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Tadhg Kelly: Don’t Be a Mobile Game Copycat

Seattle-based mobile game consultant Tadhg Kelly isn’t one for sugarcoating. He’s well-aware of the high stakes and uncertain futures indie mobile game developers face. Here, we chat about ways indies can differentiate.

This post originally appeared on Playbook, Chartboost's blog dedicated to the business of mobile gaming.

Seattle-based mobile game consultant Tadhg Kelly isn’t one for sugarcoating. He’s well-aware of the high stakes and uncertain futures indie mobile game developers face—and quick to point out that the notion that anyone can compete with major studios and potentially create the next Candy Crush is (to use his words) “bullshit.”

But the design consultant, blogger, and TechCrunch columnist’s straight-talking manner doesn’t mean he’s not hopeful. Kelly is confident that small shops can—and will—succeed by partnering with bigger studios who are in dire need of mobile chops (see: Nintendo and DeNA, for example) and by pushing themselves to do truly innovative work.

We talked with Kelly about how he sees the future of mobile gaming for indie devs, and why he’s certain that courting a niche audience can ultimately pay off.

Pepe: What does the industry look like for indie developers?

Tadhg: There are so many mobile games being released right now. A lot of them fall into a well-recognized genre and they copy each other — they’re using each other as templates. What the indie devs are usually missing is that those template games are heavily backed by King or Zynga or SuperCell or any of the big publishers. A lot of that success is commercial rather than about innovation.

Pepe: So what should these small studios do instead?

Tadhg: A lot of small studios are trying to get the mainstream, blow-up success like SuperCell, but they have no roots in the market. So what they need to do upfront is find a really strict audience and just own that. The secret is to invent and innovate and focus on really tangible niches, rather than try and conquer the entire market with one game. Games like Monument Valley really only come along once a year. Focusing on specific niches has always been a much more viable way for small developers to find success. People who are into train simulators, for example, are a great niche audience. They’re not going to make a game go global, but these kinds of games have always gained passionate advocates and players far beyond the passion of an average casual player. Indies can build really viable studios this way.

Image via monumentvalleygame.com

Image via monumentvalleygame.com

Pepe: What are some niche territories you’re excited about right now?

Tadhg: The artistic indie game market is always pretty vibrant. The simulation market is booming, too — not casual games, but hard-core SIMcity types. The classic nerd culture kind of stuff. TellTale is doing really well focusing on point-and-click adventure games. The last niche that’s packed a lot of interest is Japanese-style role playing games. The Final Fantasy group tends to be a very active audience.

Pepe: Bigger companies are entering the mobile game space — especially from console. What kind of effect do you think this movement will have on the indie gaming community? Is there space for them in all of this?

Tadhg: There are a lot of console-style studios who come in and think the mobile market works in the same way. What they end up doing is spending a lot of money, but they actually don’t do that well because they’re assuming the wrong things. Some studios, like EA, are good at figuring out how mobile actually works and are making a huge amount of their revenue through mobile—which is great. But those kinds of companies are going to play that large-scale commercial game that King does with Candy Crush. They’re all falling into that same model. The indies don’t have the facilities to compete within that space on a one-to-one level. That said, big companies have always been pretty bad at finding good niches. Their structure tends to be that a niche is too small for them — it’s too much effort to build a game that’s for a very specific audience.

Image via Telltalegames.com

Image via Telltalegames.com

I think there’s going to be a vibrant third-party market in mobile. An indie studio would get paid a royalty or revenue share to make a game for EA, for example. What happened in console is that a lot of this third-party hiring went away because the cost of developing games became so high that the risk of working with third-party developers became untenable. But in mobile, that’s not the case. The budgets are still very reasonable and it makes a lot more sense for studios like EA to make these big volume plays across a bunch of developers rather than take all of that on themselves.

Pepe: What’s your advice to indie devs who are passionate about the types of games the larger publishers are dominating?

Tadhg: The real secret there is that those types of studios really need to focus on design innovation. I see this so often [when I’m consulting]: A small studio comes to me and says they’ve made a farming game, for example, and it looks almost identical to the most famous game in the sector and then they spend an hour trying to tell me how they have one feature that’s different. They’ll say things like, “Well, we have multiplayer!” or “We have a day/night feature” or “In our game we’re using 3D graphics” — in their head that’s the perfect formula. They don’t tend to think in terms of evolution, they tend to think in terms of what’s already succeeded. They look at the old form of whatever’s famous and then add that one feature that they think will cause players to leave the old game behind. It’s amazing how common this mindset is. It’s complete bullshit.

Whether the game is free-to-play or not, it’s about finding different themes or radically different art styles. It’s about developing different game play or different game mechanics. It’s about doing the much harder job of really risking it on making something good rather than something that’s the same as everything else. That’s what creates the window for the indie to make its mark.

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