Many studios right now are attempting to build and release games for both mobile and PC platforms, and it's fair to say that many such attempts aren't going off without a hitch.
Whether it's the business model injected into each version of the game, the separate intended audiences, or simply the control scheme not being great for either platform, it can be a tricky goal to build the perfect game for both mobile and PC.
Kitfox Games is one such studio that attempted this feat with its roguelike Shattered Planet. The game launched on mobile earlier this year as a free-to-play game, and earlier this month launched on PC as a premium game with no in-app purchases. Same game, completely different business model.
How did they pull this off then, and did it go as expected? I talked to creative director Tanya X. Short about the experience, and she offered five tips for studios planning to attempt the mobile/PC cross-platform angle themselves.
1. Define your goals before-hand. Use them as a compass during the storms.
I'm a designer. I don't like thinking about business stuff.
But it turned out to be important that we did. We were all strangers before working together – we liked each others' portfolios and we had a nice coffee together once, and then suddenly there we were, making a game. In week three, we asked ourselves: what do we want to get out of this? Other than just 'finish a game'?
Is our number one goal to get lots of downloads (aka popularity)?
Or is it to make a certain amount of money (aka be financially sustainable)?
Or get good review scores (aka critical acclaim)?
Those were in order of importance for us, when deciding to make the free-to-play mobile version: downloads above all else. We wanted to get the word out about Kitfox, and we were willing to take a hit to our income and review scores in exchange. Our goals are likely to be different for future games, now that we feel we've gathered a small but loyal fanbase. (And in case you're curious, multiple members of Kitfox are in debt and can’t afford to go to $0, so we have to become sustainable somehow.)
It was extremely important that we defined those, especially when half-way through development we started doubting our direction. Most of the team isn't comfortable with the monetization of most free-to-play games, and we knew a vocal portion of self-labelled 'hardcore' gamers are loud and proud about hating all free-to-play that isn't made by Valve or Riot.
In the end, we decided to thicken our skin. Haters gonna hate. But I don’t know if we would have been able to follow through with the plan, if we weren't certain of our business priorities, as a team. The risks seem much more imminent when you’re in the thick of it.
2. Playtest early and often. Playtest now.
We playtested way before we were comfortable showing it to anyone. For unknown indies, it can feel especially terrifying to make a bad first impression – even one bad bit of word-of-mouth can feel disproportionately powerful in a vacuum.
But be brave! It's worth it! In fact, it's so essential, I'm confident we couldn't have made Shattered Planet at all without it. Put in just enough polish (yes, before 90 percent of your features are working) that players can figure out what to do without telling them the controls, and step back. Watch what happens.
We did this back when Shattered Planet was really just a little man walking on cubes. He could technically punch and kill one enemy, but there was nothing else -- there was only one level (no procedural generation), no equipment, no leveling up, nothing! And we learned so much, we had to keep doing it every few weeks. In our internal post-mortem on the mobile version, we actually wish we had done it more.
As a side-note, we also had a standardised form for people to fill out afterwards, which would not only collect more general opinions ("What did you dislike about the game?" etc), but it also helped us match their performance/feedback with a demographic. Being able to identify that Tester #3 was someone who plays only free-to-play games on mobile was helpful, since they tend to play differently than someone who plays only premium Steam games.
3. Be ready to make deep cuts and/or big changes. Protect your buffer, so you can eat it.
This is a natural result of the previous two. Tip 1 + Tip 2 = Tip 3.
If you have a clear direction, and you playtest, you’ll see that you’re not on track to meet your goals, for whatever reason. Usability will be terrible. If the core gameplay works like you imagined (congratulations), the auxiliary features will get in the way.
This, of course, is a negotiation between your Producer brain (Deliver on time!) and your Designer brain (Make it better!), and depending on your business goals, one or the other must win. We had padded a month of polish into our schedule, which we then devoured in order to add a more robust progression system before mobile release… and later we realised that was a huge part of the game’s success.
The specifics will be something different with your game, but the underlying problem (something missing/wrong) and solution (change something fundamental) is likely to be the same. On the other side of the coin, we could also use those goals to choose which features to cut (most of them) and which to keep.
4. Optimise. No, really, optimise.
We built our game always intending to release on PC. We primarily tested on PC. As gamers, the dev team primarily play on PC for fun. When we tested on iOS and Android, we used an iPad 4, iPad Mini, Nexus 7, and Samsung Note 10.1, plus a couple of (newish) phones. Mobile hardware is getting pretty great, and our little indie game wasn't anything particularly taxing; we thought it'd be a cakewalk.
Then we released Shattered Planet, and surprise! It ran like garbage on lower-end devices. That probably cost us more time and energy running damage control than it needed to. We didn't set aside nearly enough time for optimisation. We kept saying "Yeah, we'll do those non-essential optimisations after we finish major bugfixing" … which basically never stops, especially if you haven't optimised enough. "Is that crash from logic or memory?" shouldn't be a catch-phrase.
My personal apologies to all of you who suffered lag, crashes, and overheating on your poor little phones!
5. Consider going to Steam first?
So, this might be a little tongue-in-cheek, since our strategy looks to be working for us. We peaked at the 28th top seller on Steam this morning, which is great for some nobodies without a marketing budget! Surely those 300,000 mobile downloads helped! We did it!
We have had to endure some brutal reviews that clearly had a grudge against free-to-play, and dozens of critics dismissing either the game or the dev team out of hand ("just a mobile game", "mobile port", "mobile studio pfft"). There is some serious snobbery among console and PC gamers. If the goal really was to 'get our name out there', maybe building for Steam from the outset and then going to mobile would have been better for our image. I genuinely don’t know.
For our next game Moon Hunters, we’re building towards desktop and console, with a potential for a "preview app" with just the core systems. If so, we'll probably just do away with free-to-play monetization altogether and release it completely free. But hey, maybe by then premium mobile games will be back in style…