Pivoting a console studio to a mobile studio isn't easy. Everything from your technology pipeline to your design sensibilities and way of thinking about your audience has to change.
Just ask Crytek's Kristoffer Waardahl, head of its Budapest studio. The team's last game was Ryse, the Xbox One launch title so ambitious that other parts of Crytek had to be brought in to finish the project. Now, the studio has refocused on mobile, and partnered with DeNA for the launch of its first iOS game: The Collectables
is an attempt to leverage Crytek's core competencies in terms of game design and technology in creating games that fit mobile play (and pay) patterns. It's a tactical squad shooter with touch mechanics, where special abilities come in the form of collectable cards: Players guide their squad through the levels, and then tap cards at the bottom of the screen to drop bombs, turrets, and the like into the middle of the action.
A Mobile Game... From Crytek?
"We've always wanted to bring a certain Crytek fidelity to all of our games," Waardahl says. The game certainly looks nice on an up-to-date iPad, but that masks the tough realities of developing on the platform: "The fidelity on these new devices is awesome, and you have a lot of potential, but you have to manage your reserves very nicely," Waardahl says. "The tech team had to look at every angle to come up with solutions."
CPU, GPU, memory, and storage are all very constrained. "You can't just scale back features like you could on PC. You have to think outside of the box," Waardahl says.
There is an upside, though, which excites these PC-trained devs: "Every year there's a new platform, new tech -- that's very interesting to us from a tech perspective," says Waardahl. While the PC platform has stabilized compared to the old days, with mobile "we haven't reached a peak yet. There's a lot of room for development."
"The technology develops really, really rapidly," he says. "Never underestimate what you have and what you can do. What you can do is far bigger than you think."
And while the scope of Ryse made the project overwhelming for the studio, mobile "reminds you a little bit of the indie times of PC -- small teams can become very effective, and become very successful as well," says Waardahl. Unlike triple-A development, "it's also so much fun because it's still very free... you can do a lot of games really rapidly, see what people react to."
Making it Work on Mobile
The move to mobile has forced a certain design clarity on the team that they aren't used to. PC gamers are "very helpful" to developers, in a way, because "they're super hardcore guys," more willing to look up info about games and how to play them online. Mobile gamers need instant accessibility; the exit button is part of the physical device.
The challenge is making a game that's "a challenge but accessible" and "fun without dumbing it down" while being mindful of "short session times" and "very different control schemes." These are all "very, very different challenges than what you do on PC."
"Stuff that comes natural to you on PC... we need to solve that for you" on mobile, notes Waardahl. "We need to have a really clever camera now, because people won't want to manage a camera."
And this leads to design invention too: Some things work on mobile not just because they fit the business model, but because they fit the platform's characteristics. The game "started like a very typical tactical game," with a class system, he says, but the design quickly hit a brick wall: "How am I going to tell my guys apart when the action is going?"
You might assume the card mechanics were shoehorned into the game to make it a viable free-to-play product, but Waardahl says things are not that simple. "We like them; we have a lot of card gamers in the studio, so we figured that might be a very, very good solution to streamline how we communicate."
"The design space is really wide and we had to try to narrow it down... how to communicate what the characters are doing and the abilities are," Waardahl says.
Working Through That Free-to-Play Skepticism
But what does he say to free-to-play skeptics who haven't yet made the transition his studio has? "It's very common -- it's a human reaction to have adversity to stuff you don't know, and you're uncomfortable with."
However, he says, "It's all about execution. That's in common between $60 premium games and free-to-play games: If you execute it well the customer is going to be happy. If you don't do it right, you mess up the whole experience. It's a craft, in the same way -- I wouldn't say they're necessarily opposite."
One thing he has learned is that you can't make assumptions about what works for your game based on the success of others. Though Crytek has had help from DeNA's free-to-play experts, it's also had to find its own path. There are "no examples" of a game like The Collectables
so far -- one that blends tactical shooting with collectable cards, Waardahl says.
That complicates things, because developers need to solve problems to ship games. "You're looking all over the marketplace to see what everyone's doing. There's no silver bullet -- that's number one. And if it were easy to do, then everyone would be doing it," he says. "It's very easy to get stuck in the survivorship bias: They're successful. We should look at what they're doing. But that's not right for our game!"
One thing Waardahl is clear about, however, is this: "Free-to-play should be free to play."
"We're super keen on making sure the game is free-to-play... There's no blockers or stuff like that, there's no gate where we're forcing anyone to pay," he says. Completing missions will get players card packs, and though the game does have performance-enhancing in-app purchases, he maintains that a bit of grinding will see free players through the campaign.
To successfully pivot your studio to mobile, there's one thing to keep in mind, says Waardahl. "It's the best way to do anything: Do what you're passionate about and make sure it's fun, and you should love it. If the game is fun people will spend time with it and people enjoy it. That's what we've been doing for 15-plus years, and that's what drives us."