5 Business Lessons Rookie Mobile Game Devs Learned the Hard Way

Insights & Best Practices

April 1, 2015


min read

Starting out in mobile game development isn't for the faint of heart. There?s no rulebook to follow, and it?s easy to unwittingly make missteps that could cost you big in terms of downloads, player reviews and monetization.Getting advice from mobile developers who?ve already made their big mistakes might not guarantee you success, but it?ll help smooth your path. With that in mind, I reached out to a selection of indie studios and industry professionals across the globe to identify some of the biggest rookie errors that new mobile game developers make ? and how to avoid those slip-ups.Some told me they could write a book on the subject, but I?ve filtered their collective advice down to five?key points.

1. Think small

It?s easy to have ambitious ideas for your mobile game; it?s far harder to deliver on those ambitions. Have realistic expectations of what you can do.?Make something that you can polish,? says Yosef Safi Harb, co-creator of Amsterdam-based Happitech's innovative heartbeat-controlled iPhone game Skip a Beat. ?Because you?re small and have to make [your game look] absolutely great, you have to keep your ambitions very, very small.?If you do overreach, you?re unlikely to meet the high standards necessary to succeed in an increasingly cutthroat mobile marketplace. The big game studios employ hundreds of people and spend millions of dollars to make their games look polished. To make something that stands out and competes on a fraction of that budget, you'll need to compromise somewhere.

2. Pick a few ad partners and stick with them

If you decide to monetize your game with advertising, outsource your ad operations to a few companies that you trust and stick with them, advises Omri Halamish, a digital media expert who speaks about user acquisition and monetization strategies for game developers in China. While it?s important to initially shop around and do your research, additional browsing will just be a waste of your development time."Take one or two months, make your reviews and choose three partners to work with, and that?s it," Halamish says. "The incremental value that you?ll drive from getting new partners won't be worth your effort.You need to focus on making your games.?

3. Test your game

It?s easy to assume that other people will love and understand your mobile game just as you do, but don't wait until user reviews roll in to find out if that's the case.?Everybody is very protective and wants to make the perfect game,? says Laura Bularca, producer at Sweden-based game incubator Gothia Innovation AB. ?But they have to be open, and they have to speak about their game. All feedback is good feedback ? if there is no feedback, that?s a problem.?This doesn?t just mean giving your game to friends and family. They?re way too nice. Proper, organized playtests can help you identify areas of your game that need further explanation, tweaking, or ? most painfully ? reworking completely.?We underestimated how to ease the user in,? says Hosni Auji, the Lebanon-based developer of iPad puzzler Zero Age, explaining some of the feedback he?s received from players post-launch. ?We expected that because we get it, they?re going to get it. Maybe we spiked the difficulty too much too early.?READ MORE ABOUT TESTING: Guest blogger Eric Seufert explains the ins and outs of testing

4. Identify and target your core audience

Newcomers to the mobile game development scene must connect with an audience. If you try to be too clever, you might alienate the very people that you should be targeting.San Francisco-based game developer Muir Freeland, for example, built the iOS brick-breaker Blowfish Meets Meteor and marketed it toward ?subvert genre tropes,? adding clever action and puzzle twists to the gameplay. As a result, the core brick-breaker audience just didn?t get it. ?I suspect we also didn?t quite hook the action or puzzle audiences,? Freeland writes on his developer blog.Without a clear focus, Blowfish Meets Meteor didn?t gain the traction on the App Store that it needed. In fact, the game shows up better in puzzle searches than it does in searches for brick-breakers ? though the latter were his target players.

5. Launch before it's "perfect"

Sometimes, mobile developers sit on their games for far too long, stuck in an endless iteration cycle driven by perfectionism. That means you might release too late to an ever-changing market, and it also means you?ll be stuck without an income for a long time.?Launch early,? Happitech's Safi Harb says. ?It?s two years [on] and we haven?t launched anything. You get stuck [thinking], ?It?s not good enough.??When your development cycle spirals out of control, you still need to keep a roof over your head and keep yourself fed. It?s a very real issue for a lot of small mobile game developers.Constantin Graf, German indie developer of the upcoming mobile puzzler SwapQuest, says he planned to finish the game in half a year. It's taken nearly two. ?It?s been really tough for me,? he says. "My money has gone and [the game] has to be released now.?---------------Daniel Crawley is a U.K.-based freelance writer, sometime teacher and regular contributor to GamesBeat and VentureBeat. He is passionate about gaming, technology and education.