Games developer Alexis Kennedy and collaborator Lottie Bevan are the founders of Weather Factory, a narrative games studio founded in 2017. Their first title, Cultist Simulator, was initially launched as a PC indie game but is now available as a mobile game for iOS and Android.
In releasing Cultist Simulator, Alexis and Lottie found themselves thinking a lot about the vast differences between PC and mobile games developers. They consider the traditional indie games developer to be someone who produces PC games, releases them through services like Steam, and then ports them to other platforms as an extension of the PC release.
Then there are mobile developers, who typically place a focus on creating games that use the “free-to-play” model. In this model, games are free to download, but are paid for via in-app purchases – this is how almost all mobile games fund themselves, and this is why the majority of mobile games are designed to be extremely easy to start playing, highly reliant on loops that enable addictive behavior and quietly asking players for very small sums of money that can add up to bigger sums over time.
These games are considered by far fewer people to be anything resembling fine art, but they also have the potential to generate enormous returns on barebones budgets. Consider, for a moment, the fact that as of late 2019, Candy Crush games had generated over $5 billion in revenue, Pokémon Go hit $3 billion, and Dragon Ball Z: Dokkan Battle also recently reached the $2 billion mark. This is an unprecedented return for the traditional PC-based indie.
Furthermore, many PC games developers are not fond of mobile game development or don’t want to bother with it. It is believed by some that PC games are more sophisticated, or otherwise “better.” The two operate on completely different business models, making what works well for one likely impractical or ineffective on the other. A premium PC game doesn’t require constant updates, whereas mobile games are always in need of new content, such as levels and items, to keep your hardcore players coming back for more. However, based on Alexis and Lottie’s experiences, they have come away from mobile development not wanting to avoid it, but to dig deeper into how studios can embrace both models to achieve greater success.
Alexis and Lottie used data about their three mobile titles – Fallen London, Sunless Sea, and Cultist Simulator – to reveal their learnings. Starting with Fallen London, Lottie explained that while it should have been a success, it was in fact removed from online stories two years after its release in May of 2016. It was held back from success due to a number of major bugs, as well as the fact that as an attempt to port a browser game, the team – which had limited experience working across platforms – accidentally shipped a game that had a tendency to lose user data, crash, and leave players unsatisfied.
Because their original studio, Failbetter, was not designed to run or support mobile games, they didn’t know what challenges they were to face – the difficult turnaround times, or why mobile studios often need full-time staff handling everything for an always-live game.
The lessons from this launch went into Sunless Sea. Failbetter relied on an outside studio to port the game effectively to mobile but suffered a setback of its own: to produce a better experience for users, the game was released only for iPad, which cut the potential userbase down to about 10% of iOS device owners if that. At a $10 price point, the game was also several dollars more expensive than a typical iOS game, and without a free demo, it was a hard sell for prospective players.
To launch Cultist Simulator, Alexis and Lottie’s first Weather Factory title, they worked with a specialist with extensive experience porting indie games to mobile, put a great deal of thought into pricing and user experience, and delivered the game as part of a comprehensive, far more strategic launch achieving over 120,000 units shipped and over $390,000 in net profit. While these are small numbers for a larger indie, as a two-person operation, Alexis and Lottie were very pleased to have this as an additional revenue stream and a new way to reach audiences.
In short, Alexis and Lottie found that mobile development is worth the work. However, it does require you to make smart decisions, surround yourself with talent, and build a real business model that allows the game to thrive, connect with audiences, and continue to grow. Even though the best mobile games will never bring in the kind of cash that a Candy Crush will, it can do a huge amount to help indie studios grow at a time when PC gaming is more saturated and competitive than ever – and this edge may make all the difference.