The game plan
ILLUSTRATION BY JOEL KIMMEL
When global video game developer Electronic Arts (EA) released Real Racing 3 in February, it became the most-downloaded free app on Apple's iOS platform in 90 countries. In just one week, the smartphone- and tablet-optimized simulation game surpassed the total number of downloads of the first two iterations combined.
Producing this type of blockbuster hit requires understanding how the mobile gaming industry—and the project parameters for game developers—are changing, says Kynan Woodman, development director and project manager at EA. As many titles transition from a pay-to-play model to a free-to-play paradigm, project managers are also updating the way they prepare a title for launch.
These free-to-play games, which offer in-game purchases, encourage new user growth, but also require ongoing updates to keep users coming back for more. Understanding the business strategy behind this shift allows project managers to deliver the most valuable end project, says Mr. Woodman. And it helps them plan for the fact that the work no longer ends after the game's release.
What's the biggest challenge of managing game development projects?
Identifying what makes people play a game and making those elements a priority. There are thousands of apps that aren't getting played, and we don't want to be one of them. It sounds obvious, but this is one of the hardest things to do.
When you're trying to create a game that people can't resist downloading, you can end up with an extravagant list of features. To make sure we don't push the schedule too hard, we constantly review the features list and evaluate how long each will take to finish. This means we aren't able to deliver every great feature, but we deliver the most important ones—and it shows when we look at game reviews.
How has the transition from pay-to-play to free-to-play changed the project management process and overall business strategy?
Now that Real Racing is free-to-play, it changes which customers—and features—you focus on. With a paid game, you're trying to entice new customers. With a free game, you have to build in new features for existing customers.
With pay-to-play models, we used to spend a lot of time creating features that would generate marketing opportunities because our revenue came from new users. The shift to free-to-play has allowed us to be more structured with our update plan, rather than trying to catch a marketing wave.
Finish Line in Sight
What helps keep projects on target when requirements are constantly evolving?
It's one of my toughest battles. Something that has been working for us is to separate parts of the schedule that are knowable, like creating a car or a track, from others that carry more risk, such as new game modes. This ensures you have a mix of safe and riskier objectives, and it keeps the overall risk in a safe place. PM
Are you left- or right-brained?
I have to make more of an effort to turn project management on. I get a bit too into the creative side, and the schedule can suffer. Luckily there are checks and balances that keep me on a short leash.
Goofiest project team incentive?
We used to inaugurate new team members by setting a pink toy horse on their desks. The tradition ended when a newcomer thought it was a gift and took it home for his daughter.
Any project superstitions?
I am known to inadvertently crash any stable build within minutes. So I won't get updates to our apps for a day or two after it goes live to ensure the build doesn't crash.
The global mobile game market's projected worth by 2015, up from US$3.77 billion in 2010
In-app purchases generated a majority of all revenue in the Apple App Store for the iPhone in U.S. and Asian markets in February 2013.
Sources: Ichiyoshi Securities, June 2012; Distimo, March 2013; U.S. iPhone App Store revenue, February 2013
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