What Mobile Games Can (and Can?t) Learn from AAA Concepts

Insights & Best Practices

June 19, 2015


min read

Like the ancient Chinese curse says, small game developers live in interesting times. They have the chance to grab their place on the largest possible stage and experience the kind of success that used to be the sole province of triple-A development teams.I faced this exact scenario while working as Executive Creative Director at Industrial Toys. We were a small, well-funded startup with big goals ? but in a crowded marketplace, how could we grab our place in the sun?For our team, the answer was carefully and thoughtfully adapting a console concept we knew and loved. But using your favorite game as inspiration is only the beginning ? translating it effectively and making it truly unique requires careful thought. Here are a few key lessons I learned along the way:

Function follows form

Tip: Don't fall into the trap of holding onto an old form factor simply because it's familiar. Think about your core mechanics and derive the most intuitive, natural controls you can for your target device.


There have been a number of first-person shooters developed for mobile games, but since many of the developers making those games are familiar with first-person shooters on console, they ignore the natural form factor of their target hardware and force their games to work like successful console games. This is often most evident in the game controls, which attempt to create ?virtual dual joysticks." Unfortunately, this solution is often frustrating and unsatisfactory to players, leaving good games to suffer because of poor controls.

"...But creating a shooter on mobile required us to re-examine exactly what elements we wanted to include in the experience, and then build a control scheme around those mechanics."

Industrial Toys faced a similar problem as we were designing our launch title, Midnight Star. The team's pedigree on the Halo franchise made a shooter the logical choice as a first offering from the studio. But creating a shooter on mobile required us to re-examine exactly what elements we wanted to include in the experience, and then build a control scheme around those mechanics.[caption id="attachment_9047" align="alignleft" width="900"]

DustMelee image

Image via midnightstargame.com[/caption]By starting from the simple form factor of the touch screen on mobile we made decisive decisions about adapting mechanics ? such as basic targeting, reloading, zooming with a sniper scope, aiming and even taking cover ? to suit the platform. For example, rather than driving a targeting reticule on screen, the game allows the player to simply touch targets that they want to shoot. Zooming in on an enemy is accomplished with an intuitive pinch open motion, native to the hardware. And instead of forcing the player to physically move in and out of cover, we designed a temporary force field that the player could activate by holding two fingers on screen.

Don't copy ? distill

Tip: Identify the core game loop, then adapt it to a "smaller" format to suit the mobile market (and your team's capabilities).

loop GIF

The core gameplay loop at the heart of every triple-A game defines the game's primary action. The ability to move, shoot or grenade at any time created what Bungie Studios calls the ?5 seconds of fun" in the Halo series of games, for example, and that loop is repeated over and over with variations to create the content.VainGlory from developer Super Evil Megacorp has done a fantastic job of distilling the essence of a triple-A title.You've probably heard of League of Legends, the megahit multiplayer online battle arena game developed by Riot Games, which itself was a more refined version of its predecessor, Defense of the Ancients (DOtA). League of Legends features two teams of five players in a head-to-head battle for control of a huge map, littered with specific objectives. Players take the role of individual champions with their own distinct powers and roles in the game and the gameplay stresses situational awareness, individual skill and team coordination.Tapping into the proven market for League of Legends seems like a no-brainer. But early attempts to reproduce its success in the mobile market fell flat?until the VainGlory developers made some wise decisions to distill key elements of the formula into a slicker, mobile-friendly format.[caption id="attachment_9044" align="aligncenter" width="900"]

Image via Super Evil Megacorp

Image via Super Evil Megacorp[/caption]League of Legends games average 35 minutes or longer as players (in teams of five) struggle to force a climactic final battle. The VainGlory team chose to shrink its teams to three (to reduce matchmaking time) and simplify the sprawling format. The result: Instead of wandering the map searching for their enemies, players continually come into contact with each other to participate in fun battles. This increases the moment-to-moment fun, and reduces the overall length of games to about 15 minutes.

Money by design

Tip: Unlike triple-A games, mobile games need individualized monetization strategies. Choose an approach that appeals to you, as a player.Of course, since players pay a premium price upfront, triple-A games only have to worry about monetization once. But the modern marketplace demands that small developers design their monetization strategy along with their core game play?and since there are as many monetization strategies as there are stars in the sky, it can be hard for a team to know how to approach this thorny question.Once again, studying the successes of previous titles can help show you the way to proceed.My advice would be to keep your approach personal. Find a game that you love that uses a form of micropayments and that you have either paid for yourself, or that you've at least considered paying for. Then analyze why you felt compelled to pay. Was it the genre that you found compelling? Was it something about how often you felt you had to pay? Did you find the core game loop addictive?Once you've analyzed a game that you love, you can begin to adapt their strategies into your own design. After all, if you wouldn't pay into a monetization model in a competing product, there's very little chance that you'll be able to tune your own model to attract and retain customers.