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2013 In Review: The developers' take

2013 In Review: The developers' take
The fireworks have all fizzled out and that leftover turkey is sat on top of those extra boxes of mince pies you picked up at the last minute in the bin, but as far as 2013 is concerned, we're not quite done yet.

PocketGamer.biz has gathered some of the industry's brightest lights to pick over some of the hottest talking points from the past 12 months.

Discussing everything from the unstoppable Candy Crush Saga to the false start of microconsoles are Simogo's Simon Flesser, TinyCo's Will Luton, Vlambeer's Rami Ismail, Halfbrick's Phil Larsen and Nitrome's Matthew Annal.

All of these figures have made headlines in 2013. They've all had a great year. Oddly, however, there's not too much they actually agree on.

Find out what they have to say below.

Pocket Gamer: Supercell has had a strong 18 months, culminating in the sale of 51 per cent of the company for bundles of cash to GungHo and SoftBank. Was the purchase of Supercell a wise move and do you think the outfit find fresh success in 2014?

Matthew Annal (Nitrome): I'm not sure the purchase was a wise move. They may be raking in the cash now but they have still not created any sort of follow up to their two games that proves they can hit big every time.

It's been seem many times before big success stories being bought up only for the studio to be closed a little later down the line when they can't follow up on their success.

It will be interesting to see what they come out with next but it's hard to imagine they will be able to strike it as big with their next release because it is such a saturated market for their types of games now.

Phil Larsen (Halfbrick): It was absolutely a wise move, especially for a company like Softbank which has immense power in so many areas of mobile, internet, digital experiences. It saw Supercell as the leader and those in charge made it happen. Hefty price, but hey – it makes for a great story!

I think the sale has ensured quite a long and lucrative lifespan for Supercell, provided it can maintain a powerful piece of creative control.

Rami Ismail (Vlambeer): To be honest, we don't really have an opinion on those. Investments of those sizes are beyond our scope, and although it's amazing that that kind of money is now flowing through our industry, we have no particular feelings regarding the acquisition.

If anything, we hope this doesn't end in another one of those stories of 'bubbles bursting'.

Will Luton (TinyCo): The thing that needs to be considered in the purchase of Supercell is cash in the bank - which was expected to be a lot - and also users.

If GungHo and SoftBank got a big whack of that cash back plus a load of users that they can push out to monetise in Puzzles & Dragons then that lessens the risk on future earnings from old and upcoming Supercell games.

So my answer is that it was possibly a good move for GungHo and SoftBank. Certainly was a great way for Supercell to cash out and I'm sure all the investors are happy.

Post acquisition the culture will undoubtedly change as motivations shift. I'd question if it can continue to have the level of success they've already enjoyed. It seems like it's now executing on a familiar plan with Boom Beach.

Free-to-play. It's still an emotive subject for some. Do you think 2014 will see a move away from free-to-play as both a subject of debate and as a business model?

Matthew Annal (Nitrome):
I don't think free to play will be going away any time soon but I hope and what I think we're starting to see happen is a reaction to that as a price increase in paid apps.

It is getting more common now for paid apps to launch at £1.99 and £2.99 rather than the 69p of the past. Bigger console publishers are going even higher and we are seeing titles like XCOM succeed with a £12.99 price tag.

This price increase is going to make paid apps more sustainable and while free to play may be where the top money is at the moment it means that there will still be plenty of room for indies and quality titles that don't fit the free to play model to still turn a profit.

I think the debate will still keep going as long as it's noteworthy but that can only last so long before a new big thing comes to distrust that and grab the headlines.

Phil Larsen (Halfbrick): There's a few schools of thought, although they are not mutually exclusive.

One - that the introduction of F2P in games has helped ease those who otherwise would not have purchased games into paying for content. Hence, they might transition more to paid games as they become more experienced and want to know exactly what they are getting when they invest their time and money up front.

I'm sure a lot of developers would like this to happen!

Another scenario, which we are seeing happen in a lot of ways, is F2P matures as the norm not just across mobile, but every gaming platform. This creates a much more competitive, and also lucrative market.

The rising costs of user acquisition just don't seem sustainable, so with a widening of F2P across many more platform will help spread the wealth, so to speak. It could enable more developers to try working on F2P and not just ultimately having to directly compete against the big guys on the exact same chart every time.

For Halfbrick, I'm pretty proud of our diverse experience in both paid and F2P, so as either of these scenarios pan out I think we've got so much content to make it work very well for us!

Rami Ismail (Vlambeer): We hope that 2014 is the year that changes the standard in F2P from consumables to structural purchases, from pay-to-not-play to pay-to-play.

We hope designers will stop intentionally de-optimising their games to add a paywall to things that should've been defaults. In other words, we still think F2P is problematic. Maybe 2014 will change that, but whatever happens, we don't think we'll move away from premium games.

We hope that premium games can become truly 'premium' - the highest quality games, offered in their optimal form without compromises. That's how we designed Ridiculous Fishing, and we feel comfortable with that.

Will Luton (TinyCo): F2P as a model will continue to be strong, I have as much faith in that as I do that Google won't put up a pay wall for their search engine. It's the nature of the economics in a digital market.

There's a lot of nervousness because the model is still rather new and often misunderstood. The use of the term "evil", as has been bandied about in the last few years, is unsustainable.

There are some genuine concerns around accidental spending by the vulnerable, which heightened awareness from parents and carers plus platform changes will help to improve.

Simon Flesser (Simogo): I am largely uninterested in many of the games using this, so I don't have too many thoughts on it. It's probably not a model that will be interesting for us.

What I thought was odd was that everybody and their grandmother proclaimed that "paid" is dead on mobile, when we had our most successful year ever with only "paid" games.

I was surprised this year to see that Darumeshi Sports-ten's curious take on DLC on3D and free not being reported on more. The base game itself is free, but you can meet certain goals in the game, and haggle to pay less than full price for the downloadable minigames.

Towards the end of the year there's been some debate around the existence of an "indie bubble", brought about by the rise in both the output and success of indie titles. The suggestion is that it's about to burst. What are your thoughts on the subject?

Matthew Annal (Nitrome): I think that it would be hard to pop the indie bubble. Indies make games primarily because we love making them.

Indies need money to survive, but they don't need a lot so like cockroaches they will survive most changes and are there to thrive when they can. As the big companies move more into free to play I see indies making more from the paid app market.

Phil Larsen (Halfbrick): My gut feeling is telling me that won't really happen.

When a bubble pops, it pops – we may have reached the peak of how much commercial success "indie" games have, but there is a very strong demand for creative new content in a lot of niche markets. A bubble popping won’t do anything to slow that down.

Rami Ismail (Vlambeer): It's not a bubble, although there are definitely signs of the scene becoming so large that our "traditional" structures are not adequate any more. Things change all the time, and for some studios that'll be a problem, for some it won't.

Truth is that starting out as an indie is harder than it has ever been since the recent advent of indie games, there are more people starting out and more developers that have been at it for a while. Some will falter, some will persist. It all comes down to adaptability, and that's what indies are known for in the end.

Simon Flesser (Simogo): I think all talk of any bubbles bursting is always centred around a discussions of "hitting it big", isn't it? For us, that is not interesting – we are not betting on making one hit game ourselves.

Instead we focus on continuously making and releasing unique and high quality games, and hopefully there will always be interest in unique things.

And I also think a talk of an "indie bubble" leaves a foul taste in my mouth. I mean, yes, if one assumes that the market for a certain genre can get flooded, then by all means, you would be correct.

So saying that there is a bubble at all, suggests that games categorised "indie games" or rather self-published games created by small teams are all the same.

Personally I am not interested in categorising our works, so if people want to call our games "indie", "AAA" or "Rumpelstiltskin" they are free to do so, but we ourselves don't see them as being part of a particular movement.

Will Luton (TinyCo): I think it's not a real concern. For a start it's not a bubble in the sense that a lot of money will be lost because there's little - if any - investment going in to the indie space.

This is because the indie games have an extremely high failure rate plus low returns already, making it a bad financial bet. It may get a worse bet because there's more competition and some can build on earlier successes, but the market for the content won't disappear.

As long as the routes to markets and tools remain open, human ingenuity will prevail and exciting games will happen that will interest niches outside of mainstream games. To think otherwise is pessimistic.

I just look forward to twenty years time when the current glut pixel art platformers about love are replaced with isometric farm games about love.

2013 was hailed as the year of the microsonsole, but that hasn't really panned out. At all. Why do you think that is and what do you think it will take to see a turnaround in fortunes?Matthew Annal (Nitrome): I don't think it helped that they launched alongside the big consoles which stole most of the media coverage but I think the real problem is that maybe we don't need such a device.

Casual players are already well catered for with their mobile and unlike a microconsole it is something they have to own for their day to day life.

I think when it is just for games people will only be willing to put up money for a console...even a cheap one if they are into games already and if that's the case they will probably buy a big console.

Games sell consoles, so for a microconsole to take off I think it needs a lot of strong exclusives that will get the attention even of a regular console gamer.

Phil Larsen (Halfbrick): The idea so far is that we would have mobile usability and unique games on the TV.

But a major reason for the rise in mobile is people didn't want to be stuck on their TV. So suddenly reversing that, and asking people to buy yet another console or device when they already have everything they need just wasn’t going to happen.

At this stage I don't know what it will take to see a turnaround, to the point where I don't think it’s going to happen. Your device of choice now connects with everything, including controllers.

Rami Ismail (Vlambeer): We'll need a good microconsole with a good developer relations strategy. Ouya was the most likely to succeed, but problems with its approach to exclusivity and relations have sort of rubbed us the wrong way. We still hope those behind it can turn that around and provide a good platform for starting indies.

With the advent of an increasing amount of living room devices, ranging from the cheap PlayStation Vita TV to the more powerful Steam Box, the battle for the limited space under the TV has never been as intense.

We might actually be most excited about the Kano at the moment, a tiny DIY computer that teaches people and kids how to code. That might have a great effect on the future of our industry.

Will Luton (TinyCo): The microconsole can never have the success of mobile, as many expected, because it's specifically games hardware. This means that it requires the consumer to identify as a gamer in order to make the purchase decision.

If you are a self identifying gamer, why then would you want to buy a microconsole over a regular console? Only if it offers something that a console can't.

In the case of the microconsole, that's content that the consoles wouldn't publish - games from devs too small to get dev kits and pay certification.

I like the Ouya, but it's destiny is a hobbyist platform with a small market share. The Steambox, however, I think is a different proposition and more a challenger for Sony and Microsoft.

The smart TV is even better, because that could stealth in to every living room across the world. I hope someone gets their shit together on that.

Microsoft buying out Nokia and the continued rise of Android threaten to challenge Apple's dominance in mobile gaming. Do you foresee a time when iOS ceases to be the lead platform for the majority of mobile devs? What could be done to topple them?Matthew Annal (Nitrome): Developers will keep supporting Apple first while they keep making more money in the App Store for less development effort than the rivals. For anything to change something disruptive needs to happen and it is hard to see where that might be but it could happen.

The Oculus Rift support for Android for example could for the first time offer something really new feeling that for the moment at least would not be on Apple devices. I'm not saying that will be it, but something needs to be large and different enough to turn peoples heads in order to make things change.

Rami Ismail (Vlambeer): Like everything, eventually iOS will fall. For now, we don't even think we're close to that moment, however.
Ridiculous Fishing on iOS, almost a year after release, outsold Android's version's second week after release. The game hasn't been prominently featured by the Google Play Store, so if those numbers are overwhelming that might change our opinion, but for now we think Apple is ahead by a large margin.

Simon Flesser (Simogo): I don't know. I like platforms with a strong vision or personality, and so iOS is most interesting for us in mobile.

Will Luton (TinyCo): I can see a time where technology makes it so the lead platform doesn't matter and I think we're nearly there with Unity and the like. However, it's very likely, due to the cost of the devices, that the demographic of iOS users will make them the most desirable financially.

Candy Crush has dominated 2013, commercially. What do you think is the secret to its success and what can the industry learn from it?

Matthew Annal (Nitrome): It may seem strange given how much it is based on the Bejewelled mechanic but I think a lot of the success is down to originality.

For a free to play game it was at the time quite different to what was already available on the App Store which was dominated with Farming games.

Team that with a game which is super easy for anyone to understand and thanks to the the turn based mechanic and portrait orientation making it easy to play anywhere and you have a recipe for success!

Phil Larsen (Hlafbrick): I wrote about this quite recently actually.

I think the secret, or at least what they do better that others don't, is the seamless integration of all departments pulling in the same direction.

I saw an ad on Australian TV for an update to Candy Crush, specifically mentioning a bonus power up period. Anyone who works in mobile games should know how powerful that is.

To do that they need to have a committed production and update roadmap, complete mastery of their economy, operations teams working to maximise the benefit of the bonus period, marketing being able to commit to campaigns ahead of time and promote in different countries - and localise the creative. The list goes on.

There's no secret, just a big machine working well at full speed.

Granted, they've been making enough money for such a long time that getting together enough people to focus on one thing like Candy Crush shouldn’t be too difficult. They have the resources to make things like that happen, and aren’t fumbling the ball.

That's definitely worth learning from.

Simon Flesser (Simogo): You know what? If your interests lies in having a fat wallet rather than making meaningful experiences, I'd suggest something more reliable like selling counterfeit Rolex watches. That's probably more safe than betting on getting lucky with applying some business-man psychology to a shamelessly old game concept.

Will Luton (TinyCo): I could talk on the specifics for hours. From a design perspective it does so much right. It gives players meaningful choices on a second-by-second basis which engages them, minute-to-minute it balances chance with skill so that it makes one more play compelling and day-to-day it has a really clear sense of progression.

All these things combine to make it crack, pulling you through and keeping you addicted whilst being widely accessible through low complexity and a mass market visual style.

Rami Ismail (Vlambeer): What you can learn from Candy Crush is that you shouldn't make Candy Crush games any more.

Contributing Writer

A freelancer for just about anyone that will have him, Lee was raised in gloomy arcades up and down the country. Thanks to this he's rather good at Gauntlet, OutRun and fashioning fake pound coins from pennies and chewing gum. These skills have proved to be utterly useless in later life.

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