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10 thoughtful points from Mobile Games Forum 2012

#mgf2012 Setting the scene
10 thoughtful points from Mobile Games Forum 2012

The year's first must-attend conference, at least, for the European branch of the mobile games industry, the Mobile Games Forum is akin to a mini-DICE.

Attendance is select, not packed, and the atmosphere is focused on networking and discussion, not school room learning, with more panel talks than straight lectures.

But as well as collecting business cards and doing deals, there are also new things to learn, and trends to consider.

Here are 10 we're currently pondering.

1. Operator, where art thou?

Illustrating the point so well, you might think we'd planned it, the scheduled panel talk about the role of operators in the app ecosystem was cancelled as neither of the participants showed up.

Demonstrative of their wider withdrawal from the content side of the business in recent years, it seems that despite opportunities to do fight back against the rising power of OEMs and OS holders, most operators are content with what's increasingly their dumb pipe role.

They don't even seem to be able to bring much to the table in terms of what should be their core competency, billing.

Carrier billing remains very slow to come to Android, with publishers complaining about multiple systems to integrate and the +50 percent cut taken by operators as key constraints.

Yet, there were companies who work very closely with operators at Mobile Games Forum; for example, Mondia Media, which now runs Vodafone Germany's content business.

Rick Marazzani, from white label games subscription service Exent, argues they still have a strong role to play in the business, while some developers and publisher were also prepared to talk about opportunities on their Android stores, and even their still lucrative Java decks.

It was just a shame the operators themselves weren't on hand to make their own case.

2. Tax cut

An issue that occasionally bubbled up through 2011 looks like it's going to gain significance in 2012.

The 70-30 split on app store revenue has long been considered the norm, but the potential for open, browser games, is reminding big publishers they could improve their numbers just by changing the channels through which their users are paying for things.

More philosophically, it was interesting to hear a number of developers, who when complaining about some aspect of a platform's operation, would contextualise their issue with the line '...And they take 30 percent for that'.

Whether this groundswell will have any meaningful impact on any app stores' 'tax' seems unlikely, although if any vendor did decide to switch to 80-20, it would generate a lot of press, good will and pressure on the opposition, if nothing else.

3. Dropped connection

Underpinning thoughts about app store revenue split is browser gaming and the slow roll out of HTML5.

At MGF 2011, Facebook's keynote was all about the potential of the technology to enable a more open and web-like ecosystem, releasing the shackles of the app store.

But its much vaunted Project Spartan has not, as yet, delivered on that promise, while other companies in the space seem to be working away with little to show.

The key issues to be solved remain audio and billing; both, in their own ways, fundamental to the experience of playing games.

As a cross-platform publisher, Digital Chocolate is a strong advocate of the technology, but as its sales veep Robert Unsworth explained, while it's experimenting with the platform, it doesn't expect it to be commercial or robust for another 18 months.

4. Best of the rest

Another issue highlighted by coincidence - Nokia's terrible financials numbers were announced during the show - no one mentioned Windows Phone during the conference.

Third place is looking little different to last place.

5. Whales, wolves and true fans

Apparently a change in vocabulary initiated in the autumn of 2011, the populariser of the term 'Whale' for high spenders in free-to-play games, consultant Nicholas Lovell, is now using more positive 'True Fans'.

The idea is that, given its origins in the gambling world, whales is a negative term, with strongly manipulative overtones.

'True Fans' turns this emphasis on its head, however, making the purchasing decision an active decision by the fan, and one that's directly linked to their enjoyment of the experience.

Of course, it also downgrades the term 'Fan' (i.e. not a True Fan) to a person whose lack of generosity makes them somehow fake.

Still, another approach to nomenclature was provided with the idea of wolves and sheep. Sheep are non-paying customers who provide the competitive context for wolves - highly competitive players - to stand out in terms of leaderboards.

The background to this is research that suggests many high ARPU players are grown up hardcore players, who are now time-poor and cash-rich, and prepared to spend to speed their progress in a competitive manner.

6. Free-layer-core

As the revenue numbers have long shown, the freemium debate is over, at least amongst developers and publishers; some players will never be convinced.

It's a situation neatly described by Mobile Pie's Will Luton in terms of attitudes to climate changes.

Yet, the crude Ville-style games that racked up huge active user totals in 2011, will have to become more sophisticated, in a manner that matches the attempt to redefine whales as true fans.

On the other side of the debate, there's growing interest in paidmium games (horrible term) such as Infinity Blade, which provides a best of both worlds situation - for developer and true fan - in terms of high profile, high end and high ARPU content.

Perhaps the model will eventually settle down to a three-layered approach, where the core gameplay is free, additional blocks of content are unlocked for a price, and in-game currency smooths over the crack, as well as allowing true fans to progress at a pace controlled by their wallet, not their gameplay skills.

It's a model I like to call Free(three)-layer-core.

7. App store antics

If you want to kickstart a riotous debate among developers, ask about App Store approvals and sit back for the next hour.

Everyone's got a story of how their app got rejected over a minor issue, while games which have stamped all over various copyrights and trademarks have sailed through, not to mention how the timing of approvals have messed up business plans, marketing and press coverage.

More generally, you'll hear rumours that each game is only reviewed for four minutes and there'll be a lively discussion about the size of the human team involved, and the type of algorithms used by the automated system.

Even more amusing is the news that offerwalls and incentivised downloads are apparently back, despite Apple's redaction of the practice in April 2011.

Apparently, developers deactivate the code when they submit a game or update and then switch it on once the game is live on the App Store.

8. Rise of RIM?

Not just because there's a widespread assumption that it can't go any lower, but 2012 could see the start of RIM's comeback.

As demonstrated by its sponsorship of Mobile Games Forum, the handing out of free BlackBerry PlayBook's to all attendees, and the growing library of PlayBook games, the company is definitely more aggressive in terms of courting the game development community.

Combined with price cuts for customers, a strong push on development tools, and the upcoming release of version 2.0 of the PlayBook OS - and a new CEO - the company has a firm basis for the hard work required during 2012 if it's not to be acquired or broken up.

Still, with the first BB10 smartphones not expected until the autumn because of issues with the BlackBerry backend infrastructure, there's certainly no guarantee that RIM will enter 2013 in control of its own destiny.

9. Outside the box

Perhaps a coincidence, but during MGF, I spoke to two Canadian developers both of whom are engaged in ambitious transmedia projects, by which I mean games with significant elements in other sectors, whether that be music, TV, animation and merchandising.

One is strictly confidential for the time being, but the other can be spoken about.

Toronto-based outfit XMG Studios has just released its own TV series Totally Amp'd, which as well as its core 5 minute TV episodes, includes music and video mixing features and fashion elements as mini-apps.

It's also working with Sony Pictures to release an augmented reality game based on the Ghostbusters licence, while its Inspector Gadget game was so successful that a new TV series has been commissioned.

Combined with similar outworkings from global successes such as Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja and Cut the Rope et al, it will be fascinating to see how developers take (and mess up) the opportunities that are now available to them.

10. Opposites attract?

Although not direct rivals in terms of business model, US companies Tapjoy and Flurry have a competitive relationship in terms of mindshare.

The former are the larger outfit, in terms of raised funding, revenue - thanks to its offerwalls or Mobile Value Exchange program - and its increasingly strong consumer brand focus.

Flurry, on the other hand, sits at the heart of the mobile business. Labelling itself a Nielsen for the mobile ad industry, in terms of its analytics, it's also built up a brand thanks to its regular industry reports.

And that was why when Tapjoy's European veep Paul Bowen highlighted the need for a standardised analysis platform for tracking advertising and marketing campaigns, Flurry's UK MD Richard Firminger piped up from the audience to suggest that's what Flurry was already providing. Bowen failed to agree.

Verging on sexual tension, maybe the sensible move would be an arranged marriage before someone gets hurt.