The landscape of gaming has changed. Iphones, Samsung Galaxies and HTCs have thrust themselves into the hands of millions of consumers world wide and, as the sales figures of smart phones skyrockets, mobile game development is set to become just as prolific. We took an inside look at Kwalee, one of many new developers, to examine the advantages, as well as the limitations, to this unique perspective of mobile game development.
As soon as we enter the small office space the Kwalee team inhabites, overlooking the park and river of Leamington Spa, one thing is immediately clear; this is not the central hub of a multi-million pound, two year development cycle, 100 person team. A ping pong table dominates the entrance to the room, and, amongst large colourful chairs and cat-themed bean bags, lie Nerf guns in tempting piles.
In fact, this sharp distinction isn’t something that Kwalee admits, but rather are proud of; as I sat down to talk to David Darling, CEO of Kwalee, we discussed how mobile gaming compares to his previous line of work at Codemasters: “with console gaming we got into the mentality, like most of the industry, where you end up doing Tomb Raider 5 or Colin McRae Rally 6 because you know you don’t want to spend ten million pounds on a game if its going to be high risk. I kind of got bored with that”. David tells us “We started Codemasters in 1986, [then] it was more about being entrepreneurial and inventive. That’s the kinda business I enjoy; trying to come up with the next big idea, trying to come up with an idea that’s going to change the world”.
This creative rush, reminiscent of the early days of gaming, is an atmosphere that pervades the entire office. Andrew Graham, ‘Gameplay Guru’ at Kwalee and designer of the hugely popular Micro Machines series mirrors David’s enthusiasm saying “the projects are just smaller, quicker to develop and involve less people. It’s a much faster turnover and, from our point of view, its more fun that way”.
“In a way its going back to what it was like when I first did Micro Machines; it was just me and a couple of other guys. Since those days, console development has just got bigger and bigger to the point that it’s not nearly as much fun as it used to be”.
The message comes up again and again. The low entry price and short development time associated with mobile development makes it a bastion of creativity in an industry bursting at the seams with sequels. Its no accident that some of the most interesting games, games like Braid, Super Meat Boy and Angry Birds have come out of a low risk industry with a budget that can support itself without publisher interference. However, these benefits don’t come without their own special brand of challenges.
“[the iphone app-store] is the most crowded place in the world” Ian Kane, brand evangelist for Kwalee tells us. Even if you manage to create a unique and innovative game, getting your game noticed and standing out amongst the thousands of competitors can at times seem an impossible feat. Ian tells us “one place you have to stand out is your icon, what shows up on the app-store when people are looking. There’s a lot of thought going into the icon; it has to be engaging and descriptive because you only get this tiny space to work with. If you have a boring picture, it’s just going to get swiped across and people aren’t going to be interested”.
Joe, the resident community evangelist, adds that “even the first two or three lines of the text description becomes even more important. If someone’s buying a console game, they’re spending more money, they’re going to go out and look at reviews, trailers and all sorts of things, but someone downloading something of a phone – it’s going to be based in a matter of seconds on what information you show to them upfront; if you don’t grab them, you’re in trouble”. Joe sums up the marketing field of mobile gaming perfectly when he says “it’s impulse purchasing”.
“Marketing has changed” announce Ian and Joe theatrically; “people don’t want to be directly advertised to, they generally ignore those messages. It’s more about putting the message out there whilst entertaining the consumer. We have to entertain people, give them something to look at and engage with”. It’s no surprise then that, alongside the more blatent forms of marketing, Kwalee regularly release videos, parody artwork and blog posts; this is a key element to Kwalee’s philosophy of advertising whilst entertaining, and something the industry, as a whole, will have to learn if it wants to keep up.
Before we left, we drew upon the team’s expertise and asked what advice they had for those hoping to find a place of their own in the gaming industry. “I think there’s really two routes”, David tells us, “You can either go the academic route, and try to get the best degree you can and get the best grade you can, and then you can get a good career in the games industry and gradually learn how it works and get promoted and work your way through the career ladder of the industry. That’s one way to do it. The other way is to not bother so much about just the academic side of it but just try and be really innovative and entrepreneurial; Maybe start your own business or start a business with your friends, try and do it yourself and be ahead of the industry”.
Andrew Graham seems to agree arguing that “speaking personally, if I see a CV with a good physics degree or a good maths degree, that’s worth as much as a very specific games industry related degree. The other thing is to make sure you do personal projects; if you can work on games at home and you can demonstrate that you’re able to do projects independently then it shows you have the ability and that your also enthusiastic enough to take the time to do that sort of stuff.”
The video gaming industry is changing. As technological advances open up new possibilities, mobile game development is stepping to the forefront of an industry that has ignored it for too long. The possibilities are as varied as the difficulties, but, if creativity and enthusiasm allow themselves to go hand in hand with marketing, we may find ourselves upon the playing field where a wide new frontier for gaming comes of age.
Kwalee have published two games for iOS (iPad and Iphone) so far; ‘Gobang Social’ and ‘Pussy Flip’. They are currently working on their third game, entitled ‘Farm Fighters’.