This week, I will have the great pleasure to attend (and speak) at the NY Games Conference. If you are on the East Coast and into games, this is where you need to be. Join us! It’s worth it. There are speakers from:
- Majesco Entertainment
- Sony Computer Entertainment
- TAG Strategic (yes, Ted, the man himself!)
- EA Sports
- Sulake (of Habbo Hotel fame)
- CBS Interactive
- Wedbush (Michael Pachter himself!)
- Hi5 (yes, Alex St John will be there to delight)
- Wild Tangent
- MTV Networks
- and… me…
Add to this the formidable events for which Digital Media Wire are renowned, cool downtown NYC and nothing else going on that week (well, perhaps except F8), and you’re on for one hell of a gaming conference.
See you? See you!
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.
Nice infographic from the good folks over at Visionmobile on the largest handset OEM of the last 10 years (by volume of handsets – not market cap, margins or anything else, OK?).
And if the numbers are right, RIM and Apple became “mainstream” in 2010 for the first time, Nokia hangs on to its #1 spot with some 150m (!) units ahead of #2 (but on what handsets and for how much longer?), Samsung keeps charging, and, oh, does anyone remember Siemens? No, thought so…
Every now and again, war breaks out on the web. Or, rather, a full-on discourse of learned scholars on the world at large or, in our case, mobile in particular. This week saw one such blog fights and, no, I am not talking about Wikileaks. The formidable Robert Scoble (he of recent European ignorance but, hey, he is American after all… ) and Tomi Ahonen (Rat-Hat of Forum Oxford and a certain [but not blind!] Nokia-fandom but, hey, he might live in HK but he is a Fin… ) brought it on about the fall or not of Nokia.
It started with one of Tomi’s long, long posts on “Some Symbian Sanity” to which Scoble responded “Why Nokia is Still Doomed“. Because he referenced Tomi, he – if you know him, you’d say “of course” – responded with another long post defending Nokia’s smartphone strategy and execution. You should think Tomi has the harder corner to fight, right?
Let me briefly summarise the warring parties’ viewpoints. I will then offer my own take on this to decide who’s right.
Scoble first, he, never shy for words, delivered a swift and damning verdict on Nokia: Illustrated ventured Eastwards again to LeWeb last week and took stock of Europe’s smartphone pulse.he reckons that Nokia is dead because none of his friends has one or, if they do, they don’t like it. People pile up in Apple stores and wax lyrical about the apps they find on the iPhone and iPod Touch. Nokia is arrogant rather than cognisant of its shortfalls and he has not recently heard of a strategy. The people (and/or Scoble’s friends) love iPhone. Case closed.
Tomi’s Original and Scoble Riposte
It’s always a little more difficult to summarise Tomi’s posts as he doesn’t do quick ones. Who knows him is aware that he is a big fan of numbers, of big numbers, in fact. And this is why he hangs on to Nokia: because, you know, their numbers are big! His original post goes – very, very simplified – like this: he sets off to compare Apple with Porsche (as opposed to, say VW). He didn’t reference my recent post on this (tut, tut, Tomi) but the gist is the same: Nokia doesn’t only do Porsche, it does everything from VW Polo (or Chevy Matiz, Kia something or other) to Bentley (well, maybe that not anymore unless you count Vertu in). Its competitor is therefore not Ferrari but Toyota or – in the mobile world – not Appele but Samsung.
He then dives into Nokia’s strategy. And this is when it goes a little, well, foggy. Symbian being miles ahead (yes), Symbian kicking a** today with the N8 (erm, no), Apple’s original (sic!) iOS failing when it comes to phone features (well, yes, maybe, but who is using the “original” iOS today? Or the original Symbian for that matter?). And then he goes on to run the numbers. Now, according to him (and I didn’t check the numbers) Nokia + Japan = 45% smartphone market share for Symbian in 2009 (down a whopping 11% even by his count from 2006). Now, here’s where the questions start (more later). Then onwards to the mass market (more later). And, Tomi (being the very smart man and learned scholar he is) recognises Symbian might be a bit old and clunky and (rightly and unsurprisingly) pits MeeGo against this: new, open, Linux-based, etc. A winner, right? (more later). Therefore, Tomi heralds Nokia as being the perfect example in moving from “dumbphone” to smartphone.
Following Scoble’s burst of opinion as per above, Tomi reverted with more (as he does). I’ll skip through most of it. However, one point he raises is that the US is only 8% of the global market (true). It is though higher on smartphone consumption and (one language, one currency and all) provides a cool launchpad in a rich (yes, still) market. And Nokia is the Robbie Williams of the mobile world when it comes to the US: never managed to break it! He goes on to answer the “Nokia’s not cool” argument and refers to eco-friendly. Well, Tomi, that’s a little lame. Face it: Nokia lost its cool. Period. No argument! Apps? Yes, I know Ovi is catching up but, come on, the app store changed the bloody ecosystem (Nokia had about 4 iterations pre-Ovi who all miserably failed; Apple provided the paradigm-shift – face it).
Who is right?
The weird thing is that they both are (or, more controversially, neither is)!
And here’s why (hint: Tomi did get it right but then got carried away on the Finnish ticket): Tomi nailed it in his first post when he compared Apple to Porsche. Apple is not (or not yet?) competing with the Volkswagens and Toyotas of the mobile world. Now: in the automotive world, Porsche failed with the big coup (but, let’s remember, only just!). Apple might yet pull it off. The starting point is not dissimilar: super-high margins, a very comfortable lead in the luxury segment and loads of cash. Porsche over-reached (driven by a perhaps over-zealous ruler). Apple might, well…
Scoble looks at the US first and foremost. And it is – in spite of the many struggles – a formidable market still. And Apple made one of the most impressive market entries of all time! Now, will it be equally easy to capture China, India, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, etc? I doubt it. Does Scoble see this? No.
As to Tomi: you may want to count in the likes of Foxconn in the more formidable competitors of the mighty Finns. But that aside, yes, it’s mainly Samsung today. As a matter of fact, we need to start looking at handset (and OS) segments a little differently. Symbian might be a smartphone platform in the old definition but it does not (usually) stack up against Apple’s iOS or the slicker iterations of Google’s Android in the new world. This is why Nokia keeps losing market share in the high end rapidly (and loses market capitalization equally fast) and why Apple’s market cap is at an all time high! Will it win the war? No, not necessarily. And Nokia still has a shot. But the N8 was too little too late: hardware specs don’t count, the user experience does. And Nokia lost it on that front (compared to its up-market rivals).
So, folks, just re-read my post on Volkswagen and Porsche, will you? And settle your little tiff…
You hear it often (most recently by Average Jane): people who complain about unwanted features and complexities of mobile phones. And now here comes a company (not your ordinary OEM, mind you) who is bringing out just that: the ultimate dumbphone (I am referring to features not potential users). Meet John Doe’s new phone, the anti-smartphone: Dutch agency John Doe (sic!) premiered John’s Phone, which can do, well, make and receive phone calls. SMS? No. Address book? Yes, from paper with a pocket to stick it in at the back. Java? No. Apps? No. Anything other than making phone calls? No.
It is, I would posit, a luxury phone nonetheless, i.e. for people in countries where there is actually a choice of information and media sources. Alas, these countries (Western Europe, US, Japan) also are the countries with an ageing population and, judging by my own mum, they might well be fed up with all those fancy gimmicks they have absolutely no use for and, hence, yearn for simplicity (because, let’s face it, the fact of being reachable and able to make a call even when you’re out and about is intriguing, as demonstrated by the early success of phone booths).
The news highlights something I have been harping on about often and for a while (both in public and in private), and that is the fact that there is more than one market out there for phones (in much the same way that there are different segments for, say, cars). And whilst there are the Porsches of the mobile world (few models, high-end, high-priced), the Hyundais and Kias are often overlooked by the mobile afficionados and their attempts to read the crystal balls of mobile technology evolution. Porsche is (OK, was, prior to their misguided attempt to take over Volkswagen) the most profitable car maker in the world (as, incidentally, Apple is in the mobile space), Nokia and Samsung (and ZTE, and …) shift many more handsets. Who is better? Well, the answer is: this is the wrong question. Porsche and Kia do not serve the same segment and are, hence, not competing.
Nokia and Samsung could be described as the Volkswagen or Toyota of the mobile world: broad range of models attempting to also capture the high-end (Volkswagen through its Audi, Bentley, Bugatti ranges, Toyota with Lexus) and they do so with varying success (Bugatti and Bentley are, I believe, loss-making). However, they do it in any event with lesser margins than Porsche (it’s a distorted picture now that VW effectively owns Porsche but, hey). Again, is this good or bad? And the answer is again: neither.
When we bring this back to the larger discussion on Nokia’s demise (or not), we should probably just identify Nokia’s (alleged) problem on the high-end. Symbian might be high-powered VW but it is no Porsche. That will still leave the VW Golf as the top-seller in many countries though, meaning that and s40 and the likes might still be very viable (and appropriate!) platforms for large parts of the market. So not all might be lost. It is “just” that Nokia needs to look at the challenge of providing the broad range. And it might be worthwhile looking at VW as a comparison: they do share certain platforms but run Audi as a unit separately! And this is where Nokia differs. Might that be the solution?
As to John’s phone, I am not sure if South Park-esque icons appeal to the golden oldies but then, it either just might or (perhaps equally plausible) they might not even know South Park, which would be just as good. Will it shift? I doubt it. Why, you say? Because they don’t have the distribution of the Nokias and Samsungs of this world, that’s why (plus, it might be just too crude after all; or is that the geek-me?).
Thanks to @claireboo for the heads-up.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of delivering a talk at the Social Gaming Summit in London (which was fun even though it was at Chelsea FC…). Given that the audience was fairly clued up on all things social, I was focusing a little more on the mobile side of things – highlighting market sizes, roll-out speeds and platform risks (and opportunities!).
Here’s the deck, I hope you enjoy it: