GDC 2012: How Vector Unit made the leap from console to mobile games
Matt Small, creative director at independent developer Vector Unit, thought his small studio would focus on consoles forever when it was working on Hydro Thunder Hurricane for Xbox Live Arcade.
But then the smartphone and tablet market picked up, and mobile devices started to offer increasing amounts of processing power. That increase in power opened up new opportunities for the people at Vector Unit, which had years of developing for consoles.
So the studio worked with Tegra chipmaker Nvidia and created the Android and iOS game Riptide GP, a jet ski racing game that took five months to develop. After that came another multiplatform water racing game, Shine Runner, which took about four months to develop.
At GDC 2012, Small laid out 10 tips for console game developers who are considering making the leap to mobile.
1. "Embrace the brutal truth of the mobile market."
Small warned that the vast majority of sales in the mobile game market come from a small percentage of developers -- it's an extremely crowded and competitive market. "The top 1 percent is very hard to get into unless you're Angry Birds," said Small.
2. "Rethink roles"
At small studios in particular, people need to be able to do more than one thing well. "When you're building a team especially when you're hiring a startup, you need people who are flexible," said Small.
3. "Build Efficiently"
Vector Unit's development process was built around efficiency. That's reflected in the short development cycles of Riptide GP and Shine Runners, which took five months and four months to develop, respectively.
4. "Identify your audience"
Small also said it's important to know who you're making your games for. "Hardcore" players and "casual" players use their mobile devices for games, so there are lots of opportunities for mobile game makers.
"These audiences are totally merging. There's ton of hardcore gamers on mobiles, and there and also lots of casual players," he said.
"I think there's an audience for just about any kind of game you want to make on mobile. ...Use the [audience] as a benchmark...don't try to be all things to all people."
5. "Be ruthless with your feature set"
Vector unit was careful from the beginning to identify the core features of the game in development. Everything must relate back to this feature set. In Hydro Thunder, for example, "We wanted a really tight moment to moment gameplay," said Small, and that remained a focus throughout development.
6. "Get 'organizized'"
"I think actual task-tracking and organization, that is really important," said Small. It takes extra effort to track tasks and development in spreadsheets, but when a studio records all of the details of making a game, it then has a concrete point of reference for the time and effort it takes to perform specific tasks (e.g. adding a new race track). This practice is also something that developers with console game backgrounds may already have experience with.
7. "Don't be precious"
"Don't be precious with your ideas," said Small. Developer don't need to make a game top secret during its development. Small teams have the tendency to become very insular. It's best to look for input outside the walls of the studio.
"It's really important to get it in front of friends and family, you want to pull people off the street [to try your game and give feedback]," said Small.
8. "Ship your Beta?"
Console game developers may not be used to shipping a game that isn't 100 percent "done." Mobile platforms offer developers opportunities to constantly update games with new features. But that doesn't mean developers should ship broken games. "It's really important to ship something that actually works... something that is truly a minimum viable product." He added, "Make sure that you schedule time afterwards to respond to things."
9. "Control! Style! UI!"
Small said control, style and UI are three elements that mobile developers should focus on. Regarding a distinct style, Small added, "With a small team you can't necessarily out-Chair [Infinity Blade developer] Chair. ... But come up with an art style that is compelling and works to the strengths of your team."
10. "Go Cross Platform"
Making multiplatform mobile games takes effort, but it paid off for Vector Unit. "In our experience on Riptide, [sales of the] iPhone version basically made up for our development costs," he said. But the Android version helped Vector Unit actually turn a meaningful profit.
"Our Android sales have pretty much topped iPhone sales," said Small. He added that games hold sales levels over a longer period of time. "There is a thicker tail for Android sales," he said.
While he highly encouraged cross-platform mobile development, Small added, "Your mileage may vary with this."
Cheap and simple
Opportunities abound for console game developers who are considering mobile development, Small said. "The tide is kind of changing, you're seeing more and more high-end 3D games [on mobile]," said Small. "...You can throw an amazing amount of data at the screen. ... Those kinds of things are starting to become viable on mobile now. And there's opportunity for console developers."
He added, "Keep it cheap, keep it simple, and try to manage your costs so you can balance it out with revenue later on."