Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to spend a week in Abu Dhabi to give a talk and a workshop at the World Summit Award Mobile.
I enjoyed visiting the mosques and bazaars, but I must admit that my biggest takeaway was getting to see store owners, cab drivers and other service staff using their phones. A couple of years ago, they would have been using feature phones. The only convenient way to get software would have been piracy. Now, these people used very capable smartphones, in spite of the sub-$1000 salaries. They would get their apps from the Apple and Google stores, with a strong preference for the free apps. In essence, they behaved similarly to non-premium customers in the West, but it struck me that we never considered their cultural background and behavior while making our apps.
As Western game developers, we have learned to aim for familiar markets first: back in the console era, they would be the ones to buy our $60 games. Nowadays on mobile, we aim for the mythical whales who will spend $100 in in-app purchases. The more forward thinking companies make some efforts for China, Korea or Japan, and hope it works. Users in the rest of the world are a plus, they are the long tail. This way of thinking is obsolete.
Last year, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales mentioned how $50 tablets were disrupting Africa. Suddenly, the Chinese, Indian, South American and African markets are within reach. 4Bn people have access to news, education and the same games we play. What I was witnessing in Abu Dhabi was not merely a developing market, it was the archetype of how most of the planet will be using mobiles within a year.
This means that game companies need to rethink which markets they want to reach. The good news is that there is a universal demand for fun and killing time when you are bored. But our one size fits all approach to development needs to change or we risk sounding as antiquated as Henry Ford’s “you can have any color so long as it’s black”.
Similarly to how Coke and Mc Donalds tailor their offering for different countries, gaming companies that aim to be international successes need to think about:
- which platforms people use to get their games,
- what media outlets they listen to,
- which brands they grew up with and like,
- how to partner with them,
- how to make interesting campaigns in those territories.
We need to make better products that fit their lives. The past two years have seen the rise of the free to play, tablet-first model. We need to start thinking in terms of lower-spec, global-first development.