Executive briefing: Cross platform mobile game development
Because platforms now matter more than games
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The history of mobile game development has been nothing if not cyclic.
From the early days of WAP - effectively web and server-based games - the first switch was to standalone apps. Downloadable Java and Brew titles excited the industry thanks to their ease of monetisation and the promise of a direct relationship with the consumer.
Yet it was the success of mobile handset manufacturers to differentiate their products with hundreds of different device types, screen size, firmware and other extensions that created the fragmentation which eventually killed the business for all but the largest publishers.
A singular approach
In that context, the arrival of iPhone and the App Store was a breath of fresh air to a drowning man for the independents who, once again, could focus on gameplay creativity, not porting prowess.
But fastforward a couple of years, and we're back dealing with fragmentation. At least, this is a different kind of fragmentation.
The power of the devices, as well as the quality of development tools and middleware, means that all but the most reticent studios (or Apple fanboys) are now committed to working across some of the main mobile formats, which following Nokia's agreement with Microsoft means iOS; Android and Windows Phone 7.
You don't have to be large studio to further extend your horizons to cover some or all of the likes of Samsung's bada OS, Palm's webOS and RIM's QNX.
Covering all bases
When it comes to running a successful business however, what's key is the ability to rely on robust technology - either custom coded or third party middleware - to provide an efficient way of releasing a title across as many platforms and app stores as possible.
Thankfully, there are plenty of choice.
UK provider Ideaworks Lab is a veteran of the mobile middleware business; its C/C++ Airplay development environment launched back in the days of Symbian Series 60, N-Gage, Java and Brew and the original Windows Mobile.
It enables studios to create a single binary, which is then deployed natively across different hardware versions. Over the years, it's been expanded to cover all smartphones, with the current support list including iOS, Android, Windows Phone 7, bada, webOS, QNX, and legacy platforms as well as non-mobile devices such as Mac and PSP.
Airplay also plays well with other technology as shown by the recent partnership with French middleware outfit Stonetrip. Its heritage is mobile game development, and its ShiVa3D engine and editor now supports iOS, Android and webOS, as well as PC and some consoles.
Integration between Airplay and ShiVa3D provides studios with the widest platform support as well as use of dedicated ShiVA3D's visual editor and game engine to simplify the development process.
Spectrum of flavours
Similar to Ideaworks Labs in terms of its history is Japanese company Hi Corporation. Its MascotCapsule engine, which is a specialist 3D rendering technology, has been embedded in over 600 million devices, the vast majority in Japan. Now available for iOS and Android, it's heavily used by Japanese studios such as Capcom and Square Enix in high profile titles such as Resident Evil 4 and Chaos Rings.
Another major middleware engine for mobile developer is Unity Technologies' Unity3d. Coming from a PC/Mac and web background, the US/Danish company was quick to add support for iPhone; something it's since extended with support for iPad and Android.
For that reason, Unity's been a particular popular choice for studios who want to get into mobile development but don't have experience of the sector.
Adding to the competition is Epic Games' Unreal Engine 3. Well known among console developers thanks to its use on triple-A games such as the Gears of War series, it now supports iOS and Android.
It was the Epic-owned Chair Entertainment that demonstrated the power of the technology, developing iOS top grossing game Infinity Blade in six months. Similarly, Trendy Entertainment has underlined Unreal's cross platform potential, releasing Dungeon Defenders for iOS, Android, PC and PlayStation 3.
Yet, having a strong technology base is only one of the requirements for growing a successful business. The commercial terms of using third party tools, or the cost of building your own, are key to profit. Hence, one of the most significant issues for companies selling mobile middleware is how they adapt their general licensing to match the much smaller budgets of mobile games.
What's in your wallet?
One example was Epic's decision to tweak the commercial terms for using Unreal Engine 3. Original announced under its usual indie developer agreement as a free download of the UDK with a revenue share of 25 percent of net revenues for sales of any game over $5,000, this ceiling has since been raised to $50,000.
Ideaworks Labs uses a more traditional model, albeit with a revenue ceiling. Companies with an annual turnover of less than $100,000 fall into its Indie licence, which is free for iOS development and costs $99 per seat per year for other platforms. For companies with revenues more than $100,000, the Pro licence is $2,500 per seat per year with the option of Pro support for $1,000 per seat per year.
As for Unity, it's available priced $400 per seat each for the standard iOS and Android versions, while the fully featured Pro versions for each platform cost $1,500 each per seat, also requiring the purchase of Unity Pro, which costs $1,500 per seat.
Stonetrip's ShiVa3D offers the most straightforward arrangement. Shiva Editor costs 169 for the Basic version and 1,499 for the Advanced version. Additional training or support options are also available, as is a Server option for online games.
Yet as more traditional console-focus middleware companies such as physics specialist Havok and engine outfit Trinigy extend their business to mobile, an honesty box approach is one that's also gaining popularity. This makes the licensing fee proportional to the game development budget, with 10 percent of the original budget the level used by both Havok and Trinigy, which has successfully used this model for its console and PC clients.
Of course, support is an additional charge, as are specialist services such as access to source code. But as way of dealing with the large range of companies now making games, the shift from absolute to proportion seems eminently sensible.
My store, your store, lotta stores
Important as it is, technology isn't the most important part of the cross platform ecosystem for mobile game developers however. Even as mobile platforms have fragmented, the process of selling content has fragmented faster.
Of course, closed platforms such as Apple's iOS and App Store combination, matched by Microsoft's Window Phone and its Marketplace, are resolute affairs, with their own singular development and deployment channels. The fly in the ointment, or huge business opportunity - depending on your point of view - is Android.
Created by Google as an open system in terms of hardware and app stores, everyone from handset manufacturers, carriers, third party content aggregators, online retail chains and specialist interest niches (notably porn sites) are launching their own shopfronts, each with different submission, approval and monetisation options.
Indeed, using the basic APK file format, anyone can distribute Android content from any website, as long as consumers have enabled their device to accept files from unauthorised sources.
In a case of being careful what you wish for, Android developers' 2010 complaint that the Android Market was more like a jumble sale has been trumped with the rise of free cross platform store GetJar and, most recently, by Amazon's Appstore for Android.
Now, the ecosystem is more like an out of town mall with big name shops nestling against dime stores, and the occasional panhandler. Confusingly though, they all contain similar content.
Third party power
GetJar has had the most impact. Its reach - 1.5 billion downloads to-date - is such that it provides a great opportunity for publishers and developers with high profile apps and games they can monetise through methods such as advertising, virtual currency or in-app purchases.
Examples include the launch of Angry Birds for Android, while publishers such as Zynga, Digital Chocolate and Glu Mobile have used it to get back catalog titles distributed as fast as possible.
Perhaps more significant in the longrun is Amazon. Its Appstore for Android is only currently available in the US, but will roll out globally over time. And it's the store's 130 million existing customers combined with its structured curation and approval process, and consumer features such as its Paid App for Free Every Day promotion, recommendation engine and ability to actively cut the prices of apps, that suggest it can shake up the Android sales process.
There will be plenty more channels for developers to think about too. RIM has announced it will running its own Android store within BlackBerry App World for its PlayBook tablet, while support for the device's native QNX OS will be provided initially via Unity's Union aggregation game service.
No wonder some developers are already thinking back to the halycon days of July 2008 and that one App Store world. Still, if nothing else, the mobile games business always goes around...