Secret Exit CEO Jani Kahrama looks at whether free-to-play and mobile are still viable options for indie developers

Mobile, indies and three steps ahead

Jani Kahrama is the founder & CEO of Secret Exit, an independent game developer located in Helsinki, Finland. The studio is perhaps best known for puzzle game Zen Bound on iPhone.

Doesn’t it seem like indie games development and mobile free-to-play are contradicting terms? If you read Eric Seufert’s advice to mobile indies, he is spot-on about the process and requirements of creating a free-to-play game for the mobile marketplace with any chance of success.

However, after reading it, I can’t help but wonder if a successful free-to-play developer is an indie any longer.

According to Eric, you’ll need VC funding, a publisher, or a developer partner for the hard launch of your game. He’s totally correct, as I do not expect many indies to sit on war chests with hundreds of thousands of dollars reserved for paid user acquisition, or an active existing userbase of millions to cross-promote to.

Since the costs of marketing a game (i.e. buying installs) are multiple times higher than the development costs, and there is an ample supply of free-to-play games being developed, it’s doubtful that the publishing contracts being offered are advantageous to the developer. In other words, depending on a publisher or external funding is well at odds with the "independent" part of the term indie.

Another issue is the game itself: since free-to-play depends on games reaching the widest possible audience, by nature they tend to avoid taking risks in art style, theme, or gameplay mechanics – again something that is at odds with the innovation, exploration of new concepts, and unique art styles that I consider inherent to indie game development.

Annoyance by Design

The current business trend in mobile games focuses single-mindedly on monetisation, and I believe there are many who share my concern for the effect that the free-to-play dominance has on diversity and innovation in game design. Barry Meade of Fireproof Studios seems to be one, and I wholeheartedly agree with his commentary.

With addictiveness, retention, and monetisation as the keys to fortune, it is no surprise that all current tools and processes are concentrating on improving those three metrics. I cannot deny that the games are improving when measured by those three attributes – the outrageous revenues generated by the top F2P titles are a testament to that.

However, what I consider worrying is how the industry is mistaking retention for quality. As an attempt to elaborate, please let me present common free-to-play mechanisms in a mystery novel context:

– A great mystery novel captivates the reader and keeps him guessing, engaged, and turning the pages to reveal the mystery. Decades later, some may refer to the book as a classic.

– A free-to-play mystery novel is in a room where the lights go out unless coins are inserted. The pages actually repeat the same sentence over and over again, but there is a lollipop glued to the beginning of every chapter. If the book is left on the table, its LED-lights start blinking. Years later, those who have overcome their lollipop addictions let out a sigh of relief.

It’s safe to proclaim that there is not a single mobile game out there that is actually improved, as a game, by including free-to-play mechanisms

It is disheartening that instead of writing better stories, the industry is focused on tweaking the intervals of blackouts and lollipops.

Free-to-play games are, by design, providing a better experience to the paying customers, and due to the situation of the mobile market, can only contain consumable IAP as their primary source of revenue. Fixed- price in-app purchases that are permanently owned by the customer are simply not feasible as a business model (or even desired from the business point of view) for a game that requires paid user acquisition to thrive.

In other words, free-to-play games have built-in limitations or friction points that can only be overcome with currency. Designing friction and frustration for the sake of monetisation is what I consider at odds with high quality games. Therefore it’s safe to proclaim that there is not a single mobile game out there that is actually improved, as a game, by including free-to-play mechanisms.

The Paid Games Dilemma

Apple has been mostly content in letting the App Store run its course. As the App Store turned to a one-dollar- store, the biggest change we saw was the inclusion of the Top Grossing list. Beyond that, the iterations of the App Store have mostly been layout changes. It is certainly much appreciated that indie success stories like Badlands happen, facilitated by high-visibility featuring, but as everyone says, relying on Apple to feature you is not a business strategy.

The problem is, for many studios who are excellent at making games, there is no other strategy. It’s certainly not a problem for Apple, they should be commended for the growth of the App Store, but one might question if the feature slot lottery is enough to foster a community capable of creating the most unique showcases for their devices.

Another Secret Exit mobile title, Eyelord, picture above

It is easy to criticise the App Store, but how to improve it? One item might be to question the relevance of the Top Grossing list in the current state of the market. While it used to give a fair chance for more expensive premium apps to show up in the charts, nowadays it has become more of a double ranking benefit for the games that bought their visibility on the Top Free list.

While I would love to see an Indie Games category on the App Store, it’s obvious that one would be difficult to set up since even the indies are unable to define who is or isn’t one.

The Indie Future

Despite the challenges of the current mobile market being well documented on websites and blogs, I suspect that the exact moment when established studios come to a first-hand realisation of the situation depends largely on where they are in their current product cycle. Those with existing revenue streams may still be in the middle of development of their new game, and while aware of the situation, are not fully grasping the discovery challenges ahead of them.

I am concerned for the many young studios who started developing a free-to-play title a year ago, and are now approaching their launch deadline with a spent budget, and are facing ridiculous user acquisition costs.

Experimentation and innovation are the undeniable core skill set of indie teams, and it’s regrettable that this unique resource is being herded toward its anti-thesis business model

Since the title of the article is mentioning three steps ahead, here is what I consider the near future to be if no action is taken by mobile platform holders to address the discovery issues of premium indie titles beyond the weekly lottery of feature slots:

Step One: There will be a trend of indies moving away from considering mobile as the primary target market, largely due to the reasons outlined above. The likely platform of choice is PC with Steam and Humble Bundle as the main channels of distribution and discovery.

Step Two: Consequently, due to the influx of developers and content, Steam and Humble Bundle will face bandwidth issues. Also the role of platform featuring on Steam will be further accentuated. It’s unlikely that there would be a single "next big thing", so this means indies will look for smaller first launch opportunities in the landscape of the next-gen of consoles and microconsoles, potential new devices from Google and Apple, and any new interesting hardware launches (Oculus Rift, I’m looking at you!).

Step Three: Once the landscape has settled for the next few years of hardware and platforms, what is a survival strategy for an indie studio? As murky as the crystal ball is, it still highlights the basics:

– Focus on your strengths
– Make interesting, unique, high-quality games
– Remain multi-platform as long as you can, commit to a device only when you must
– Be input-method and screen aspect ratio agnostic
– Keep your team small and burn-rate low
– Show a friendly face to your fans

The Value of Design

Experimentation and innovation are the undeniable core skill set of indie teams, and it’s regrettable that this unique resource is being herded toward its anti-thesis business model.

The established game industry tends to latch on to whatever model appears to be working, and then starts throwing money at the problem – on consoles this is evident from the rising production costs of triple-A titles, and on mobile from the rising costs of user acquisition.

Competing against money is clearly not the way to go, but luckily the secret weapon of successful indies is design: ever so often a game pops out of the woodwork that slaps everyone in the face with its fresh approach, and is loved by a huge audience despite side-stepping high production values and expensive marketing budgets. Minecraft is perhaps the finest example of this.

In similar vein, games like Crayon Physics, World of Goo, Touch Grind, FTL, Journey, King of Dragon Pass, Zen Bound, The Room, Badlands, and Papers, Please (and many others that would deserve mention!) have all received their share of critical acclaim from turning a unique design into a memorable and inspiring experience.

The one thing in common with all the above games is that they were designed to make their users happy, a quality that I value highly, and find sadly lacking in much of the current mobile game offerings. Any platform that does not do its best to embrace and promote such experiences is none the richer, no matter the monetisation.

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