The Hero’s Journey: What Mobile Game Devs Can Learn From Filmmakers

The Hero’s Journey: What Mobile Game Devs Can Learn From Filmmakers

I recently read through Creativity, Inc. — the book about Pixar written by the company’s president, Ed Catmull. It was interesting to see the similarities and differences between making games and making movies.

The two are coming closer and closer together over the last few years. Not only are mobile games created from popular film IP — see Star Wars, Tomb Raider, Pokemon — but films are increasingly made based on popular mobile-first franchises. For example, The Angry Birds Movie — based on Rovio’s popular franchise — grossed over $347 million worldwide and a sequel is already in the works.

Rovio isn’t the only company with an eye to the film industry. Mobile game studio Seriously is hoping to become the Pixar of mobile by creating games with the endearing nature of Pixar favorites that can be spun into popular films. Seriously’s popular puzzler Best Fiends features music from Heitor Pereira, the same composer who wrote the score for Despicable Me.

But can movies and mobile games complement one another? By comparing the two, devs can get a sense of whether expanding the IP they create for a game — vice versa — is a reachable goal.

Narrative constraints

As both movies and mobile games are commercial variants of art, they face similar constraints. There is a tug of war between creativity and conformity. For all the creativity that Pixar values and put in their movies, they still pretty much work within the narrative of the hero’s journey. Centered around a main character, each act has a set of clearly-defined rules: in act one, we’re introduced to the hero and his environment; in act two, just when it seems like the hero has figured everything out, a crisis emerges; act three sees the true victory.

F2P games, on the other hand, have little to no narrative or plot. Devs must keep players entertained for hours, days even months — the game can’t end, so the story is peripheral at best. Candy Crush Saga has a handful of still pictures and one-liners, for example. Game of War and Mobile Strike have more narrative in their 30-second video ads than they do in the game. The constraints of mobile games are the pacing of sessions and gameplay.

The creative process

A mobile game doesn’t emerge fully-formed in a day, and neither does a film. Instead, both devs and filmmakers must work to find the right combination of character, setting and plot.

“Early on, all our movies suck,” Catmull writes in Creativity, Inc. “That’s a blunt assessment, I know, but I make a point of repeating it often, and I choose that phrasing because saying it in a softer way fails to convey how bad the first versions of our films really are.”

It takes a lot of perseverance to become good at this intersection between art and commercial viability. Rovio, for example, infamously produced 51 non-hit games before Angry Birds. Pixar only survived because Steve Jobs used over $50 million of his Apple fortune to keep them going despite years of losses prior to the hit Toy Story.

Iterating on films and F2P games, though, is very different. Catmull describes how the movie Up was reset and iterated upon five times, with numerous small but constant adjustments. Once Pixar buys into an idea, the company sticks with it — so far they’ve only killed one movie idea mid-production. Their 17 other films all ended up launching (most to great success). Contrast that with the 9 games that Supercell killed between releasing Boom Beach and Clash Royale.

F2P teams are much smaller than movie crews — Clash of Clans was famously built by a team of five people and the whole of Supercell is still fairly small. Pixar, by contrast, has 1,200 employees. Still, it’s cheaper to kill a mobile game than it is to kill something on the level of a Pixar movie — for now. As mobile games become more and more expensive to create, we may see development slide more in the direction of the Pixar model. Premium console production is already much closer to that model.

Capturing the audience

Devs interested in creating characters, storylines, and other forms of IP that can be generalized to other mediums would be wise to begin with the mobile game — much the way Seriously is interested in turning Best Fiends from mobile game to movie. The reason is simple: mobile games are much longer than films. A movie has to be a good way to spend two hours, a good F2P game needs to be a good way to spend over 100 hours.

I have previously written about the “666 rule”: that a hit mobile game is played for 6 minutes at a time, 6 times a day, every day for 6 months. That sums up nicely to about 100 hours. And, remember, the player has the option of not paying throughout those 100 hours — as opposed to being required to pay before it all starts.

Branding matters

Image via GameRefinery

In the world filled with noise, branding matters — it helps enormously with the question of “why should I care?” Pixar is able to sell movie tickets based on the brand value of the company alone. Pixar’s past successes like Monsters, Inc. and A Bug’s Life bring viewers back to theaters to see newer films like Up and more recently, Inside Out.

While F2P games might earn downloads that way, they can’t pay the bills that way. Most players will try out a Supercell game for the brand name, but that doesn’t necessarily mean those players will translate into payers.

But branding is becoming increasingly important in mobile F2P. Just look at the success of Clash Royale and Pokemon Go: both went straight to the number one spot on the App Store. If I care about a game, I will download it and be much more likely to spend. In that way, mobile games are becoming more like movies. And as the production budgets keep growing, we might see even more similarities in the years ahead.