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Gaming On­-The-­Go: The Business Of Starting An Indie Mobile Game Studio

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Gaming On-The-Go is a weekly series that explores the mobile gaming industry, as well as uncovering the current trends, with hands-on guides for the latest smartphone and tablet games.

There seems to be no better time than now for mobile game developers and entrepreneurs to embark on their own creative journey to release their titles in the various app stores.

But what really goes into creating a mobile game? Sure, you might have a great idea and the skills to make the idea a reality, but while ideas are free, creating a game could quickly become costly.

It all comes down to taking a risk. If you believe you have a great product, it may be worth leaving a major studio to step out on your own. However, that doesn't guarantee you will be the next SYBO Games. I have read about quite a few failed attempts at making it in the big leagues. For instance, take developer Keith Judge, who revealed his difficulties getting his game off the ground. Before he knew it, he was spending his own personal savings, and eventually had to shelve his game game and go back to work for someone else.

But while many developers opt to find big publishers, independent game studios continue to grow. Just browse through the app stores and see for yourself. Sure you see titles from King, Imangi Studios and Supercell, but you also see countless others from studios offering their first mobile game.

Take, for instance, Tiny Mob Games' Tiny Realms. With more than 1 million iOS users, and a worldwide Google Play Store release next month, Tiny Realms is a free-to-play strategy game that gives players direct unit control (much like games like Command and Conquer). There are three factions gamers can play with unique specialities for each set of troops, and most interesting, a feature called Battle Grounds, where players wage war in a global collaborate multiplayer mode.

"When we stared working on Tiny Realms we saw great success of other combat strategy games from Supercell and other companies, but what we wanted to do was innovate on the genre ... we wanted to create a much-closer-to-real-time strategy experience," TinyMob Games CEO Alex Mendelev told Tech Times.

For Mendelev, it was about taking a risk when you believe you have a great and unique game that players will enjoy. "We have a philosophy where we're interested in taking some risks around play experiences and delivering a vision that eventually is much larger than it's safe to do," he says. "If we can deliver well on that mission, then i think our players would enjoy the game way more than if we didn't, so we want to take those risks. For us, we love players who appreciate those types of risks and can identify how different we are in certain elements than our competition."

And the risk has paid off. TinyMob Games won the Startup of the Year Award in the Greater Victoria area at the 2014 VITeC Technology Awards last year.

But indie game developers must remember that launching their own studio is starting their own business. And that means marketing and funding are crucial factors in any success.

"One of the biggest challenges in creating any business from scratch, but also most certainly in the indie genre, is how are you going to be able to realize your vision from various vantage points when you have absolutely nothing," Mendelev says.

Because of the model, free-to-play games are essentially all created equal. It doesn't matter who made the game; it can easily be downloaded over a game from a major studio, but marketing helps it stand out. One approach to making a mobile game marketable is by focusing on building a community, like Tiny Realms, where users can discuss gameplay and enhance their gaming experience.

Of course, launching a mobile game takes big bucks. "Raising money to launch any product is relatively difficult, and raising money in the entertainment space, including games, can be difficult, especially from parties that are not very well-versed in the space," Mendelev says. TinyMob Games was able to get $3 million in capital from investors, so like he says, finding investors is "certainly not impossible."

While funding is one the biggest challenges, another may be recruiting a talented team that is willing to put in work, having to start with a company that has nothing but a big vision.

His team at TinyMob Games is made up of industry veterans who have previously worked for major studios like Electronic Arts, Zynga, and Microsoft Studios. With personally 12 years of gaming experience (with a computer science and game-designing background, first creating games for phones like the Nokia Series 40 and Motorola Razr), Mendelev has been able to see the mobile gaming industry evolve.

"If you were to look 10 years ago, the biggest challenge was development in a very limited phone environment," Mendelev says. "Today, the distribution and discoverability is probably the No. 1 challenge that game developers face today on mobile."

But don't let the funding and marketing scare you off. While working for a major studio may give a designer the peace of mind that they will have a steady salary, many are limited creatively. "What happens with games and in the gaming industry in general is that companies will come out with a big hit, and they will start reiterating on that hit year after year. We see this what franchises like Assassins Creed, and FIFA in the sport vertical," says Mendelev. "A lot of people who have gone through years of this want to see a breakout in new or existing genres, so TinyMob Games and other indie studios offer that freedom."

New categories of games that gamers really admire may not have happened at larger companies over a 10-year period, he adds.

So Menedelv's tips for those who are thinking about making the move to go indie? Building a game is hard, "but launching the game and operating the game is really where most of the work happens." While it takes anywhere from six months to a year to develop a mobile game depending on quality level, operating it can take years.

"In free-to-play games, operating the game economy is a core skill for a portion of your team, it's not for your full team. So having people on board that understand free-to-play economy and economy in general and then can design game features with that in mind is drastically different than being able to build a console-level game," he says.

Indie developers know they need to optimize the game to create really fun experiences for users, so efforts to optimize the game economy should be implemented early in the game development cycle.

"As you go through the game development cycle, its hard. You are developing a product with thousands of features and you believe that it's going to be incredibly entertaining and incredibly fun to play, but while you're doing it, you don't see the final product," Menedelv says.

All the hard work is about the pay off — like it did for Tiny Mob Games. Tiny Realms was awarded the Pocket Gamer Gold Award, and was a Pocket Gamer Awards 2015 finalist for Best Strategy/Simulation Game & Best Social/Multiplayer Game.

Keeping in mind factors such as funding, marketing, a strong team, and lots of hard work, it's up to developers to decide whether it's worth it to take that risk and start an indie mobile gaming business.

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