In a spirited talk at MIGS, business consultant David Edery urged developers to leap into platforms where opportunity lies -- or at least be smarter about identifying ones where it is in flux.
According to Edery, it seems that most developers select platforms to work on based on the buzz they're generating. However, he said that most platforms go through identifiable phases -- and these should dictate your decision-making process.
His four phases are: Uncertain Beginnings, Early Glory, Inevitable Misery, and Triumphant Return.
Different platforms he used to illustrate these phases include the Kindle -- currently in Uncertain Beginnings, his company Spry Fox has launched two games for it due to the lack of competition. The Early Glory period recently ended for Facebook.
Inevitable Misery was most recently the iPhone, where doom and gloom and complaints were common... except that it has entered the Triumphant Return phase: milestones like Angry Birds sales and the purchase of Ngmoco point to it.
"By the way, even Xbox Live Arcade started this way," said Edery, who used to work at Microsoft as the platform's portfolio manager. "Even within Microsoft, there were huge questions about XBLA. The third party team wanted nothing to do with it."
The only platforms that skip Uncertain Beginnings are those which are successors to majorly popular platforms: the iPad and the PlayStation 2 are major examples.
"The reason the Uncertain phase matters," said Edery, "is because the few people who do get to benefit from the Early Glory phase" do "disproportionately well."
Understanding The Crash
Early hits do much better than games which capture the ultimate potential of the platform because of simple problems with supply and demand, he said. "I am convinced that in the future, we will consider the big Facebook games to be quaint, mediocre at best."
However, though the Inevitable Misery phase is perceived as a crash, it isn't. "The crash doesn't mean that everybody gets wiped out. There are still people making tons of money." The problem is, it's a small percentage of the total number of developers, and, meanwhile, the platform is "turning into a hit-driven ecosystem."
Though it can be a crash for real, he warned. "Some platforms, like Second Life, never leave this phase. They die."
And that's bad news for more than the platform holder, he said: "This is a place where a lot of publishers and developers die."
Sierra's Example -- And What To Do
Case in point: "There was a time when Sierra Online was the number one publisher, by far on XBLA... [with] original games... they were killing it. The problem was that [they assumed] what was working in the Early Glory phase would keep working: low budget original games they didn't market. In the Inevitable Misery phase, they got slaughtered."
And Sierra, he said, was staffed by experienced professionals with, in some cases, decades of experience. "These are people who should have known better but didn't... this is a trap that a lot of people fall into. They fail to realize they are benefitting from the supply/demand imbalance."
How do you counter this problem? "If you know the Inevitable Misery phase is coming, it's time to start raising the bar. If it's a fundamentally sound ecosystem, it will get out of the Inevitable Misery phase... and the Triumphant Return phase is when you start hearing really good buzz again."
Calling the iPhone a "good example" of a recent Inevitable Misery phase, he cited piracy, the shift to free-to-play, and other factors as markers of that. Now Game Center's launch, the Ngmoco acquisition, and the success of games like Angry Birds marks a Triumphant Return. "Does that mean that it's in some sort of miraculous change? It's just in a new phase. That's it." And, said Edery, the cycle continues indefinitely -- and the platforms get "more and more and more hit driven."
"If you want to succeed in a platform that's already in the Triumphant Return phase, you need to be doing it better than everyone else."
The XBLA Landscape And When To Jump In
Xbox Live Arcade, he argued, is in a down phase right now. Summer of Arcade didn't go as well in 2010 as it did in 2009, and the GameFeast promotion didn't generate much buzz. And four years ago gmaes cost $250,000; now budgets are $1 million. In multiple cases, Edery is aware of developers spending $2.5 - 3 million on Xbox Live Arcade/PlayStation Network titles.
"The press is going to go bad on XBLA for awhile. People will ask, is this the end of XBLA? That's a stupid question. But it will be hit-driven," said Edery. "Don't invest in the platform unless you are going to make one of the best games on the platform, and put a lot of effort into PR and marketing."
So: get in on the ground floor, if you can. Jump in at the Uncertain Beginning phase. That's where opportunity lies, and that's why Edery's company Spry Fox is currently making games for Kindle. They have so far published two.
"It was a simple decision because it's in the Uncertain Beginnings phase," said Edery. He talked to other developers and found not one interested in working on the Kindle -- all were gearing up for iPad development if they were approaching the tablet market. But, said Edery, "iPad is from day one a hit-driven ecosystem."
The company's two Kindle games, Triple Town and Panda Poet are " selling reasonably well, not as well as maybe I'd hoped, but well worth doing," said Edery. Unfortunately, he said, Amazon will not let him share numbers.
However, it's not just sales. "We were the first indie developer to release for the platform. Triple Town never would have gotten that kind of press in any other ecosystem," he says, as it's a simple puzzle game.
Of course the team was aware that Kindle wasn't as capable as the iPad. But the opening was there "We knew it and we did it precisely because it was an opportunity."
Unfortunately, Said Edery, though "we hoped digital distribution would change" the hit-driven nature of the industry, "we hoped it would make it better, and it made it worse."
The Facebook Ecosystem
However, there is one platform where Edery sees a difference -- Facebook. He predicted in February that it would be possible to make money at the low reaches of popularity, and recent data from Inside Social Games has borne that out: when you remove the top 5 developers from the rankings, Daily Active Users are trending up -- way up if you exclude the top 50 ranked games.
In other words, said Edery, "if you're targeting a niche audience with a game that's really good for them, and it's really well designed monetization-wise, you can expect to get more than a dollar from them a day."
He thus considers Facebook "one of the only examples of an ecosystem where you don't have to be a hit to make money."
Though headlines are dominated by the likes of Zynga and Playdom, and the perception is that you need a massive hit on that scale to be profitable, "it's total nonsense," said Edery. "You can make decent money if you target a niche." And better yet, those companies won't clone your game if you work in a niche that's not worth targeting to them, scale-wise.
When it comes to success on this platform, said Edery, "A lot of people have given 100 percent of the credit to Facebook. It's the social graph, the viral channel. I would argue that's an important but small piece. The real reason they succeeded is that they lowered the barrier of entry to players."
Facebook games will work on any computer, thanks to non-intrusive tech like flash and PHP. The players don't have to buy the games to play them, either. "Those things are as important or more important than the social functionality. It seems so ridiculous to me today that today after so many years of free-to-play game success, that I have to stand up on stage and say that this is successful."
In fact, said Edery, it turns out that the conversion rates for free-to-play compare with other non-game industries. He cited a study by the Wall Street Journal and MIT's Sloan Management Review, which said, across all industries, 20 percent of a company's customers are profitable. On the other hand, 50 percent of their repeat customers are not, as they are mainly shopping for deals.
The Free-To-Play Advantage And Other Great Platforms
Free-to-play, then, turns this weakness into a strength, Edery said. "We are very lucky to have this model."
For example, by converting to free-to-play, Dungeons & Dragons Online was able to recapture 20 percent of its existing but inactive player-base.
So what's a great platform to work on besides Facebook? Flash, said Edery.
"Flash is lame, right?" No. "There is no technology that reaches so many players," he said. One billion people have Flash installs. And if you look at the competition on Flash portals like Kongregate, "there is a high percent chance that [the featured game] will be mediocre or kinda-good at best." He said there is a "100 percent chance" that if your game is good, the portals will feature it.
His company's game, Steambirds, has reached 10 million players "because it doesn't suck. Because it's actually a good original game, this game reached 10 million people, and now that it has reached on 10 million people we're working on new stuff." There's a new single-player variant (with monetization in-built, this time), plans for multiplayer, social, and mobile versions, too.
"The only reason we can do that and we have any confidence in our ability is that we reached this first," said Edery.
"Flash is, in my opinion, in the Uncertain Beginning phase, because a lot of people are writing it off and the people who make games for it are for the most part hobbyists." He called it "the biggest Uncertain Beginning phase ever."
However, he's not sure if Flash will be this appealing for very long. He wants to hit it hard now, while it's still in this phase. Yes, Adobe is improving the platform, but he doesn't care at the moment. What is important, he said, is finding the right platform to target at the right time to maximize opportunity.