Given the huge (and growing) market, developing for mobile is an exciting opportunity. But, it’s not only about making a game. It’s also about building and running a strong business.
How do indie developers navigate the challenges and opportunities of the rapidly expanding mobile game market?
We sat down with Robot Squid Creative Director and Cofounder Chris Dawson, Art Director Paul Ellinor, and Senior Programmer Jason Hobbs, along with Superplus Games CEO Kalle Jyly, to get a behind-the-scenes look at their mobile gamedev experiences on King of Crabs and Hills of Steel 2.
In this Q&A, they discuss why they chose to launch on mobile and provide practical advice on how to ship successfully.
Why did you choose to put your game on mobile platforms, as an indie?
Chris Dawson: I think the reason why we target mobile, first and foremost, is because it’s where we have all of our expertise and background over the past 15 years. Back then, the team was very small, it was very hard to get a game to market, and we couldn’t compete on consoles. We went into mobile and saw a big upside, especially when it exploded with the release of the iPhone and the App Store, where you could independently get games to market much more easily.
We continue to ship on mobile because of the massive user base and worldwide popularity, the easy access to market, and the great support that you get as an indie developer from mobile stores interested in seeing new content.
In recent years, it’s become harder to get noticed with the advent of hyper-casual games, the need to have marketing strategies, and increased spending on user acquisition. However, there’s still massive potential for a small company to break through.
Kalle Jyly: I’ve been making mobile games since 2004, so it’s where most of my knowledge is. I have also done PC and console games and they have been good experiences, but at the same time, it was more difficult to ramp up a gaming studio and start shipping those titles. So mobile made more sense for us right from the start, as it was more accessible. While I see the benefit of launching on PC or consoles, it’s really important to have a laser focus and pick your battles on where to allocate your energy, which, for us, is mobile.
What was your vision when designing your game for mobile?
Kalle: We tried to create a unique player experience so that we don’t go head-to-head with other games or competitors. That wouldn’t be great from the player’s point of view, as well as the marketing aspect. We also used market intelligence to get a hunch on what kind of features work and which do not.
Conceptualizing a game is one of our easier tasks, but turning that idea into an actual game is extremely difficult. It’s been said that if you have a really good game idea, but average game development, the game will be average. But if you have an average game idea with great gamedev, the execution will make the game shine.
What was your prototyping process like?
Chris: The initial prototype was pretty much two cylinders for circles on the 2D plane, which, when they touched each other, caused damage to each other. When you moved around, you got a feel for it and could see where we were going with the controls and the gameplay. We then got some placeholder artwork from the Unity Asset Store to show our visual direction and get initial feedback. We then took another two or three months of iterating and balancing to get to a confident place.
I’m a great believer in showing as many people as possible to get feedback. With Unity, we were able to prototype really quickly, which is ideal. At some point, though, as a small company with limited time and resources, you’ve got to have a gut feeling about it being right, and that there is a space for it in the market to move forward with it.
How was your approach to development different in consideration of mobile deployment?
Jason Hobbs: Mobile game development helped the iteration. It’s a server-driven game, so a lot of the logic is on the server and not the client. We are able to just make the changes on the server, restart it, and then the changes are updated on players’ phones. We don’t need to go through the effort of making new device builds. It took a while to get the server up and running, but once there, the actual iteration and designing was a lot quicker.
What technical challenge(s) did you encounter while developing this game for mobile?
Paul Ellinor: It was a struggle because we wanted to ensure that the game looked good on high-end devices, but we still needed the user base for mid- to low-end devices to be a focus, as they make up a good portion of our players. We wanted to support as many devices as possible, which meant reducing the graphic complexity, and looking back, we didn’t plan enough for this. Our focus was getting the game out on time, and had we set a more thorough plan with both high- and low-end strategies, the game could have been more tailor-made to specific devices.
What is your best tip for launching on mobile?
Chris: It’s really difficult to get your game noticed with the amount of other games that are released. I suggest doing a lot of research pre-launch and then during the soft launch, and make sure to fine-tune the creatives such as the screenshots, the icon, and trailers. Unity Cinemachine was a big help in creating trailers for app stores.
These optimizations will help ensure that the algorithms on the App Store and Google Play are exposing your game to enough users to get sufficient organic downloads without having to spend a lot of money on user acquisition. As a small studio, ad budgets are typically limited, so competing with bigger studios is tough.
Kalle: I recommend planning for a good soft launch on mobile as early as possible to get player feedback. When the metrics are good, everything else is easier. The tricky part is how to actually get your players to return to the game every day for a week, or even longer. User loyalty and longevity is really difficult, and the game needs to be really good.
The most important thing we do is try to make games that can last for years by doing updates at least once per month. This lets our players know to expect a consistent dynamic experience.
If your metrics are good, it’s also easier to market and distribute the game. I would advise small studios who don’t work with publishers to start working with a small ad budget. Try $20 per day in Unity Ads, and see how many installs and how much revenue comes in. The best way to learn is to do it. You shouldn’t be afraid to try.
The big takeaways for indie mobile developers are to focus on user experience, find the development and optimization practices that work best for you, test early and often, and remember that app store optimization is key.