What Alexis Kennedy’s Fallen London, Sunless Sea and Cultist Simulator say about indie mobile games
Your traditional indie developer’s a PC kind of guy. Let’s call him Chris, because last year there were more speakers called Chris at a major British games conference than female speakers put together. Chris develops premium games for PC, releases them on Steam, then ports them to different platforms.
Your usual mobile developer’s not Chris. He’s called Columbo, because someone should be, and he develops free-to-play (‘F2P’) games, the ‘free to download but there are in-app purchases’ business model that’s the go-to framework for the majority of mobile games. Anyone who’s played Candy Crush knows it well: no barrier to entry, addictive gameplay loops and many opportunities to part with small sums of money which add up to far more than a single premium price over time. Columbo’s not usually making art, but if he gets it right, he could make bank. Candy Crush has made more than $2 billion.
There’s a strong sense in indie PC development that mobile games aren’t worth bothering with. There’s a belief that mobile games aren’t as good as PC games. There are different business models which make it hard to optimise for both platforms. There are different technical skillsets required for each platform. There are different studio set-ups you need for supporting premium PC games and ever-live mobile games. There are lots of good reasons why Chris isn’t going to give mobile games a second glance. But in my experience, mobile games could help Chris thrive.
I’ve produced three mobile games to date. There was Fallen London, a port of a F2P browser game, and then there was Sunless Sea and Cultist Simulator, both ports of premium PC games. Two of these titles underperformed. One of them was actually removed from stores. One of them is a significant success. The success should obviously be Fallen London, the mobile version of an excellent RPG with the business model that’s made for mobile. It’s, er, not.
Fallen London launched in May 2016 when Alexis and I were at our old studio, Failbetter Games. It was removed from mobile stores two years later. I produced it, so I’m as culpable as they come! But I believe it could have been a big success, were it not for two big problems. Firstly, it was buggy. The original game was a browser RPG developed piecemeal over seven years without mobile in mind. Its port was built on complicated server architecture designed to sync across browser and mobile, aiming to give users a seamless cross-platform experience. These problems were soluble, but the team had little mobile experience and the outcome was an app that frequently lost users’ data, hung in an eternal loading cycle, or otherwise frustrated player experience.
This led to an influx of negative reviews, discouraging new players from downloading until the issues were fixed. That was the second major problem: Failbetter wasn’t set up for mobile live ops, the production system designed to support constantly hot, constantly updated online mobile games. They were a PC studio of 18 people, and while they’d been running the equivalent of live ops on web, it’s a different kettle of fish when no one’s full time on the game and there’s a five-day turnaround time for App Store updates. Even if things hadn’t gone badly in the first few months, they would’ve unravelled eventually.
Sunless Sea fared better. It’s another excellent Alexis Kennedy game, and though its premium business model meant it probably wouldn’t make millions, it was certainly a better fit for its studio. This time, we outsourced development to a highly respected porting specialist who had all the mobile expertise we lacked. So far, so good!
In March 2017, Sunless Sea launched to international featuring and great reviews. But it was handicapped by two new problems of its own. Firstly, to avoid the disappointing user experience we’d inadvertently created with Fallen London, the studio decided to only release Sunless Sea on iPads. This meant the original text, UI and game design would transfer without a major rethink to the iPad’s large screen. But it also meant the game was available to only a tiny slice of the Apple market, and none of Android’s: iPhones make up 50–70% of Apple users; iPads are only 7–10%.
Secondly, and perhaps to make up for the first problem, Sunless Sea launched with a $10 price point. This was significantly higher than the average paid game price of around $2–$7. This meant players had to really want to buy Sunless Sea: it wasn’t a game they could try for free and it was too expensive to justify a roll of the dice when it nestled between so many other cheaper games. Critically, Sunless Sea is an indie mobile game to be proud of. Commercially, it could be better. Its sales figures didn’t compare favourably to PC figures, leading its studio to leave mobile there.
When Alexis and I co-founded our own studio we decided to give mobile another shot. Another revenue stream is not to be sniffed at when you’re a team of two people working out of your flat, and I’ve had a bee in my mobile bonnet for a while now. Let’s try once more with Cultist Simulator, we said. Let’s see if we can do it right. So, recognising we were two PC specialists with a good game but not much mobile experience, we partnered with a premium indie mobile game specialist, Playdigious, made a bunch of practical decisions about how to square PC price-points, design and user experience with mobile, and launched it on iOS and Android at a strategic moment in April 2019.
I wrote an in-depth analysis of Cultist’s performance three months after launch which goes into specific numbers. The executive summary is that I’m very happy. Eight months after launch we’ve shipped over 120k units and made over $390k net revenue. These numbers are irrelevant for larger indie studios, but for a small team and a niche indie publisher, they’re great. They add to our existing revenue from PC, they offer ongoing visibility every time we release an update, they imply we can expect significant long-term mobile revenue, and they massively increase our potential audience for future games. For a community-driven small studio like Weather Factory, Cultist Simulator’s mobile port is worth its weight in gold.
There’s an important lesson here. Mobile games are different from PC games in almost every way, and you are likely to see much more revenue from a mobile-first F2P game than a premium port of a PC game. But extra revenue streams from premium ports of PC games are there for the taking. If you work with what you have, you could significantly shore up your studio’s coffers at a time where many Chrises are feeling the pinch of a supersaturated PC marketplace more than ever before.
I left Failbetter at the end of 2017, but if memory serves, Fallen London and Sunless Sea both made less than 15% of Cultist Simulator’s comparative revenue in their first six months on sale. They are categorically not 15% as good: all three are high-quality, impressive indie games. Fallen London, much though I love it, was just the wrong game for the studio that made it. Sunless Sea was the right game, but its studio didn’t have the mobile experience to leverage its product well. Cultist Simulator was the right game for its studio, developed with a publisher who really knew what they were doing, and produced by someone who’d made two games’ worth of mobile mistakes before.
To Chris, or to Columbo?
My takeaway is that mobile games are worth indie developers’ time, provided they’re made intelligently, with the right people, and have a practical, sustainable business model planned around the team that’s actually involved.
Even the most successful premium mobile games — the Monument Valley series, which are rightly an Apple darling and have made tens of millions of dollars — can’t rake in the revenue of well-designed and well-supported F2P games like Candy Crush. But indie developers don’t need millions of dollars. Small studios don’t even need hundreds of thousands. Last year, Chris sold 1,500 copies of his game and made $16,000. Additional mobile revenue is something many indies really, really need. It’s within many people’s reach already: they just need to figure out how to grab hold.