The last few years have been rough on gaming development in Australia, but while the larger studios are closing their doors, one sub-sector just keeps on getting stronger: mobile gaming.
Since the arrival of the first iPhone in 2007 — barely four years ago — mobile gaming has exploded. It's rare to meet someone who hasn't heard of Angry Birds or Words With Friends. The expansion has been phenomenal, and, like most things, it can't be attributed to any one factor.
"Firstly," says Alistair Doulin, director and co-founder of Bane Games (Flick Buddies), "the power of the devices has come a long way in the last few years, allowing high-quality games. Secondly, the various app stores on mobile devices have made purchasing and downloading games an extremely simple process.",
It also helps, says Simon Joslin, co-founder of Melbourne Studio The Voxel Agents (series), that the mobile platform is so ubiquitous. "It was inevitable that the device you carry all day became your default gaming device," he says. "Your urge to play can happen anywhere, anytime. It's hitting the mainstream now, because the technology has evolved and enabled the type of experiences people want."
Maybe it's not quite the default gaming device yet, but the figures are certainly rising. According to data compiled by Geekaphone and Touchstone Research, the mobile gaming industry will make US$8 billion in 2011. The gaming industry as a whole, including mobile, is worth US$74 billion in 2011, according to research conducted by Gartner. If we take these figures as true, they show that mobile gaming now accounts for over 10 per cent of the entire video-game industry worldwide.
It's also the games themselves, however; by necessity, mobile games have a really simple learning curve. When you take into account the occasions on which people might want to play games — on the bus, waiting at the airport, taking a break at work or just curled up on the couch at home while a movie plays on the telly — the game has to be able to have gameplay that can sustain both five-minute bursts and long-term appeal, which means that accessibility is key.
But that doesn't mean the quality isn't there; as understanding of the technology develops, so too does the standard for excellence. "What I like to see," says Ed Orman, CEO of Uppercut Games () and console dev veteran, "is that developers have come to grips with designing games that suit the platform. What struck me about Infinity Blade, when I first played it, was not the visuals so much as the economy and aptness of the control scheme."
Finally, app stores are huge. There is anything you could want, for any age or gamer level you can find, whether it's crosswords and Sudoku, first- or third-person shooters, arcade games, quizzes, side-scrolling platformers, simulations or RPGs, in single or multiplayer. It's taken the elitism away from gaming, and made it accessible, inexpensive and inclusive to all.
A new renaissance
Meanwhile, the console sector has struggled. In Australia, we have seen a large percentage of our local studios shutting their doors. Most recently, 2K Australia in Canberra shed 15 staff. However, prior to that, we also lost Visceral Games (September 2011); THQ closed its Brisbane office and Blue Tongue (August 2011); Team Bondi closed (again in August 2011); Krome Studios hasn't been heard from since October 2010; Transmission Games went into liquidation in October 2009; and EA officially shut down Pandemic Studios in November 2009.
Conversely, this has provided mobile-gaming development with rich and fertile conditions in which to flourish. "At a studio level, it's becoming harder to maintain large, multimillion-dollar games and the teams required to create them," says Doulin. "There's also far more risk involved. The same economic situation that leads to studios downsizing is the reason gamers are moving from AU$60-AU$100 games to 99-cent games; this, in turn, leads to higher-quality mobile games."
And, as games designers find themselves at a loose end after their place of work closes, lower-risk mobile-gaming development looks increasingly attractive.
Joslin calls it a renaissance. "From the wreckage of the old dinosaur companies, new independents are sprouting green all over the place," he tells CNET Australia. "There simply isn't a better opportunity out there than to chase the mobile and online space. Australian indie studios are at the right place at the right time."
It is important to note, however, that this is very much a circumstance of opportunity; the rise of mobile gaming should be viewed as an expansion of the video-game industry as a whole, not a parasite that is sucking life from console development, as some writers are suggesting.
Trent Kusters, director and co-founder of League of Geeks (Armello), a mobile-game studio run by developers who have migrated from console, describes the changes within the video-game industry as cyclical, or tidal. "Imagine the industry was a shipping fleet, and every ship was a developer," he says. "We used to know when those big waves of change would come and crash down on our ships. The console cycle came around every five to seven years, everyone would position themselves in their ships and weather the wave as it came down. What we've found ourselves in, as an industry, over the past few years is a perfect storm of wildly unpredictable occurrences: a global financial crisis; the falling US dollar; the rise of casual gaming; the rise of mobile gaming; free-to-play or freemium games; downloadable content; shift in game-value perception; rising budgets of AAA games; the growth of China as a development and gaming powerhouse; etc, etc. And those waves we used to count on (the console cycle) — they haven't even come yet.
"Where are they? We didn't know what was happening, and as we positioned ourselves to face one wave, another hit us from behind. So ships are going down left and right as waves are crashing in from every angle. But for every ship that's gone down, some of its crew makes it to shore and builds better, more agile, tougher boats, and they head back out. That's what we're seeing now: developers that are adaptive to a changing industry, developers that know what's happening, because these shifts aren't going to slow down — they're going to be more frequent and more substantial."
Doulin adds, "It's easy to feel like this is a shift away from console gaming, because consoles are reaching the end of their life cycle just as mobile devices are becoming more powerful. Once the next generation of consoles is released, we'll see a sharp swing back towards them."
Room to breathe
Back when gaming first started to enter the cultural mainstream, the climate was very different. The technology was still in its very early stages, and no one quite knew what to expect, and, because of limitations imposed by low-level graphics and processors, games developers needed to employ whatever inventiveness they could in order to keep not-yet-gamers coming back to a pixellated 8-bit screen.
Of course, in our nostalgia, we tend to forget that there was far more noise than signal, but we still ended up with a bunch of games remembered with a great deal of fondness. Pong, which is essentially three lines and a dot; Galaxian and Galaga and Space Invaders; text-based adventure games; Pac-Man; Tetris; King's Quest; Mario; and ad infinitum.
Gamers and game makers were embarking on the journey together. Anyone could pick up and understand the basic mechanics of Mario within a minute.
The current climate of mobile-gaming development echoes that time. It's a new(ish) technology that imposes a different set of limitations, but, at the same time, the expectations and the pressure that dog AAA gaming development are absent.
Orman says it's also that mobile-gaming developers can get away with a lot more — but it's more about being an independent start-up than the mobile platform. "Independent development fosters an environment of creativity more than mobile gaming by itself," he says. "When you're not bound by the same kinds of overheads as the major publishers, you can take more risks.
"The reason you're seeing a lot of those risks being taken on mobile is the low barrier to entry, and ease and speed of development — you can take smaller risks, and more of them, faster."
Timing, says Doulin, is a massive factor. "I developed console games when I worked in the mainstream industry, and it's a completely different environment," he says. "Mobile-development cycles are measured in weeks and months, compared to years for console games. Also, console games have to pass through strict certification that can often cost more than the budget of a small mobile game to complete."
These low budgets and turnover rates mean that it's not as exclusive an industry as console-gaming development. If you have some basic programming knowledge and a few bucks, you can write a simple game at home; entry is no longer subject to major studio veto.
"I think we're seeing fresh, new ideas and concepts in mobile games, because the platforms and constraints are new, so it's the development environment and landscape that's fostering [creativity]," Kusters said.
"However, there is one factor that's allowing greater creativity on mobile devices, and that's the lower entry barrier for developers. Couple that with thousands of extremely talented developers being displaced over the past few years, and you get a lot of intelligent, creative people getting together to try things out on the mobile platform.
"It's the same for indie PC; the low entry barriers for these platforms are providing a great incubator for burgeoning studios and — even better — a way for them to escape that traditional big publisher model and have a greater degree of creative control over the experiences they create."
Orman adds, "Start-ups are agile, so they can leap onto opportunities somewhat faster than their larger competitors."
Onward and upward
Google has just celebrated 10 billion downloads from the Android Market, while Apple announced a total of 18 billion app downloads as of October 2011. Still, we're a long way from the bubble bursting. Smartphones and tablets are getting more powerful all the time; we already have 3D screens, and it won't be long before we see tablets with quad-core processors — maybe even phones. Which means that we'll be walking around with some pretty powerful pieces of kit in our pockets, with games of increasingly high quality achieving more market penetration than ever before.
"Not everyone has realised it, but they like playing games," says Joslin. "They wouldn't go out and buy a Wii, because they don't appreciate what they'd get from it, but they do own a phone, and, if it has an app store, eventually curiosity is going to get the better of them and they are going to buy a game — because 99c is nothing, and everyone has an occasional moment to kill. After this, they've fallen into the rabbit hole. They realise that there are games they can like."
And our expectations for what those games can do will be rising accordingly.
"My crackpot-crazy hopes for mobile development are around the augmented and virtual-reality space," says Doulin. "While most people think virtual reality, in particular, is a defunct technology from the 90s, I really think it's the future for gaming. Rather than looking through a window into the gaming world, these technologies allow us to enter these worlds completely. Once mobile gaming moves into this area, I think we'll see a massive change in the way games are played."
Kusters is less certain of what may be ahead. "To try and predict (or even hope for) what will be going on four years from now would be pointless. So I'm more than happy to just tag along for the ride," he said. "I simply put in my votes by downloading and developing. However, the only thing I would truly hope for is that it retains its ease of accessibility for the entire spectrum of developers — big publishers to bedroom coders. Keep it diverse, keep it healthy."
Orman knows one thing for sure; "The more developers we get operating at a premium level, the better the games are going to get."