Travis Chen's story isn't necessarily unique. Over the past three to four years we've heard and seen many games developers do the same thing - leave behind the console market and head towards a future building game content around mobile devices. The console is tired, they say, while mobile offers a brighter, more exciting future.
Quick iteration, more control and a better personal learning experience are all at the forefront of Chen's thinking. This is a designer who's worked on some of the biggest franchises this generation - Halo, Call of Duty, Guitar Hero - but now works with mobile start-up Scopely, a games company founded by Eytan Elbaz, the guy who sold AdSense to Google for over $3 billion. This isn't a traditionally-thinking games company then, this is a tech company making games…
Q: Way back you used to be a console games developer, you worked on Guitar Hero and Call Of Duty, but now you've moved over to mobile development. What were the reasons for doing that?
Travis Chen: I've been in the games industry since almost high school, I started when I was about 16. I've kind of been through a number of companies, I was at Rockstar for a while, I did a little internship when Halo 2 was shipping at Bungie, I worked at Blizzard for a while, and spent the last five years at Neversoft Entertainment.
"I started to feel like my skills were plateauing, and the opportunity and the speed at which mobile moves was really compelling to me"
I started there on Guitar Hero and did that for quite a while, and then we moved over to helping out the Call Of Duty franchise. The biggest reason why I decided to move over to Scopely and into mobile games was that I felt like I started to not learn as much on a daily basis. I started to feel like my skills were plateauing, and the opportunity and the speed at which mobile moves was really compelling to me. Really to just kind of do something new and something completely different but where a lot of my skills that I picked up over the last ten years of being in console games would apply. That's kind of the main reason.
I think another big reason was that, and I think every console guy can attest to this story, you've been working on a game for a year, it gets canned. That happened to me once in my career and for the length that I've worked in the games industry that's actually a pretty good record. But it's pretty hard when you put your heart into something for over a year and then it gets back burnered or tabled. And I think the bigger thing to take away from that is how much and how long goes into the console development cycle, how many resources are required now. I mean we're looking at 150-plus teams to put out one game for two years.
One thing that really excited me about the mobile space is that it's a return to small teams, it's a return to quick development cycles and you can see the fruits of your labour almost immediately. It's a really fun exciting space to be in and it moves so quickly, and I think that's one of the biggest influences for me in moving over and one of the things that excites me so much. I can get something in people's hands in three months.
Q: It seems that you're so much closer to the product and final the game in the mobile space...
Travis Chen: One of the things that's a real difference between my experience at Neversoft, which is owned by Activision - I was almost shielded from a lot of the corporate running that goes into the game. It's a huge part of the game but the development team were so apart from it. But at Scopely I have to wear a tonne of hats and deal with every aspect of the game's creation, including getting the trailer made, doing PR, and all that kind of stuff. I get to do a lot more stuff and see a lot more stuff so it makes you that much more close to the game.
Q: That goes back to what you were saying about learning more and picking up multiple skills on mobile.
"Right now there's a feeling that the console game industry is stagnant"
Travis Chen: Absolutely. And that's definitely something I see for my future, wanting to do smaller, independent games, and I think the learning that I'm doing now is incredibly valuable for that kind of future ambition.
Q: What kind of skills do you take over from console development to the mobile arena?
Travis Chen: It's a little hard to explain but one of the main functional skills that I take over is the ability to really focus on tuning something until it's right. That's something that in my design career with console games is so important. One of the things that's hard with console development is to weed out the fun because it can be obscured by the glitz that goes into console games. It's not going to start feeling like a fun game until you have all of your motion capture animations and awesome voice recordings done by an actor and those kinds of things.
One part of the designer's job is to really continually refine and refine and refine those pieces, until they're just perfect and all work together. That kind of mindset is one that really applies well to mobile games. You see it from guys that have made that transition, there does seem to be this refinement in the gameplay that is just something you learn from that side of the industry.
The other thing is just how to schedule a game and having an understanding of resources that a game requires. That's more of a day-to-day scheduling or maintenance type skill but it's definitely something important. Like knowing the ins and outs of testing and what works best with playtesting users. That's become a standardised process with console games but less so in the mobile space, it's kind of an afterthought. So coming from a more structured environment allows you to apply those lessons to something that's smaller.
Q: Does it speak badly of the console business that there's such an exodus of talent to mobile?
Travis Chen: I think all those guys that move over still play the crap out of console games, it's not like we're abandoning the games we love. I think a lot of the movement is because it is a more exciting space because there seems to be more growth and the growth in consoles does seem a little stagnant. Part of that right now is because we're hitting the end of the console cycle for hardware. I do think we're going to see it pick up in steam as the new consoles get announced and come on to the market.
But there is just this feeling. I've gone to E3 for the last probably ten years and the first time I went to E3 I was in high school and it was like the most amazing place I'd ever been. It was seriously like at that point the best day of my life. And every year since then... and part of it is becoming jaded and getting older... every year since then I've been less and less excited about the games that are there and the event as a whole. And I think that just kind of speaks to where console games are right now. I went to E3 this year and every single game for the most part is a sequel and there's no original ideas that I was excited about, and I think that will change once the new hardware cycle comes around, but just right now there's a feeling that the console game industry is stagnant.
"We grew up in the arcade era where there were these games that are really doing exactly what the mobile space is doing, try to monetise, getting the player's quarters"
I really think they can pick themselves out of it and I'm really, really excited about some of the games that are coming out. The Last Of Us from Naughty Dog, I think that's one of the cooler things that's going to come out next year. And we need more games like that on the console side of things.
Q: You say you went to E3 when you were still in school and it was like the gaming Mecca. I find it interesting that there are game designers just starting out now who won't come from console backgrounds at all, but from mobile and tablet.
Travis Chen: That's a really interesting way to look at it. Another take on it is we grew up in the arcade era where there's these games that are really doing exactly what the mobile space is doing, try to monetise, getting the player's quarters, that kind of thing. It kind of feels like the same thing that we're shooting for and the types of game play that you're getting. There's some parallels there so the people growing up in that space will be very much influenced by it. It's an interesting take on things for sure.
One thing that mobile games and casual games are doing is really redefining what your target demographic is. The developers that are growing up in this market will look at games as something much broader than when we were growing up. Which is really exciting, right? That games are accessible to women and games are accessible to adults. And the adults of the next generation are us, so I'm really hoping that I'm going to be loving games until I'm in my 80s or whenever. I think that's one of the greatest things about this revolution in games, is how the market has really expanded and how games are touching all sorts of people now beyond the 18-35 male demographic.
Q: What would you say has been the hardest thing to grasp about mobile, compared to console?
Travis Chen: I think the hardest thing is not having the unlimited supply of resources. You're kind of jaded when you're working with a 150 person team and any day you can turn around to some of the best people in the console industry and just... there is a point when I was leaving where I needed a guy running down the stairs mo-capped. A day later there's actual wood stairs being built on the mo-cap stage and they're bringing in some of the best mo-cap actors that they use for tactical stuff.
It's just like a kind of mind trip of being there and just having that work delivered to you a few days later. And so coming to a start-up you can get stuff done a lot quicker, but at the same time we have to find our artist, recruiting is such a huge part of the company right now and getting the right people in. So not having those unlimited resources is probably one of the biggest things that I notice. I wear more hats now and have to think about more things. I had to find the guy that's going to animate our trailer, it's just another aspect of game development that I've never thought about before and that I need a person to do. Activision have coffers of people that will do this for them - the trailer guys. You kind of have to figure out as you go the people that you need.
Q: The big issues for mobile games are discoverability and player retention. What can you do as a developer and designer to combat those?
"One of the biggest aspects and what really appealed to me with mobile is innovating on the multiplayer front"
Travis Chen: One of the biggest aspects and what really appealed to me with mobile is innovating on the multiplayer front. There's just such increased retention when you're playing with your friends or you have something online and there's interaction with other people. It works so perfectly in the mobile space. One of the really cool things that we're doing at Scopely is trying to innovate on these multiplayer. Asynchronous multiplayer is it's really only been applied to a subset of games right now. So for example word games or board games, that kind of stuff. And is really hasn't broadly been applied to a full genre of games that do exist like puzzle games and arcade games.
So we're trying to take that model that we know that works. We have a game called Dice With Buddies, a dice game that's asynchronous, and I almost see that as the control case for why asynchronous multiplayer games work. It's such a simple game, but it does it crazily well. We have insane retention on that game, people just come back and come back, so I see that as a control case. If we can apply that model to more exciting games and also change the way we think of multiplayer in the future for asynchronous games it could be a really powerful tool. It'll definitely keep people coming back. That vested interest in beating your friends, I don't know if you can really top that on the retention level.
Travis Chen is chief game designer at Scopely.