Originally published June 18th, 2014 on the CMF Trendscape Blog. Republished with permission.
The “fast follow” in mobile gaming has lead to an explosion of titles on both Android and iOS platforms in the last few years. The strategy is relatively self-explanatory: hit games are cloned ASAP in an attempt to steal away players (and profits).
Given the tremendous speed at which mobile platforms are evolving (in nearly all aspects), does fast follow remain a legitimate strategy for the average developer? Let’s investigate into the reasons why it’s in trouble.
Cost per user acquisition (CPA) continues to rise, alienating smaller developers. A relatively undifferentiated game will drown in the sea of competition on the app store unless it has marketing spend to make it stand out. This is especially grievous for social games, which require healthy user bases in order to leverage network effects and create engaging experiences that retain players.
The openness of Apple’s and Google’s app stores helped contribute to fast follow basically by allowing any app into their stores—regardless of quality or similarity with pre-existing apps. Somewhat paradoxically, this policy is also responsible for weakening the effectiveness of fast follow and the situation gets worse and worse as more apps are being released.
Stores are now filled with games that are more or less reskinned clones of one another, and finding new apps is further complicated by major surfacing and searchability issues. Even high-quality games need either major marketing spend, a very strong grassroots campaign and community, a coveted feature spot from Apple or Google or a Flappy Birds-style viral explosion. However, no developer should base their business plan on the occurrence of the latter two.
Unless app stores greatly improve their surfacing and general usability (unlikely to happen anytime soon because the upside for Google and Apple is so low), developers need to find alternate high-volume channels to give greater visibility to their games. Content isn’t king — platforms are.
Recently, OTT (Over the Top) chat apps such as WhatsApp have experienced a boom in popularity. These apps allow users to send messages via Wi-Fi, going “over the top” of cellular data—thereby avoiding SMS charges. These apps are now blossoming into full-fledged social networks and e-commerce platforms (mainly in Asia for the time being) which curate partnered games.
When discussing new mobile platforms for app discovery, the mobile resurgence of Facebook comes instantly to mind; Mark Zuckerberg and co. seem to have finally gotten mobile, as they’ve redesigned the Facebook mobile app, purchased WhatsApp and began unbundling their services to generate high-quality, laser-focused standalone apps among other initiatives. Could developers flock back into Facebook’s arms if they offer better discoverability as part of a new compelling suite of apps and developer services?
As the gatekeepers of new avenues of curation, it doesn’t serve Facebook or chat apps such as LINE or WeChat any purpose to curate a glut of clones and second-rate content—doing so will lead to the app store issues all over again. These stricter quality controls (and individual platforms’ needs and goals) naturally weaken the fast follow.
As it stands now, fast follow isn’t a viable strategy—except for a few companies—given the CPAs and low returns for most app releases.
That brings us to the major publishers and developers that share the current mobile gaming landscape: Supercell, King, Kabam and others. Their partnerships and cross-promotions give them tremendous reach. However, why would Supercell partner up with a developer to market a second-rate space marine re-skin of Clash of Clans? These companies have no interest in diluting their brands with cookie cutter cash-ins (especially clones of their own hits) in the hope of making a quick buck.
Given the aforementioned rise of CPAs, app store surfacing issues and gatekeepers of new discovery channels, fast follow is rapidly becoming a strategy off-limits to all but those with the deepest pockets for acquiring players.
When setting the course for a new project, developers in search of marketing support should look at these “gatekeeper companies” in terms of their demographics, how partner games fit into their strategy, and what holes there are in their libraries.
For players, a positive side effect of the shrinking effectiveness of fast follow may be a resurgence of innovative mobile gaming; developers simply need to find a way for players to find them. In either scenario, the past years’ opportunist gold rush days of mobile gaming are gone, and observing future trends will be very interesting indeed.