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Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to stop worrying and love mobile games

Mobile game designers still don't share the same level of recognition than their console/PC colleagues. I believe that these professional develop a set of skills that can provide new points of view to the traditional AAA game design teams.

I'm going to be completely honest: When I decided I was going to earn a life designing games for the mobile market I thought I might be stepping back in my career as a professional game designer.

I know that this might sound odd to some of you, especially if you are a business person or maybe you arrived just a few years ago to this industry, but I'm sure that most of the game designers that share my own background would have had the same thought.

Let me apologize for the following autobiographical notes I'm going to write, but I think they are essential to clearly illustrate my musings.

Also please note that for the sake of simplicity I am going to generalize: I will refer subsequently to the PC/console market or to the mobile market, assuming the former is only made of big AAA productions and niche indie games and the latter of light casual games.

Game Designer Master Race

The Glorious PC/Console Game Designer Master Race

I grew up loving PC and console games. I played then a lot of now considered "classic" titles: not only LucasArts graphic adventures, but Quake(s), Civilization(s), Baldur's Gate, Final Fantasy(s), Sonic the hedgehog(s), Castlevania(s), Zelda(s)... you name it. That was the time when I was daydreaming about working in the game industry. And in my dreams I always was creating something like those games I was playing, something I considered BIG.

Then, one day, I got my first job in the industry, just a few months before the seventh generation of consoles (Xbox 360-PS3-Wii) arrived. My first job was to design a "AAA" first person shooter for the (then) next-gen consoles: exactly what I was dreaming about.

When the game was cancelled, I learned that in the AAA universe everything that glitters is not gold, and I switched to design less ambitious games. However I was always targeting the console/PC market: WiiWare, XBLA, PSN and Steam seemed to perfectly meet my expectations. I finally had the chance to create something inspired by the games I had played during all my life.

As the years passed by, on the top of developing the core set of game design skills, I had to learn and face a lot of challenging design problems: aiming help systems, camera collisions, brain reaction times, animation trees, interactive cinematic design, combat AI, hand to hand combat design… And I felt really good dealing with these issues.

In the meantime Facebook’s almighty Empire rose (all those FarmVille - Mafia Wars invitations...), iPhone and Android were born, free to play became a standard and a very profitable market and many game developers started to move there. But I was making games for consoles. Who would want to design “crop harvesting games” when you could be emulating your beloved classics, designing platformers, RPGs, RTS, FPS, MMOS and other genres with unpronounceable acronyms?

I also had spent so many years meeting game designers struggling to survive while doing advert gaming, "edutainment" and licensed clones of well known games.... While they were working on "that" I was making games for XBLA and PSN, games that were played by the same audience that enjoyed the big AAA productions. I was lucky. I felt, yes, superior. Proud to be a PC/console game designer. I had colleagues that even preferred to move to another country looking for big studios and games than trying newborn local studios that were literally milking money from Facebook users.

I'm sure that many fellow experienced designers are reading this and sharing my feelings. Now I realize that, in bare words, I looked at the mobile game market with disrespect. I considered mobile video games a minor sub-genre of the glorious PC/Console games. My market was “the” Market and any other was a side product. And I don't think I was shortsighted. I knew about its growth, technical challenges and potential. But I felt this world simply wasn't for me.

And then, due to my own circumstances, I was the one looking for a job in the mobile games market. Of course, when you need to change you need to look on the bright side of life, and I did so… but I was unsure about what I was going to find.

Becoming a Peasant Mobile Game Designer      

And I found experienced game designers that hadn’t ever worked in the console/PC market. And they felt bad about it.

But when I was working shoulder by shoulder with them, I realized that they could be comfortably working on any "AAA studio". Their core set of skill was as valid as mine: their understanding of player’s psychology, importance of feedback and pacing… If I had met them out of the office I couldn’t have told if they belonged to the Master Race or the peasants. But they didn’t know it. They considered themselves inferior than the console/PC designers. They were the other side of the coin.

And even more, they were proficient in skills I hadn’t developed that much. I’m not talking about game genre related skills: it’s hard to be proficient in driving AI if you have never made a driving game. I’m talking about core design skills that were strengthened by the nature and constraints of the mobile market, and that would help any game designer to make a better game, regardless of the platform.

What mobile games teach


For any game accessibility and affordance is key, but who is going to be more thorough about this than a mobile game designer whose game will compete against literally tens of thousands of them (1). Even the same day you are out you are directly competing with more games that a console developer in a year (2). How focused must your game concept be? How much easy to understand? If it’s difficult to get a second chance of a player in a console or pc game, imagine on a mobile device.

We know that players never read texts and hate long tutorials. Ok. Now visualize your player experiencing your game for the first time in the middle of her commute. Or rushing through the recent releases while paying a visit to the toilet. What do you want to explain to her? How are you going to give the context to your game without words, cinematics and witty dialogs?

Player Diversity

Where are you going to find more types of players than in the mobile market? How are you going to appeal to extremely casual and to committed hardcore players? How will you entertain people that don’t pay and at the same time people that usually spend hundreds of dollars in a single game? We need to admit that the audience is much wider than the console or even the PC one.

How are you going to balance your game? Which mechanics are you going to design for these different types of players?

One of the most important skills of a game designer is the ability to place themselves into the shoes of the player. The most different is your target from you, the most challenging is this, and you won't have to try as many shoes (and so different from your own) as the mobile game designer. It's one of the best exercises a game designer can do.

Live Balancing

Games aren't anymore a static piece of software, but a living being that adapts to its audience.

You can know everything about how your players are playing your game. And, if you know how to do it, you can tweak it as it's been playing, without your players even notice. What about changing the difficulty of a mission based on their previous achievements? The difficulty peak that was taking your players out of your game can be something that belongs to the past.

Can you imagine the opportunities and the complexity of designing a game that make the most of this feature? You must define which data you believe will be relevant to gather, how you will be crunching them and which changes you will like to make on your game.

I know that consoles are catching up as quickly as they can (slow), but mobile devices enjoy the best set of features and audience to experiment, learn and innovate in this field: players are always online (even if they are not playing), rarely share the gaming device and play often and in small bursts. You have time to track data, analyze it and made modifications for the next play session. And you have a lot of players to create models and forecast behaviors.

Think about what you can achieve combining this data with smart monetization techniques or sharing you player profiles among your portfolio of games. The possibilities are endless.

Flexible design

Imagine how you would feel if your latest free to play game has been much more successful than you were expecting; it’s featured everywhere, it’s being reviewed everywhere, people are talking about it, you are getting more and more downloads and... A week after you lose momentum because your players are done with it. You won’t get a second chance.

While developing a game it's tricky to find the time to plan ahead and design (and schedule) a DLC. Well, imagine that you will need to be able to provide new content to the player every few weeks, and adapt your game to one of the fastest changing markets.

How are you going to design a game that must be easily and quickly expanded? Which features, levels, and new missions are you going to offer? What do you think your players will love? What will you do when you realize that they love what they should ignore and vice versa? How often will you update your game?  How many months ahead are you going to plan? How are you going to adapt your plan depending of your game performance and your competitors?

You don't need to ship a fully featured game anymore. Be smart, ship as fast as you can what you consider is the core of your game, what you think will hook and retain your players. Test it. If it works, expand it. If not, don't waste your time (3), move forward.

In the mobile market, if you do things well, you are in full control of your game. You have your own servers, your own tracking systems, your own updates plans. You’ll be given much more flexibility than in the console market, so don't rely on DLC. Plan ahead and design a flexible game that can be offering new content, and gathering new players, for years.

Compulsive behavior

I've never spent more time reading and learning about psychology than while analyzing mobile games. I still don't get how some games made so much money (if I knew it probably I wouldn't be writing about it). Did you know that some of the top grossing games are good looking jackpot apps where the player can choose not play, but watch (4)?

From my point of view, some of them are pure counter examples of what it’s supposed to be a good game. But they work. Pretty well. There are dozens of games making ton of dollars, games that on console or PC wouldn't have been even prototyped.

You must look into your brain and your neurochemicals, into cognitive psychology to really find solid points that can explain this success: short term goals, immediate feedback and rewards. I never had to plan with such detail these trails of carrots. But there's no other chance. Let your player think too much, and he might quit to never coming back.

I'm not talking here about learning how to create Skinner boxes: I'm talking about learning how to grab the attention of your player either during short gameplay sessions or in the long term. Learning how to go beyond the Skinner box, as it won’t teach you how to create something fun. To improve your game experience using this knowledge.

Social dynamics

Multiplayer is always fun (I love to say this). Even the simplest game can become something pretty interesting when you play with your friends or other people (go and look for the Rock Paper Scissors World Championship).

Craft a solid single player game and you might be successful. Spice that up with social mechanics and then you'll get a bomb. Where do you believe Candy Crush would be now without the progress map and the extra live requests? Can you imagine FarmVille as a solo game where you cannot interact with other players?

The most successful mobile games are built around social dynamics. Cooperate or compete, share, gift, request help, create groups...

Mobile game designers were forced to learn how to use our social nature to boost the engagement of extremely simple games. They explored a feature that console and PC designers barely take into account: asynchronous multiplayer.

This is why there are much more variety of social mechanics in the mobile market. Mobile designers had to deal with the constraint of asynchronicity and they made it a key feature. Nowadays you cannot rely only on the invites, the gifs and the visiting friends feature. This age is over.


And finally we arrive to the evil word; from my point of view, what gives most of the bad press to the mobile market and their developers.

When we think of monetization, we usually think about skipping timers, refilling energy and buying useless golden items. We think about that "thing" that is creeping between the fun and you. I believe that what we usually have in mind are the very first, the primitive, somehow naive, monetization techniques.

There are a lot of examples of games that are fun and free, where you don't need to spend money to enjoy the experience (in a few you can even “win”). (5) Of course for each one of them, there are one thousand games which monetization system feels annoying. Just don't look at them (except for learning what not to do). Think about what you can do, not about what’s been done: find out why your players will love to give you money (6). And do it quickly, because the market and the audience are becoming mature and each day they are more selective about where to put their money.

F2P is already everywhere; it doesn't belong anymore to the realm of Facebook and mobile games. I'm personally convinced that we will be finding that other markets and products embrace also this philosophy, and no one has more experience in this that the mobile game designers.

Adapt or die

And finally, as a side note, I believe that making games for mobiles devices forces you to be even more up to date than when working for PC or consoles.

In the time that new version of your beloved game engine arises or, even more, a new console is shipped to the market, the mobile game designer survives several generations of mobile devices, and attends to the birth, rise and fall of dozens of new studios, games... and even applications or internet trends that can impact your design.

The preferences of your audience might change from one week to the next, or might stay apparently calm for months. Things move faster here. This really pushes your ability to process information to the limit.

The Complete Game Designer

And now I'm here, two years after making my decision and admitting I was simply wrong.

Mobile games had bad press for me just because I didn't know them. The only examples I knew were the most popular ones, the "classics", primitive examples of what we have today.

Now we see Blizzard, Ubisoft, Square Enix... major players of the console/PC market, diving into the mobile market, to compete in this new arena and challenge the current champions. Indie PC games are published on iOS and vice versa. The line between the designers of these two worlds is becoming blurrier year after year.

The real point of these lines is simple. It's not about making big console games for hardcore players or tiny social games for housewives. A complete designer should know as much as possible about games, period. And in the same way that working on a big AAA game teach and let you develop a certain set of skills, working on mobile games teach another. Both complementary, both useful for the complete designer.

Now this sounds dumb, but the truth is that I'm sure we'll need to wait a few years until mobile game designers earn the respect they deserve.

And on the top of that, the guys that are making games for mobiles are reaching millions of people out there. Making games that might be played by everyone. A game to be played by your father or your friends-who-don't-waste-time-with-video games, by that cute girl/boy seated in your commuting bus, even by your girl/boyfriend.

I realize now that I have the chance to entertain, to reach the biggest audience ever, and to craft game experiences for them.

Don't let that a bunch of games with evil monetization practices eclipse the beauty and the new horizons that the mobile games open to the game designers.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions (and the fine sense of humour) expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of his employer.

(1) Pocket Gamer. Number of applications submitted per month to the iTunes App Store

(2) Xbox 360. Marketplace. Number of Xbox 360 released games.

(3) Develop. Supercell’s CEO speaks about their studio philosophy.

(4) Requires free registration. App Annie. Grossing ranks of “Slot’s - Pharaoh’ Way” during the last year in US and Australia

(5) Extra Credits. Doing free to play wrong.

(6) Steam Dev Days. In-Game Economies in Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2.

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