Last week, mobile game maker Gameloft released StarFront: Collision, the latest in its thinly veneered take on the very popular PC strategy game franchise StarCraft. StarFront runs at $6.99 for its full version and has great graphics, solid control, lots of missions and online multiplayer support for up to four players.
Gameloft is known for the level of polish it puts into its mobile games (even if the concepts aren’t very original), and playing its games, it becomes very clear: making StarFront wasn’t a cheap enterprise.
It pays off for Gameloft, though. Its games consistently get strong reviews and lots of good press, and are often regarded as some of the best in their genres available on Apple’s iOS platform. They usually make Apple’s “New and Noteworthy” section on the iTunes App Store, and get featured as the Game of the Week -- StarFront currently holds both of those honors right now. And yes, it’s a pretty great game.
The cost of triple-A games
But Gameloft is already seeing the mobile space, and the App Store in particular, becoming a bit shaky. It’s a big-time studio, making games for multiple platforms, including Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Google’s Android, and it operates more on the traditional model of a game studio. The mobile platform, on the other hand, has been open and untested enough that extremely small developers have been able to make a big splash with tight, small, simple games. And many of those games have had extremely low prices
According to Gameloft’s VP of worldwide publishing, Gonzague de Vallois, developers will struggle to maintain the premium level of games if pricing continues to stay so low. It could mean bigger developers moving out of the space or abandoning their bigger games, or it could mean a shift in the whole system that leads toward a rise in prices that could eliminate many smaller developers.
Speaking to Pocket Gamer at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, de Vallois said costs for developing quality mobile titles -- at least for Gameloft -- are already on the rise, while the consumer is getting used to getting such triple-A titles as those created by major game companies like Gameloft, Electronic Arts and Capcom for bargain-bin prices -- $0.99, in fact.
The boat Gameloft is in is a precarious one. On the one hand, it and other major games publishers are creating premium games for the iPhone. Most of Gameloft’s big new games are larger than most other iPhone games, and launch at the price of $6.99. That inherently takes its games out of competition with things like Angry Birds -- users looking to purchase StarFront know at least something about video games. Angry Birds, meanwhile, draws people who aren’t necessarily gamers, and its low price point is part of that.
Help us out, Apple
But de Vallois thinks Apple and other developers need to do more to highlight premium purchases, and push the App Store away from presenting an image of mobile gaming that it should be super-cheap, tiny and mostly forgettable. He mentioned EA’s Christmas sale from 2010, in which the company slashed a huge number of its games down to $0.99 for the holidays, partially to boost sales and partially to grab hold of a huge portion of the App Store’s Top 10 charts while they were frozen for about a week. Apple endorsed the sale, and Gameloft thinks that’s the wrong move. Here’s a quote from de Vallois in Pocket Gamer’s story:
"Thats what we need to keep going because the new generation of games we will be launching are seven-figure titles. It's not profitable to sell these games at 99c. We have a bit of time before we match the power of the PS3, but yes, the cost will grow. Will it reach 30, 40 million like Black Ops? Not tomorrow, but maybe one day."
It’s an interesting point, to be sure. Something to keep in mind, however, is that Gameloft could be considered a member of the “old school” of gaming developers. It makes games for iOS that are like video games -- in fact, it actually takes other video games’ concepts, as in the case of StarFront, and turns them into iPhone games -- but one could argue it doesn’t really make mobile games.
Mobile games are more akin to the offerings of titles such as Fruit Ninja and Cut the Rope, or The Blocks Cometh by Halfbot. Blocks’ developer, Halfbot, is just two guys. The games these developers are making aren’t really like the kinds of games you get on other systems -- they’re somewhat unique in their concepts and presentation to the mobile space. That’s not really the kind of games Gameloft, EA and Capcom create (although that’s not always the case). The bigger developers are making games for video gamers; smaller developers are creating them for iPhone owners. That’s a big distinction.
Not enough room for everyone?
Research firm IHS recently announced that the mobile app space is a $2.2 billion market, with Apple dominating 82 percent of it, and games making up just better than half the total volume. That makes mobile gaming a billion-dollar market right now, according to Pocket Gamer.
It boils down to a difference of markets for Gameloft. The company either needs to recognize that the people it wants to sell games to -- standard video gamers who happen to own and like to play on a smartphone -- isn’t as huge a demographic as the casual crowd, or it needs to find a better way to market to those players less well-versed in video games. But it’s doubtful that Apple is going to change things, given the fact that it’s pulling 30 percent of iOS’s $1.76 billion market share, whether they come from StarFront or Angry Birds.
The App Store’s success has been built largely on the affordability of apps -- it’s unlikely that’s going to change. If Gameloft wants to keep producing its triple-A, high-cost titles, it’s going to have to live with that, or find a way to make the casual mobile phone player into the kind of gamer who can appreciate, and spend a lot of time with, a more involved title like StarFront.