Staying true to the golden days of the videogame arcade in modern mobile gaming

If you were a kid in the late 1970s and early 1980s you’ll no doubt remember the wonderyears of the videogame arcades. The thrills of the new technology that provided hours of fun for us young gamer geeks was mesmerising.

These were the Star Wars years. Science fiction had finally become mainstream and was in the mind of every kid. To be able to visit the arcades and drop a coin to blast everything to hell was the ultimate thrill. We were all Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.

But what was it about those days, the games and their magic that endures and why have we built our business around maintaining the ethos of those early, pioneering days in gaming?

Nostalgia?

This isn’t nostalgia. That’s important. Nostalgia is a fine thing but for us it’s much, much more than that.

Sure there’s a buzz in reliving and recreating the game thrills of our youth. There’s always an inevitable thrill in regressing as you get older. But the key thing here is that there are aspects to ‘retro’ gaming that are entirely relevant to the modern mobile gamer. Not least the ability to be able to pick up a game, have a ‘go’, succeed or fail and then put the game down in the knowledge that next time you pick it up the same challenges will be presented to you without the added blag of being repeatedly sold to.

Better yet you can be sure to test yourself against your (and your friends) past achievements via such mechanics as a high score table or achievements matrix.

It is indeed a decidedly retro thing. There’s a charm to it that has been somewhat eroded over generations of advancing technology. The limitations of a colour palette and small screen resolution forced some ingenious design decisions and pushed the artist in particular, into creating some wonderful effects.

Retro for us is Defender but it’s also Out Run or even Doom. Retro for you may be more relatively recent titles such as Grand Theft Auto 3. It matters not. The point is that there was a charm in the ingenuity of designing within limitations be they graphical or processor.

Mobile devices are phenomenally powerful in terms of their graphical capability and raw horsepower, but they come with their own challenges for designers in terms of their physical size and limited control options. This, for us, is hugely attractive as designers and artists.

We want to try and map aspects of the classic arcade game experience onto modern mobile gaming.

Annoyances

The modern game scene is driven by the desire to sell once and sell again actually within the game experience. We don’t much like this trend. Not necessarily because it wasn’t prevalent in the ‘golden days’ (you can be sure that if it was possible back then it would have been done) but because it’s a distraction from the thrill of the game.

Monetising your games is important from a business sense but ramming it down your audience’s throat is ugly and unattractive. If there’s one thing that annoys us as gamers it’s sitting down to enjoy a game only to be presented with a full screen advert and a tiny (X) to close and progress. For us it then becomes less about you the gamer and more about ‘we’ the business trying to earn a buck.

If there’s another thing that annoys us it’s not being able to get into a game without the tiresome ‘this is how you play the game’. You’ve seen it before, you click PLAY and then you have 5 minutes of a greyed screen with highlighted pointers for how you actually play the damned thing.

Then, if all of that isn’t bad enough, you’re playing your game in the company of a 1/5th screen height persistent advert.

It’s ugly, intrusive and not at all what we want as gamers. As gamers we want to play. Pure and simple. We have our game and we want to play it and use our own intelligence and intuition to get us through.

Identifying these things was key to establishing our plan, or promise, if you like.

Our promise

So our ethos, our promise to the gamer, is that you will pay once for the game (£0.99, for example) and then play without any interference as many times as you like.

In the first two weeks of release we’ll likely offer the game free of charge. Following that initial free period we’ll charge a small fee for the game. We’re not Sega or Namco so won’t be asking for the usual £10.99 to recoup the enormous associated costs of development and marketing.

Staying true to the arcade ethos

True arcade games should not be so complicated as to require lengthy tutorial stages.

Many mobile games are of course fairly complex and warrant a tutorial of some kind. But even then it’s not as though you’re paying to play each time and have somebody breathing down your neck waiting for you to finish. Just wade in and figure it out! I personally often think that tutorials in games are a waste of dev effort and more a product of the heavy-handed marketing department who’ve seen such things in the competition.

“They do it so we should do it!”

It’s nonsense.

Most arcade games had an ‘attract mode’. It was a cut away from the title screen that offered a brief look at the game in action. Attract mode was designed to pull you in and have you spend your hard earned 10p. The cartoonist in me often imagines rows of agitated and excited arcade cabinets beeping, flashing and bouncing to get your attention :)

In many respects the iOS App Store is like a videogame arcade. You’re generally looking for a game to spend your gamer budget on (take a chance on). If the game is free to download there’s no risk, you’re not taking much of a chance!

Screenshots and ratings go a long way to attracting you. Ratings is not too dissimilar to word of mouth. If there was enough positive buzz about a game you’d hear it either amongst your friends or in passing whilst you wander the arcade. If there’s plenty of people stood around the cabinet you can be sure there’s something attractive on offer.

Similarly, if a game has merit you’d read about it on social media, gaming websites or hear about it amongst your gamer peers.

Sifting through the negative feedback and filtering out the ‘it crashes on my phone’ comments should leave you with enough information to persuade your purchase.

Marketing your games is vital and something for a future post. But for now let’s assume you can generate a healthy enough audience for your game on the app stores.

Attract mode translates into the preview video. Gamers are keen to see the game in motion before they commit. Both the iOS and Google stores offer a video preview. This is our opportunity to attract gamers based on the actual game. Flashy, over produced videos that show little or nothing of the game fail here in an instant. Rule 1: show the game in action! Show the promise to the gamer.

Genres and development challenge

We tend toward shoot em ups. It’s just our thing. We loved them all from Space Invaders and Defender through to Raiden, Outzone and Ikaruga. But we’re by no means limited to that genre. The key for us is in the visual style that we can achieve. The graphical potential of a game is a huge draw for us. If we can see a sizeable challenge in the code and art the project will often gain enough momentum to move into development.

The best projects are built on top of a number of key challenges.

From the developer’s perspective it may boil down to the tools that need to be created to build game specific levels. Our current project, Akari, started out as a scrolling shooter that quickly evolved into something that required staging and good level design. Our in-house level editor Neo was adapted to construct such challenges.

The artists and developers work closely to translate design goals into game features.

The time between developments is fun. We enjoy pulling together game concepts, graphical ideas and any other ideas for making a cool mobile game experience. But we never lose sight of our ‘promise’ – that our games will be all about instant accessibility and fast-paced thrills.

We also want to provide a consistent and level playing field. This is why we reject in-app purchases. Mechanics like that immediately offer an uneven playing field.

Social media

Embracing social media is almost essential in succeeding in modern mobile gaming. Testing yourself against your friends and then sharing those achievements on Facebook, Twitter et al is an increasingly important aspect to the game experience.

We’re keen to explore this without intrusion and are looking to integrate Apple’s Game Center and Google’s Play Games in all future games, for example.

It was always a thrill back in the day to visit the arcade and stand in front of your favourite game to see if your score was still top of the tree. Heaven forbid you should be displaced. Nothing would motivate you more than to see somebody else’s 3 character moniker sitting proud above you.

It was actually pretty frustrating to see an unfamiliar moniker sitting immediately above you. We’re convinced that challenges between friends is the way forward. We all want to brag our achievements to those buddies we know we can communicate with.

Conclusion

Modern mobile gaming is hugely enjoyable. The games are staggeringly attractive and full of style. Despite game companies insisting that mobile games are much more than ‘casual’ we feel that actually this is exactly what they are.

To that end, for us, the best games offer instant action and a great challenge with the ability to replay to your heart’s content without ever being pulled away from the game experience.

The golden years of arcade gaming perfected the art of offering such experiences which makes classic arcade gaming entirely relevant to the modern mobile gamer.

 

Akari – short play demo video

Akari is a game that we’re currently thrilled to be developing here at Space Monster Games. It takes its lead from classic early 1990s shoot em ups such as Raiden and Outzone. Though the visual style is developing nicely we’re still hard at work creating some cool graphics and effects to keep you entertained for many, many levels.

More about the young hero of the game, Akari, and her backstory will follow in future posts. We hope you enjoy the video.

Targets and thinking like a casual mobile gamer

I have a number of targets for this year with Space Monster Games but crucially I have one goal that stands out above all others; grow traffic to Playstar.

Playstar logo

The current visitor count stands at around 250,000 a month. I’m happy with that but I want to double it by January 1st 2015. What’s more I want to double it organically. i.e. not spend money promoting the site.

I noted a few points down relating to my targets that I thought might be worth sharing here.

Get a better spread of traffic sources

Just now I take regular traffic from a few sites. Referral figures run at anywhere between 40% and 60% daily. I have always assumed that the remainder have the arcade bookmarked but I suppose that Google’s Analytics script simply doesn’t have enough information to determine a source. This could be for a number of reasons.
I’ve often wondered, for example, what the effect of launching the site from within an embedded browser inside an app might return. I’m guessing that it would be returned as direct or not set since there’s no referring URL.
Either way it won’t do any harm to promote the arcade organically and be visible on a broader range and number of related sites.
Which leads me nicely on to…

Improved Page Rank

Playstar is a new site. It’s been actively maintained for less than 6 months. In that time I’ve used all the expected methods of communicating its existence via social media including Facebook and Twitter. But predictably its ranking within Google is low. Around 1/10.

By the end of 2014 I’d like to see that up at around 4/10.

How will I do that? This is of course the million dollar question. How on earth do you increase your Google Page Ranking for a mobile web gaming site?

Well I’ve pondered this question over and over and ultimately I arrive right back at the beginning. There is no magic solution specific to promoting a mobile web gaming site. It is after all just a web site. So to succeed I simply promote it as I would any other web site.

Demographics

Where and how I promote it warrants a little more thought.
I sometimes try and visualise my audience. Right down to the person.

  • What do they look like?
  • Where do they live?
  • What is their employment / education status?
  • How old are they?
  • What budget do they have?
  • What are their interests?

In an attempt to flesh this out a bit I’ve attempted to become my target audience!

What does a mobile gamer (never mind the web bit for now) do to find games to play?
Well this really does depend upon an array of things (including but not at all limited to):

  • Handset used
  • Budget
  • Internet connection / reliability
  • Demographic

The analytics collected from Playstar thus far inform me that the majority (60%) of visitors are male and aged somewhere between 16 and 36.
They are also casual / hardcore gamers, savvy parents, photography enthusiasts and petrol heads!
OK, so good luck targetting that audience with a single strategy. Google’s assumptions based algorithms for determining this data are simply not reliable enough.

To get inside the head of a typical mobile gamer it’s probably more reliable to collect a few handsets and go looking for games. Free games. The word FREE is key here.

Freemium

Annoyingly In App Purchasing (the freemium model) has taken off in a big way. This essentially renders games free at the point of download and in many cases the gamer gets a satisfactory experience without spending any cash. This of course means that a gamer looking for a free game can simply head to an app store and sniff out a freemium game. Their first port of call being the app store means that they are potentially less inclined to use a search engine to find a free game.

Competing with the countless millions of app store games is not for me. Besides I want to crush the app stores and drive everyone toward browser gaming!

But am I missing a trick here? Why not use the app stores? Why not submit my games to the app store as a means of promoting the arcade. The “footfall” through the app stores is huge. Even 0.01% of daily app store traffic at least seeing a screenshot of my games might warrant further investigation.
I could offer the games for free such they they stand a better chance of download and then splash my branding all over them in the hope that the gamer will take the next step and go visit the arcade.

Why visit the arcade when they can just launch the app I hear you ask?
It’s a good point but the arcade is more than just a bunch of games. Its feature set is growing and is largely based around high scores and achievements. This functionality wouldn’t extend to the app store. It would be important to stress that point.

As positive as this sounds it still seems like fishing with a crude wooden stick and a piece of string in a lake the size of Australia.

I’m brought back to search engines; where the same analogy could of course be applied. I just feel there is a little more control with the search engines.

Search Engine Optimisation

Encouragingly there is obviously a hunger for free games.

Surely these gamers are willing to play anything. And that must include mobile web games.
Naturally therefore there must be a significant volume of gamers using Google to search for “free mobile games” or “free online games”. Not necessarily “free mobile web games” but that will change with time.
The challenge here is in making my “free mobile web game” site stand up alongside the “free mobile game” options returned in Google.

SEO best practices essentially point to a couple of strategies:

  • Keep talking about your site (via all means)
  • Share your site with as many people as you can

It’s certainly not going to do any harm and to this end I have a blog and social media accounts. I’m less inclined to litter forums and blog comments with drivel purely to get links as I think it devalues the brand. But is this the right approach?

If I were a gamer looking for free games what would drive me toward a mobile web gaming site? Who might I be?

  • A disillusioned iOS gamer used to Flash gaming in my PC’s browser?
  • The frustrated owner of a cheap handset with an assumption that nothing will run because it’s so terrible?
  • A novice who simply taps “free games” in to the Google box that sits on the home screen of Android devices?

This kind of thing intrigues me. To properly reach out to a potential mobile web gaming audience I need to think and behave like a mobile gamer.

Education

There is of course another approach.
Rather than waiting for the world to catch up with the notion of mobile web gaming, tell them about it.
Stand out from the crowd as somebody who is an authority on mobile web gaming. Not just a gaming portal but an innovator. A designer, developer and arcade owner.
There’s some merit in this but what would concern me is that it places a direct relationship between the developer and the arcade; the technology and the fun.

I would really want the arcade to stand out as a pure means of escape without linking it directly to the nuts and bolts that go in to its production. As a boy playing Space Invaders et al I couldn’t have cared less about who designed the games and how they made it in to the arcade.
But in this age of maximising web exposure it’s important to play to your strengths. This blog is as much of a weapon in that sense as the arcade and its games.

Conclusion

Drawing conclusions from all of this is tough but one thing has emerged that I will take on board.
I need to be the gamer. I need to actually become the audience.
To this end I need to ditch using an iPhone 5s as my daily phone and walk around with a Samsung Galaxy model for a week or so. Samsung devices are by far the most popular handsets visiting the arcade.
I’d probably pick a low to mid-range Galaxy phone running a minimum of Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0). An SII perhaps.
I’ll treat it as my main phone and source of all mobile gaming. I’ll set my budget to zero and at every point I want to play a game of some kind I’ll shun the iOS devices in favour of the Samsung.
It will be hugely frustrating initially I’m sure but hopefully will yield some interesting results.

All comments, suggestions and opinions welcomed.

Developing a portal for free mobile games

Anyone who has ever glanced across my portfolio will notice that there isn’t anything in there that is particularly original. This is quite deliberate. A couple of years ago when I set out to create these JavaScript / Canvas games I set myself the simple task of recreating some of the games that I loved as a kid. Since I entered my teens the year Spy Hunter (below left) came out I hold a particular fondness for the game and set myself the task of crafting my own homage to it (below right).
I absolutely adored this game in the arcades nearly 30 years ago. The style, the feel, the music… it had it all. And I wasn’t alone. My friends and I stood like groupies around this cabinet for many an hour during the summer holidays.

spy hunter screenshot spy chase screenshot

The same can be said for other games like Defender, Galaxians, Galaga… the list goes on. So what you see in my portfolio right now is a direct reflection of my love for the arcade games of the early 1980s.

I suppose there will come a point where I move forward in time and focus on the SNES or something. I don’t know. But for now I want to bundle all these games together to present what is I suppose a bit of a nostalgia trip.
I always intended to create a place where people could play free mobile games at the tap of a button and I think I probably have enough games in the portfolio to make such a thing worthwhile.
free mobile web games banner
You can find the portal at m.spacemonsters.co.uk. Just now there is no sign-up or login of any kind it’s all just a tap ‘n go, free to play affair.

Ultimately I’d like to branch out a little an maybe embrace social gaming and have high score tables for each game that are stored on my server. It’s early days and I need to have a serious think about security and avoiding a spamming of my database. But that’s a challenge I enjoy :)

Moving everything under one WordPress roof

It has long been my intention to pull all my web work under one web site. When I started Space Monsters I simply wanted somewhere to write up my day to day thoughts on “stuff”. The more I get used to having this blog the more I consider it to be my main web site.

I’ve enjoyed blogging about my HTML5 game development and look forward to continuing it on here. I will keep the original blog online since it contains a ton of stuff I just don’t want to duplicate. I like the WordPress interface so this site is built using the WordPress software as opposed to the hosted solution. The benefits of having more flexibility and the added ability to actually generate some revenue from it (one day) far outweigh the simple convenience of having someone else host all your work.

So the first thing I’ve done is to move a few of my mobile HTML5 based games over to Space Monsters.

They are HyperGunner, Spy Chase and the first one I made, Wizard Wars.
HyperGunner and Wizard Wars are playable with the keyboard arrow keys and Z or Ctrl to fire where relevant. All three use the mouse of touchscreen on relevant mobile devices.

So welcome to my new home. I hope you enjoy my prattling and thoughts on “stuff”. :)