New York Social Game Makers Go Mobile to Grow in a Post-Zynga World

3/28/12Follow @jpruth

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crowdfunding marketplace Appbackr.com toward the development of an iPhone and iPad game based on the 1987 movie “The Untouchables.” Tablets and smartphones, she says, offer game developers a fresh landscape to exploit. “As a gaming platform, especially for the kinds of social and casual games I make, [the tablet] is the perfect device,” she says.

There are no clear-cut winners in the tablet and smartphone gaming sector yet, Wallace says, which creates new latitude to draw in more players of casual and social games. The opportunities in the mobile gaming market, she says, are attracting big players. “That’s why we saw Zynga purchase OMGPOP,” she says.

Indeed, last week’s buyout of OMGPOP, the developer of mobile game “Draw Something,” may give Zynga a beachhead in the mobile games market, according to Wallace. “Zynga recognized that OMGPOP did a pretty awesome job establishing a footprint in the mobile space,” she says—a segment where Zynga had not been as strong. The acquisition also raises the question of whether Zynga removed a potential competitor before it gained more momentum. “A lot of people look at the OMGPOP purchase and wonder if it was a kneejerk reaction,” she says, in response to seeing a tiny startup gaining traction in the mobile game space.

But such moves may be necessary to reach more players on new platforms. Zynga struck early on Facebook by attracting players and their friends to its games with relative ease. “The conditions that created Zynga are so much different from the conditions that prevail today,” Wallace says. Zynga “is expanding into its own destination site and moved into more of a publisher role.” She believes Zynga has the potential to evolve, of course, however the risks and scrutiny are also greater for such a high profile leader in the social games market. “Everybody keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she says.

Wallace is not alone in seeing big changes in the social and casual gaming market. Mattia Romeo, co-founder of game developer and game design consulting company Gigantic Mechanic in New York, started the company with co-founder Gregory Trefry to develop mobile, location-based games. Their iPhone game “Gigaputt,” for example, creates virtual golf courses by using the players’ real-world surroundings as the terrain within the app. Gigantic Mechanic, founded in 2009, is bootstrapped and its co-founders use their game consulting work to support development of their own games.

Trefry and Romeo previously worked as designers on casual games, including “Diner Dash” at now-defunct New York game studio Gamelab, and then wanted to try their hand at a different type of game. Romeo says the booming casual games market started to cannibalize itself, making it harder for independent developers to grow. “There were fewer opportunities, there was lots of cloning, developers got pushed out by these large aggregators,” he says.

Companies such as Big Fish Games in Seattle, which publishes online, mobile, and PC games, offer players a multitude of titles to choose from rather than the cherry-picked games offered by independent developers, Romeo says. He compared the game aggregation model to watching television shows primarily on one network rather than selecting individual shows regardless of which channel they are on. “As people moved more towards that model, it pushed more commoditization of games,” he says.

That commoditization, he says, had a side effect of making it more expensive for developers to create new and original content. “Either you tried to clone [an existing game] on the cheap side or spent a lot of money on resources,” Romeo says. Creating location-based games offered him and Trefry the leeway to develop new titles for an untapped market fairly efficiently. “We saw an opportunity to innovate,” he says. However, he says he does now want to overestimate the prospects of location-based games and assume there will be a flood of adoption the way casual games such as “Angry Birds” or social games such as “FarmVille” did in the past.

Romeo believes his company can still grow in the mobile gaming sector by tapping into the huge popularity of smartphones such as Apple’s iPhone. “Even if we manage to capture 0.1 percent of the audience, that’s still a viable audience,” he says.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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