A journey to success always starts with an idea...

If it weren’t for mobile gaming, Google Play and the App Store would’ve probably gone bankrupt by now. Judge for yourself. The global mobile games market will top $ 46 billion this year. Games account for 50% of all applications uploaded to the App Store every month. 90% of Google Play’s revenue comes from gaming entries. It’s no wonder so many entrepreneurs and companies think building a gaming app is a tried-and-true strategy to make some cash and expand their media presence!

And now it’s time to get real. A free mobile game that is monetized through ads and gets about 2 thousand downloads every day earns $ 50 daily and is considered a moderate success. Most games get literally nothing. At all.

The r-stylelab.com team by no means wants to discourage you; on the contrary, we want you to succeed. In this article, we’ll tell you how to start with mobile game development, navigate you through the complex market research and project planning processes and try to determine the X-factor that’ll help you outperform competitors.

Where to start when making a mobile game?

Market research

Starting With Game Development Stats2

A journey to success always starts with an idea – and every product idea has to be validated. That’s why you can’t do without a thorough market research. Since Windows Store and BlackBerry have both kicked the bucket, you should narrow down your focus to the App Store and Google Play’s free and paid downloads statistics.

Starting With Game Development Stats1

As of October, 2017, the US App Store Gaming category is dominated by Match-3, endless runner and edutainment titles. We may as well leave out tower defense/strategy games like Clash of Clans and its Royale sequel: as a game dev newbie, you probably don’t have $ 400 thousand to make a viable CoC clone.

Once again, you should limit your options to 2-3 high-performing genres and study the competition:

  • How many downloads does the average app get on a daily basis?
  • What monetization strategies do your competitors use?
  • How do they promote their apps?
  • What about the App Store/Google Play ratings and customer reviews?
  • What features, do you think, make these apps successful?
  • How could you improve the concept/visuals/feature set of the apps that currently resonate with your target audience?

Answer these questions and update your initial business plan (if you have one). In a world where less than 0.01% of mobile apps achieve commercial success, you can’t win users without a) choosing the right direction for your project b) bringing something new to the table c) developing a flexible monetization strategy.

When it comes to novelty, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, of course. Our company, for instance, has recently worked with a plastic surgeon who wanted to create a face-morphing app which enhances user selfies. The app performs both overall and complex image corrections, thus mimicking the functionality of photo editor apps like Instagram and AR titles akin to Snapchat Lenses and MSQRD – and that’s what makes it unique!

Your game might also combine the features of several hit apps – and this (together with beautiful layouts, intuitive interfaces and reasonable monetization strategy) – will make it a success.

Now, you need to choose the right game monetization strategy.

There are several ways to make money on a mobile app. These include:

  • One-time payments (users pay a small sum – usually $ 0.99 – and play the game as much as they want; in order to retain players, however, you’ll have to add new content once in a while, and the revenue you generate might not cover dev expenses in the long run);
  • Ads (your game will be available as a free download; however, game sessions will be interrupted by ad banners from time to time, which might annoy players);
  • Sponsorships (banner placement will be your major source of income; this time, however, you will partner with a particular company that offers products/services that might be of interest to your user base);
  • Classic freemium (a mobile game is downloaded for free, but some of its content and features – for instance, extra game levels – are only available to paid users);
  • In-app purchases (IAPs is the most popular monetization strategy among game developers; although only 5% of users spend money on IAPs, the model will make app stores and appreneurs $ 37 billion richer this year – and that’s $ 8 billion more than paid apps are projected to make).

The choice of a mobile game monetization strategy also depends on your target platform and market. Although Google Play is all about free apps, it’s free apps that generate 98% of its revenue. Here’s another one: Asian smartphone holders usually spend 40% more on IAPs than the rest of the world.

As a result, forward-thinking developers study app downloads/revenue stats before releasing a game to a particular market and platform and make corresponding changes to their monetization strategies. Be flexible – and success will follow!

Technology stack

As a newcomer, you probably doubt whether you should craft a 2D or 3D game and what game engine to choose.

From complex rendering to additional animation efforts, it’s way harder to create a 3D game (both skill- and money-wise). Another reason to start with a 2D game is your very small chances of success; it would be a shame to spend a million bucks on a high-quality 3D game that will pale into oblivion like most apps do.

Now it’s time to choose a game engine that will breathe life into your masterpiece!

You’ve got several options here:

  • Unity (a reliable C#/UnityScript cross-platform game engine suitable for both 2D and 3D games; also, there’s the Unity store where you can purchase useful add-ons and game assets);
  • Unreal Engine (a C++-based open-source game engine that powers many popular iOS and Android games including the Infinity Blade franchise, Wild Blood and I Hate My Job);
  • Cocos2D (an open-source game development framework supporting Objective-C and Swift; it uses the OpenGL library for image rendering and supports Android through the SpriteBuilder plugin).

Concept development

Although there’s no tried-and-true formula for building a successful mobile game, you can follow these tips to reduce the risk of failure:

  • Choose a theme that will surely resonate with mobile users. Considering the fact the global game market changes every two or three years, this might be easier said than done. Games based on popular books or movies with a passionate following tend to perform better in terms of revenue and user retention (though you might have a hard time trying to obtain the permission from the copyright holder). Ways out? Put yourself in your users’ shoes. If you browse the App Store and stumble on a game called “Vampire Takeover”, you’ll know what it’s about before you actually download it – and that’s how success is achieved. Find a niche you love, keep things simple, invest in content – and users will make it up to you!
  • Write a script. According to Pavel Shylenok, CTO at R-Style Lab (you can check his profile here), you shouldn’t go into much detail while working on your draft script. Hire skilled game script writers to create several scenarios and choose the best one. A couple of game levels/settings will do for a start: you can always add new characters, events and layers after the game is released to the market and proves to be a commercial success;
  • Create draft UIs and develop game logic. Select three to five successful games that belong to a genre you’ve settled on and use their visuals as a reference for UI designers. UX designers, meanwhile, should create game levels using standard primitives instead of game characters. Does it look ok? Does the game actually work? Ok, we’re moving forward.

Project planning

Where to start when making a game & and how to ensure your project’s success? Obviously, you should prepare a detailed software requirements specification – that is, a document that covers the game’s feature set and non-functional requirements; make sure to attach design mock-ups to it.

What’s next?

Pass the doc over to your dev team or address a reliable vendor if you don’t have an in-house IT department.

With the spec in your hands, you should break the project down into several sprints and set realistic goals for each stage. You should take the Agile approach to project management, prioritize essential features and push the ones you could do without to an update or sequel.

The success of your game largely depends on your ability to constantly test your code and fix bugs in order to deliver the ultimate user experience. QA gets particularly important when you work with beta users. Do not roll out important updates on a Friday: by the time your team fixes a bug (Monday evening), some 30% of users will uninstall your clunky game.

And yes, UI and UX design takes up to 70% of the entire project timeline.

How to start game development: summing it up

Building a great mobile game and pushing it to the App Store and Google Play is only half the story; you need to acquire users first – and that’s why you can’t save on game marketing. Here’s what you need to know about it:

  • Getting featured by Apple & Google is the golden ticket (and a feat few developers achieve);
  • Getting coverage from TechCrunch, Pocket Gamer and TouchArcade won’t necessarily result in a bajillion downloads (though extra promo never killed anyone; who knows, maybe an Apple editor will come across your story and give your app a try);
  • Do not hire a PR agency (you’d better spend the money on a developer conference where you can meet important people – for example, an App Store editor);
  • Create videos and blog posts documenting the dev process and share content on social media (using paid Facebook ads makes sense, too).

Unlike PC gamers, mobile users do not normally brose app stores in search of new gaming apps, and that’s why some 50% of your marketing efforts will probably bear no fruit.

Nevertheless, many game dev studios (like Snowman, Frogmind and Rovio) manage to build and market their apps on a shoestring and achieve impressive results. Provided you come up with an interesting game idea, address the right vendor and invest in graphic content, you can do it, too.