Do you know why Temple Run blew up?
Neither does anybody else.
The roughly five-year-old mobile gaming revolution has accomplished quite a bit, turning hordes of two-person shops in remote corners of the world into instant millionaires while simultaneously killing both the console and the PC.
Only it hasn’t, and it was never going to.
At this year’s East Coast Game Conference, it’s fifth, that expectation is gone. Held again in Raleigh last Wednesday and Thursday, ECGC is a mix of state-of-the-industry and continuing education that brings together top gaming talent with young smart minds in order to keep the circle of life intact.
1,200 of them showed up, so it can’t be all bad.
And it isn’t. I’m not trying to paint the picture black. It’s common knowledge that the industry is on its heels — you don’t have to look much farther than Zynga’s quarterly numbers or EA’s layoffs to take the temperature — but it’s not undead yet.
The fact is, this flushing out is the best thing that could happen to mobile gaming—probably a good thing for gaming overall. By demonstrating that quality doesn’t guarantee success, it establishes that quality is still the lowest common denominator for success.
Build it, then polish it, then market it, then maybe they’ll come.
Much like the dotcom bubble of the early 2000s, the mobile gaming revolution turned a lot of pre-existing notions upside down and opened up a lot of new doors. But before the web, tech was owned by behemoth corporations like IBM, Microsoft, and Apple. Over a decade after the bubble burst, tech is owned by behemoth corporations like Google, Microsoft, and Apple.
Yes, the Internet lowered the barrier-to-entry for tech startups, producing one of the greatest entrepreneurial expansions since the industrial revolution. But it didn’t change the landscape. It didn’t make moguls out of every Stanford grad with an idea and a meeting on Sand Hill Road. It actually made fools of most of them when the bubble burst.
Building a successful tech company today, even after mobile and social dropped said barrier-to-entry to the floor, still requires a solid business strategy, tons of contacts, and, for lack of a better term, some good old-fashioned luck.
The same is true in gaming, which, funnily enough, is owned by Google, Microsoft, and Apple. And maybe Sony. For every independently-created success story like Temple Run, there is an entire Atari-ET-style burial ground of just-as-good, just-as-polished mobile games that never made a dime.
The difference? Crapshoot.
It wasn’t too long ago when there weren’t many companies making games. If you made a good free game and got it into the App Store, it had a very good chance of making it to the top of the rankings. Those days are over, discoverability is difficult, and even critically acclaimed games can come and go with low five-figure revenues. Again, much like the dot-com bust, the mobile gaming gold rush never really materialized, although a lot of smart people played it like it would.
So now even the small game shops have to consider things like product development, marketing, free-vs-paid models, and in-game purchases. Reality is also catching up with the mobile model. The advice I heard over and over again was: “Plan for your first game to fail, because it likely will, and if you have no money, you have no options.”
As the gamers get serious, serious gaming is again being discussed, having nearly disappeared from the radar over the last couple of years. The money being spent to get access to the wealth of cross-platform mobile development knowledge acquired by these indie shops is growing. And that money begs the attention of even the most altruistic independent developer.
The reasoning is hard to argue with. The gaming industry has always emulated the motion picture industry. But while people with deep pockets long to be movie producers, they rarely want to be video game producers.
Unless an independent shop has institutional financing or a publisher deal from the start, the founders (and usually any employees) are relegated to keeping an additional job (or two) to keep the company in the black while the games get built and the rather hit-or-miss sales cycle takes shape.
If the game fails, so does the company, and everyone goes back to their day job.
Serious gaming can be seen as the equivalent of a tech startup moving from custom software development to product to platform, delivering sliced-off versions of their technology to buyers with deep pockets, while at the same time improving the engine to suit their own needs.
Think of it as hitting project singles while building the home-run product—sustaining the company and the brand while waiting for that crapshoot to come in.
And that’s the takeaway from this year’s ECGC (which, coincidentally enough, can serve as both state-of-the-industry and continuing education). As the PS4 and new XBox loom, mobile gaming is in no danger of going away, but it’s growing up. It’s getting serious, and those independent shops that can sustain themselves are far more likely to be around when that runaway crapshoot hit takes off.