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Will Players Always Scorn Mobile Games? — An Interview with Game Developer Tim Harris



Ever since the emergence of downloadable smartphone games, mobile gaming has continued to spread like wildfire with no end in sight. Globally, mobile gaming revenue from the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store topped $12.2 billion in the second quarter of 2017 alone. Newzoo’s Global Games Market Report shows that tablet and smartphone gaming composed 39% – over one third – of the overall gaming market in 2016. It’s estimated that by the end of 2018, mobile games will make up nearly half the market despite their relative youth. 

Image courtesy of Newzoo.

But despite its rising popularity, mobile gaming continues to be the redheaded stepchild of the gaming industry. Core gaming subcultures have formed around PC and consoles, with mobile or web gaming relegated to the “casual” sphere while casino and sports games are considered borderline evil. Ask any dedicated gamer about a smartphone game and they’ll likely scoff – but who could blame them? Mobile games are smaller in scope compared to their mainstream counterparts, and often must prioritize accessibility to the detriment of narrative or visual appeal. Of course, there’s also the plethora of obvious copycats made by sketchy pseudo-devs looking for a quick buck. 

Could a more seasoned developer change that sentiment? It’s certainly possible. After working at Industrial Toys with Bungie co-founder Alex Seropian, Tim Harris founded Gunslinger Studios, a growing mobile game company in Chicago, Illinois. Their first major project is the upcoming RPG Exiles of Embermark with support from Wargaming Mobile, the publishing giant behind World of Tanks. Tim was kind enough to share some words in an interview with Goomba Stomp, published below. 

GS: This is Lydia from Goomba Stomp. I’m here with Tim Harris, a developer who has worked on many games and recently founded Gunslinger Studios here in Chicago. Tim, thank you so much for being here.

TH: It’s my pleasure.

GS: So first, why mobile games? Is there anything in particular that attracted you to the genre?

TH: I grew up playing games from the time I was little – console games, PC games, et cetera – but as phones continue to get better and better, we’ve moved past games like Snake and Java games. Once we got to smartphones, we started to see what smartphones could do, I found that my own gaming behavior was starting to migrate towards mobile. I had less and less time to sit down for, you know, twelve hours and play. I had my time doing that – and I still love it to death. I love RPGs, shooters fantasy games, sci-fi, collectible card games, and I was thinking that I really want to bring those types of experiences to mobile. The emotion, the “gaming goodness,” the “falling down a rabbit hole…” I went into mobile hoping to bring in those types of experiences.

GS: Very nice, very nice. What are some key differences between making a mobile game and making a console or computer game?

TH: Sure. Well first, you hold a smartphone like this [portrait] and we, as a generation of developers, are used to designing in landscape – for computer screens and televisions.

GS: Right.

TH: It’s a totally different visual and controller challenge that exists. So a key difference is the ergonomics of it, and another is the mobile phone factor. You’re using touch, without having a controller in your hands. There are tons of interesting, elegant solutions and tons of funky things that we’ve seen done on mobile because of that control difference. That plus the visual difference I just mentioned, the fact that you have to confine the dimensions, actually creates a lot of interesting problems.

So right now, we’re designing in portrait, we’ve got very little horizontal space, and we’re trying to take the strengths of both controller and visual aspects. And then there’s also just the hardware – right now there’s a disparity in terms of what these devices can do versus what a console can do. And PCs will probably always stay ahead, because we can always upgrade. But we are having less and less problems with hardware capability. 

‘Exiles of Embermark’ solo arena combat.

GS: Very nice. Now, a lot of other gamers out there – particularly ones who grew up on console and computer games – seem a little reluctant to embrace mobile gaming. Do you have any thoughts on this?

TH: Totally. There’s no question that there’s definitely a “hardcore gamer stigma” on mobile games. And what I think is very interesting about that is that it’s not unlike the “nerd” stigma that was around gaming twenty or thirty years ago. We have people who think that “Oh, that’s a ‘fringe’ or strange kind of pastime,” it’s an old people thing. But now we have a whole generation who has grown up around gaming since the time they were tiny. There’s no one around today from 5-15 years old who doesn’t play video games. When you look at the young adult, just-out-of-school demographic, or even folks in their thirties, their earliest console was probably the SNES. They’re seven generations into gaming and they don’t accept mobile gaming as such.

So now there’s a stigma attached from gamers to mobile games, and there’s good reason for it. We haven’t seen experiences from mobile on par with what you can get on a console. There just aren’t games that are as good. Where all the development talent has been – up until five, maybe six years ago – has been in console and PC. There is obviously still a ton of talent there, but we’ve also been seeing how in the last few years a lot of talent get into mobile. Especially when you look at what’s been in big business lately. And we’re seeing more rich games that are like what a gamer would like these days. And I’m starting to think it’ll get a little better. Maybe in ten years, we’ll have a whole new generation of people who grew up without that stigma. A kid who’s being raised with iPad games right now likely couldn’t give two sh*ts about console or PC.

GS: Seems we already have plenty of people going “Back in my day…”

TH: Exactly. Young gamers who grew up gaming are saying “Back in my day…” I think that’s because they’ve been underserved by experiences on mobile. But that is starting to change And that’s what’s going to change minds – fantastic and real gaming experiences.

GS: Now, in a similar vein, are there any mobile games out now that you think are very good? Is there a mobile game on the market right now that ‘does it all right’?  

TH: Oh yeah. Just look at my home screen. I’m a huge fan of Clash Royale. Immediate, fast multiplayer – real multiplayer – in a very short period of time. Which is Gunslinger’s entire premise: short-burst experiences. Clash Royale is a distilled RTS/MOBA experience with, obviously, a lot of free-to-play mechanics. They’re really killing it right now. Hearthstone is another game that I play every day. It really scratches my collectible card game itch. I’m super excited whenever another expansion comes out, just like I was with Magic: The Gathering when I was younger, or the Pokemon trading card game, or any of the analog games I got into. I’m playing Nintendo’s Pocket Camp, it’s a reinvention of the Animal Crossing idea with lots of new ideas that are specifically mobile. Super Mario Run did the same thing, a distinctly mobile game with a familiar IP like Mario to give us a different kind of experience. I’m playing Lineage II, I’m playing Golf Clash, which is basically the Clash Royale meta put on top of golf.

GS: <laughter> That’s very creative.

TH: It is. It’s a really great game. Have you played it?

GS: I have not.

TH: So what’s wonderful about it is you play a hole against a real person. It’s multiplayer, so you get that flow of “Oh, I’m gonna dominate some person,” which for me is an addition. And I love single player games, but I also love being against a live person.

But that’s another thing – on mobile, people have really twisted what “multiplayer” means. Asynchronous multiplayer is not multiplayer, in my opinion. You’re playing someone else’s data, but that data is a bot – not a person. They set up the dominoes, but you’re knocking them down, right? It’s better when there’s a person on the other end playing against you. A battle of wits. So Golf Clash is just like Clash Royale – except golf.   

GS: I’ve noticed that on consoles, 1v1 duelist-style multiplayer is kind of starting to become a lost art in favor of team-based multiplayer, but I see that mobile gaming is beginning to pick that up.

TH: Exactly, exactly. And while we’re still doing “mono y mono”, 1v1, our ambition is to eventually get into Final Fantasy-style party-based mechanics. But I think the simplest way to do it is one person versus one person and build upon it from there. That’s the most “pure” – especially if you have a short amount of time. When we built our first game, it was against really fast multiplayer, but you’re only controlling one character, so it makes it simple.

GS: Nice, nice. Now back to your game, Exiles of Embermark what was your inspiration for it?

TH: So Exiles is heavily influenced from the look and feel of current MMOs, there’s also influence from CCGs like Hearthstone, our economy and the way we’re doing collections – for us it’s loot, for them it’s cards. We’re also drawing heavily from eSports games and short-form multiplayer games like Clash Royale, in terms of how we’re trying to condense a well-established game genre into a shorter form. We’re trying to scratch that itch you have for MMOs, RPGs, narrative, killing monsters, getting loot, that kind of stuff. That’s a challenge for a mobile game. How can you tell a story a minute at a time? It’s been a really interesting thing for us to tackle. RPGs that tell amazing stories – the Telltale series for example – have been a big influence on us. 

Exiles sample quest menu.

GS: What are some of the struggles that come with condensing a narrative? Players are very used to these extensive narratives, but how do you uphold a story that has to be told in sequences?

TH: Our solution to that was we’re having players tell the story. So what we’re doing is we’re creating what’s similar to an analog RPG. Something like you’d have in a Dungeons & Dragons session. The Dungeon Master creates, say, a general outline, but has to be prepared to improvise – to change based on the actions of the players. That was our solution to short-form narrative. What we’re doing is we’re tracking absolutely every single thing you do in the game, from the fights you do to what you kill, presenting choose-your-own-adventure choices based on things like how much time you spend in crafting, the loot you use, and the factions you join. So season by season (for us, a season is a month) we’re going to take all that data and turn it into a narrative.

For example, our house system is like a macro-guild system: it’s not a true guild system, there are six houses that every player in the community will join. Let’s say you’re in House Revenge, the current leading house  – you’re going to be graded against the other five houses each season based on PVP dominance, how you’re doing in PVE, and those rankings will change the politics of the game. So who’s on top, who’s in the middle, and who’s on the bottom will not only change the politics of the game, but the gameplay as well. So as the “Dungeon Master,” we will make changes and create challenges for people to go after House Revenge. We’re making advantages, disadvantages, and other narrative impulses that would incentivize players such as those in House Resolute and House Proper, who are closer to the bottom.  

House ranking from the Exiles beta.

On an individual basis, your actions affect what we call Motivations, which include everything from Avarice to Belief to Compassion. The things you do will change those meters. It’s mostly data, but it creates a tapestry for a narrative. You can also compare them to all of Embermark. Are you more or less compassionate than the world at large? So we’re going to take those experiences and load that type of data when we talk about what happened. Where were we along the ‘compassion’ guideline last season? Or ‘greed’? We’re combining these basic ingredients – which are all data-driven – into a narrative. I guess ‘tapestry’ is wrong – it’s more of a palette.

GS: Very nice. Now, this all sounds very exciting – I’m excited for it – but do you have a favorite aspect of the game?  

TH: Me, personally?

GS: Yes.

TH: Um, can I choose two? Because there’s a lot going on –

GS: <laughs> Sure.

TH: Number one is what I just told you about, but in second, I think that it’s a super interesting challenge to try and tell a story in the way that we are. In a couple weeks – but don’t hold me to that timeline – we’re going to release seven pieces of episodic fiction that tell the story of before you, the player, arrive. Why the bad stuff happened, why the world is the way it is through the eyes of a narrator and someone who experienced it.  

But the biggest favorite for me is the combination of a rich character development system – you have stats, you have abilities, you have talent – all that customization that attaches you to a character coupled with a simple but deep combat system. That was our challenge when we first sat down.

GS: It sounds like a very personalized experience.

TH: We hope so.

GS: So handheld gaming devices – specifically the 3DS and the PSVita – have their appeal but never quite became as popular in North America as they did in Japan. Do you think mobile games could succeed where other handheld games didn’t?

TH: I do. In fact, I have a belief that because we’re getting more and more clever with the way we do control systems – with touch – I think we’re going to get to the point that there isn’t such a disparity between that and an analog or digital controller. There’s still a tactile feel that’s very satisfying for handheld systems like you just described. Often times, you feel that there’s something missing from a touch experience – I don’t know what it is about humans, but there is something to that. But the convenience of carrying around something like this in your pocket ends up bridging that gap. It’s the same thing that happened with cameras – save for high-end enthusiasts, most people just use their smartphone rather than buy a digital camera. When we see games begin to get to that point, I think we’ll be okay.

But the actual question you asked me is ‘could they succeed,’ and I think we’re already seeing some of what I described eat into what’s going on in those handheld industries. We could talk for three hours about the Vita in terms of what’s been done and how it was marketed, sold and supported. I think the DS is a better example: it sells great over here, it’s certainly not in a slouch, but we are seeing Nintendo finally starting to make games for touch when they weren’t before. And let’s face it – the best DS games are first party Nintendo games. Not to disparage anyone else, but my favorites, my friends’ favorites, and the ones at the top of the sales charts are the first party games. They have started to do cool things with touch, but whether those systems continue or not, I don’t have a prediction for you. I think as long as fantastic games are made exclusively for those systems, they will continue to have a place in the world. But I do think that typical mobile is eating into those experiences. I think that the attitude toward touch mobile is a dying attitude – it’s prevalent today, but I don’t think it’s going to go up. I think it’s going to go down.

GS: To build on top of that, mobile games are extremely popular nowadays – and their numbers are continuing to rise. Do you think this will have an effect on the game industry as a whole?  Do you see the industry starting to go in a different direction?

TH: It already has. On a couple of different points. I think there’s no argument with the numbers, like you just said. Especially when you look at a company like Supercell and you look at the type of legwork they’re doing, and the specific mobile-y unique – that’s not a real phrase – experiences that they’re bringing to the table.

And when you look at the free-to-play market, when you look at a company like EA and all that crazy loot box stuff that happened with Battlefront 2 – all that is definitely inspired by what was happening in mobile. You’re starting to see mobile-like things happen in console games. Fortnite is a great example of this – we’re seeing lots of influence from mobile game systems. It’s not just about the monetization.  Mobile game loops and systems are making their way into the mainstream. There’s that business effect that’s happening. Console DLC, for example, has become a lot more common, and I think that’s influenced by the ongoing upgradeable nature of mobile games. And then finally, you have the emergence of companion apps for console and PC games. Some of the coolest apps out there are add-ons to League of Legends or World of Warcraft – some first party, some others – and they’re doing interesting things that are very convenient to use. We used to have to use plugins and whatnot, but now you can carry that capability around in your pocket.

GS: Even though mobile games are relatively young, it seems like the mobile industry and the PC/console industry are already starting to borrow from each other.

TH: They absolutely are, and I think there’s going to be more and more of that. But we still differentiate them as if gaming here and gaming there are two totally different things.  They’re not. Even I still think of them as different. But eventually it’ll seem more like “gaming” as opposed to “this platform gaming” and “that platform gaming.”

GS: It’s definitely a very exciting time to be gaming.

TH: One hundred percent.

GS: Tim, that’s all the questions I have. Thank you so much for being here today.

TH: Thank you.  

Gunslinger isn’t the only company that wants to change mobile gaming sphere, however. In an unexpected move, thatgamecompany – widely known for their titles Flow and Journey – will be releasing their next game Sky on iPhone and iPad before any other platform. If even more known and experienced developers follow suit, it could signal a new era for mobile gaming (and topple the stigma against the industry’s smaller sibling).

Whether classic gamers like it or not, mobile gaming is here to stay.

Gunslinger’s Exiles of Embermark is currently in development. Learn more by visiting their website, Facebook, or Twitter. Tim can be found on Twitter as @TheWzrd.

Student, writer, and animation enthusiast based in Chicago, IL. I've been gaming since my parents made the mistake of buying me a Game Boy at age six.