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Angry at Angry Birds

It’s taken a long time to happen but Angry Birds has managed it. Last week the London Evening Standard ran an advertisement from O2 giving Angry Birds as the reason to buy an iPhone.

Games selling hardware has a long and rich history. Tetris sold the Gameboy and Sonic did for Sega what Mario did for Nintendo.  Halo was so good for the Xbox, Microsoft bought the company.

And yet we’ve had no landmark games on mobile. Ok there have been highlights such as Snake but never anything which made people buy a phone for the game. 

Angry Birds has changed that.

It’s such a powerful sales aid, Microsoft jumped the gun in putting an Angry Birds icon in the Windows Mobile 7 promotional material when no such software was in development.

And yet Angry Birds has changed nothing.

The mobile networks, who think the 70% iTunes offer is generous, see Angry Birds as vindication of the revenue share model. They point to the Rovio title, and to other hits such as DoodleJump to say “if a game is good enough the developer can get rich”. They think a revenue share of 50% is reasonable. On top of this the networks will want the developer to go through an aggregator who will take a further 25% and then demand up-front payment for testing. Quite rapidly there is no money for block-buster games. Forget any idea of licensing characters and music.

What’s wrong with games on phones is that all games are like the Blair Witch Project, low budget titles that occasionally make a fortune almost by surprise. In the console world there are some bankable titles – Call of Duty, Fifa, Dragonball, Grand Theft Auto, Gran Turismo and the like. Titles where the developers can invest millions and years to get them right, because they know that the revenue from the titles will justify the expense. Just as a James Bond Film will make millions (MGM’s problems aside) the games can be lavishly crafted.

The result is games that push the boundaries. Games that make people buy more games.

You can’t do that with mobile games.  Prices are so low and margins so slim – for the developer – it becomes a matter of knocking out lots of quick, simple games and hoping one hits. Worse, games are developed to be easy to port, to work on as many phones as possible with as little customisation as necessary. iPhone games are an exception but Java games show the future for Android. As devices get richer and offer more features games get left behind, because the developer doesn’t want to exclude the majority of users.

Angry Birds is great, but it’s all about gameplay.  It’s weak on eye-candy. It doesn’t push the hardware nor does it take advantage of any special features. Angry Birds on and iPhone 4 is identical to Angry Birds on an iPhone 3 and identical to Angry birds on a Dell Streak. All phones with significant hardware difference and no attempt to tailor the game for the advantages they offer.

The result is games which are generally disappointing. Games which leave users just trawling the free stuff because the paid-for stuff isn’t much better.

While users don’t see value in better games, they won’t pay more. While they won’t pay more developers can’t spend more on coding, graphics, music and technology.
The operators don’t care which games are hits, they make their 50% whatever, yet unknowingly they are missing out. If games were better people would buy more. If the networks cut their margins to those of iMode – typically 18% and sometimes as low as 9% - there would be enough money for developers to produce blockbuster games.

Perhaps the success of Angry Birds is not a good thing for the future of mobile gaming.

Cat Keynes publishes her thoughts on the mobile phone industry every Sunday at www.catkeynes.com. Follow me on Twitter here.

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