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Let's talk about developing AAA mobile games

Because I'm tired of defending my job to AAA console developers.

· Game Development

I develop and direct the narratives of AAA mobile games.

"But you've never worked on, like, a real game." —Every AAA console developer who comments on my body of work.

AAA mobile devs, how many times have you heard this line from our console cousins? How many times has someone who has never worked in mobile games, who does not understand your job, made the assumption that mobile games development is easy, or even outright not real game development?

Hold your pedantic horses and let me explain.

To the uninitiated of the AAA console world, I ask: Have you looked at the top games in app store lately? Have you noticed all the cross-platform play initiatives porting your precious, pristine console titles into the mobile-holding hands of the unwashed masses? Have you witnessed, as our pocket computers level up, the closing of the technological gap between what is achievable on console and what is achievable on mobile?

Because the argument that mobile games are not "real" games is complete crockery.

What people mean when they say "mobile games aren't real games" is actually this: "I've never played your mobile game, and I'm not aware of the depth of story contained therein. I hold an outdated view that all mobile games are idle time-wasters with greedy monetization mechanics. I'm convinced every single mobile game is a glorified slot machine, bereft of actual story, and I refuse to confront my ignorance. Also, this horse is so high, how do I get down?"

Sure, some mobile games are like that—but so are some console games. That's a free-to-play problem, not a mobile game problem. Just as not every console game is a FPS with loot boxes, not every mobile game is a candy-themed slot machine.

I can't speak to every mobile game on the market, true. But I can speak to the ones I've developed, and played in research, and studied for the last 10,000+ hours of my career.

So, let's get a few things straight about the AAA mobile games upon which I've built said career:

  • Millions of daily active players
  • Millions of dollars in net revenue
  • Hundreds of continuous chapters of story content, packed with evolving stakes, character growth, and emotional impact

These are not your mid-00s mobile games of yore (I should know; one of my first gigs in the industry was QA for those games). These are not text-flavored whimsies. These are bona fide games with bona fide stories.

These are games with fan groups on Facebook in the hundreds of thousands, picking apart each and every dialogue line, ravenous to know what's going to happen in next week's release. These are games that give players hope in some of the most desperate times of their lives, as evidenced by the fan mail that pours in for these "mere" mobile games. These are games that explore serious themes. Once, in a single story arc of June's Journey, our characters dealt with murder, drug addiction, homelessness, growing old, PTSD, the wayward directionlessness of young adulthood, corporate fraud, identity of the self vs. societal expectations, medical malpractice... and that was just the first act.

Again, these are not your crushes candy, nor your days hay.

Pre-production and pipelines and weekly releases, oh my!

A typical day in my role at Wooga looked like this:

  • Leading the writers' room (held every morning for at least two hours), alternating between: brainstorming and plotting future content, table-reading and live-editing dialogue, polishing imminently releasing content, battling release fires, designing and prototyping narrative adventure puzzles and wider systems of narrative delivery, analyzing player feedback and competitor games... this list, she's a long one, and she ain't even all-inclusive.
  • Running around having meetings and coffee conversations and story briefings and existential release crises between art, design, engineering, marketing, localization, live ops, et cetera department partners, all in the name of narrative cohesion.
  • Providing critical feedback on (or putting out fires around) art asset iteration, content implementation, narrative tools, social media campaigns, story globalization, customer service issues, you name it.
  • Scheduling, balancing, and maintaining a production pipeline that doesn't have us crunching in our sleeping bags under our desks, nor angers the pitchfork mob of (again) MILLIONS OF PLAYERS for failing to release on time.
  • Carving out a few Slack-free (evening) hours to do the actual writing—plot outlines, story bibles, deep lore, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of lines of dialogue, all needing to weave together seamlessly to create a massive game-spanning narrative story arc, carrying forward the main plot and myriad subplots, making space for characters' emotional arcs—and understanding that we are our own editors, thus we need to come out the first draft gate at the top of our game... ahem. Pun unintended, for once.
  • Bug-fixing, bug-fixing, bug-fixing. And more bug-fixing. And reproduction, and retesting, and more bug-fixing. And Googling "why does this ridiculously esoteric Unity problem happen only to me and that one guy on Stack Exchange", and then more bug-fixing.
  • Lunch? Sometimes lunch? Is there time for lunch today? No? Snack kitchen it is. 

Sounds a lot like game development, HUH? And here's a mind-blower: the development pipeline of every mobile game I've worked on has looked something like the above.


So, in review...

How's about—just an idea, here, console pardner—but how's about... you actually play one of these million-dollar-earning, million-player-strong, AAA story-driven mobile games BEFORE you mansplain to me what you think my job is?

Or at least ask me to explain my job to you, before you mansplain to me what you think my job is. And I say that regardless of your gender identity, because everyone mansplains. Especially about games. You're on the internet. You know this.

Because that old argument, that old chestnut of "mobile games don't count", just doesn't fly, friend. Debate me on the moralities of F2P, sure! Debate me on session lengths, on how to bring characters to life in the palm of your hand, on how to keep players engaged in and remembering the plot across a huge body of content, on how to improve diversity and representation, yes, please! Ask me about what it's like to get weekly immediate feedback from millions of players, and how that affects a pipeline of plotted content! It's super interesting stuff... when you take the time to ask, examine, and put aside your assumptions.

Just don't tell me I'm not a real game developer. Them's fightin' words, and I play a meeeean game of Beat Saber.

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