K has been working as a remote contractor at the new company for a couple months now, and it's interesting to see the differences between developing a console game at a large studio (what he's used to) versus a mobile game at a start-up (where he is now). On one hand, because his core team only consists of ten people, his input is immediately heard and theoretically has more weight. On the other hand, the company feels like it's constantly putting out fires, rushing from one emergency deadline to another. So here are some interesting insights into what it's like to work at a brand-new studio making its first mobile app game.
1) Live/Paid Beta Phase
Currently, the game has been in development for a year, and they hope to make it pretty solid by 2015. However, even though it's not entirely complete, management decided to push it live on the iTunes store anyway. Why not? The game can start making money now, the developers can work on feedback from early users, and once all the features are nice and polished, they can begin really publicly marketing it. Win-win situation, right?
Yeahhhh... lose-lose nightmare if you're on the development team. Have you ever tried developing a game when not all of the programming and art have been finalized yet? It's like building a house on shifting sands. The designers are constantly trying to build things in parallel based on the "projected" new functionality for the week. That means a lot of reworking if those planned features don't come to pass.
Plus, since the game is already live, people are already using the app to create stuff in the game world. In other words, any buggy game assets that were made early on can't be fixed, and all future versions of the app must have backward compatibility with those mistakes. It's like building a yellow car that accidentally has one purple door, and you can't go back and paint it. Kinda frustrating.
2) Demanding, Tight Schedules
It's 9 pm, and K is downstairs, back to work on this week's release (after eating dinner and helping to put our poor, sick son to bed). Why? Many mobile games make their money off microtransactions, which means every time there is a content release (aka something new to buy in the game), there's an immediate spike in revenue. Naturally, the studio wants to release new in-game material very, very frequently, which makes content deadlines pretty much immovable. Doesn't matter if the scope has changed repeatedly or the tech just flat-out doesn't work... something is going to make it out the door, even if everyone has to work 'til the eleventh hour. This is nothing new, though. The video game industry is notorious for taking as much as you will give, and if that means you have to slave all night to make things work, then so be it. So it's all about walking the fine line between pushing back in order to set appropriate work/life boundaries and, well, not getting fired because the company can find another willing replacement. Sigh...
3) Conflicting Leadership
Every studio is different, but with small start-ups, you tend to have a more collaborative environment where everyone gets a say. Unfortunately, at this particular job, K is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock is the design lead and the hard place is the creative director. K is supposed to report to the lead, who reports to the director. Unfortunately, the lead and director don't seem to have the same vision for the mobile game, so K often has to rework stuff repeatedly due to their opposing feedback. And, that really conflicts with the whole "tight schedule" situation. The hilarious thing is that the people in question aren't exactly newbies to making games – we're talking about three long-time developers who have been in the industry forever. So yeah, chain-of-command problems can happen even with the best of them.
Anyway, I hate to end on a depressing note, but this rant of a blog post is starting to get a bit long. All hope is not lost, though! Next time, I'll reveal to you K's coping mechanisms for surviving at a mobile game studio.