We’ve been chatting to Nicolas Pochez, UK Managing Director at Gameloft, to find out how the studio grew to dominate mobile gaming...
In 2015 the UK mobile gaming market was worth £548m. But you don’t need us to tell you that mobile gaming is huge news – there’s every chance you’ve got at least one game on your phone’s home screen right now. What you might not know, however, is exactly how it got there.
While mobile gaming is big business, a lot of love, sweat and tears go into every megabyte to ensure that they can compete with the best titles found on consoles, and nowhere is that truer than at Gameloft.
We’ve been chatting to Nicolas Pochez, UK Managing Director at Gameloft – arguably the founding father of the industry, and creators of franchises like Despicable Me: Minion Rush, Asphalt and Modern Combat to find out how the studio came about, how it stays relevant, and about what mobile gaming will look like in 2016 and beyond…
Alpha: Mobile gaming pioneers
“Our founder Michel Guillemot saw the potential of mobile phones as entertainment platforms way back in 1999,” says Nicolas. “So he started Gameloft to produce and distribute fun, addictive, and high-quality games that could be adapted to all mobile phones around the world.
“The iPhone created a huge shift in the market…”
“Gameloft was one of the first companies in the world to develop games for Java and Brew-enabled handsets, but we started with 2D games in black and white – WAP & SMS games. We even built games for the PalmPilot, Pocket PC and old Nokia 3410.”
All that was a long time ago now – a time well before iOS and Android completely transformed the industry. Big shifts in technology like these emerging platforms always cause casualties, but Gameloft more than survived the changing tide, thriving by being quick on its feet:
“The iPhone created a huge shift in the market,” says Nicolas, “as it allowed a much greater level of complexity in mobile game development, and that completely blew everything else out of the water. So we shifted towards smartphones and touchscreen interfaces as soon as we could.
“In fact, we were the first company to offer six games on the Apple App Store after it was launched in July 2008. And last year, according to App Annie’s H1 2015 index for games, we ranked as the number one game company worldwide in terms of downloads on iOS and Google Play combined.”
Beta: Making a game-changing game
Since 1999, Gameloft’s grown to the point where it now has 6,200 employees under its belt, making it one of the biggest players in gaming full stop – not just in mobile. And with that much manpower, you can create some incredible games. Titles such as Dragon Mania Legends, and Dungeon Hunter 5 were the runaway hits of 2015, while movie tie-ins like Spider-Man Unlimited are also big business. But how does each game go from drawing board to your pocket?
“The main three stages in the development of a game are called Alpha, Beta and Gold,” Nicolas explains. And they break down like this:
“This is the stage after which all the foundations of a game’s design are laid down, and the key features are completed. The bulk of the work is done here, leaving the game is then a basic form of its finished version, ready to be improved.”
“The code is now complete and the game is nearly finalized. We’ll test it to breaking point and fix any bugs that arise, alongside putting in any finishing touches.”
“This means that the game has passed all QA (Quality Assurance) testing and is ready for launch.”
Obviously, the lionshare of the work goes into the game’s Alpha stage, and that’s where there’s a huge amount of things to figure out – not just the game’s setting or story. For instance, how do you control the game? With Gameloft’s bread and butter being console-quality games on touchscreen devices, there’s a difficult line tow:
“Touch controls vary from game to game,” says Nicolas, “but there are some ingenious ways in which you can make them really work on a mobile device. The challenges are on a case by case basis. For example, we’ve developed several different FPS games over the years, but each of them has a certain personality and its own particular features. There are certain gameplay elements that go well with certain types of FPS games, and others that don’t. That doesn’t mean that one feature is more fun than another, it’s just that you just have to find the right mix. For example, Blitz Brigade is an open-world shooter which benefits a lot from vehicles warfare, while Modern Combat is more realistic and works well with the strategy options that having a ‘squad’ offers.”
As it turns out, ‘case by case’ is something of a mantra at Gameloft, with no single kind of title allowed to become the status quo…
“Today we develop our games for more than 7,000 different smartphones and tablets, and more than 350 different feature phones!”
“We launch around 12 to 15 games per year across all genres,” says Nicolas. And doing that requires a big team and a lot in the way of investment. “The initial cost of development for our games is usually in the hundred-thousands, and around 50 people can work on a project at a time,” Nicolas reveals. “We also need to update the games regularly in order to bring fresh content and improved gameplay experiences, as well as to keep them running on new operating system versions.” That’s not to mention different screen sizes and platforms:
“Fragmentation is a challenge for mobile game developers,” he adds. “Today we develop our games for more than 7,000 different smartphones and tablets, and more than 350 different feature phones!”
Keeping all those plates spinning is no small task, but how does Gameloft manage when the vast majority of its games are free to download and play?
Gold: The future of free-to-play
The recent trend has seen mobile gaming market has been locked in a ‘race to the bottom’ – a trend that’s seen the cost of purchasing games spiral down to nothing at all, with free downloads followed by in-app purchases, or in-game advertising, now being the norm.
So is that set to continue, or will things reverse? Gameloft is a huge supporter of the free-to-play model, and Nicolas believes that it’s in everyone’s best interests:
“The free-to-play revolution started in 2011,” he explains. “From our side, ‘free to download’ offers more people the possibility to discover our games. And having games be accessible to everyone means there’s now a larger audience for mobile games in general.
“Our line-up of new games is mainly free-to-play now. The free-to-play business model is still growing in the video game industry as a whole, and we think it’s well-received by the players. Our game Despicable Me: Minion Rush, for example, has been played by more than half a billion people since its launch, and we think that its free-to-play model has definitely helped it reach such a huge audience
“That’s why our commitment to the free-to-play model is stronger than ever and we plan to keep it that way,” he adds. But Gameloft knows that making a game free comes with caveats – namely, how and how often to push the paid-for features in order to make the game viable while not annoying us as the player: “‘Free to play’ is a complex thing,” Nicolas says. “It requires that we constantly adjust things to hit the right mark – the perfect balance between in-app transactions, or in-game advertising, and the experience for the gamer.”
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