Retro to hyper-casual: Game dev has gone full circle

Jason Falcus
Jan 27 · 7 min read

Having worked in the games industry for more than 36 years, I’ve lived through three decades of innovation, where gaming has gone from a pastime for the few, to the biggest and most powerful entertainment format in the world.

But while gaming has become mainstream and graphics continue to advance, there’s one thing that has come full circle: game development. To explain how this has happened however, it’s worth taking a trip down memory lane.

The early days of game dev

I first got interested in video games when I was around 11 years old in the early ’80s. I was on a caravan holiday with my family in Scotland, and the caravan site club house had a Space Invaders arcade machine, which me and my older brother Darren immediately got hooked on.

This continued on at home once we rediscovered a faithful version of Space Invaders on an old Commodore Pet computer that our father brought home. We put hours and hours into this game until one day, we accidentally discovered that by pressing the ESC key, there was some BASIC code running in the background.

This was the moment when me and my brother went from being gamers, to a couple of kids interested in how these games were actually programmed. An interest that was elevated by the Sinclair ZX81 (a very memorable Christmas present) — a machine that was the first of many home computers in the ’80s and really kickstarted the ‘back bedroom’ game development scene in the UK (kids teaching themselves how to program games in languages such as BASIC and Assembly language by learning from books and by typing in demo games which were listed in hobbyist magazines).

Shortly after the ZX81 came the ZX Spectrum, Commodore Vic 20, and Dragon 32 computers. We opted for the Dragon 32. It was a huge step up, with a solid keyboard, four colour display, audio and joysticks which could be used to play all the latest arcade clones such as Donkey Kong and Scramble.

By this time, my brother and I were fully conversant in BASIC programming and while we couldn’t afford to buy many games, we were more curious about dreaming up our own and made dozens of game demos of all different kinds — from platform games, to shoot ’em ups to adventure games. All dreamed up in our family home, by two passionate kids.

Our first fully commercial game was a graphic adventure game based on Dracula on the Dragon 32, called ‘Castle of Doom’. We sent it to a local publisher called Paramount Software and it was published in 1984 along with our second game ‘Sporting Decathlon’ — a track and field style game which was conceived before the Track and Field arcade game was released.

These early ‘back bedroom coding’ days were fantastic fun. There was a real pioneering feel to it and one we were hooked on. We loved the idea of being able to produce something creative and fun, and then see it on the shelves of our local game stores and advertised in magazines.

The downside of this was that we never got paid a penny for those first two games, as the publisher went out of business before they paid us. That didn’t deter us though, and we went on to make many more games whilst still at school, earning thousands in ‘pocket money’. Off the back of that, we also set up our first business in 1988 called Optimus Software at the ages of 18 and 19.

It was during this time that we met with David Darling and Richard Darling of UK publisher Codemasters. They had also followed a similar path of developing games from a very young age (also another example of brothers working closely together to do this), and had established Codemasters to publish the games. We worked with them on many games over the years, producing £1.99 budget games, all the way to ambitious and more in depth titles. It was amazing what had come from two brothers getting hooked on Space Invaders, and learning to code in their bedrooms.

Coming full circle

Fast forward a few decades, and I now find myself working closely with David Darling again at Kwalee, which he founded in 2011. I joined in 2014 as COO, and over the last couple of years we have had some great success developing and publishing hyper casual games.

It often strikes me how the industry, or certain segments of it at least, has come full circle, especially when you look at the development of smartphone games and hyper casual.

Even though we’re over 30 years removed from those ‘retro’ back bedroom days, you can draw many similarities between that and modern smartphone game development. These shared characteristics include:

  • Often developed by one or two person teams working from home
  • Prototypes can be developed in days
  • Full games can be developed in weeks
  • Developers can come up with crazy and innovative ideas because dev costs are low
  • Developers can be based anywhere in the world

These similarities make me really excited, as I know how great it was to be developing games in this way back in the 80s, and I’m so happy people are still able to create in this way in 2020.

In addition, the developers of today are also granted many advantages that we didn’t have back in the ’80s, which can help to make the games they’re developing much more successful:

  • Access to online resources: tools, tech, fantastic engines such as Unity, art assets, tutorials, sound fx
  • An almost incomprehensibly HUGE global audience: All available at the push of a button — it’s no longer necessary to manufacture cassettes and distribute them to stores. The internet changed everything!
  • Data driven decisions and insights: Leading to rapid prototyping and reduced risk
  • The potential to make millions in profit: As I mentioned earlier, gaming is no longer a niche industry
  • Global digital communication channels: These make it easy to be based anywhere in the world with an internet connection

However, whilst it is easy to produce simple casual games on iOS or Android due to the modern tools at the disposal of developers, getting them discovered still requires the marketing expertise and the deep pockets of a publisher, otherwise your game will be one of thousands released every day that never make it. Like it was back in the cassette days, the right publisher is still key to success.

Around a year ago our team at Kwalee decided that it was a logical step to offer publishing services to the thousands of talented developers all around the world, creating games in a similar way to how me, David and some others here at Kwalee did back in the ‘80s.

Since then, our publishing team has grown rapidly, a testament to the quality being created by developers. The team spends their time working closely with developers, which has meant that within the past year, our internal game success was soon replicated, with several games gaining the top spot in countries including the UK, France and Australia.

Owing to the fact that game development has come full circle, the developers we work with love that we have a strong heritage in games, have come from similar experience to them, and are able to use this strength to offer game design solutions which improve the metrics on their games.

For me, having been in the games industry for so many years and having seen so much change, I can honestly say that making games has never been more fun and more rewarding. I love the low barrier to entry and the fact that anyone who can make a simple, enjoyable game has the opportunity to reach such a huge audience. Plus, while the development process might have come full circle, the benefits have changed for the better!

This article was written by Jason Falcus, COO of Kwalee. If you are a developer with a game prototype you feel could top the global charts, visit https://kwalee.com/publish-with-us/ to find out more, and submit your game!

ironSource LevelUp

Analysis and opinion from game industry leaders

Jason Falcus

Written by

COO of Kwalee, the UK’s leading hyper-casual games publisher, with a catalogue of games that have achieved top spots around the world.

ironSource LevelUp

Analysis and opinion from game industry leaders

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