Talking at GDC China's Smartphone/Tablet Games Summit in Shanghai, NaturalMotion Games' Struan Robertson discussed his company's belief that advanced audiovisuals and gameplay are increasingly key to success in the free-to-play mobile market.
The developer of hit free-to-play drag racing game CSR Racing started out on mobile with premium iOS titles like Backbreaker and Jenga, eventually grabbing 20 million downloads for those relatively polished titles.
But the company - a sister part of middleware firm NaturalMotion - came to a belief that there was "a train coming" in free to play. Not only that, there was a gap in the market for high-sheen, polished 3D free to play titles.
And indeed, the company's two titles in F2P have been big successes. My Horse, a "nurturing game" based around caring for a virtual pet, has had over 10 million downloads, and 500,000 Daily Active Users at its height. And Robertson believes that a "crappy looking 2D horse in a crappy looking field" would have never been such a hit - its high quality 3D mattered.
And CSR Racing, a drag racing title which launched earlier this year, saw $12 million revenue in its first month, and has now reached nearly 2 billion play sessions. Once again, it's done it with complex 3D and high-flash audiovisuals, underpinned with solidly addictive, polished gameplay.
NaturalMotion Games hews to much bigger production values than many of the titles currently in the top-grossing games list. But the company doesn't think full 3D is necessary for success, singling out DragonVale and Clash Of Clans for intelligent art direction and clever gameplay that break through the clutter.
Nonetheless, Robertson believes that it's really tricky to stand out from the mass of green-grey 'isometric city building and zoo games', if you don't have something that's unique and visually differentiated. And there are some genres that you just can't work in without high quality 3D, making titles like CSR Racing less easily clone-able.
There are even more advantages for going so audio-visually hi-def with F2P smartphone/tablet games, too. The hardware manufacturers are likely to get behind you if you have cutting-edge 3D, and high quality icons, and screenshots can suck in the average player rather effectively.
There's clearly room in iOS or Android top-grossing apps for many complexities of title - but Robertson and his firm are betting that it's the combination of complex addictive gameplay and high production values that are the ultimate differentiator in mobile.
Gamasutra is at GDC China 2012, bringing you all the latest coverage from the event. For all the lecture reports and news, head over to our main GDC China event page.