The future of mobile games, according to Gree

Gree began as a social network side-project. Now with millions of users around the world, Gree is poised to shape how big game business navigate the mobile game realm.
Gree is one of those companies that epitomizes the video game industry's propensity for rapid change. Founded in late 2004 -- back when PlayStation 2 was owning "gamer" mindshare and Nokia's N-Gage QD was making another go at defining mobile games -- Tokyo-based Gree was just a social network side-project of current CEO Yoshikazu Tanaka. Now with millions of users and several locations around the world, technology has caught up with Gree's vision, and the company is poised to shape how big businesses navigate within the smartphone and tablet realm. Two key players at Gree's U.S. headquarters, SVPs Ken Chiu and Anil Dharni, who sold their mobile game company Funzio to Gree this year, opened up on what they see as the future of the mobile game market.

More Genres

Right now, strategy games, town-building games and casino games (oh, and Angry Birds) are dominating top-grossing charts on mobile storefronts. As the mobile game market matures, however, we'll be seeing more variety, says Dharni. "The card genre didn't really exist four or five months back and now it is hugely successful on both iOS and Android," he says. "...We are seeing more categories -- like RTS and card -- breaking out in the mid-core-to-hardcore space. Looking ahead, we will see more niche genres launching in the mobile space, growing in terms of user engagement, monetization and potentially dominating the grossing ranks." Says Chiu, "I think people are moving away from the casual games and looking more mid-core and hardcore. Companies that focus on those types of games are seeing significantly more success in the market these days."

More social

A common criticism with games that are dubbed "social" is that there isn't much "social" about them at all. Chiu says that's bound to change. "We are going to see a lot more truly social games. Games like SongPop are doing really well in that space," he says. "I also anticipate seeing games that have more group interactions entering the market. Games will be less one-on-one focused and we will start seeing more of group play." Dharni adds, "Social and multiplayer games will start playing a bigger role in mobile gaming, especially as we see Facebook looking to flex its distribution power [in the mobile space]. We are seeing a lot of developers starting to use Game Center on iOS -- including us, we are deeply integrating with Game Center -- so I think social will start playing a lot more of an integral role in mobile gaming development." Like other developers, Gree is focusing on bringing mobile players together, whether they're on iOS or Android (the company has yet to make the leap to Windows Phone). "A lot of mid-core and hardcore games include this concept of guilds. We see a growing focus among developers to enable that mechanic via social features leading to a lot more guild vs. guild (PVP) or cooperative questing," says Dharni. And making games truly social, of course, makes good business sense. "Other games like SongPop, and Backflip's Paper Toss Friends illustrate the idea that the more social you make your games the higher the probability that you will attract a larger audience and solve app discovery," Dharni says. "Those games just aren't as fun if you don't have your friends to play them with."

Higher Production Values

Because of the low-barrier nature of mobile game marketplaces, production value will always vary greatly. But for Gree and other major publishers and developers, production value will continue to skew towards the high end. "If you look at the past couple of years -- and what games were popular -- and compare it with the popular games today, there is a vast improvement," says Chiu. "We see games with higher production values, more advanced gameplay, and better art. I think that will continue over the next couple of years."

Hardware drives the experience

Anyone who reads Gamasutra knows this, but it bears repeating: The rapid advancements in mobile hardware will continue to meaningfully impact the kinds of games developers make, and the way players experience them. "Constant innovation in hardware and now LTE are game-changers. Specific to LTE, we didn't realize what a big deal it was," according to Dharni. "Android users have had access to it for a while and now thanks to the iPhone 5, LTE on iOS is a reality and you can immediately see how a fast network enhances the gaming experience." Says Chiu, "We are now able to make more graphically rich games, offer faster performance, faster network speeds -- it is just making things more interesting for us as developers and ultimately for the user."

Better, smarter analytics

It's not the most romantic part about social game design, but the reality is that analytics allow developers to respond to player activity in order to create a better experience. "Analytics will definitely get smarter and smarter," Chiu forecasts. "We see more tools made to make analyzing data much more efficient. If you look at the industry five years ago, developers literally had to run database queries themselves to look at game data. But now we can pinpoint the information we need and pull it up quickly enough for us to take that feedback into account and fix or update the games accordingly. Over the next couple of years I have no doubt that will continue to improve." Dharni says Gree never launches a game or even sends it into beta without proper analytics. But as analytics become a larger part of mobile social games, there are hurdles when maintaining that data. "A challenge we run into is the amount of data we need to store in order to track players," says Dharni. "We are storing massive amounts of data and that's just increasing rapidly. We need software and hardware that can continue to scale as we keep storing more data and making more games. "The second issue is how quickly can we query that data. So, even though we have state-of-the-art solutions at Gree, they need to keep improving because it's one thing to turn around data in a day, it's another to get in an hour, and another to get it in under five minutes. There are different use cases where we actually need data pretty rapidly."

Better discovery

Along with the dream of the democratization of game development comes the nightmare of solving the discovery problem. With the barriers for game development and large-scale distribution lower than ever, it's an extremely difficult task to get players to know your game even exists. Dharni believes there are three elements to successful app discovery, which he calls the three "S"s: social, search and smart app stores. With the prevalence of Facebook and Twitter, he says discovery through social networks is more viable than ever. "Ultimately people's friends have become one of the biggest influences on mobile download choices. The fact that those [social] networks now have better mobile products with better user-targeting means makes them an even more valuable tool in acquiring users and directing users to what games their friends are playing." Improving the search function for mobile storefronts is another factor. Dharni says Gree sees a general trend showing that people do use app store search functions, but it's not a very efficient way to find games. "I do believe that Google and Apple both understand the need to improve and update the search function of their stores," says Dharni, who adds that Apple's acquisition this year of search and discovery platform Chomp is a good sign. And making mobile storefronts smarter about analytics is also a necessity, Dharni believes. Gree's own platform aims to fill in the metrics gaps. "Right now, app stores take in limited amounts of information about their games -- things like download rate and rating information. What they are not effectively measuring or using are things like game engagement and DAU. For example, does a game have 10 million users or 10 users? "So moving forward we see a lot of potential to improve categories, potentially adding things in like engagement, or app stores that spend more time perfecting and improving how they tap into user data, creating recommendations, similar to how Netflix does it. Apple does have Genius, but I think that is still in early stages, and we see the potential for that to really be taken to the next level."

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