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Square Enix Montréal on the rewarding transition into mobile game development

Mobile can seem like a step down in game dev, but the Square Enix Montréal team disagrees

Square Enix Montréal on the rewarding transition into mobile game development

For many developers, artists, designers and writers, working on a big AAA title is a pipe dream. The games industry is competitive, and almost everyone is clamouring for an opportunity to work on the IP that inspired them to get into games.

However, there are some downsides to working in such large teams on enormous projects. Ideas are often lost, or they become impossible to communicate inside teams of hundreds. Production can move at a glacial pace, meaning some teams can spend additional years on colossal projects that will take time to ship, and that’s if they’re even shipped at all.

Mobile games are smaller, which means their development teams are smaller, and it's easier to be heard within them. While their ambitions can still be great, the nature of the games means production time can be shorter, and a successful game can launch and start to generate revenue in a fraction of the time it’ll take to get a AAA out of the door.

That being said, mobile and PC/console development are two very different worlds, and switching from one to the other may feel intimidating. Fortunately, there is a whole network of mobile developers that have transitioned into the mobile space, and they’re here bringing new types of games to life.

PocketGamer.biz chatted to three members of the Square Enix Montréal team to discuss their experiences of adapting to mobile development. Andrew Warner, senior designer, Alexandre Richer, development director, and Shiho Mizutori, lead UI/UX designer joined us to discuss the rewarding aspects of pivoting to the platform, the positive aspects that are exclusive to mobile development, and to offer advice to fellow artists, designers and developers that might be hesitant about making the switch.

PocketGamer.biz: How long have you each been developing mobile titles?

Andrew Warner: I have been working in the mobile game space for around 5 years.

Alexandre Richer: Not very long, a few months only. I have been developing AAA titles on console for about 14 years and am totally new to the mobile gaming industry, but I envision tons of cool challenges to solve in the years to come.

Shiho Mizutori: I’ve been developing mobile titles for almost 6 years.

What is your favourite part of working specifically on mobile titles?

Andrew Warner: One of the best parts of working on mobile titles is the ability to quickly push out content and get feedback from players in real-time. I also really enjoy making bite-sized pieces of content that doesn’t require players to play the game for hours at a time.

Alexandre Richer: The family aspect of our smaller teams. Coming from the AAA industry, it wasn’t rare to see production teams grow up to 250-300 people when shipping a game. I have even more than 800 people at production peak working from various studios around the world towards the same goal: putting the game in the box.

To me, these “big” teams somewhat dilute my sense of belonging to my project, since I barely feel like I know the people building the game with me.

We must realise the importance of people and synergy. We spend more time each week with our co-workers than our own family members. So, I feel it is very important that feeling at home when at work helps us push our limits. Work remains an important aspect of our day-to-day life but having fun and developing a sense of “family” with our co-workers is another great step towards the success for a project. Mobile games allow for this since we have the luxury of remaining small given the scale of the games

Shiho Mizutori: Lots of mobile games are free-to-play games that focus on long-term systemic gameplay. The user experience on mobile games is much more challenging but more exciting!

If you have previously worked in console/PC dev, what do you prefer about mobile development?

Alexandre Richer: The overall tech complexity, empowerment, and the feeling of being part of the solution.

Mobile gaming development requires developers to be more resourceful and have an entrepreneurial spirit.
Alexandre Richer
When you develop AAA games, the codebase becomes so complex that it requires an army of developers to converge the features, optimisation, polish, and stabilisation. With mobile games, it is a totally different approach since your team is composed of only a few developers; thus, minimising the ownership complexity and giving developers more leeway in their approach.

Mobile gaming development requires developers to be more resourceful and have an entrepreneurial spirit so they can solve any challenge coming their way. Each team member makes a huge contribution to the game, something harder to do in the AAA industry.

Lastly, I feel my input is often taken into consideration, regardless of my role within the team. It can be through build reviews, a feature kick-off or simply around a cup of coffee. Your power of influence is stronger knowing you work only with a handful of people. To me, it is the perfect sandbox opportunity for any developer having a desire to challenge themselves to learn more.

If you want to grow as a developer, I think the mobile gaming industry is the kind of place you will be challenged and feel part of the solution.

Shiho Mizutori: The major benefit of working in mobile is working in smaller teams! Everyone’s opinion is heard and considered.

Of course, everyone’s opinion is also important in Console/PC games production, but it is harder to be heard in a team of hundreds.

Lots of console games are making their way to mobile with help from streaming platforms, like XCloud and Stadia. Do you think this will overshadow games that are developed just for mobile?

Andrew Warner: I don’t think console games coming over into the mobile space will make a huge impact on games specifically designed for mobile. When a console or PC Game is created they are done so with specific controls in mind, these do not always translate well over into the mobile space, whereas a title created specifically for mobile will have the controls optimised for mobile devices.

Alexandre Richer: I personally do not think so. Mobile gaming is fundamentally different from AAA on various points. Without going into much details, expectations on PC or console are usually tailored for specific audiences wanting high-quality graphics, complex gameplay mechanics, better mastering of their mechanics, or things that simply cannot be done on mobile platforms.

It is true that streaming platforms like Stadia could be a big game-changer. They essentially allow for AAA games to be played directly on mobile phones without the need of a powerful computer behind or porting their game to a specific platform. This all looks good on paper, but there are still a few challenges along the way before this becomes successful.

Two technical things come on the top of my head. Latency and UI. Latency is something being worked on, but there are still limitations to what can be achieved at the time of writing. When pressing a button on console, the input gets processed rather quickly since everything is local. But when streaming a game from a streaming service (like Stadia), this computer/server has to send you the image so you can play the game, then wait for your input so it can send it back to the servers for analysis, process it and send you the results. This latency can make or break a game. Ask games like Mortal Kombat where deterministic solutions were used to counter these side effects.

Another challenge is UI which is often not compatible out of the box for most AAA games. Taking a full HD resolution and rendering it on a small mobile screen is not ideal, especially for its user interface. If you cannot read your objectives, the player will quit the game as quickly as he installed it. So, UI requires extra work for streaming platforms, which implies AAA studios will need to invest in finding solutions to be cross-platforms right from the start and make streaming platforms a priority if it wants to pierce the mobile industry.

Streaming platforms may have an impact short-term as every new cool technology, but time will tell. I believe there will always be an audience for mobile-tailored games with a great mobile experience first.

Shiho Mizutori: I still believe there will be games people want to play on a big screen or PC, and there will be the games people want to play in a mobile format.

Most mobile games are made for small screens and short time gameplay whereas many console games are made for big screen and longer gameplay.

Square Enix Montréal team

What are the most rewarding elements of designing for mobile?

Andrew Warner: Some of the most rewarding parts of designing for mobile is being able to see the impact of your designs in real-time as they are going out to the players.

Shiho Mizutori: Almost everyone has a mobile phone, so I feel like I am creating a game for everyone. To entertain as many people as possible is rewarding for me.

What can you do on mobile that you simply can’t achieve on a console or PC game?

If you are interested in making more games for a wider audience, mobile production is a great place.
Shiho Mizutori

Andrew Warner: One of the things you can do on mobile that you can’t do on console is do live events in games without needing to go through an extensive approval process. The ability to push live content out to players that easily is essential to being able to iterate on your designs in real-time.

Alexandre Richer: Portability! Being able to play games literally anywhere with my phone is something that only mobile games can bring successfully. I often play a quick game while waiting around.

Shiho Mizutori: There is no such a thing, in my opinion. I think both mobile games and console/ PC games can achieve anything, but it can be difficult to achieve.

Free-to-play games are difficult to make for console and PC because the production cost is much higher.
The free-to-play model for console/PC has only recently been introduced. Fortnite has succeeded at this, but it is much harder than for mobile games.

In-game monetisation is also more difficult because players already paid a lot of money to buy the game.

What advice would you give to developers and artists that are interested but not sure where to start in transitioning to mobile?

Andrew Warner: Just jump into it! Every team I’ve worked with is tight-knit and are a pleasure to work with.

Alexandre Richer: I would advise them to begin their video game career in the mobile industry directly rather than aiming to go in a AAA studio right after their studies. Why? Because such experiences will give them the opportunity to touch various gaming topics that will end up being very useful in their gaming career.

Shiho Mizutori: I have worked in mobile games for over 5 years and console games for over 5 years.

During the mobile game production, I shipped and helped more than 10 games. For console games I shipped one game, I worked on one cancelled game, and I worked on a live game for two years.

If you are interested in making more games for a wider audience, mobile production is a great place. If you want to be involved in game design but you are not a game designer, mobile development is also a great choice. We take ideas from everyone, programmers, artists, and testers.

If you want to transition to mobile games, the first thing to do is play mobile games as much as you can. That is what I always do when I start to work on a new project. Mobile games and console games are quite different.

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