While playing mobile games on your browser seems like a contradiction, Trail.gg makes a convincing argument for why it's a good business decison.
We caught up with Trail’s CCO, Shawn Adamek, to find out more about Trail.gg, what they offer and the story behind the company. Adamek spoke from Trail’s new offices in Stockholm, Sweden having outgrown their previous digs, bringing them closer to the likes of Paradox Interactive and Fatshark as neighbours.
How it works
It's simple. Trail.gg brings mobile games to the browser. These aren’t streaming or even emulation, but actually run natively within the browser itself. Currently, Trail.gg is working to handle the porting process themselves, however in future the company is planning to release their own SDK to put the tools in the hands of developers as the platform expands.
“The more customers that come and start using the SDK, the better the SDK gets, to the point where we’re hoping that in a few months from now it’ll be a completely self-serve process,” said Adamek.
And once a title is on the platform it's there for Trail's growing audience to explore, discover, play and enjoy for free. With in-app purchases of course, with Trail keeping a little of that revenue for their efforts.
Trail.gg was founded in 2016, “literally in a basement,” as Adamek puts it. “We were trying to build technology that would enable game developers to get from one platform to another very easily. Where this led to was focusing on indie titles that were launched on Steam but were looking for other opportunities on some other platform.”
“And what they found was that this was really easy if they had already ported to Steam and they were already using OGL. Moving to WebGL was super simple, and if they were Unity-based titles we had tools that would accelerate the entire porting process to make it easy for them to go from Steam to the Web.”
This business model led them to port around 15 titles successfully. However, this proved to not be a scalable process. As Adamek put it, “The great thing about indie developers on Steam is that they’re willing to just try something once,” so they were relying on smaller games that unfortunately did not gain much traction on the new platform.
So Trail began looking for other kinds of games that they could bring in, in greater numbers and with a greater return on their investment. Which is where mobile games came into the picture. “It became very obvious that mobile gaming, even though it was going to be more difficult in many ways, was a much more scalable business than trying to do this through indie Steam titles," says Adamek.
“It’s like Swedish Black Magic”
The tools and the systems they used were very positively received by developers, with one saying, “It’s like Swedish Black Magic.” Their first mobile port win was Airport City by Game Insight which is still available today on Trail.
According to Adamek they had already seen companies consider and even start bringing their games to the Web. However, the time, effort and resource expenditure often frustrated them, leading to many of these companies stepping back due to the difficulties involved.
As he notes, in their current business model they don’t make money from the tools and bringing games to browsers. Rather, as he puts it, “that’s the lever to get people onto the deck.”
“We kind of see ourselves as the next app store, just on the web,” Adamek said. The platform features full payment tools and the ability to implement and alter builds just like any app store. “In some cases, some of the feedback that we’ve gotten from people is that it’s even a little bit easier [than an app store].”
Adamek admits even he was sceptical initially of Trail’s drive to bring mobile games to a browser platform, “I said ‘this is really weird, I don’t get it, you’re backwards guys, Facebook gaming has been on the decline for years.’”
And in many ways Trail is looking backwards, back to a time when mobile gaming was extremely limited with the main platform for shorter games being the Web via mediums such as Flash. It’s worth noting that mobile gaming giant Miniclip had their roots in exactly that, so these roots run deeper than it may first appear.
Trail also differs from other browser game platforms by running everything natively in the browser. Compared to competitors who utilise emulation or game streaming which can often have inconsistent performance, Adamek promises overall better performance.
As we noted during our discussion, when you break down Trail’s rationale it seems quite obvious why a developer might want to bring their game to browsers. Behaviour on browsers gives longer play sessions hence why Trail is looking to focus on casual, midcore and hardcore games rather than hypercasual titles which have much shorter periods of play.
This is part of the reason why Trail have integrated payment systems. Some developers do ask players to purchase directly from them, and while this is good for those developers it also interrupts the experience of the player. Trail shares an average of 10% revenue earned on the platform at the moment, and by instead utilising their integrated payment system, the argument is that this means players are more likely to stay focused on the game itself.
Trail, due to the limitations of the porting process, also relies on a more curated approach of selecting relevant titles for the platform. They argue that discoverability is far more efficient on the Trail platform, due to the smaller but higher-quality library available to players.
There is still some scepticism, Adamek notes. As when Trail was present at GamesCom the question was inevitably “Why are you doing this?” Although as we’ve previously noted, the concept is hardly as completely out there as some people may think.
Not only that but Adamek notes that changes to curation and data gathering means that for many developers, expanding and diversifying their revenue stream is now key to success. “We’ve talked to a lot of developers who have told us, ‘we don’t even do UA on iOS anymore’, because the math doesn’t work.”
Trail don’t intend to handle user acquisition themselves, as they want to get to the point where UA is still handled primarily by developers as it would be on other platforms. They give the example of one of the titles featured on Trail called Pixel Starships, which was playable at PGC London. Pixel Starships features an embedded “Play on Trail” button on their site to direct players to it as on more traditional mobile platforms.
Adamek offers a very convincing argument for not only the viability but the business appeal of bringing mobile games to browsers with “multiscreen singularity” (where crossplay of all kinds becomes the norm) being a hot topic. With players able to carry progression onto Trail and back onto their mobile version, perhaps what we’re now seeing is an early example of how this singularity will work in future.
Adamek concludes, “We’re just another place for people to play games, we think that for some games of certain genres it’s probably the best place to play the game.”