Meet The Developer: James Dobrowski
Mobile games are addictive, there’s no doubt about it. The likes of Candy Crush, Flappy Birds or even the Kim Kardashian game, are all perfect examples of well executed games - inviting and willing you to play on. It’s no surprise that they become so either, mobile phones are made to be an extension of ourselves and it’s scarily easy to pick up and play. We at Smartphone Company understand this culture and have decided to hold various Q&A’s that meet the people behind the scenes. This time we spoke to James Dobrowski, Production Director at Mediatonic and game creator for nearly 10 years, he provides us with brilliant insight into the gaming industry. We talk about inspiration, industry trends and the best way to get into game development.
How and where did you start out in the industry?
I originally started working with the games industry back in 2008. I was working as a software engineer for Deloitte Consulting at the time, a management consultancy firm down in London. I was mainly focussed on the music industry and while working there I was part of a group that supported business development initiatives within the games sector, and was lucky enough to support projects with Electronic Arts, Activision-Blizzard, and TIGA (one of the UK games industry trade bodies).
I got my first big opportunity to join the industry itself a few years later in 2010 when I joined a small middleware company called Geomerics. Geomerics specialised in lighting solutions for games, and at the time had just started working with CCP on Eve Online and DICE on Battlefield 3. I joined to run their Developer Support team, a natural segway into the industry given my previous background in consulting and technical client management, and was lucky enough to work with some really great developers during my time there, including CCP, DICE, Volition, and Guerrilla, among many others.
I left Geomerics a year later to take up my current trade as a games Producer. I joined Playground Games back in 2011 just as the studio was getting started, and spent the next few years working on the Forza Horizon series of games on XBox 360 and XBox One.
I'm now working as the Production Director at Mediatonic, a Soho based games studio with some very big ambitions. Our titles span mobile, console and PC, and while we can't say much about what we're working on right now, we have some very exciting announcements coming soon. I think we’re going to surprise people.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the industry so far and if you could go back in time what would have done differently?
I found it a real struggle to break into the industry. I already had an established career in something that wasn't games when I started looking for games jobs, and at the time it was very difficult to get your foot in the door for anything but the most junior positions unless you were already in games. I was very lucky to find a senior position at Geomerics that in many ways sat between what I did and what I wanted to do, but I was searching for a good long while.
If I was starting the search again knowing what I know now, I'd focus much more energy on attending games industry events and networking than I did at the time. It's still a pleasantly small community in the UK, and getting your face and name known can be a real asset. I'd also suggest building a solid relationship with a good recruiter, who can help you make connections otherwise inaccessible to you. A recruiter did help me find my first job at Geomerics, and I wouldn't have known about it if not for them.
What do you draw inspiration from?
I play a LOT of video games, which I'd say is critical for anyone who wants to be creatively successful in the industry. This is the only way to really build up your intuition for what works well and what doesn't, what's fun, what's visually appealing, etc. It also gives you an understanding of what other top developers are doing.
While games are certainly my personal primary form of inspiration (and spending a lot of time thinking about out how they could be better), I personally read a lot as well. I'd say you can draw inspiration from pretty much anything you love and are passionate about, but always play a lot of games - you always need to know what the standard is and then set out to beat it.
What are you currently working on?
It’s a pretty exciting time at Mediatonic just now! Unfortunately we have to be really secretive about most of our projects, however we do have some of the biggest games we've ever made in development across all platforms at the moment.
The one thing I can talk about is Heavenstrike Rivals – our hardcore RPG for mobile with real-time PVP, which is an original IP developed in collaboration with Square Enix, Japan. We've been climbing the charts in Asia as well as our usual markets, and we are currently adding new content multiple times per week, which is keeping us very busy indeed!
I can't say too much about the other two just yet, however we're certainly ratcheting up on scale and quality and I genuinely think we're going to surprise people.
What are some of the best games or apps that you’ve seen that you’ve thought ‘I wish I was involved in that’?
My favourite games of all time are the old Black Isle classics, particularly the Baldur's Gate series and Planescape Torment. They were the games that made me fall in love with RPGs, and in my opinion still have the best narratives found in games. Planescape Torment in particular, with its great writing and brilliant music score felt incredibly immersive and atmospheric, and I can't think of many games that have been as emotionally evocative. As a developer, I would certainly have loved to have been involved in those titles; however I was probably a little young to hold down a stable job back then (I was only 14 back in 1999..).
And on the other side of the coin, are there any that you thought ‘I could have done that better’ or ‘I wish that had X’?
I don't think any games developer has ever released a game that they're 100% happy with. Like any creative endeavour, a game is never truly finished, and you can keep adding new features or polishing a title as long as time and money allows it.
I've felt that way about every game I've ever worked on, and I'd therefore hesitate to say "I could have done that better.." about other developer's games without understanding the constraints under which they were working.
With my own games, there are certainly things I would like to have done differently on every single one. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and hopefully I've learnt a thing or two for the games I work on in the future.
If you had all the time and money in the world, what would you create?
Games wise, I'd most definitely indulge my passions and make a heavily narrative focussed, isometric RPG. As previously mentioned, I absolutely adore Planescape Torment, and I really wish there were more games like it. I feel narrative in games has taken a major slide over this past decade as gameplay and visuals have taken a front-seat, and the rise of open-world experiences have diluted plot lines in favour of maximum number of gameplay hours. If only for personal reasons, I'd like to fix that, and make a game that really focuses on telling a great story (while of course retaining top notch gameplay).
Isometric because I love the art style, and the recent renaissance of such games is a wonderful thing to see. They also look stunning!
If we're not just looking at games, then there are far too many things I'd want to create. I'd definitely join the space race though. I'm a big sci-fi fan, and it's what every billionaire seems to be doing these days (rocket ships are turning into the lego of billionaires).
In your opinion, what is the most underrated app or game for IOS?
I personally feel that there are a very large number of high quality, fun games on mobile platforms that don't receive the acclaim that they deserve. Unfortunately visibility is really tough at the moment, with the long-term chart toppers receiving most visibility and a huge number games barely given any awareness.
It’s an increasing shame, as mobile game quality is improving dramatically and way too many games are not getting nearly the attention that they deserve.
Where do you see the future of IOS development or production in the next 10 years?
This is a tough question, and I'd be surprised if anyone has a really good answer.
I am certain that the quality of mobile titles will continue to improve as devices increase in power and the player base continue to desire increasingly better content. This includes better graphics and audio, and more sophisticated game design.
In line with this, I expect we'll see curation on mobile platforms to increase similar to that seen on the Steam platform on PC. Visibility is a tough problem on mobile platforms at the moment, and this will help highlight top quality content. This will ultimately lead to a reduction in the number of studios in mobile game development, with only the teams able to produce top-tier content remaining competitive. This is part of a cycle that's been seen on PC and console in the past, and I certainly wouldn't be surprised to see mobile platforms follow suit.
Do you have any advice for those wishing to get into the industry?
If you've not yet reached university, make sure you pick a relevant and solid degree course. If you want to be a developer, go into Computer Science, Physics or Maths. If you want to be a designer, study game design or creative writing. If you want to be an artist, 3D art, animation or fine art (if concept art is your thing). It's also a very good idea to start making some games in your spare time. Engines like Unity are now free to get hold of, are accessible to anyone with a bit of coding experience, and are increasingly being used by professional studios.
Very few people break into games production fresh out of university, and so if that's a career path you're looking to pursue you'll likely either need to start out elsewhere in the industry (such as QA), or start in another industry and move across. Production Assistant jobs do occasionally pop up, so do keep an eye out for those also. Whatever you do, make sure that you focus on learning team leadership and project management skills and play a lot of games.
Lastly, make sure you network as much as possible. Visit industry events, apply for internship programmes, get introductions through friends. It's a small industry, and so once you start to know people it's much easier to get a CV under the right person's nose.