We are about 50 days into the life of the Trump Administration, and despite the (admittedly, slightly misleading) title of this post, it's unclear what direct impact on the mobile games business the new president will have. Many of us based in the US feel personally impacted in numerous ways of course, and the volatility that we have seen to date may - in time - exert its own chaotic influence on mobile gaming. But this is a global business, which should provide a measure of insulation against domestic turmoil, even though the US does account for a huge percentage of global mobile gaming revenue.
More apparent, however, is how the nature of the games business is continuing to evolve. Consumers are spending more money than ever on mobile apps overall: Apple paid out $20bn to app developers in 2016 (a 40% increase over the year before), and mobile ad network AppLovin was acquired for $1.4bn last year, both clear indicators of how much value it is possible to generate from good execution in mobile. But if anything, it's only getting harder to ensure that your game stands out from the noise of everything else out there. Sometimes a small game from a small dev team can catch fire and ride a wave of interest to previously unimagined success (remember Pop The Lock by our fellow New Yorkers Simple Machine?). But far more common is the experience of dedicated, talented and hard-working dev teams busting their asses to get a game out into the market only to watch it disappear into irrelevance as no-one even really notices it.
In the context of that bleak scenario, publishers are more important than ever. They can be a partner to the developer, someone to lend a fresh eye to the game or aspects of it. More importantly though, their job - if they take it seriously and do it well - is to find an audience for the game, and to ensure that audience will generate enough revenue to make everyone happy by actively managing the live operations and social media outreach of the game through its lifetime. It's not easy, and there are no sure things in such a crowded and competitive market. But it seems pretty clear that the skill set and resources needed to build a great game are not the same as those necessary to find and effectively monetize that game's audience, so most developers are going to need help from someone. Especially when it comes to the cost of marketing a game, publishers can be in an ideal position to help.
Of course, it's essential to find the right publisher. One who understands your game, who knows the market that game will be living in, who can execute on the plan to distribute it as widely as possible, and who can maintain ongoing profitability. It's not easy, and in many cases is not something that the developer can completely control. After all, how can you really know (until either it happens or it definitively doesn't) that the publisher you have chosen is able to do all this effectively? You can do some due diligence: talk to other developers who have worked with that publisher, look at the publisher's portfolio of games to see how successful they have been, ask the publisher to deliver a detailed plan of attack to you. Even then, you still can't be sure. And the number of horror stories out there about publishers taking control of games, doing essentially nothing and then retaining rights in those games indefinitely are frankly too numerous to count.
So what else can you do? You can take steps to protect yourself. Look for and only sign a contract with a publisher who will:
- guarantee you an agreed amount of out of pocket spending on direct marketing campaigns for your game (i.e. not cross-marketing campaigns, and not a budget that is "spent" in-house on creative services and the like by another part of the publishing company. This needs to be real money spent on real campaigns to drive real installs).
- if the game doesn't work out, or the publisher loses interest and no longer wants to invest in it, ensure that you can get ownership and control of your game back, so that you can use it (and the knowledge you will have gained in the interim) for whatever purposes that you think fit. Games should only sit on the shelf metaphorically gathering dust if truly no-one is interested in them.
I am proud to say that from the very start of the Thumbspire adventure 3 years ago, we made these 2 points a key part of all of our agreements with all our developers. That was not common at the time. Perhaps inevitably, not every game we have published has been a success, and there are a number of cases where we have handed those games back to our developer partners despite us having spent thousands or tens of thousands of dollars on marketing them with no returns. It's always been a key part of our philosophy that not only should we talk about having a partnership with developers, but that we should put that into practice too. No partnership works without trust, and in our minds, saying what we'll do and then doing what we say is a key element of that.
Which perhaps brings us back to the current political climate. In a time when, for many, it's getting harder and harder to trust the word of our leaders and political institutions, we all need to find companies and people that we can rely on in other important realms of our lives. Thumbspire aspires to be one of those companies, and to forge partnerships with developers that can be relied on to be honest, trustworthy and fair. Now, let's go play some games!