Why Consolidation on Mobile Games from Top Publishers Creates Opportunities for Indies

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Mobile’s top developers, the billion-dollar behemoths, have upended their businesses in the past year or two. Where mobile was once a frothy free-for-all, in which even the largest publishers experimented with different game types, the leading studios have now pivoted to an austere policy of just one or two new releases per year—with major implications for the overall market.

Disney Interactive is one high-profile adopter of this paradigm shift. In an interview with VentureBeat, studio head Chris Heatherly explained why the company has shut down many of its titles: “I’m not as worried about rank or market share as I am about the quality of the stuff we’re putting out there.”

Other publishers making a similar move include Kabam, which announced that it would be making fewer games in its 2015 restructuring and Japan-based DeNA, which recently axed titles based on popular franchises including Star Wars: Galactic Defense, Marvel: War of Heroes and Transformers: Battle Tactics.

These giant publishers are pushing for quality over quantity to foster audience loyalty and retention. But it’s not just for big companies—understanding the why and how of this shift can position indie mobile game devs for success, too.

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Image via Marvel

Starting the stampede

Supercell began the push for quality over quantity in its infancy. In 2011, they released Gunshine.net, an MMORPG for Facebook, then promptly turned around and killed it, explaining that it was wrong for the platform. The following year, Supercell developed five mobile games but only released two: Hay Day and Clash Of Clans. Even today, Supercell has just four games—but all four are hits.

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Image via Google Play

Although Supercell has held to its fewer-is-better strategy for its six-year existence, other developers took years to understand the strategy. It’s not just that Supercell’s ruthless focus only produces winners; having fewer games also allows a focus on mobile game live operations that wouldn’t be realistic with a huge library of games.

MZ (formerly Machine Zone), one of the few other major studios to catch onto this tactic early, operates just two games, 2013’s Game Of War: Fire Age and 2015’s Mobile Strike. CEO Gabe Leydon explained at GamesBeat: “The process of creating an app, running an app and marketing an app is too complicated to do for five games a year. Especially if you want to grow a game to a very large scale. I don’t think it’s possible to do five games a year. I’m not even sure it’s possible to do two.”

The table scraps of giants?

The good news for indie devs is that they don’t have to compete at quite the same level as the big publishers. In 2016, there is good money to be made in the top 100 to 1,000 grossing ranks due to market growth. The mobile game market will generate revenues of $36.9 billion in 2016 and continue to grow to $52.5 billion in 2019, according to mobile intelligence company Newzoo. The profit pie has grown big enough that even if the top 10 games gobble up 25 percent of the market—as they did in 2015—there will still be enough to go around for those with lower spots on the charts.

Case in point: Canada’s Roofdog Games. “If you have a small studio and you’re in the top 500, you’re more than fine, you’re doing pretty good,” CEO Guillaume Germain recently told Chartboost. He should know: While Roofdog’s first game Extreme Road Trip hit No. 1 in 2011, its more recent game Pocket Mine 2 only ranks in the top 200 to 500 grossing games on iOS. But the market has changed so much that Pocket Mine 2 is the larger earner.

If you have a small studio and you’re in the top 500, you’re more than fine, you’re doing pretty good,”

And with large companies shooting only for the uppermost rankings—whether that’s the top 50, 10 or even top 5—smaller mobile game developers will have more room to breathe lower down in the charts: Good news for a sustainable industry.

Quality even in small things

There is more to learn from the shift in big company strategy than rankings. Quality is the trend of the future, not just for Supercell, MZ or Disney, but for everyone. All companies must make games with staying power: enough content to last highly engaged players six months or more, and enough spending opportunities for top spenders to pay $1,000 or more. These are the basic principles that guide large companies in their choice of which games to make—or to kill.

Many small developers might think it’s impossible to build games, and marketing machines, that can match the largest companies, who now spend millions of dollars per title on mobile game user acquisition. But games from smaller developers can still look competitive to players. According to Torulf Jernström, CEO of Finland-based studio Tribeflame, the solution is to share those strategic goals of large companies, but focus on unique games that appeal to niche audiences.

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Image via Tribeflame

Jernström uses the example of Tribeflame’s new game in development, Dragon Fortress, which uses a risky new blend of game mechanics. Large companies usually avoid fresh game designs, hewing close to established successes. Small companies should seek out this newness. “The hope is that this is so different that people say, ‘OK, that’s interesting, let me have a look,’ and we get a number of users very cheaply compared to the other guys,” Jernström says.

If small indies are successful at walking the line between the quality standards of big companies (with lower audience goals) and a style that looks and feels refreshing to players, then they can do very well in today’s market.

“What’s a success for us is very different from what’s a success for Supercell,” advises Jernström. “We don’t need to be No. 1.”

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