Face it: Your mobile game sucks. Here’s how to save it from mediocrity
You are here because you have the next big mobile game on your hard drive.
You’ve finally completed your labor of love: a mobile game poised to release on the Google Play Store (App Store coming soon!) — And you are sure it will be accepted with critical praise. Your “Flappy Bird”, your magnum opus, your ticket to game development stardom and oodles of cash!
But, sadly, you are dead wrong. Your 100+ hours (or maybe 10 minutes, depending on your liberal use of premade assets) of development towards your big Play Store debut game may have been a gigantic waste. And you simply haven’t realized it yet.
Now, you are pounding your keyboard typing, “You haven't even played my game, how are you so sure that it sucks?!”
Consider this a litmus test of your game’s “suckiness”. We’ve all been there before. We’ve all ignored the common consensus around Android/iOS games, plastered in big red letters all around us. Dig deep down, and you know the truth. Smartphone owners that consider themselves “gamers” consider 99.99% of mobile games to
- lack depth
- be low quality “cash grabs”
- target casual players exclusively
Why Your Mobile Game Sucks
The “Mobile First” Mindset
What does “mobile first” mean? Whenever we hear this term, we are reminded to keep our UI responsive, functional on all devices, with controlled degredation for older device types.
This is not bad, in fact it is very important when developing any interface, to keep the surface in mind. However, this should not bleed into your design, prototyping, and conception phases unless it is crucial to your game’s core promises.
Developing with a mobile first mindset, for game development this is a self-inflicted wound. Many designers scale down the scope of their game, along with the art (be it number of polys for 3D or level of compression for 2D) for easy consumption on handheld rectangles. Further restricted to touch, gyroscope, accelerometer inputs automatically destroys creative freedom. Imagine if Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, and other computing trail blazers were beholden to their limitations.
In-app purchases, among other “monetization strategies” severely detract from what is commonly a tight, simple game loop with focus on polish and progression to hook players. We as developers have become too accustomed with such systems that cripple our games’ potentials.
In summary, “mobile first” at the design phase causes mechanics, play-ability, fun factor, and art to suffer.
Where is Your Marketing ?
In case you have missed out on the joy that was the “indiepocalypse”, it is important to note that the Play Store and App Store are inundated with games, both good and bad, and it is nigh impossible to stand out from the pack without getting a shout out from Google or Apple. And so, many developers strive for just that — front page kudos for a job well done.
It is all too common for us as developers to sacrifice unique, experimental, and niche ideas in order to “widen the net” and capture the largest target audience. And once we earn their install, we struggle to deliver on core promises that are usually overblown in trailers, descriptions, twitter posts, and other marketing campaigns.
Also —and this goes without saying — if you have not started marketing your game already, you’ve already lost.
Don’t Bother Porting to Mobile
Porting to (or in some cases from) mobile is a resonant death knell. Would you rasterize a high quality image? Would you convert a beautiful nature video from 4K down to 1080p before uploading to YouTube? Why lose fidelity in all aspects of your game?
You really need to weigh the trade-offs and determine if it is worth it. Some games do it well, but most do not. This is a follow up to “mobile first” game development — it’s not a good idea and it boxes you into a corner very fast.
Compromising for the App Store
Like described earlier, you are but a cog in the system that is the App Store, and without playing their game, your app will never be noticed and will gather dust on the proverbial shelf.
However said system is flawed. How many times have you had to close out a “Do you like this game? If so, please leave us a rating! 😉” modal in a game that you truly enjoy simply because it is annoying? It paradoxically makes you enjoy the game less.
Games suffer from putting ratings, reviews, installs, and other petty metrics before gameplay.
Following the Hype
Your casual game is just a flash in the pan. If you somehow happen to convince naysayers such as myself to install this game once, retain us for some period before we inevitably uninstall, how will you retain us as customers of your brand?
How many times will you need to bottle lightning to keep your fledgling game development company afloat? “Flappy Bird success” is a pipe dream that even your average consumer understands and has caught on to. Consumers are more assuming than we often give them credit for.
So, What Now?
I have some good news, and some bad news. Let’s star with the bad news:
These pitfalls exist for all indie developers. You can easily fall into this trap on Steam, GMG, and other marketplaces.
Even more bad news. Said PC marketplaces have reached similar levels of over-population and faulty systems that punishes all indie game developers across the board.
Okay, okay. I promised I would tell you how you can save your game. So here is the Good news — Players are also keen on all of these pitfalls, and are looking for a fresh experience that subverts and defies them.
Don’t underestimate your player base, assume they are smarter than you! You must be beholden to your players, first and foremost.
Here are the no-fluff tips to success:
- Spend way WAY more time in the design / prototyping phase than you are comfortable with. Your first iteration will almost never satisfy focus groups.
- Stay true to your game’s core promise, and be careful of overloading the scope of your game to the point where the core promise is no longer fulfilled. No one wants a strategy fighting game because the core promises conflict.
- Always stay flexible, and put the players first. Get your game in front of willing players as soon as possible and fail fast. You need to know your audience before you can make something to satisfy them.
- Do not bend to the latest trend. Gamers are always a couple steps ahead of the biggest fad.