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GDC Online: PopCap's Essentials For Mobile Publishing And Development

"Our view is that freemium means you can play forever," said PopCap's Giordano Bruno Contestabile, in a session in which he discussed the evolution of the iOS and Android markets.

Christian Nutt

October 10, 2011

7 Min Read

Though his session was titled "Successful Publishing on Smartphones: iOS vs. Android," PopCap's Giordano Bruno Contestabile in reality delivered an overview of what smartphone game developers should know when making all decisions. "Mobile gaming has come a long way; when we started we were the ugly stepchild of the industry," he said. He would know; he has been developing mobile games since 1995, when they were based on SMS messages. "One day the iPhone arrived and we became the darlings of the game industry," he said. "That has changed the industry as a whole." Contestabile believes the four current trends -- games becoming mobile, social, connected, and cross-platform -- are crucial to the evolution of the medium. "All this connection is what enables us to do great games that evolve and stay with the player for a long time," he said. "This is probably the fastest growing market in the industry right now." Some data: "This year more than 250,000 Android subscribers" are activating phones; next year 600 to 700,000 "or maybe even a million" will. "Worldwide, half of new phones are Android," he said. Though he presented data that in some cases projected market change through 2015, he said "If you are developing games now you should not care about this... You should only focus on what works now." Even with the rise of Android, Apple will retain a large market share, and it has its advantages. "Apple is a very complex company to deal with in some cases, but it's still just one company," Contestabile pointed out. "When you publish on Android you're really working with a lot of different people." With multiple app stores, and multiple manufacturers, "What this leads to is fragmentation," Contestabile said. "Fragmentation will become your nightmare." However, it's not like the bad old J2ME days. "The reality is that with three builds, at three screen resolutions, you can reach most of the market on iOS and Android." The difference is that "On iOS you have 10 phones you have to care about, on Android it's over 100, so you have to be ready to QA." And there's another complication: "Right now, if you publish a game on iOS and Android -- talking about the Google market for simplicity -- you might expect to make 20 to 30 percent of the revenue," Contestabile said. However, "Last year, December, it was 5 percent. By the end of next year I think the market will be at least 50 percent." And this is complicated by the fact that there are over 10 distribution channels to be concerned with on the platform. Another big change from the console space is this: "One thing that you always need to remember is that selling games is not Apple or Google's core business," he noted. "They are in the business of selling hardware, and selling an ecosystem of services." "When you work with those partners you have to remember that the first priority is not to make you sell more games. It's very different from working with Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo where they only care about your games." With Apple and its closed App Store, it's easier for users to find and buy apps, it's easier for them to transact, and there is more quality control. "We can focus on the App Store and that's it," he said. "An open platform allows us to reach a wider audience, and for PopCap reaching everybody is crucial," however, so the company likes Android -- in particular as he sees Google starting to exert a little more control over OS revisions and the Market. "By positioning Android Market as the best market for the platform," and limiting other aspects of the platform more, "it will stay a big open space, but become more regulated so it's easy to sell games," he said. Right now, the company almost entirely develops separate versions of all of its games for each platform. "We really would like a future where we can develop a game once... And deliver on all the platforms. That future is not here yet but there might be a new hope -- HTML5 might be the hope for that." "I do believe that's a hope where it is a platform where we can deliver games on Facebook, iOS, and Android... maybe in 18 months or 24 months. I feel like we might get closer to cross platform gaming in the next few years." "If you look at our products now we are native apps all the way," Contestabile said. Another paradigm shift that has come: free-to-play or freemium games. "Now people decide if they're entertained and they pay. It's a big change. Now we have to work for our money." "It took a lot of people by surprise, and it was quick," he said. In June 2010, 85 percent of revenue on the iOS App Store was premium games. June this year, it was 35 percent. "Now, it's more like 25 percent," he said. However, he does believe in the market for premium games persisting -- it's just "growing much slower." "We would like our games to be enjoyed as many people as possible around the world," he reiterated. A free game results in 15-20 times as many units downloaded as a paid game. "Those people are playing your game, they're engaged, and they want to give you money. It's your job to figure out how to do this. And if you want to do it in the long term you need to figure out how to do it in a way that's natural to them. They want to give you money; they don't want to feel like you're asking for money. I feel like when I play a freemium game these days, I feel like they're selling me a used car." He also dispelled the myth that "they're free, so people are spending pennies." "More than 50 percent of the revenue comes from transactions over 20 dollars," Contestabile said. "A sizable number of people are spending the price of 20 games when they buy a transaction in one game." He pointed out that PopCap is, as a developer "not metrics-driven." "We started with a game experience that needs to be fun," he said. "If you want people to download your game you need to give them something that pops out and makes them think 'I want this game!'" Players must be "hooked in the first minute -- but then you need to go back and back and back, to try to improve. The first minute is really what's crucial" for mobile games, he said. "Never start a new platform until you know you have the resources to do so and until your core platform is going well enough that you feel confident," he said, when a developer in the audience asked for advice. And make sure you pick your business model up front. "There's nothing worse than a game where you try to retrofit a business model -- either it's not going to work, or it's a lot of work and you have to change everything about your game." When publishing on iOS, it's hard to promote your game. "The holy grail is what we call 'Apple Love' -- It's elusive, and hard to get, and there is not enough to go around." This means being featured on the App Store either on iOS or iTunes. "Your best bet is to contact Apple, and tell them about your game, and hope that someone at Apple gets interested in your game." Another big change is the need to continue updating a game. "It used to be that we launched a game and forgot about it," even on mobile, he said. With Plants vs. Zombies on iOS, however, the game has been updated consistently in the two years since launch, with an EFIGS localization, adding Game Center support, a Zen Garden and mini-games, then updating for the Retina Display when iPhone 4 launched, and finally adding in-app purchases with more mini-games -- which can also be earned. "We're not done and we will keep updating this game," he said. And yes, those mini-games can all be earned by play. "We err on the side of giving enough free content and gameplay to the player... Bejeweled Blitz, there is no limitation... And it is extremely successful," he said. "We don't want to gauge gameplay. Our view is that freemium means you can play forever." And he mentioned that Plants vs. Zombies has been hugely pirated in China -- and become a huge, huge mainstream IP in the meantime. "How is PopCap dealing with piracy in China? The answer is we love it," he said, in response to an audience question. "After complaining, we decided, let's do something about it -- and we started making free-to-play games."

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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