When the Chicago-based Wideload Games — a developer better known for console games like Stubbs the Zombie and the post-Disney acquisition Wii title Guilty Party — set its sights on mobile, it wanted to bring a console-like experience to the iOS platform. But in a GDC presentation by creative director Patrick Moran titled "Avengers Initiative: Transitioning from Console to Mobile," he explained why that goal wasn't only more complicated than it originally appeared but also what he and the studio learned in the process.
"I come from console game development and in console game development you make the best game you can, put it in a box, and ship it," Moran told the audience. But the world of mobile game development isn't that cut and dry. In fact, the entire mobile gaming landscape changed during the relatively long development cycle for the studio's game, a Marvel-themed iOS brawler called Avengers Initiative.
"This game took longer than 12 months [to develop] and the market was different when we released than it was when we started," he said. That shift was specifically one from premium games on the iOS App Store towards so-called "freemium" games using a free-to-play model.
Wideload was also challenged culturally, adapting a traditional console game developer to the realities of mobile game development. "In some ways you're better off starting a whole new studio," he said.
"We were under the core games division which is traditionally the console game division," he explained, referencing the branch of Disney Interactive Studios working on projects like Epic Mickey titles and the upcoming Disney Infinity. The organization wasn't prepared to deal with Wideload's "faster, more aggressive schedule" and it took some time before the studio knew to ask for meetings and feedback earlier and more regularly.
That cultural disconnect was also responsible for some oaf the assumptions made about the studio's capabilities mapped to the mobile gaming landscape. "We've worked on action games, but when you go to mobile development, tablet development, the play styles are different," he said. Genre parity "doesn't matter," since a brawler on a touch screen is a fundamentally different experience.
"We came in pretty confident and quickly learned that we had a lot to learn," he said, later adding, "The truth is, these are real games for real gamers. They just look different."
"Be very careful and humble about how you look at [mobile] games."
What Moran and company learned is that the investment in a polished, "console-like" experience didn't necessarily result in appreciation from users. "Everything you raise the bar on, everything you push the barrier on, you lose players," he said, referencing seemingly subtle things like download size and simplicity of presentation.
Moran also discussed some of the unknown complications of succeeding on the iOS App Store, most notably the immense cost of "install deals," which are services that will guarantee a certain number of app installs in order to propel your app up Apple's various marketplace metrics. The issue, he said, is that the acquisition cost per user can be more than the actual value of that user. That cost, citing data acquired from a friend of his, is $1.70 per install. After Apple's 30 percent take on a $1.99 purchase, that math isn't very favorable.
"You need a war chest of money," he said. "If you're an indie dev, you're up again these guys with a war chest of money." If you think that charging more for your game to offset that acquisition cost might be a winning strategy, he said, "If you're an expensive game, they won't guarantee installs."
"You've heard this before, and I just want to reiterate it and I believe it: This is where our largest audience is going to be going forward, on mobile. Maybe not your most engaged audience, perhaps not your highest monetized audience, but because it has the most number of people playing games it's your biggest chance at potential success."