Mobile Game Landscape Gets More Complicated

Despite all the hype surrounding mobile games — and all the money companies are investing in efforts to push them — the business model to support them hasn’t yet made itself evident. You’d think that would give some running room to independent developers who’ve got a clever approach to attracting, keeping and making money off of players. But that’s more easily said than done, especially when the industry’s leaders are putting a lot of effort into remaking themselves.

green labyrinthPart of that remaking involves blood-letting. Earlier this month, social game developer Zynga announced plans to chop more than 500 workers, or 18 percent of its workforce, as it attempts to transition to better attack the mobile market. In April, Electronic Arts cut 10 percent of its workforce — about 900 people — as it pursued a similar course. Mobile ad network Tapjoy, which TechCrunch calls “an advertising and monetization backbone,” announced last week that it’s also restructuring, laying off some 20 people, or about 10 percent of its employees.

Surveying developments in the game landscape, developer Tadhg Kelly wonders if the industry has hit “peak mobile.” What’s that mean?

Customers start to notice that they’re being offered the same product over and over. They start to become sensitive to the vagaries of the platform and then less inclined to just jump into a game willy-nilly. They start to develop deep loyalties to certain games, and certain game makers. They start to get slightly bored of watching the same ludemes endlessly recycled and want to be delighted all over again. They start to find the non-mechanical aspects of a game, such as its fiction or aesthetic, more appealing. In short they start to become somewhat like any media audience, which is to say complex and hard to read as one whole bloc.

Which is one reason game companies are hiring data scientists and analysts who can uncover new ways to find users and take advantage of their behavior, as Reuters reports. This comes as developers pursue a range of strategies to build and maintain their mobile user base, employing everything form loyalty programs to aggressive ad campaigns to merchandizing.

At a time when mobile games are relatively straightforward to build and launch, you’d think this would give indie developers the opportunity to break through. In terms of realizing their creativity, it might. But the brand names’ determination is hurting them where it counts — audience development and monetization. One independent developer told Reuters that it’s becoming more and more difficult for “new entrants to come in without a big budget.”

In the long term, Kelly contends, all mobile game developers will face one obstacle that may be insurmountable: The environment itself. “Those little screens may always be perceived as only for frivolous gaming,” he writes, meaning “Sudoku on the bus” or titles like Bewjeweled.

…but it’s hard to see that they will ever become venues for more immersive games. Can we pragmatically expect the audience of mobile games to develop strong cultural identities and communities? Or will phones always seem just that little bit lightweight for those kinds of game? (And will tablets prove different in this respect?) And if they do, does that mean mobile’s peak will be more like Facebook’s, stalling and settling into fixed patterns and jadedness?

It’s hard for anyone to know, but it presents a special opportunity to the developer who can read tea leaves the right way, and come up with an approach that is, for lack of a better term, a game changer.

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