There is no doubt that first-person shooter games such as Call of Duty are immensely popular on console and PC platforms, but the same can’t be said for mobile, particularly in the Western market—in contrast to Asia, where shooters such as WeFire have done exceptionally well. Hothead Games, creator of the popular Kill Shot series on mobile devices, understands the difficulties shooters face and explains how they start with identifying and understanding the market.

Mike Inglehart, creative director at Hothead Games

AListDaily spoke with Mike Inglehart, creative director at Hothead Games, about why first-person shooters are struggling on mobile devices, having launched Kill Shot Virus in May—a zombie-themed game that is a great departure from the more realistic military-style action of the other Kill Shot titles.

“Understanding how genres have different themes, we identified the military vacancy with the first Kill Shot, and now we see the same opportunity with the zombie theme,” said Inglehart, explaining the change from a military shooter to a zombie action game. Bravo had zombie-themed events, and Hothead recognized that players were taking to them. Kill Shot Virus is the first in the series to completely focus on zombies, taking all the benchmarks the previous games set and translating them into a zombie shooting experience. For example, instead of engaging with enemies from a distance, players get up-close and personal with zombie hordes, which calls for faster gameplay than other games in the series.

Despite the major shift in tone, Kill Shot fans have reacted well, especially after Hothead assured them that games such as Kill Shot Bravo would still be supported. But Inglehart expressed that a there was a bigger lesson here. “One of the interesting things we’ve learned is that there are players coming to Virus that have never played Bravo or Kill Shot,” said Inglehart. “What’s been exciting for us is finding a niche in the market where Virus players are new to the series. That doesn’t mean there won’t be people who straddle the products, but the goal of this game was to expand the brand further and try to find a new market of players. We’ve attracted a new type of shooter fan that is getting its first taste of the Kill Shot series.”

Bringing in a new audience might also work to grow other Kill Shot games. “Anytime you have a multitude of games, people may look into them,” said Inglehart. “Having a name attached to it will help legitimize the product. Even if you’ve never played Kill Shot or Bravo, you can see that this is the next game in a series.” However, he also cautions that “you can’t just rely on where you come from if you’re trying to appeal to a different audience. While we might have some brand awareness that helps bring players to the game, we put our foot forward with different kinds of marketing campaigns. Our announcement trailer for this game is vastly different from how we positioned our military games in the past. You still have to do the work in getting the name out there. We’ve [also] expanded our marketing efforts quite a bit. Our community manager did weekly streams as part of the announcement, and more dedicated video efforts have happened internally.”

Ideally, Hothead would prefer that players take to both Bravo and Virus but the company puts effort into individually appealing to both types of players. Ultimately, the key to popularizing first-person shooters in the mobile space is in identifying the markets and properly servicing that demand.

“With video games, it’s all about finding that blue ocean,” said Inglehart. “We’ve been doing mobile games for six years, and this is obviously a very different market than console games and the opportunities on mobile are far greater than on consoles. What I mean is that the number of people who have smartphones or tablets outweighs consoles by an incredible ratio, so you have a much bigger consumer base to chase after. The trick is thinking about your target customer.”

Beyond identifying market demands, games also have to gauge what that particular audience is ready for. “Players on mobile, especially in the Western markets, are a very different style of player than what the seasoned console player is,” explained Inglehart. “You really need to understand who the player is with any product, service or game that you’re making. I think the reason why mobile shooters haven’t hit the levels they have on consoles is because people tend to make the wrong experiences for this market. You need to make the right experience for the right market.”

Inglehart suggests examining the habits of mobile players, how they consume content and where they do it. “A phone is something that’s with you everywhere,” said Inglehart. “When you have small pockets of time to play during the day, you want take advantage of those opportunities. Turning on a PlayStation will take more time than doing something in an app, so console players will have a dedicated block of time for gaming sessions. We’re amazed by how many hours mobile players will put into a product, but you still need to think about game experiences that fit into those small pockets of time during the day.”

Developers and publishers also need to consider capabilities of both the mobile players and their devices. “You can’t take something that works somewhere else and port it to a new device and market, expecting it to work,” said Inglehart. “I think people are still getting used to understanding who these players are. When you figure out who that mobile player is, and you start crafting an experience for them, you can start to make a dent. The Western market still needs to become more sophisticated, and you’re seeing people who are playing games for the first time. Smartphones brought video games to a mass market for the first time and you have to consider that capacity.”

Although controls—the differences between touchscreens compared to gamepads—do play a role, Inglehart believes that market sophistication plays a bigger part in the popularity of shooters. He compares a typical Overwatch player to the average mobile game player and notes that there is a significantly disproportionate difference in skill. “Typically, what we think works on consoles is not what works on mobile, especially in relation to the capacity or skill of the players in that market. If you throw too much at [mobile] players at once, it’s going to be a deterrent. You have to provide a balance. When you think of a game like Call of Duty or Overwatch, there’s a lot of stuff going on, and you can’t just throw that at a new market.”

However, the market is constantly evolving as mobile games grow in sophistication, and a company’s approach will need to change with it. “Kids are growing up and playing on phones more predominantly than console systems,” Inglehart observed. He also noted how consoles grew from single-button controls to the complex gamepads we see today and suggested the mobile games may follow a similar path.

Inglehart then detailed Hothead’s approach for engaging with the mobile shooter market. “We really try to sell the excitement of our products,” he said. “We give our game away for free—in fact, we pay to get players into our games—and from a marketing standpoint . . . it’s kind of like a movie trailer. You’ve got to do something to grab audiences and pull them in to get them to download the product. Once they’re in, the game has to quickly do its best to show that it’s fun, new and has staying power. We sell people on the over-the-top excitement and the power fantasies that serve shooter products well, then let the game speak for itself.”

So, what makes for the perfect mobile shooter? “I think there’s a collection of different ideal shooters for different experiences,” said Inglehart. “Mobile has interesting trends with products that stand out among the rest, but there are also different versions of similar products. For example, Mobile Strike and Game of War are in the same family as Clash of Clans, but at the same time, are very different. They’re going after different players. While the shooter market is still maturing, I think there will be a collection of different experiences.

“[Examining] our zombie game has been very interesting, and our intuition about these players being different from our Bravo players is true. We feel that Kill Shot Virus is the ideal shooter for that market right now, but the market is always changing and evolving.”

Inglehart also stated that social elements will play a big role in popularizing shooters like Kill Shot Bravo. “Players want to be connected, playing against and with each other,” he explained. “A massive aspect of our company is focused on cooperation, connection and competition. Mobile and console have a lot of similarities in terms of what people want, it’s just that the translation of those experiences for each respective platform is different. You have to figure out the right recipe to understand the right experience for mobile players.”