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There has never been a more complicated time to be an independent triple-A game studio. The most widely sold home console of the generation is a motion-controlled sand trap that no one ever really figured out. The more easily reachable part of the home console market has a high point of entry, necessitating lengthy productions, expensive high-definition visuals, online multiplayer, co-op, Achievements, Trophies, and planning out chunks of downloadable content months or years in advance.
For years, the idea of investing in mobile and social games were low priorities that never made it past idle boardroom daydreaming. Recently, those daydreams have begun to transform into actual projects.
Epic was one of the first major independent studios to experiment with mobile development when subsidiary Chair Entertainment turned its Kinect experiment into the iPhone hit Infinity Blade. With the game's success, and Chair's enviable featured spot in a number of Apple product announcements, several others have followed suit.
After releasing Alan Wake, Remedy experimented with an iOS reboot of Death Rally, Bungie announced Aerospace, an entire division dedicated to mobile and social games. Insomniac created Click, a similar division geared toward social games (though, since announcing Click last year, Insomniac has reincorporated the division back into Insomniac Games). And the ever restless David Jaffe of God of War and Twisted Metal fame announced he would be leaving Eat, Sleep, Play to focus on something involving one of the "app" platforms.
What's unique about this moment in mobile and social development for major independent developers? How have the early efforts fared? Will having a mobile and social games team come to be as much a part of modern studios as having multiplayer teams have been?
One of the most immediate benefits of mobile and social development is the revenue paid directly back to developers for their work. Unlike a typical console game contract where studios are often last in line to get a fractional percentage of whatever profits their game produces, iOS and Android games give the majority of the money earned straight back to the developer. At a time when a number of studios have simply run out of cash to make payroll after having a game cancelled or not reaching an expected performance bonus, the idea of a steady revenue stream from app sales could be especially appealing.
"Over the years we've been very careful to do a lot of advance planning," Ted Price, Insomniac's Founder and CEO, told Gamasutra. "We do our best to have several games lined up for the future at any time, which helps with long-term stability. Plus as we've grown we've gone broader with the games we create to avoid becoming a niche developer."
Outernauts is Insomniac's first foray into Facebook games, an adventure role-playing game where players venture into the galaxy to capture and train exotic alien beasts. "Creating Outernauts is a way for us to broaden further and experiment with a new platform," Price said. "We're treating Outernauts no differently than our console games in that we're putting a ton of effort into delivering something awesome while hoping it strikes a chord with its target market."
Remedy's Death Rally
For Remedy, creating a new version of Death Rally for iOS was an experiment in branching out that turned into an unexpected success. "Death Rally really has done tremendously well, and we're very excited about that as our first iOS game," Aki Järvilehto of Remedy told NowGamer in a 2011 interview. "Financially it's performed really well; when we launched it, we were amazed because we recouped our original investment in just the first three days of sales. Pretty unusual."
Another benefit of producing mobile and social games is you can raise money from a significantly wider group of investors than might be interested in the console game market. "The pool [of investors] is bigger and more varied," David Jaffe told Gamasutra.
"You have a lot of traditional publishers who want to be in these new spaces, as they should. You have a number of companies that would never have thought of being video game publishers who are now trying to get into the space, whether it's mobile or social or tablets. The landscape is definitely different than the last time I did this."
Jaffe departed Eat, Sleep, Play after completion of the most recent Twisted Metal and, though he's still in the fundraising stage on his next project, it will most likely be something you download from an app store. "Right now, my guns are aimed at games as services; I'd like to make that the mainstay of my company," Jaffe said.