Making the jump from Facebook to tablet

Making the jump from Facebook to tablet
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

April 29th 2014 at 10:30AM

Gamesys discusses how and why it's entering the mobile social gaming space with Here Be Monsters

It may not yet be a household name, but Gamesys is one of the UK’s biggest game company’s.

The firm specialises in real-money gaming titles on the web and mobile, developing casino and bingo titles.

But despite generating its riches in this field, Gamesys is now expanding out from real-money gaming and into the realm of free-to-play social gaming with titles such as Here Be Monsters, developed by a new but small team at the company.

The title came to Facebook last year and tasks players with travelling the globe to trap monsters, collect items and save the world from evil foes.

The firm recently brought the title to mobile and tablet, and its creators shared with Develop why it went about taking the game to new platform and how it dealt with the limitations of fixed-spec hardware.

“I think our general feeling is that over the last couple of years we haven't seen that many Facebook developers come out with that these huge titles,” said Gamesys director of social gaming Tom Newton.

“If you go back two or three years there was an absolute barrage of big studios throwing huge amounts of money at some pretty big titles. We certainly get the sense that tablets are great gaming devices generally and some of the best users that were playing games on Facebook a couple of years ago, they're still there, but I think it's obvious they're spending more and more of their time consuming their games on tablets and mobile phones, so it just makes sense.”

From browser to mobile

Gamesys senior producer Michael Heywood added while its original plan was to develop iPad and browser versions of the title together, the team had decided to let tablets catch up to the specs required to run the game, rather than deal with limitations of the hardware at the time of the title’s conception.

“With a small team as well it was impossible for us to optimise for both platforms at once,” he explained.

“Especially with new IP, we wanted to get the gameplay right first, and that was much quicker and easier on the web with Flash. That's made our job a little bit easier this year when converting it over to iPad.”

Newton said the browser is a great platform for game development and offers an ideal place to quickly iterate and test new ideas. He added that the company’s history in web development also meant it made sense to go web-first with its new social gaming venture in Here Be Monsters.

Despite always planning to release on mobile and tablet, moving the game over hasn’t been plain sailing. Newton said the team had to constantly be reminded it would one day land on mobile, so it was key to ensure they structured assets appropriately and didn’t get carried away with the amount of memory available on a desktop.

For example, the team had to scrap a few features such as the ability to display traps on the player’s homestead, as tablets would not be able to handle an unlimited number of assets on screen at once. There were also some issues with how simple aspects of the level design would cross over.

“We came across a couple of things in the last three months where things had slipped through the net a little bit and we realised they just weren't going to work on the iPad,” said Newton.

“There were a couple really small things such as the spots with elevations in them. These were done quickly for the web to see how it would work. We had to basically chop those assets up. The guy who did the map got put back on another project which was to give us three different texture types, essentially 12 blocks so we can build any kind of crazy multi-tiered terrain that we want.”

Tooling up

When developing the game, the studio took an interesting approach to project and asset management – it used Google Docs, which Newton said is a great way to prototype games when you have an early model of the different types of objects you want to implement.

When questioned whether these would become complicated and sprawling spreadsheets that are too difficult to manage, he agreed to an extent, but said it’s ideal early on in development and is not as complex as it might first seem.

“You end up with lots of different tabs. So what we do is a sheet per item type,” he said.

“The thing is in the early days you don't need very many items on each page to at least get the core game across. The APIs for Google spreadsheets are great, so all we did is gave the designers access and they can tell the devs they've made a couple changes, can you rebuild that for me, and then they’ll just reach out, download the data, serialise it and then away you go. So we can just do quick iterations that way. We do that for all of our games, and we just find it super useful.”

Once the game grew, the data was moved over to its own in-house tool named TNT, which Newton jokingly stated was given the name due to early issues with the program.

“They called it TNT because early on, when we were building it, if you touched anything it would just blow up.”

The software works as intended now though, and helps designers create new objects in the game, making it easier to implement new additions to the game.

“All the data in the games is .jsm serialised and so it's a huge set of .jsm documents. But what TNT does for the designers is it gives them a really nice web interface where they can basically create any new type of object and also enter all the data they need for quest information as well.

“What it's actually doing is when they log into TNT it's actually checking the Git repository of all the .jsm data, so it branches it for them and eventually they can work on their own branches.

He added: “We can review everything, make sure we're happy with all the changes that have been made and then the guys can actually merge it in and test the whole thing. It's basically a nice little web app and has essentially given us storage control over all the data that's in the game.”

Newton said that following the release of Here Be Monsters on iPad, the studio intends to stay in the social gaming space for the foreseeable future and plans to add new content to the title for years to come. That’s not the end of the developer’s aspirations however.

“We have bigger ambitions for other types of games,” he said.

“We have loads of young people who are super talented and have real ambitions to make games for wider audiences as well.”