[How do you succeed with original IP in the license/generic-heavy cellphone game biz? Vivendi's Palley discusses the trials and tribulations of creating Surviving High School, a game that sold over 10 million downloadable 'episodes' since launch.]
As anyone who's ever developed or published a phone game will tell you, mobile isn't the best platform for original IP. The structural reasons for this have been discussed ad nauseum.
To wit: poor merchandising on mobile decks throws the commercial advantage to big brands; the mobile audience overwhelmingly prefers familiar gameplay styles; and carrier representatives are naturally skeptical of new ideas.
These are the facts of life in our industry. For proof, look no further than Verizon Wireless' Top Sellers list (Verizon Wireless is the biggest U.S. carrier for mobile games revenue, so this list is sort of an unofficial industry barometer).
As I write this article, 19 out of the 20 titles on that list are either branded (Guitar Hero III, Monopoly Here and Now, Frogger) or generic (Mini Golf 99 Holes 3D, Verizon Wireless Sudoku). Original games may pop onto the list for brief periods, but they never stay for long or climb very far into the upper echelons, where games like Tetris and Pac-Man are enshrined.
The one exception to this rule is Surviving High School '08, which currently holds down the list's number three spot. '08 is the third game in the Surviving High School franchise. The second game, Surviving High School '07, enjoyed a year-long run on Verizon Wireless Top Sellers, and the original game, Surviving High School, had a brief stint on Top Sellers back in 2006.
To give you a quick idea of the scale of business we're talking about here, a subscription to Surviving High School '08 currently retails for $3.49 a month on Verizon Wireless, while an unlimited purchase costs $7.99. Most publishers consider a game that sells 500,000 units a year (including renewed subscriptions) to be a solid success. Games that move 1,000,000 units a year qualify as huge successes. Several of Verizon Wireless' top 10 games reside in the latter category.
How did this happen? Where did this original franchise come from, and how did it manage to scale these rare heights?
The story of Surviving High School is the story of the industry's development and maturation in microcosm. It recounts a long (and ongoing) struggle to overcome the mobile platform's many technical, business, and creative challenges.
It's an important story to tell because it proves it can be done, even now, when cynicism within the mobile games industry stands at an all-time high. Hopefully, it will prove equally inspirational to those laboring in other developing corners of the games business, where the road to success looks like it stretches on forever.
Surviving High School's developer, Centerscore, has been making mobile games since 2001. Four Stanford engineering grads started the firm up in 2000 planning to make Java games for the internet, but quickly ran into financial trouble. Luckily, they signed their first mobile game contract the day before they were planning to pull the plug.
For the next four years, Centerscore's founders lived the hardscrabble life of a small developer, taking on any work they could find and living from one project to the next. They also self-published some moderately successful branded games based on the Garfield and Hummer licenses, as well as some generic card and board games.
By engineering director Winston She's count, the studio developed about fifty games over this span of time. "As a small developer, you had to try to hit a steady stream of singles, or you'd be screwed," recalls She. "You really couldn't afford to go for a home run, because if you failed, you were done. There was no margin of error."
Centerscore endured thin operating margins for a long time before things started to change. By putting out a lot of quality product, the firm gradually gained a reputation with the most important people in the mobile games business - the carrier reps responsible for accepting and placing games on download decks. This, in turn, allowed Centerscore to experiment a bit with original IP. "It was still a pretty new business, so there was more room for carriers to accept games at that time," says Oliver Miao, Centerscore's general manager.