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Mobile is burning, and free-to-play binds the hands of devs who want to help

In early March of this year Fireproof released the happy news that we've collectively sold 5.5 million copies of our mobile games The Room and The Room 2 since release.

At Fireproof we'd always heard a mobile game had to be a casual, free to download, games-as-a-service title you can play for infinity. This was a problem, as our game was short, dark and grim, had no social or online aspect and contained no in-app purchases or adverts.

We also lacked any money to pay for professional Marketing or PR so upon its release you could politely term our expectations as realistic. But backed by a feature on Apple's AppStore our wee game with a £70k budget went on to see success we never could have expected.

Commenting on our surprising figures, I tweeted that maybe mobile gaming's war of total monetisation on free-to-play gamers has made the dev community over reliant on "databollocks" while losing sight of how a good game can affect its players. What's wrong with a developer shooting for entertainment instead of monetisation?

The biggest difference between our success and other mobile devs was that we chose to sell each title for a straight fee, i.e. paid i.e. premium i.e. Ye Olde Worlde Weirding Way.

The press picked up our story, which we imagined as a dashing and windswept tale of bootstrap success against the odds, but some in the mobile industry absorbed it differently, waving away our success as an aberration at best and a dangerous precedent at worst. It seemed our story ran contrary to the ongoing romance between mobile and free-to-play games.

Fireproof had drunkenly crashed this wedding, and what God has brought together let no premium developer separate.

We need to talk about the Virtual D-Pad

Mobile is truly a landscape dominated by free and casual games. Attend a mobile conference and you’ll feel like clearly the most interesting reason to make or play games is monetisation.

Pitch a title that isn't games-as-a-service to publishers or investors and they'll practically install new doors to slam in your face. The narrative has been agreed upon: casual and free is "what mobile gamers want" and in this world of go-free-or-go-home, Fireproof stick out like a sore thumb. We're surrounded by other developers of premium games making excellent work but, barring a few teams like Vlambeer and Capy, are practically alone in seeing a decent profit.

So how a paid game happened to sell 5.5m in this day and age is not the important question — the real question is the following: In a market as huge as mobile how the fuck are Fireproof among the only makers of premium games that saw this kind of success?

Coming from AAA, Fireproof always viewed mobile as open, accessible and democratic, a bit of a playground for video game possibilities. When the platform first came onto the dev scene its promise was insanely cheap development costs and a liberating ability for game makers to sell direct to the public.

The benefits were dizzying and AAA gaming wanted in, thinking its superior visuals and design chops will crush the "cheap, Facebook-y" type games that were becoming popular on mobile.

But the truth is that the first few years of AAA in mobile were dominated by the catastrophic failure of expensive paid titles. Our industry completely failed to grapple with the newness of the platform, seeing the great novelty of the touch Interface as a pain instead of a new opportunity.

Ongoing deep losses coupled with worldwide austerity shrank budgets industry-wide and the view shifted to software that showed high return on low investment. Over time rich, immersive games faded away as an option and in the right light those "cheap, Facebook-y" games looked pretty damn good after all.

The virtual d-pad, the attempt to shove standard controls onto touch screens, is merely symbolic of the historic failure of the wider games industry to take mobile seriously and our hurried retreat from that market left behind a negative space of ideas that festers like a black hole in mobile's ecosystem today. The games industry is about selling amazing interactive experiences to people, and I don't know how any person who loves games could look at the mobile grossing charts and not despair.

From investment to publishing to developers to press, the mobile universe is hostile to the creative urge, the high standards and the hunt to find new gaming territory that is required to grow gaming as a meaningful cultural space on any platform.

As it creates, so it destroys

Free-to-play advocates naturally think their model is dominant because "that's what mobile gamers want," explaining that in-app purchases are just the players way of saying they care. If they've entertained the more dull notion that free-to-play is popular because... well, it's free? They seem not to let on.

So lets drill into this idea of an ocean of spend-happy mobile gamers who love free-to-play casual games and nothing else.

Recent data shows 20 percent of mobile games get opened once and never again. 66 percent have never played beyond the first 24 hours and indeed most purchases happen in the first week of play. Amazingly only around two to three percent of gamers pay anything at all for games, and even more hair-raising is the fact that 50 percent of all revenue comes from just 0.2 percent of players.

This is a statistically insignificant amount of happy gamers and nothing that gives you a basis to make claims about "what people want". I think it just as likely that mobile's orgy of casual titles is due to simple bandwagon-ism or, in other words, not knowing what people want.

So it bothers me to hear game developers talking as if casual games are the new paradigm on mobile when so very few developers are actually happy with the games as they are, and mobile gamers clearly seem to "care" least of all. Free-to-play and casual titles should be a part of a greater gaming ecosystem, but right now they are the entirety of it on mobile.

But perhaps those stats are out of context and hide a greater truth of market freedom and energetic dynamism. Well, the Top Ten grossing charts beg to differ.

The top slots are a vision of inaction, occupied by the same games for over a year, a few big beasts and their clones politely shuffling positions in a Galapagos-like existence. Curious gamers see the top grossing charts, assume it’s the primo shit and very ordinary gaming experiences get a download frenzy, ensuring highly monetized games are now the only vision of mobile gaming visible to our mainstream audience.

Since we released The Room in 2012 Fireproof has made over $5 million, a life-changing amount to our small studio that paid for us to become full-time developers. However Candy Crush and other top free casual games have been reported to be making that much in a couple of days.

If the best-supported, highest-rated and outright luckiest premium games on the planet only achieve lifetime sales equal to a couple of day's revenue for some casual games, we are dealing with a pinhead-sized paid game market – and that suggests a lack of interest in gaming across the mobile audience.

In 2013 mobile games made over $10 billion globally and allegedly this is great. $10 billion sounds a lot, it is a lot, but the makers of Candy Crush alone took almost $2 billion. Throw in the top ten and there's most of your games market gone; hoovered up by ten cute grinding games that are clones of each other. Any remaining change from that money is scraped off the table and scattered across a games industry trying to service a billion devices.

A 2 percent "engaged’ audience does not seem towering in achievement for a creative industry that looks to draw its players into new experiences. We're living in a world where Netflix's content inspires hysteria in grown adults, so is mobile gaming really in the same league when 98 percent of its gamers spend more on pencil sharpeners than games made by our billion-dollar leaders?

A fertile ecosystem needs lots of green shoots as well as the old redwoods, and all this would matter less if free-to-play was a neutral pipeline carrying a wide range of games. But the necessarily interruptive and patience-trying nature of a highly monetised financial model works against immersion and the attempt to spellbind a player that the best games achieve. Consequentially many game designs will not lend themselves to free-to-play, and thus a less cynical world of gaming goodness is denied a platform that’s in desperate need of something better.

Our industry's all-free-to-play approach in mobile has failed to deliver a real gaming ecosystem to either mobile players or developers, and many years into our work a universe of games remains to be made on mobile.

The free-to-play model itself serves a million uses to developers and gamers, I’ve chucked lots of time and money into World of Tanks, Warhammer Quest and many others myself — the model is not the problem.

The problem is more general, that taken as a whole the games industry is making mobile games that nobody cares about available to millions of players for nothing. Free-to-play producers chime that quality levels are obviously fine, "If it's making money it's objectively good, see?" Well no, not quite, shit sells by the ton every day. In the real world Burger King doesn't get three Michelin stars. Burger King gets to be happy with its revenue not its reviews, and our industry’s inability to see the difference will only pull us further into our creative vacuum.

Our rush to make everything free ensured we have drained the entire mobile market of money in return for the accomplishment of pleasing a statistically insignificant amount of people. In our hands mobile's ecosystem has been sown with salt, turned to dust and become God’s Anvil for game developers.

The future is unwritten: we need to get writing

The best creators look beyond statistics and market assumptions to look at potential, the world of what's possible. This is why truly successful games create trends and why mediocre games follow them. Any true game fan knows this intrinsically; we’re on a constant hunt for the new, and chase anything that sticks out as being better. But beyond enthusiast gamers are hundreds of millions out there looking for something, anything, that is cool for their device.

Mobile has injected gaming into the eyeballs of people who never would have touched a game a few years ago. But a creative business is all about catering to niches. We know from novels, film, music that we have to produce a variety to suit all tastes, that well supported niches are a sign of a developed industry with a strong inventive center.It's fair to say one reason mobile gaming is dying on its arse for developers is because the idea that one billion gamers want to play variations of Candy-Clash-Saga a thousand times is fucking insane. We've got the stats. It's 3 percent at best. So we've nailed that, time to try something else.

Set against the galaxy of content other creative markets enjoy, the picture our industry paints about the mobile market - "They only want monetised casual games" just can't be the whole truth. In fact given the extremely low penetration of these games it seems a kind of whistling in the dark, and its more likely we're making the weather then complaining when it rains. No audience will pay for boring me-too games, and those few that do are so tiny in number they can be chalked up to random chance as much as any design brilliance.

So what can we bank on, what do we know in our bones about creative markets? People will buy anything that entertains them, and we especially like to be dazzled. People want hits, they want their entertainment bold, loud, confident and different, they want choice, entertainment for every possible mood. They ultimately give their money to the people that show them something cool that they can't get from anyone else.

Minecraft needs to be counted the fuck in to every conversation about mobile success

As soon as the joy factor of a game is high enough all the fake "pillars for success" like marketing, PR, data analysis and "giving people what they want" crumble away like the mere scaffolding they are. I love to bring up Minecraft as an example of this and it's only somewhat because I enjoy the terror in mobile developers eyes when I do.

Mobile game folk just love to wave away Minecraft as an anomaly. But to me they call it an "outlier" in an attempt to count it out of an otherwise uncomfortable conversation.

Minecraft needs to be counted the fuck in to every conversation about mobile success because it's a spectacular example of how flow charts and financial models tell you fuck all about the real business we are in. Its colossal size is not some mutant tumor, it really is that much better than any other game on mobile or any platform.

I think this terrifies half the industry and I love it.

Minecraft is not an outlier, it's a leader. It's not to be ignored but gazed at: this is what success based on pleasing an audience looks like. Hell yes its $200m sales are a hard act to follow - but only if you need $200m! $2 million on the other hand is a bonanza for developers like Fireproof, and if you can be 1 percent as good as Notch maybe you can make 1 percent of Minecraft’s revenue.

I am arguing that this is what we have forgotten in our chase for mobile profit, that we can’t see the creative woods for the data trees. For all our mountains of information we’ve collected about user habits and sales, the gut-level ability to give joy and inspire our audience remains the job of our industry’s creative people first and every other industry role second. Our ability to communicate to, reach and inspire the people that we make things for is the foundation for everything any artist or craftsperson ever produced.

The fundamental communication power of mobile as a platform to push gaming remains entirely intact. But the logic of chasing mountainous profit is self-defeating.

At Fireproof we reduced our expectations to the level of our slim resources and by not planning to win big we freed ourselves to make stuff that intrigued us as gamers, and that allowed us to stand out. Raised on decades of amazing video games we only have one gear: make the best and most interesting game we can. Nothing else matters and we ignored any advice that didn’t support that goal.

To us it seemed crazy to pander to an audience. We thought about what makes any game good, not just a mobile game. Great feeling controls, a smooth camera, easy interaction, cool visuals, all wrapped in an intriguing game world that wakes up the player’s brain. Our one concession to mobile was not a concession at all: we did all we could to make the touch interface sing because the touch interface is fucking great.

None of these carefully thought out plans would have made a lick of difference to the free-to-play obsessed mobile publishers: our multi-million selling game game would have been strangled at birth. Black would have been white, up would have been down.

These people who cling to data are not to be listened to. Mass audiences have a passion to enjoy special things. It's why creative markets exist, and statistics have nothing whatsoever to say about the act of inspired creation. Henry Ford invented the first production line and the first affordable car, and once said "If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses". The quote is mythical, but delivers more truth about creative work than a million pages of factual user data.

If our audience can't tell us up front what a hit looks like, the hard job of dreaming remains up to us. We can be inspired by the old but conjuring up the new is actually the job at hand, because that is what the audience is after. The success of The Room speaks to that, as does Threes, Plague Inc., Limbo, Minecraft, New Star Soccer and many other games which, left to the wisdom of "those who know the market" would have never arrived to brighten the days of millions of gamers.

The irony is that the very people who tell you your game won't sell are exactly the kind who will copy the shit out of it once it does. They don’t deal in dreams, imagination is not their forte. Are we really surprised that they cling to numbers?

The audience knows better than all of us and if our mobile public truly does signal "I care" through purchasing, I don't think its radical for the industry to start listening to the 98 percent of mobile gamers out there saying "I don’t care."

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