Following in the gilded footsteps of Kim Kardashian and her Hollywood hit of 2014 – a favourite with millions of "casual" gamers and noted critics like Leigh Alexander alike – Katy Perry is to get her own mobile game later this year.
Glu Mobile, the "leader in 3D freemium mobile gaming" behind the wildly successful Hollywood, confirmed the news with a statement leaning more on Perry's social media visibility than her appropriateness as a video game avatar. With some 170 million followers across her socials, over 64 million on Twitter alone making hers the biggest account on the network, the studio's decision makes perfect sense. If KK's free-to-play (F2P) app quadrupled Glu's revenue, making $43m in just three months, imagine the money a game based on someone who's not ranked a lowly 16th amongst Twitter's elite could generate for the San Francisco company.
Whatever the Perry app proves to be – no title is locked in yet, but of course it'll be free to "get" and loaded with microtransaction options – it's said to feature both the singer's likeness and voice. It will, says Glu, "introduce players to a digital playground of global success and talent". It will be a hit – Perry is a superstar on a worldwide level, with number ones in countless territories, and Glu's announcement comes directly after her rapturously received Super Bowl half-time performance. It will not fail. But with Glu on record that they "went to Hollywood… to do a number of deals" in 2013, who might be next for their own mobile game – and what does this mean for the platform's more creative studios?
You don't have to think for too long before several possible celebrities come into focus, individuals who'd comfortably top the App Store fronting their own game. Just scan that list of Twitter's biggest again, and pick three at random from the top 40. Bieber? Sure, a total no brainer, though it's tough to see Glu or an equivalent player in the F2P market incorporating side-missions revolving around paternity disputes. Taylor Swift? Yep. Lady Gaga? Obviously. Bill Gates? So the line needs drawing somewhere. But the point is that it barely matters what the actual game is, so long as one of our mega-celebrities has a cartoony render of their face plastered over it.
Which could really dent the prospects of studios like Sweden's Simogo, a small team of multi-award-winning developers whose iOS titles are splendidly idiosyncratic and entirely unlike anything else on the market. In 2013, they released Year Walk, a legitimately scary first-person crawl through spooked Scandinavian woods, and Device 6, a singularly styled text adventure that really has to be experienced to be understood. Both attracted significant acclaim, and the studio's sole release proper of 2014, the interactive picture book of The Sailor's Dream, might have been expected to emulate said success. It didn't.
"We don't do numbers like the big indie games, like Braid or The Stanley Parable – we do maybe a tenth of those games," Simogo co-founder Simon Flesser tells me the day before the Perry announcement. "We're a two-man company, though, so the games are generally profitable. But not all of them are – you win some, you lose some, I guess.
"The Sailor's Dream hasn't done really well for us, at all. I'm not sure we'll ever make the money back that we spent on it. But I have totally given up trying to work out how this industry works, so it's easier for us to just concentrate on making the things that we want to, and hopefully these are things that other people will be interested in. That's all we can do, really."
One of the most striking hits of mobile gaming in 2014 was Monument Valley, a puzzle game that actually looked to popular music for some inspiration. Designer Ken Wong told me (for Kotaku) that he's approached the M.C. Escher-indebted title "a lot like an album", more specially "an album like [Pink Floyd's] The Dark Side of the Moon. There's a story to that album, but it's tonal and lyrical. You might not have the firmest idea of what's happening, but you get that feeling of emotional ups and downs." Monument Valley did convey an ambiguous story wrapped in a melancholic aesthetic, but while it topped the App Store's paid chart and won an Apple Design Award, its charged-for brevity attracted heavy criticism from users used to the F2P model – the microtransactions-heavy set-up of games like Kim Kardashian: Hollywood.
When the games director at Monument Valley's developers, ustwo, Neil MacFarland, speaks to me for The Future According to VICE, he's quick to not blame App Store customers themselves, but more the culture that F2P games has bred. "The economics of app stores are strange, but they're also fluid, which means developers have the opportunity to try new models. Games face challenges because of free-to-play models, [but] all of this means we're living in interesting economic times."
Monument Valley earned its makers $5.8m in revenue, from development costs of under $1.5m. It sold two and a half million copies, and is installed on over 10 million unique devices. It's a hit – and a paid-for one, too, selling for around two pounds, or three dollars, at release. But it's a massive exception to the rule of the App Store, where the top-grossing games are always F2P titles: Clash of Clans, Candy Crush iterations and Game of War make up the top five at the time of writing, with only Spotify preventing a games whitewash, placing fourth.
It used to be that the editorial team at the App Store made a point of highlighting new releases of intrigue, which stood aside from the endless clones and freemium cash-grabs. But today that position seems to have changed, from the perspective of Flesser, at least.
"We've been around for five, six years, and I still have to chase for coverage. Apple has been good at spotlighting interesting games, but I'm not sure they're so good anymore. I used to have a lot of respect for their editorial teams, but a lot of the stuff I see them featuring now, I don't think it's as interesting as what they were featuring two years ago, where they would feature strange things that sort of promoted the platform in itself."
As the likes of Glu bring more "viral oops"-exploiting games fronted by superstars to the market, as well as massive tie-ins with James Bond and The Terminator, can smaller teams, like the eight-person ustwo and even smaller Simogo, hope to see their projects make an impression amongst Hay Day, My Talking Tom and the other crap clogging the top-grossing list?
I'd like to be optimistic, because the mobile platform is so important for widening gaming's audience and encouraging the most even gender balance between players. And at the happening-right-now Casual Connect conference in Amsterdam, The Binary Family's Thorsten Rauser rounded on mobile devs' obsession with F2P. "There's reason to believe we are fucked," he said. "Our industry has become bad, [and] if we look at casual games in 2015, what's out there is mostly crap. It's three or four game principles… It's all the same thing." He compared F2P games to gambling, adding: "What we're doing is selling (these) games to children. I think it's so disgusting."
But when the man behind Candy Crush, Tommy Palm, and Epic's CEO Tim Sweeny are convinced that F2P is the future, that's incredibly likely to be the case. Whether we're talking Supercell barbarians or superstar pop singers, it doesn't really matter: raw numbers are threatening true creativity in the field, compromising coming projects' chances of App Store visibility, and that's something anyone who loves games can feel more than a little depressed about.