How to get a job as a mobile games developer

Gaming is a huge global business, and no sector is growing faster than mobile. According to analyst IBISWorld, worldwide revenue rose from $2 million to $4.5 billion between 2007 and 2012, and that figure is expected to triple to $12 billion by 2017.

How to get a job as a mobile games developer

Fuelled by blockbuster successes such as Angry Birds and Temple Run, the industry now involves thousands of development teams, ranging from small independent studios to subsidiaries of Electronic Arts (EA).

It’s an industry that’s maturing, and, while this means the days of the back-bedroom iPhone game developer might be numbered, there are still great opportunities for programmers, artists, animators and game designers.

The mobile difference

What differentiates mobile games development from traditional PC or console games development? According to Paul Virapen, managing director at UK developer Big Pixel Studios, “the main difference is probably the size of the teams and the budgets involved. On conventional console or PC titles, the team might be a few hundred people. Mobile development teams tend to be much smaller – anywhere from one-man bands to around eight to ten people.”

Development timescales differ, too, with cycles measured in months rather than years. “Mobile games development generally has a much quicker turnaround time,” says Mark Holland, creative director of Sync Interactive. “As a lot of mobile games are based around current trends and fashions, developers need to be on the ball and pick up on changes in the markets.”

Mobile development teams tend to be much smaller – anywhere from one-man bands to around eight to ten people

Gummi Bjargmundsson, co-founder of Icelandic developer Gogogic, agrees. “[The cycle] has to be shorter, as innovation and trends happen more rapidly.”

That said, this frantic pace has its upsides, giving studios more scope to take risks on smaller projects, says Sync Interactive’s Holland. “While console games are increasingly playing it safe, and new IPs [‘intellectual properties’, a gaming term for popular franchises] and game concepts are becoming less common, the mobile sector is becoming increasingly innovative,” he says.

While most conventional games are shipped as a finished product, mobile games evolve after release. Holland says freemium business models – where the game is free but users pay for extra features – are becoming dominant, with “games often released as a barebones product, and developed and added to with new features and improvements based on user feedback”.

Malcolm Bailey, game development director at UK studio MBXDigital, concurs. “Once a game is launched, we can iterate much faster and push out updates to all users on an almost daily basis.”

Look inside a mobile studio and you’ll find the same tasks being undertaken as in a PC or console studio, with people working on art and animation, designing game mechanics and scripting levels, handling audio, and building and tweaking the underlying code. The difference is that roles often merge in a smaller team.

“We don’t have a dedicated game designer,” says Big Pixel’s Virapen. “All of us get involved in the design aspect of each game. The same goes for audio design; sometimes one of our developers or artists might produce the sound effects or music.”

Bailey finds the same is true at MBX: “Everyone is expected to at least use Photoshop to manipulate images or create sprite sheets… the only role that really stays ‘pure’ is design and animation.” The advantage of merging is that it creates a more organic team. “It becomes very much a ‘live’ process,” says Holland, “whereby features and designs change as the project develops.”

Required skills

In terms of skills, mobile games development isn’t vastly different to console games development. Designers will use scripting languages such as Python and Lua, artists and animators will need a solid working knowledge of Photoshop and Autodesk’s 3ds Max or Maya, while variants of C remain the backbone of development, with Objective-C particularly useful within the iOS world.

For starter positions in a studio, a degree in computer science, maths or a relevant digital design discipline is often more useful than a games-specific course. Many games degrees are still viewed with suspicion, although there are exceptions, such as the courses run at the University of Abertay Dundee.

Increasingly, mobile games development is based around cross-platform frameworks such as Unity, enabling developers to work on iOS and Android titles without having to work on separate codebases.

“A lot of developers are now using Unity to create their games, rather than building custom in-house engines,” explains Virapen. “Unity is great, because it supports a variety of platforms.”

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