of King.com’s development practices, sharing tips such as that if you need a tutorial to explain your game, then perhaps it’s not really casual and accessible to the mass market.

From Playing in Arcades to Creating the World’s Number One Game

Tommy Palm’s fascination with games began at an early age. “I saw Space Invaders at an arcade,” he says, “and I was completely hooked.” By 1986, he had moved on to the next stage, spending his free time programming games for the Commodore 64, and, with several friends, he continued programming as a hobby for many years.

“I have won many awards, but nothing beats the feeling of seeing Candy Crush Saga making number one game in the world in terms of Daily Active Players.”

In 1999, he took the leap into the games industry, founding Jadestone AB. In 2009, Palm expanded Jadestone’s mobile department into a new company, Fabrication Games. King.com, the world’s leading mobile company, acquired Fabrication Games in 2012.

During his career, Palm has created more than 30 games. In twelve years of developing mobile games, his team has received many nominations and been awarded ten prizes. But Palm asserts, “I have won many awards, but nothing beats the feeling of seeing Candy Crush Saga making number one game in the world in terms of Daily Active Players.”

The Challenge of the Games Industry

“This business is all about reshaping and challenging the ways we work. No one can afford to stay in their comfort zone for long.”

Palm tells us, “This business is all about reshaping and challenging the ways we work. No one can afford to stay in their comfort zone for long.” He reminds us that players are always looking for something new, so game creators must continue to be innovative and original. Additionally, he feels it is important to attract new players. “We bring a lot of new players into the ecosystem. Many of our players have never played games before and are just now discovering the beauty of this entertainment form.”

Coming Directions

As Palm looks toward the future of the games industry, he sees that games are the most efficient way for new global brands to gain entry. He maintains, “A very small team can create truly influential brands with very little effort in a short period of time.” He feels the future will bring increased emphasis on cross platform, saying, “Candy Crush Saga is a good example of a successful cross platform launch.” Successful indeed!

ContributionsPostmortem

Indie Showcase: RedBallStudio’s Red Ball 4 (Flash)

February 4, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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RedBallStudio is a one-man studio based in Saratov, Russia. Founded in 2009 by Eugene Fedoseev, the studio publishes Flash and iOS physics platformers about their main character – Red Ball. There are seven games about Red Ball in the studio’s portfolio, but Fedoseev continues to publish more Red Ball games in the future.

From selling concrete mixers to game development

Fedoseev
Eugene Fedoseev

My educational background is in programming, but after I finished university I worked as sales clerk selling concrete mixers. I wasn’t interested in programming at that time – it seemed a little boring to me. One day at the end of 2008, while I was at work, a friend sent me a link to a blog. On this blog a guy shared his experience of how he earned money making flash games. I was really surprised because I thought making games was very difficult and could only be achieved with a big team. I’ve read the entire blog that day and after work I went to a bookshop and bought a book about ActionScript 3.0. It took me two weeks to read the book and I started making games while at work and at home afterwards. My first two simple puzzle games were Fastone Pyramid and Rain Drop.

I gained a lot of experience in game development, working with Action Script 3 and communicating with sponsors, but not a lot of money. I realized I really enjoyed creating games, but I could not afford to quit my daytime job.

While reading lots of different tutorials on the internet I found a tutorial on Platform game basics using Box2D. It allowed the player to control a red box and let it interact with physics in the game world. I got very excited and started playing with it. I added different objects and obstacles, unlocked box rotation and finally found out that the box’s body is difficult to control. To fix this I decided to change the box to a ball, thus creating Red Ball in the spring of 2009. Initially I created seventeen levels and added different objects, platforms and flags. I drew the graphics myself, my wife found a great musical soundtrack and after 3 months we released the game. After a while I got a really good offer from King.com and decided to quit my job to become an indie flash developer. Since then I’m working at home, full-time. The past four years I’ve created different games about Red Ball on different platforms (Flash and iOS). I created Red Ball 2, Red Ball 3 and finally Red Ball 4 at the end of the last year. Next to that I’ve created the Red & Blue Balls series (three chapters) where you control two balls – switching between them. With every game I aim to improve the quality by hiring art designers, add story animation instead of comics and improve the user interface. I couldn’t say it better myself then what JayIsGames.com wrote about the Red Ball series progress.

Finding inspiration

The main focus in my games is game- and leveldesign. The seven Red Ball games count a total of over 100 levels. My inspiration for these levels came from some great games I played on the internet. For example, the buttons and levers in Red Ball 3 are inspired by Fireboy and Watergirl. Another game, Lee-Lee’s Quest 2 inspired multiple aspects of Red Ball 4. I really like the popular iPhone game Doodle Jump which is why I wanted to add a parody-level in Red Ball 3. The gears in Red Ball 4 are something I added after spending quite some time on a physics learning tool called Algodoo.

Other things in my life inspire me as well. On a vacation to Egypt I visited the pyramids (as seen in Red Ball 3) and I came up with the helicopter level after I was given a RC helicopter for my birthday. Wikipedia articles about different mechanisms also always inspire me to create new things.

Level design

Each level in the series goes through three different stages of development. First I draw some level challenges with a pencil and sketchbook. This part of the process takes about 50% of the time. The fun part about this stage in development is that I can do this wherever I want. Sometimes I work at a café, the beach or while traveling.

Sketches
Initial sketches for mechanics

After that I combine different challenges into one level and sketch a background layer in Flash. Then I outline my sketch with simple primitives and create the level’s physics. This stage requires a lot of gameplay testing to see if challenges need to be changed. For example, a gap could be too big to jump over or some challenges could be very hard to pass.

Combining sketches in Flash
Combining sketches in Flash

This level is playable but it still needs some nice aesthetics. For this last stage in development I send these levels to my artist.

The benefits of working with sequels

Twelve times more profit

I’m really happy to be able to create games, it gives me both satisfaction and financial profit. The last four years I’ve created seven games about Red Ball and I’m not planning to quit anytime soon. The benefit of making sequels is that both players and sponsors know your games and want to play / buy them. Over time you create a fan base that follows your projects. For example; Red Ball 3 has doubled the results of Red Ball 2 when it was played 60 million times in the first year after launch. Sponsors also know what to expect from your games. As a result you get more profit. For example; I got twelve times more profit from Red Ball 4 then from the initial Red Ball.

Another benefit of working with sequels is that you can save a lot of time and increase your production efficiency when you don’t have to create game from the beginning. You can simply add new levels to your game engine. That’s how I’m currently working on developing Volume 2 of Red Ball 4. It will be the same red ball character with the same physics, but I’m adding fifteen new levels.

Video Coverage

Riccardo Zacconi-Czar of Casual Games

August 24, 2012 — by Clelia Rivera

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What attracted Riccardo Zacconi to video games was the sheer excitement it could bring, much like it felt playing his first C64 games. He elevated this excitement in the creation of King.com and continues as CEO.

Casual games have exploded in the market in recent years, helped by many different developers and publishers. King.com tops the board as a worldwide leader in casual social games. With more than 50 million monthly active users, being the number two Facebook games developer, and having over 11 million DAU, it’s no wonder how. It is clearly following its mission by making the best casual and puzzle games in the world.

Along with the rise of casual games came the creation of multiple platforms. Deciding a platform can feel like life or death. One solution to this choice is to not stick to one platform. However, creating a multiplatform game is its own dragon’s lair, with concerns such as quality control. Zacconi finds the process of delivering a seamless experience to be a formidable opponent, but with Bubble Witch Saga, they succeeded. The game appears to effortlessly flow between mobile and Facebook. “Players’ progress, virtual goods, leaderboards and more are fully synchronized,” said Zacconi. “This means that if you are at level 72 and are using the ‘Charm of Precision,’ that will be the same across both devices, allowing users to play whenever and wherever they want, picking up the experience where they left off.”

Once you face down those dragons, there is a treasure trove of benefits with multiplatform games. Zacconi has witness better game reception through the use of multiple platforms.

Online consumers expect to be able to do what they want, when they want to and on the device of their choice. Why stand in their way?

With multiplatform games, he sees a broader market, assisting the discovery of your hidden gem.

Technology has blended into our daily lives. There is at least one person you know of who is constantly on Facebook or Pinterest, or is constantly on edge if they forget their cell phone. One piece of technology that Zacconi notices greatly impacted the game market is tablets. He praised the graphics, built-in connectivity, game-capability, and mobility. “Then you also have the App Stores, which make finding and buying games a simple one-click action,” said Zacconi. “No need to visit a store or go through complex download processes.”

Tablet sales have been rapidly growing and are predicted by many to continue into the future. It will continue to be a factor in the game market, but at what cost? Zacconi believes the cost is the PC and console.

King.com continues to push forward, adding to their 150+ original high-quality game formats. Each month, they are launching new games and pushing those games across multiple platforms. “We are also constantly testing technologies like HTML5 in order to provide the most innovative gameplay experience for our players so you will have to stay tuned for what’s to come.”

 

 

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