How to build a mobile game app
All the skills you need to hire to build your mobile game
We're a species that loves a bit of distraction. This is especially true if your day consists of mind-numbing commutes to whatever boredom factory employs you. You can understand then why app gaming has been booming for the last decade or so. Micro entertainment that's bought for not much money at all is the perfect salve for spare time. Which is why, if you have a great idea brewing for one and have the know-how and time to turn it into reality, you can really cash in.
If a little bit of elbow grease doesn't deter you (and you're certain you're the 2.0 version of Sid Meier or Shigeru Miyamoto,) we can set you on the path to game developer greatness. Today we're going to look at what kind of freelancers you'll need to hire and what you'll need to provide them. A complete, end-to-end guide of building a mobile game start to finish.
Sizing up a team
Mobile game development is nowhere near as complex as AAA game development for desktop or consoles. Those teams can run into the hundreds of employees whereas a handful of talented people with passion and a great concept can make an insane ROI if the stars align. For example, 2010's Super Meat Boy was made by two guys and hit a million sales 14 months after launch. And let's not forget the mother of all indie success stories, Minecraft. In three years after launch this small Swedish developer was snapped up by Microsoft for a cool $2.5 billion.
The biggest decider of how many folks you'll need comes down to the chosen genre and visuals of your idea. For example, a 2D platformer along the lines of Super Mario Bros is far, far simpler to develop than a 3D sandbox title that apes something from the Grand Theft Auto series. Your dev team needs to balloon to fit your ambitions here.
PHASE 1: Start your engine
Running along from the last point, going with 2D or 3D will determine which game engine you go with. Games are very rarely coded from absolute scratch nowadays – it's just not cost effective. Most folks hit the ground running by using a paid or freeware proprietary engine that allows your coder to quickly whip up and compile a working prototype. Here are a few we'd recommend...
Sitting on the lower end of difficulty (but also power) is GameMaker. If your idea doesn't take things beyond two dimensions (and is aping an existing genre of gaming,) then a halfway decent coder could probably make it happen with this engine. Success stories from this product include Hotline Miami, Undertale and Spelunky.
GameMaker is mostly free, however there are some advanced functions that will require you to purchase the full version. Not many of these features will prevent a penniless beginner from achieving their goals, but there is the roadblock that is “unregistered users can only export their game to Windows”. That'll be a problem if you have aspirations for a console game or an app-based project.
A little higher on the totem pole is Unity, a game engine that handles 2D perfectly well but can also open the door to entry level 3D graphics. While not as hand-holding as GameMaker, it's a much more feature rich offering that has been responsible for some break-out indie success stories. Stuff like Cuphead, Ori and the Blind Forest and Inside.
In the deep end of the pool, you have Epic Games' Unreal Engine. While mobile devices are not known for their insane 3D graphics processors, the Unreal Engine still manages to deliver some pretty impressive visual wizardry. That said, it's quite a bit more complex to use and if you are looking to push the graphical benchmarks with your idea, your audience had best have a decent handset or tablet, or your experience is going to be technologically out of their reach.
PHASE 2: Concept
There's no use sitting down with people and excitedly blathering on about your new game and what it'll do. You need to lay it all out. In black and white, with as many visual aids as possible. This is where a concept artist can come in handy; a person who can pluck the visions out of your head and sketch them into a storyboard so that everybody can literally be on the same page.
And in order to do that effectively it can help if you can explain the mechanics of your game in terms of existing gaming genres, sub-genres or as a hybrid beast that combines the existing ones into something new. Some of the most popular “main” genres in gaming today are shooters, action-adventure, role-playing, platforming, simulation and strategy.
PHASE 3: Hiring the moving parts of your machine
When it comes to who you'll need, the mileage is going to vary. Perhaps you have some skills yourself and can cover off some of the disciplines required (and keep costs down). If not, you're looking at one or more or all of the following.
Admittedly, these are probably less mandatory with smaller app games. However, if you're making a long-winded RPG epic that needs a long-form, dialogue heavy tale told — preferably without immersion-breaking typos — then it's time to hire a wordsmith. Ideally, you'll want a freelance writer who's well-versed in scriptwriting. They're also worth having around to write a snappy blurb for the actual game listing in the app store, too.
2D Graphic artist
Speaking of the app store listing, you'll need that all-important app thumbnail designed by a professional, plus said individual could be invaluable when it comes time to design your in-game user-interface. Obviously, if your entire game is 2D-based their role would expand to cover level and asset design as well. Think: dozens of sprites that will give the illusion of motion and interaction.
3D Graphic artist
Alternatively, a 3D-based game will require a heck of a lot more hours to be put into the visuals department. The more lifelike your 3D characters and scenes, the more work has to go into modelling, skinning, texturing and rigging them (think: adding “bones”).
Bouncing off that last point, once a 3D element is rigged up, it'll need to be animated to have a variety of reactions (walking, jumping, reloading being damaged, etc). Unless you're going to rely completely on a physics engine — which is basically a series of mathematical formulas that guess how objects should interact to various in-game stimuli — you'll need an animator to hand craft everything. 2D animators are also required if you want to do simpler intro movies and mid-game expository cutscenes as well.
Sound engineer and voiceover artist
And unless your game is a loving tribute to Marcel Marceau, you're going to need your characters to have a voice, or at least a series of guttural sounds. You always have the option to go online and find a sound bank or two of royalty free sound effects and music, but there's a high chance that several hundred thousand game developers have had the same idea. Your audioscape is going to sound eerily familiar to a well-versed gamer. A good sound designer can craft you a soundtrack on the cheap and even make you some unique sounds via foley or clever mixing of existing audio clips.
Lastly, we have the magic maker of this expedition. Collecting the raw ingredients listed above is all for nothing if you don't have somebody who can link them all together in your chosen game engine. A coder will effectively set the rules of your mini worlds, dial in the mechanics you need to hook in players and also iron out any bugs that can (read: will, always) pop up. They also need to be on call to whip up any patches and fixes that may be required. To minimise customer displeasure, your game will require a lengthy Alpha and then a Beta period to fully test everything out.
PHASE 4: Approval, profit and beyond
Once the hellish grind is over, if you hope to get your game onto one of the major platforms – be it the Google Play Store or Apple's App Store – you'll need to pass an approvals / licensing process. Honestly, they're not very stringent nowadays, but you should factor a few weeks of it into your timeline regardless
And let's not forget post-launch support: follow up patches that correct any bugs will need to be coded and tested. You may also want to nickel and dime your players with bolt-on micro-transaction content like new cosmetic options or even whole new chapters that can add additional hours of playtime. For the latter you're looking at doing the whole aforementioned development process all over again, just at a smaller scale.