Making a Mobile Game? Here Are the Things You Should Focus On

Monty Sharma, veteran games industry executive and start-up advisor talks to us about the most important things developers should be doing when making a mobile game to give it the best chance of app store success:


Hi Monty, What’s Your Background and How Do You Help Developers Making a Mobile Game?

I came to games from the telecoms industry in the mid-late 90s. There were 2 types of service that people were willing to spend money on at the time: dating and games and we knew we could create custom online communication services for those users. We developed an in-game messaging product that used 3D positional sound so voices move around the player and respond to distance. You could also speak to specific groups of players on separate channels in the same game.

The makers of Eve Online, CCP games really helped us get our big break in the gaming world. They were the only developer that agreed to let us hack our product into their source code as a demo. They took us to E3 which established us as a credible company enabling us to work with Second Life, Sony Online, Nexon, Combat Arms and Blizzard. We went on to become the second largest voice network in the world with millions of users.

I now operate as a kind of connector between developers and the industry and have had the pleasure of seeing several exciting companies come to fruition such as Earplay and Escher Reality. Here at MassDigi we prepare students for the real world of game development by tasking cross-functional teams with designing, building and releasing a game in 12 weeks. As each year has gone by the quality of the games produced has steadily increased and at the end of our 4th year a publisher approached us about our latest batch of games. Cat Tsunami and Midnight Terrors were the two which made the cut. This brought it home that these students can really produce production ready mobile games and that the process of learning by doing was really working.

What Are the Most Important Things Developers Should Focus on When Making a Mobile Game?

Here are three of the main things I recommend focusing on when making a mobile game:

1) Get the core gameplay mechanic right so that the game is fundamentally fun and only then start to layer in more complexity

Start with a single game mechanic and make sure it is fun before wasting 2 years building something that looks great but no one wants to play. This sounds obvious but it’s common for people to get tunnel vision and think their core mechanic is fun for people when early testing may prove otherwise. Aim to build something inside 3 months then watch somebody play your game and you should start to see an emotional cycle: They start a bit confused, figure it out, then the game feels easy, then comes a twist that results in a moment of delight.

Once it’s fun at it’s core we can add one more layer of complexity at a time to build up the game and introduce elements that will keep players engaged for longer.

It’s essential before you start to understand comparable games: what are they doing that works, what mechanics could work with a twist. Does your unique idea for a game not exist because it doesn’t work for enough people?

Jelly Splash has a simple core mechanic but over years has added bits of complexity to keep the game fresh and users coming back.

Puzzles and Dragons is magical at guiding players through the early stages and keeps them engaged by adding new functionality. I hadn’t played for years until my son recently showed me a new feature which added a whole new dimension to the game that drew me back in. I’ve been playing every day for 8 months as a result.

Remember that your UI design should also fit your core mechanic and make it’s function clear. One of our teams was once working with very talented artists who created a beautiful control system for a game. It was only through testing they realised people didn’t understand how it worked and so lost interest. By completely changing the art style so it fit with the mechanic players intuitively knew how to use it.

Bear in mind that first time game developers always underestimate how hard it is getting a game ready to release after the core mechanic is nailed. The last 10% of polishing takes twice as long as building the core of game.

2) Have an idea of how to best monetise your game from the start which you can go on to test.

Our students were building games but they lacked an understanding of motivating behaviour and monetisation inside the game. Oscar Clark who works for Unity does a great job of explaining how to understand monetisation, the key takeaway being that the player has to feel good about the monetisation method you’re using. It has to happen at the right time. He adds that the player should feel happy they had the chance to monetise and to do this you need to understand where the player is emotionally as they play the game. Serve an ad when it feels good to the player and make sure they feel they’re getting a suitable reward.

Bake in monetisation from the start and think about how your chosen method of monetisation relates to what the player wants and the way they operate.

Remember to stay within scope, ideas that would only work with $2m budget are outside scope…Again looking at what comparable apps are doing is essential here to inform your decisions.

Monitor your analytics to see where people stop playing. Some of our students found their average session lengths meant users didn’t see the ads at all and also that they were distracting them from what they were doing. Keep track of the effect any changes to the game have on installs or revenue. Do this for comparable apps too where possible to see if there is anything successful you can emulate or apply in your own game.

Remember that it takes time and lots and lots of little improvements to start making a mobile game pay off. World of Tanks – You need experience to learn lessons as to what works and what doesn’t.

3) Comps, comps, comps: Always look to comparative apps to inform your decision making when making a mobile game

Today’s developers have access to market data that wasn’t available until recently. We used to have no idea what money competitors make, how many units they sold or where. Now it’s possible to see how the mobile market responds on a daily basis and spot trends as they’re forming. Being able to track the impact on downloads of an event such as an app update is huge benefit and means we’ll know things much sooner than before when making a mobile game.

One of our mantras at MassDigi is ‘Comps Comps, Comps’ (comparable apps); Look at 4-5 games that are similar to yours, share the same core mechanic and are in a similar genre.

See how long before they show me the first ad, what was motivator for me to watch an ad and so on. Understand the way others are doing everything and see which performs best in the data. Each monetisation model has a kind of rhythm where the elements are timed just right. Until recently the only way to work out this rhythm was trial and error but now with the data we have available on how other games are performing it becomes easier to identify a strategy before we even start building.

Some of our alumni at Petricore whose game Mind the Arrow was published and even featured by Apple looked at Ketchapp games as comps. They all have short play cycles, simple gameplay with some form of interest and usually a single game mechanic. This is what I mean by tracking and evaluating your comps.

How Can You Go About Getting Your Mobile Game Published?

Networking is essential, you need to go to games industry events and talk to people. Darius Kazemi summed up his approach to networking thus: every person you meet is a lottery ticket, they might be valuable there and then or it might be ten years down the road.

Publishers are always going to industry events and talk to people they know, so the more people who know you in the industry the better your chances of being talked about.

Going after mobile publishers is the other route and somewhat different. It used to be that game publishers would give you money to finish developing your game but today in mobile this is rarely the case. Nowadays most publishers take care of all the marketing and user acquisition side of things only when a game has been built and released. Once in the market and metrics like retention rate etc look good then they’ll front the money to grow the user base to the next level. Essentially their sales pitch is: “you make a successful mobile game, and we’ll help make it even more successful”.

The benefit of working with a publisher early on is that they understand monetisation and user acquisition so can offer a lot of help improving that side of the game to help it scale. They usually have a lot of market and comp data too and can help identify the best countries to be soft launching in. They can also help launching in markets you don’t know or understand yourself, for example a company founded by some of our alumni, Petricore, worked with a publisher to beta test one of their new titles in China.

Your first couple of games are not really expected to generate long term revenue but they will spend a little bit of money on user acquisition to start getting good data on how the games can be improved.

If you can utilise the kind of market data that a publisher would normally provide when making a mobile game it can help move the point of interaction of them. What I mean by this is if a publisher interacts with you at the concept stage they own you…If you can get your game to soft launch and accumulate some good data yourself on what it will take to grow then a publisher has to offer you a little more to make it worth your while.

How Can a Developer Making a Mobile Game Plan for a Successful Launch?

One thing we encounter a lot is people assuming they’ll use social media to launch their game and instantly get lots of downloads. You really need to think about how many downloads you need to make the charts and then see if you have enough followers who will convert to make that possible. There’s no set formula on this but knowing how many downloads are needed to chart can at least give you a target to aim for. It’s likely that only a small percentage of your social followers are going to actually install your app and if you don’t have enough to hit that download target then you’ll also have to engage in more traditional PR and content marketing.

One of our student groups released a game called Ophidia on Steam which eventually got over 200K installs. This was in large part due to a friend of theirs happening to know a reviewer who wrote a story about it which a couple of youtubers ended up picking up on. Those install numbers are unthinkable for an indie game with no budget and no real team. This highlights the importance of the earlier point about networking and getting to know as many useful people in industry as you can. It will most likely take a lot of time, effort and many small steps towards getting exposure of that nature but again it is not magic, just hard work and time.

Ophidia managed to get 200K installs with almost no budget
Ophidia managed to get 200K installs with almost no budget

Another simple way developers can plan their launch is by thinking about how much the game will cost to make and how much money you will need to make in revenue as a result to make it worthwhile. Think about how many dollars per user you’ll get if they convert at a given ratio. You can then test early versions of the game in a soft launch to see if your assumptions are accurate.

Before you even write a line of code you can start using market data to see how many users you need or money you will make based on comparable apps that have already been through all these steps already.

Not many people think about launching a car company because they understand how much money will be involved in making it a success. By using market data in this way we can do same for people’s understanding of the costs involved in making a mobile game successful.

If anyone has played Game Dev Tycoon they’ll know it is actually really good at helping you understand just how complex the business of developing games really is. Starting with a terrible game and gradually building up, managing user reviews, getting more and more sophisticated user acquisition methods honed by experience, that’s very close to the reality.

Game Dev Tycoon, more realistic than you might think…

Thanks again to Monty from MassDigi for sharing the fruits of his experience with. If you found this useful and want to find out more about making a mobile game successful join your fellow app market enthusiasts and sign up to our mailing list.

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