It's simply amazing how fast things are moving in the mobile space, and just by gleaming over some of the big news from the last month or so, an incredible amount can be gathered on what the (near) future holds for mobile games development. Along with casual and social gaming, it's a rapidly progressing and evolving sector of the games market, and it'll be interesting to see how local games developers invested in this area will be able to adapt to all the upcoming shifts and advancements.
Classification requirement for digitally downloaded games for sale in Australia
Firstly, an issue we didn't quite manage to cover was the report last month that the Labor Party was planning to make sure that digitally downloadable games will need to be submitted for classification in the same way as computer and console games are required to. It's a scenario that gave many cause for concern on the impact it is likely to create when it was first proposed late last year.
A brief look at tsumea games developer listing shows that the number of independent games developers is rapidly rivalling that of established / work-for-hire developers, and for many of those developers, digital distribution is by far their main (and perhaps only) choice for getting their games out to the consumer.
Due to a considerable OFLC review fee requirement (between $400 and $2000 per title), many small local and overseas developers will not be able to justify the cost of submitting their games to the relatively small Australian market when a lot of these games are selling up to just a few dollars per pop and avoid a release here altogether. And while the Australian consumer suffers greatly in this regard, the ramifications for local games developers are a lot more troubling.
The issue was first raised by Morgan Jaffit (ex-Pandemic, now the founder of Defiant Development) who wrote the following on his blog...
(Morgan) Australian developers rely on Australian audiences to help them build global brands. Products like Fruit Ninja gain local attention and then use that to spread their wings internationally, with great success.
Certainly that was the case with Cluck It! for us. It's initial release was spread throughout our (primarily local) networks, which helped us gain the attention we needed to get featured on the local app store. From there, we rapidly spread internationally, gaining tens of thousands of new customers from around the world.
The importance of local traction on the Appstore cannot be emphasised enough, and the point is reinforced again during an interview with Mikael Hed, CEO of game studio Rovio. Rovio are the developers of the wildly successful 5+ million selling Appstore game, Angry Birds. Mikael describes how the momentum for Angry Birds began in their Finnish homeland before it was noticed and propelled internationally...
(Mikael) For us the game released in December 2009, and it went to number one in Finland pretty much overnight. When it was in the top ten people were intrigued by the title and kept buying it. It took until mid-Februrary for Apple to feature the game, and that's what pushed it to number one in the UK. In February it was still number one in the US.
With so many emerging Australian Appstore games developers with the potential to hit it big like Firemint and Halfbrick Studios, a classification requirement for all games in this sector could prove to be disastrous.
The rise of Android
Apple has certainly set the standard in mobile i-devices complete with app eco-system, but it is now facing the challenge of Android OS and a multitude of big name manufacturers (Samsung, LG, Motorola, HTC, Dell, Sony Ericsson and more) who are determinined to take a larger slice of the burgeoning mobile phone and tablet pie. The year-round releases of new and competitive Android based mobile phones and tablets are proving to be a highly desirable alternative to Apple's offerings. With this in mind, analysts are predicting that the Android Mobile OS will reach the number 2 platform in 2011 and even taking coveted top spot by 2014.
The potential for the Android OS is undeniable, and it hasn't escaped the attention of developers as many have already begun to port their apps over to the system including Rovio with Angry Bird, Half Brick and their hit, Fruit Ninja, and the OpenFeint service. While the big games publishers were surprisingly slow to move into the Apple Appstore marketplace, they're making sure not to make the same mistake for the Android. Electronic Arts CFO, Eric Brown, has stated that the publisher is positioning itself for Android app development, riding on the prediction that Android OS will be the leading platform in a few years.
Why Android might not be the option for local developers right now
With this in mind, it may seem timely for local developers to jump onto the Android bandwagon, however one thing to note is that Google does not provide an avenue for paid Android application development for Australian just yet. As the Android marketplace relies on Google Checkout (a service similar to Paypal) to handle and process payments, disappointingly Australia is not currently supported for that service. Some buzz among the local Android community grew earlier this month when Google had seemingly opened Google checkout for Australia, however it was quickly realised that they had listed it by mistake and promptly corrected the error. As mentioned earlier, Halfbrick Studios have released Fruit Ninja on the Android, and we can only guess that local developers have managed to get around that hurdle by arranging the use of a U.S bank account to receive sales.
Speaking of Fruit Ninja, while it has managed to crack the #1 app position within 24 hours of release in the Android marketplace, the sales numbers for Android apps are not compelling enough at the moment for developers just yet. When Fruit Ninja hit the #1 spot on the Android, the sales numbers were slated to be between 5,000 and 10,000 with the game receiving just 652 user-submitted ratings. It's certainly not a sustainable amount for any developer and it's particularly telling of the immaturity of the platform, however Android is definitely worth keeping an eye out on for the future.
As far as the viability of Windows Mobile 7 is concerned, we'll just have to wait to see when it's released...
The next wave of casual and social gaming is coming
Many in the industry are predicting a second wave in the casual and social gaming space, and if the following reports are of any indication, big things are quietly underway by some very notable online names who want in on the action that is currently dominated by Facebook.
Google has been well known to be making inroads in the social / casual gaming space for quite a while now, providing a $100 million investment in social gaming giant, Zynga, $3-5 million in Ngmoco, and acquiring app developers Jambool/Social Gold and Slide. Many are concluding that the search engine giant is gearing up big for a social network to rival that of Facebook called Google Me.
Amazon seems like a strange new entrant to the gaming scene, and not much is known what they're aiming for since they're keeping a fairly tight lip so far, but when they grabbed Microsoft's Games Platform Director who has a well known passion for games, you know something is definitely brewing at Amazon.
So what does this all mean? More emerging markets simply mean more avenues to monetise the most out of your games, which is mighty fine, but what about all that effort required to port a version for all these platforms?
Game engines have been caught up in all the latest developments and during the competition to become the clear leader in this area, many have become extremely capable, affordable, and highly desirable solutions for the independent, small games developer and even publisher. Here are some of the notable ones...
Unity has gained much popularity ever since they've offered an affordable indie license. With the ability to publish on so many platforms out there with reasonable licensing costs add-ons to boot, it has captured the interest of independent games developers and publishers alike including EA, Ubisoft, Warner Bros, Microsoft, and EA. EA has taken such a liking to Unity that it has announced a multi-year Unity enterprise license for all of its studios. With the release of v3.0 just released offering even more incredible new features, it's certainly a great time to check Unity out.
The floodgates are set to burst as Flash developers will soon be able to export their games to multiple platforms including Apple's own i-devices after Apple relaxes its Appstore developer restrictions on third-party development tools. Work is continuing steadily on the functionality for Adobe Flash Professional CS5 / Adobe AIR to export applications to Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, and Apple iOS, and once Adobbe have it finished, it will herald a new wave of game developers to mobile gaming.
The future in mobile hardware
I recall Firemint CEO, Rob Murray, mentioning many a time whether it be from a casual conversation, interview, or a session talk, how incredibly fast mobile hardware is advancing. The common speed for new smartphones hover around 1GHz right now which, while is a big jump from the 300mhz seen in the iPhone when it was first introduced in 2007, pales in comparison to the leap in hardware that has been announced only recently.
Multi-core cpus for mobile phones are coming later this year, and with it come the functionality of full HD 1080p video playback and recording, and most importantly for games, a massive increase in 3D rendering speeds.
The new generation of 1.2 GHz and 1.5 GHz Snapdragon dual-core processors from Qualcomm are expected to arrive later in the year. Also coming out in late 2010 is Motorola's 2 GHz smartphone based on Nvidia's dual-core Tegra line as well as Samsung's new dual core smartphone using ARM's Cortex-A9 processor which is slated have the 3D graphics performance leap of a factor of 5 compared to today's offerings.
ARM themselves have recently unveiled their next-generation mobile processor, the Cortex-A15, claiming a five-fold speed increase from their previous generation of chipsets, and ten times the performance of mobile hardware today.
Needless to say, the expectations and development demands for mobile gaming is set to leap the same way console game development have escalated through each reiteration, and we may be set to see the return of the 30 to 60 sized teams of the Playstation 2 era per title for mobile games. It'll be interesting to see how the games industry balances the rising development costs of high-profiled mobile games and the $15+ ceiling price that consumers expect to pay for a premium title.
The harsh reality
While it's easy to get excited by all these new developments, the reality is that the mobile and casual / gaming space has become a highly saturated and competitive one, and it's certainly not going to get any easier in the future. To back this up with stats, the average game in the AppStore makes $700. If you're after more sobering statistics, be sure to check out the talk that Simon Carless, Chairman of the Independent games festival and publisher of Game Developer magazine and Gamasutra.com, gave at the Digital Distribution Summit in Melbourne last year...