Neon Play CEO Oli Christie on creating a game concept for mobile

Evolution of a mobile game: The idea

In the first of a three part series, Neon Play founder and CEO Oli Christie charts the evolution of the mobile developer’s Traffic Panic series and offers advice on creating a concept for a new game.

Will traditional console gaming be replaced by mobile games? It is a question that is asked frequently but, due to rapid and unpredictable changes in technology, is difficult to adequately answer.

What we do know, however, is that mobile game development is lower cost, lower risk and growing at a phenomenal rate; with the global market set to reach a value of £4.8 billion by 2015.

Barriers into development are virtually non-existent and, although still a sizeable investment in time, effort and money, mobile game development is the best opportunity that lone wolf developers, start-ups and small studios have to make a career in the game industry.

When Neon Play first started developing games for the App Store in mid-2010, it was populated by a seemingly daunting 200,000 apps.

Now, with well over four times that amount on the App Store, and with the Google Play Store not far behind, creating a game that has the potential to be a revenue-making success is becoming increasingly difficult. Curiosity and novelty went a long way in the early days of the iPhone but now good ideas are integral to a studio’s survival.

While everyone would like to believe that they have at least one great idea for an app, the reality – as illustrated by some of the low quality games available in app stores – is quite different.

Neon Play has had some successes in its time and, admittedly, some slight misfires. But a mantra that I’ve tried to stick to since my days of creating viral games for digital marketing agencies is that casual games should be simple to play but a challenge to master.

It has become the underlying ethos of Neon Play games; evident from our very first title Flick Football to one of our recent hits Traffic Panic London.

In the beginning…

At the start of 2011, after releasing several sports games, we decided that we wanted to develop a driving game. As racing titles are ten-a-penny on all gaming platforms, we wanted to come up with a new angle for a car game that utilised the unique ‘tap-to-play’ attributes of the smartphone.

We quickly decided upon a game in which the focus is not driving a car per se, but controlling numerous cars. Players tap the screen to switch traffic lights from red to green in order to control the flow of traffic across a junction. But, if the light is switched at the wrong moment, the cars collide, panic ensues and it’s game over. It was as simple as that: Traffic Panic was born.

Traffic Panic is the epitome of simplicity but that does not mean it lacks quality. The original artwork, although simple, has an appealing, Sin City-aesthetic and we attempted to create gameplay that is both addictive and rewarding for consumers.

Of course, there is a lot to be said for originality too and when we devised Traffic Panic; there was nothing else like it on the App Store. Before rushing headlong into developing a game idea it is advisable to do some research, and if your idea already exists in some form, go back to the drawing board and find a unique angle.

It is the innate simplicity of casual games which is often their greatest strength so if this is the route you intend to take, it is best to avoid overcomplicating your ideas and gameplay.

After the initial idea, an attention-grabbing and descriptive game title is another important element in driving the success of a game both in terms of audience recognition and discoverability on app stores.

It is preferable, and practical, for the title to be short enough to fit easily beneath the app icon. Traffic Panic was, thankfully, one of the first names that we came up with and we thought that it hit the right notes in terms of impact and assonant rhythm. It’s not always easy to come up with a punchy title but it is worth spending time doing so.

Following the success of the original Traffic Panic – which has been downloaded 2.6 million times – and the subsequent release of the more chaotic and destructive Traffic Panic 3D – which garnered two million downloads – at the end of 2011, we knew that we had the potential to grow the series further still. With 2012 promising to be a big year for the UK and London; it was time for Traffic Panic to get patriotic.

Panic on the streets of London

Launching a game to coincide with a popular event or an upcoming holiday is a good way to boost its commercial viability. Whether you opt for a seasonal game such as Angry Birds Ham’o’ween or launch a tennis game such as Pro Tennis Volley in the run-up to Wimbledon, it makes sense to take advantage of these opportunities to gain some valuable exposure.

It is not guaranteed that you will get more publicity at the outset but, if appropriately themed and titled, your games will become more visible on app store searches.

We knew that with the festivities surrounding the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in June and the Olympics dominating the entire summer, there would be a huge amount of attention focused on the city of London.

So, with that in mind, we decided to relocate Traffic Panic from the anonymous sin city of the original game to the iconic streets of our capital. Big Ben, The London Eye, Buckingham Palace, black cabs, double decker buses and a cheeky nod to Doctor Who and Only Fools & Horses with the appearance of the Tardis and Reliant Robin; it’s all there.

Based on user feedback on the previous two titles we decided to enhance the gameplay by ramping up the ‘panic’ element of Traffic Panic London.

Now, instead of simply controlling traffic safely across the streets and causing crashes, you can now cause massive post-crash carnage with Tap Bombs which explode anything on touch. It may not be the most politically correct of game developments, but it gave consumers more of what they wanted from the the title.

The evolution of the Traffic Panic idea exemplifies how gameplay and brands can develop over time.

From a simple 2D stop-and-start game into the more immersive and destructive 3D cityscape, we have been able to learn from past mistakes and consumer feedback to develop an increasingly engaging series of games with a total of 9.4 million downloads.

With Traffic Panic London setting a benchmark for real city carnage, and given the global scope of the app market, the doors are potentially open for more city-based games; each with their own cultural motifs and iconic emblems.

For any small developer, each game you create will be vital to your growth as a studio and original ideas will set you apart from the rest. Although you do not know for sure which games will be a success, you would do well to scope out the potential for further instalments, brand building and establishing an identity for the studio.

Creating a successful series of games in your early days will enable you to cement the financial stability needed to go on to create more costly and boundary-pushing games in the future.

Not everyone gets it right and even large companies with huge budgets can sometimes struggle to come up with the goods.

But as your experience grows, so too will your knack of spotting the right idea and right time to launch your games. It is then over to the developers and artists to bring your notepad full of ideas to life and to give your studio a fighting chance on the savage app marketplace.

In part two, which will be published next week, Oli Christie will discuss the development process of a mobile game.

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