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Opinion: The Mobile Developer’s Manifesto

The latest Gamasutra mobile editorial sees Massively Mobile's Creative Director Demetri Detsaridis sharing his thoughts on how mobile gaming can evolve, asking of cellphone games: "How can we make the kinds of games that we ourselves want to play?"

Demetri Detsaridis, Blogger

November 13, 2006

9 Min Read

Massively Mobile is a fairly new player in the mobile gaming space, having only formally announced its formation last month from Gameloft and Activision veterans. Still, the company's console and mobile development background, coupled with their intense and uncompromising vision of mobile gaming, makes them one to watch. We asked Massively Mobile's Creative Director Demetri Detsaridis to expand on the ideas found on the company's website, and share his thoughts on how mobile gaming can start walking the walk instead of just talking the talk: "As Karl Marx once almost wrote: A spectre is haunting the mobile gaming industry – the spectre of developers, yearning to do work they can be proud of, and to be taken seriously while doing it. Not far behind is its colossal shadow: the apparition of millions of mobile gamers, tired of being told they’re not really gamers, and frustrated that the state-of-the-art in mobile gaming is 20-year-old design running on 20-day-old technology. All the powers of “The Industry” have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise these spectres: carrier and publisher, IP licensor and venture capitalist, French Radicals and German police-spies... Okay, maybe not German police-spies. But you get the point; over and over again, we hear about how huge mobile gaming is and how much bigger it’s going to get; we know that it’s the wave of the future and that it’s captured the mindshare of all of Earth’s life forms, and we know that it’s surely making somebody rich, but still…the games (not your games, mind you, but the rank and file stuff) just aren’t all that good, are they? Put down those pitchforks; I’m not calling anybody out. We’re all developers here, we can be honest with ourselves – if any of you think that the potential of mobile gaming is fulfilled by what’s on decks right now, raise your hand! Yeah, exactly…one guy, and he looks a lot like a police-spy. So, what do we do about that? How can we make the kinds of games that we ourselves want to play (which is, after all, why we got into this business)? Well, we can start by agreeing on a few basics. The eight points I’ve listed below are by no means exhaustive, but they do address the most frequent complaints I’ve heard about mobile games, from both gamers and fellow developers. Fellow game makers, I give you the Mobile Developer’s Manifesto: 1. Mobile Games must be “mobile”. Yes, all mobile games are portable by virtue of the device they run on, but are they designed that way? A quick tour around any of the major carriers’ decks will turn up quite a few that aren’t. If you can’t save the game whenever you’d like – heck, if the game isn’t constantly saving its own progress – it’s not really mobile. If a large portion of a game’s playing time consists of loading screens, that game is not really mobile. Mobile games, even those targeted to the “hardcore gamer”, have to be quick to start and easy to resume. Without that, they’re about as mobile as a living room with a handle. 2. Mobile Games must be “games”. Some mobile games seem to have been tuned for players so green that “Press 5 to Win” may as well flash over the opening credits. Others are packed so dense with cutscene-like animations that they recall Dragon’s Lair far more than a game on a 2-inch screen has any right to. While beginner level difficulty and virtuoso animations are terrific options to have in a game, they should remain exactly that: options, side dishes to the main course of hot, buttered gameplay. Any mobile game without gameplay as its primary focus is not a game, it’s a tiny, expensive phone-cartoon. 3. Mobile Games must not require more than two thumbs per player. Mobile phones have lots of buttons on them, just like console controllers. Console controllers, however, are typically found in the hands of experienced gamers who are at least tolerant of complex, combo-heavy control schemes. Accessibility is one of the keys to mobility. Difficult control schemes show disregard for both mobile gamer play-patterns and the often-awkward shape of handsets. If users can’t play your game with one hand, you may be limiting it to a more “hardcore” audience. If they can’t play it with two hands, you’re in real trouble. 4. Mobile Games must not “reproduce the console experience – in the palm of your hand!!” Are you familiar with CliffsNotes, those yellow booklets that help you study a novel “after you’ve read it”? They have the same plot, the same characters, and the same tone, but they’re a lot shorter. Oh, and as literature? They suck. Now, unless I’ve missed some key legislation, schoolchildren are not yet being tested on console games…so why are we so busy making mobile CliffsNotes for them? Setting a mobile game in a console game’s world is fine; bringing fans something they’re predisposed to enjoy is the bedrock of licensing. But creating a “game” that’s essentially a condensed reenactment of an existing title begs the question of who the target audience is. Is it users who might enjoy the gameplay because it’s new to them, but aren’t likely to buy the game in the first place because they’ve never heard of its “big brother”? Or is it gamers who love the console title and will be disappointed by the mobile version that brings nothing new to the table? No matter what the case, does either of those scenarios sound good? 5. Mobile Games developers must not use “low res, crap processor” as a crutch. Those same classic arcade titles that have proven so popular as mobile ports are playable proof that you don’t need high resolution graphics or a speedy processor to make a fun game. Working around technological restrictions is part of the ancient art of coding, and mobile developers must carry its battle-worn flag into the 21st century with pride. Let’s do like the old school did and simply cheat. If you can’t do physics on a Series 40, fake it and make it harmonize with the gameplay so that no one cares. Even in the age of Patented HD Sweat Processing™, people are still playing Tecmo Bowl for a reason. 6. Mobile Games developers must not rely on constant network connectivity. Ah, the eternal paradox of mobile games: the mobile phone is a ubiquitous device, the very purpose of which is to connect to an extensive, worldwide communications network. And yet so often when people use these devices for gaming (an application which can make fantastic use of such connectivity), it’s when they’re least likely to be connected to said network (on a subway, plane or at a remote beach destination). Giving up completely on networked mobile gaming because of this would make about as much sense as putting off development until the nationwide, 5G direct brain interface rollout. Why not draw some inspiration from our crafty dawn-of-the-Internet-era predecessors, instead? If you make a game with heavy network components, make sure the design is just as stable as the technology when the network’s not there. After all, players won’t draw much solace from the fact that they could be using GPS to engage in epic multiplayer space battles if they’re stuck on a subway, writing your studio’s name on the window in blood as they complete your tutorial for the twentieth time. 7. Mobile Games developers must use the unique features of the platform to enhance gameplay. Quick, which of the portable game consoles released since 2005 has two screens, a built-microphone, 3D graphics, wireless networking, still and video cameras, and GPS functionality? Is it…almost any recent mobile phone? Ding! Now, can you guess how many of this platform’s awesome features are used by its average game? Hint: “directional pad” does not count. I know what you’re thinking, “Games that are played in three-minute doses don’t require bells and whistles. Arcade ports and gemstone-matching titles sell by the bucketload and there’s not a whiz-bang technology in any of them.” True enough, but as a certain Japanese gaming company has reminded us so often this past year (a very good year for them, indeed), sometimes utilizing unique hardware to take gameplay in new directions can actually expand the market as a whole. We can either learn from their example or we can wait for them to enter our market and eat our lunch. Which would you rather? 8. Mobile carriers, OS producers, and hardware manufacturers must allow us to use what we’ve got. Of course, it’s all well and good of me to say that we’ve got to use the hardware to creative gameplay innovations, but what if we’re just not granted access to those functionalities? I can think of several designs in which I’ve attempted to make use of certain aspects of a target device’s hardware only to be told by a programmer that it was impossible for one disappointing reason (“you can’t control X with code”) or another (“carrier Y won’t allow us to do Z”). As individuals, we may not have much power to influence the decisions that lead to this kind of crippled-device frustration, but as an important part of the content supply chain, mobile game developers can and should make our voices heard. After all, we’re helping to make these big piles of money we keep hearing about, right? Maybe someone would take us seriously, then, if we told them that a few small changes could generate even more. It’s on that note that I’ll conclude, because I believe this is not only a valid rationale for point #8, but for the entire manifesto. If we agree to work together toward these goals, we’ll be that much closer to doing what we’ve always striven for: making games that we ourselves want to play. Mobile game developers unite!" Demetri Detsaridis is the Creative Director of Massively Mobile, a mobile development studio that specializes in making existing technology perform futuristic magic tricks through clever design. Prior to joining Massively Mobile, Demetri was a Game Designer at Gameloft’s New York studio. [This interview was produced in association with Modojo.com ahead of the launch of Gamasutra's new mobile game business site, for which more information will be available in the near future.]

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