How to survive the mobile gaming apocalypse

I was listening to the latest Walled Garden podcast and towards the end they stopped just short of stating what many developers I talk to have been saying–mobile gaming is dead.

Ok, not actually dead. After all, mobile gaming revenue is higher than it’s ever been, and mobile consumption of everything is eating the planet. However, mobile gaming is completely dead as a business model for independent developers and undercapitalized startups.

IAP has become so dominant that there’s really only one somewhat reproducible way to make money in the AppStore: make a hamster wheel f2p game in a handful of established genres and spend tens of thousands of dollars a day on user acquisition to drive traffic to it. Despite many bold experiments, the charts increasingly bear this out.

Republique

This means that some companies with top charting mobile games aren’t actually making a profit as UA costs can eat up most of the revenue. Surely this will produce a shakeout and consolidation in 2014. This is similar to what happened to Facebook games circa 2010 causing a mass exodus to mobile.

Now that mobile is dead, where should you escape to? There are several options.

PC

The PC, and more specifically Steam, remains the platform of choice for those who actually want to charge money for content. There’s a large market for premium games and Steam has loosened their gate with the advent of Greenlight. Some prominent developers have been abandoning mobile for PC with their new projects. Despite PC sales declining in the face of tablets, it makes sense. This is where the paying customers are.

Consoles

A lot has been written here about the impending demise of consoles, but Sony and Microsoft managed to change up their business model and product strategy enough to have early success with both the PS4 and XBOX One. One of the big changes has been the thawing of the gated ecosystem and allowing independent developers to self-publish. Oh yeah, and on the Wii U also.

Next generation console owners are starved for content. There will be many independent successes over the next few years before the channel becomes completely saturated.

VR

On one hand VR is merely a peripheral for existing games, on the other it’s part of an entirely new category of wearable computing and an emerging platform. Oculus Rift is the clear leader with a huge round of investment and development kits widespread. However a glut of VR headsets is on the horizon.

Oculus is building an ecosystem out of their device, but VR content can be distributed through any PC gaming channel. Although, supporting every single headset may be a nightmare for developers–isn’t it time for some kind of standard VR API?

Board games

Board games are a cottage industry yet a hot category on Kickstarter. As an example, Sandy Peteresen’s Cuthulu World Combat iOS game Kickstarter failed miserably, but when re-pitched as a board game, it blew past its funding goal. Going from digital to physical presents a lot of new challenges for developers, but does have a dedicated fan base of paying customers. Plus, you can’t pirate a board game!

Facebook / Web

Facebook games ‘died’ in 2010, but are ironically becoming an increasingly common alternative platform for mobile developers. Especially if you have a working web client already, why not put it on Facebook? The problem is the audience is decidedly non-hardcore. Facebook games can still make some money, but for a very specific audience. However, for hardcore games, the open web still remains a viable place to find an audience of paying gamers. Kongregate proves this.

What needs to change in mobile?

The supremacy of f2p and the very few options for user acquisition make the momentum towards free and the companies with enough money to compete in the mobile UA wars insurmountable. Apple could make some changes to the App Store to help support premium games and other alternative business models, however there really isn’t any incentive to do so–Either way, Apple sells phones. It’s difficult to foresee anything but the continuing dominance of f2p and mega-publishers on mobile in 2014. If you have a ton of cash and resources, solving this problem is hard, and thus very lucrative. For the rest of us, plan your strategy accordingly.

Facebook: The Next Generation Game Publisher

Upon the eve of Casual Connect one of the big announcements was Facebook becoming a mobile games publisher. Much like how the launch of Facebook’s mobile ad network went largely unnoticed only to become a huge deal later, I suspect we may see this move in a similar light in the near future.

View from the podium before my Casual Connect event.

View from the podium before my Casual Connect event.

A social network like Facebook directly publishing apps isn’t without precedent. Facebook took their lead from Asian mobile social networks like Japan’s LINE and Korea’s Kakao Talk. Both extended their messaging services to include mobile games that use their respective social network for viral reach in ways similar to the bad old days of Farmville spam.

Both LINE and Kakao Talk have been able to send games to the top of the charts in their native countries netting big revenue. With increasing adoption of messaging applications in the West, this trend may continue here.

In the boxed software era you had few options other than to go through a publisher for distribution. Publishers had guaranteed shelf space at national retailers. Now that software doesn’t exist in boxes, there’s no need for shelves. As we’ve discussed before, users are the new shelf space.

Mobile publishers like GREE and DeNA pride themselves on having a huge audience to advertise games to. This usually involves blowing lots of money buying users through ads–many of which show up on Facebook. Pretty much this is the only service mobile publishers provide.

If user acquisition is all a mobile game publisher does, why not cut out the middleman?

Facebook can acquire users much cheaper than GREE or DeNA–they own the network. In fact, this is a major reason why GREE and DeNA make so much money in Japan. Especially in the feature phone era, they operated mobile social networks they also published their own games on.

Perhaps Facebook did the math and figured out that a cut of an app’s revenue in exchange for premium placement of ads is a profitable exchange. Instead of having an audience of 30-40 million users as DeNA’s mobage network does, Facebook has over 800 million mobile users.

In the past, Facebook has proven they can make a game popular–at least for a short time. It’s up for the game developer to create a game that lasts. Given the Chaotic Evil alignment of modern game publishers, I’d much rather make this deal with Facebook* than with one of them.

* Oh, I’d take this deal with Twitter too. They’ve been able to get Vine to the top of the App Store charts all year. Imagine what they could do if they published mobile games!

FarmVille 2 Illustrates Zynga and Facebook’s Desperation

The launch of FarmVille 2 last week was interesting to watch. Sequels to social games seem like a bad idea–why fragment the user base of a highly popular service for a numerical sequel? MMOs have had the same problem in the past and Zynga’s own Mafia Wars 2 is largely seen as a failure. I was curious to see what approach Zynga would take with their next attempt at a sequel to a flagship game.

The good news is FarmVille 2 is a gorgeous and even charming follow-up to the original game. The 3D graphics using Flash 11 are beautiful and the whole thing is ultra polished. This is one of the slickest Facebook games I’ve ever seen. The mega talented team that built this should follow all the ex-EA executive carpetbaggers and bail. I bet they could raise money and build a great company based on quality like this–for the right platform, of course.

As we’ve discussed here for years, and has become obvious in recent times, Facebook games are dead. Zynga’s and Facebook’s catastrophic stock declines are both linked to a collapse of the Facebook game ecosystem. Both Zynga and Facebook have failed to effectively monetize mobile users, especially in gaming.

Earlier this year, Zynga actually shut down the iOS version of FarmVille. They just couldn’t figure out how to make one of the most popular social games of all time work on mobile. Yet, Zynga doubles down on Facebook with an elaborate and exquisitely detailed sequel. The fact that the primary platform for FarmVille 2 is Facebook proves Zynga still has no effective mobile strategy. It could be contractual. If so, Zynga is tied to a sinking ship.

FarmVille 2 is also a sign of desperation. A few years back social game developers flooded Facebook with spam notifications from games as a so-called ‘viral expansion loop’. Facebook newsfeeds were cluttered with stories about lost sheep and found energy packs. Concerned with spam levels worsening the user experience, Facebook severely restricted access to viral channels.

FarmVille 2 seems to violate the spirit of Facebook’s carefully considered spam policies put in place after the viral channel crackdown. The biggest evidence being the opt-out newsfeed notification. If you look at almost every alert dialog in FarmVille 2, the only way to not have it not shared on your newsfeed is to click a tiny checkbox in the lower left corner. I can’t say I haven’t seen this tactic before, but it seems extra insidious in FarmVille 2’s case. The box is almost invisible and it has to be clicked every time, as the check box is reset on every alert. As a result, FarmVille 2 is bringing Facebook spam back to 2010 levels of annoyance.

Yes, FarmVille 2 uses sleazy tactics to gain free users. Even worse is the fact that Facebook enables this tactic. It’s not like Zynga is some rogue developer. Their special relationship with Facebook gives them access to a lot of early platform perks–including timeline stories, frictionless permissions, and now deceptive spam newsfeed posts. Both Facebook and Zynga are seemingly out of ideas and are going back to blatant spamming to reach and retain users.

Oh, and you can turn off newsfeed spam using this method.

The Big Business of Small Audiences in Mobile Games

Is mobile dead? It appears to be a silly question given all the hype–but it seems like the majors have it sewn up. Take a look at the top grossing apps. The vast majority of them are now published by large companies or independent developers that played their cards right early. Trying to get in the top grossing app list has become a challenge as monolithic “startups” blow millions of dollars from VC war-chests on acquiring users. This has driven up user acquisition costs to the point where even games that monetize well are having their profitability threatened.

The days of the free lunch may be soon over. Mobile can’t grow forever. Eventually smartphone user growth will flatten much like it has on social networks. The rising tide that floats all boats may stop rising.

Given these circumstances, is being a well-funded publisher the only way to go? Even with the use of Russian bot nets, daily free app promotional networks, and PR barrages it’s getting harder for the majors to score a slot in the top grossing apps. This broad and shallow strategy is expensive to execute. Now that the mobile market is large, mainstream, and mature it’s time to start monetizing lucrative niche audiences–narrow and deep.

I’ve encountered several mobile gaming startups employing this strategy to go after a number of different gamer sub-categories.

CORE GAMES

Whether you are “hardcore” or “mid-core”, the “core gaming” business model targets highly engaged gamers. These are the type of consumers that would have purchased an XBOX 360 in 2006, but for whom the tablet or mobile device is the platform of choice. This demographic is still (for now) largely young and male.

On the PC, World of Tanks earns over $10 million annually and League of Legends brings in over $60 million a year monetizing hardcore gamers with f2p economies. Although there are lessons to be learned from these titles, it’s important to apply hardcore game designs to the way core gamers wish to consume content on mobile.

Kixeye and Kabam proved the core gaming model on Facebook, earning over 10X what Zynga does per user. Both are making moves into mobile. Playing defense, Zynga is fighting back with their own core games push. Apparently unable to find a copy of The Innovator’s Dilemma, many legacy game publishers have surrendered, allowing barbarians to invade and steal their customers.

GAMES FOR WOMEN

I’ve been approached by several startups over the past few months looking to monetize female gamers with persistent social mobile games. Not to mention there have been a few high profile announcements in this space have hit the blogs lately. “Games for Girls” was an industry mantra over 10 years ago which resulted in an array of gimmicky games laden with rainbows and pink ponies. As they say, “This time, it’s different.”

Last year, there was a lot of hype about how FarmVille killed the soap opera. If that’s true, then it’s time to merge mobile social games with soap operas to re-engage that demographic. After all, soap operas were originally designed to sell soap to housewives. Now, design them to sell virtual goods. A few startups have appeared in this space, but the only social soap opera game so far doesn’t stray too far from the isometric Skinner Box form of your average Facebook game.

Games are not one-size-fits-all. In free2play games, women monetize differently than men. However, women can be just as engaged and lucrative as the aforementioned core gamer. Games that engage and monetize women can be a powerful niche market if you take it seriously and not approach it as an insulting gimmick.

GAMBLING

Social Gambling has been the hot buzzword of 2012. The ongoing success of Zynga Poker, anticipated changes in federal online gambling laws, and the recent $500 million acquisition of Double Down by IGT have created a frenzy in mobile and social gambling startups.

The fact is, most social games are thinly veiled slot machines anyway. So it’s no surprise that when a developer drops the pretext and releases a quality slot machine simulator like Slotomania that it is going to rocket to the top of the charts.

When monetizing social games we speak of high paying customers as ‘whales’–A term taken from the gambling business. Vegas has been monetizing gamers much longer than game developers have. Not to mention gambling game designs have had thousands of years to be A/B tested.

CONCLUSION

Monetizing niche audiences requires not only a great game, but deep analysis of your customer and their tastes. Instead of going after the same pool of casual users, a new generation of mobile gaming start-ups are carving out lucrative targeted audiences. Some are large enough to catch the attention of investors, others are making significant “quiet money” for their savvy entrepreneurs. As Kabam CEO Keven Chou says, “The key isn’t about how many users you have, It’s about how much money you are making.”

Facebook’s Mobile Gaming Apocalypse

Crowdstar recently announced they are abandoning the Facebook platform to focus on mobile social games. After amazing success on iOS, they have discovered what many of us have known for years: Facebook games are dead.

In the wake of Farmville’s massive success in 2009, investment in social gaming hit a fever pitch. The Facebook audience grew to 500 million with the rising tide floating all boats. We went from “RIP Good Times” to a veritable all-you-can-snort coke buffet in the little over a year.

During this period, Facebook shut down viral channels making it more difficult to acquire ‘free’ customers and instituted a 30% tax on social gaming revenue in the form of Facebook Credits. By 2011, user growth flattened out and user acquisition costs skyrocketed as social gaming companies blew their war chests fighting over the same group of casual social gaming customers.

Apple, on the other hand, introduced In-App-Payments for free apps and created an entirely new genre of tablet games with the introduction of the iPad. News of new social gaming startups declined, but mobile gaming investments became white hot. The mobile social gaming gold rush was on.

Recent filings from Facebook show that Zynga, one of Facebook’s single biggest contributors of revenue, is now responsible for a shrinking portion of Facebook’s income. This may be due to a change of focus. New game releases on Facebook from Zynga have slowed to a trickle. Meanwhile, Zynga has been feverishly acquiring mobile startups and barking up their stock price with social gambling chatter. While some companies stubbornly cling to the Facebook platform, in most cases social gaming companies are evacuating Facebook for mobile.

Facebook can’t earn a dime off of mobile social games despite their usage of the Facebook API because mobile billing is all controlled by Apple or Google (and now Amazon). There is no place for Facebook credits in the mobile ecosystem. If you try to use any alternative payment system in an iOS app, Apple won’t approve it.

This is why Facebook is making carrier billing agreements and beefing up their HTML5 platform. They can’t get a cut of native app revenue, but can position themselves as a premier destination for HTML5 mobile browser games with Facebook Credits as the billing system.

Even if buying Facebook Credits can be made as seamless as iTunes billing, Facebook still has to fix the fact that HTML5 sucks. This is a problem that is somewhat out of their control, as HTML5 performance is affected by features in mobile browsers developed by Apple and Google.

Facebook is desperately trying to figure out mobile–spending $1 billion on Instagram is an example of this. The unstoppable shift to mobile media consumption threatens Facebook’s core revenue streams from all angles. Facebook Credits have no use in native mobile games and Facebook can’t generate much ad revenue as ads are largely non-existent in their own mobile apps. Facebook’s walled garden is under attack from another walled garden of closed mobile devices. I guess it’s karma.

More Quick Notes

I don’t have enough material for an entire blog post, so I figured I’d hit a few minor points before they are too stale to use as an excuse to blog about.

One Month with the Sony Vita

George Broussard famously stated the Vita seems like the last dinosaur at a mammal convention, and sales figures may be confirming this. Still–as a die-hard gamer from the monochrome era, I got one at launch. I’m the earliest adopter there is.

Regardless of the market reality, there is one game that proves the Vita is a serious piece of gaming hardware–Uncharted: Golden Abyss. This is a PS3-sized game of AAA amazingness that you hold in your hand. It’s doubtful the Vita ecosystem can support many games of Uncharted’s scope, but it really is an incredible experience for a handheld.

Oh, and the Near network is cool. It’s strikingly similar to a location-based mobile games ad network I built in 2010. So, yeah–this kind of tech is dear to my heart. What’s up with only being able to refresh every hour?

Adobe Cries For Help

Is Adobe trying to kill itself, or is hurting Flash just a cry for help? Maybe Adobe is just a cutter. Anyway, adding a 9% tax on all content built using Flash’s new Alchemy opcodes is another desperate attempt to create a Flash ecosystem.

This is obviously a move to make UDK and Unity3D’s Flash exporters prohibitively expensive. If you develop Stage3D apps in ActionScript using Adobe’s own tools (or deploy on AIR or mobile), you apparently can release content royalty-free. Too bad. I was really looking forward to using Flash as a low friction web platform for Unity3D content.

GDC 2012 Impressions

My GDC impressions are over a month old and pretty stale. So I’ll keep it quick. Facebook games = dead. Mobile social games = tail end of cokehead frenzy. Social gambling = the fuse has just been lit. The crab cioppino at Sotto Mare = greatest meal of all time.

Why Cloning Is The New Gaming Business Model

Game cloning controversies seemed to have died down over the past month, but the issue will blow up again once another successful game is inevitably ripped off. It’s not even that new of an issue. Still, it came to a fever pitch when Zynga shamelessly copied NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower, then presented this absurd defense of its actions.

You can’t protect an idea. That’s intellectual property 101. Although, it is true that you can protect the expression of an idea: level layouts, art, perhaps even scoring. I’m not a lawyer, but as far as I can tell Zynga is in the clear here.

You have to know the culture that produced social gaming to understand why cloning is the new business model for games. The social gaming industry was created by MBAs, not game developers. To an MBA, there is no difference between a game and any other web service. Both Orbitz and Travelocity sell plane tickets online–but nobody complains that Orbitz ripped off Travelocity. They are simply two competitors in the web airline reservation space.

To a company like Zynga, Tiny Tower is merely a pioneering entry in the Mobile Virtual Tower Simulation space. Zynga is simply producing another entrant and attempting to carve out their slice of the total addressable market for this type of service. There’s no creative soul to Dream Heights, perhaps, but neither is there one for airline ticketing websites.

This is abhorrent to a lot of developers who have been creating games since before the social gaming revolution. Yet, I meet a lot of young gaming entrepreneurs for whom this is the way of things. They speak in terms of attracting another game’s customers with cloned mechanics and a few changes–perhaps in platform, delivery, or other business model differences. Never in terms of creative twists.

Social gaming giants usually clone games from smaller developers and buy larger companies who produce games they’d like to be cloning. This is probably because well-funded startups often have the same cokeheads backing or advising them, and thus a cloning controversy will ruffle some valuable feathers. Smaller developers should be already well into the development of the next hit-to-be-cloned by the time the VC backed cookie cutters arrive.