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Industry veteran Robert Unsworth on the new breed of publisher rising from the smartphone scene

Part one: Where it all began

Industry veteran Robert Unsworth on the new breed of publisher rising from the smartphone scene
Robert Unsworth is a true mobile gaming veteran, having worked for the likes of France Telecom In-Fusio, Digital Chocolate and, most recently, Peak Games.
Robert is also the founder of G1 Social, a consulting firm set up to help small and medium sized companies navigate the maze of social media and games marketing.

There is no more cherished a service to sell in the mobile industry than the promise of App Store glory to a worthy developer.

Are we now seeing a new breed of publisher that can deliver on this promise?

Over the course of two articles, I'll be taking a quick look at how the Darwinian process has carved out a new type of publisher in the post free-to-play era on smartphones and what this means to developers looking for the right partner.

The first article will take a look at the background to this phenomenon and the second will examine the dynamics that publishers and developers need to understand in this new model.

The revolution

I've heard many people say that the App Store is the biggest meritocracy in the gaming industry for 30 years. I would compare that to saying that the National Lottery is the biggest meritocracy for personal wealth.

Yes, anybody can win, but what are your chances and how many participants ever become winners?

What's more, the battle for App Store domination has certainly intensified in the last 6 to 12 months as the bigger players make a land grab for critical mass, making it increasingly difficult for new games to reach the market.

As the price war broke out on iOS in 2009, quality games rapidly dropped down to the 99c point and would have certainly descended further if Apple had made a lower price point available.

With the casual audience on Facebook being exposed to free-to-play (F2P) games, it was almost inevitable then that games on the App Store would converge to a zero price point, and once Apple introduced in-app payments later in the year, the freemium revolution took place.

Well gross

The top-grossing chart welcomed freemium games in ever greater numbers.

Publishers, fresh from their monetisation experiences on Facebook in F2P, were increasingly aggressive in driving installs of their apps to the willing iPhone owners. In the absence of a smartphone equivalent to Facebook's 'free' viral installs, the only way mobile publishers could drive critical mass to their games was through heavy advertising.

So are we seeing, or have we seen a social game revolution on iOS, or indeed smartphones in general?

I think the answer is no and will be that way for some time – pretty much as long as we download apps rather than connecting online via the web browser, as we do on Facebook (to engage with games, at least).

As the hunt for new players and paying customers continues to hot up, we've seen a number of distribution platforms emerge on mobile – are these social publishers? Has the mobile publisher role evolved into a social platform service?

Things have changed…

As most of the learned readers of PocketGamer.biz will know, the success of F2P relies on a large funnel of users coming in to the game in order to pick up a small percentage of paying users who finance the game.

On Facebook this is, or rather was, relatively easy as the viral nature of the platform led to a very large and inexpensive source of new users through viral activity (invitations, notifications, gifts, etc.)

Mobile is far less social and so this funnel of new players needs to be recruited through other means, most of them requiring cash spends with paid installs.

For the moment, the dominant social mobile publishers are essentially resource rich, F2P game publishers. I don't mean this in a negative way; having scale and resources allow these publishers to develop better practices in terms of user acquisition, engagement, retention and monetisation.

However, with a finite level of inventory on iOS and ever increasing traffic demands, acquisition costs are continuing to increase.

We're seeing the mobile publisher role evolve.

Déjà Vu?

This is similar to the MMO publisher activity of the noughties.

Initially, every MMO developer would self-publish thanks to limited costs, but it quickly became apparent that user acquisition and CRM expertise required economies of scale.

Consequently just a handful of MMO companies emerged as viable publishers.

They would both trial different games types (their own and third-party titles) as well as different marketing actions to determine which games monetised best and which traffic sources produced the highest quality players. We are seeing this exact same behaviour on smartphone platforms now.

So are social game publishers not really social? And what are the differences between F2P games on mobile and the previous headline grabbing social games on Facebook?

My next article will take a look at the fundamental differences, and what developers need to understand in their search for a partner that can bring them success.

PocketGamer.biz regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.

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