The 6 most fascinating mobile game development stories of 2016

The best of the year's Making Of features

The 6 most fascinating mobile game development stories of 2016

PocketGamer.biz has long been delving into the Making Of the biggest mobile games.

From Clash of Clans to Hearthstone, we've always been keen to chat with developers to find out the stories behind the games.

Inside story

2016 was no exception, as our interviews continued to expose more and more fascinating stories behind the App Store's top games.

As such, as we continue to reflect on the year, we're looking back over the cream of this year's crop.

Click through below for six of the best.

Click here to view the list »
  • 1 Crashlands

    Crashlands logo

    Launched way back in January, Butterscotch Shenanigans' Crashlands still managed to stick in Apple's mind enough for the platform holder to include it among the Best of 2016.

    The crafting-heavy action RPG was criticially lauded upon release, and the story behind it is just as remarkable - as we found out from Butterscotch Shenanigans' Seth Coster.

    Coster explained to PocketGamer.biz that the three-man team was having trouble coming up with a new game concept in the Autumn of 2013 - a process made even more complicated by the increasing irritability and fatigue of co-founder Sam Coster.

    Working through it

    An endless runner called Extreme Slothcycling was the eventual result of the team's internal game jam efforts, but by this stage it had become clear that Sam's condition was worsening.

    "Eventually, he was diagnosed with Stage 4b Lymphoma (the last stage), which is cancer of the lymph system, at the end of October 2013," Seth Coster told PocketGamer.biz.

    "They took a tumor the size of a kidney out from his left chest wall and started him on powerful chemotherapy within a week."

    From left to right: Sam, Seth and Adam Coster

    Between bouts of chemotherapy, Sam returned to work on Extreme Slothcycling but found little inspiration.

    Seth recalls the conversation: "Sam took one look at it and just flatly said, "I don’t want this to be the last game I make before I die."

    Instead, the team opted to pursue a prototype that Sam had begun making in GameMaker - which would go on to become Crashlands.

    You can read the full story here.

  • 2 Marvel Avengers Alliance 2

    Marvel Avengers Alliance 2 logo

    Marvel Avengers Alliance 2 is a bizarre case.

    A sequel to an incredibly popular Facebook game, designed from the ground up for mobile by a savvy team at Disney Interactive Studios and with an amazing IP, it had all the ingredients for greatness.

    We voiced concerns early with our criticism of its lack of auto-play and the observation that its grossing performance was sub-par.

    And the result was a game that was shut down after just six months on the market - news followed quickly by the announcement that some 125 jobs had been cut at the studio responsible.

    What could have been

    With hindsight, then, the Making Of makes for a fascinating, albeit rather tragic read.

    Indeed, when quizzed on balancing the game's impressive tactical depth with mainstream appeal, Creative Lead Scott Rudi admitted: "This is perhaps our greatest challenge right now."

    When talking about initial response from players, he adds: "Most really like the game and have fun, but many are stuck on issues and bugs at this time."

    "As frequent players, we see the same issues and are working to address them ASAP."

    The interview also reveals many plans for subsequent updates - including the potential for an added auto-play mode - that would never see the light of day.

    You can read the full piece here.

  • 3 Train Conductor World

    Train Conductor World logo

    When you've had a hit in the premium space, adapting it to free-to-play can be a challenge.

    It was a tough task for Rovio with Angry Birds, as it has been for Deep Silver Fishlabs with the recently-launched Galaxy on Fire 3 - Manticore.

    So when Australian studio The Voxel Agents returned to Train Conductor series - the first two entries of which were premium releases in 2009 and 2010 respectively - it had a very different challenge on its hands.

    Better meta

    "It came as a surprise that we spent more time on the metagame of Train Conductor World than the core arcade gameplay of connecting trains," said Creative Director Simon Joslin.

    "It now seems obvious because the meta is a much more complicated and nuanced design challenge, but at the time we only wanted a relatively light layer over the top, and you wouldn't think that'd take long.

    "We were wrong... Simplicity takes a long time to hone and refine."

    Joslin goes on to explain his early worries that "no one would spend a cent" thanks to the game's refusal to implement paywalls and the effort taken to integrate video ads into the core loop.

    However, despite talking candidly about some "truly dark times" in which Joslin "felt I was wasting the team's time on something that was complete trash," the piece ends on a high with the game making 3x the revenue in its first month than any of the studio's previous games.

    You can read the full piece here.

  • 4 Transformers: Earth Wars

    Transformers: Earth Wars logo

    Transformers: Earth Wars is a big game for London studio Space Ape, and this Making Of feature more than lives up to it.

    Weighing in among our longest ever, this is an exhaustively thorough account of the entire development process by Space Ape COO Simon Hade.

    It first reveals that the seeds of the partnership with Hasbro-owned publisher Backflip Studios date back as far as 2014, and that personal passions were just as much of a factor as pure business.

    "We’ve passed on a few IP deals that made sense from a business perspective, but the passion just wasn’t there," said Hade.

    But the passion evidently was there for Transformers, with former fan club member Chris White taking the helm as Product Owner.

    No shortcuts

    Hade was also keen to point out that there was no trickery involved with animating each bot's transformation, with every part neatly folding away somewhere as would happen with a physical toy.

    However, this led to some difficulties when it came to implementing the game's gacha system for new bots.

    "Talk to an expert in Asian gacha models and they’ll say you need 300 pieces of content for the model to work, but other western games with similar economies were getting it done with dozens of characters so we just had to experiment," explained Hade.

    After launching with just 20, it quickly became apparent that 'less is more' is not a rule that applies in gacha-powered free-to-play games - and as the bot count increased, so too did user review scores.

    You can read the full piece here

  • 5 Sorcery!

    Sorcery! logo

    In September, the final part of the four-part gamebook series Sorcery! was released.

    Cambridge studio Inkle told PocketGamer.biz that when they started out, the plan was not to become a games company - "we were going to bring interactivity and technology to the publishing industry," said Creative Director Jon Ingold.

    But that soon changed: "we found the games market to be a welcoming place full of new ideas, and the publishing market to be limited and conservative," he added.

    And after convincing original author Steve Jackson to give the young studio the Sorcery! license after it hit 10,000 sales on its first title Frankenstein, Inkle launched the first part of the saga in 2014.

    New medium, new rules

    The piece reveals a lot about the studio's philosophy in terms of presenting interactive storytelling.

    This includes the decisions to eschew book-like visuals and virtual dice-rolling in favour of an aesthetic that made the same story feel fit for a new medium.

    "We did look at other gamebook creators at the time, of course, but generally felt they were relying too heavily on the very static nature of a true gamebook - full pages of text, for instance, which weren’t very appealing to read; and large choices rather than our model of small, stacked options," said Ingold.

    He went on to discuss the difficulty of maintaining such a long-term project as a small studio, particularly when juggled with other titles like 80 Days.

    You can read the full piece here.

  • 6 Warlords

    Warlords logo

    As with Marvel: Avengers Alliance 2, the making of Warlords is a story made more interesting by the events that occurred around it.

    Warlords was the debut game from Black Anvil Games, a midcore-focused studio spun out of Wooga in March.

    But by September, the studio had been closed amidst a wider restructuring at Wooga.

    The interview with Wooga Product Manager Kaspar Hübener reveals a definite core focus that existed for Warlords from the off.

    "When the project was initially pitched, the vision was to take the tactical depth and longevity from Heroes of Might and Magic and bring that to mobile," he said.

    Core ambition

    He added that the team boasted a healthy mix of talent, with plenty who had worked on both casual and more core-leaning titles in the console and PC space.

    Another point of interest in the interview is auto-play, an issue on which Black Anvil was resolute.

    "We see autoplay as an evolutionary, in-between, step that comes from an attempt to deal with old-school grinding in the relatively new environment of mobile free-to-play," Hübener told us.

    "[...] In Warlords, we attempted to negate the need for autoplay by making your typical battle more playable - making it faster than autoplay - and more interesting by introducing several in-battle layers that make the battle result non-binary - such as changing victory conditions, persistent losses, in-battle loot and more."

    However, the piece concludes with Hübener effectively spelling out the end of Warlords - or at least as far as Wooga is concerned - although it remains live on the App Store at the time of writing.

    "The team is really proud that we were able to ship a polished game with most of the features we had envisioned in the early days of development, like PvP and PvE modes," he said.

    "With Wooga’s current focus on more casual genres in mind, we see Warlords as effectively feature complete."

    You can read the full piece here.

Features Editor

Matt is really bad at playing games, but hopefully a little better at writing about them. He's Features Editor for PocketGamer.biz, and has also written for lesser publications such as IGN, VICE, and Paste Magazine.