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Mobile game developers need to value their work and increasingly that starts with price

Carter Dotson wants to pay upfront
Mobile game developers need to value their work and increasingly that starts with price
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The big money in mobile has moved to free-to-play. But should big name and other established developers and publishers be abandoning paid games?

I think many should re-evaluate their positions and consider premium pricing: leveraging their successful properties' ability to be sold up front.

Set up

There are two chief problems that game developers experience when they 'go mobile'.

One is that they go too far outside of their area of expertise and try and appeal to a too wide an audience, losing what put them in a position of power and expertise in the first place.

The other is that they undervalue their work, or mess up trying to use free-to-play monetization in a game that could sell at a premium price.

Unsurprisingly, the ability to appeal to a large casual audience and monetise them effectively are two hard skills, and rarely are they mutually inclusive.

That's not to say that a shift can't be done well. EA, in particular, after some rough times, has figured out how to leverage its properties to work on mobile.

Perhaps they're not the most popular among core gamers, but they at least have built up a presence on the platform, and have the expertise to pull off games well enough.

But there's a reason EA stands alone in that regard (in the west, at least).

Right whale

Looking for a better example, I think Square Enix is perhaps the ideal company for developers with established reputations to follow.

When they have games and franchises that have established reputations, they aren't afraid to sell them, and at very high prices for mobile.

Activision's <em>Geometry Wars 3</em> is a great example of a mobile game that maintains its cross-platform value
Activision's Geometry Wars 3 is a great example of a mobile game that maintains its cross-platform value

But with most of their mobile-exclusive games, they're not afraid to go free-to-play, as we've seen with Final Fantasy All the Bravest, Final Fantasy Record Keeper, and Mobius Final Fantasy.

They're still figuring out how to balance playability and monetization, but I know of people who have played Record Keeper for dozens of hours without paying. And hey, they can push a nostalgia angle with that game.

You might think everyone is free-to-play, but a small, increasing number of developers are bucking this trend.

We'll see how Mobius does. But at least Square Enix knows they don't have to sell games for cheap, that people will buy their games at high prices.

And when they have games that fit well as free-to-play titles, they go for the gusto, without giving up the things that make them distinctive. For the most part.

Who's your competition?

Square Enix has tried to make generic puzzle games.

And that's the thing I'm going to warn every developer and publisher about: don't make a big budget puzzle game. It's a stupid risk.

You're not King, or Big Fish, or SGN. You're competing with companies that have been established in this space for longer than you have, and know how to make a successful puzzle game.

An Activision match-3 won't stand out, and yours probably won't either. Your expertise is elsewhere. Aim to make games that are in your wheelhouse, while being designed for mobile.

Mobile gaming is a different universe compared to console and desktop gaming. Follow the NetherRealm example: Injustice and Mortal Kombat X are basically CCGs with light fighting elements, and they've done gangbusters.


If you are a developer or publisher with a game you think could be adapted, or have some kind of established reputation on desktop and console, I say to be careful with what you do on mobile.

You might think everyone is free-to-play, but a small, increasing number of developers are bucking this trend.

A key reason for the race to the bottom on mobile was that you had indie developers that no one had ever heard of trying to sell their games. There was no trust in the market so pricing became the only tool you could use and so everything became free.

But if you are a developer with a reputation for quality products, you can stand out.

Your product's paid presence means something. I think this is especially for large companies.

You can do the Square Enix thing, with a balance of releases. But take Activision, for example. They could have easily made Geometry Wars 3 a free-to-play game. Maybe not 'easily', I think the transition would have gone rough and the intended audience would not have liked it.


But Activision and Lucid Games made the game be exactly the same as the console/desktop version (before the Evolved content at least), and they could have charged more than the $4.99 they did. I think they could have charged $9.99, at least - $14.99 if the game was exactly the same.

They could say "This is the same game as on console and PC. It is worth the money." That was key to the Apple feature and high rankings during its first week.

Because they exist elsewhere, these games also have an established value outside of mobile.

I'm glad to see developers, even indie ones, trying to sell their products at a fair price on iOS. Sproggiwood and Desktop Dungeons are each selling at $9.99.

These developers are valuing their work fairly, showing to consumers that their games aren't just disposable products; that they're worth thought and consideration; that they're not just a part of the random collection of race to the bottom.

These are games that shouldn't just be bought on a whim. Because they exist elsewhere, they also have an established value outside of mobile.

And that's just the thing: everyone else might be jumping into the free-to-play pool, and many should be. Few mobile-first developers can survive on paid games alone.

But studios with reputations outside of mobile can sell to the core gamer audience on mobile, and I think they should try to do so.