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Publishing perfection: Making the most of today's landscape: Part two

Kwalee’s John Wright discusses some of the common challenges developers are facing and how to combat them by finding the right publisher
Publishing perfection: Making the most of today's landscape: Part two

While the mobile market can be incredibly lucrative, that’s only the case if your game gets noticed. And being noticed in a sea of other games is no easy feat. Many mobile games never even make it to launch due to low projections, and when they do make it, many titles fly under the radar or have only a brief moment in the limelight.

Working with a publisher who understands your game and goals is a way to see through the storm and set your game on the right track.

In part one of this publishing series, Kwalee’s vice president of mobile publishing, John Wright, shared his insight into the state of play for publishing, touching on the increasing difficulty of creating a successful game. Now, for part two, Wright shares with us what makes a game appealing to players and publishers.

The Importance of Good Game Mechanics and a Robust Meta

I want to delve into the critical components that make a game appealing to both players and publishers alike. Rather than focusing on sales pitches, let's objectively examine what publishers are currently seeking in the gaming landscape.

  • The power of good game mechanics and engaging meta: Games must possess enjoyable and engaging core loop mechanics alongside a compelling meta, providing users with progression and reasons to return repeatedly. Established gaming giants focusing on casual, mid-core, and hardcore strategy games continued refining these elements during the hypercasual boom. This dedication allowed them to remain evergreen in 2023 and will remain so in 2024 (as I mentioned in my part 1 post).
  • Hypercasual boom and evolution: The hypercasual trend revealed the potential of creating something fun, engaging, and addictive, reaching audiences previously untouched by gaming. The emphasis shifted from targeting "gamers" to appealing to "non-gamers," resulting in a decrease in average LTV across the industry; my estimate is that we went from about $2-4 to $0.30-0.50c overall. Adding the combination of marketability and the "covid effect" fostered exponential growth for this new genre. The "crack" of gaming, as a friend once told me.

“The studios that publishers are eager to collaborate with are those demonstrating the ability to evolve and innovate.”
John Wright

  • Rise of Hybridcasual games: Enter the era of "Hybridcasual," the new poster child of gaming, representing what most publishers desire right now. This category emphasises the evolution of fun core loop mechanics into a more comprehensive experience. Developers are now striving to create content compelling enough for players to return for at least 30 days, integrating a strong meta from the game's inception.
  • The role of meta in success: Building games with integrated meta-features from the beginning has become crucial. Meta not only enhances player engagement but also increases opportunities for monetisation, boosts In-App Purchase (IAP) amounts, and ultimately raises LTV while counteracting escalating CAC. Achieving success in the hybrid gaming landscape requires studios to showcase vision and adaptability. If developers want to succeed now, they must leverage their knowledge of core mechanics from the hypercasual era and incorporate the meta layer to optimise monetisation performance.

In conclusion, the studios that publishers are eager to collaborate with are those demonstrating the ability to evolve and innovate. Success in the hybrid gaming realm hinges on combining well-crafted core mechanics with a thoughtfully designed meta layer. While this approach results in more complex and enjoyable games, it also means fewer games entering the market, refining the user mix to a more dedicated gaming audience.

While this is most publishers' core focus, it's important to mention that it's quickly becoming a red ocean, and developers should also think outside the box.

The coveted and ever-elusive blue ocean

I have emphasised the growing prominence of hybridcasual games, which have become the current favourites among publishers. This genre boasts hypercasual style marketability, robust LTVs, extended user lifecycles, increased IAP contributions (SOV), and overall higher revenues per title. However, it's essential to acknowledge that the hybridcasual market is quickly becoming oversaturated and intensely competitive, reminiscent of the hypercasual boom.

At Kwalee, I am actively encouraging our teams to have conversations with numerous exceptional studios, regardless of the game genres they're working on. It's crucial to evaluate all opportunities and not limit ourselves to formulas just because they have a current perceived higher chance of success. Falling into this narrow mindset can lead developers and publishers alike to a situation akin to the challenges faced during the evolution from hypercasual to the current gaming landscape.

“By venturing beyond established trends, you might discover that ever-elusive blue ocean and achieve even bigger industry-level success.”
John Wright

It's worth noting that the most dominant games in the industry have not always emerged from these high-growth areas. Studios like King, Dream Games, Scopely, Moon Active, and Zynga (excluding Rollic) have thrived by focusing on more intricate games, including puzzle games, which are comparatively complex compared to hyper and hybrid. Additionally, consider giants like Activision, InnerSloth, Niantic, or Roblox, each with their unique focus, boasting some of the highest-grossing games globally ever.

A compelling example of strategic evolution is Madbox, a company that excelled in hypercasual gaming. Maxime DEMEURE and Jean-Nicolas Vernin, the founders, anticipated the industry's evolution and reinvested their earnings from successful hypercasual games into building an evergreen casual game. Their dedication resulted in "Pocket Champs," arguably one of the most significant recent successes in the casual gaming sphere, particularly outside the realm of established industry leaders. To me, this shows huge payback on their investment into a long-term strategic vision.

My advice to everyone in the industry is not to concentrate all efforts in one direction. Think long-term and explore innovative ways to redefine industry norms. While developing Hybrid-Casual games is valuable, being open-minded and embracing innovation can lead to unexpected successes. By venturing beyond established trends, you might discover that ever-elusive blue ocean and achieve even bigger industry-level success, just like "Pocket Champs." Stay creative, stay innovative, and keep pushing the boundaries of what our industry can achieve.

Finding the right publisher

To wrap everything up, I want to address a crucial topic: selecting the right publisher, a vital partner in your game's success.

It's paramount to ensure a shared vision and mutual investment in your project to prevent potential setbacks and ultimately missed opportunities (the killer of businesses)

“If you feel like the publisher doesn't really care from the start, then I doubt that will change with time.”
John Wright

Each publisher offers unique strengths – platform access, technological support, streamlined resources and services, UA and monetisation expertise, or even favourable deals. Studio compatibility with a publisher's ethos matters; consider all of this when making a decision.

Something that is sometimes overlooked is building a personal relationship with your dedicated publishing manager; their belief in your game can significantly impact deals. In fact, I've personally seen deals closed off the back of one person's belief in a studio or game, so creating an internal publishing advocate should definitely be part of your strategy.

I would also say go with your gut; if you feel like the publisher doesn't really care from the start, then I doubt that will change with time (unless the testing metrics are outstanding, and then you'll get the white glove treatment!)

Summing the key points

The mobile game industry faces challenges: tough launches, high costs, and intricate metrics. Larger players continue to dominate while smaller studios struggle. Publishing partnerships will be pivotal in shaping 2024's landscape.

“Align your vision, garner support, and prioritise a strong 1-2-1 relationship with the publisher.”
John Wright

Finding successful games is harder due to market evolution, longer development cycles, and challenging user acquisition. Persistence and collaboration with supportive publishers are essential for long-term success.

The industry values robust core mechanics and engaging meta. Hybrid Casual games necessitate innovative gameplay and integrated meta-features. Success demands adaptation and creativity, leading to fewer but more dedicated gaming experiences than a few years ago.

Hybrid-Casual games are rising in popularity due to marketability and revenue. Industry leaders stress diverse game genres, encouraging developers to explore new avenues. Strategic evolution underscores the importance of long-term vision and creativity. Stay open-minded and innovative for industry breakthroughs; don't be afraid to think outside the box and aim for that blue ocean. Choosing the right publisher is pivotal. Align your vision, garner support, and prioritise a strong 1-2-1 relationship with the publisher. Explore options thoughtfully to ensure your game's successful launch.

I couldn't cover everything on this vast subject, but I hope this series continues to educate everyone interested in working with a publisher like Kwalee. If you want to learn more or have a game you want someone to take a look at, don't hesitate to reach out.

 Edited by Paige Cook

You can discover more about publishing strategies at Pocket Gamer Connects. In this video from Pocket Gamer Connects London 2022 entitled 'Independent vs traditional publishing on app stores: What can we learn from each other?' our panel of experts discuss independent vs traditional publishing on app stores.