In the latest instalment in our series of blogs giving insight into how Exient works behind the scenes, we asked our Studio Director Serkan Hassan about taking Lemmings to mobile and producing DLC during lockdown…
Tell us about your role at Exient.
I’ve worked in the video games industry for 20 years, developing games across a range of genres for console, PC and mobile platforms. My role as Studio Director at Exient touches on IP creation, conceptual design and, perhaps most importantly, supporting our brilliant team as we work through our development projects and the lockdown.
What the attraction of taking Lemmings to mobile?
It’s quite a story! If you remember, Lemmings exploded onto the games scene in the 90s, across every platform you can think off. So first and foremost we’ve been lucky to work with a great, classic IP that still resonates with so many people who grew up with it.
I mean, if you visit Dundee, where Lemmings was originally created for the Amiga by DMA Design, there’s even a park with three little monuments to the Lemmings characters. The franchise certainly has its place in games history and a special place in British culture.
As a franchise, Lemmings has also been through a full lifecycle. The game had its first peak in the early 90s, but remained on the scene for the next 15-20 years having been ported to so many different platforms, and finding a particular sweet spot in in the 2000s on handheld consoles like the PSP.
When we had the chance to take Lemmings to mobile it was a unique opportunity to completely optimise the game for a new platform, while retaining its core appeal to those who played the original.
Tell us how you approached the project.
As you get older, have a career and maybe a family, the time you can spend playing console or PC games often diminishes. Luckily, mobile has stepped in to offer people like me that ‘quick fix’ in moments of downtime.
When I first started playing games like Angry Birds and Doodle Jump it quickly became obvious that mobile devices had more potential than any handheld before – both in terms of fitting into adult lifestyles and digital delivery.
Then while working on developing console games during the day I found myself playing more and more mobile games when journeying on my commutes. I think that’s why Lemmings seems such a natural fit for mobile, based on both my own experience as a passionate gamer and the nostalgic appeal of the brand.
The IP resonates with people in their 30s and 40s, probably with hectic lives, and our goal is to give them some nostalgic enjoyment, while also introducing the brand to new audiences.
How did you adapt the Lemmings gameplay for mobile?
If you cast your mind back, you’ll remember that despite its fun look and feel, the original Lemmings had unforgiving and uncompromising gameplay, which would be extremely difficult to port straight to mobile – as would the big panoramic levels, camera controls and character selection mechanisms we’ve seen in other efforts.
So, there were a few ‘non-negotiables’ we established right at the start of the project – namely, being able to comfortably play the game with one hand in portrait mode while on a train or bus.
Ultimately, our goal isn’t to compete with the console versions, but to complement them. Our game feels like you’re playing Lemmings, but it’s a totally new experience.
What kind of audience has the game found?
Our own research tells us that a significant proportion of players are in the 30+ age bracket, with a quite balanced split in terms of gender; there’s an inherent cuteness about the characters that appeals to a broad group.
We also adopted a free-to-play model to ensure the largest possible audience – and that decision has been borne out. The reality is that when you put a price on a download you’re just putting up barriers, when what we should be doing with mobile is taking those barriers away.
And we’ll continue serving our Lemmings community with new downloadable content every month, as we want the game to stay fresh and grow to an even bigger audience.
Has Exient being both the game’s developer and publisher helped?
Our Lemmings project has been a hugely positive experience and we’ve learned an awful lot that we can take forward into other games.
To be both developer and publisher of a game is a tremendous responsibility, but also incredible empowering – it’s something we want to capitalise on and continue to do.
It means the game is in your own DNA – the cohesion between our development and publishing operations is stronger than anywhere else I’ve worked.
For example, we’ve given our development team and artists the opportunity to get involved in the marketing processes and they can fold that knowledge back into their core work. Approaches like that mean there’s ownership of a project across the entire team.
Plus, publishing our own game means we can make quick decisions and instant changes to promotional activity if the data we’re getting from the app stores tells us we should be doing more of one thing and less of another. That makes a huge difference – we’re not just relying on review scores to inform our marketing, we’re looking at what people are doing in the game itself.
As a game designer of many years, I can now safely say you shouldn’t be afraid to use data to challenge or validate your gut feelings. That’s been a great part of the mobile development process for me.
How has your work at Exient changed during lockdown?
One of the tasks I deal with as Studio Director is recruitment. We rely a lot on location and people coming out to work in Malta as well as the UK, so obviously the last couple of months have been a lot different. However, our operations team and recruitment partners have been fantastic when it comes to remotely hiring and onboarding new staff.
On another level a huge portion of my work comprises face-to-face personal relationships with staff, so that’s also very different. Having said that, one of the benefits of working remotely is the increase in quality time you spend communicating with each other – every conversation you have can be private, so you don’t have to book a meeting room!
In addition, our recent staff survey revealed that collaboration between our UK and Malta offices has actually improved during lockdown. For example, if we have a game project based in Malta with some UK team members working on it too, the playing field has now been levelled with everyone communicating in the same way.
We’re also now firmly established when it comes to remote working practices, having basically dismantled the office and packed it off to people’s homes! The whole team, including our awesome IT department, put in a massive effort to set everyone up, and so far it has worked brilliantly.
Like with most companies, remote working has led to a healthy reassessment of the work-life balance – there are clearly some potential upsides to the ‘new normal’.