Publishers like EA's Chillingo scramble to find the next big mobile hit

For every hit mobile game that floods gaming culture and enriches its creators, there are thousands that sit, unloved and unprofitable, in the sorry bowels of app stores.

Yet developers all over the world continue to seek ways to get their games noticed. One route, slightly old-fashioned in our age of self-publishing and creative autonomy, is to go with a publisher. This comes with certain pros and cons. Publishers have expertise and access to app store marketing lanes. But they have their own ways of doing things, and they come with no guarantees of success.

Chillingo is Electronic Arts' third party mobile publishing wing. EA bought the British outfit back in 2010 when it was riding high with certain geographic publishing rights to titles like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope. But those games became big enough to move on (a Rovio exec said at the time that "you don't need publishers"), and so Chillingo seeks the next big thing.

According to general manager Ed Rumley there are plenty of developers who do need publishers. 4,000 of them approach Chillingo every year, looking for the company to take on their games. Increasingly, they come from development growth areas like China

"We haven't got this scientific formula of what makes a game successful," he told Polygon at a GDC interview. "But it's about experience. Even a great game can have one or two things that can limit it." Rumley said that Chillingo's expertise is in tweaking games so that they appeal to gamers; so that they get noticed and so that they "monetize", meaning that their free-to-play mechanics ultimately persuade some players to part with actual cash.

"The challenge is making a good game that will monetize," he said. "That is difficult and we have to turn down some very good games, because they may not be profitable." Rumley cited a battery of artists who work on in-store assets like game icons and screenshots, as well as Chillingo's ability to cross-promote new games across its network, that includes major EA franchises.

To be sure, many of Chillingo's games have a familiar ring to them. Its front page is currently pushing an urban planner called Tiny City. It has a match-three game called Jelly Love. Chillingo's biggest hit right now is a multiplayer tank shooter called Iron Force. These are all standard genre-fillers. But there are also more original titles. Find The Line (pictured) is a Ukrainian game about drawing, and predicting where a picture reaches completion.

Many of the games pitched to Chillingo these days originates in China. "Two years ago I thought that we had hit the peak of developers contacting us but it's doubled since then," said Rumley. "Especially they are coming from China which has increased significantly." He said that half his team's meetings at GDC this year are with Chinese developers.

Still, Chillingo, like all publishers in mobile, faces its stiffest competition from developers who want to follow the dream of publishing their own work, and avoiding relinquishing creative autonomy to a large organization. Rumley said that the self-publishing route can often be a dead-end. "It's unusual for someone to break through from nowhere and have a major success," he said. "Sometimes those individuals need help."

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