Dan McAuliffe – Independent
While the game industry has seen rapid growth in the past decade, the mobile sector in particular has exploded. What was once a niche area of game development has spawned entirely new genres, play styles, and markets. Dan McAuliffe has witnessed those changes firsthand. After working on dedicated mobile gaming devices like the GBA, PSP, and DS, Dan joined Glu Mobile and switched to smartphone development. His most recent position was Head of Studio at Z2 Live, but he’s also held producer and designer titles. Over the course of his career Dan has worked with established franchises like Assassin’s Creed and The Sims, as well as original IP. In the interview below, Dan discusses the challenges of mobile game design, the stigma of free-to-play, and how to make games that stand out in a crowded market.
Free to play monetization techniques were a big topic of discussion at GDC this year. How do you think F2P monetization will change in the next few years? How should mobile developers be looking to evolve their monetization strategies?
F2P monetization has changed dramatically over the past few years and will continue to evolve as developers strive to form lasting relationships with their players. We have seen friction based strategies like Pay-to-Win and Pay-Walls diminish in favor of the more player friendly Pay-for-Convenience type techniques. Over the next few years that trend will continue. More importantly, as the F2P audience matures, an emphasis on quality becomes even more critical.
Much like any successful retail business, mobile studios should be perpetually challenging their monetization strategies with regards to tactical techniques. Their primary focus, however, should be to provide a quality experience to their players. I firmly believe that the myriad gimmicks and tropes found in F2P games are irrelevant without an amazing game. It sounds simple, but a great many games on the market fail to grasp this point. Players will spend on a great game if you allow them to do so.
You’ve spent most of your time in the game industry as a producer. Describe one of the most difficult choices you had to make as a producer in order to get a game shipped. What was the fallout from your decision?
Everyone in game development is familiar with the dreaded ‘Iron Triangle’ of Production: Quality – Budget – Schedule (or colloquially, Good – Cheap – Fast). The running joke is that you only ever get to pick two. The toughest scenario I ever faced was when I was explicitly directed to pick one: Schedule.
A few years ago I was brought in towards the end of a multi-platform, large scale development that was nearing the end of its schedule, but was not close to completion. My job was to get it to a shippable state as fast as possible by any means necessary. I went through the backlog and cut any content or feature that wasn’t critical to the core gameplay or wasn’t 100% complete. Things like aspirational unlockables and achievements fell by the wayside. The entire team crunched like mad to complete a shell of the game they had been building.
In the end, we did what we set out to do: we completed a competent game that passed all major first party certification and shipped on time with its movie tie-in. The developers, however, were the fallout. We weren’t as proud of the end result as we could have been if things had run differently from the onset. It burned out some folks and the studio lost some really great people in the end.
You’ve been making mobile titles for a long time – since before phones were a viable platform. What are the major differences in mobile development today versus 2003 when you started at Griptonite? How has the development process changed? What things have remained the same?
Griptonite was not a major player in the ‘feature phone’ era because it was not considered a top end platform, even for a handheld studio. We were involved in some scattered initiatives to bring our Sims title for the Game Boy Advance to the N-Gage and various other phones, but never developed for it directly. That type of initiative required a seemingly arcane understanding of the various handsets in addition to a complex network of carrier relationships.
Smartphones have significantly changed that barrier to entry. Apple specifically made it exceptionally easy for anyone to develop for and distribute on their platform. This opened the door for companies like Griptonite to dabble in the space with a relatively low risk profile. Our Dungeon Solitaire game was an early attempt, but a profitable one.
The largest difference over the past few years, however, is the competitive landscape. F2P has opened the door to immense profitability and, as such, has brought new and bigger players to the table. In addition, the devices have grown in power and capability at a staggering rate. It has become expensive to keep up with the Joneses, which further limits the field.
Last, but not least, is discoverability. The console world basically operates within a closed distribution system that yields exponentially fewer games competing for both player’s attention and dollars. The CPI arms race has changed the way games are developed, or at least presented, in the early user experience. F2P games need a quick hook to grab the player’s attention lest they leave for another option (of which there are legion). And with no skin in the game, that option is sure to be exercised.
What is the key to a really positive studio culture and a high morale? How do you maintain this as you grow, or encounter production problems?
At the risk of oversimplifying, there are two critical components to a great studio culture: clear, unified goals and transparent communication. When I joined Z2 a year ago, I remember being extraordinarily impressed by the onboarding. During my orientation with HR, I was presented with the Z2 studio values. We probably spent more time on those than anything else that day. It was important to the company that I understood what mattered to Z2 as an organization, and I recall feeling a sense of pride in the company. On my first day!
Fully transparent, frequent communication is the only way to maintain small company culture and morale while growing. People need to know where the company is headed, what it is trying to achieve and, critically, how they can help achieve that goal. There is an energy that accompanies unified purpose that cannot be ignored.
Some well-known core developers, like Jonathan Blow of Braid fame, denounce F2P games as lacking a purity or integrity that “pay to play” games have. Blow argues that this method of monetization constrains the design of F2P games into something homogenous. What’s your response to this attitude that F2P games are a less pure expression of the medium?
I feel that arguments about the integrity of F2P games are, in general, gross overstatements. Every game in development comes with a series of restraints: license, platform, hardware features, etc. F2P monetization is simply another one in the line. And like any of the other ones mentioned, some games handle them well and some poorly. The best F2P games offer opt-in value propositions to enhance an already compelling game play experience. While this is a different design challenge than traditional pay-to-play development, it is no less legitimate.
Jonathan Blow referenced Arcade machines in his talk, but they are a perfect example to combat his supposition. Those games were designed in smaller chunks of rapidly escalating difficulty. Each level or section individually ramped up in difficulty as well so that the player was more likely to fail towards the end, when they had already completed 90%. All of this was devised to get more quarters from the player. It changed the way those games were designed. As an aside, most of those machines had difficulty settings controlled by the arcade proprietor so that they could tune the profitability of each machine.
Back at Griptonite, we made a large number of games on the Nintendo DS for various publishers. This was a device that was chock full of hardware gimmicks: touch screen, microphone, local/global wireless, etc. Each game we created had to use those features in some way, regardless of whether or not it fit the core design. This was to serve the needs of branding and marketing in the hopes of selling more copies in an effort to make more money.
F2P design is a variation on a theme that has always existed. The best games in the field are simply great games. Look back to the console project that I previously mentioned. Regardless of how that came about, it was an inferior project that sold for the same price as the top of the line games. I struggle to understand how that holds more integrity than a game where the user only invests where they perceive value.
Say you hire a designer whose only experience is in AAA console development to work on a mobile game. What would be the most different to them about developing mobile titles?
Mobile titles run at a different cadence than console titles regarding player consumption and pacing. This is probably the most abrupt shift coming from the console world. The mobile player typically plays in bite-sized chunks: waiting in line, on the bus, in meetings, etc. The console player has settled in on their couch for a multi-hour session. Both individuals expect a full experience, however. To complicate matters, the mobile designer must allow for those short sessions to be linked together to provide a compelling longer session.
The mobile player is also inundated with variety. There are hundreds of thousands of new, free games on the store every week competing for attention. With nothing invested, it is easy for a mobile player to turn their attention elsewhere. The mobile designer has to take that into account. The console designer can assume that a player is already invested once the game has been purchased.
Designers spend their careers working within different restrictions and parameters. In my experience, great designers make the transition with little to no difficulty.