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Leaving PopCap: Why this mobile exec is pinning hopes on indies
Leaving PopCap: Why this mobile exec is pinning hopes on indies Exclusive
April 8, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

Alongside a certain maturation in the mobile space comes vast opportunity for new business, says Giordano Contestabile. The veteran games exec recently left his longtime role as PopCap's Bejeweled franchise manager to join Tilting Point Media, which aims to fund established indies and new IP on the mobile market.

"I love PopCap, and some of my best friends are there," he says of his decision to take on a new role. "But if you look at the mobile market, and you look at the top games on iOS, 75 percent of them are made by independent developers."

Meanwhile, major publishers like Activision or PopCap parent Electronic Arts have made massive investments in the mobile space as strategic arms of their business, and have published hundreds of games -- "but none of them have a market share [on mobile] bigger than 10 percent," he says. "Mobile is a space where the barrier of entry is much lower, and there's much more opportunity for independent developers to play."

Alongside advances in hardware and competition on the mobile markets, budgets and production values are increasing rapidly. Marketing begins to play an increasingly-essential role in mobile visibility, for example, and these days a developer is expected to sustain a relationship with a game for months after launch, providing content updates and an enduring connection with the community.

For indies, mobile is becoming an expensive proposition

"Players are becoming more discerning," Contestabile says. "For a lot of people, their first games were mobile games, and now they're learning about games and they want better, more immersive games. The problem I saw was that there are so many indie developers with great ideas and skills, but it's going to become more difficult for them to succeed in mobile, because it's starting to become an expensive proposition."

Just as EA Partners aimed to lend its larger publishing footprint to established independent game studios, Tilting Point hopes to nurture and publish new talent in the mobile space. Fittingly, Tilting point -- which plans to invest $40 million in independent mobile studios over the next three years -- was established by EAP executive heritage, including former general manager Tom Frisina. Tilting Point now plans to fully fund marketing and development and offer services and support through the launch and maintenance of new mobile games.

Other larger publishers often fund and support independent studios, but Contestabile, who'll act as VP of product management and revenue, believes the fact that Tilting Point isn't also developing its own games should be appealing to indies.

tilting point.jpg"There are several mobile publishers you can work with as an indie, but most of those publishers are also developers themselves," Contestabile notes. "[Are they] really going to promote your game in the way they promote theirs? Are they putting their best resources to [your] game or their own?"

Currently, Contestabile says the company plans to work with indies that have an established track record of quality. "The team might even be a new company, but the team that forms this company, for us, has to have a lot of experience," he says. "And we look at the concept: The market is changing so fast, and the average game will be out in nine months, but if we're to invest in what we think would work now, once the game is out, the game will be completely non-competitive."

"I probably saw 50 Clash of Clans clones in the last month," Contestabile notes. "We're not interested. But if you find a developer that says, 'we are learning out there, and we take inspiration but we're innovating with a completely new game mechanic, or setting, or production value, something you haven't seen on mobile yet' ... that would be our ideal target. Someone who looks at what people play and like, but wants to add more novelty and more polish."

Mobile leans toward television

A focus on high production values assumes that eventually tablets and phones are going to form an important connection to the television and migrate further into the living room, Contestabile believes. He says he's already seen games that take this into account, and that make him long to bring a complex and higher-end portable experience home with him to the living room.

"Are you really making a game that can be played anywhere? We're also keeping an eye on that," he says. "While we're definitely focusing on tablets and phones, we hope that's the assumption."

The product management team in particular will assist with every aspect of development including the business model -- which, Contestabile enforces, the studio will not aim to force or prescribe.

"Globally, 80 percent of the revenue does come from freemium. But that means 20 percent comes from premium games, and that means there's much less competition in the premium space. The business model has to be the one that works better for the specific game. If you do a premium game, we're always going to get some kind of demo or free version... we're always going to get people to try it for free, if they can."

"My underlying excitement now relies on the fact that nearly one billion people now have smartphones. The majority of them are playing games," he continues. "Of those, I'm convinced a majority of those were not playing games before. You have hundreds of millions of people who are new to games, and games are finally becoming a mainstream phenomenon."

"I believe people that play games start knowing and caring about them, and they go to games that are deeper, better and higher value," Contestabile adds. "I think there's going to be an explosion, in that sense. The challenge is how do I find the games that are better for me? I hope there will be companies that do that."

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Lihim Sidhe
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"A focus on high production values assumes that eventually tablets and phones are going to form an important connection to the television and migrate further into the living room, Contestabile believes."

I had a debate with a friend in which I argued that consoles will eventually be supplanted by tablets that effortlessly connect to the TV. As soon as HDMI ports and/or Bluetooth display connections become standard for all mobile devices I can clearly see a future Giordano describes.

Carlo Delallana
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Apple TV + Airplay is a great way to experience a game on the big screen.

James Coote
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It's the convenience factor that is stopping it happening at the moment. Microconsoles like OUYA and Gamestick solve that in the near term.

Longer term, it won't just be tablet/mobile getting more integrated towards the TV. I think increasingly, console developers will begin to use tablet/mobile for second screens. The Wii U has already started that trend, and PSVita as a PS4 second screen will continue that. But devs and consumers will want to connect multiple devices and use the devices they already own.

Mike Griffin
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PS4 and next Xbox will both support fairly "open" second screen models. For example, Sony made it clear that its second screen strategy with PS4 absolutely includes existing mobile devices -- not merely PS Vita. In that sense, they will both offer more open, less closed/proprietary second screen options compared to the Wii U environment, over the long run.

Brian Stabile
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Already working on a proposal to Tilting Point about a few new Astro Crow games! Very cool news!

Matthew Burns
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Being an Indie mobile game developer, I could not have agreed with more in regard to your statement:

"The problem I saw was that there are so many indie developers with great ideas and skills, but it's going to become more difficult for them to succeed in mobile, because it's starting to become an expensive proposition."

It is getting awfully expensive.

In all sincerity, best of luck Tilting Point Media. It sounds like a really cool approach.

Matthew Burns
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@James Coote I agree with you in regard toward the future integration towards the T.V.

Addison Martinez
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Great points. However, I wonder what the prospects of tablets/mobile gaming integrating with TVs are going to be totally open source or if we are going to see a major shift to closed source partnerships. For example, no Apple products connecting to XBOX Live.

Instead of the console wars we have had in the past we may have some absurd mobile/tablet war that just does not make sense to our wallets.

Dennis Dunn
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It would be nice if this term 'indie' would stop being used and just call it what it is... high end developers without publishers. The term 'indie' gives WAY too much hope to all those people out there thinking this is a proper business model. It would be nice if one could bore a hole through all the slop that comes out, but even when it's quality people shy away from it. In fact in the past month I have heard at least 3 people both outright insult developers of mobile games("Why would you put money in those loser nerd's accounts."), and completely dis-associating themselves with ever purchasing ANYTHING on their phones because huh huh it's just a phone who cares.

And even if you do have a good product, and even when you do speak with publishers...unless you can 'whore' out every facet of the game through IAP catalogue glut they will never represent you. You're a risk because they fully know how pointless this business model is unless you have a marketing manager designing the game. I was actually told that "console game designers have no idea what they are doing, and facebook social game designers are the big boys now" by a rep from a publisher. Thanks for the insult!...

I understand the idea of continually bringing out updates to keep users interested...but who in their right mind wants to do that for a dollars worth of sales per person? It might work for a 'couple' people who feel like bleeding themselves dry, but unless you have a dedicated team(who has the start-up capital to do that?) focusing on the design, production and implementation of these packs, you're going to be stuck continually pumping out content just to keep people interested in something that is seen as throw away.

This industry and the way it was introduced/implemented is a complete and utter embarrassment to the dedication of talent and ability poured into these titles. This smacks of the music industry where quality talent and indelible content where smeared with marketing gurus that over-produced, over-strategized, and over-monetized their talent pool to the point where when it came time to choose between supporting your favorite artists or not, people chose not...thus demolishing what was once an incredible culturally savvy business model.

All for a dollar or two... that's what the market has shrunk the worth of hard work to, a dollar or two...and even then it's insulting. So instead you have to implement, design, and pump out more and more and more...just to get a dollar or two. Thanks for the assistance to destroying a career 'indie' market.

Neal Nellans
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While I agree with you on most of these points, there is no way to determine that Giordano and his team are subscribing to this point of view with regard to their mobile development fund. I've seen Giordano speak at 3 of the last GDC events that I've attended and he as always been up front and informative about changes that popcap has made with regard to improving the user experience with bejeweled as a game service.

I learned a lot from his talks, and although I wouldn't base a development strategy around what he and his team has done, because my process is different. I appreciated that the reason that he has been successful is because he managed a team that understood how to listen to the players that enjoy their game.

As part of the indie community you might not be afforded that same benefits as a heavily funded studio, but that can act as an advantage as much as a hindrance.

Addison Martinez
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You raise some interesting points. I think one is that games these days can be viewed more of as a service than a tangible property/good. Unless you have some incredible IP you need a team to be "continually pumping out content just to keep people interested."

In regards to your comment on IAP, I think that over time the market will dictate what IAP are a bonus and which formats hinder game play. The same could be said about advergames. In the early days they had ugly banners (yes these still exist) but more successful, immersive formats later showed up.

Kim Pallister
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>Globally, 80 percent of the revenue does come from freemium. But that means 20 percent comes from premium games, and that means there's much less competition in the premium space.

Wait, what? That speaks to the pile of both pools, but doesn't say anything about how many games are competing for each.

Giordano Contestabile
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Yeah, I didn't speak very clearly there. What I meant is that, with free to play dominating the market, most companies are focusing on it and there is less competition for premium games. That said, the market for premium games is also not growing, while free to play revenue is about 2x YoY