A fairly wonderful conference will open its doors on 27 October in London, UK, namely Games for Brands, an event where we will do just that: investigate if and to what extent games may work for brands. Just speak to Barclaycard (their Waterslide Extreme game [done by Fishlabs] did more than 14m downloads on iOS) or Volkswagen (multiple games by Fishlabs [again]) for the Polo and others and a special VW Golf GTI edition of Real Racing by the recently acquired Firemint).
The event features a fairly cool line-up, too, including speakers from:
- Rovio (they of Angry Birds fame)
- Channel 4
- Wellcome Trust (yes, they’re the Glaxo Wellcome guys)
- Matmi (they did games and apps for instance for Lily Allen, Gorillaz, United.com and Vimto – the seriously mixed-up fruit)
- and, yes, I will be talking again, too (but when don’t I?)
I also have a goodie for the readers of this blog: four of you can get a very special discount and attend for £95.00 only. Tempted? Contact me (either via e-mail or Twitter or through the contact form here).
It’ll be a good one, so come along!
I have been blogging way too little recently, so here’s – finally – a bigger one again.
What is a Publisher?
I have recently been asked more and more what the role of a publisher in mobile gaming is today. I mean, heck, there are now even websites proclaiming the (traditional) publishers’ death. On the other hand, venerable old and ruthless new ones are on a spending spree acquiring – seemingly – studios and smaller publishers by the dozen: In the past year or so, EA gobbled up Playfish, Chillingo and Firemint (and probably a few more I don’t know of). Zynga, even hungrier, absorbed XPD Media, Challenge Games, Conduit Labs, Dextrose, Bonfire Studios, Newtoy, Area/Code and Floodgate Entertainment. So what is right?
According to Wikipedia, a videogame publisher is (was?) someone who
publishes video games that they have either developed internally or have had developed by a [...] developer. [...] They usually finance the development [...]. The large video game publishers also distribute the games they publish, while some smaller publishers instead hire distribution companies (or larger video game publishers) to distribute the games they publish.
Other functions usually performed by the publisher include deciding on and paying for any license that a game may utilize; paying for localization; layout, printing and possibly writing of the user manual; and the creation of graphic design elements such as the box design.
Pretty old-school stuff, you say? Erm, yes. Broken down from its beautifully naive pseudo-scientific language, we arrive at the following:
- Publishers pay for development (i.e. absorb the development risk). This could also be classed as project finance.
- Publishers pay for licenses, another case of project finance – unless of course they pretty much own (legally or, through long-term licensing relationships, factually) certain IP.
- Publishers provide a bit of gloss and lots of marketing around a title to help it on the way.
- Publishers – sometimes – distribute.
Is the Same in the Digital Realm?
Now, the Wikipedia definition pretty much focuses on traditional console and PC publishing, it seems (box art anyone?). And this is where the new world sharply departs. No box art, no Walmart or GameStop deals are required if digital distribution is in place. How difficult can it be then for the more modern, more evolved (?) world of digitally distributed and, perhaps (but only perhaps) even more specifically for mobile games?
Nos. 1 and 2 above are pretty much arbitrary parts of the puzzle: you can get money from many places (or not of course) but it is a financing game, and video games could be called a specific (because intrinsically hit-driven) asset class. That is to say, these are not unique attributes.
No. 3 is a combination of money, know-how, experience and network. The more complex the landscape the higher the value of a specialist in the field.
No. 4 is, well, arguably a much easier game when you can feed your distribution channels from your own desk – via the Internet. However, again, the more channels you need to serve, the more complex the landscape, the higher the value of someone "who knows".
Nos. 3 and 4 are – arguably – what made Chillingo (based in the same honest North-West English town as I am) what it is (or, prior to its acquisition by EA, was): Chillingo seems to have had a knack of identifying good or at least decent games and promote them effectively across digital channels. Alas, their biggest hit, Rovio’s Angry Birds had not much good to say about them in terms of support. And indeed, if one looks at what Rovio did with its hit title outside of the Chillingo relationship, one can argue about the value add it had received from its publisher. But then again, Angry Birds seems to have been one of a kind, and there are other titles Chillingo brought to reasonable success that may not have had the same success – be it for lack of a Mighty Eagle such as the fearless and tireless Peter Vesterbacka or otherwise.
Chillingo, alas, is not where it’s at, I think. The war is being fought over those (in)famous MAUs – or monthly active users. You see, if you can command those hundreds of millions and parade your own wares by them, the likelihood of your next game becoming a success rises: Digital connectivity solves the dilemma of publishing of old, and that was to attract the attention of the gamer (your customer!) for your next release.
In a box-product world, you had to shout again, and very loudly, in order to have your customer part with his hard-earnd monies for the benefit of your title rather than your competitors’. This is – arguably – why EA Sports sponsors UK football (scil. soccer) broadcasts: "please, God, let people not defect to Konami’s PES from my very own EA FIFA".
Now, Zynga laughs all the way to the bank on this: if you played FarmVille, you will not have come around of realizing that CityVille was out. And you would also get additional points if you also played Zynga Poker. The result? Well, check the top-10 games charts for Facebook games for yourself. Suffice to say that Zynga is – according to the second market – worth more than Electronic Arts… Why is that? Eyeballs, addressable users, dollars spent per acquired user. That the business model is a little different for console games than it is online, doesn’t really matter for the argument here: you can drastically reduce the user acquisition costs if you play it smartly, so no need to take in $39.99 per game in order to break even. $1 or $5 will be just fine, thank you very much.
The above is also the reason for the spending spree of the publishers, I would suggest: if you can buy eyeballs and get a studio with proven skills (just check out either of Newtoy or Firemint on the mobile end), and you can combine it with a mechanism to attract people to future releases, there is a much better chance you can recoup your investment on that future release (effectively de-risking nos. 1 and 2 from the above list).
And now for Mobile!?
Zynga, EA’s Playfish and Crowdstar have shown that you can tweak the fortunes your way if you smartly combine game releases, updates and promotions to work with each other. But how is it for mobile? Backflip Studios, which rose to fame with a simple but well-executed game ("Paper Toss"), claimed to have had racked up more than 2m daily active users and 50m total downloads, mostly driven through promotion of its own titles inside, well, its own titles. Did it have a publisher? No. Does it have a very smart CEO who solved nos. 1 and 2 above and knows how to play no. 3 itself? Yes. So what about no. 4, distribution? Well, on iOS, that is a non-issue: one distribution channel to bind them all. However, on Android, it still falls short of a copycat, "Toss It", who were there earlier, are as ingenious and still rule. And elsewhere? Not much.
But we don’t have to rely on one case alone, and one by a small – though incredibly smart – studio no less. Look at Zynga’s performance on mobile. It is mediocre at best. EA though? Not so bad. What do they do? Well, apply the good old publishing principles learned in the olden world.
And this is where the specific complexities of mobile come into play: mobile is fiendishly complex. On the OS side, there is iOS, Android (in an increasing number of iterations), Windows Phone 7 (with some added spice since the announcement of their Nokia partnership), Blackberry, Samsung’s bada, and then maybe BREW, perhaps still a little bit of Symbian and J2ME. But then there are also the still mighty gatekeepers, the mobile operators. And then you will see that users tend to want to have it their specific way, ideally localized. The plethora of channels thus created makes it tough on a developer to maneuver its way through…
There are tools that can aid progress (and, yes, our very own Scoreloop provides some of them) but it is important to recognize the complexity of it all. Reaching users and convincing them with compelling offers is key to success in any world. It is important to bear that in mind in mobile, too. And if you think you cannot walk it on your own, a publisher might just be the right partner for you.
Since 1. and 2. above might not be such a big thing anymore (mobile titles can be developed for less – and, yes, I know this does not necessarily apply to the likes of "Galaxy on Fire" or "Real Racing") and 3. might be manageable but 4. might (not: always is) still be a key reason to part with some share in order to reach the user, convince the user, be able to bill the user.
Nokia recently shook the world by starting to provide its Ovi Maps app including turn-by-turn navigation for free. And only just under 2 weeks later, it announced that users have downloaded the app more than 1.4m times. Good stuff.
The numbers led some people (Nokia’s Vanjoki as well as various industry pundits) to claim the dawn of Ovi downloads had arrived. I beg to differ, and here’s why:
1. A mapping application with turn-by-turn navigation cost, until very recently, anywhere between $30-80 a pop. And all of a sudden it is free. It is a little akin selling a Porsche Cayman for the price of a VW Polo: people will jump through any number of hoops for that. This is not proof that the download boom has finally also arrived with proud owners of Nokia phones; it merely shows that this is too good an offer to decline.
2. 1.4m downloads across the Symbian install base of c. 300m is not actually that impressive a number. To put it into context: a simple ad-funded game, Waterslide Extreme by German high-end development house Fishlabs, which is also a free download, clocked on the iPhone more than 10m downloads. As far as I am aware, the developer still sees around 40,000 downloads per day. And this is a long time after its release and for an app that fills significantly less of a need than satellite navigation. But even if one leaves aside this last bit (which is taking a very favourable view – no ceteris paribus here), Ovi Maps would need to hit roughly 100m downloads before it could say it was, pound for pound, as successful as Waterslide Extreme (NB: this is not exactly true because Nokia only supports some 20m devices to date).
3. It is not actually proof that the Ovi Store works as users can also download the app via the Nokia Website or via the “SW Update” application on the phone. At a time when the store still needs 90 seconds (measured on an N97 running on a Vodafone UK 3G network) and more to even load the opening screen, I struggle to believe that the store will see an uptake across the band.
4. It is likely being a bit of a one-off: Nokia also announced that, from March, every Nokia will come pre-loaded with the app.
Now, to clarify things: it is great news for boosting awareness of mobile phones as location-aware devices, and the pre-install on future phones will help that. It is likely that this will contribute to the fall of the dedicated satnav sector in much the same way Nokia’s landmark deal with Carl Zeiss lenses (and the resulting higher image quality of photos taken with your phone’s camera) was a doomsday scenario for the lower end of the digital camera market.
Also: Ovi Maps looks like a VERY good app: it covers more than 180 countries (car & pedestrian navigation: 74; traffic: 10), it is available in a whopping 46 (!) languages. It includes 3D landmarks for 200 cities around the world and incorporates Lonely Planet and Guide Michelin city guides. It is good, no doubt!
Finally, Nokia started early with the mantra of location-awareness. It was just that it had not executed particularly well to date. I know there is probably much more in the works than is visible to the untrained eye (or any other eye not from within the company) but the company does need to ramp up here since its hard-earned (and well-deserved) fame is/was beginning to fade quickly.
It would be fantastic if the world market leader would see uptake of applications rise sharply. I would very much like to ask them though not to fool themselves into believing that the store is not so bad after all only because of one successful application on it. There is a lot of work to do. The Ovi Maps case simply shows that one does not have to be a crazy Apple fan boy to be craving cool and useful apps. So, dear Nokia, continue to study the app store and try solve the shortfalls of the Ovi Store. It’ll be good for everyone!
A lot is being said about mobile marketing, mobile advertising, capturing “consumer’s” imagination (if not only their eyeballs). And everyone says: “yes, I get that, social, mobile, always-on, always with them, cool!” Online ad spend outstrips TV already (at least in the UK), and mobile is arguably the next big thing; it is so much cooler, too: personal, accessible, always-on!).
So how do you execute? Banner ads? Text ads? Virals? “Ah, yes, virals are cool, I heard about them!”
There’s a busload full of mobile advertising networks out there, blind, premium blind, premium (check here for a great overview). And what do they do? Well, banner ads, text ads, the usual. Does it work? Anecdotally, sort of… Most developers and publishers I know that engage in this sort of activity make their money in two ways: either they are being commissioned by an advertiser to do it (good because you’re being paid!) or they use it as complementary (sic!) revenue; on a stand-alone basis, it would not feed them.
Why is the conversion not soaring? After all, mobile allows for unprecedented targeting (IF you do it. See here how not to do it): users have their phones always with them, it is always on, you can fall back on historical behaviours, etc, etc.
I would posit that it is because most advertisers still think of it in terms of consumers: beings that sit on the other (sic!) end of the message and who consume whatever I, advertiser, want to tell them. It is not, alas, true engagement, and this is where arguably the future lies.
So how do you engage? Many options. A good one is by being sincere (Zappos, the online shoe retailer that was recently acquired by Amazon, is a great example). Another one is by engaging rather than preaching. Not so easily done with banners. Easier done with something more interactive. Such as – an example – games and apps. On Apple’s app store, there are some great successes for this type of thing: German car manufacturers seem to be good at this! Audi did one, German developer Fishlabs did a couple of games for Volkswagen, Artificial Life for BMW, and then there is Waterslide Extreme, which is basically a Barclaycard ad (and badly executed: they could so easily have accommodated the RFID function, which the original cinema and TV ad is meant to promote; alas, they ignored it!) which despite its shortfalls was incredibly successful. But these are exceptions to what I think might well become the rule. On the app side, there are e.g. Pizza Hut and Gap that were recently featured (for free!) in Apple ads. Wow!
It seems obvious when you think about it: games truly engage (users – not consumers! – interact with them actively) and they can do so in a much more subtle manner (less invasive). At the same time, the user (not: consumer) spends a lot more time with the brand than with a banner ad.
It is, alas, a space of unknown dangers and unprecedented adventure: never-before seen creatures (scil. formats) and strange folks (scil. developers) roam weird landscapes (scil. mobile platforms). This is how brands and their agencies often experience mobile. They "get" it, don’t get me wrong but they are still fairly unfamiliar with it. And because the big pots of gold sit with the brands and they don’t want to risk cutting access, they’ll rather (and rather too often) stick with what they perceive as the trusted old paths. It’s not so good then that the freshest fruit grows on the trees in this new land and no longer in the wastelands of banner ads…
Watch this space then. It will only be a question of time (I hope) before we’ll be seeing a new wave of non-intrusive, interactive, fun brand engagement. And games and apps will lead the way!
Fishlabs, the German high-end 3D studio have long been one of my favourite developers (see here for a previous post). And with the ascent of the iPhone also appears to come the rapid rise to fame for them. Today, they have released numbers on one of their latest advergames, which they did for Barclaycard. For those not familiar: Barclaycard runs a large advertising campaign where a guy slides on a water slide through the city buying stuff whilst passing through markets, shops, etc. It took me a while to understand it (even though I am one of their customers) but it is to promote their new RFID-enabled credit cards.
Fishlabs produced an iPhone game for this (aptly called “Waterslide Extreme”). Interestingly, other than a Barclaycard logo on the main menu screen, I could not (yet) find any mention of the brand. Anyhow, Barclaycard seems to be super-happy as Fishlabs now has reported a whopping 2m downloads in one (!) week, which have generated 16m “engagement minutes”, presumably meaning that players engaged with the brand.
The – free – game is said to top the iPhone download charts in no less than 57 countries, including all the biggies like the US (where, reportedly, 54% of iPhone and iPod Touch users reside), the UK and Germany.
I just wonder if this is such good marketing (and I am not an advocate for unwanted in-your-face advertising at all): one mention of the brand (and very subtly, too) would surely make for only the most discrete of “engagements” with the brand.
So good on Fishlabs! But advertisers might want to consider giving these things a little more thought. Imagine the potential result for the image of the Barclaycard brand if, through a somewhat more thoughtful and smarter brand treatment, all of those 2m users would actually perceive it as a fun goodie brought to them by Barclaycard. Just to think of it…
Birds (sic!) do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it, and now even Oprah (have you been there before her? Check here)… so: what about mobile games companies tweeting? Now, there’s many of them already out there (see list below) but how much sense does it make (that it makes sense for your business I demonstrated recently)?
With the conference season upon us, I shall be trekking to my former hometown of Hamburg on Monday to join the good folks from the Casual Games Association for their European iteration of Casual Connect. It looks like a pretty cool show with lots of interesting stuff going on, in particular also on social gaming and cross-platform initiatives: they have numerous panels and keynotes on both and a whole strand on mobile. Interesting speakers, too: Rob Unsworth (Digital Chocolate), Ami Ben-David (Oberon/I-Play), Philippe Dao (Gameloft) are there plus an interesting panel with Fishlabs’ Michael Schade and Handy Games’ Christopher Kassulke on the same panel (their two companies had a little bit of a tiff recently). I’ll be there to elaborate a bit more on mobile social gaming… Fingers crossed.