Designing games for the multi-screen world

Designing games for the multi-screen world
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

April 25th 2014 at 10:00AM

Spil Games CEO Erik Goossens tells Develop how HTML5 is helping developers conquer an increasingly fragmented games market

The mother of Spil Games’ CEO Erik Goossens has a problem.

Like many people nowadays, she spends her time on casual games portals while browsing the web; sites like Zibbo, the portal owned by her son’s firm that targets mostly women over 30 with word and puzzle games.

And, like many people nowadays, she also enjoys playing these games on her tablet – except that some of them aren’t available on app stores. Even if she accesses Zibbo or similar sites through her tablet’s browser, the games are never guaranteed to work.

For Mrs Goossens’ son, it’s a source of both frustration and inspiration: “My mum just doesn’t get it. I try to explain the differences between HTML5, Unity and Flash and so forth, but she just looks at me and says, ‘Son, I don’t care about your HTML-whatever – just make it work. I want to play games’.

“So that’s what we want to deliver: a solution to the problem of multi-screen game delivery.”

Ten years ago, games were limited to four distinct screens: TVs for consoles, gaming handhelds, monitors on home computers and laptops and primitive phone displays.

But now any given living room can have multiple varieties of numerous screens. While the portals to console and handheld games remain unchanged, PCs now hook up to those large-screen TVs with ventures such as Valve’s Steam Machines. Smart TVs, while their penetration remains low, offer another potential platform for games. And then, of course, there are smartphones and tablets.

SCREEN DIGEST

All of these are intrinsically different systems, but the casual gamer – like Goossens’ mother – has no understanding of the technical barriers preventing them playing their favourite titles on any device. Since that’s unlikely to change, Spil Games has taken matters into its own hands.

“The two biggest things we have to solve is the fragmentation created by a multi-screen environment, and how the hell you’re going to monetise across those screens,” explains Goossens. “Because we’re not going to change our audience overnight. We’ve got a huge audience playing casual games. They don’t necessarily spend much money on them, but that’s the audience we cater to. We’ve been catering to it for ten years, and we’ll continue up to do so for the next ten years.”



To solve that fragmentation, Spil Games has invested heavily in developing games for HTML5. The programming language allows games to be played in browsers on any device, opening them to a far wider audience than something like Flash.

Back in September, the firm announced it was spending $5m on helping developers make HTML5 games, with plans to release 1,200 titles this year that work across Spil’s three primary screens: tablet, smartphone and desktop. Goossens plans to release 200 of the most popular of these on app stores.

While Spil has been banging the HTML5 drum for several months, there are devs out there who are sceptical about the benefits of using it. But the exec says the casual games firm stands by its faith in the format.

“We realise there’s a negative connotation around HTML5 in games, but for us it works, here and now,” says Goossens. “We are delivering HTML5 games right now to the market that our users like as much or more than they used to love Flash games.”

MULTI-SCREEN THINKING

However, even with a flexible technology like HTML5, there is the issue of screen size. Designing a game that works on desktops and tablets isn’t too much of a chore since the screen aspect ratios are similar; it’s merely a case of scaling up and down. But throw smaller smartphone displays into the mix, plus the addition of touch inputs for both phones and tablets, and game design becomes more complicated.

Spil Games’ solution is to gather members of its 30 partner developers every quarter and spend a couple of days highlighting and solving any issues they have with how multi-screen games are built and played.

“We have been developing guidelines over the past year: UI rules and so on,” explains Goossens. “For example, when you have a mouse-controlled game, the menu and interactions are typically at the top of the screen, but on a tablet, your thumbs are at the bottom of the screen so everything has to be moved down.



“As another example, there’s not enough real estate on a tablet screen for the menu so you need an area that triggers it to flow in, but that means you can’t use that area for other things. Those kind of guidelines have been developed over the past 12 months, and we’ve trained the studios we work with on how to use them, why they were there and the things developers should think about.

“By now, most of our developers make games for tablets first. Then they scale up to a PC and scale down to a smartphone. The tablet is the biggest audience for us. That’s where the most time spent on games is moving to: over a wi-fi connection at home. That’s our sweet spot.”

Any code developed that demonstrates these guidelines is uploaded to a central server so other studios can learn from it. And then there’s that $5m dedicated to training studios in HTML5. It’s a huge investment, Goossens admits, but a necessary one.

“A lot of developers need capital to switch from working in Flash to HTML5; they need to build new libraries and train their teams, and that takes time. We’re actually spending more money and time on games than we should, but we do it to accommodate this transition for developers that we like and care about,” says Goossens.

“And it’s not because we’re philanthropists and we’re so nice and we love these guys; it’s because we want to build a business out of this so we need to help the industry get to that level.”

Of course, HTML5 is not the only way to ensure games work across any device. With the growing accessibility of technologies like Unity, the Spil Games boss says devs still need to think carefully about what they invest in.
“If you’re trying to achieve what Supercell has done with Clash of Clans, HTML5 sucks,” says Goossens. “If you’re trying to build a game for the consoles, it’s really a bad technology to do that with.

“But if you want to build games for a casual audience that usually spent 20 to 40 minutes interacting with you in a session, and play through three of four games in that period, it’s great. It works. Companies like ourselves can use HTML5 to deliver the quality of games that we need today.”

CASUAL CONNECTIONS

It’s not just Spil Games that will benefit from multi-screen titles, Goossens argues; the entire industry needs to account for the fact that casual gamers are using multiple devices in their daily lives. Particularly given how big that audience has become.

“The fact is there are 1.2bn people playing games – we’ve never had an audience larger than that before,” he says.
“Yes, sure, they do it over three screens, which leads to platform fragmentation issues, but we’ll solve that. That’s a bunch of people spending a shitload of time playing our games every day.”

But as Nintendo and other firms have found, the casual or mainstream audience can be fickle. In 2006 and 2007, they were all playing Wii. Later, there were all on Facebook enjoying FarmVille. Then they were on smartphones playing Angry Birds, and now they’re migrating to tablets. How can developers keep up with an audience that is constantly on the move when no one can predict their next preferred platform?

“I don’t think they actually move,” argues Goossens. “I think it’s just the addition of new platforms. My mum, again, still plays a downloadable version of Bookworm every now and then. She also goes to Facebook from time to time, where she plays Zynga games because she likes the farming mechanic. And now she plays Candy Crush on a tablet. And then she also comes to our sites sometimes, playing Mahjong titles.

“Ten years ago, we had a smaller audience that was more dedicated to certain platforms. Now it’s a more massive audience that is platform-agnostic and that’s why we believe in the multi-screen approach. We believe we need to be where our user is, rather than the other way around.”