MY VIEW: The mobile games marketplace

Mobile games. Depending on who you talk to it's either a sector that's searching for its next big growth spurt or the only segment of the mobile content industry with an established, proven business model that makes money.
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Either way, its fortunes are tied intrinsicly to licensing. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

Probably the best cautionary tale comes from the earliest days of the industry and concerns a mobile games publisher called Riot Entertainment. The story of how the Finnish outfit raised and then burned through 20 million euros in less than two years is part of mobile content folklore.

In its short life Riot-E inked deals with the likes of New Line Cinema to make SMS games out of huge brands such as Lord of the Rings. IP owners bought into the company's empty promises hook, line and sinker, only to be be left out of pocket when it spectacularly failed to deliver. Try and track down the excellent Kim Finn documentary Riot-On! - it's priceless.

A lot has changed since then. Games are no longer the Wild West of mobile content licensing. And in a way that's actually a bit of a problem. You see, eight years after the Riot-E debacle, everyone knows a little too well which kinds of brand work well in mobile game form and which don't.

Moreover, it could be argued that over-reliance on branded content has stifled the market, in terms of both economics and creativity. The publishing sector has consolidated massively to a point where about half a dozen companies boss the market - three years ago it was more like 15 and before that 30.

This is because mobile operators have chosen to rationalise the number of content providers they do business with. There's also limited physical space in which to 'sell' a mobile game and its concept on a two-inch handset display - the title of the game has to sell itself. It's not like in HMV.

These two factors combined have led to the creation of a brand-centric industry as fewer publishers fight to guarantee space in fewer 'retail' slots. Operators also want a 'marketing story' - a generic platform game just ain't gonna cut it.

So, what sort of brands work? Well, a quick look at the release schedules will show a mix of internationally-minded entertainment and sports properties leading the charge.

Established games brands and franchises also work well - EA Mobile's Tetris is a perennial 'top tenner 'and best-selling web games are increasingly making the mobile leap - the likes of Glu Mobile and I-play have been working hard at that.

It all adds up to, well, some very big royalty cheques payable to licensors, something publishers are working very hard to manage. Certainly advances aren't what they were even 18 months ago. If you're a license holder, this is something that needs bearing in mind at deal time.

And, of course, the mobile games industry is still waiting for its Holy Grail - that piece of original IP that makes the transition from mobile operator portal to an Xbox 360 box in HMV...


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