It’s exceedingly hard to take a hit game franchise on consoles and make it successful in mobile games. Pokémon Go has made that seem easy, but it is a very rare title. When it comes to moving from console to mobile, a lot of games with mixed success come to mind, such as Bethesda’s Fallout Shelter, Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, Sega’s Sonic games, and Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs companion app.
But succeeding in mobile, which has become the largest game market with $36 billion in revenues in 2016, is a must. Big console-focused game companies are still trying to succeed in mobile, but more often than not, it takes “mobile first” game companies to succeed. I moderated a panel on this subject at the Casual Connect USA game conference last week.
Our panelists included Terence Fung, chief strategy officer at Storm8; Sean Lee, chief strategy officer at Wargaming; Vlad Ceraldi, director of development at Hothead Games; Chris Early, VP of digital publishing at Ubisoft; and Chris Olson, former COO at Sega Networks.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Above: Panel from left to right: Dean Takahashi, lead writer for GamesBeat at VentureBeat; Terence Fung, chief strategy officer at Storm8; Sean Lee, chief strategy officer at Wargaming; Vlad Ceraldi, director of development at Hothead Games; Chris Early, VP of digital publishing at Ubisoft; Chris Olson, former COO at Sega Networks.
Image Credit: Heather Pond/VentureBeat
Terence Fung: I’m at Storm8. We’ve been a mobile first developer since 2009. The company has launched more than 45 games. We have more than a billion downloads. We’re mainly on the casual side. I run the biz ops side of the business.
Sean Lee: I’m the chief strategy officer at Wargaming. We’re a small indie developer out of Cyprus in Europe. We’ve been making PC games for 16 or 17 years. We got lucky about six years ago with World of Tanks. Since then we’ve been moving our titles aggressively to console and mobile. We’re trying to figure out things as we move along.
Vlad Ceraldi: I’m co-founder and director of development at Hothead Games. We’re a 10-year-old game publisher, starting with PC and console and transitioning into entirely mobile in late 2010. We shipped our first titles in early 2011. We have 175 team members between Vancouver and Halifax. We have more than 250 million downloads of our mobile series. We’re a leader in mobile shooters in the western markets.
Personally, I’m a former programmer, tech director, producer, exec producer. I approach this from dev on console and business on console, transitioning to mobile.
Chris Early: Ubisoft has been in the publishing business for 30 years now, making most of its name with console and PC games. About four years ago we got into the mobile business when our partnership with Gameloft ended. Since then we’ve worked on building a mobile group and studios around the world in the mobile space. It’s been interesting, learning the transition from console to mobile. We’ve had a few games of the year. We’ve had success bringing some IP to the mobile space.
Chris Olson: I used to be the COO of Sega Networks. I left in May. That was my second tour with Sega. I saw a different area of the business working on PC and console. I helped create Sega Networks, which was focused totally on the mobile space, smartphones and tablets. I was involved in helping transition teams from console to mobile, both on the development and the publishing side.
Above: The panel spoke at Casual Connect USA.
Image Credit: Heather Pond/VentureBeat
GamesBeat: We’re at an interesting time in the history of mobile games. The market is supposed to hit $36 billion in 2016. Either the last year or the last two years, it’s been a bigger market than console games. We have a lot of mobile-first companies leading in the business. Until last week it was hard to find any console intellectual properties that were present in the top-grossing games list, but a lot can change in one week.
Our general question for the hour here is, “What can console and mobile veterans learn from each other?” I’d like to hear Vlad talk first, especially since you guys say you “burned your bridges” back to console and moved entirely into mobile. Why would you characterize it that way?
Ceraldi: Partly it’s because our CEO was a big believer in focus. But it’s also just that not everyone made it. Some people weren’t able to survive that transition. We knew that it wasn’t enough to put a foot in. We had to transition everything – technology, approaches – we had to be willing to fail to learn. We failed a lot at the beginning. A lot of dev guys–whether it be the cycle – how long it takes to make these products – or where you put the quality, they couldn’t do it.
A big piece of it was also just the mentality, especially as we switched to free-to-play. The strategies on how to monetize, or how game design changed. The fact that you had to focus on the economy first, which is something we learned as we went along. The first ones did not go economy first, trust me. There was a mindset shift, a philosophical shift, along with a skill shift. It was a bumpy road for people and some didn’t make it.
Fung: For Storm8, the founders came from Facebook. They saw the opportunity when Facebook games, on the web side, were growing incredibly large. With a population of 3 billion people with smartphone handsets, clearly the opportunity in mobile is one of the biggest.
In the pure mobile space, I’ve lamented the fact that it’s been relatively static in the top-grossing charts, but Pokemon Go has proven that, obviously—it’s a unique case, but the charts can move very quickly. Whether it’s Draw Something or the next Trivia Crack, the addressable audience is huge on mobile.
Olson: It’s not surprising that mobile-first companies got their foot in the door earlier on the platform. Traditional publishers had an existing catalog that they optimized and put out on mobile at first, and that didn’t work as well. If you had companies that were going into mobile first, it’s not surprise that their first wave would be more popular and establish a toehold in the market.
A lot of companies were funded and started up specifically for mobile, and so when it comes to developing and innovating with their product, it was much different from companies that were already in motion with a history of product, a back catalog, or a different business. They had to go through that act of transitioning and surviving in hopes of thriving one day. That’s what Sega had to do. We had to continue to survive in order to get into a position where we could continue to grow. It’s far different from a startup that has capital. They had milestones to reach, but they could execute against that in a different time frame.
GamesBeat: Does anybody remember how far back that practice ended? Transferring your back catalog to mobile.
Early: Ubi had a very large back catalog of titles. When we started doing mobile a few years ago, that was definitely the thought. “What can we take from there and put on the platform?” And after the first few tries we realized, “Probably not many.” But the key question came to be what mechanics were still fun out of that IP or that lore.
Rayman, for example, has done a great job making the transition into the mobile space. It’s not exactly the same games, but the key mechanics of jumping and flying around—the platforming side of it works. We’ve expanded with Assassin’s Creed into a few different types of things – a card game, and a game that looks very much like Assassin’s Creed where you’re climbing walls and things like that. With Assassin’s Creed Identity, the team tried to make it so you have the total freedom you have in the console games, and it just didn’t work. It was too much control to simplify. But if you’re just saying, “Oh, I want to get to the top of that building,” that works, instead of finding where you’re going and climbing all the way up.
We’re learning as we go. It’s more a case of, don’t take the exact game, but look at the IP, the brand, and see how that can work on the platform.
Lee: As far as “when did it stop,” unfortunately, just from our perspective, Wargaming is still on that path. We have one title, World of Tanks, which we started working on for mobile five years ago. When you talk to our CEO, he doesn’t refer to it as a mobile game. He says it’s a PC game that happens to run on a mobile device. From that perspective, it’s definitely not a mobile-first experience, built from the ground up to cater to the patterns of mobile users.
That said, we got a bit lucky in the sense of—we landed on a specific niche, a high-quality immersive experience that’s more console- or PC-like, but still found a decent number of players who enjoy those kinds of experiences. There’s some relevance to the topic of today’s panel there.
GamesBeat: Do you guys think everyone has learned free-to-play at this point? Is that still a hurdle?
Ceraldi: I think everyone’s still learning. There’s a wide gap between those who are just beginning to understand and those who have nailed it, but even then, what’s going to work six months from now? It’s going to continue to evolve.
GamesBeat: So maybe the companies with data are the ones that understand it better.
Ceraldi: Analytics is a tool that helps accelerate you. It’s needed, but it’s not—you have to learn how to interpret it and implement it. That’s a whole different path there.
Early: There’s an element just beyond learning, though. I think there’s still an element of aversion to free-to-play monetization, especially if you look at western studios, studios that were traditionally based in a console background, people who value high-quality game experiences. That sentiment is changing, but if you look at east to west and the perceptions around free-to-play in different regions, there’s still a long way to go in terms of the change in attitudes. By consumers as well as developers.