WildTangent boss: 'Mobile is nothing like PC casual!'

Alex St. John isn't impressed with received wisdom

WildTangent boss: 'Mobile is nothing like PC casual!'
As CEO of online gaming firm WildTangent, Alex St. John is getting used to ruffling the feathers of the console industry. Well, I say ruffling - more like pulling them out in great fistfuls and gleefully setting them alight.

In his recent keynote speech at the GCDC show in Leipzig, he predicted that consoles would be dead and buried by 2020, replaced by digitally-distributed massively-multiplayer PC games funded by a mixture of micro-transactions and advertising.

What I wanted to know, though, was where the mobile games business fits into this vision. After all, mobile games are distributed digitally, and (in theory) could be funded by a similar mix of small payments and ads.

It turns out St. John disagrees, though. "A lot of people who think the mobile gaming business is a lot like the PC casual gaming business, but when I hear that I just roll my eyes," he says.

"They're nothing like the same business! Mobile platforms are lousy platforms for discovering a game. If the basic premise of the PC casual business is that PCs are easy to surf and impulse-try games and roll into them, then mobile is the opposite. It's hard to discover games, and when you find them on the operator decks, you have to pay for them before you play them."

He pauses, relishing the line of argument.

"The trouble with the mobile gaming business, as it's formulated today, is that it's actually more like the boxed console business than the online casual business. That's why people who try to be in both discover that their business models don't work."

A knowledge of recent developments in mobile might make you quarrel with St. John's blanket verdict.

Every N-Gage game has a free demo to play before you pay, for example, while various operators have been experimenting with microtransaction-based billing models, including the pay-per-play model that St. John says is so powerful online.

Mobile isn't just like the console business, in that sense - or at least, it has the potential not to be. However, St. John has other problems with the mobile ecosystem.

"The platform is so fragmented, you have to build the games for the lowest common denominator, which means making the games is monkey work," he says.

"There's such a huge cost to getting a game developed and published for 400 handsets that it's become a commodity business. There's not a lot of money for developers and publishers, just money for the guys selling the mobile phones. The carriers will make good money from it, but they won't let anyone else get rich."

You can write off St. John's views as those of an outsider - and an outsider with a vested interest in promoting the kind of PC gaming platforms offered by his company at that.

But the outsider point is precisely why I wanted to interview him, to offer a counterbalance to our usual interviewees who, let's face it, have an equally vested interest in talking up mobile as a gaming platform.

So, what in St. John's view could mobile do to improve its viability? "One change would be to become more intimately linked to the PC business," he says.

"To have massively multiplayer games on PC with a mobile component that ties back to the PC experience. Advertising models will also make more sense on mobile, ultimately. But again, the mobile carriers will make a bunch of money, but the developers won't."

So cross-platform gaming is the future? There's been a lot of talk about games spanning several platforms – one core game world accessed from many devices, for example. However, St. John doesn't seem keen.

"The consumer doesn't actually give a shit about playing a game on lots of different platforms," he says. "That's actually an encumbrance. The more platforms I have to play my game on, the more stuff I have to have, and the more things I have to learn. It's erecting barriers."

He goes on to clarify that for some games, taking some aspect to other platforms will work, such as a web-based fantasy football game that lets you check results on your phone, or a PC MMO where you can manage resources on the mobile.

"But that's not an excuse for automatically trying to smear a game over lots of different platforms," he says. "And even for something like World of Warcraft, does Blizzard want to make a little mobile application that might bring in another million bucks, when they can make an expansion pack for the actual game and - boom! - they've generated another billion bucks!"

That's enough mobile, then. Getting back to his central 'consoles dead by 2020' thesis though - you can get the gist of it here - I wonder how handheld fits into this. Does he think DS and PSP will die out in the coming years too?

Not necessarily, it seems. "I think about handheld a little differently," he says.

"Handheld used to be the only computer a kid could buy, but now they have a mobile device with more processing power, and a laptop to go to school. So I wonder if that traditional handheld gaming device gets lost in between them. It may not go away, but it's got to change."

Although he's adamant that there are huge business-model differences between the mobile and PC casual markets, I wonder if St. John's vision - if it comes true - actually holds out opportunities for mobile game developers, especially those looking to expand online.

"Absolutely, it's a tremendous opportunity for developers, not least because the traditional publishers are at a negative advantage when it comes to moving to these new business models " he says.

"Everything an Activision or an EA knows about making games is wrong. It's a disadvantage. If they take their smartest, most experienced, highest-paid people and say 'Go conquer the internet', they will fuck it up. So it's a tremendous opportunity for developers to be more nimble, own their own audience, build highly viral gameplay, and be a publisher if they want to."

Contributing Editor

Stuart is a freelance journalist and blogger who's been getting paid to write stuff since 1998. In that time, he's focused on topics ranging from Sega's Dreamcast console to robots. That's what you call versatility. (Or a short attention span.)