UK-based mobile games developer Neon Play was founded just over 18 months ago, but has already produced more than 40 iOS and Android games, which have been downloaded nearly 27 million times, and won 10 business awards.

Based in Gloucestershire, Neon Play was started by Oli Christie, a former digital marketing creative director. With his experience in building numerous Flash-based games for brands such as Gillette, Panasonic, Pringles and Tesco, Christie wanted to take his skills to the mobile gaming sector.

“When the iPhone came out and you read these stories about people making a lot of money from these very simple games, I thought “I can do that, so why not have it a go?” So I did, having never made a mobile game before in my life. It was a bit of a leap of faith,” the Neon Play managing director told Mobile Apps Briefing.

The secret of a good mobile game
Like most things in the creative industry, having a good idea – and then researching it – is essential if you’re going to have a successful mobile game. “Whenever we come up with an idea, the first thing we do is to research the market to find out if there’s anything like that. If there is, what can we do to improve on it or make something a point of difference,” Christie said.

Having features that make your game stand out is also crucial. This means creating a compelling playing experience with the right level of game difficulty progression and high quality graphics.

“Design is absolutely imperative, from the interface itself, the 3D graphics, the fonts, the button style. A game like Tiny Wings is incredibly simple and the graphics make it really cute and beautiful,” he said.

How to make your company stand out
According to Christie, Neon Play’s main differentiator is its cross promotion and quick turnaround of games. “I think the way that we cross promote our apps is fairly unique in the industry – I don’t think many people do it as well as us. The fact that we’ve produced so many games in a short period of time is fairly unheard of and I think that’s something that we do very well,” he said.

He explained Neon Play tries to keep the building of a new game to less than three months, in order to get a sufficient return on investment. “It’s very hard to actually make ROI on the games if you spend too long doing them,” he said.

However, Christie believes it would take a significant amount of luck for Neon Play to have a hit as big as Rovio’s Angry Birds. “We will always try to make a great unique game but if we suddenly said let’s try a bit harder on one game, it wouldn’t become Angry Birds. It’s not as simple as that,” he said.

Dealing with platform fragmentation
Neon Play initially focused on iOS, due in part to having a relatively small team of six developers. “Essentially we look to develop for the platforms that have got the most opportunities for monetary success because we’re only a small team and there’s only so much we can physically do. So that’s why Apple has been our lead platform,” Christie said.

Neon Play is now adding Android due to the platform’s potential. The company currently only has five Android games but every future iOS game release will be joined by an Android version.

The company will also look at other platforms, having already dabbled – albeit with limited success – with Nokia’s Ovi Store. Christie has hopes that Windows Phone will become a viable platform and plans to look at the potential of smart TVs and Facebook as possible development platforms for the future. “So yeah, we’re looking to take the existing IP and take it across as many platforms as possible,” he said.

However, Christie is less enthusiastic about HTML5 web apps, saying it isn’t yet sophisticated enough to create good quality mobile games. “It’s something which we’re looking at but it just doesn’t have the capacity for what we need to do at the moment,” he said.

As well as different mobile platforms, new hardware in the form of tablets is presenting new opportunities. “For games you can get so much more out of a tablet, the real estate, the space you’ve got,” Christie said.

Neon Play currently has six games designed specifically for the iPad although all iOS games can be scaled up to work on the iPad. There are fewer games optimised for Android tablets but, like iOS, mobile games can be scaled up.

International expansion and the evolution of monetisation
Neon Play started off offering paid games for £0.59 each, then £0.69, with some free ‘light’ versions of games supported by advertising that encouraged users to download the paid version. However, the freemium model – in which users download a free game and are then encouraged to add new features – is now being widely adopted, providing a balance between paid and free apps.

“You’re encouraging [users] throughout the game to do in-app purchase to buy things to help them get further in the game – to unlock more levels, buy more bombs, more boosts, more lives – whatever it might be,” Christie said. The majority of new Neon Play’s games will follow the freemium model.

Despite only offering games in English, Neon Play already has an impressively international business. Just 23 percent of sales come from the UK, with 25-30 percent from the US and Australia. Canada, France, Germany and Japan are also big markets.

However the company is looking to develop partnerships in the Asia Pacific region. “We’re near to signing deals in South Korea, Japan and China, which are huge territories with big potential,” Christie said. These deals will see Neon Play games converted into local languages, thus extending its reach.

Moving into games publishing
As well as continuing to build its own games in the future, Neon Play plans to develop its soon-to-launch Brightside publishing division. It will give advice on design, monetisation and marketing to independent developers who have little chance of making their games a success alone. Neon Play’s existing customers also provide a readymade audience.

“We can’t guarantee to make you a millionaire but we pretty much can guarantee that by doing it with us, you will make more money. Yes you’ll lose a percentage of your revenue split but doing it by yourself you learn very little, but doing it with us you’ve got a greater chance of success,” Christie said.

Tim Ferguson