After spending seven years at Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic, Ensomniac Studios‘ Ryan Martin decided it was time to create something on his own, something he wanted to create. He tells us the tale of creating Glint, detailing the design, development and marketing of his first attempt at self-publishing a free-to-play mobile game.
After working at Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic for so long, I found myself craving more control over what I was making. I decided it was time to set out and start my own studio where I could develop mobile content. Being a developer and designer, the current mobile landscape is an appealing canvas for content distribution. After eight months of part-time design and development, I launched my first game, Glint.
Step Aside, Quest
Glint was not actually my first mobile game, but it’s the first game I’ve published. Prior to 2013, I honestly didn’t play games on my phone. I didn’t understand the point – screens were small and processors were limited. The quality of games I saw was poor; most of them were 2D with cheap-looking graphics and generally uninteresting to me. At some point, I started noticing that it seemed like everyone was playing Temple Run. I decided to see what all the fuss was about and I downloaded it. It was free, after all.
I remember one night sitting on my couch at home, obsessed with this game. I made my first ever in-app-purchase and, for the first time, understood how it was possible to make money with games. It got me thinking about how easy a game like Temple Run is and how I could use my existing skill-set to create something similar – as an experiment. So Quest was born, as was my passion for mobile game development.
Working at an industry-leading visual effects house like ILM forces you to push the limits of what you and your tools are capable of. I took this to heart when developing Quest – I wanted it to be beautiful and cinematic. I developed a pipeline and processing technique to pre-render and bake all of my graphics to keep the quality up and the mobile processing power down. I almost finished the game.
“Your First Game Will Fail”
As I came closer to finishing Quest, I started doing a lot of research about best practices for launching mobile games. What I learned was disheartening: my game would fail. Apparently, it’s pretty difficult to successfully launch a mobile game these days. With thousands of new titles hitting the App Store daily, the new kid on the block has almost no chance at success. So I decided to start working on another idea I had – a simpler gameplay mechanic that I perceived would be less time-intensive to make than a visually detailed game like Quest.
Glint was the game that would consume my post-Quest game development time. Initially, my goal was not to create the game that exists today, but instead, rapidly create a simple version to test the waters of the App Store. Of course, I should have known that my obsessive nature wouldn’t allow me to release a game that I didn’t feel was polished. So, Glint became my new Quest.
A Great First Playtest
In the early days of development, I had people test the game mechanics frequently. It’s an exciting feeling watching someone play your game and become addicted to something that is so rough it’s barely playable. I installed a version of an early prototype on my roommate’s girlfriend’s iPhone since she really enjoyed the gameplay. A few weeks later, my roommate said “all she does now is play Glint, and when I try to talk to her while she’s playing, she clearly isn’t listening to anything I say.” That was an amazing compliment.
I continued to iterate on the gameplay and design for months. Each level in Glint is created based on a set of parameters and colors. I knew that I wanted to create a level editor that would allow me to quickly build and tweak each level. Something I picked up at ILM was the incredible advantage that quick iterative changes introduces. Building tools to support that concept assisted me, as a solo developer, in creating many aspects of the process. Still, though, it was important to build out each level and understand how the game felt.
If you’re reading this and you’ve been in a situation like me, you know that game development can be maddening. Many nights, I would drink while coding, trying to hit that elusive Balmer Peak. As I would test the game, I took frequent notes of things to tweak. One night, in particular, I was slightly intoxicated and super thrilled with one particular level, as recorded in my notes.
Market Early and Often
Once I had a game that I was proud of, I started doing tons of research on how to market games on a… zero dollar budget. It turns out this isn’t a super easy thing to do. I came across Indie Game Girl (Emmy Jonassen), who had done a really inspiring talk at Konsoll titled How to Successfully Market Your Indie Game on a $0 Budget. This fundamentally changed the way I thought about marketing.
I immediately switched gears from developer into marketer, something I knew nothing about. I started putting a lot of effort into creating “irresistible marketing material”, which is something that Emmy and other marketing professionals speak about often.
I put together an elaborate press kit containing lots of content about the game.
I began reaching out to the press and asking, begging, if they would preview Glint and write about it. My initial efforts paid off with AppAdvice requesting to cover the launch exclusively. They published a great write-up two days before the launch and published a phenomenal review of the game on launch day.
After the release, the game was covered by PocketGamer, TouchArcade & Apple’N'Apps - which was amazing. I decided to launch the game right before GDC so that we could promote it at the week-long conference. One of the nice things about getting press coverage is that you can use quotes to create better marketing materials.
In the End
Glint launched on March 6th and is available on both iTunes and Google Play. In the first month of sales, Glint racked up about 10,000 downloads. Not nearly enough to hit critical mass, but a much better “first launch” than I expected. I hope that other developers and designers understand the importance of both marketing and polished design in an ever-more-crowded App Store.