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Mobile’s long game: Chillingo on the importance of indies

Wednesday, 9th January 2013 13:02 GMT By Dave Cook

Chillingo was acquired by EA in 2010 for $20 million, but has its new owner changed the company’s approach to the indie market? VG247′s Dave Cook speaks with COO Ed Rumley to find out.

Chillingo

Acquired by EA in 2010 to the tune of $20 million and brought under the publisher’s label.

Notable Chillingo-published titles include Angry Birds, Cut the Rope and Contre Jour. Angry Birds in particular has shifted – to date – over 12 million downloads on Apple’s App Store since it launched in 2009.

You can check out more of Chillingo’s published titles over at its official site. There’s tons.

Whenever a band suddenly changes genre to make its work more palatable and to ‘fit in’ with tastes at the time, fans of their old material tend to get rather upset by the shallow, cash-grabbing antics at play. The same fears are levied at game developers that become ingratiated in-house at a large publisher.

For Chillingo COO Ed Rumley, the decision to greenlight the company’s sale to EA wasn’t an attempt to change the way the business operates, to dominate the lucrative mobile market with console ports or to peddle shallow hash-job titles. It was an incredibly smart play that has seen it help bring many indie developers to market, companies that may not have had a fighting chance otherwise.

The publisher is itself shepherd to a growing flock, as the App Store gold rush first seen after the birth of iOS continues to roll along, churning out titles of varying levels of quality at an alarming rate. How can a studio with a bright, million dollar idea, but no business acumen or marketing spend hope to stand out in the flood? It sides with a company like Chillingo, naturally.

“We all love our jobs at Chillingo,” Rumley told me, “We’re all gamers, we’ve all been in the mobile space for at least 5-10 years, and we’re always trying to discover that next hit. I think some games we publish knowing that they’re more ‘core’, and that they might not have that mass market appeal, but we’re looking for great talent.

“Obviously we don’t publish every game thinking, ‘Hey, this is going to be the next Angry Birds or Cut The Rope.’ I think what we’re looking for is the talent, and the diamonds in the rough. Sometimes the diamonds simply come through the door and sometimes the games are much earlier in development. Whatever happens, we assign a team to work with the developer to really try to make that game sparkle.”

The process Chillingo employs is surprisingly straightforward, but it makes you wonder why more publishers aren’t taking the same approach. First it identifies a game with great potential at the development stage, or it speaks with indie studios coming to its doorstep, then it looks at said game and puts its developers to work in helping polish the game, and to bring it to a solid standard of quality.

“What we’re doing is looking at a game and saying, ‘Look, can we bring value to you?’”, Rumley explained, “If we’re aligned, if we like the game, and if the partner likes us – because we have to like them and they have to like us – because it’s not just a case of publishing a game, putting it in a box and then getting it on shelves any more. Games have become services, so we need to be truly aligned with the indie developer, get on well and have a good feeling about their work.

“What we’re doing is a developer comes on board, our producers will do a deep dive into the game – even if it’s at the prototype level – or sometimes games come to us exceptionally late in development. Sometimes they’ve even been submitted to the App Store but haven’t gone online, and the developer might have got nervous.

“So we really do see games at all levels of development, and what never happens is that we’ve never seen a game come to us that’s already complete. Whether we’ve worked on a game for one month or twelve months we will assign a producer and their job is to act as a consultant, as an external pair of eyes just to say, ‘Look, I think you’ve missed this’, or ‘The level balancing is off, the tutorial is missing’.

“Whatever it is, 50% of their job now is in monetisation, and to find out what is the best way to give a great experience to the consumer and create a great way for the developer to make money.

“They’re difficult things to put hand in hand, but that’s our job. I think outside of that we assign QA resources, we have creative services to advise on things like app icons and the screenshots, all the way through to publishing. The process is very clear. We want to get the game ready for market.”

Last year Tiger Style, the indie developer of the critically acclaimed Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor released a barrage of lifetime sale stats from its game Waking Mars, showing an immense drop-off once it disappeared from the App Store featured channel and charts. It suggested a fad-like cycle, where flavours of the week come and go, followed by a sharp drop in sales.

Comparatively, when dealing with its own published titles, Chillingo employs the might of EA’s marketing machine to make damn sure you know about its releases, but this is a luxury developers acting on their own cannot afford. This is the part of the publisher’s process that Rumley feels very strongly about, because as he told me, “Brands win”.

The problem, Rumley explained, is that too many indie games are going unnoticed, “There’s no doubt about it that there’s a huge amount of games that will never get discovered. To illustrate this, I remember Apple – probably about a year and a half ago – had a promotional folder on App Store called ’49 great games you’ve never played’ and that’s kind of telling that Apple were promoting that.

“Now, I take that as 49 great games that haven’t really sold, and these games are out there, but the market is exceptionally crowded. I’m not a mathematician, but I know in the top 100 there is only space for 100 games, and there’s a lot of static games in that charge – titles that end to hang around. You can see that it’s a crowded space. The odds of success aren’t in anyone’s favour in particular.

In this regard, the App Store can be viewed as a pond dominated by sharks. Angry Bird’s unwavering success is just one example of a game that has staying power, but at the same times makes it harder for newcomers to compete. Placement on the iTunes front page or featured channels is paramount according to developers like Tiger Style.

Monetisation is also key, as developers need money to survive. Selling a few thousand apps in the £0.69 threshold isn’t exactly going to put new silverware on tables, and this points to another issue standing in the way of independent studios. But because many gamers are still wary of ‘freemium’ titles as some kind of long con, talk of money can prove to be a sore point.

“I think from a consumer’s perspective, there are obviously a lot of consumers who like free-to-play games, and there’s also a huge number who hate them, “said Rumley, “I think the confusion comes from most people talking about ‘Freemium’ and talk about it as a genre, rather than a business model.

“There’s obviously a lot of games where you’re grinding away, or building up a city or whatever it is. That’s a particular genre, and I think there’s a market for people who like those games, but there’s also a lot of people who still like pay-per-download games.

“From an indie developer’s perspective I think free-to-play games scares a lot of people because it’s a complex market, and I can imagine that developers put a lot of time and effort into their games, and that they’re very proud of their work, but it’s scary that they’re about to give this game away for free.

“Then there’s our perspective which is, we’re very comfortable with the free market, and we now earn more from free games than paid, but paid is still an important market for us. The way we look at this – the bottom line – is that consumers are king, so for us the consumer comes first, and we will always try to make games with developers something that consumers are happy with.”

Chillingo is certainly doing a sufficient job in making its consumers happy, as it is releasing a wide range of diverse and polished games that put lesser, clone or cash-grab titles to shame – of which the App Store has many. Its notable successes of late include the stunning Contre Jour and the wickedly nostalgic He-Man: The Most Powerful Game in the Universe, just two games that hit a consistent level of quality without sacrificing indie sensibilities.

Although it has a handle on the market, Rumley doesn’t see his job getting any easier – thanks to the growing range of mobile formats, the rise of the tablet and other factors, but it’s a challenge both he and Chillingo at large relish.

“What’s interesting is where I see the market going,” Rumley concluded, “which is lots of companies, lots of platforms, and that fragmentation is challenging. We always say that, ‘Fragmentation is our friend’, as we’re well positioned to deal with that. We’ve got the knowledge, the ten years of Chillingo history, the support of EA and giving us knowledge of what they see working, as well as what’s not working.

“When you put that together – along with EA’s broad marketing and distribution channels, and I think we’re exceptionally well-placed in the market. However, those challenges will still be there for the rest of the market – and I’m not even talking about indie developers – you could start naming some of the biggest gaming companies in the world, and they can’t address the digital platform in the way EA can.”

What’s your take on the indie approach to iTunes, Google Play and other mobile marketplaces? Does it seem harder for them to compete now the big boys have got a firm foothold on the market, or is there always room for the Rovios and Tiger Styles of the world? Let us know what you think below.

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4 Comments

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  1. OlderGamer

    Excelent reading Dave.

    I wonder if, as the number of devices increase, as digital increases, as the push for indies increase we won’t have some of the same situations on consoles that indies have at app stores.

    I think the floodgates could be opened next gen, and it won’t be from trip A pubs. Great for gamers, bad for a studio trying hard to stand out.

    #1 2 years ago
  2. DSB

    “For Chillingo COO Ed Rumley, the decision to greenlight the company’s sale to EA wasn’t an attempt to change the way the business operates, to dominate the lucrative mobile market with console ports or to peddle shallow hash-job titles”

    Alright, I stopped it right there. Chillingo is swiftly becoming the biggest hash-job publisher on the AppStore at the moment. With precious few exceptions it’s just low quality derivatives.

    Secondly, that’s what everybody says about EA right when they get bought. You’d think looking at the last bazillion acquisitions there wouldn’t still be people out there who actually believe that schtick.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. Dave Cook

    @2 cheers for like, not reading my article and all. Appreciated.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. DSB

    @3 Fair enough. I gave it the benefit of the doubt, and the guy certainly made him and his company sound like a swell operation, but the reality is that Chillingo is still flooding the appstore with sub-par trash.

    Which isn’t to say that they don’t have a hit here and there, just that it comes on the heels of five or ten completely unnecessary pieces of shovelware.

    That’s been a real disappointment for me as a newly minted iOS gamer. You have to wade through so much crap to find something that’s worthwhile, let alone something that doesn’t come in 5 different, ever blander variations of the exact same gameplay.

    Sorry if it hurt your feelings, but honestly that paragraph told me everything I needed to know about how that piece would play out. His statements are massively, massively embellished and ultimately in conflict with reality.

    #4 2 years ago