When veteran games producer and Realtime Worlds co-founder Colin MacDonald first joined the ranks at UK broadcaster Channel 4 back in 2012, he had a lot to prove.
“The question was really, should the channel be in games?” he recalls to PocketGamer.biz at Pocket Gamer Connects London 2017. “Does it have any business being in games, or should it stick to television?”
MacDonald alone was tasked with overseeing Channel 4's “experiment” in mobile games, with early titles like The Snowman and the Snowdog launching with no monetisation at all, purely to test the audience.
The Snowman and the Snowdog topping the UK App Store charts in December 2012 was an early indicator that the broadcaster could make waves in mobile gaming, while later titles such as Made in Chelsea and Reverse the Odds “did brilliantly for us”.
Eventually, this persuaded the board to back MacDonald's vision of a mobile games publisher with a broader remit, with three new team members brought in to establish All 4 Games in 2015.
MacDonald's pitch was to have indie-developed games “filling the gaps” when a TV series goes off-air and its mobile game tie-in consequently experiences a lull.
“Let me support indie developers by offering them a publishing route and leveraging Channel 4's audience, and do it on favourable terms to them,” he told them.
Channel 4 agreed and five such titles have been launched to date. MacDonald expects a further eight to be launched throughout 2017.
Three of these have adopted a premium model, including the Editor's Choice-awarded Super Arc Light. However, free-to-play is the primary focus going forward.
Without tons of press coverage and an Editor's Choice feature, paid-for is just so, so tough.Colin MacDonald
“We're tapping into Channel 4 marketing without incurring the usual user acquisition costs, so my thinking was, can we make business models viable that developers are struggling to make viable otherwise?” recalls MacDonald.
“[…] Super Arc Light did brilliantly; the other two [premium games] did okay. But without that breakout success of tons of press coverage and an Editor's Choice feature, paid-for is just so, so tough.”
He continues: “I wouldn't rule it out, but it has to be something really, really special.
“And when I look at our free-to-play games, we're seeing the portion of revenue from ads going up and up - and Channel 4, as ad-funded television, is maybe a more natural fit [for F2P] anyway.”
Indeed, Channel 4 displays ads not only in its games, but also across its TV and online platforms - which is one of the ways All 4 Games is able to help partnering indie developers to gain exposure.
The main way is through online catch-up TV service All 4, which serves up pre-roll video ads for All 4 Games titles when adverts paid for by external companies are depleted.
This is why, with less inventory in December when ad spend increases, MacDonald recommends that developers don't release in that month - although he adds “there are other reasons not to do that anyway”.
“What I'd like to do is scale up the number of indie games we can support,” considers MacDonald.
And in the short-term, he hopes to recruit a Product Manager and a Community Manager to help achieve this. However, at the current scale, he's keen to remain realistic.
“I'd like to be able to help a lot more developers,” he says. “Potentially dozens more, [but] it's never going to be hundreds.”
Since joining, however, MacDonald has seen that the television industry is increasingly “awakening” to the potential of mobile.
TV companies are seeing now the proportion of their viewing that comes from mobile, rather than TV sets.Colin MacDonald
“The TV companies and the broadcasters are seeing now the proportion of their viewing that comes from mobile, rather than TV sets,” he considers.
Whether as a result of this or not, he also notes that people at Channel 4 specifically have become far more receptive to games.
“When I started at Channel 4, you could split [people's reactions] into thirds: a third were all for it, a third were on the fence and a third were dead against it - just on principle,” he reflects.
“They thought games were for kids, that it would belittle the brand or something.”
But now, that anti-games camp accounts for only 10%. Most remain on the fence, though - and this is what MacDonald is setting out to change.