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Risky Business: Surviving The Mobile Middle Ground

Mobile gaming is an undeniable and growing force in our industry, with wildly popular titles like Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and Temple Run turning small teams into massive success stories overnight. With the largest potential customer base and profit margins in gaming history, it’s easy to see why developing for mobile is an alluring concept. From the husband and wife team that made Temple Run to former triple-A console game designers like Peter Molyneux and David Jaffe, fewer and fewer developers are finding themselves immune to its appeal. 

One of those stories belongs to Matt Cox, the lead designer on the original Scribblenauts who left developer 5th Cell and pursued the dream of mobile success. We’ve all heard the stories of overnight successes that made millions despite humble beginnings, but Cox’s story is the far more common result that’s rarely discussed. Despite his solid resume, over $5,000 of his own money, and relatively decent press coverage, Cox and his small team learned how elusive mobile success can be.

Forks in the Road

Like many in the industry, Cox was experimenting with game design long before he was ever paid for it. His paycheck came from an unrewarding day job at a newspaper in Lawrence, Kansas, but his free time was spent writing game reviews and preparing for a career in development. “I was really bored working for [the newspaper],” Cox says. “I realized I didn’t want to write for a living. I’d rather create video games.”

Without an education in game design, Cox joined up with an enthusiastic online community of Halo fans to try his hand at creating custom levels. “I was still a little kid dreaming of that one day I’m going to make my own games,” Cox says. “I thought I didn’t have a chance in hell of getting into the industry because I was a nobody. I didn’t know anyone in the industry, and it’s really hard to get a design job.”

Despite his lack of connections, his growing portfolio of custom Halo levels was becoming more and more impressive over time. Eventually, his body of work made him confident enough to apply for positions with a variety of developers. In 2006, THQ offered him his first paid position in the gaming industry. By Cox’s own admission, designing levels for the poorly received Destroy All Humans: Path of the Furon wasn’t exactly a triple-A development job, but it was a foot in the door. Moving out of his home state of Kansas for the first time, Cox relocated to Seattle and began his new career.

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