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GDC 2012: Vector Unit's Matt Small on what console devs need to know about mobile gaming

GDC 2012: Vector Unit's Matt Small on what console devs need to know about mobile gaming
Matt Small, creative director of Vector Unit wants anyone entering the mobile market from console development to understand one thing first and foremost: they're not going to get rich.

He kicked off his GDC 2012 talk citing an iOS game revenue survey conducted by Owen Goss, which revealed that the top 1 percent of respondents made 36 percent of the revenue, the next 19 percent made 61 percent of the revenue, and the remaining 80 percent split up 3 percent of the revenue.

Small said $17,000 of sales per app was a sound median figure, but most apps made about $1,000; not something one can build a company around.

Double up

The reason is that top 1 percent is very difficult to get into, so Small focused his presentation on the group in the middle, who might make between $100,000 and $300,000 per app.

Even Xbox Live Arcade games can cost a million dollars to make, so how could a console developer move into the mobile space and make a competitive game for between $50,000 and $150,000?

Console teams tend to be big and highly specialised. An XBLA title might have texture artists and design artists and AI programmers. Mobile studios need flexibility and multiple skillsets to bounce between tasks, Small argued.

Small studios need to think of non-traditional development roles, like a tech director who can also do the book keeping, or an art director who can also do human resources.

Fast quality

Mobile development is about building efficiently. Vector Unit produces 3D games, and the content side of things is where its budget primarily lands.

For its iOS and Android title Riptide, Vector Unit used one-off development for the environment. For follow-up title Shine Runner, the studio used repeating tile systems which allowed it to build larger levels faster, and kept the download size low.

Small reiterated the conventional wisdom that game developers have to think about who their audience is, with the added note that the mobile core and casual audiences are converging.

Typical conceptions about mobile gamers being casual will increasingly no longer apply as the market continues to develop. Small believes there is an audience for just about any game a developer may want to make. Once a mobile developer determines its audience, it can think about a feature set and be ruthless with pruning ideas.

Plan and track

For Riptide, Vector Unit wanted to bring over the water physics from Xbox Live Arcade game Hydro Thunder, feature really tight controls, a boost mechanic and some social play through racing.

Content such as a deeper mechanic of stunts, more game modes or control options, and upgrade systems were on all the table during the design process, but Vector Unit pruned the list to focus on the core mechanics in order to design efficiently.

Small said that while it can be tough with a small project to justify scheduling and crunching the numbers, task tracking and organisation is important. Any developer with console experience already knows how to handle these tasks.

Vector Unit uses Google documents which take around a minute a day to update, although requiring brain space.

"You don't have a lot of time for thrash on a five month development schedule," Small said.

And keeping this information is excellent ammunition for when and if publishers ask for more features, so that mobile developers can explain how long those features will take to develop and implement.

Community spirit

Small argued for mobile developers not to be precious with their ideas.

When Small worked for Stormfront Studios, it lived by a mantra of not talking about projects. The truth, Small argued, is that with a very small team a studio can easily become extremely insular.

Mobile developers are not selling games for a ton of money, so they want to reach as broad an audience as possible. Small encourages mobile developers to show development projects to friends and family, and even people on the street.

Vector Unit did a lot of this with Riptide, which was the first time it developed a mobile racing game with tilt controls. The information gleaned from sharing the project was enormously helpful. Any potential risk from people seeing the idea early was totally offset by the input Vector Unit received.

Go early?

'Ship your Beta' is a phrase one hears from mobile developers, Small said.

The philosophy was good to an extent, because it allows studios to get their games into the market place earlier, and if a studio is self funding it makes some sense for the purposes of garnering player feedback. It's important to not allow a non-functioning game into the marketplace, however.

Small declined to name the game in question, but a game was released around the time Riptide was shipped, and said game had a terrible control scheme. The game in question was slammed by reviews.

"If you're not used to reviews, people can be so very cruel," Small warned.

Customer satisfied

He also stressed the importance of making customers happy, and making time for responding to them.

Vector Unit jumped straight from the development of Riptide into development of Shine Runner, and didn't have the bandwidth for taking the time to add the features it might have wanted to on Riptide. Small suggested that mobile developers set some resources aside to plan for that period of post-release support.

If a mobile developer is going to focus on anything, Small said, it should be the user interface.

Making sure that moment-to-moment play is fun and nailing a good visual style are also key, but if one looks at the top 20 mobile apps they have engaging UIs that are fun to use and provide no barrier to new users. For example, Fruit Ninja has a great UI, Small said.

Pick your battles

Similarly, with regards to visuals, Small wanted mobile developers to realise they "can't out-Chair Chair."

Most mobile developers are not going to make an Infinity Blade-beater, and need to come up with an art style that's compelling and plays to the strengths of the development team. As long as a studio nails the art style it's going for, that's enough to provide success.

Small encouraged mobile developers to go cross-platform from the very beginning, using the Unity engine, for example.

He also questioned the idea that making money on Androids is difficult. Vector Unit has made about as much selling Riptide on the Android Market as from iTunes. Android also offers pre-sell deals and alternative markets like the Amazon App Store and the Barnes & Noble Nook store.

"We've talked to some other developers who had similar experience as ours, where the Android sales were equal to the iPhone," Small said.

High end, high price

Small had two final points for console developers considering mobile.

First, was recognise that the mobile space is changing, with more high-end 3D games being released and certainly more to come with 'iPad 3' and the emergence of quad-core Android tablets.

Mobile developers can throw an amazing amount of data at the user on these devices, such as complex shaders and post-processing screen effects like bloom. In this way, there is an opportunity for console developers to move into the mobile space and make a splash, while traditional mobile developers may have to grow into using these advanced visual effects.

Finally, Small wanted developers to understand that Vector Small's experience is that the Android market supports higher prices.

When studios drops app prices to 99c on the Apple App Store, they often see massive sales increase. However, when they drop Android app prices from $2.99 to 99c, the increase doesn't make up for the price decrease in sales.

Instead, Small said he though the Android Market seemed to have more tolerance for higher priced games, at least in terms of the type of games that Vector Unit is making.

Dennis Scimeca is a freelancer from Boston. His weekly video game opinion column, First Person, is published by Village Voice Media. He occasionally blogs at punchingsnakes.com, and can be followed @DennisScimeca.

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