Games you can Xerox

March 30, 2011: 12:39 PM ET

Gameloft, a French mobile games company, had its best year yet. But something about its success feels familiar.

By Chadwick Matlin, contributor

Imagine you've finally published that novel you've been working on for the past few years. It's one of those sci-fi epics, where there's an alien invasion to be overturned, a stoic soldier to defeat it, and maybe a cool gun or two to use in the process. And now that it's published, congratulations! The book is a huge success -- millions of people bought it, there's a rabid and devoted following, and the publisher is already forcing you to bang out several sequels.

But for various reasons the publisher has been slow to adapt your book for mobile readers. And while you've been absent, others have flourished. One publisher with a far better understanding of how people read on their phones, has created their own book with a faceless lead, a grunting alien swarm, and the requisite violence. But the book is shorter, less complex, and less expensive than yours, customized for an audience that isn't sitting down with it for an hour at a time.

You're not the only author to whom this has happen. Dozens of other successful writers whose publishers didn't adapt books for mobile phones have seen their general narratives transferred over. A historical Greek epic, a gritty Iraq war narrative, and a futuristic parable about racism -- this other company has appropriated all of them. And it's made hundreds of millions doing it.

That company's name is Gameloft. And we're not actually talking books. Gameloft publishes video games -- video games that are at times extremely similar to ones that have been published by other companies. Most of those games are published on mobile phones, where the originals haven't yet migrated. And filling that void has been phenomenally successful for Gameloft. Last week it announced 141 million euros in revenue, dwarfing the revenue of the far-more ballyhooed Rovio, makers of Angry Birds. The numbers confirm that a lazy consumer trend has followed videogames from the Xbox to the iPhone: people will buy anything good, even if they've already played it before.

Gameloft's gaudy revenue numbers make it the second-largest mobile game developer in the Western hemisphere. But it wasn't always like this. In 1999 it was spun off from Ubisoft, another game company, to focus on the emerging market for cell phone games in Europe and Asia. (Gameloft is based in Paris.) Eleven years later, 150 million Gameloft games were downloaded in 2010—more than 400,000 per day. The company has 4,800 employees, 4,000 of whom design games all day, and 1,000 of whom do it for iOS devices. The company's workforce split ratio matches revenue -- 22% of its money comes from Apple's (AAPL) App Store, the largest contributor to Gameloft's balance sheet. All of this has led to 13.6 million euros in net profit, a 127% annual increase. And its stock is up 30% in the last year.

The numbers are so good that Gameloft is nipping at Electronic Arts' (ERTS) mobile divison, the top mobile developer in the West. EA took in $212 million in net mobile revenue in 2010, compared to Gameloft's ~$198 million, when converted to U.S. dollars.

EA is exactly the kind of company Gameloft isn't: one that has games people have actually played at home. EA as a whole is a hulking, $6.5 billion company, with huge, recurring franchises on home consoles. Gameloft is a smurf in comparison. So to wage what must be an asymmetric fight with EA, Gameloft is pursuing two main strategies:

  1. Buy licensing rights so it can make games based on established franchises like Avatar, Iron Man, and UNO (Yes, the card game. It's actually not Gameloft's most unexpected licensed app. That honor belongs to the one modeled after CSI: Miami. "Help Horatio, Calleigh, Delko, and Dr. Alexx Woods investigate hunches and uncover the truth!").
  2. Create new games for phones that mimic established ones elsewhere. 58% of Gameloft's revenues come from this second category.

The list of those copyapps is lengthy. Halo becomes N.O.V.A.; God of War becomes Hero of Sparta; Grand Theft Auto becomes Gangstar; Starcraft becomes Starfront Collission; Final Fantasy becomes Eternal Legacy; The Legend of Zelda becomes Sacred Odyssey: Rise of Ayden. There are more. Uncharted becomes Shadow Guardian; Call of Duty: Modern Warfare becomes Modern Combat; Civilization becomes The Settlers; Soul Calibur becomes Blades of Fury. Gameloft's games may not be the originals, but they have the original's conceit.

This is good business. But is it bad ethics? A few years ago—before the iPhone became a viable mobile game platform—EA put together a chiding presentation about Gameloft's tactics. More recently, somebody on Quora wondered why Gameloft doesn't get sued. Jim Sterling at games blog Destructoid best expressed the dissonance, "If this new game follows GameLoft's usual pattern, I shall likely play it and likely enjoy it. Is that wrong?"

Gameloft certainly doesn't think so. CFO Alexandre de Rochefort says, "When you look at [videogames] it's not as if the industry is creating new genres every week." It's just following in a long tradition of listening to what consumers want. "The industry has been reinventing the same genres over and over again for the last 20 years." So why should Gameloft be any different? And why should videogames be any different than novels, where most authors agree a handful of basic plots serve as the foundation of endless variations? Ultimately, De Rochefort falls back on the old Jealousy Hypothesis. "I get the impression that we're a bit paying for the rest of the industry for being the new boy in town."

De Rochefort's points are valid. Major console developers were unprepared for the iPhone, and Gameloft filled the void. But there's a difference between adapting the best aspects of Guitar Hero to make Rock Band (a game with different instruments, different gameplay, and a different conceit) and adapting the best aspects of Guitar Hero to make Guitar Rock Tour, a game that's Guitar Hero in miniature. (Then again, it was Tapulous that stole Guitar Hero first, making Tap Tap Revolution into the first major iPhone gaming hit.)

So around and around we go. What we do know is that Gameloft is really just a symptom of its environment. Creativity, after all, has never been the App Store's specialty. Apple's Top 25 leaderboards let publishers know what's selling well, and the relatively low barrier of entry all but encourages competitors to quickly swarm to the conceits and genres that are resonating.

Even Angry Birds, that mascot of all mobile gaming, is cribbed. Months before Angry Birds debuted on the iPhone an online game called Crush the Castle was making the rounds, asking players to use cannon balls to destroy little people hiding inside of elaborately-constructed fortresses. But when Crush the Castle finally made the transition from an online game to a mobile game, 75 million people didn't download it. They were too busy playing Angry Birds.

Speaking of Angry Birds, de Rochefort is never one to let the whims of the market go to waste. "Our learnings from [Angry Birds] is that we're going to launch more games which are very, very casual games." Maybe they should call one of them Ostracized Ostriches.

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