Focus on form factors: Developers and the “tablet first” strategy

Is it a good idea for developers to focus on one form factor – and one form factor, only? One developer, Supercell, has done just this, calling it a “tablet first strategy”, and they plan to build all their projects from here on out focused purely on the tablet device:

“The studio believes tablets are becoming the platform of choice for gamers, which are why the company is shifting its focus away from online titles -- less than a year ago, Supercell raised $12 million from investors to work on browser-based social games that appealed to core players. The unique confluence of technology, interface, mobility, and social packed inside these magical devices opens up brand new opportunities to create rich gameplay experiences designed specifically for the platform," says Supercell CEO Ilkka Paananen.” –, “Social game developer Supercell adopts Tablet-First strategy”

This focus is echoed by a former executive at Facebook and Apple, Charles Jolley, who is heading up the tablet first strategy, investment-wise. This policy basically postulates that tablets are going to continue to fundamentally change how people work and play, and thus it’s an important space for developers to focus on creating great applications, websites, and frameworks.

Too much focus?

Is this outlook a bit bullish? It seems it would depend on the developer and what they have seen to be successful. Supercell is enthusiastic about the future of the tablet:

“We believe that tablets are going to become the de-facto device that all kinds of entertainment, including games, will be consumed on in the next couple of years...almost all of the developers are approaching tablets as a destination for smartphone games to be ported or upscaled to. If you do that you’re not leveraging the unique capabilities of the platform. We truly believe that the bigger screen and fully utilizing touch as way of interacting with the game enables new experiences users haven’t seen on the platform before.” – Inside Mobile Apps, “Supercell goes tablet-first, hires former iWin President Greg Harper as General Manager for North America”

Supercell’s strategy becomes more understandable when you have a look at the numbers that they are dealing with:

“…. mobile game development budgets are growing because of the final contributing factor: earnings potential. Supercell reports earnings around $1 million per day for its games, and Gungho’s Puzzles and Dragons game is bringing in around $2 million daily. The monetization potential on mobile is much higher, and coupled with a lower development cost, there’s a huge opportunity to earn significant revenue.” – “Game over? Video game and console sales take a head shot”, LA Biz Journals

Different games run on different platforms, operating systems, device models, different screen adaptations, aspect ratios, even different versions of the same platform. Developing games for all the different platforms out there is (to say the least) a time-consuming process. Developers have to optimize game projects for each device, taking the time to test everything so there aren’t problems down the road.  While it’s certainly fantastic that we have a wide variety of devices available to us as consumers, for developers, making games that will function on the majority of the devices on the market is becoming an increasingly more difficult task, which makes the “tablet first” strategy one that can make sense from the developer point of view.

Tablets and PCs on the rise

According to industry analyst  Canalys, one in every three computing devices shipped was actually a tablet. The iPad accounted for about half of these devices. The firm speculates that worldwide PC shipments are also on the rise - up by 12% on last year to 134 million units for the quarter. Canalys concludes that the tablet market grew by 75% in Q4 to 46.2 million units, and that full-year shipments were 114.6 million units. 

Gartner, another research and analytics firm, notes that shipments of tablets are expected to more than double over the next four years, potentially overtaking PCs by 2017. Of course, this research is contradicted every other week, depending on who you listen to. The bottom line is this: the PC is in zero danger of expiration, and just because one form factor is becoming more popular (the tablet) does not lead to the conclusion that anything should be counted out of the equation.

Game developers have to figure out where the money is, of course. But a strategy that focuses only on one form factor might be a bit premature, especially when you consider that over $20 billion in sales were made in 2012 for PC games alone, with no signs of slowing down even though mobile and social gaming are the most popular that they have ever been. Annual growth of the PC game market according to the report was 8%, with more than a billion PC gamers estimated around the world:

“The PC Gaming industry showed strong overall growth of 8% in 2012, partly as a result of the Chinese market gaining traction in the $20 billion global market with record revenues of $6.8 billion,” said DFC analyst David Cole. “In spite of media focus on mobile games and struggling social network games, there are now over 1 billion PC gamers worldwide and that number will continue to grow as more PCs connect online.”  - PC Gaming Alliance

 Developers and tablets

While one game developer believes that tablets should be the primary focus, another believes that concentrating on one platform leaves a lot of possibilities on the table. Tadhg Kelly, game designer and creator of game design/development blog What Games Are spoke to TechCrunch on developing games for mobile devices:

“Studios tend to think “mobile first, tablet second” in their priorities, and with good reason. For one thing, the install base of smartphones is much higher than for tablet. They may be exotic – cool, even – but developers reason that this also means lower sales….. So what they tend to do is create mobile version first and then embiggen them for tablet. Or just not bother with tablet at all, relying on the player to enjoy a magnified version of the mobile app. A tablet is not a stretched-out mobile device…… Understanding that tablet is more than just stretched-out mobile leads to all sorts of interesting design challenges. It also creates more of an opportunity to tell a marketing story, or at the very least garner some publicity around new kinds of game. You can delight your users in whole new ways.” – TechCrunch, “Tablet First, Mobile Second”

Smart developers will take advantage of the shift towards more mobile computing as well as the continued increase in PC computing use, building games and apps that leverage the consumption mode when it’s needed, as well as the creation mode when it’s required. The PC continues to be the best experience for productivity-focused activities, but tablets and tablet hybrids are definitely closing the gap. It’s not an either/or scenario. Most households and work situations these days do encourage input from several different devices; it all depends on the task at hand. We’re seeing the natural evolution of how we as a society use computers in our daily lives – ever more mobile, ever more productive, and especially ever more flexible.

What do you think – is focusing on one form factor a smart move for developers who have limited time and resources? Or does this strategy simply signify a greater urgency for a move towards cross-platform development? Let’s hear what you think in the comments.







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