Stolen Couch Games is a young Dutch game studio formed by six alumni from the Utrecht School of Arts who decided to continue working together after their college projects. A part of the team came together to make a multiplayer prototype for XBLA and PSN title Chime made by developer Zoe Mode in collaboration with the One Big Game initiative. Stolen Couch Games then reformed and expanded the core team with an extra programmer and artist. Gamesauce recently featured a post-mortem on their first game Kids vs Goblins.
Early 2011, everyone at Stolen Couch Games was still in school developing our exam year project Kids vs Goblins. Jay van Hutten, a fellow year mate, was developing a game of his own called Ichi. It was a elegant puzzle game that utilized a one-button mechanic in a way that didn’t feel gimmicky. The goal of the game was to guide a ball past a number of rings on the screen. By touching the screen you rotate bumpers, which caused the ball to change in direction. You could also hold your finger down to draw a line, once the ball hit the line it would travel back in the direction it came from.
About a half year later we spoke to Jay at a congress were he was demoing his game. I (Eric) shared my interesting in redeveloping Ichi for multiple platforms and making it a really great commercial product. Jay loved the idea and the day we finished Kids vs Goblins we were working together to make a bigger and better version of Ichi.
No developers were harmed during the making of this game
Redeveloping a game is nothing new to us. Stolen Couch Games actually started in 2010 when we got an assignment from Zoë Mode to create a multiplayer version of their hit game Chime. The multiplayer demo we made eventually led Zoë Mode to develop Chime Super Deluxe, which featured some nice multiplayer modes. While the programmers were re-creating Ichi in Unity, Jay and I were designing new features to add to the game. Because the core of Ichi was so sound, it wasn’t hard to come up with dozens of new puzzle ideas to make the game better. The final product had teleporters, splitters to create multiple balls, objects that could disappear and a few more things. Nothing too fancy, but it all worked great. The best thing we added was the level editor that allowed players to create their own levels and share them online. Since then, 11,000 levels have been shared, quite a bit more than the 50 levels we originally included with the game. Ichi launched in June, after 3 months of development, which went mostly smoothly. The actual problems started right after we launched the game.
We knew that many people would consider Ichi as just another puzzle game, so we had to let people know how special the game really is. We spent about a week contacting the press about our game and we got a nice amount of coverage. But press alone won’t make your game a hit. If you read any guide on marketing for mobile games you always get to the point were the importance of getting a feature by Apple/Amazon/Google is expressed. We already got a feature on the Mac app store for our first game, but our published arranged that. We didn’t have a direct contact within Apple, so we had to come up with a way to contact them.
Luckily we had a few device IDs that belonged to Apple employees on our Testflight account. So we found out the matching email addresses and we send separate emails to every one of them. 2 of them, responsible for the iOS AppStore, loved the game and showed the game to the rest of the team. Our contact from the Mac AppStore was in love with the game. We Skyped for a few hours and everything was set.
We’ve seen developers doing no marketing at all for their games because they believe they’re games will sell themselves. This is mentality is wrong. Just look at the top grossing games on iOS. Almost all of them spend enormous amount of time and money on marketing. Only by spending time and money, will you actually earn money.
The launch of Ichi went great. We were selling thousands of units a day and those numbers were actually increasing the days after the launch. But than something went wrong. Suddenly the game would crash once it has launched. This had never happened in any of our tests before. Why did the game crash all of a sudden? It turned out that the firewall at our server provider, which hosted the user created levels, was malfunctioning. Since we had never encountered this before we weren’t prepared for this. As you can imagine we were pissed off, but the gamers were even more pissed off. The 1-star ratings were poring in, so we had to work quickly. Within a day we made a quick patch that made the game run again. We submitted it and Apple was kind enough to approve it in record time. But the harm was done. The sales momentum the game had was gone. Sales plummeted because of the bad reviews. Instead of getting thousands of sales at $4.99 a piece we were down to hundreds.
The lessons we learned from this is that you should be prepared for something you can’t predict or test. We expected our server to send just numbers to the game, instead it was sending lines of random code. For our next games we’re making sure that the game handles these rare cases the correct way. One day of extra development time is better than losing thousands of dollars in revenue.
We wanted to use in-app purchases in the game to earn some extra revenue post-launch. We were thinking of putting an in-app purchase on the level editor. So if you wanted to make your own levels you had to pay a dollar extra. But we opted against this because the editor would generate content for the game. Content is important so we couldn’t make the overall package weaker to earn some money. Instead we asked for an in-app purchase when the player played more than 10 user-created levels. We guessed that only 5% of the players might create a level and 70% would play user created levels. More people means more revenue. Unfortunately this tactic didn’t work.
We launched the game with 50 built-in levels and player could play 10 user created levels for free. At the end of 2012 only 300 people out of 400.000 bought the in app purchase, an insanely low percentage. Why did almost no-one buy the in app purchase? We think it’s because people were done with Ichi after playing 50 build in levels. Nobody is going to play 10.000 user created levels, let alone 100. Ichi’s retention wasn’t high enough.
Getting a lot of players, quickly
A few months after the release of Ichi sales were basically dead. We were making about $15 a day, which didn’t get us one step closer to world domination anytime soon. So we had to do something. Instead of letting our game die we looked at “free app of the day” deals. The first free app of the day deal we did was Free App A Day (FAAD). In one day Ichi was downloaded 130.000 times. We were blown away by this number. After this we contacted Amazon USA if they could feature us. They loved Ichi and featured it as their free app of the day. After that, Amazon Europe featured Ichi as well. AppEvent did the same, resulting in another 30.000 downloads from mostly the Netherlands
Free app of the day promotions are great. Unfortunately it is unlikely that your app will become super popular once the promotion is over. We earned only $80 from the days after the FAAD promotion. But still it is better than nothing. One good tactic might be to get a lot of downloads using these promotions and then switch to a freemium model. You will have hundreds of thousands of players who will generate revenue though ads and/or in app purchases.
Critically, Ichi is a great success. We’ve gotten wonderful reviews and players seem to love the game. But commercially the game hasn’t done that well. We barely broke even on the development costs. Most of the revenue came from the Mac version, mainly due to the feature by Apple. iOS came in second, revenue-wise. The Android, PC and Linux versions didn’t make more than a few hundred dollars. Despite all of this we feel that Ichi was worth our time, it was great developing it and we delivered something we’re proud of.
Ichi is available in the Apple AppStore. Stolen Couch Games is also working on third game, Castaway Paradise. Check out the trailer here. Vote for Castaway Paradise on Greenlight and support Stolen Couch Games.
Stolen Couch Games will also be sharing more in-depth insights and numbers on Ichi during their indie-postmortem talk during the Casual Connect Europe conference in Hamburg, Germany.