No matter your age, background or technological interest there are very few people who have never played a game on their mobile device. Whether it was Snake II on the Nokia 3310 or the awfully addictive Clash of Clans, if you’ve got a phone, you’ll have used it for something more fun than work emails and phone calls!
Though many people absorb and enjoy these games (and in many instances take the fun very seriously) little thought is given to the creation of these games. Even less thought is given to the complex process of animation, development and infrastructure behind taking these games from a scribbled idea to a playable app.
The rise of the smartphone has seen a proliferation of branded content released on mobile platforms right from companion apps for the latest TV shows through to promotion games for Hollywood blockbusters.
However, these big budget releases aside there’s a surge of independent developers and micro game studios creating amazing content, some of which makes a break into the mainstream. Remember Flappy Bird anyone?
I’m joined today by mobile game designer Michael Price. Michael, by trade, is actually an animator and sculptor who has worked with acclaimed studios; Aardman Animations, Mackinnon & Saunders and Yamination Studios, producing commercials and TV shows for a range of clients including Disney and the BBC. Michael’s latest venture sees him releasing the rather addictive fish-based mobile game, ‘Trawler Trouble!‘
Trawler Trouble Trailer
Michael Price of Trawler Trouble
SCOTT LEDBURY: For those who don’t know; elevator pitch style what’s the game Trawler Trouble all about?
MICHAEL PRICE: Trawler Trouble is a fun, cartoon side scrolling game where players take control of a flying fish in a desperate bid to escape a relentless fishing trawler.
SL: From a visual perspective can you describe to me the look of the game?
MP: When we started development, we are talking some time back, there was a real kind of proliferation of throw back retro pixel graphics amongst indie games and it was something we thought about and said: ‘By the time we’re done, by the time production finishes maybe that phase has moved on, so lets do something different, lets really knuckle down and do something that’s quite unique and we did hand drawn 2D graphics, full traditional 2D animation’.
SL: Everything you see in terms of visuals is completely created from scratch?
MP: Yes! There are no vector graphics, it’s all hand drawn with frames, the real traditional technique and we tried to create something that looks and feels like a Saturday morning cartoon. Something kids can pick up and play and say ‘this feels familiar’ in the sense that ‘this is the kind of thing I might see on TV’.
SL: How did you come up with the idea for the game?
MP: Well it was a bit of an iterative process really, it certainly wasn’t instant. We bounced around a few different ideas and for different reasons we discarded some for perhaps being a bit ambitious, this being our first game.
Trawler Trouble is a co-production between myself and my friend Hugh Smith. I’m under Michael Price Animation brand and he is under Bear Tactic Games brand and we have been friends forever and a decade. We grew up playing games together as kids and we thought how awesome it would be to create our own game. Even as recently as ten years back the industry was very different.
This was the start of the
Trawler Trouble Artwork
SL: Not to mention that the distribution model was difficult wasn’t it?
MP: Absolutely! The ability for anyone to self publish a game from their own homes was non existent. It was always something we wanted to do but with the industry shift we gradually became more and more aware that this was becoming plausible.
We didn’t have the skills until relatively recently but we just reached a point where we looked at each other and said ‘finally I think I can do this’. I handled the art duties and Hugh handled the programming and we met up one day and said ‘I think we both have the skills to do this now lets seriously start considering things’.
SL: How does the realisation of concept or a sketch on a piece of paper for example become a functioning living playable game? In your case talk us through the overview of the steps involved in development, what sort of timescales are we looking at?
MP: I think it can vary vastly depending on the project. I mean we approached this very casually to be honest. We both have day jobs and this is something that is a bit of an experiment for us in such as ‘Can we break into the games market?’. We approached it very loosely and we said ‘we will do this evenings and weekends in our spare time and lets not really stick to any deadline, lets just make the games we really want to make’.
So it was a really kind of free process, a real collaboration on every level. For me handling the art duties it was a case of designing the characters, of animating them by hand saving those animations, having a sheet for Hugh to then chop up and use in the game and the process that we did was Hugh would get the core mechanics down first in terms of programming and have something even if it’s just boxes moving around that are representative of this is where the character would be. He’d get the game running, give me a long list of the assets we would need and then I would go away and animate those and email them to him once they were ready.
SL: As a rough estimate how much time in man hours did you put in before the game was released?
MP: I’m not sure. I know Hugh has always said he’s invested thousands of hours in this and I’m not sure how much exaggeration is in there but it’s been a long process. From initial ideas and inspiration till a completed product it was roughly two years but
SL: In your
MP: Well I think the thing to remember is when you have a game that’s based on a movie or TV show the game is basically marketing and it can be its own fun experience but the primary aim of the game is to drum up more business for the film. You do get the other way round with other forms of merchandising. Sometimes the majority of revenue from a movie can be sales and the merchandise but games increasingly do seem to be tied to marketing and in the past you wouldn’t get a big budget film that came out without a tie in video game.
“It’s been a long process – from initial ideas and inspiration to a completed product, it was roughly two years.”
MP: Well I think the thing to remember is when you have a game that’s based on a movie or TV show the game is basically marketing and it can be its own fun experience but the primary aim of the game is to drum up more business for the film. You do get the other way round with other forms of merchandising. Sometimes the majority of revenue from a movie can be sales and the merchandise but games increasingly do seem to be tied to marketing and in the
They always used to be console games and every now and then there used to be a fantastic game but largely I think the consensus was these games were rushed to meet the deadline of the film coming out.
SL: That’s essentially the re-skinning of an existing game. I’m guessing that’s cheaper to do?
MP: Yes I suppose if the mechanics are already there and people know what’s popular then you can do your own version of an existing kind of thing but then you get Angry Birds Star Wars this combination of licences teaming up to make something fun.
So I think whether it’s a game app or whether it’s an encyclopaedia of characters that offers a bit more of a look into the world of the film you do tend to find studios moving more into the mobile space.
SL: What aspects of game development do you think are the most challenging?
MP: Personally I find it’s coming up with the idea is the hardest part and I’ve found this through animation and everything especially at University. If you’ve been given three months for a project and you know it’s got to be done by the end of the three months you don’t want to spend two months of that trying to come up with an idea. I’ve found times when you really become worried because you have to have an idea in place to start the work.
So specifically for game development and I mean this wasn’t a case for us because we approached this mostly in our free time but I expect for a bigger studio, you know if you’ve got lots of employees, you’ve got
They will probably have a lot of ideas in the pipeline. But the mobile market is saturated. There are thousands and thousands of games being added every year and coming up with something new and original is a real challenge
SL: That’s just the start of the journey, the cream rises to the top and there’s still a great deal to do as a developer to push it to the top of its game.
MP: Yes, you’re trying to stand out in a really crowed market where the popular, the top games year on year are increasingly the same games. The top games of this year, the top rated games are probably the newer versions of the same games that were top rated last year.
So what can we do as developers to stand out in the crowd, what can we add
SL: As a sculptor and animator by trade how have you had to adapt to designing content for the programming, automated world of gaming?
MP: I think it’s a different approach entirely in the sense that if you’re designing a cartoon that’s something that needs to be watched like a game and is something that needs to be played and you do get a on the big budget titles now many great story driven games have the scope to be able to do that but for a mobile app we want something you can pick up and play, you can play for five mins on your way to work and accomplish something if you beat your high score.
It’s primarily about the game play and that means that we really wanted to create an experience that is new. I think you find when you pick up and play an app these days your first impression is really important. So many games you will pick up and play and say ‘oh, it’s basically that other game but with a cat instead of a dog’ and you find it’s a re-skin like you mentioned earlier of an existing game or the core experience is something you have played before and what we wanted to do was treat something the user would feel is new. So when they pick up and play they say ‘I’ve not played this game before in any kind of format’.
“There are no vector graphics, it’s all hand drawn with frames – the real traditional technique – we tried to create something that looks and feels like a Saturday morning cartoon.”
SL: Part of that is to do with your control mechanism isn’t it, which I think it quite unique. You need to play the game to see but it’s quite a skill to control that mechanism, the user input.
MP: Yes it is, credit goes to Hugh for that one. I pitched the idea of a flying fish game to him saying ‘you can go in and out the
Some people said ‘were you concerned about making a game that was difficult?’ and we said ‘well you get into it and its a challenge and we want that challenge to be what draws you back. Whether you’re trying to beat your high score or your friends high scores. The challenge is what gives the game longevity in the sense that we say ‘it’s easy to learn, a challenge to master’
SL: When it comes to the music and sound effects used in the game you’ve got quite a big list of free resources listed in the credits for the game. I guess that helps when making games on a limited budget?
MP: Yes absolutely! I mean sound effect design is very important, it’s not something we wanted to overlook and finding good free sound effects can be hard. There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s very compressed and doesn’t have the quality that you would want to promote. So we have a long hard look and found ones that we think are good quality. But like you said this is a game we have made off our own backs and it’s our first game, self-publishing, online distribution and it was something where we were trying to keep the budget to a minimum because we didn’t know how it was going to go.
We said early on that ‘we will put time into this’ and that was our investment and ‘we will make the game the best that we can make it’. So it was a way really for us to best be able to do things internally and sound design wasn’t one of our main skill sets but we found some good sound effects, some great audio from a site called incompetech.com that’s all royalty free and people really enjoy it, it fits the theme of the game, all the sound effects work it’s got that kind of looney tunes vibe to it with everything being exaggerated.
But we also found when we were doing a bit of research that most people don’t have the audio on when they play games when they are on the bus or on the train, even sat at home most people will have it on mute with the TV on in the background.
SL: I think it’s a bit of a shame really because audio to me is core enhancement to the experience, reacting. I know when I’m playing a console game I play with headphones with the stereoscope of the game when playing perhaps a shooter game
MP: I think with that mobile platform it’s very different kind of gaming people expect different things, people use those games in a different way and even if you have audio you know people won’t use it a lot of the time and that’s something you need to incorporate into the game and you need to make sure if you have dialogue it has to be subtitled. There have to be those options.
SL: What are
MP: The casual market is massive, its the same as any other industry in the sense if you are appealing to a niche it is a small
When it comes down to doing the market research for a game some of the bigger companies will be increasingly beholden to that research because they have bottom lines they have to meet. You’ll look at the existing success stories such as Angry birds and Flappy bird and you’ll say it’s got to have a bird in it because thats what the research says is a success. The research is very import but ultimately we took a step back from that as creatives and said lets make a game that we as gamers would want to play. As much as we enjoy console games and we know what we find to be fun, good games. Let’s make something we enjoy playing and we do, we’ve played this game as much as anyone has.
SL: I must ask are you any good at the game?
MP: I am top of the leaderboard.
SL: Really? That’s seems like a fix!
MP: There’s a funny story behind that actually, during development we were adjusting the levels and balancing everything there was a point where Hugh made the game a little easier and we said look don’t get on the leaderboards because they are the actual leaderboards and he forgot and he did.
He got on the leaderboard with 8000 points and gradually on we changed a few things and we said lets make it a little more challenging and we stood there and thought Hugh’s on the leaderboard and what if we can’t get 8000 points, this is a leaderboard driven game its all about competition it would be pretty sly of us to make that top spot unachievable.
So I said to Hugh give me a week and I will play this till the death and I will see if its still possible to get 8000 and it took me about three days to find a knack to it and I managed to get 10000 so I can say it is possible to get that top spot its very hard congratulations to anyone that can beat it.
SL: The quote on your website states: Trawler Trouble is easy to learn yet challenging to master. What is your opinion on games design mastery and do you think that a learning curve can make or break a games success ?
MP: I think it depends on what market you are going for, there is definitely a market out there for very difficult games. Flappy bird itself was notoriously difficult, I could probably get about two on that then you get the people that really get into it and get competitive and they take it to another level entirely and thats the kind of thing that we aimed for with Trawler Trouble.
With a mobile game where its all based on touch controls you don’t have the vast array of buttons that you would have from PC game or a console game so you have to simplify the controls somewhat and what Hugh came up with is something that only really uses two buttons. You tap left and right and that makes the fish wiggle, the faster you tap the faster he wiggles the faster he swims and its that simplicity but you can add to the difficulty with obstacles and challenges and things like that.
We really do believe it is easy to pick up and start to play and the more you play it the better you will get that unattainable score will get gradually more and more realistic and you will beat it and you’ll want to play more.
SL: Talking about the quality assurance and the testing process you did for the game. That’s partly squishing programmatic bugs but its also checking with people that aren’t associated with the game and how difficult they think it is. Is it about fine tweaking the mastery levels and difficult things are? Can you talk us through your process of your testing and how you did that?
MP: I think internal testing is always the first part and thats more to do with us making sure there is no bugs, things always get through the net. I think with digital distribution there is that safety net that you can patch it later on. But we don’t want to rely on that, we want to make sure that it is a complete polished package out of the gate. So testing is very important so we tested everything made sure and it all worked as we intended.
We then did some external testing quite a long time on different platforms and got other people to play the game and give us their feedback. We are always looking for feedback, we have had feedback post launch and we’ve heard from people want more content for the game which we are considering looking into different ways we can deliver what people want.
In terms of difficulty we did get feedback but you notice that there is no real general consensus. Depending on who you talk to somebody might say that it is ridiculously hard somebody might say its a challenge and I love it. We really felt that this was about us as developers choosing what market we want to go for.
I wanted to know when I was playing the game if I made a mistake I take responsibility I put my hands up and say yep that was me. I don’t feel any negative will towards the game if that makes any sense. Whereas if there was
SL: It isn’t really presented in a way that the game can possibly be at fault the skill is dodging random things that are thrown at you?
MP: Yeah we wanted to make sure the skill is all down to the player. The enemy of the game is you trying to beat your high score
SL: Trawler Trouble is available on both IOS and Android. So what sort of challenges can you come across when releasing games on multiple platforms and within this can you explain what a Software Development Kit (SDK) is?
MP: Our software development kit is the software you use to build the game, its the engine you will build the game in.
SL: Is that issued by Apple and by Google Android, by the publisher, the platform?
MP: Yes, they are issued by different platforms. In regards to building for different
When we started Hugh was originally programming in Java, we got the game ready and it was doing ok so we decided to put it across to Apple. We’d had some feedback by this stage, so we decided to add all the content we had in the pipeline and then we can re-launch on both platforms with this new updated version. What we found was, about three weeks before we went to port, was that a company had bought up the tools used to port games and shut it down because it was a competitor.
From looking online it seemed like this was one of the main ways to port games – so that really put a spanner in the works.
SL: For those who want to publish on the big marketplaces; Android and Apple, Apple charge a fee – even if a game is free. Talk us through both the main platforms and the basics that you need to apply as a developer and have an account and what fees are payable to those platforms.
MP: Android is a lot looser, it’s a lot easier to publish something, there aren’t those restrictions. Apple is a bit more formatted, they say that is because they want to make sure that everything on their marketplace is of a quality and they like that kind of oversight. Apple, I believe, charge $99 a year as a developer fee to be able to publish your games on the store.
That $99 is whether you have one game on the store, or 10! For us making our first game that’s more of
SL: Leading us on to our next question of what sort of back end infrastructure do you need to have in place in terms of hosting in-game leader boards and the like. In a traditional console sense, you’re not doing multi-player game servers but the game engine and the back end that’s hosting and tracking the leader boards – is that hosted by the platform?
MP: Absolutely, we’re also saying that we don’t handle anybody’s personal information – there’s no kind of infrastructure our end – it’s all handled by them. It’s really simplistic to link with those services the platforms offer and add those. We have achievements in the game, you can add challenges that add to the level of content and add to the challenge for the user. They give them something to achieve and accomplish.
SL: Going back to the funding and the finance side, what kind of revenue streams can a mobile gamer app utilise? We’ve talked about this and the obvious ones are ad-funded models or a combination of both those and in-app purchases. Talk us through how you set all that up and what is available for anyone setting up an app or a game
MP: When we originally launched the game on android we actually had a completely different model for that. We had pop-up ad’s, which we found out were very unpopular. I think we were using Ad Mob at the time and what we found was that there was obviously this communication between the game and the ad server that was getting the adverts.
We had it so as soon as you start the game and ad pops up and then you can dismiss or click and it disappears but with that lag you would find that user would start the game and get interrupted as they were playing and no one wants to get interrupted when they are playing and no one wants to have to keep dismissing something. So when we added new content we exported the game to another platform.
We did a lot of research into that are the most popular and what are the most
SL: I’ve tried these and these are relevant ads. When I went on it these are not ads for soap powder, these are relevant ads for things like other app games etc. I’m guessing that’s been considered from your end?
MP: Yes, we have compete control. We have through Apple and Google a list of things that we can click that we think are appropriate for the game and thats also a big consideration when we are getting it out and published. If you have a game thats aimed at kids as ours is we have in app purchases that means on Apple it has to be a 7+ but there’s no content that isn’t appropriate for children under that.
But you need to make sure the adverts in your game are not showing gambling or dating or things that are not appropriate for that age range. So we went through the list and looked at what we wanted to promote in our game and we ticked off anything that was inappropriate and saw what we were left with and we were left with games that would suit our audience. So we have seen a few ourselves, so you will click the advert and you will watch to get the tokens and it won’t be a horrible experience because you are seeing something that is actually interesting.
SL: And they are quite short.
MP: Yes they are.
SL: So the in-app purchase model, we touched on that briefly this isn’t anything new, this is a model thats been going around for a while and I think it’s a great model actually where you can offer the core game experience for free. In your game you can fast track, and I must put my hands up and say I did pay £2 for reel to unlock a level. So you can fast track, which is a common thing now in games. You can buy tokens with real world cash in order to unlock characters and this is seen across the gaming model included the console market isn’t it?
MP: Yes it is the ability to purchase ‘in game’ currency and that currency can be used for a variety of different things. It stems from there is a minimum transaction on these platforms and Apple in particular keep putting up their minimum transaction fee and it’s about us judging the value of what we have on offer. If you have a big budget game you might be able to charge £5.99 for a download and some of these mobile games are about £30 now and people will be prepared to pay that. We recognise our experience is a fun game, it’s something you can pick up and play but we know that the level of content isn’t there to justify a big charge.
So the model we went with is the game is free to download and you can earn these token in game and you have the option of watching adverts to earn more tokens, there’s also the option to buy a token pack and having the ability to unlock all the characters from the onset and play with them. We’ve really tried to make sure they all play differently, they each have their own physical style and attributes that play to different play styles and the standard fish you start out with might not be your favourite one by the end.
There’s a human swimmer called Miguel who’s hilarious, he’s probably my favourite one. He’s a little slow but he’s got a score bonus and he just feels different to play and it’s all down to user preference really.
SL: Offering the game for free, especially as a startup it seems like the thing to do you’ve not got that barrier, like even if you charge 99p for the game up front that is still a barrier isn’t it? The funding model is completely optional. You could effectively enjoy your game for many many hours without spending a single penny effectively.
MP: That was important in our research as well that the amount of
SL: How do you get an app featured on
MP: Well actually looking into it it seems to be promoting the new features of the phone it’s self so there’s this cross promotion where Apple is using the apps on the market place as
I now believe that there’s companies out there that have tested this and said ‘we will make a game that uses the latest features of the phone’ and they have had a lot more change of getting into that recommended top space. But in terms of overall success its all down to marketing these days.
SL: Do you think that you can buy your way to the top? I know that most platforms have ‘sponsored’ sections in the same way that you can buy ads on Google. In terms of those curated sections on Apple, can you buy your way to the top if you’re a huge studio?
MP: It’s hard to say, perhaps to an extent. We’ve been approached by Google which is a wonderful opportunity, we’re really flattered to have been approached. A guy from the app promotions team, who informed us that they pick a handful of apps every quarter to work with to develop a marketing strategy. They choose apps that they think show promise and have a chance of success. To be selected amongst that handful we really are honoured.
From talking to them, this is a back and forth – deciding which avenues we can go. But you can set aside a marketing budget and you can essentially tailor the online marketing so that things show up in the Google search, or on the YouTube homepage. Perhaps there is to an extent, however much you can plough into marketing you can reap the rewards in terms of attracting more users and you can specifically target the smaller percentage of users that will actually pay for things in apps – known as the
So for a smaller
The costs have gone up, you have mobile apps now that have 10 million dollar budgets. You’re competing against big resources in that sense, you’re not just competing against other individuals making games in their spare time. You’re now competing against the heavy hitters of the industry, everyone knows the brand, they already have that awareness. It’s about us trying to do something new, that feels different and hasn’t been done before. To get that gap in the market, we’re offering a game and a theme that has not been seen.
SL: For all those indie game developers out there and those games produced in the bedrooms of really talented people and for those who don’t have the budget of the huge game studios, what tips do you have for promoting a game on release? Talking organically, on a guerilla level.
MP: Our approach has been really blitzing the local media, the difficulty there is that ‘Guys Make App’ isn’t newsworthy anymore. You’ve got to have another angle, something that sets you apart from the crowd. Social media is really prevalent now and that’s something used by small and big media to connect with their audience, communicate directly and get instant feedback.
“The more users you get, the more users you draw in. We’ve found that there is this illusion of popularity online.”
We have a Facebook page, a Twitter account and we’ve made a website. It’s all these online things that you can cross-link, within a unified media campaign and try and gain users bit by bit. A technique someone told me is to follow celebrities on Twitter who have kids who are the right age range for the game and they might pass it on to their kid. The more users you get, the more users you draw in. We’ve found that there is this illusion of popularity online with marketing and media. People say that your first hundred followers are the hardest to get. If something looks popular they’ll be drawn to it, because they want to know why it looks popular.
SL: It’s the rolling stone effect isn’t it, it gathers momentum downhill.
MP: Conversely, if you’re just starting out you’ve got that massive hurdle of not looking good on paper. There’s a peer pressure thing these days where people don’t want to associate themselves with something for fear of being mocked by their friends. You’re overcoming that initial reluctance, we’ve got a product on sale, we want people to enjoy it for what it is.
We really try to hammer home with everything we market that this is ‘FUN’. You’ve got to create something that’s visual, so we do visual posts, I’ve done a character showcase, a weekly feature on Facebook, things like that. Regular updates that keep people up to date on the latest information about the game. It’s about engagement, you have to engage that audience.
“Anybody that you can reach, has the potential of reaching more.”
SL: Have you found it useful to connect with bloggers, to gain reviews, get them writing about your app and essentially taking to their audience. Is that something you would advise?
MP: Absolutely you look at how many views someone like PewDiePie gets these days – millions and millions! That’s our next step actually, to contact YouTubers and bloggers and get them to review the game. Anybody that you can reach, has the potential of reaching more.
You share something on your personal Facebook but you’re only reaching the same 300 friends each time, how do you reach people beyond that? I think Twitter is perhaps better in that regard because you can follow and connect with anyone.
It’s definitely a tricky thing, bigger companies will have dedicated departments, social media departments who’s
SL: Good luck Michael, it’s a fantastic game and we wish you all the best.
MP: Thank you for having me on the show.