Like it or not, video game companies are in business to make money, and in order to do so, they need to stay on top of, and react to an ever-changing market. Over the last few years mobile games have come into their own since the introduction of the iPhone and Android devices, turning phones into viable gaming devices, and expanding the possibilities for game developers. One company that is looking to explore mobile games as their sole avenue of revenue is Vancouver, British Columbia-based Hothead Games.
Formerly a console-only developer, best known for their XBLA like The Maw, Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 1 and Episode 2, and Ron Gilbert's Deathspank games, Hothead have shifted all of their attention to the growing mobile market, leaving their console experience behind them. We dug into some of the changes, and the reasons behind them with Hothead's Director of Marketing, Oliver Birch, in the hopes that we could get a better understanding of the reasons behind the move, and whether or not we can expect to see any of our other favorite console studios make the move towards focusing only on mobile games.
MTV Multiplayer: What's the biggest difference in development of mobile games versus the development of console games?
Oliver Birch: It is obvious to mention the differences in development time required, audiences targeted, budget spent when making these comparisons, however, the most obvious distinction for Hothead is that now we develop and publish games as a service rather than developing products.
Our Big Win Sports games on mobile for example, run on servers 24/7, providing us with mountains of data which we can analyze and interpret to help us plan our feature updates. This kind of analysis and quick development execution is unheard of in console development.
Running games as service is not an easy proposition though. When we launched Big Win Soccer back in March 2012, we had so many downloads that our servers melted under the pressure and we encountered what is now known in the studio as, “Soccergeddon”. It took weeks of strong coffee, plenty of pizzas and some family counseling to get the game up and running again, so trust us, when we say that having lots of people wanting to play and not being able to, is NOT a good problem to have.
MTV Multiplayer: Why choose the mobile market over the handheld?
Birch: At Hothead we firmly believe that the opportunity for major growth right now is in mobile, not handheld. Millions of mobile devices are being activated every week by a broad range of people. It is not uncommon for a whole family to have played Angry Birds on a mobile device but not many would have played Wipeout 2048, for example.
We also like the idea that people play our games as part of their daily routine, like surfing the net or checking their Facebook. Mobile devices have quickly become the “go to” device resulting in a captive and active gaming audience, which we can tap into.
MTV Multiplayer: Do you think other studios will make a similar shift from console games to purely mobile in the near future?
Birch: Yes of course, but it can be a tricky transition to make! The role of the developer has changed significantly in the last few years and although it is hard to believe that home consoles will die out completely, the ubiquitous nature of mobile gaming has certainly changed the development landscape forever attracting both the smaller micro studios and larger console companies. How many console companies will go purely mobile is anyone’s guess but we are certain there will be an Apple or Google developer kit in the hands of most of the console guys.
MTV Multiplayer: What was the driving factor behind the choice to make the shift? Was it financial or creative?
Birch: We developed some fantastic console and PC games working with some industry legends before we decided to develop mobile games but our inner accountant eventually drove us in a new direction! Moving into mobile meant that the creative shackles were off as we experimented with new ideas, game play mechanics and user input gestures. This was a new creative challenge in itself.
MTV Multiplayer: Did Ron Gilbert's departure a few years ago have any influence on the direction of the company?
Birch: Not really. He was the creator of the DeathSpank character and Hothead helped bring his vision to life. We developed one more game in the DeathSpank series after his departure and then moved immediately into mobile.
MTV Multiplayer: Has there been any talk of porting your console releases to mobile platforms, or vice-versa?
Birch: We have moved on from our console heritage so porting games over doesn’t excite us that much now that we are 100% mobile-focused.
We did talk early on about bringing DeathSpank to mobile, but we yearned for a fresh start and new game ideas were welcomed as we made the shift to mobile. It might have been difficult to pay DeathSpank’s extortionate appearance fees considering he was such formidable gaming star too!
MTV Multiplayer: What makes a successful mobile game?
Birch: I suppose a game that is profitable in some way, either financially or otherwise, would be seen as successful, especially if you want to continue making games as a living! We don’t want to give away our Hothead special sauce so not much more to say here except to pick up any one of our games if you want to know the answer!
MTV Multiplayer: Why do you think the Big Win Sports games (Soccer, Hockey and Baseball) resonate so well with a mobile audience?
Birch: For the Big Win Sports series we spent a lot of time researching what sports games were already out there on iOS and Android. We discovered big brands such as FIFA, complex management sims like Gamevil's Superstars titles, and a ton of simple flick sports games. We realized that no one was creating sports games exclusively for mobile gamers that took advantage of the short play sessions and the desire for simple mechanics but, at the same time, remained authentic to the sports.
We decided to focus on the sports fan and not just the sports gaming aficionado. For these fans, sports are about a sense of belonging, ownership and competition and not just about their own skill level or the ability to manipulate the stats. If we could make “their” sport accessible we knew we could reach and resonate with a huge potential audience. This is exactly what we have done with the Big Win games!
MTV Multiplayer: How important are micro-transactions when conceiving and planning a game?
Birch: We tried selling our first mobile games at a fixed price and we soon discovered that we wouldn’t become millionaires any time soon. Once we got over the counter-intuitive thinking of giving our games away for free, our game designs changed to accommodate this. In-app purchases were the next step in giving our players more scope to enjoy our games if they wanted to.
MTV Multiplayer: Which is a more important market – iPhone or Android?
Birch: This is a trick question, right? We are having great success on both platforms so I don’t think there is an answer one way or the other. It is obvious that the markets are different and we even see different patterns of user behavior on each platform. For Hothead it’s always been about distributing our games to as wide an audience as possible, which means both markets are important!
MTV Multiplayer: Do you think the low price point on mobile games diminishes the overall value of video games in the eyes of the consumer? And, do you think that price point affects the console market?
Birch: Not really on both counts. Just ask any teenager who grew up playing endless amounts of flash games. If they wanted to play FIFA/Madden or any other console game on their Xbox/PlayStation they would have to save up for it, but if they wanted to play something for free on the web, it was always available. It is just a different experience with different expectations.
Console games are simply a different kind of gaming experience for consumers compared to mobile and one you have to pay up to $60 for regardless of how much or how far you get in the game.