Staying Triple-A: How Big Independent Studios are Turning to Mobile and Social

By Michael Thomsen

There has never been a more complicated time to be an independent triple-A game studio. The most widely sold home console of the generation is a motion-controlled sand trap that no one ever really figured out. The more easily reachable part of the home console market has a high point of entry, necessitating lengthy productions, expensive high-definition visuals, online multiplayer, co-op, Achievements, Trophies, and planning out chunks of downloadable content months or years in advance.

For years, the idea of investing in mobile and social games were low priorities that never made it past idle boardroom daydreaming. Recently, those daydreams have begun to transform into actual projects.

Epic was one of the first major independent studios to experiment with mobile development when subsidiary Chair Entertainment turned its Kinect experiment into the iPhone hit Infinity Blade. With the game's success, and Chair's enviable featured spot in a number of Apple product announcements, several others have followed suit.

After releasing Alan Wake, Remedy experimented with an iOS reboot of Death Rally, Bungie announced Aerospace, an entire division dedicated to mobile and social games. Insomniac created Click, a similar division geared toward social games (though, since announcing Click last year, Insomniac has reincorporated the division back into Insomniac Games). And the ever restless David Jaffe of God of War and Twisted Metal fame announced he would be leaving Eat, Sleep, Play to focus on something involving one of the "app" platforms.

What's unique about this moment in mobile and social development for major independent developers? How have the early efforts fared? Will having a mobile and social games team come to be as much a part of modern studios as having multiplayer teams have been?

More Money, Less Interference

One of the most immediate benefits of mobile and social development is the revenue paid directly back to developers for their work. Unlike a typical console game contract where studios are often last in line to get a fractional percentage of whatever profits their game produces, iOS and Android games give the majority of the money earned straight back to the developer. At a time when a number of studios have simply run out of cash to make payroll after having a game cancelled or not reaching an expected performance bonus, the idea of a steady revenue stream from app sales could be especially appealing.

"Over the years we've been very careful to do a lot of advance planning," Ted Price, Insomniac's Founder and CEO, told Gamasutra. "We do our best to have several games lined up for the future at any time, which helps with long-term stability. Plus as we've grown we've gone broader with the games we create to avoid becoming a niche developer."

Outernauts is Insomniac's first foray into Facebook games, an adventure role-playing game where players venture into the galaxy to capture and train exotic alien beasts. "Creating Outernauts is a way for us to broaden further and experiment with a new platform," Price said. "We're treating Outernauts no differently than our console games in that we're putting a ton of effort into delivering something awesome while hoping it strikes a chord with its target market."


Remedy's Death Rally

For Remedy, creating a new version of Death Rally for iOS was an experiment in branching out that turned into an unexpected success. "Death Rally really has done tremendously well, and we're very excited about that as our first iOS game," Aki Järvilehto of Remedy told NowGamer in a 2011 interview. "Financially it's performed really well; when we launched it, we were amazed because we recouped our original investment in just the first three days of sales. Pretty unusual."

Another benefit of producing mobile and social games is you can raise money from a significantly wider group of investors than might be interested in the console game market. "The pool [of investors] is bigger and more varied," David Jaffe told Gamasutra.

"You have a lot of traditional publishers who want to be in these new spaces, as they should. You have a number of companies that would never have thought of being video game publishers who are now trying to get into the space, whether it's mobile or social or tablets. The landscape is definitely different than the last time I did this."

Jaffe departed Eat, Sleep, Play after completion of the most recent Twisted Metal and, though he's still in the fundraising stage on his next project, it will most likely be something you download from an app store. "Right now, my guns are aimed at games as services; I'd like to make that the mainstay of my company," Jaffe said.


Stranger in a Familiar Land

Although there is significant crossover in the philosophic elements of game design across all platforms, switching to mobile or social game design often entails a major shift in tools.

"Just getting started out of the gate, you need to learn about a dozen different technologies you rarely or never need for console development," Brian Hastings, chief creative officer at Insomniac said. "The simplest game on Facebook requires fluency in HTML, CSS, Javascript, PHP, MySQL, the Facebook APIs, and server administration. And that doesn't even count the game part of it, which if it's going to be in Flash requires mastery of Flash APIs and ActionScript 3."

"And realistically learning these things is just scratching the surface. As the code base gets more and more complex there are a lot of very challenging issues to tackle -- things like load-time optimization, nuances of memory management in Flash, and server organization and load management for scaling to very large numbers of players."

The pace of development is also significantly quicker, which can be a challenge for studios accustomed to long, milestone-heavy game cycles. "It took Chair around 12 months to fully develop an iOS game to the scope and quality of Infinity Blade II, six months of pre- and six months of post-launch work," Donald Mustard, creative director at Chair Entertainment, told Gamasutra. "Whereas Shadow Complex [an Xbox Live Arcade title] took us around 24 months with roughly the same team size."

Another challenge is how much more quickly the social and mobile platforms change compared to consoles. "Back when I was doing console programming the schedule felt more predictable," Hastings said. "We often had multiple weeks to implement a major new system or feature, whereas on [Outernauts] most of our biggest features have to be completed in four to five days. Turnaround time for a new tool request or gameplay feature usually has to be kept under a couple of hours just because most of them were never in the schedule."

"And ultimately that's the biggest difference -- over 70 percent of the work that gets done wasn't even known about a couple months earlier. That makes scheduling far ahead essentially impossible but at the same time it gives you a kind of freedom. Instead of working on what's on the schedule, you work on what's most important for the project that day even if nobody knew about it the day before."

A Helping Hand and a Recognizable Brand

With Aerospace, Bungie decided it would be better suited to act as a partner for other developers that could benefit from its more generalized expertise, acting as a consultant and promotional partner. "It's a combination of helping make a better game and have an audience to present it to as a launching point" Jordan Weisman, developer of Aerospace's first game Crimson: Steam Pirates, said in an interview with Gamasutra last year.


Bungie's Crimson: Steam Pirates

Working with Bungie also offered Weisman and company access to Bungie's player metrics tools, which are a natural fit for social and mobile game development. The studio had built up a large infrastructure of player analytics as part of its ongoing development of the Halo series which could be used on a variety of platforms, from Facebook to iOS. These are precisely the kinds of precise and iterated tools that small teams often go without.

"My team is a small 12 to 13 person team," Weisman said. "At that size of an operation... you don't have the wherewithal to have the level of testing, quality assurance, and usability to take some of the rough edges off a product before you ship it. It's rare to get a place that has so many experienced and passionate gamers, and they provide really good feedback."

As part of Epic Games, Chair had a number of similar benefits, able to focus more of their efforts on game development while relying on Epic for other business concerns. "Chair still maintains a relatively small team which allows us remain very nimble and to keep that smaller, artsy-type indie studio feeling," Mustard said.

"At the same time, we have the advantage of being part of the larger, very powerful Epic organization that provides guidance and additional resources on everything from QA to marketing, not to mention access to the very best technology in games with Unreal Engine 3."

For Outernauts, Insomniac made the unique choice to partner with EA. "We did so to tap into [EA's] experience and expertise in this space, along with a desire to directly reach the Playfish fanbase," Price told me. "Besides, partnering with EA was a natural move for us since we had already established a relationship with their team on Overstrike."


A Behemoth with Many Masters

In years passed, big independent developers could find a niche and specialize in it, incrementally working on bigger and more complex projects until making a breakthrough hit to enshrine their studio brand. It was possible to think of the audience as a stable and relatively unchanging group, orbiting around a small number of platforms.

As the industry began to fragment around new audiences and platforms that didn't easily fit into the old console/PC paradigm, it was difficult to know what to do next. Would browser gaming become the predominant platform? The iPhone? The Wii? Will the next Xbox or PlayStation consolidate all of these diverging threads? Or the long-rumored all-in-one Apple TV?

The answer is, to some extent, all of the above. Independent developers big enough to be considered triple-A will have to learn to comfortably operate in all of the gaming spaces available to them and not just specialize in one or two familiar categories.

As too many studios have run into cashflow problems after one game doesn't sell up to expectations, or another is dropped by the publisher mid-development and no other investors can be found to keep things going, having a diverse and active structure generating revenue at all levels, from mobile to Facebook, to PSN and XBLA games will be increasingly important. And it's important to take each new possible platform as seriously as the others.

"Sometimes I think it's easy to knee-jerk, and think things are going to be so much easier, because there's less pressure to make bleeding-edge graphics and tech. [Those pressures] aren't there with the vast majority of people who are consuming those games," Jaffe said. "But you better make sure your gameplay is really well-designed and that you're executing on the code and on the design. There's still a great deal of pressure, but it's just a different kind of pressure.

"The other stress is 'Oh no, our game's coming to an end, I need to find work.' You have that in consoles every two to three years, and now it's like your game's coming to an end every five months or eight months, so there's always pressure. As with anything that you want to do well, there's going to be pressure."


Insomniac's Outernauts

In adapting to these new pressures and incorporating them into a mature company requires flexibility and willingness to adapt to the demands of different kinds of games. "On consoles, you have to make sure the product on the disc is as perfect as possible because not every customer even has the ability to download patches," Hastings said.

"On the web you have more freedom because you're updating the product every week with new features and content, so any bugs that were discovered get patched in the normal weekly update process. I can't really say it's better or worse doing web development; it's just totally different."

And that, finally, is the recurring truth in any long-term adventure. Tomorrow will always be different in some significant way; change always tends toward greater complexity, reaching more people in a wider range of ways. To sustain a game studio at a level consistent with the idea of triple-A status, you have to have a triple-A level of output. That means being good at everything in games, not just having one or two deep specializations. The world has changed. Never stop trying to keep up with it.

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