Opinion// Swimming Up-Stream

Swimming up-stream: navigating the murky waters of discoverability

Posted 14 Mar 2014 17:00 by
Russ Clarke, is the founder and West London Games & Project Lead of TerraTech.

Nearly two years ago, I packed in my job as Creative Director at London mobile developer Ideaworks Game Studio (aka Marmalade) in order to go it alone. I worked here and there to stay solvent, but my real aim was to found my own startup.

I did this because I saw an opportunity: the mobile markets were growing like nobody's business, new platforms were sprouting like mushrooms all over the place, and middleware was making it easier than ever to get a game to market. What an amazing time to be an independent developer, I thought, with new opportunities all around, and the barriers to entry lower than ever!

It took longer than I expected to raise finance, and my first prototype didn't get any traction, but last summer things started to click, and now here I am with a team and a cool demo that's getting people excited. Check out TerraTech here. "But," some people have asked, "why aren't you making a mobile game?"

But when you're just starting out, you have none of these things, and a mountain to climb. The prospect can be terrifying.
It's a fair question. Mobile is still the fastest growing game market, and uniquely accessible to small-scale developers. Our lead designer, Kris Skellorn, and I have both been making mobile games since the earliest days of iOS, with #1 titles under our collective belts in both the premium and F2P spheres. It seems like the obvious way to go, but we're not. W, as they say, TF?

In fact, we are not ignoring mobile at all: we have designed TerraTech to be ready for touch-screen devices, with an art style that can scale to lower power GPUs. We think tablets offer perhaps the most natural interaction with the game. We are ready with a monetisation model we think is ideal for iOS, but it just isn't realistic to initially launch on mobile, for one big reason: discoverability.

Discovery is a real issue: there are 4,000 games released every month on iTunes. You can't just drop something out there and hope its quality will carry it. Free-to-play is considered the best way to balance accessibility with profitability, but it doesn't actually solve the problem: why will someone download your game instead of the one of the other 100+ released that day?

Free or paid, you need a way to bring an audience to your game, in the face of ever-more-intense competition for 'eyeball-share' from the many, deep-pocketed publishers and developers dominating the market. This is what has driven the user-acquisition cost boom of recent years, culminating in warnings that the costs of paid UA are approaching or exceeding the typical life-time value of a user (whether they pay up front, or over time).

Of course, there are other, better ways to find users than buying them. Every rational developer in this brave new world of self-publishing expects to do a lot of promotion.

If you have an established brand (either in your game, or yourselves as developers), that can win you some attention. Maybe you can use cross-promotion, funnelling users from your existing games, or sharing your existing audience with another developer.

But when you're just starting out, you have none of these things, and a mountain to climb. The prospect can be terrifying.
Paradoxically, mobile offers the lowest barriers to market entry ever seen in game development...
Having said all that, we have no intention of giving up on mobile: we just need a sane plan for how to get there, without relying on vanishingly small odds. So we came up with one, and like most sensible plans, it involves taking things step by step.

For a small, unknown developer to launch an original IP into the furnace of the App Store, now, is irrational. Sure, there are examples of this succeeding, but it's a tiny proportion, and it's only getting harder.

Most independent successes either launched in much earlier days (like Temple Run, or Hungry Shark), or built their brand elsewhere and migrated an already-known product (like Minecraft, or Ridiculous Fishing, from its previous incarnation as Radical Fishing).

The latter route is the one we aim to follow.

The first key principle is that we are platform-agnostic. That means we minimise the work of going to new platforms and device classes, and we stay flexible, to navigate these fast-moving waters.

Secondly, we will look for a launch platform with several key characteristics:
Not too many new releases; so we have a better chance of getting a fair shake from players.
An open-minded community; because we have an original concept that people won't recognise at first.
An engaged community; because we need players to help us tune our content in the early stages.

That last point is key. Our game is all about what we call "granular content". TerraTech itself is essentially built out of gameplay bricks, much like the vehicles in the game are built out of modular parts. The popularity of early-access style open beta programs is well-timed for us, because we need a keen community of players, willing to look past some rough edges and help us hone the game by playing.

If indies stop seeing mobile as an attractive environment, that will be serious cause for concern.
I won't say now exactly what that launch platform will be: being honest, there is more than one that fits that bill, and we are in discussions with a variety of platform holders and publishers. We'd love to hear from gamers who have a view on that! I also want to make clear that this is not all just a "route to mobile."

It feels great to be spreading our wings over different pastures, and we think our background actually gives us an edge, at a time when the other established ecosystems are, in some ways, following the trail that mobile has blazed.

Paradoxically, mobile offers the lowest barriers to market entry ever seen in game development, yet the barriers to success are now so high that seasoned mobile devs like us are looking elsewhere, bucking the trend of recent years. It's not just us: former Fishlabs CEO Michael Schade recently announced a similar about-face for his new startup Rockfish.

Fishlabs were contemporaries of Ideaworks in the pre-iOS days, when only a handful of teams in the world were doing high-quality 3D on mobile: I find it telling that those guys have come to the same conclusion as us.

It's not all doom and gloom - we have a way forward that we feel good about - but if indies stop seeing mobile as an attractive environment, that will be serious cause for concern. We encourage others to embrace platform-agnostic development, as a way to tap the strengths of different platforms at different times - and we hope that ecosystem owners are still working on this problem, because ultimately, what's good for new entrants is good for everyone: especially those at the top of the food chain.

The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and does not reflect those of SPOnG.com except when it does.

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