Evolution of a mobile game: The development process

Evolution of a mobile game: The development process

By Oli Christie

November 23rd 2012 at 10:28AM

Neon Play CEO Oli Christie on the key aspects of game creation

In the second of a three part series, Neon Play founder and CEO Oli Christie continutes to chart the evolution of the mobile developer's Traffic Panic series and offers advice on the development process of a mobile game.

You can read part one of the series, which looks at the formation of the core idea, here.

The release of the iPhone and the development of its iOS signified a game-changing moment for the global games industry by allowing developers to produce high quality and accessible games for mobile phones for the first time.

When Neon Play released its first game Flick Football in mid-2010, the app market was still in its infancy but growing at a pace. iOS was head and shoulders above any other mobile development platform at the time and has maintained its lead ever since.

The decision about which platforms to develop games on is still a relatively easy one for the majority of developers. iOS is more or less a given: a recent survey by Game Developer magazine found that almost 95 per cent of developers were committed to iOS. Despite this, Android has made significant gains in the last couple of years with the same survey finding that around 70 per cent were developing games for the platform.

For other operating systems, such as Windows and Blackberry, there is simply not enough potential ROI to warrant a small developer getting involved. Perhaps these platforms will evolve substantially in the future but, for the moment, iOS and Android have an estimated
85 per cent share of the global mobile OS market (IDC 2012).

Neon Play began life as an iOS developer but as the Android market has matured, we have released several of our games on both platforms. Traffic Panic 3D and Traffic Panic London were both released initially on iOS and then on Android. Developers on the whole, however, remain wary about device fragmentation, a perceived lack of quality control and the prevalence of piracy.

When deciding whether to develop for Android, it is advisable to take these issues into account as well as whether you believe that you will be able to generate enough downloads to make a decent return on your development costs.

From 2D to 3D

The original Traffic Panic began life as a simple, two dimensional, bird’s-eye view of cars driving along Sin City-inspired streets. Although it had been a success, we knew that to develop the Traffic Panic series to include the crashes and explosions that people were craving, we would have to be open to 3D game development.

As a studio we were just beginning to move over to Unity at that time which turned out to be the perfect toolset for creating the more immersive game environments that we were after.

Up until that point we had been using an internal Neon Play engine but, to tackle the issue of cross platform development, we decided to focus on Unity rather than write our own Android development engine.

Using Unity, our CTO Mark Allen mocked up a quick 3D prototype comprising red, green and blue blocks crossing an intersection and crashing into each other. Introducing real world physics – a hallmark of Unity – into the game made it instantly more dynamic.

It was fun at that stage, even before we had modelled the cars, so we knew that we were going in the right direction with the game’s development.

Although Traffic Panic 3D was a notable step forward for us, the game was, in essence, a transfer of the 2D game into a 3D environment.

We were pleased with our progress and the integration of the crashes and explosions which enhanced the aesthetic but the game ended up achieving slightly fewer downloads than the original 2D version of Traffic Panic (but, still, that was 1.8 million downloads so not too sloppy).

We had to question ‘why?’

Mobile game development is a constant learning curve and, in retrospect, it’s clear that Traffic Panic 3D lacks certain elements of interactivity that perhaps fans of the game were expecting.

So, when the idea for Traffic Panic London emerged earlier this year, we really wanted to go all out to make it as dynamic and immersive as a casual game could be.

Building Traffic Panic London

Whereas other game engines tend to be very programmer-centric, Unity is an all-round, easy-to-use, functional engine, enabling designers and artists to work more cogently within the development process. We already had the core structures of Traffic Panic London in place but we wanted to embellish it and introduce more detail into the Traffic Panic world.

One of the biggest challenges we faced in the development process of Traffic Panic London was creating the extensive, interactive environment. We needed cars to collide with buildings and objects – traffic lights, phone boxes – and for each component to react in a fun yet realistic manner.

With the addition of Tap Bombs in this game, players can cause major post-crash carnage by tapping any part of the screen, meaning that we needed to integrate multiple angles and greater interaction between different elements of the scene.

As Unity has the Nvidia PhysX physics engine built-in, it allows each element of the game, such as the London Eye and Big Ben, to be programmed with its own realistic and unique behaviours.

For instance, when cars crash into the London Eye, it becomes detached from its tethering, the pods snap off, it rolls and crashes to the ground causing maximum damage. Likewise, Big Ben’s clock face explodes onto the ground below, traffic lights fall over and cars explode skywards.

Our artists then created the detailed depictions of London buildings and icons. The textures, lighting and precise artwork that went into every aspect of the scenes and vehicles make the game markedly different from the predecessors in the Traffic Panic series and enhance the gameplay experience for the consumer.

Despite altering the game environment significantly, we wanted to stick with the one touch mechanic that had been with the game since the outset. So often we have seen games that have tried to simulate console style gaming and controls – be it through tilting the device itself or by adding complex console controls to the screen. For Neon Play, one tap is all you need.

In the case of Traffic Panic London, 3D undoubtedly served the gameplay better than had it remained a 2D game. Finding the right games engine to achieve the aims of your game is an essential part of the development process. Unity allowed us to create the interactive, familiar environment that made Traffic Panic London come alive.

All you can ask is that by the end of the development process you are left with a game of which you, as a developer, can be proud.

It’s your name on the line so it must be a concept that you can get behind fully and one that will boost your credibility as a developer within the industry. It’ll then be up to your powers of promotion to make sure that players discover your studio and new releases in the midst of the over-crowded app marketplace.

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In part three Oli Christie will discuss how to promote and market a mobile game.