by Mathew Schwartz
Want to break into mobile games?
“With the latest revolution in smartphones and tablet
computing, it’s an excellent time to work in the area,” says Plamen Dragozov, director of mobile
engineering at Seattle-based PopCap
Games, the company behind such titles as Bejeweled 2 and Plants vs.
Zombies. “There are many new companies being established and the old
players are quickly building mobile teams to compete.”
Even Google is getting
into the action, perhaps in preparation for launching its own social network
gaming platform. Recently, the behemoth invested an estimated $100 million to
$200 million in Zynga,
a San Francisco-based firm that makes mobile and social networking games such
as FarmVille and Mafia Wars. According to a new Dow
Jones Venture Source listing of the biggest 20 VC-backed companies in the last 20 years, Zynga
comes in 19th, one place above Vonage.
The company estimates it will earn at least $1 billion in 2011.
With revenue like that, mobile gaming job opportunities are
exploding. Zynga, for example, has job openings from Web developer to
desktop engineer to technical sourcer.
Without a doubt, the sector is hot. But what does it take to score
a mobile gaming job?
Work the Mobile
In terms of practical technologies and skills for developers, the
ideal candidate has “worked on a few games or large mobile applications in
either C/C++, Java or Objective-C, and would have a working knowledge in at
least one of the others,” says Dragozov. “Experience with Silverlight
or Flash is also a plus.”
Beyond strong math and programming skills, developers need “an
understanding of computer graphics, animation and image manipulations,” he
says, as well as cross-platform proficiency. He recommends people “pick
one of the leading platforms – iPhone, Android, Windows Mobile 7, etc. –
and become an expert, while still keeping an eye on the rest.”
Multi-Talented Developers Wanted
In other words, think broad, and certainly much more broadly than
for traditional console-game development. “Take three
average artists … from console-oriented companies, combine their skill set, and
you’ve got yourself a very able mobile games developer,” says Jamie Gotch, chief technical officer of Boston-based Subatomic Studios, which makes the iPhone
tower-defense bestseller Fieldrunners.
The same observation goes for engineers, he says, who must “find creative
solutions and create beautiful code for just about every bit of the software.”
Of course, developers with console experience can make the jump to
mobile gaming. “I don’t see it as a major obstacle for them to enter the
field, and ‘no mobile experience’ wouldn’t be a reason for us to dismiss an
otherwise excellent candidate,” says PopCap’s Dragozov.
Learn To Go Full Tilt
If you don’t have sufficient gaming-related skills, going back to
school is one option. Numerous universities offer video game design and
engineering courses or programs. Graduate-level courses, for example, are
available from the likes of Carnegie Mellon University’s
Entertainment Technology Center
in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia-based University of Pennsylvania’s
master of science in engineering in computer graphics and game technology,
and Nintendo-affiliated DigiPen Institute of
Technology in Seattle.
Smarten Up Smartphone Games
By their nature, mobile devices are resource-constrained. But
excellent game developers bring an almost alchemical capability to the medium.
Somehow, despite the inherent limitations – or perhaps because of them –
many mobile games offer a thoroughly captivating user experience.
One key to achieving that result is to stay focused on writing
clean, lean code, even as mobile devices become more powerful, says Subatomic’s
Gotch. “Developers as a whole are getting a bit lax with their
optimization techniques and quality, often using texture sizes larger than
necessary, and inefficient code.”
Cue a related skill requirement: Developers who can maximize performance
and quality even while optimizing code to make it more efficient “are
highly desirable,” Gotch says.
Passion for Gaming Scores High
Also desirable is an even temperament, because with any pursuit
involving creativity and innovation, ups and downs are a given. To help
handle that, “passion and love for games development can be priceless,”
Similar advice comes from Dragozov. “It may sound trivial,
but love for games is one of the most important requirements,” he says. “In
such a subjective field, feeling what ‘looks good’ and ‘plays fun’ is an
extremely important gift that every team member should have – from the
designers, to the artists, to the software and QA engineers.”
Mathew Schwartz is a business and
technology writer based in Pennsylvania.