When Ryan Horrigan, Co-Founder and CEO, Artie, started working on the next-generation mobile gaming platform three-and-a-half-year ago, his idea was to distribute games directly to players inside of social media through the web. It was to be a new type of business model that in a way challenges Apple and Google from charging developers to distribute their software and process in-app purchases.
Artie is looking at re-energising the mobile gaming market with an alternative approach, bringing mobile games with a high concept to browsers that are free from the monopolies of Apple and Google, which act as gatekeepers to the app stores they operate. They are free-to-play but with higher quality graphics and deeper gameplay across a variety of genres, from hyper-casual, casual, and mid-core to core mobile games without needing to download from the app stores. Instead, you can launch a game from a link-in-bio from TikTok, Instagram, DM or a text message.
“What we are trying to do is do games differently than they’ve been done in the past and the mobile web,” Horrigan told indianexpress.com in a phone interview.
This is the route almost all developers have to take to reach potential customers on mobile. However, Horrigan said distributing mobile games through the Apple App Store or Google Play Store means ceding a significant amount of control of his revenue to the two tech giants. Both Apple and Google take a commission from the total price of paid apps and in-app purchases from their respective app stores. The Apple App Store, for instance, is the only way for most people to install apps on an iPhone or iPad.
“It’s a hybrid approach that uses the cloud but it also renders locally using your phone’s GPU but without an app download,” he explained. That way Artie doesn’t have to pay app store fees or cloud rendering costs.
Some may not fully agree with Horrigan’s method of sidestepping the app stores and reaching users directly on its own, but he said a lot has to do with how young consumers are discovering mobile games. “They spend most of their time on the five or six social apps or video apps that they love. They don’t download many apps,” he said.
The concept of browser-based games is not new. Such games have engaging tap-to-play gameplay perfectly suited for mobile. Essentially, the kind of games such as Candy Crush and Farmville that are super popular among casual gamers you often see playing in packed buses and metros across the world. However, they are heavily dependent on advertising and come under the purview of the rules laid out by Apple and Google.
Traditionally, games are made for consoles, mobile platforms, and the cloud. But the development of each platform demands a different business model and without the right economics, it is hard to bring newer players to the games. “It’s very difficult to make the economics of cloud gaming work in a free-to-play game, especially on mobile, when almost all games are free to play,” he explained. “It will cost you more to run the game on an hourly basis than you will make in revenue from an average player per day.”
Changing business model
The business of mobile games is not the same as it used to be a few years ago, argued Horrigan. He said the cost of acquiring new users, especially for mobile games that rely on in-app advertising, has doubled. In fact, the customer acquisition cost on iOS is up 80 per cent due to Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature, which reduces targeting capabilities by limiting advertisers from accessing an iPhone user identifier.
“Before Apple’s IDFA policy change, the customer acquisition cost for an average game was under $2 but now CPI is currently about $3.33, across Android and iOS,” he said, adding the app-base game based on “our calculations is spending 77 per cent more to acquire players.”
But that’s not the only issue that’s bothering mobile game developers. The retention in mobile games is also down year over year for a total of about 20 per cent. On top of that, the mobile gaming business has shrunken year-over-year, indicating that developing mobile games is getting tougher for developers. Although mobile gaming is still a multi-billion dollar business, there is limited scope for smaller developers to grow and acquire new users.
“I think many people talk about how Apple and Google continue to play a stronger role editorially on their app stores picking and choosing which games they want to feature. It’s getting very difficult for new games to break through and find an audience unless you’re part of the gaming establishment,” said Horrigan.
Putting community and players first
Artie’s first game Pong Legends is a genre mashup of the game of beer pong and a fighting game. “The idea is you are playing beer pong, but express through superpowers, spells and power-ups,” said Horrigan. “We chose this game because we thought it would be kind of an internet meme…something topical and funny that people would want to look at again and be like…oh, that’s interesting.”
Horrigan said the social element and community aspect are missing from mobile games. But Pong Legends is natively designed to be social in nature. “This is a chance for us to really put community first and players first but also make highly social games because mobile games natively are not that social, which is kind of ironic since mobile is such a social platform,” he added.
Pong Legends, developed in-house, is currently in the alpha stage and soon to be in beta but the actual launch is still a few months away, informed Horrigan. His company is developing one more game and the discussions are in for the third one.
Horrigan believes that the hyper-casual games which once dominated the mobile gaming market are no more attractive, especially on iOS, because of Apple IDFA changes. He, instead, sees a new genre of hybrid casual becoming popular. “They’re similar to hyper-casual games and have really easy gameplay, but they are overall meta surrounding the game which is much deeper and more engaging.”
Building an alternative to app stores
Horrigan agrees that the mobile gaming market is hyper-competitive, making it hard for new games to break through. “I think it’s not very democratised,” Horrigan replied when asked how the app stores benefit new games from smaller developers. “It’s very much the establishment players who are getting spotlighted or to your point smaller, indie arthouse games that win awards, but may not monetise as well.”
“Our view is that if you can bring games directly to players, you can leverage influencers and other relationships that you can’t really leverage as much when you have to send people to an app store,” he continued.
Horrigan, who is a three-time Emmy Award winner and has previously worked as a chief content officer of the Comcast-backed VR and AR startup Felix and Paul Studios, said his ultimate aim is to collaborate with third-party studios as partners to scale the business and seize new opportunities.
“My goal is to make the first few games ourselves to have lots of studio partners around the world and by doing so, we can provide them an alternative to the app stores, and a much smaller platform fee, like 10 per cent instead of 30 per cent. This way Artie will be able to attract other publishers who want to get better economics and better distribution.”
Artie’s investors include big names, including YouTube founder Chad Hurley, Zynga founder Mark Pincus, Roblox Chief Product Officer Manuel Bronstein, and former TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer among others. Artie has a 50-member team and includes game developers and artists from PlayStation, Activision/Blizzard, EA, Meta, Zynga, King, Glu Mobile, and Disney.