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Bite-sized Delights

Vicky Smalley and the development of 'palate cleanser' Rocket Rumble

As you get into adulthood, life is increasingly served up in smaller chunks. Gone are the days when you'd have a beautiful uninterrupted Savannah of a Sunday, wide open to the horizon and just begging to be explored. Instead, you find a few minutes here or there between commitments, maybe an hour or two in the evening if you're lucky. Consequently, games tend to be grabbed in handfuls whenever you can, rather than the epic binges of the past.

It's a well-known phenomenon, and one which has fuelled the development of many a mobile classic. I've heard more than one mobile guru tell me that their design documents usually include a phrase like 'bus stop game' or 'toilet break'. Increasingly, we're designing some of the most profitable entertainment products in existence to be enjoyed whilst you're doing something else.

Vicky Smalley, co-founder of London's Small Jelly studio, sees the wisdom of that and has embraced it for the development of the outlet's first game, Rocket Rumble, but is also extending it to entice a new short-session use case: the palate cleanser.

"Myself and my co-founder, we're very much grown-up gamers. We used to spend all our time gaming. Now, we have serious jobs and families and just cannot justify that, but I play loads of games on my phone. But they're casual ones. They're great but they're not very satisfying. I want to be able to have five or ten minutes and play something that is intellectually engaging and satisfying from a deep perspective.

"My co-founder says that actually his ideal game is one that he can play while changing a nappy. He's got very young children and a lot of childcare is tedious"

"My co-founder says that actually his ideal game is one that he can play while changing a nappy. He's got very young children and a lot of childcare is tedious. If you can have a little game of something on the side...one person I spoke to says that while he's putting one of his children to bed he's there playing on his phone at the same time. So it's a lifestyle thing.

"They also serve as palate cleansers. I've got lots of young relatives and it's a pattern that I've observed with them. They will play something really full-on, play Overwatch or something that's really quite stressful and quite intense, and they need a breather, so they pick up a phone in-between rounds. A turn-based strategy is ideal for that because you can sit back and have that little bubble of calm."

Rocket Rumble is a sci-fi CCG, with elements of FTL and Galaxy Truckers, which is taking on a distinctly brighter aesthetic than many of its competitors. Smalley says it's been designed from the ground up as an easily extendable concept.

"Both traditional space games and traditional CCGs can be very dark and grey. The CCG market now is huge, and Hearthstone is pretty colourful, and Clash Royale is, but the majority of this market are very heavily influenced by war board games, and they're very dark, and they're very complicated. We wanted our game to look more like an action game, to be really bright and colourful and fun, and we've gone for a retro-futuristic aesthetic. There's always something new happening, which goes very well with the, 'I've got five minutes, what shall I do? Oh, something's happened.'

"It works really well with games as a service because it's something that you can continually extend and it gives you a framework, a gameplay framework, where you can add things very very easily. I think people are looking for something that's free, because then it's a no-risk proposition for them, but we want to be very careful that we don't make it too free to play, because we want to go for those core gamers who are moving into more of a mid-core type product, and as soon as you have any obvious timers people are just turned off, aren't they?

"So we want to keep it fairly pure. We definitely don't want it to be pay to win. It's got to be absolutely fair. Another aspect of the game is that all of the existing CCGs are based around a fantasy thing, and that doesn't work for everyone. Often hardcore gamers, that isn't something that appeals. So we're hoping that with a space theme that broadens the appeal of CCGs and will bring a lot more people in."

Interestingly enough, for a game so firmly grounded in the principles of mobile development, Rocket Rumble will actually launch first on PC, with cross platform multiplayer being the goal once iOS and Android versions go live. The reasoning behind that, says Smalley, is that a PC-first game should find it easier to establish a community - essential for a multiplayer title.

"I don't think anyone else is doing this, but this is our plan. I think it's an amazing plan. I'm sure it's gonna work. Because it's so much easier to build the market and the community on PC, because if someone is already sitting at their PC, going onto a forum is easy, whereas if you're on your phone it's hard, isn't it? It's much easier to acquire users and build community on PC. The whole system is set up for that."

We had the idea of customising emotes before it came out on Overwatch"

I can understand that stance, but I point out that I do find it much more unlikely that I'll spend money on microtransactions on PC than on mobile. For some reason, that 79p button on a phone doesn't trigger the same 'spending money on the internet' alarm which it does on a PC.

"I completely disagree with that," says Smalley with a laugh. "The thing that PC games are doing really well, and something that we're hoping to replicate on mobile, is customisation. Obviously we had the hats in TF2 was the start of it all, but now if you play CS:GO or Overwatch, I think that's doing it really really well, you can customise everything. We had the idea of customising emotes before it came out on Overwatch, but with them you can customise your characters in infinite different ways, that's where they make a lot of their money. So someone, even if it's not you, someone is doing all of these microtransactions on PC. So we're really hoping to take that monetisation model and put it on the phones."

Overwatch isn't only game which is inspiring the engagement model of Rocket Rumble - Smalley is full of praise for Spry Fox and the adorably bewildering tweets generated by that studio's word game: Alpha Bear.

"I was then showing my team, 'Look, look, this is what we're gonna do. We're gonna do one-tap share.' Obviously, it's a lot more difficult to one-tap share a multiplayer game, but it's completely data-driven, and because I wanted to do the one-tap share before we wrote a single line of code, all of the code is structured so that that is really simple. All we're seeing on the client is just a stream of data that is rendered, everything happens on the server, which means that if you want to share your latest greatest move, if you've set up a great combo and it comes off, we can just send the data to a server, render it on a server, share it to any social network that you want to set up.

"Also, in game, if you want to watch one of your friends' recent matches, again, it's just a few strings of data. It's very, very simple to do. You then play through the game. And if you want to see, 'Okay, what's the highest-ranked player's recent matches?', you can watch those. And so it opens up this whole world of sharing that wasn't there before, and that's gonna help us loads with community."

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Dan Pearson avatar

Dan Pearson