Mobile game designer James Senter talks about the highs and lows of being an indie developer

Maker of text-based adventure games such as Pocket Reality, James Senter on finding a place on the mobile market

Mobile game designer James Senter talks about the highs and lows of being an indie developer

The mobile gaming market is ideal for independent developers. The potential for monetisation, lower development costs, and quicker turnover compared to console or PC titles mean that game creation is more accessible than ever before, and reaching a community of fans is relatively simple.

However, independent development still has significant issues, from marketing their releases to carving out a niche in the market.

We spoke to independent developer James Senter - creator of recent 'mobile game of the week' Pocket Reality - about his experiences with creating games in the mobile space, and how he’s addressed the issues of finding a place within it.

Firstly please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about how you got into mobile game development.

I'm from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and I've been designing games ever since I was a small child, often making paper board games and forcing my family to play them. In high school I started writing text adventures inside the cult classic Myst Online: Uru Live. I studied computer science in college because I wanted to make games, and in my junior year I finally got my chance with an independent study, which resulted in Nano Empire. Since then I've been studying artificial intelligence in graduate school and making approximately one game per year in my spare time.

What inspired your games, and what is your ambition for them?

My all-time favourite games are Age of Empires 2 and Myst, and most of my games try to combine ideas from these: real-time resource management and combat, and exploration of a surreal world where you have no idea what's going on. Another key inspiration is A Dark Room, which taught me how to combine these two genres in a small package as an incremental text adventure, while demonstrating that there's an audience for such games on the App Store. A Dark Room also inspired me to make my games accessible to the visually impaired with VoiceOver, which has become one of my key principles. A final test I apply when deciding which game ideas to work on is: is it a game that I want to play but can't find anywhere? Tragically, I never actually enjoy playing my own games because I know them too well.

How do you feel that your games fit into the wider ecosystem? 

VoiceOver-accessible games have turned out to be quite an important niche. There are many visually impaired gamers who can't play the majority of mobile games, so making a game accessible is a way to make it stand out among the millions of games on the App Store. Text-based games are some of the easiest games to make accessible, but accessibility is by no means limited to this genre. Pocket Gamer had an article about this not long ago.

It's hard to define a genre, but I guess I would call most of my games (Nano Empire, Evelyn's Farm, Pocket Reality) "incremental text adventures". Other similar games include A Dark Room, Universal Paperclips, SPACEPLAN, Land of Livia, and Grimoire Incremental. All of these have an element of real-time resource management, and tell a story primarily through text rather than graphics. The beauty of this design space is that an individual can let their imagination run wild and create a unique game without an abundance of time and money. I always hope to see more games like this, but premium text-based games are not exactly the most popular games on the App Store right now...

How do you fund your releases, and what would you do if you had financial backing to develop your work further?

The primary difficulty of being a solo developer is that the game market is completely saturated. There's just not enough time in a day to play all the high-quality indie games that are being released. It's a good problem to have as a player, but as a developer it means my games are highly unlikely to be noticed. So I fund them by having a day job, and I make games because I enjoy it, not because of the money. But thanks to accessible gaming communities like and, I've at least gotten a few hundred downloads per game.

If I magically had more money for game development, then I would hire someone to add art and sound and improve the graphic design. None of these are my specialty; I like to focus on designing mechanics and writing a story. I would still keep my core design philosophy the same: making large numbers of small, quirky, accessible games, each of which tries to imagine a new world.

Edited by Lewis Rees regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.