How to get a job as a mobile games developer
Bailey agrees. “Initially, we developed using Objective-C and Java models for iOS and Android, but so much time was spent reworking the thing that we’ve gravitated towards cross-platform.” MBXDigital uses several frameworks, including Adobe AIR, the Corona SDK and Unity. “The languages between these are maybe 60% the same, so it isn’t too big a learning curve.”
Is it better to focus on iOS or Android? “iOS is still the lead platform many developers go for first, although Android is rapidly catching up,” says Virapen, although Bailey notes “there’s really no excuse for a game to only be on one platform, as the effort to deploy to both Android and iOS (and possibly Windows mobile and desktops) is about 20% to 30% extra for a potential doubling of your audience.”
The mobile games industry is changing, however, and, with established players such as Gameloft, EA and Chillingo throwing marketing dollars around, some smaller teams and independents are being squeezed out.
“The initial gold rush faded 18 months ago,” says Bailey. “Eight or nine of the titles in any top ten list are either from financially well-backed developers, big studios or known and popular IPs.” For this reason, newcomers may be advised to find a position with an established name.
Every kid you ever meet thinks you’re cool because you make and play games for a job
But there’s still room for solo developers and small teams to make great games – and flourish. “It all comes down to the marketing and raising awareness,” explains Holland. “Engaging with the players and creating a great social awareness is key to getting a smaller-budget indie game into the limelight.”
For Virapen, it’s about balancing the difficulties against the potential rewards. “The mobile games market is growing at a staggering rate – there’s never been a better time to be involved. You just have to be aware of the risks.”
Mobile games development brings with it unique challenges, partly because mobile devices are used differently from consoles and PCs.
“They’re often a secondary screen,” says Gogogic’s Bjargmundsson. “They come out when people are bored and have a few minutes to kill, which affects the whole development process.”
Games must be able to cope with disruptions. “When designing a game for mobile, we have to be aware that the software may be paused at any time for an incoming call, or that we could lose the network connection,” says Bailey. “It’s something we need to design around.”
Technical limitations are always a concern, with memory in particular in short supply. “Very often during development we’ll find an app exiting with memory warnings when it shouldn’t,” says Bailey. “Each time this needs to be tracked down and dealt with harshly.”
Holland agrees. “There are considerable memory limitations on current devices that tend to lead to cutting-edge games only able to play on the latest devices.” He also notes that, while developers can state this in descriptions on the app store, players don’t always read this before they buy, leading to bad reviews.
Fragmentation is another major challenge, with a wide gamut of devices, chipsets and screens to support.
For Bjargmundsson, this is part and parcel of the job. “Fit great gameplay to the limitations posed by the platform, find a way to engage with your audience, make sure you’re staying within the technical boundaries, and take different screen sizes and resolutions into account.” This is an area where iOS has an advantage. “We have, especially in the case of iOS, a very targeted platform where we know in advance the exact specification users have,” says Bailey. “This helps us optimise frame rates, animation and other performance issues.”
But the hardest thing is getting noticed and standing out after release, Bailey adds. “A good budget for promotion would be nice, but it often isn’t possible, so we try to build in the tools for our users to sell it for us to their friends.”
Doing this without annoying pop-up messages is, he feels, an art. Virapen also notes the challenge. “There are hundreds of high-quality games released every week, and trying to get noticed and ensure your potential audience knows about your game can be difficult, although not impossible.”
Working for a studio can net you £20,000 to £50,000 per year, or more, depending on experience, but it isn’t always a stable job. Big Pixel Studios has built a successful business by splitting between work-for-hire on branded apps and its own original IP development, but some studios have risked their whole business on a single game and closed down as a result.
For Virapen, the most rewarding thing about the job is “having hundreds of thousands – or millions – of players enjoying something that a relatively small team has created”.
Bailey likes making money from a game’s sales – “you know people are enjoying it” – but also lists another bonus: “Every kid you ever meet thinks you’re cool because you make and play games for a job.”