With continued content provider consolidation, increasing development costs and more and more hardware fragmentation, what possible sense could it make to consider starting a new mobile studio? Finblade's John Chasey and Fergus McNeill discussed the issues of being a mobile startup, arguing that while now was a challenging time to be a start up, it was also an advantageous one.
"The first question is: ‘Why be a mobile developer'," said Chasey, "The simple answer is: Don't."
Chasey explained why he felt it was a bad idea specifically: the cost of mobile development continues to rise fast ("over five years the cost has risen from $50,000 to $500,000"); there are way too many handsets to port to; the number continues to rise even faster ("over five years we have moved from developing a game on a handful of handsets to a room full.
They're often not easy to get any more. I sometimes wonder if I'm bidding against another developer just down the road for a handset on eBay!"); you can't get a direct operator deal as a developer any more ("now they're all publishers"); and only big brands get deck placement.
Indeed, Chasey noted, publishers rarely commission games any more, with most now relying on in house production, often taking advantage of developers in China/Eastern Europe/India/South America, all of which can undercut you. "I get more emails offering outsourcing our development than I do offers of $10 million from Nigerian widows," Chasey quipped.
Other distribution methods aren't ideal either, Chasey warned darkly: "If I license my game to an aggregator, they might not report my sales accurately: trusting I get a royalties report at all."
However, there is a demand for new entrants to the industry, Chasey argued. New media companies are looking at mobile ("they'll need the expertise of independent developers to bring their concepts to market,") and direct to consumer distribution methods are on the rise. The advent of a true flat-rate on mobile billing plans could make a major difference, and Ad-supported revenue streams are "ready to explode," according to Chasey.
Making a Name for a Start-Up
McNeill took the stage to discuss how to make a name for a start-up. To begin with, developers need to know potential clients: identify them and assess what they are likely to be looking for, but it's even more important that they know who you are.
"Even if you don't get work from publishers straight away, it's worth positioning yourself with these prospective future clients," said McNeill.
So, what can you do? McNeill asked prospective new start-ups to consider their people, such as how many teams they have to hand, if they have a porting team or a QA team, and then to think about their experience: is it Java/Brew/Symbian? 3D? Working with brands? Then to think about the equipment that they have at hand - how many handsets and what kind of software tools.
"Finally you have to think very, very hard about your cashflow," McNeill warned.
McNeill went on to explain what he felt was at the forefront of the demands of a publisher: peace of mind. "If you can demonstrate to them that they can leave you to it and worry about their other suppliers, that's a huge tick for you."
McNeill acquiesced that getting the attention of publishers in the first place is one of the hardest challenges, and showed a short film that they used to explain their concept to publishers: a comical "retro" advertisement for Zombie Pest Patrol.
"We sent this out to a handful of clients that we thought would get the message on DVD. For three minutes (for that's how long the video lasted) we've got their attention completely. Maybe they'd never publish that game, but they'll remember us."
McNeill went on to discuss the way in which the developer mindset and publisher mindset are at odds. While a developer asks themselves, "is it a good game" and wonder if hey can make it, publishers are asking themselves on which carriers they could get prime deck placement. "Remember, publishers don't have it easy. They're at the mercy of the carriers."
Moving on, McNeill looked at pitching to publishers, noting that "everyone is looking for a reason to say ‘no' as saying no has far less persona risk." Finance are sure there is someone cheaper; sales could find something with less risk, and so on.
"Basically, are you the right project at the right time? There is no 100% guaranteed way to get a green light, but you can improve your odds. Talk to your clients and learn about them; try to predict what is likely to get accepted."
Compete on Quality
Chasey returned to the podium to recap, stating "You can't compete on price, so make sure to compete on quality. And quality doesn't just mean the game: It means on every interaction with the publisher."
So is now a crazy time to start a mobile games studio? "Well probably," Chasey admitted, "But it just might work!"