Chillingo on surviving the brutal world of mobile publishing

Chillingo is one of EA’s forgotten divisions.

The mobile games publisher famed for launching Angry Birds and Cut the Rope into the world works behind the scenes, hunting out the next big mobile game and helping its developers to launch it.

It doesn’t own the games it releases. It’s a team of experts that help turn promising titles into successful ones, something that can seem an impossible art in the Wild West of mobile game development.

Yet last week Chillingo hit the headlines. The firm’s general managers, Chris Byatte and Joe Wee, who set up Chillingo in 2005 before selling it to EA in 2010, had left. What did it mean for the company’s future?

The departure of Joe and Chris has no direct impact on the business,” said Ed Rumley, the company’s COO. Chillingo continues to thrive. In fact, two of our recent titles, Ninja Theory’s Fightback and HolyWaterGames’ Feed Me Oil 2, earned Apple’s Editors’ Choice recognition in the past two consecutive weeks.”

Chillingo has been busy in recent months, signing new publishers like Ninja Theory and developing new tools, such as ‘Pop The Offer’, which encourages gamers to ‘burst’ a floating bubble that contains a promotional deal.

But Chillingo has also changed how it operates.

During the latter half of 2012, I recognised our need to reinvent,” admitted Rumley. We had some great successes but the service we supplied needed to evolve as the market did. That primary shift was a reduction in the number of games we published in order to build a business focused around freemium gaming. This wasn’t a business development problem but a cultural one as I had to change the DNA of Chillingo.

Every department has been affected. We have achieved what we set out to do with more than 70 per cent of our business now coming from free games. Our shift to free will be even greater in 2014.”

Free is the future of Chillingo’s business. But it’s a model under attack, too. Specialist game websites have criticised the titles that support it, while the press frequently runs horror stories of kids racking up huge bills on in-app purchases.

Free-to-play made games more accessible but also brought with it challenges,” said Rumley. Developers, publishers, and retailers all have a part to play in ensuring F2P games are appropriate. We have an exceptionally high average rating at Chillingo and we want to maintain that. Ultimately, gamers will continue to play as long as they are enjoying their experiences. It’s not always easy to strike the right balance.”

The rapid rise in indie mobile developers has seen the demand for Chillingo’s services increase dramatically as the mobile market has never been more competitive, with an audience that’s notoriously fickle.

We receive thousands of emails each year and this number is rising. There is no sign of the market being saturated; yet with thousands of games launching each month it can be very daunting,” explained Rumley.

We see the gap widening between good and great mobile games. In the past year, the number of games on the App Store has increased by nearly 40 per cent, so it’s the games that offer quality that will be successful. That means an indie developer’s title must have great gameplay, be visually appealing and have an appropriate business model and game design. Getting this formula right is a challenge. Some developers self-publish and have success and I applaud that – but it is increasingly rare.”

And that’s why Chillingo still matters, Rumley argues. Any concerns over its future are unfounded despite the departure of its bosses because developers need companies like Chillingo.

No matter what the company’s size, Chillingo is a virtual extension to a developer’s business. Our indie developers are all assigned producers, graphic designers, product managers as an example: a resource they may not necessarily have.

We also have the luxury of being able to talk to our colleagues in EA Mobile. The team that worked on the The Simpson’s Tapped Out also advised on Iron Force and sent analysts to the China-based developer, Coolfish.”

Rumley concluded: Every game we publish is one that we’ve helped for a reason. They all provide gamers with an experience that keeps them wanting to come back for more.”

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