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Fuel Powered's CTO and co-founder Alan Price discusses

Features-as-a-Service: The next frontier in mobile games

Mobile gaming continues to demonstrate itself as a leading sector of both the mobile apps and gaming industries. Already a $25bn industry itself, it is predicted to surpass console revenue in 2015 and boom to reach $40bn by 2018.

If you were to ask anyone who has spent more than a decade in the gaming industry, you’d find that this is not something that many would have predicted. If there is one constant in our industry though, it’s change. Staying relevant in the gaming business is a constant exercise in agility. One must be unbelievably flexible and receptive to change to create continued success. 

I have been making games for over 25 years. I was the CTO at EA overseeing FIFA and other key sports titles, and my experience with these franchises has allowed me to have a unique perspective on mobile gaming. EA Sports products iterate on an annual basis, with teams tweaking and tuning what had previously proved successful in order to drive future sales. I see this as a precursor to the live operations model. Whereas in a game like FIFA additional features and updates are added each year to satisfy fans, mobile games must evolve in the same fashion, but at an extremely accelerated pace.

The console model of development was born of a different age. What I saw while working on FIFA was that we always built almost everything from scratch, and we always did it in-house. This is not a business model that will work for most game developers when competing in mobile.

In an industry where only one in 10 games make any money at all, being efficient with the investment of your resources is absolutely key – and many are now looking outside of in-house technology in order to do this. Indies and triple-A studios alike are all looking at ways to mitigate their exposure to risk as they launch on the store.

With gamer expectations on the rise, cloud-based, connected experiences that change over time are a must – but that is a very expensive proposition with no guarantee of success. Development resources are always stretched, and committing full teams to deliver these connected games with fundamentally great gameplay is an incredible challenge.

In an industry where only one in 10 games make any money at all, being efficient with the investment of your resources is absolutely key. 

As successful mobile games have predominantly moved to a freemium, ‘Games-as-a-Service’ model the way that we develop and manage them towards success has drastically shifted. In the older console days, shipping a game through Sony or Microsoft was a moment of true celebration, time off was taken, and the development floor became a ghost town. Now, launching a game is really just the beginning of the journey with real live data to look at to engage and retain for the long haul.

This is a lot to ask from any game developer, particularly when none of us possess a crystal ball to know whether a game will be a commercial success.

Enter Unity. Unity’s mission to democratize the landscape is a very powerful way of looking at the industry. As a game engine, it has become a key technology resource for the majority of mobile game developers. It has brought development into the hands of many and helped vastly reduce development costs for core game experiences. Particularly for those on mobile. Viable success can be had with just a few people working on a game, and this was most ably demonstrated late last year by Crossy Road, a game that was made in just 12 weeks by three talented developers.

By looking at Unity’s expansion over time we can really start to see a shift in where the industry is going. The company is continuing to optimise its engine as a foundational piece of their offering, but it is their growth in Unity Services that captures my attention.

In March last year Unity acquired Applifier, and with it integrated the GameAds Video Ads (now Unity Ads) and Everyplay social gaming community solutions into their platform. The following month Unity expanded again with the acquisition of Playnomics, which provides predictive analytics for game developers. Unity Services has since continued to expand with Unity Multiplayer, a resource currently in preview that is designed to allow developers to stand up servers and create connected experiences across platforms using their APIs.

As you can see, an entire category has been born at what seemed to be the last step in the value chain, and with it the term ‘Backend-as-a-Service’.

Standing up server architecture to deliver a cloud-based, connected experience can be a very resource heavy aspect of production, and is no wonder that companies have started to pop up with the purpose of solving this problem for mobile developers.

Gamesparks, Playfab and Nextpeer have all started to carve out a niche in this area to reduce pressure on teams as they get to market. All tap into elements of social motivation as a key to keep gamers playing. In fact, according to research from App Annie and IDC, games that feature connected experiences that can leverage social elements tend to have much higher rates of success. Multiplayer accounted for 60 per cent of consumer spending among the top 50 mobile games according to their report. Given this, it seems logical to ensure that this feature is a key portion of your product.

The BaaS concept is to give developers the building blocks on which to build cloud-based features. Standing up server architecture to deliver a cloud-based, connected experience can be a very resource heavy aspect of production, and is no wonder that companies have started to pop up with the purpose of solving this problem for mobile developers. All of them build API hooks to enable a game to easily create a multiplayer feature, and they also offer social media hooks to allow gamers to include their friends in their experiences so they can capture the viral potential of community.

For some this is a great solution.

However, developers are still required to do a significant amount of legwork to build a feature from the foundation of the server architecture. It is for this reason that I co-founded Fuel Powered. We deliver a solution that goes another step further. We call this ‘Features-as-a-Service’. We deliver operable, cloud-based features that have a consistent track record of maximizing bottom line results for games.

Our mature product called Compete enables head-to-head challenges and custom tournaments. But we also offer white-label solutions to alleviate the pressure of building these features. Since we have been live ,we have seen strong increases in D7 retention across our portfolio and we thought we might as well keep going. Our next product will offer live events and missions that can be integrated through our operations portal.

Change doesn’t happen overnight. With time I believe that the shift away from in-house custom development will become widespread and gain momentum. The ability to use an external team who specializes in a specific area just makes sense. Games developers should be free to concentrate on the features that are truly going to differentiate their product in this busy marketplace.

Why reinvent the wheel when you don’t have to?

Alan Price is CTO and co-founder at Fuel Powered, a company that specialises in cloud-based services provider for mobile games developers. You can find out more at www.fuelpowered.com.

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