I remember my first mobile phone well, it was a Nokia 8210 that I got myself locked into a 2 year contract for mostly because I wanted to play snake on it. After having the phone a month (and subsequently having it stolen) I grew tired of the game and resigned myself to just using at it was intended, as a phone. This continued with all my following phones for the next few years as I favoured function and form over features, even forgoing the opportunity to play old classics like Doom on my Atom Exec. However after picking myself up an iPhone early last year I started looking into the world of mobile gaming and I was surprised to see such a healthy games community, grabbing a few free titles for my shiny new gadget.
Primarily though I noticed that the vast majority of games available on the App Store were from small development houses, usually ones I’d never heard of before. Whilst there were a few familiar titles there (like Plants vs Zombies) for the most part any game that I got for my iPhone wasn’t from any of the big publishers. Indeed the most popular game for the iPhone, Angry Birds, comes from a company that counts a mere 17 people as its employees and I’m sure at least a few of them only came on since their flagship title’s release. Still the power of the platform is indisputable with over 50 million potential users and a barrier to entry of just one Apple computer and a $99 per year fee. Still it had me wondering though, with all this potential for the mobile platform (including Android, which has sold just as many handsets as Apple has) why aren’t more of the big names targeting these platforms with more than token efforts?
The answer, as always, is in the money.
Whilst the potential revenue from 50 million people is something to make even the most hardened CEO weak at the knees the fact remains that not all of them are gamers. Heck just going by the most successful games on this platform the vast majority of Android and iPhone owners aren’t gamers with more than 80% of them not bothering to buy the best game available. Additionally games released on the mobile platform are traditionally considered time wasters, something you’re doing when you don’t have anything better to do. Rarely do you find a game with any sense of depth to it, let alone does such a game strike it big on the platform’s application store. Couple that with the fact that no mobile game has gotten away with charging the same amount as their predecessors on other platforms has and you can start to see why the big publishers don’t spend too much time with the mobile platform, it’s just not fiscally viable.
For the small and independent developers however the mobile scene presents an opportunity unlike any they’ve seen before. Whilst there is much greater potential on other platforms (The Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 both have user numbers rivalling that of the iPhone and Android platforms) the barriers to entry for them are quite high in comparison. Microsoft, to their credit, has reduced the barrier to the same level as the iPhone ($99/year and you bring your own console) but thus far it has failed to attract as much attention as the mobile platform has. Other platforms are plagued by high investment costs for development such as any Sony or Nintendo product, requiring expensive development consoles and licenses to be purchased before any code can be written for them. Thus the mobile platform fits well for the smaller developers as it gives them the opportunity to release something, have it noticed and then use that to leverage into other, more profitable platforms.
I guess this post came about from the anger I feel when people start talking about the iPhone or Android becoming a dominant player in the games market. The fact is that whilst they’re a boon for smaller developers they have nothing when compared to any of the other platforms. Sure the revenue numbers from the App Store might be impressive but when you compare the biggest numbers from there (Angry Birds, circa $10 million) to the biggest on one of the others (Call of Duty: Black Ops $1 billion total) you can see why the big guys stick to the more traditional platforms. There’s definitely something to the world of mobile gaming but it will always be a footnote when compared to its bigger brothers, even when compared to the somewhat beleaguered handheld, the PSP.