A response to the awesome Fireproof blog post on Polygon

First, you need to read this. Fireproof ‘free-to-play binds the hands of dev’s who want to help”

It’s ok, because it’s very well written, very cognizant of the situation in mobile development today and very well argued. It’s a very good read and a refreshing perspective from someone who’s actually gone out there and done it.

Read it? Good. Because you’ll need to in order for what I have to say next to make sense.

I have to agree with quite a lot of it. In fact, all of it. I would far rather be making larger, single experience games than have to constantly be designing stuff with IAP as an integrated part of the experience, since that’s where I come from too.

But while I agree with everything said in that post, it’s also worth pointing out that within the context of the environment, some of the arguments are less persuasive.

Now, I don’t mean that to come out as ‘no, you are wrong’, because that’s not the intention at all. I LOVE the Room (finished it) and I have Room 2 on my ipad mini, but I haven’t started because I know that when I do, it’ll own me, and I just have too much to do in life right this second.

My point here is that with context, everything said I agree with. But context is larger than the article gives on. There’s risk, for example. While the mobile market is far broader than AAA console and PC development, it’s a lot shallower. What this means is that there aren’t the number of 12-16 year old CoD fanatics for Ipad Games as there are for the actual CoD games on Xbox and Playstation. A console is a dedicated games machine, mobile is not.

The fact is that deep investment in mobile is a scary proposition simply because there isn’t that rabid fanbase already there. Those that tried, as has been mentioned, treated it as a AAA platform and it…just isn’t.

Mobile gaming is very different from console gaming. When you console game, you sit down in front of your TV with a very express aim in mind – to play a game, usually for some period of time. Mobile is not like that. People pull their phone out at odd times, like in a waiting room or on a bus, and play for a very short period of time.

You can’t generate deep SkyRim like gameplay in that situation, because it relies on so much prior knowledge of the game and current situation that it takes 10 minutes to remember what you were doing and everything that pertains to that, and by the time you’ve done that, the Doctor is ready to see you now. By definition, since game play periods are unpredictable both in when they happen and duration, game play tends to be much lighter and more what we at Midway (back in the 90′s) call Dip Games. You can dip in at anytime, play for as long as you want, leave and when you come back, there is no repercussion to the game you are playing. Multi-player Quake is a perfect example of a dip game, as is Mortal Kombat.

Incidentally, it’s worth pointing out that The Room is inadvertently a Dip Game – something very specifically that works for random play times. The way it’s constructed – this puzzle leads into the next one, leads you into a nice area to put away the device. “I figured that out! Awesome! Lets put the tablet away and go to the grocery store now.” Etc.

Sure, this situation limits what you can do – you end up with a ton of asynchronous card game and turn based games – but that’s the reality of what the average gamer has time for. It’s not about “what they want”, it’s more about the realities of how they play and the attention span they have at the time of playing. There is some validity to the claim, although as has already been pointed out, that doesn’t invalidate the Polished Single Purchase game approach.

Another thing that plays into this is history. The fact is, smart phones were an evolution of existing phones, which were not designed to play games, but did anyway – witness Snake on the old Nokia phones. Phone users have been conditioned to accept that games will look a bit 1980′s, mainly because phones as a games platform hasn’t been oriented that way. We are now, for sure, or you wouldn’t be able to put games like The Room on it, but that conditioning has not gone away. People just don’t expect the same kind of graphical glory that they’d get on their console. If they did, they wouldn’t need the console in the first place, and while that is the inevitable conclusion (I’m with Ben Cousins on this), right now they need to justify the purchase of an XBox One AND an Ipad, so they play less graphical intensive games and accept it on the Ipad and then expect real time photo realism on the other.

That’s not to say that mobile games currently don’t have to look good, just that most developers aren’t spending their time on that because it’s, as it’s pointed out, there is the implicit “good enough” thinking in most mobile development.

Which brings us to the current generation of money men. Publishers, investors etc. The fact is that most of these people are not creative, and it’s foolish to expect them to understand what a creative needs to do to ensure polish. They are there to get the max return they can get for as little outlay as they can get away with. If the game looks a little shitter than it really needs to, whatever, we are still making money – expectations aren’t that high to begin with. It’s the race to the lowest common denominator that still makes them money. They are still in that mindset of “mobile games tend to look shitty” even more than the players are, to be honest, because they are seeing the cost of development of quality (of which, more in a bit).

As an example, I had a client for a year who was big into hunting games. When I looked at the codebase and what his games looked like, I gasped. It was horrible. No animation blending, no animation timing, lighting all wrong, GLsettings all incorrect etc. It was just awful. I looked at other hunting games and most of them were no better. I spent a year telling him that one month’s effort could upgrade his engine to the point where he would be head and shoulders better than the other games, and that he could own this genre with his offerings. But he just wasn’t interested – one month of me working on something that he couldn’t track as adding to his bottom line was unacceptable. You could get an entire game done in that time. Good enough paid the bills and reduced his outgoings, and that was that. (I actually added an animation blender to the codebase on my own, simply because I just couldn’t stand looking at it.)

There is a tendency to short term thinking in mobile that is a bit scary, but is also understandable because development times are so short in comparison. You get a game done in a month on mobile, so every day counts and if you need to do something that’s going to bust that deadline, well, lets put that off till the next game. Like I said, understandable, but coming from AAA, where polish is everything, it’s a hard pill to swallow.

Then there’s The Current Generation experience. While we are lamenting the lack of the One Sale situation that AAA (mostly) enjoys, it’s worth pointing out that the iphone is now seven years old. That’s seven years of a generation that is used to F2P and how IAP works. For the more casual gamers, this is a way of life. When they come to XBox and find the average game costs $60, it’s a shock. It’s certainly that way with my kids. They are now conditioned to expect this dribs and drabs kind of game play approach.

Now, that’s not an argument that F2P is “better” than a polished single purchase experience at all, just that it’s here now, and it’s not going away, and objecting to it is more than a little pointless. Sure, Polished Single Purchase is valid too, but it’s harder to be successful at it since there is an entire fan base that doesn’t want to pay $20 to play your game, but wants to try it for free and then very slowly pay out over time (usually without realising it). That’s a reality. That’s not a “You shouldn’t do it” argument, just a recognition that high quality (and usually high development cost, which often goes hand in hand – we’ll talk about that next) is a harder sell. It just is.

As an example, lets look at another extremely high quality game on Ipad – Republique. I know for a fact they’d have to sell multiple hundreds of thousands of copies to even break even on development costs. There’s little chance they will, but they do have episodic content to fall back on, since each episode won’t cost as much to make as the initial engine build. But the point is, it’s unlikely they will make their money back, at least initially.

I really know of only three games that have really had a large single player AAA like polished experience that have made serious bank on mobile, using the single purchase model. One is the Room, another is the Tiger Games set of games (most notably, Waking Mars) and the other is Infinity Blade (which, it should be pointed out, was financed as a mobile advert for Unreal on mobile, and has over $500k worth of assets in it – not that they didn’t make their money back, but it’s just not something your average mobile developer could either afford in the first place, nor afford to place that kind of risk on. Not when there are other, cheaper, methods of making a buck).

Which does neatly lead me into the last point I wanted to make, regarding development costs.

Barry mentions that The Room was made with a budget of $70k. That’s pretty damn impressive. I wouldn’t have imagined that was possible. I suspect it’s because they were all ex AAA developers, had good development habits, and knew exactly what they wanted to make up front. And that’s the rub.

Most mobile developers do not come from that background. The Tiger Games crew did, and it shows. What they produce is very AAA quality. The Republique crew did not, and their development costs were.. well, I don’t want to give away numbers that I got second hand anyway, but lets just say it wasn’t $70k. Way too few zeros there.

Most mobile developers, for better or worse, want to do the least they can and just get it done. Android is a nightmare since there are so many platforms and capabilities to handle and test, and IOS has it’s own issues when it comes to phones.

My point is that saying “We did it for $70k and had no marketing budget” is not the norm. Most developers could not have done it for that. And it strikes me that relying on that as a business practice is probably a bit foolhardy. The number one problem with the appstore is visibility, and going in blind is an invitation to be handed your ass. In this way, The Room IS an outlier, and protesting about it doesn’t change that. It got success by word of mouth and people like Nathan Fillon and Zack Levi (“Chuck”) talking about it on twitter (it’s certainly where I heard about it). Now quality is an influencing factor there, no doubt. They would not have been talking about it if it┬áhadn’t hit a quality bar, but there are other high production value games that I don’t see them talking about – Republique etc. You can’t rely on this as a marketing solution. Getting lucky once with celebrities endorsing your product doesn’t make it repeatable. Although, to be fair, now FireProof is in the position it is, anything it announces is news now anyway, much like Epic. Anyone else announcing the Unreal Tournament new development would be buried on the back pages, but because it’s Epic, it’s front and center. And that is what it’s like for most of the other people.

Something like The Room would take most developers at least $200k to build, and that’s assuming there were no design direction changes along the way.

Now, that’s not to say it’s not possible. What I’m saying is that I think their experience is not necessarily the norm – there are some modifying circumstances -, BUT that other developers may/should need to be trying to replicate it. The problem with lack of experience is that you often don’t know what you don’t know. The issue is that of risk – banking success on a Polished Single Purchase is a higher risk than going the IAP route – there’s just reality to that statement. Both are fraught with failure, but since there are more success stories of IAP games being successful, what do you expect most mobile indies who have NOT come from AAA to do?

Now is that a self fulfilling prophecy? Possibly, but while it’s an interesting discussion, it’s also an academic exercise. The landscape is what it is by now. The more interesting question is, can this be changed? Which is (at least to me) the thrust of what the Fireproof blog post is about. It reads, to me, as “We did this, why can’t you?” and while there are some very specific conditions in how they did it, the point is well made. Why can’t we?

The answer is, yes, of course the landscape can be changed. Is it likely? Well, according to my magic 8 ball, the answer is “Ask again later”, which I’d say is probably right on.

But, it won’t change unless more experienced developers do take that same risk that the fella’s at FireProof did. So here’s to hoping they do.

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