I’m just going to jump right into this one and tell you what I want to say, making mobile games is hard. It’s hard because the amount of moving parts and considerations to take into account go way beyond what you probably believe and it’s getting more and more difficult by the day.
I’ve been in the industry for around 6 years now and in my capacity as a Producer, my job spec covers the entirety of the games life. Next time you open an app on your phone to play while you take a quick poo, take a look at all you can see; the button design, the placement of the menu graphics, the colour of background, the level world, the character base and so on and so on. I have a decision to make for all of these features as well as research, plan, assign resources, develop and release the title and most of the time what we get…is a “zombie”.
Nope, not like this fresh faced young buck. Like this
It’s a rotten, ambling, dead on its feet game that will be lucky to make us a single penny in revenue. To put it into perspective for you, out of all the games that exist on the Apple app store, that would be all 1.2m of them, there are 960,000 “zombies” shuffling about.
Think about that for a second. It means nearly 1 million developers, the majority of who put a hell of a lot of effort into these games, are doing it for nothing returns. That’s how tight of a margin it is to work with. And this is a year on year increase and there is a reason why it’s happening. It’s because the major players in the market hold all the cards and by cards I mean marketing revenue and customer reach. If you open the app store right now, 4 of the top 10 apps are developed by King. What makes it more frustrating is they’re all the same app with a different name. They’re living it up while the rest struggles away
So, how does anyone make money in the store? You essentially have 2 options when it comes to free to play releases: the first is adverts and the second is sales of virtual goods. Ads are sadly a necessary evil in the life of a game and it’s more complicated than it might seem as to how they work. I’ll try and explain it as best I can. Say you get a player in the UK who sees one of your ads, for that view you might earn 1 penny if you’re lucky. The same player based in a country like Niger, you’re going to earn even less. If the player clicks the ad, you will get more. So you essentially want your main players to be from countries that have high consumer rates to get the most from your ad providers. And yes, they’re very annoying when a developer over uses them and its fine to get mad about it.
The second is more difficult to achieve but not impossible and it’s in app purchases; what you need to achieve here is creating a game that is so enjoyable for the player that they want to use their own hard earned cash to essentially buy some pixels on a screen. And that’s why it’s worthwhile to put all the effort into customer and player satisfaction than anything else. Google tell you to ‘make art, not apps’. And it’s true. A case in point was the success of Crossy Road, its focus on player enjoyment and not including adverts made them over $1m in a month. The game is a clone of Frogger but its gives the user the options to buy different level designs that suit them.
It’s worth noting that Crossy Road, along with other hits like Flappy Bird, Tap the Tile etc, are exceptions and not the rule when it comes to hitting it big. This is the main reason for most apps failures. So, I guess the burning question is ‘why do it?’. Why bother if the return is so nominal? The answer is simple; the mobile game industry is worth $15bn a year. That is a tasty chunk of money.
Once you remove the 20% Apple and Google take from you, an amazing $3bn a year in total, you’re left with a market share of $12bn and even removing the 80% from that accounts for top games out there, just as a rough guideline, including franchised titles, you still have $2.4bn to aim for. That’s worth the risk to most, especially if you’re a freelance coder who is making games as a hobby with no studio expenditure. Even if you aimed for 0.1% share of that you’d be onto a winner. That’s $2.4m. To add even more difficulty to the struggle, the only way to reach these top echelons without the power of marketing money is by being noticed, to do this an app would need to be in the stores top lists for at least 2 days out of a month. It makes your head sore thinking about it, right?
To round off, I guess the question to be asked is ‘what is the key to make a successful app?’ and my answer is simple: focus on the player/customer/consumer of that app. If you make a game with nothing but your financial figures as the main target, you’ll fail. Everything online today is aimed to accommodate and make the end user happy. If they’re not happy playing your game, why would they bother playing it? With that in mind, don’t believe there is a secret formula to success and if you’re thinking about joining the ranks of developers, make sure you’re on the right side, the zombies never win.
By Craig Saphier
Craig Saphier has worked as a freelance Mobile Game Producer for 6 years and his expertise and talents have helped his clients reach over 55 million downloads to date