52 Hertz Whale are 3 guys from Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. They were once working at the same local IT company and decided to create an indie game together. Inspired by titles like Limbo, Badland and Ridiculous Fishing, these developers tried to create something unique and gorgeous, and they got it. JELLIES!, a color-matching arcade game. “It has a great simple design, unique entertaining gameplay and awesome little wicked jellies”, says Mikhail Shagin, the co-founder and developer in 52 Hertz Whale, as he shares the story of the game.
The Apple App Store has been with us for six years this July, and in that time, 1,601,413 apps have been released, and apps have grown to play an inimitable role in everyday life. Since 2008, the store has matured, as have the apps in it. At the same time, marketing of apps has grown in complexity, now emphasizing not only downloads, but also retention and engagement.
Now, in recognition of this milestone in the store’s history, adjust, an app analytics and attribution company, has released a report featuring insights on the life-cycle of a typical app. The data in the report comes from adjust’s apptrace.com in July 2014.
Today, there are 1,252,777 apps available in the App Store, and up to 60 thousand are added every month. Christian Henschel, CEO and co-founder of adjust, recognizes that it is becoming more and more important for marketers to look at new techniques to re-engage users and get ROI. He says, “The report we’ve released shows the development of the App Store and highlights the critical need for marketers to engage key audiences for ensuring the longevity and visibility of their app.”
Apps for iPhones are rapidly increasing, with the number of apps released in March 2014, double the number of the previous month. But growth is not evident everywhere; the number of apps for iPad only has shown a decline over the past year, as simultaneous multi-platform launches have increased.
adjust predicted new apps in 2013 would reach 435 thousand, but the actual number was 4 percent higher at 453,902. Almost 15 percent of the apps in the store were removed either from violating App Store terms and conditions or because they were voluntarily pulled by their developers. This left 396,341 apps available that were released in 2013. adjust predicts that between July 2014 and July 2015, 578 thousand new apps will enter the store. The developer of the greatest number of top-ranked apps in the App Store is Gameloft.
Of the apps that were released in the last six years, more than 350 thousand have been pulled from the store, making one out of every five no longer available. The categories of apps with the highest numbers of apps that have been removed are Books at 27 percent, Entertainment at 25 percent, and Utilities at 24.9 percent. The greatest absolute number of these Dead Apps was in Games, with 65,643 or 21.7 percent removed. But adjust reports no correlation between app crash reviews or app ranking with being removed from the store.
Zombie App, a term coined by adjust, is an app that does not attract enough measurable attention to regularly receive rankings in the Apple App Store top lists. To be considered a living app, the app had to rank on any of the 39,171 App Store top lists on two out of three days of the month.
The number of Zombie Apps has steadily increased, showing app discovery is still a tremendous issue for developers. In the month of June 2014, 79.6 percent of apps were not sufficiently visible, compared to 70.4 percent of apps in June 2013 and 75.2 percent in December 2013.
adjust provides app marketers with a comprehensive business intelligence platform, combining attribution for advertising sources with advanced analytics and store statistics such as rankings, ratings, and reviews. adjust is an official Facebook and Twitter mobile measurement partner and is integrated with over 200 other major networks worldwide.
“How do you monetize the 98 percent that are not buying in-app items?” Jonathan Zweig asked his audience at Causal Connect Asia 2014. He went on to answer the question during his presentation, which you can see below.
Jonathan Zweig, as Founder and President of AdColony, has built a market-leading mobile video advertising company. AdColony’s proprietary Instant-Play™ technology serves razor sharp, full-screen video ads instantly in HD across its network of iOS and Android apps. The company works directly with Fortune 500 brands to help them reach consumers on mobile, and they also work with more than half of the top grossing publishers in the App Store to help them maximize monetization by integrating mobile video advertising.
Ads Go Mobile
With the continuing shift to mobile commerce, he sees huge changes ahead for AdColony and the products it offers during the next two or three years. He says, “As more people get comfortable buying things via their mobile devices, combined with the television style advertising that we provide, you will see incredible products coming out of our pipeline.” But he still views Free-to-Play as the trend which will most affect the games industry as a whole.
Success and Innovation
Zweig tells us there have been many wonderful moments in the five years since he founded AdColony. In particular, he especially enjoys seeing the faces of his colleagues when they have closed a big deal for the company or released a new product onto the market. He feels that seeing the AdColony family succeed has been far more gratifying than any of his individual accomplishments.
One of the most difficult aspects of his career has been balancing focus with the need for constant product innovation. He points out, “AdColony is in one of the hottest and yet always changing industries, so the temptation to cast a wide net of ideas is always there. But with the help of a world-class management team, we have been able to strike a balance with focus on both video and new product innovation while growing the company quickly.”
Up in the Air
Today, Zweig spends most of his time evangelizing their products and technology. He travels around the world talking to developers, both big and small, about the value of AdColony’s monetization products, explaining how they can add incremental value to the bottom line with a few lines of code and strategic placements of their monetization units.
In his free time, Zweig plays basketball and enjoys hitting the gym. The creative side of his personality is evident as he describes his appreciation for classical music, saying the music, devoid of words, allows him to create his own thoughts based on the sounds.
But his major focus is clearly on the company as he describes how AdColony’s technology eliminates the pain points of mobile video advertising with razor sharp, full screen video ads instantly in HD. No more long load times or grainy, choppy videos!
Matthew Hall, Founder and Developer of KlickTock, describes his career as the childhood hobby that never went away. He decided on his career direction at a very early age. He was five years old when he watched a news piece on Atari with some footage of the factory floor. He turned to his parents and said, “When I grow up, I want to be an electronic engineer.”
By eight years old, he was making his own games. Recently, he took out a 30-year-old cassette of these games and was impressed to discover that almost all of them were complete. “These days,” he admits, “I have a lot more half-finished games lying around.” Hall began working as a professional game developer in 2001 and now he can’t imagine doing anything else.
A Hard Choice
Starting out as an independent developer is not an easy choice to make. When Hall decided to start KlickTock, he tells us, “My wife and child moved back to the family farm while I toiled away there on the original Little Things. When the original launch of that title didn’t go as well as I had hoped, it was a pretty dark time.” The problem was not that he had made a bad game, it was that he had made it for the wrong audience. When it was eventually released on tablet, it was very successful. Fortunately, he was able to move on quickly and found a niche for his unconventional products on the App Store.
Video games have always been a source of inspiration for Hall. Zelda: Link’s Awakening was the first Nintendo game he purchased. “I was completely captivated,” he says. Luxor by Mumbo Jumbo inspired him to leave his day job and start KlickTock. Recently, he has been playing Forget-Me-Not by Brandon Williamson and Nuclear Throne by Vlambeer. He claims, “They are the two most inspirational games I’ve played and remind me just how much I have to learn about writing games.”
As an independent developer, Hall especially values being in charge of his own destiny. He believes the best thing about his work is never having to convince anyone that his idea is a great one. But the most difficult thing is convincing himself of its value. He has discovered, “Without perspective that you can rely on, the only way to properly judge your own game is to take a few months off, come back later, and play it again. This obviously makes development quite slow!”
A Change in Indie Development
Hall points out that independent developers have been around since the birth of computers, but recently game development has changed in ways that benefit them. Unity and UDK have given independent developers the opportunity to compete with the big studios. Previously, they had to write their own 3D engine to release a 3D game. Now, any major problems can be quickly solved with a search, especially with Unity, since it has such a large development community.
The rise of portals such as Steam and the App store has also benefited independent developers, allowing them to make money, sometimes in significant amounts, from their hobby. Unusual games that were once played only by hobbyists can now find an audience.
The biggest challenge developers are facing, both in the indie space and in the mobile space, according to Hall, is getting noticed. Building a great product doesn’t guarantee success. He states, “For the indies, a cult of personality has emerged. Not only does your game have to be remarkable, but your personality also is a factor.”
In the mobile space, he has seen that the issues of a crowded marketplace have existed since the early days of the App Store. He emphasizes, “It’s important not only to build an amazing product, you also have to be ready to pick yourself up and try again if things don’t go well the first time. Building a profile as a reliable and interesting developer takes time.”
He gives this advice to independents starting out: “Build titles! Take a small idea, prototype it to prove it’s worthy of completion, then complete it.” He has noticed that developers are often overly invested in their ideas; playing them can shatter preconceptions of the game in a good way.
Preparing for the Future
Hall sees huge changes coming to the electronic entertainment industry with the advent of virtual reality via Oculus Rift. The original Oculus Rift dev kit has a profound effect on anyone who has tried it. Hall believes, “With the new technology, new genres and new opportunities will emerge. I’m very excited about making VR games, even if it isn’t the wisest business move at the moment.”
And the future of KlickTock should be just as exciting. Hall has a wall covered in game ideas ranging from the esoteric to potential top grossing titles. For several months, he has been working on a new title called Age of Solitare, which he expects to release very soon. He also tells us he is currently in ‘development hell’ working on a collectable card game called Deck War and hopes to release it later this year.
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.
Ryan would love to hear your thoughts and connect with you. You can shoot him an e-mail at email@example.com or connect with him on Facebook.
Keybol is a one-man indie game developer company from the Philippines. Bari Silvestre has made a bunch of popular flash games, some of which were showcased at game conferences around the world. Bari is now venturing into mobile, and his first big release happened to be a hit in the form of Pretentious Game.
Contest Entry Becomes Viral
Pretentious Game started out as a small flash game created for Ludum Dare 23 accelerated game development contest. The setting is about a blue block who is in love with the pink block at the other end of the screen. He must reach her in any possible way, even if this means breaking the rules set for the game, or even introducing a new mechanic. The ending is also a bomb waiting for every unwitting player.
The game turned out to be a hit! It went viral and topped the Reddit gaming subtopic. I understood Pretentious Game was a hit not only among gamers, but also within the indie games industry, when it got showcased twice at Casual Connect and was featured at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and IndieGames. When the game was presented at the Indie Prize Showcase at Casual Connect San Francisco, it won the Director’s Choice award and was nominated for Best in Storytelling. Pretentious Game was also on the front page of big flash game sites such as Kongregate, ArmorGames, and Newgrounds.
The following chapters, Pretentious Game 2 and 3, were received positively as well, since the second one has a surprising ending, along with improved gameplay. The third part is interconnected and awes many players with how witty the whole story is.
I think the game gained popularity thanks to its story, but the gameplay wasn’t lagging behind too. Players liked the fun of solving new puzzles while discovering the whole story. They also found the title amusing, and some thought it was a sort of parody.
When Publishers Harbor at Forums
Since the reception for the franchise was overwhelming, I decided to port Pretentious Game to reach a wider audience. To promote the game, I needed a trailer to later post it to the TouchArcade forum. I found a very catchy tune at AudioJungle, and imagined a good trailer script with the positive reviews from Rock, Paper, Shotgun, JayIsGames, IndieGames and Mike Bithell himself – the creator of Thomas Was Alone. Rishikanth Somayaji, a developer I met at Casual Connect Asia, volunteered to make the trailer, and he did an awesome video with his own vision.
The trailer caused a brief discussion, and then Bulkypix, a French publisher, contacted me with an offer on that forum. They reminded me that mobile games need visibility to take off, and promised to help with that. Bulkypix was really giving me benefits, and I couldn’t reject their offer anymore. The most memorable thing in our discussion was when they told me what their Lead Programmer told them: “If we don’t take this one, we won’t take any game!”
After additional quality testing and 10 more languages later, the game was published on December 5, 2013.
The Friday When Bari Woke Up Successful
It was another Friday morning here in the Philippines, when I woke up and decided to check the Best New Games. Pretentious Game was one of them! I thought I was dreaming, I almost immediately thought of hitting the jackpot.
As for the reviews, they were great. I was overwhelmed to see my game in such prestigious sites as Touch Arcade, App Advice and Pocket Gamer. In a week, even more reviews followed. The players liked the game too: more than 1900 reviews averaging 4.6 on Google Play and mostly 4 and 5 stars in App Store.
Here are some reviews:
“I really like this game.” 4/5 stars — Touch Arcade
“I instantly fell in love with its challenging charm.”- App Advice
“Concealing a deeper meaning, Pretentious Game is an enjoyable platformer with a touching message.” – 148Apps
“I can say that it’s refreshing to see something like this come along.” – Arcade Sushi
“ Pretentious Game is one of those rare games on the App Store or Google Play Store full of originality.” – Pocket Gamer
I thought App Store’s feature rotation after a week of success would bring the number of downloads down, but instead we had entered the US App Store top charts!
I believe it’s because of the review from Touch Arcade and a video of 10 Fun Mobile Games by VSauce. It’s amazing how much this contributed to the number of downloads and sales. I can say I’m now more eager to move further through the US market. In fact, we reached 110,000 downloads in 10 days.
Promotion: Festivals, Contests, Press and Direct Suggestions
I’m now pursuing the game even more, since I’ve heard from other successful mobile developers that the first two months are the most critical, because what is being done now determines how long the tail of downloads to come will be.
I’ve met with directors from IGN Asia to tell them about the game, and reached out to local media to promote a Filipino-made game in my own country. Pretentious Game has also been suggested for a possible feature in Google Play, and is in process of being included in a mobile Humble Bundle – Bulkypix met with Google as part of their weekly roadmap, possibly pitching the games eligible for feature promotion.
I had also submitted the game to IGF 2014 before it was released, and hope they’ll choose it as one of the finalists.
Kickstarter-Style Monetization: Useful, but Unclear
We’ve tried a different approach to monetizing the game: a “Kickstarter-style” of purchasing the full game for a bigger price in exchange for more rewards like wallpapers and soundtrack. It was also meant for players to support the developer if they wanted to.
It worked, bringing some extra 30 percent to the earnings. But at one point after reading a comment from a player, I understood that it confuses other players. She said she can’t pay $4.99 to unlock the game, since she thinks it’s too much for a mobile game. I had to remind her that it will only cost her $0.99 to unlock the full game. The $4.99 is an option to support the developer and get an additional wallpaper and soundtrack. In the end, because we don’t have real stats to compare with (since, as far as I know, no other game has used this approach), we decided to leave it as is and focus on content instead.
Mistake in a Twitter URL May Have Cost Downloads
It’s a good thing that I manage the Facebook fan page of Pretentious Game, and can connect with the players to advise them what to do. Once there was a slight mistake in the URL of the link shared on Twitter, but that was easily fixed by the next week’s update. I am still wondering if it should have brought in extra downloads. I also noticed the Facebook sharing feature I put in the game did nothing! At least, that was the case when I checked for #pretentiousgame and saw a total of zero users having shared the message on Facebook.
Bari is now working on Circles with multiple personalities! He is planning to start a studio and gather a bunch of local talents in his provenance. If you want to check out more of his games, visit his Facebook Page.
Ukraine-based Room 8 Studio‘s mission is to break ground in the mobile games space. With the big sense of purpose and effort, they created their first game, Cyto’s Puzzle Adventure. The Room 8 team tells the story.
For about a year, the Room 8 team has been working on Cyto’s Puzzle Adventure, but the development process turned out to be longer and harder than we expected. Still, our whole team looks back on that time in a positive light, and we received invaluable experience.
A Sticky Start
The story of our game begins in late 2011. None of our team had experience in developing for iOS, or game development, for that matter. What we did have was a great desire to make a really high-quality product that we could be proud of. We came up with a great idea about a cute little creature with tentacles that could cling to different objects. Without thinking twice, we started to develop this game we called Sticky. The plan was to make it in a couple of months to be just in time for the Christmas sales, but in the end, the process was somewhat delayed.
By creating the first working demo, we immediately sent it to Chillingo, our prospective publisher. There were no levels or design, just the bare prototype with a brief description and some concept art. This is a very useful practice. The mistake of many developers is that they give publishers an almost complete, or even completely finished game, when publishers can also be beneficial to noticing a promising project at an early stage. The sooner they join in on the development process, even if it is at the level of general council as to which direction to go, the better it is for everyone.
However, we were disappointed. After looking at the concept, Chillingo said that the mechanics of the game was not new or original, and forwarded us several variants of such games. Although these examples had little resemblance to our concept, we started to think about alternatives. Looking back now, we realize that the publishers helped us a lot. If development of Sticky was not delayed, it’d be lost among the other similar games, many of which have become quite successful.
Just a couple of months after freezing the project Sticky, Chillingo released the game Munch Time, and in October 2012, Microsoft introduced Tentacles: Enter the Dolphin. The appearance of these two games blew away the novelty effect we would have liked to achieve with Sticky. Then a new game Tupsu was released, which included some features we had planned to implement, not to mention the gameplay itself.
This happens all the time in the App Store: as long as you think through and develop some “brilliant” idea, someone has already started to implement it. Or, even worse, you can see a clone of your game in the Store just when you have done about 80 percent. You have to be ready for this and not delay the development of applications for iOS.
Changes in the Concept of the Game
At the close of the Sticky project, we had approved the concept art and character, and had finished the physical model. We didn’t want to start from scratch, so as a basis, it was decided to take the ready developments and modify them qualitatively. On one hand, this limited us in making some decisions, but on the other, it saved time and, although in a different form, helped us realize what we originally intended. After several days of stubborn brainstorms, we prepared a new concept. Among the sketches of the Sticky character, we liked this one the most:
The idea is that the character itself is inside the gelatinous envelope. We can see an expressive little face with different emotions, surrounded by a deformed envelope from which the tentacles can be drawn out. Such a character perfectly suited our new concept: we don`t pull the tentacles from the outside, but rather, the character itself deforms the envelope in which he lives.
At first, it was assumed that the character would stick its shell to multiple objects and move around in this way. But after some thought, we abandoned this option because there were no interesting mechanics with it. After observing the behavior of the different elastic objects (don`t get it wrong, haha), we came to the conclusion that the best thing would be to make the skin more elastic, like a rubber band, so the character could run itself like a slingshot. Such game mechanics have already become clear and familiar to many people, but with our approach to the game, it does not look like a clone of Angry Birds. With this in mind, and with enthusiasm, we started to develop.
As for the setting of the game, it was decided to put the character into the microscopic world. Its shell could stick to organic objects (cells), and float around different crystals, viruses, and other poultry. Of course, we had to abandon the backgrounds that were drawn for Sticky.
In some sense, the nature of the game world dictated the design requirements. It was supposed to be rich, “juicy”, and minimalist at the same time. So we thought to make the whole design monotonous, almost monochrome, and play with only a few shades of the base color. Also, it was planned to present levels in the form of macro photography with a deep background and a set of realistic small details. However, these locations poorly suited the cartoon character, and so it was decided to simplify them, too.
Naming the Game
When we came up with the name of the game, we wanted to convey the microscopic nature of the game world, make it unique, like a biological term, but short and well-remembered. A perfect example is the term Osmos: it has all of the above, plus, in some way, a description of gameplay. There were not so many options, but among them was Cyto. This is not an independent word; it is a prefix meaning cell and is used in compound terms, such as cytoplasm.
It was a good idea for the working title of the project, so we went with it. More than once, we tried to come up with a new title, but in the process of development we got so used to Cyto that we could not imagine it being called something else. We even decided to name the main character Cyto, even though we had assumed that it would have its own name.
Revealing Cyto’s Puzzle Adventure
In the end, after many revisions and improvements, Cyto Puzzle Adventure finally came into existence. In this regard, we would like to advise novice developers to assess their strength and timing realistically. We planned to make the game in a couple of months, but spent much more time on it. We were lucky, and were able to complete the project. For most startups, unfortunately, the overestimation of the forces is equivalent to failure.
Optional, but very desirable, attributes of high-quality games are the little details, like sailing bubbles and particles on the background, beautifully appearing buttons, and all sorts of invisible (at first glance) animations and effects. For example, has anyone tried “to tap” on Cyto’s face? Start your fabulous journey in microcosm now by downloading the puzzle!
Dream Bot Studios, the self-funded game studio based in Hollywood Beach, Florida was founded in 2012 by entrepreneurial risk-taker Markus Skupeika, who had been somewhat new to game development. He decided to take the plunge, bringing with him only his knowledge, experience and juggernaut-like drive from his other successful tech businesses he started throughout his entrepreneurial career.
Not to do it alone, he ransacked his office to pull one of his trusted coders and friends, Sergey Velychko, to ride along with him on this magic carpet ride. Releasing mobile games like Turbo Train, Sailor GT, War of The Walking Corpse, and many others, the studio has already dove deep into the world of gaming. Markus himself tells their story.
$50k+ Demanded By The Troll Guarding The Bridge
Dream Bot Studios really couldn’t be more truer to our mission “fail fast to succeed faster”: we poured our hearts and soul into our first game that flopped miserably. This flop left the studio’s pocket book with burn-marks where the $50k+ development cost fell right through, yet Turbo Train would not be possible if not for that superhero-sized slap in the face. It was primarily my dirty little “Ahh… this game may be good” mentality working on our first title called Flicked Off At The Movies that did it. It became the culprit for the painful face palm that prevented me from ever again assuming, “Oh, I’m fairly sure people may like this type of game, and let’s keep trying to make it perfect before allowing our fans and friends to play it.”
Our studio is self-funded, so assumptions and long development times are no longer in our vocabulary unless the game has been proven with a prototype or soft launch. That slap in the face by that troll guarding the bridge was my entrance fee into the gaming industry, which I kindly accepted.
After discovering the reality of the gaming industry, I decided to do deeper research on the app market. I reviewed top charts in the app store and literally played dozens of high-ranking and top-grossing games while scribbling notes of gameplay mechanics that kept me hooked. After my rugged research, It was clear that specific themes were ranking in the top charts, as well as similar game mechanics which gave players a sense of accomplishment. From this, I flirted with conceptualizing building a simple racing game.
A “Horchata” and Train Horns – The Start of Something Great
One day, after deciding we would focus on racing apps, I wondered how we could speed up and slow down our racing vehicles. I saw multiple games using a one-touch type of acceleration game mechanic.This game mechanic was fun and super easy for anyone to pick up and seemed to be proven in many of the top-rankings games in the App Store, but I needed a little more proof to convince me entirely. Innovation costs money, so we didn’t wish to re-invent the racing genre, only to make it a bit better.
That same night, I was celebrating a friend’s birthday in a Mexican restaurant. The birthday boy brought his son with him. I asked my buddy if his child wanted to play with my phone. Don’t forget, my phone had dozens of games I was testing and prototypes we previously were developing. Having his son play with my phone would allow my buddy to enjoy some time with friends, but also give me great feedback for some prototypes we were developing.
I gave his son my phone, but he became bored very quickly with most of the games. The only games he did play nonstop, allowing his dad to celebrate his birthday with some adults, were these simple one-touch racing style games. This finally proved to me the type of game we would develop. It became so crystal-clear, unlike the white creamy “Horchata” I was sipping on. I gave our junior dev team the news that we would dive into the racing category focusing on one-touch mechanics.
We had the game category and mechanics confirmed, so our development team began building the core mechanics. Even while the team was building the core prototype, I wasn’t sure what type of racing game we were going to build until a fateful drive to the office. I was waiting at Dixie Highway while a train crossed an intersection in downtown Hollywood, Florida. While waiting for the train, I heard that ever-so-cool train horn! I remember seeing the locomotive zip by me and immediately began visualizing ideas of all the different engines we could build and allow players to jump in and blow their train horns!
This became the start of Turbo Train.
How To Reduce Cost And Speed Up Development Time
Upon finishing the concept and mechanics, it was about getting this app live and ready to be tested. We had a very minimal approach, focusing on speed of development. After each update, we would decide if we wanted to add more mechanics. Most of our work modeled what was already working in the App Store, allowing us to reduce cost and speed up development time.
I would say a huge error we ran into was from our junior development team. Let it be known that I fully appreciate failures and only publicize this learning experience because it holds so true to our mission of “fail fast to succeed faster”. During our development and release, we messed up the in-app purchases, and the review mechanic didn’t go to the correct app. This put an initial hinder on our long term rankings. Fans couldn’t buy cool trains or give us a review or feedback.
Yet this mishap is why I prefer to throw our junior development team to the wolves. The younger guys will always remember the “freak out” they went through when they found out the app was submitted with the wrong in-app purchase ID’s and incorrect review ID. I asked Sergey, the studio’s more experienced developer, to break off from his 3D project, War of The Walking Corpse and come in just to make sure our latest update was up-to-par. He saved the day for us, tweaking the app to be more polished. I’m grateful that our the junior development team was able experience the “fail fast to succeed faster” mantra firsthand so quickly.
It does turn one’s stomach in a knot when certain issues like that happen. Due to the mishap, we expanded our studio’s level of comfort in order to move onto more challenges.
A Troll’s Toll Must First Be Paid
When we first started in 2012, there was that ugly troll guarding the bridge demanding payment. In order for our studio to pass, we had to pay, thus allowing us to enter the beautiful world of game development. Not understanding the market and what gamers have already voted for as a “cool game” was my first lesson. The $50k+ development cost of our first title was our entrance fee to the gaming industry— an expensive lesson learned.
After this lesson, it was clear that I wanted the studio to never focus on perfection until we see a prototype in the App Store or receive users’ feedback. The gaming industry is clearly a marathon, and developers who are looking for perfection during app development stages are clearly running this marathon in loafers. The only part I feel about development where it is a sprint is building the first prototype to send to fans for testing. This is where I tell our developers they should slip on their Nikes for that 60-yard dash.
It can be tough to throw guys to the wolves as a studio head, but you really get a lot of feedback on who can push through the rubble to become that special team member you can count on. Developers should not be afraid of mistakes, they should welcome them. In a way, this is innovation at its core. It also allows the team to understand that the studio trusts them to complete the project. The developer learns a lot, as do I.
Tips After Being Neck-Deep in the Mud
I love games and creating them has been more fun then playing them at times, and in some cases more expensive also! As both a designer and taking on the role to ensure Dream Bot Studios is profitable, I feel I have some gaming scars that can really help other fellow developers.
If you plan to monetize your games, it is clear: downloads equal money. What I share with our team is that each game we release, without any advertising or hard core game mechanics, has roughly the same expectancy of downloads during the first week of release. As a developer, you must ask yourself how can you achieve the most downloads with the least amount of energy and cost incurred, so you can continually make great games for your players. As a developer, you have a few approaches, but I will share the most popular approaches.
One could create many small unique games to see which game style sticks, then building that winning game further with continuous updates to offer a better experience to your players.
Another approach is designing larger games which take more time to release. This is risky, as there is no certainty that your game could be a winner until you get feedback from players. Once released, you then continually update your game to create a better user experience.
And of course, if you have a game that flops like we did with Flicked Off At The Movies, you keep chugging along and give players the chance to blow their horn when they find what they like, and then you build it! That is how Turbo Train became so successful for our studio.
Regardless of which approach a developer chooses, it’s imperative you reduce risk by getting something out to gamers to play quickly, though I am not suggesting releasing unfinished or poorly constructed games. It’s important to release your passion in your game, but do it quickly.
What Did We Learn?
Based off my research of games, when publishing a game without paying any advertising or implementing any viral mechanics, I found every game should receive similar amount of downloads during the first week of launch. Here are a few tips:
Discover What Works
If a developer wishes to have a successful game, he or she must first discover what the App Store users want by sending out new titles to see which gets the most downloads or giving your prototypes to friends to play. If you can’t do these two things, then simply research the market and review top rankings charts. Discover what games are always reaching the top rankings in your category and why.
Decide The Mechanics Which Enhance User Experience
To continue increasing one’s downloads, a developer will need to do the following:
-Viral mechanics to turn players into your apostles
-Ask for reviews from achieving moments in the game
-Advertise to get the word out about your new baby
-Implement core mechanics that entices players to continually come back to your game
Of course, the most important is making a great game that hooks players, makes them feel accomplished and easy to pick up and play.
So How Did The Launch Go?
It’s immediately clear when you have a winning formula in the App Store. It also amazes me how true the 80/20 rule is: 80 percent of our games released were so-so titles, and the 20 percent were the true winners.
Immediately upon release, we became a Top 100 App title in the racing category and saw many In-App purchases and a pleasant amount of ad revenue. This success happened even after messing up the initial launch. We messed up a lot, but it wasn’t the end of the world. We adjusted our plan and continued to make updates of the game, and it was a huge success for everyone at Dream Bot Studios.
During the journey of making Turbo Trains, we really identified who was able to step up as a developer and take on some new challenges. We also discovered who was not yet ready for the big show. It’s a learning process for everyone, including myself.
I am happy to say Turbo Train has been successful in bringing profit to the company. This doesn’t mean we will begin spending development dollars on crazy innovation just yet. We will continue to improve what gamers have already decided is a “cool game”. Once we have a good foundation of players and games out in the public, we can add more innovative titles to throw out into the world. By the looks of our success, this should be very soon.
Hashstash Studios is an independent game development studio from India working to develop and bring innovative and entertaining games that will hopefully tickle you to death. Their new game Circulets is an easy-to-learn family game designed for interactions between the players and includes a lot of playfulness. Kinshuk Sunil, the lead at Hashstash Studios, tells the story of creating Circulets.
My name is Kinshuk Sunil and in April 2011, I started an independent game development company with two friends of mine – Yadu Rajiv and Mayank Saini. We spent the next year working on an Android game, Zap the Knight, which is out there as an unfinished game on the Play Store and would perhaps be best described as a vaporware for now.
As the calendar turned to 2013, our priorities had shifted from making games to just plain survival. Around that time, Yadu jumped into Global Game Jam 2013 with a few friends and ended up making ‘less than three’, a local synchronous multiplayer for the PC. ‘less than three’ (a play on the heart emoticon <3) was an experiment on a concept we have been planning to work on for some time and was received very well by friends at the Jam.
One Game A Month? Can We Do It?
During the Jam, we all started talking about taking part in One Game a Month experiment. less than three became our 1GAM entry for January, and the XP boost was relieving. We internally joked and poked fun on each other about our XPs. This led to us starting to discuss what our project should be for February.
It was evident that we needed it to be very simple, because we actually wanted to finish it in February. So before anything, we decided that the release date would be February 28. Vidhvat Madan, Yadu and Vasu Chaturvedi then actively started exploring ideas about what that simple game should be. The breakthrough came on February 3rd, when Vidhvat came up with a simple prototype of collecting circles.
The idea was simple: a circle pops up on the screen and two players fight to collect it. The one who gets it, gets a point and the cycle repeats.
Wait, What Are We Making?
It was an interesting prototype, but not a game yet. Vasu, Yadu and Vidhvat were hard-pressed to find a game here. Yadu went ahead with experimenting with the idea of multiple circles instead of just one. But that made it a little confusing. There was no conflict anymore, each player could collect their circle at their leisure.
That was about the time when we set our first design objective: “It’s not about winning, it’s about who you play with”. And so we defined two factions. Each player was now assigned a color and they had to collect only their own droplets. That was what the game was called then, “Droplets”. Along with the two sides, we introduced a bonus color that was the bone of contention between the two players. With the addition of a timer and limited time, the game instantly became a riot.
Building a Game…
Around the same time, I finally jumped on board the team, primarily to take care of sounds. We were now four – Me (Kinshuk), Yadu, Vidhvat and Vasu. Between Yadu and Vidhvat, all game programming was taken care of and a huge chunk of design. Vasu added on top of it with more design. I brought sound and production to the table.
The game did not undergo any major changes since then. The base premise persisted. We did explore a different arc with a radical UI-redesign and a possible scenario where there were many more types of circulets and different behaviors in an effort to bring some tactical gameplay to the game. By this time the game had changed its name from “Droplets” to “Circulets” and that was going to stick.
…is not easy
By this time, we were fairly done with the game and started showing it to friends. The responses we started getting were amazing. A lot of them requested us to consider this as a game and treat it accordingly, and not just as a 1GAM project. Finding sense in the argument, we formally brought in the game to Hashstash and announced it to the world on February 24, 2013. At the same time, we opened up a beta with about 25 people testing out the iOS version and about a 100 for Android, we submitted the game to 100% Indie program by Samsung & Chillingo and they graciously accepted us, and Casual Connect Asia selected us for the Indie Prize Showcase at Singapore.
And then we realized a major problem in the game. While we were developers and understood what was happening inside the game, the beta players did not. What we observed was that most were not partaking in the conflict and only concentrating on their own colors. Even the bonus colors were being ignored. So began our crusade to bring a little chaos in the game world.
Over the beta, we explored different solutions but what did the trick for us were some subtle changes in visual and audio feedback within the game. Some of these were:
– while the circles popped up in their own sides, we made them slowly move towards the other side, unless they were moved by one of the players
– by throwing their circles in the other player’s side, players could now make the other player lose points
– we experimented with many audio cues for positive, negative, bonus score contributions and the current 8-bit sounds had the best influence on players
– the soundtrack samples were structured such that the pacing increases every 30s and becomes more frantic (the gameplay is structured in tiers of 30s)
To Infinity and Beyond
We also introduced a new “Infinite” mode in the game, which reverses the complete time mechanic. While the game was originally about collecting as many circles as possible in limited time, the Infinite mode lets you collect a limited number of circles in infinite time. What this does is give players an open sandbox to explore with another player. However, it is not much incentivized yet.
The whole minimalism of the game has proven to be a double-edged sword. While it brings a level of hypnotic beauty to the game and the simplicity makes it very intuitive for players; at times, it also leaves our players bewildered and confused. The limited beta was not a good enough sample for us to do anything about it quantitatively, but we are looking forward to real players and their behavior to bring in more gameplay to Circulets. Some of the concepts high on our priority list is exploration, interactivity and engagement between players.
That Hazy Glow…
All development come to a close on April 6th and we finally submitted for certification on the App Store, Samsung App Store and the Amazon App Store. We were certified and ready for sale on all our marketplaces by the 18th of April and the PR process kicked in.
Next came our trailer, the objective of which was to focus more on the interactions of people through the game, and not show the game itself. The end result proved to be pretty interesting.
Now as we try and take a breather from all the action, the chaos of first launch is on us. And it is a fun ride in itself. Circulets finally came out on May 9, 2013 on the Apple App Store, Google Play Store, Amazon App Store and the Samsung App Store.
Hashstash Studios is actively working on getting Circulets out to the world, as well as started work on their next project titled Vertigo, which will also be showcased at Casual Connect Asia 2013 along with Circulets. Connect with them on Facebook and Twitter.
Paladin Studios is an independent game studio based in The Hague, The Netherlands. The company was founded in 2005. In these years, they grew to a team of 10 developers coming from different backgrounds – design, animation and coding. Paladin Studios usually worked on contract-based projects. But apart from client work, they’ve always wanted to be an independent developer and create and publish their own games. Momonga is their first big self-published game.
In 2010, with the rise of the App Store in full swing, we felt the time was right to work on our first game. We wanted to start small, so we set our minds on developing and publishing an iOS game in two weeks. We started from scratch with an idea and our brand new Apple developers account. After two weeks of concepting, arguing and developing, we submitted the game to Apple. These weeks were just one gigantic learning experience, which laid the foundation of Momonga.
With Jimmy Pataya and earlier prototypes, we underestimated the importance of a game concept and its selection. We had several concept-candidates for development, but lacked a good selection procedure. This led to discussions and fistfights, but most of all; it left the team with the feeling that this might not have been the best choice for us. So we figured we would not just start coding away on a big project. We needed a more formal selection process to get everyone on the same page.
For this, we used the stage-gate method as a starting point. In the stage-gate process, each stage has a “kill gate” where concepts get trashed based on predefined selection criteria. Everybody on the team had one week to bring in his or her ideas. At the end of this week we had a hundred ideas. What followed was a big pitch and vote session, which resulted in 10 remaining designs that we took to the next stage. We rated the concepts on different aspects, like innovation, feasibility, monetization, strategic value and remarkability. Eventually, we were left with three game concepts.
We developed a prototype for each one and invited testers to come over and play those prototypes. They sat down and played the games. One game caught their specific attention – it made their eyes twinkle and some even played the prototype for 45 minutes straight, trying to beat their scores. That game happened to be a prototype called “Pinball Forever”. It was an unexpected winner, and the start of a journey that lead to the release of Momonga Pinball Adventures.
After analyzing the prototype, we decided to drop the infinite game design and instead go for a level-based design. With a level-based approach, we had full control over the levels and could use that to dig deep into the story. From this point on, you could say the game was called ‘level-based pinball’, with a storyline.
The first step in building the story was to create the world in which the story takes place. When you look at international politics, the “Grand Strategy” theory concludes that every nation has specific needs for a sense of security. These needs are determined by the geographic differences like mountains, oceans and deserts. That is why we started with building the world’s geography. Drawing a map from scratch gave us poor results – so we looked at different random map generators, ranging from Civilization to Minecraft. We ended up settling on the map that was created by the Minecraft map generator.
The Grand Story
With the geography and politics in place, we could start writing the grand storyline; what was the main conflict in this world? We needed ‘one ring to rule them all’, ‘the darkside’ or a ‘Voldemort’ in our story. The epic conflict in the story, where we would base the much smaller game story on, was decided as:
The continent Aya has seen peace since the Great War. The civilized world is ruled by the Guardians, powerful animals who have sworn to protect the Element Sources. However, the Great War has left some species scattered and exiled. These Shadows live as outcasts, on the edges of civilization, waiting for their turn to come to once again overthrow the Guardians and seize the Sources. While the Guardians grow weak in their cities, the Shadow animals grow stronger in determination and strength.
This grand story sets the stage for the game, and it gave us a foundation to craft the game experience and characters.
Next up in the process were the characters. Based on our grand story, we decided to create characters by asking ourselves a couple of questions:
● What is their history?
● Where do they live?
● Who are they hanging out with?
● What events impacted their lives?
● What special abilities do they have?
● What do they look like?
Of the four characters that resulted from this process (Momo, Fry the Firefly, Panda the Panda and General Kuton), we’ll briefly introduce Momo and Fry the Firefly.
Momo is our hero. Born and raised in the Momonga village, he lived a peaceful and carefree life. One day, a band of owls burned his village and took away his tribe. Momo barely survived the attack, and was saved by Panda. As the last free momonga, he sets out on an epic journey to defeat the owls and free his family.
Even before the game story begins, Momo already made an epic journey. He came to life as ‘Dash’, the little red ball with big eyes in Pinball Forever. When we switched to level-based pinball, we redesigned him. The world of Momonga back then was a universe centered around vegetables, with Momo starring as a radish battling evil broccoli, potatoes and pickles.
Radishes are tasty, but we felt that it might not “stick” with a casual audience. Fortunately, we were hooked on a website called cuteoverload.com. Our CEO remembered a picture of little cute animals sitting in a tree, that looked like they could roll up like a pinball. After going through several dozens of kittens, puppies and baby hedgehogs, we finally found the picture.
Fry the firefly
Fry is a firefly from a lineage of martial art masters. His father is the head of the Ha Chi Order, and one of the finest firefly warriors. Fry, however, failed to live up to the expectations of his parents: he was defeated by a bunny that he was supposed to chase away as an initiation rite. He left his hometown because of shame. After leaving his town, Fry got caught by the owl bandits. They used him as a light bulb for the owl camp. Bummer.
In Momonga, you save Fry from a lightbulby life, after which he becomes your trustworthy sidekick. Fry is heavily conditioned in the firefly school of martial arts, and he goes into a frenzy whenever he hears a ringing bell. This comes in handy when you have to defeat a whole bunch of owls.
Real fireflies are red, and very ugly. The first sketches were fairly close to the real thing, and pictured a fat, lazy firefly. This didn’t really work, because nobody wants to drag around a fat firefly while playing pinball. So instead we made Fry an energetic and cute little bug.
One of the hardest things, and something we underestimated the most, were the pinball physics. Once you are dealing with pinball mechanics, it means you are dealing with very high speeds and collisions. The fact that the game needs to perform well on a mobile device only made it harder for us. We came up with the following solution.
The basics are simple. You take a ball and flippers, set up a table at an angle and let gravity do the work. It didn’t take long before we got the basic setup working and were able to shoot some balls. But the tricky part in physics is always in the details… and this is where you go one step forward and two steps backwards.
In an ideal world, the player has full control over where the ball should go, and the ball can go just about anywhere. However, we quickly found out that some places were impossible to reach. The angle of the ball was limited; it was very hard to get the ball to the sides of the level.
The movements of the ball involve quite some variables, which can be manipulated in order to enable better control of the ball:
– Flipper rest angle
– Flipper maximum angle
– Flipper strength
– Flipper material (friction, bounciness)
– Ball material
– Ball weight
– Ball drag
– Table material
– Gravity strength
– …and many more.
Changing any of them affects the whole game, and this is where game physics starts to hover between science and art.
We created an isolated test setup to determine exactly how all these variables influence the ball trajectory. In this test, a ball gets spawned every couple of milliseconds, and the flipper is activated automatically. We then traced the ball to see where it goes. Now we could change one setting at a time, and see clearly how it affected the ball trajectory. This, combined with several prediction and correction algorithms, made the physics work well enough for the critical consumer.
The things we learned
Momonga was our first “serious” self-published game, so there were a lot of things we learned the hard way:
- Don’t underestimate marketing. Something you have probably heard before. Marketing takes a lot of time and needs a lot of funding. Publishers have the money and the time, you don’t.
- You can self-publish a game and do successful marketing for it, but your game has to be remarkable for anyone to talk or write about it.
- Making a pinball game is hard
- Creating a game takes longer than you think, especially when you are bootstrapping your way to the launch. And yes, even when you take this into account, it will *still* take longer than you think.
- The odds are against you when you launch a paid download on iOS.
- Think about your business model and target audience in the early phases. The decisions you make will impact every design choice along the way. We chose a story-driven, level-based game, so the game had to be a premium download. If you want to go freemium, make that decision from the start.
- The story and world you create can be a great foundation for your future games.
- Good level design takes a lot of time. No, really, a *lot* of time.
Momonga in numbers
So how did we do? Here are the results, six weeks after launch on iOS:
– Our invested budget was around $250k
– Momonga has been downloaded 39,577 times, with a total revenue of $33,530.67.
– Momonga has been played by 69,075 unique users. 39,577 came from the App Store, so we have 29,498 illegal folks (43%).
– We got 199 user reviews with an average rating of 4.35
Despite excellent critical reception and positive reviews, Momonga did not break even by a long shot. There are several reasons for this, all of which we are going to address in our updates:
– The game is short and sweet, but still rather short
– There are no viral features, no way to spread the word
– There is no way to try the game for free
– It is a great game, but perhaps not perfectly suitable for the mobile market
– It is too difficult for some people, and too easy for others
Currently, Paladin Studios is working on a v1.1 patch for Momonga, which will contain extra content, Facebook leaderboards, and several other tweaks. To see what they’re currently doing, you can check out their developers blog, Facebook page, or Twitter.