Making the Leap to Mobile Games

Learning from the greats (and the not-so-greats)

Devin Seto
Aug 14, 2019 · 7 min read

It’s no secret that, with the meteoric rise of smartphone use around the world, game companies would want to produce titles that appeal to the billions of smartphone users. Many companies, like Supercell, Tencent and King have experienced massive success in their efforts to cater to the mobile community. Others like EA Mobile, Zynga and Nintendo have taken a little longer to see results, but are making some excellent progress. Still others, such as Atari, Telltale and THQ, to name a few, just couldn’t make the grade. And as the days go by, we see more and more companies who tried, and failed, to make it in mobile.

This begs the question: How do game companies make the transition from console, PC or even web-based games to mobile? Arguably, the most successful companies have been mobile exclusively and there is a lot that “old guard” game maker’s can learn from them.

So let’s take a step back and examine what veteran game companies can learn from mobile-first game makers.

First off, let’s look at some of the approaches taken by existing game companies to make the transition to mobile. From my experience, these typically fall into the following three categories.

  1. Companies that make a full transition to mobile — Example: Zynga. Though they still have a few web-based games, the vast majority of their efforts have transitioned to mobile primarily.
  2. Spin off a mobile division and grow it — Example: EA Mobile. Bringing powerful IP to bear on the mobile market without disrupting the console empire.
  3. “Port” non-mobile games to mobile — Example: Sega, Firaxis and many others. For better or worse, these companies have straight ported games to mobile and attempted to adapt to touch screen controls. In some cases, like the Civilization series, this has gone well. In other cases such as, well, any first person shooter really, it hasn’t gone so well.

Experience tells us none of these approaches are ultimately right or wrong, but without a doubt, existing game companies have struggled more than mobile-first game makers. So, with this in mind, let’s take a moment and review what works and what doesn’t. If you are an indie mobile game startup, this next bit is for you!

What Doesn’t Work

Large-scale game teams — Making a console or PC game is an epic undertaking (no pun intended) that requires a LOT of people. You need Designers, Producers, Developers and Testers galore. Then of course you also need people who can herd all those cats and support them. It’s not uncommon for such a game team to exceed 100 bodies. Mobile games, with their smaller scope, tighter timelines and typically narrower profit margins, do not benefit from large teams. In fact, I would suggest that the cost, combined with the political quagmire caused by having too many people working on a relatively small product, is the single biggest detriment to would-be mobile game companies.

Throwing money at it — Large companies love to do this. Hey, it works for console games! (not) Shouldn’t it work for mobile games? The short answer is a resounding “no”. Mobile game timelines and resources tend to be tight and the benefits of hiring more people or buying more tech usually take time before they can be realized.

“All-in” on one game (note: Rovio being the very rare exception) — Established companies who lay all bets on a single title are setting themselves up for failure. While this approach may work for an indie developer working in their basement, a game maker with employees, offices and other overhead cannot afford to lose on a single game if it doesn’t make the charts.

Porting from console (or PC) — In most cases, the complexities of games that require elaborate button setups for console and PC games can’t be emulated on a tiny screen. While the odd turn based game adapts well to tap mechanics, anything requiring a thumbstick and multiple control inputs just doesn’t make the cut on a mobile device.

“Companion” games — Once upon a time, on a certain game I worked on that had to do with farming, we built a companion game (more an app really) to allow users to at least have some rudimentary gameplay while on the go. It wasn’t a success and people who played our game couldn’t understand the radically different interface of the companion app. Typically, a mobile companion app needs to be designed differently and the result is a completely different experience. Players just want the familiarity of their regular gameplay.

Aiming for a “Top 10” game every time — I don’t care how experienced you are at building mobile games, expecting (and forecasting) for every one to be in the top 10 on the app store is sheer arrogant folly. The app store rankings are drastically different from metacritic scores used for console and PC game ratings. A game doesn’t need to be in the top 10 to be a success and game makers need to adjust their expectations accordingly.

Of course, there are exceptions to all of the above rules, but pound for pound, it’s critical that game makers understand and adjust to the different hardware, mechanics and audience that mobile users need.

What Works

Small, Tight Teams — I spoke to a friend who was working at King a couple years back. He told me that a typical game team was usually no more than 15 people in size (and often less). These teams are small enough that communication and code flows freely. Work is completed in rapid iterations and costs are kept low. While this requires team members to wear multiple hats, they tend to enjoy the challenge. These teams bond really well and office politics are virtually non-existent.

Iterative design (aka fail fast, fail cheap) — Small teams need small development cycles and the best of them make use of agile methods to set clear objectives, demonstrate delivery in short bursts and continuously improve. If failures happen, they aren’t detrimental. The cost in money and time is low and the team can simply pick back up and keep going when a sprint doesn’t work out. Of course, leadership needs to get behind this notion, but consider this: you can wait months to discover the team is derailed, delay your game and waste millions of dollars or you can embrace a learning culture where the occasional slip is okay. Which do you think is a better model?

Many shots on goal — Excuse my hockey-ism here, but it’s warranted. In hockey, the more shots you take on goal, the more likely you are to score over time. On a similar vein, the more games you can afford to deliver, the greater your chances at critical and financial success. Look no further than Tencent to see a vast array of internally and externally developed games. Tencent makes profit, in the extreme! If you have 60 people in your company, don’t put them all on one game (see Small, tight teams above). You have the resources to work on, at minimum, 4 games. It also helps to work smart. Use off-the-shelf tools, technology and even visual assets where you can so your staff can focus on winning game mechanics.

Designing for screen size and touch controls — Mobile platforms are great for tap, draw and drag mechanics. Don’t try to make a game with complex controls and, I’m going to say it, virtual thumb sticks. First off, there isn’t enough screen real estate and second, people who play mobile games seek a quick, simple gameplay experience they can jump into without a huge learning curve. Keep your game controls simple yet powerful to maintain a sense of immersion for your players.

Standalone mobile games — This one is simple. Even if you’re working with a renowned IP, make a new game that fits mobile platform mechanics. Don’t build a companion app. Don’t do a direct port. Make a unique game that feels good on mobile.

Aiming for a “Top 50” or even “Top 100” game every time — We now know that games in the top 50 or top 100 can be very profitable, especially when built with small, inexpensive teams in short, iterative spurts. If you’re game makes it here, you can add new features and mechanics to keep the game fresh and fun (and, yes, maybe even crack the Top 10). If your game drops out of this list, don’t be afraid to move onto something else. If you do your job, it won’t be the last hit game you’ll make!

When you look back on this list of “do’s” and “don’ts”, it may seem pretty common sense. But many a game company has failed because they haven’t been bold enough to take these necessary steps. Still others got there only after a long hard cultural turnaround. If you’re building a mobile game company from the ground up, instill these values from the outset and you’ll be well on your way to winning!

Look for my upcoming book on Leadership in the Game Industry to be published in the Fall of 2019. Subscribe to my blog for updates: https://medium.com/total-kinetic and check out my website to learn more about my services: https://www.totalkinetic.com/.

Total Kinetic

Total Kinetic Consulting Blog — Transforming Human…

Devin Seto

Written by

I have been a leader in the games industry for nearly 20 years. With an array of experiences under my belt, I am excited to share what I’ve learned.

Total Kinetic

Total Kinetic Consulting Blog — Transforming Human Potential

Devin Seto

Written by

I have been a leader in the games industry for nearly 20 years. With an array of experiences under my belt, I am excited to share what I’ve learned.

Total Kinetic

Total Kinetic Consulting Blog — Transforming Human Potential

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