The mobile game industry is showing no signs of slowing down. It’s actually the contrary – it’s getting bigger each year. Due to this, many are looking to get into the mobile game business as independent developers. By definition, independent – or “indie” – developers differ from big-name studios in three aspects: 1) they’re usually comprised of small teams, 2) they don’t have financial backing from publishers and often distribute games digitally because it’s cheap, and 3) they have more leeway to experiment with gameplay mechanics. Not all indie developers check all three numbers, though.
Indie mobile game developers arguably have a tougher time than indie developers on traditional gaming platforms like PC and consoles. This is because it’s easier and cheaper to develop games for mobile devices, compared to games for PC and consoles, which results in more competition. If you’re planning to dive into the mobile gaming scene as an indie developer, know that the path to success is populated with landmines and other forms of challenges. To give you a taste of what it’s like, here are 6 challenges or hurdles that you need to overcome in the mobile game industry.
1. Massive competition
It’s virtually impossible to come up with an original idea for a mobile game these days. Pretty much everything has been done before. Hundreds of clones and cheap knock-offs of popular games populate Google Play and iTunes. So the next time you think you have an entirely original concept in your hands, think again. It’s likely already existing. Brainstorming for ideas and gameplay concepts is the first and arguably most difficult step.
You need to think of something that would make your game stand out from thousands of others. It’s like trying to create an orange-flavored candy that doesn’t taste like an orange-flavored candy. A good way to get your creative mind humming is to focus on the type of audience you want your game to cater to, and then proceed from there. Just take one step at a time. Also, make sure that whatever you’re cooking isn’t a blatant rip-off of a licensed intellectual property, lest you run into legal issues.
2. Resources and expenses
Compared to established studios, indie mobile game developers are typically dirt poor. You don’t have the money to efficiently work on your game and, unless your game becomes a massive hit overnight, you’re similarly empty post-release (usually for ads and marketing purposes). Hiring a large workforce right from the get-go is pretty much impossible, which likely leads you to regularly ask for favors from friends, colleagues, and family members. But obviously, not everyone is blessed with acquaintances that possess the necessary skills to help in developing a mobile game. You can turn to crowd-funding for financial support, but to successfully get the necessary funds to kick-start your project, you need to produce something that would entice people to invest in your game. Which boomerangs you back to no. 1.
3. Making a cross-platform game
In general, you would want to develop a game that works on a number of operating systems. Sadly, money issues make this very difficult from the beginning. Unless you’re blessed with team members proficient in coding for multiple operating systems, which makes the process slightly easier. There are several factors to consider when developing a multi-OS mobile game. The most obvious of which are the different screen sizes, which is directly tied to resolutions. A game strictly made for a smartphone’s smaller screen won’t look good on an iPad, right? So you have to consider that not everyone plays in the same kind of device.
4. ASO and marketing
Okay, let’s assume you successfully developed an amazing game that you think will blow everyone’s minds. What now? Where do you go from there? The next step would be to work toward making your game more visible. Because, as mentioned, the mobile gaming scene is littered with thousands of other games. Most of them aren’t even real attempts and only serve as annoying fillers on Google Play and iTunes. Your game needs to brave through this sea of games, and the first thing you need to look into is app store optimization (ASO).
Game descriptions aren’t simply chunks of texts that describe a game’s features. Great game descriptions are full of keywords, which are separately researched, and action words that get people to download the game. It doesn’t help that people nowadays are quick to lose interest after reading just one paragraph. So you need to create a killer “hook” to ensure that they read past the first paragraph.
The next hurdle would be marketing your game. There are a number of ways to market your game, like using social media or cross-app promotion (which requires you to hook up with other developers). One of the best ways to market your game is through word-of-mouth. And it all depends on users’ initial experience in your game. If they like what they saw, they are more likely to give you a helping hand by either giving a stellar review or even sharing your game on social media. The first impression is critical, as it opens the floodgate to more people downloading your game.
Needless to say, marketing your game requires that you have social skills. Or at least enough courage to interact with strangers on the internet. You’re basically begging people to notice and download your game, except that you’re not actually begging them like, “Please download my game. Please, please download my game.” You have to do it in a strategic and tactful manner, of course. Another way to promote your game is to not limit it to Google Play and iTunes. There are other app stores out there, like Amazon App Store, SlideMe, and F-Droid.
5. Post-release content
There are usually two kinds of successful mobile games: A) one-hit wonders that become successful for a few months and then gradually fade out of the spotlight, and B) mobile games that stay successful for years after their initial release. Flappy Bird is an example of the former, though legal issues with Nintendo had a hand in shoving it out of the spotlight. Angry Birds, Candy Crush Saga, Crossy Road, and Clash of Clans are examples of the latter. The different between A and B is content. Flappy Bird’s gameplay wasn’t built for longevity and doesn’t offer any other features except for its high score system.
The latter batch of games, though they similarly feature repetitive gameplay mechanics, are built to last. Their respective developers can continue to monetize them by pumping them with post-release content every now and then. If you really want to maximize your game’s monetization potential, you need to design it with extended play in mind. You don’t have to put numerous features in the game right from the start. You can gradually release updates and patches that would keep people interested in your game.
Also, be sure to regularly interact with your player-base. Don’t neglect them when you start raking in thousands of dollars every day off of your game. If you treat them badly and make them feel like you’re just milking them for money, don’t be surprised if an exodus happens. Making sure that your game stays successful (assuming it achieves success in the first place) is another story. Developing mobile games should be seen as a long-term investment, not just some one-off thing.
6. Mobile game security
The last hurdle you would need to overcome is your game’s security. We’re not going to be all technical on this, but here are a few things that you need to worry about: A) piracy, which doesn’t really need explanation, B) other developers who reverse-engineer your game code to produce blatant clones, which is the reason why app stores are littered with such things, and C) a hole in your in-app purchasing system, which could lead to lost profits from illegally acquired items or services. Make sure your game is well-protected against such attacks. Because once your game achieves massive success, it will become a target of other developers hoping to cut into your profits.
A trio of successful indie game developers
Still reading this? That means the above-mentioned challenges and hurdles have not swayed you into abandoning your dream of developing a successful mobile game. As they say, one of the best ways to learn is to learn from the best. Having said that, here are three indie game studios that achieved success in different ways. You’re probably familiar with all of them, thanks to their massively successful “signature” games.
Based in Melbourne, Australia, Hipster Whale is the most recently founded of the three. But don’t let the studio’s infancy in the mobile gaming scene fool you: They already have partnership deals with Disney Interactive Studios and Bandai Namco Entertainment. Hipster Whale is best known for creating the hit game Crossy Road, which is still popular today. Bluntly speaking, Crossy Road is just a re-skinned Frogger, a classic arcade game. Instead of developing a never-before-seen concept, Hipster Whale merely took an existing one and modernized it.
They added dozens of playable characters who are basically just clones of each other and created a visual style that’s similar to Minecraft, an ultra-popular game among younger audiences. Hipster Whale is an example of a studio who took an original idea and then made enough changes to not make it look too obvious it’s based off that idea. They showed that you don’t have to be entirely original in the mobile gaming scene to achieve success.
Halfbrick Studios is similarly based in Australia. They have been around since 2001, with more than a dozen games across multiple consoles under their belt. They entered the mobile gaming scene back in 2010 with the game Age of Zombies, which you probably know nothing about. However, they didn’t have to wait long before they got their first taste of success in the mobile industry. In the same year, they released a little game called Fruit Ninja. If this is the first time you’ve heard of the game, then congratulations on your return to the real world.
The gameplay of Fruit Ninja is extremely simple, relying solely on touchscreen swipes. Even a 3-year-old can easily pick up on the gameplay. It’s one of the most addicting games to play on-the-go, allowing users to quickly get back into the game anytime. Halfbrick Studios also produced another hit game the following year: Jetpack Joyride, which similarly features excellent gameplay mechanics. Halfbrick Studios is a great example of a studio who excels at creating an addicting gameplay that makes it hard for users to put down their devices.
Like Halfbrick Studios, Telltale Games has been around for more than a decade. Founded in 2004, the still-independent studio has developed more than 20 games for multiple platforms. Many of which were based on licensed intellectual properties. Unlike most other developers, Telltale Games create their games in episodic format. They also have a penchant for focusing more on storytelling than action-packed gameplay. Some of their most well-known games include Minecraft: Story Mode, Batman: The Telltale Series, and The Walking Dead series. Kabam could learn a thing or two from them on how to properly develop a game based on popular intellectual properties.
However, though Telltale Games is one of the most well-known indie developers in the video game industry due to their distinct style, they are also notoriously known for the amount of bugs and glitches present in their games. So aside from being an excellent example of a studio who knows how to captivate audiences without the need for action-packed gameplay, they are also an example of a studio who constantly overlooks errors, which is something other developers should never emulate.
There are other indie mobile game developers who made it big in the mobile gaming scene. And no, not all of them are located in Australia. Two more things to keep in mind as an indie developer: First, don’t let money and greed cloud your judgment once you achieve success. User experience in your game always comes first. And second, don’t give up too soon. The aforementioned 6 challenges are daunting, so it’s important to keep your resolve throughout every roadblock.
(Featured image: Pixabay)