The way we play video games is constantly changing. Writing lines of code to play Commodore 64 games and blowing into NES or Mega Drive cartridges are concepts that now sound alien to an entire generation of gamers.
Video game developers have had to evolve and adapt as they keep up with new trends and technologies, whether that’s the growing popularity of mobile games and digital content or developing software for the latest hardware.
As someone who grew up with a love for video games, moving into the industry from a student to a developer seemed like a natural progression. 20 years ago, we founded the game development studio, Nordcurrent with my husband Michail and his brother Sergej. Over the years, we’ve developed and published games on the Gameboy Advance, PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2, Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii and mobile devices, some of which have become major franchises and gone on to sell millions of copies.
As you might expect, we’ve picked up plenty of lessons and learnings from watching the video game industry evolve over the last 20 years. We’ve had to adapt and stay on top of the latest trends to remain competitive, but more importantly, make great games that resonate with players.
The transition from physical to digital
One of the biggest changes we’ve seen in the industry is the move away from physical game formats to digital.
With the exception of gaming mobiles such as Nokia’s N-GAGE (RIP), mobile games have always been digital and purchased or downloaded from app stores. The mobile industry continued to pursue distribution while Console owners picked up the latest games or pre-owned copies from gaming stores or online retailers. At the same time, digital distribution services such as Steam were growing in popularity for PC players.
The console market eventually caught up. Digital marketplaces such as Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network Store started to take off.
At the same time, the rise of smartphones presented an opportunity for developers to enter a brand-new market on an even playing field. The potential success of games on digital platforms was unknown, but unlike previous generations, the barriers to entry were removed. It was an exciting period that we knew we had to capitalise on.
Before this transition, Nordcurrent and many other developers felt that breaking into the market was always extremely difficult. For a game to make an impact, there needed to be a huge amount of resources backing it, or it had to be a well-known property to capture the attention of publishers and make it into the market.
With these requirements removed, the move from physical to digital disrupted the industry, allowing games to take on new, ambitious, and inventive ideas.
I remember the move to digital with fond memories and recall how straightforward the digital market was compared to competing in the console space. Typically, games could be distributed without complications. Developers had two options: free-to-play or pay-to-play; Free-to-play games would include ads, and pay-to-play games would not.
Nowadays, the digital market is more convoluted as there are greater barriers to entry. Unlike when the transition from physical to digital happened, developers must now adhere to previous market expectations and have a budget for the following sections for their game to be successful:
- User acquisition
- In-game analytics
The rise of mobile games
Mobile games have become a significant part of the video game industry and account for more than half of global gaming revenue. Their popularity continues to skyrocket as the likes of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo grow their presence in the mobile game market. The various monetisation channels available through mobile games make them easier to monetise than most PC and console games.
Originating in the mid-90s, mobile games were primarily seen as a way to entertain people on the go. Now they’re an essential part of the gaming ecosystem, with more people playing them than console games. The rise of mobile games is not just due to the convenience of playing them on your phone but also because they are cheaper, more accessible, and offer a greater variety of gameplay compared to PC and console titles.
Our first major success on mobile was 101 Games, a title we ported from Nintendo DS and Wii – although we did make some changes to make the game more suitable for a mobile audience.
This mainly involved adapting the game to cater for the needs of casual gamers who could pick up the game and enjoy it without an experienced gaming background. The simple and engaging gameplay ensured that a wide variety of audiences could participate and play the title. The success of 101 games inspired us to pursue the development of other casual games, which led to the invention of the time-management cooking sim Cooking Fever, which has now surpassed over 450 million downloads.
Evolution of gaming audiences
Although there’s still a misconception amongst some gamers that mobile games aren’t ‘proper games’ (the growing rise of mid-core titles from major publishers begs to differ), mobile games are a very important part of the industry. If we look at the market, almost all of the successful companies in the gaming industry make mobile games, and the gaming industry is now more inclusive and accessible than ever as a result.
The success of many mobile games can be attributed to the fact that they resonate with a large demographic of players that consider themselves gamers but don’t have hours to sink into console or PC games. Many mobile gamers want something casual to enjoy that they can play in their downtime to relax and take with them wherever they go.
If we look at Cooking Fever as an example, players by age are similarly split between groups of 18-24, 25-45 and 45+, and female players comprise around 70%.
Importance of LiveOps for successful mobile games
Gaming is now a service-based industry. Video games today are not just played; they are experienced. In the past, video games were mainly about gameplay and graphics, but now there’s a growing demand for new content to be added to a game after its release, often known as LiveOps.
This has also led to new ways of monetizing games, as new content is made available through in-app purchases, which often make up the bulk of revenue for mobile games. Players’ expectations have shifted, too; there is a greater demand for developers to create new content to keep the players engaged, whether new characters, levels, story missions or items.
We often compare the gaming experience to the film industry: users are actively awaiting the launch of a new update on the game, so they can quickly consume the content within the first week and then await further content updates.
Now, we’re much more proactive in our content approach as we understand there’s a need to continuously provide users with additional content that is engaging and provides great value.
This is a move away from our traditional development cycle pre-mobile, which was very front-loaded, and the games would include the full spectrum of content attached. Now, the development team is constantly analysing the game’s success and seeking new opportunities to improve the game. This is no longer something that happens in mobile but also in console and PC games.
Ultimately, mobile games and apps have been at the forefront of this change, and a lot of the adaptations made to AAA console/PC games post-launch have been taken from lessons in the mobile market, whether that’s battle passes, in-game collaborations or unique events.
The prominence of collaborations and influencer marketing in video games
Often, it isn’t enough just to make a great video game. That video game needs advertising and promotion to find the right audiences, and influencer marketing and collaborations are now an essential part of advertising strategies for many mobile game companies.
Influencers can also provide mobile game companies with a way to reach new audiences. But when I’m talking about influencers, I don’t just mean traditional influencers with massive followings on social media platforms – we are also the community of our games.
Beyond the traditional social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, audiences of video games traditionally keep the game alive through community discussions, whether on Reddit or Discord.
One of the vital lessons we’ve learned in our time as game developers is to support and engage with the communities around your titles. The insight they provide is an opportunity to understand how your games are performing and what, if any, changes need to be made to keep them happy.
We consider the players of our games experts within their fields as they can pragmatically suggest updates, features, and collaborations, which are directly sent to the development team for feedback. This collaborative approach is essential to our approach moving forward as a studio.
In addition to looking to influencers and our community to improve our games, we’ve also embraced collaborations with other brands in recent years to grow the reach and appeal of our titles. This has involved partnerships with global brands, including Coca-Cola, Hard Rock Cafe, and FC Barcelona.
The mobile game market is known for utilising branded collaborations in its LiveOps, and we believe we’ll only see more collaborations as brands look to grow their presence in gaming spaces into the future.
What’s next for Nordcurrent
After 20 years, we’re still operating as a family-owned business based in Vilnius and have now published over 50 games for various platforms. Our notable success is Cooking Fever, which has led to dozens of cloned games and a whole sub-genre of cooking games. With two studios in Ukraine, and a new one in Warsaw to help employees affected by the war, we now have over 250 employees and will continue to grow our team as part of our mission to create amazing games that are enjoyable for all.
Nordcurrent creates games loved by millions. To learn more about our games or join our team’s mission to make the best games in the world, visit our website nordcurrent.com.