futuristic game development office with people working

Building Free-to-Play Mobile Games for Scale: Part One - An Introduction

For mobile game developers today, finding product-market fit is the primary challenge when starting a new game project. But in focusing only achieving this goal, an arguably more important question is often left neglected: What next? What comes after global launch? In this special 'Building for Scale' Metaplay Miniseries, we tackle this topic over a series of in-depth articles. Read on for Part One.

Making mobile games today: A scaling problem

It’s no secret: Making free-to-play mobile games is hard. Making free-to-play mobile games that go on to achieve global scale, then, is even harder. 

In today’s games-as-a-service era, it’s not enough for game developers, product managers, and studio founders to only concern themselves with proving a concept, finding product-market fit, and getting to global launch.

To thrive, and have a chance of growing real market share, you need to have plans in place for how you’ll continue to grow your game after global release.

What will your game’s LiveOps strategy be? How will you keep the game fresh with regular content updates? How can you tap into revenue streams beyond only the App Stores?

Many developers fail to consider these key questions at the outset of their game development projects. The result is that as they progress into the latter stages of development, they're often left ruing their early design and production choices.

But by having scale in mind from a project's outset, developers can save themselves from a world of future production headaches, and ensure they're best placed to design and build games for scale.

What does it mean to 'build for scale'?

Building for scale ensures that not only will you not get caught out at global launch, but you’ll also gain valuable competitive advantages that will help your game achieve real global growth.

Granted, building for scale is easier said than done - but at the same time, it needn’t be that complicated.

In the first part of this Metaplay Miniseries, we take a look at how a little forward planning can go a remarkably long way, and start to consider the principles of building for scale.

We'll introduce the four Pillars of Scaling - the fundamental foundations that you should plan for controlling and growing as your game achieves global reach.

In subsequent instalments we'll break down each of the Pillars of Scaling in more detail.

But for now, let's start at the beginning.

Why making games is about more than just 'time to market'.

At the start of a game development journey, nothing's more important than proving the product's concept.

On the quest to find product-market fit, it goes without saying that a key game development priority is to minimize time to market.

But while optimizing for time to market is what’s needed in the early days, it can cause problems later on down the line. Metaplay co-founder Teemu Haila discusses this in his piece Ship Fast Without Regret.

We’re not saying here that time to market’s not important. Far from it.

But during this phase, we’re only focusing on things that will get us over the line in the coming weeks, or at a stretch, in the coming months.

Naturally, that means we’re making tradeoffs that are only serving for now. By extension, then, we’re sacrificing the later.

Let’s start by taking a look at what we need for the proof-of-concept phase of development, and then continue our development journey onwards from there.

What do you need in order to prove your game’s concept?

Graphic explaining the characteristics of a "Hit game worth investing in"

To find product-market fit in those early proof-of-concept releases, you need to get to data quickly at the lowest cost possible.

In essence, you need to nail down a core gameplay loop that’s robust enough to reach soft launch, and incorporate rudimentary analytics that will allow you to determine whether or not what you’ve built is a success.

You’ll probably also want to feed into this some basic user acquisition activities that will allow you to bring enough players to your game to validate that you have a good idea.

You keep costs down by developing as quickly as possible, probably working mostly in an offline integrated development environment (IDE) to save overhead from working with live servers.

To develop quickly, you need tech and tools you know how to use in order to minimize hassle around getting started with new technologies.

And of course, you need focus and team orientation around the challenge that’s in front of you: building a proof of concept and testing out with real people to find product-market fit. (For more insights on market validation, check out our guest post by Sebastian Long from Player Research on Mastering Player Research and UX Optimization.)

Building for scale: Time to market’s bigger, scarier brother

Great! You’ve done all that. But what now?

Many studios fall into the trap of just carrying on the same path they were already on - the path they set off when they were building their earliest releases.

And that’s where things start to fall apart.

In the proof of concept phase, we’ve more than likely rushed to put out an MVP that's strung together on a flaky backend that’s not designed for scale.

If we go on to ship this MVP using the same technology, there’s no real technical foundation to drive and support our game’s growth as it scales.

And that’s a problem. Because if you want to build a game that truly makes an impact, you’re going to need at least these things: 

What do you need in order to build a game for scale?

Graphic explaining the evolving features and functionalities of a growing game

It goes without saying that as you build your game, its features and functionalities evolve.

In progressing from pre-launch through to hit game and ultimately top-grossing, you’ll need to add a range of online and social features, plan and execute a complete LiveOps strategy, guarantee stability and security, and more. 

With each step you take on this journey, the tech and tools you’re building your game on will need to evolve too.

Breaking down each of these things at the outset of your development journey is time consuming, and not a priority when you have a concept to prove.

But the good news is that you don’t need to concern yourself with all the details from the get-go.

That said, you do need to know these things exist, and you should be aware that if your game is going to be a success, you will need to build them at some point. 

Planning for scale from the moment you start building

To get to a point where you can seamlessly integrate the features and functionalities we outline above, let’s think in a bit more detail about some of the more significant things that will change as soon as we start scaling.

That’s how we can be sure that things aren’t going to break as we grow.

Revisiting our diagram, each of the above functionalities we highlight share certain characteristics.

Actually, we can group each of them under one of four distinct pillars, or things that change as your game grows: 

1. The number of players playing your game

2. Your game’s complexity

3. The size of your development and support teams

4. Your game’s revenue

These are our four Pillars of Scaling. 

Introducing the Pillars of Scaling

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Like our list of functionalities and features above, the Pillars of Scaling are the fundamentals that will change as our game grows.

Over the course of this Metaplay Miniseries we'll deep dive into exactly how each of them will change, and how they bring with them positive problems we need to plan for dealing with ahead of time. 

What to expect from this Metaplay Miniseries

By the end of the miniseries, you'll be an expert in efficiently designing games with scale in mind. 

For tips and tricks on how to tackle the first Pillar of Scaling join us for Part Two, where we take a look at how to effectively plan for handling the increasing number of players that will be playing your game as it grows. 

We'll discuss the importance of a scalable and robust backend for handling heavy loads, and shed some light on how to implement a robust and scalable backend yourself.

We'll also consider some of the other positive problems that emerge as a result of fast growth and making a popular game, like the need for automated cheat prevention and scalable player support systems and tooling. (Get a head-start on automatic cheat prevention in mobile games in this guest post by Andrew Ching from Mighty Bear Games: What are Server-Authoritative Realtime Games).

Building Free-to-Play Mobile Games for Scale: Part Two - How to handle the increasing number of players playing your game will be published week commencing 12th February. Sign up to our newsletter or follow us on Linkedin to be the first to read it.