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.
Alexander Krug provided an overview of how HTML5 is working right now. “If you look to the numbers, you can understand that flash gaming is not the future anymore,” he says. “Everybody who is doing flash games should switch to HTML5 probably, or also to a turn mobile site.”
“In the 21st Century, entertainment should be accessible without downloads, installations, or special equipment. Play anywhere, anytime, no matter what device you use!” So claims Alexander Krug, Founder and CEO of SOFTGAMES, a company whose vision is to reshape the way people discover, play, and share mobile games across multiple platforms.
Realizing the Potential
Krug considered himself a typical AppStore user, gaming on his iPhone, until 2010, when he read an article giving the average earnings and outlooks of AppStore developers. He realized the AppStores would develop into a hit-driven business, with the advantage going to apps with high production values, seven-digit marketing spending, or simple branded approaches. So the majority of developers would be left desperately rushing from project to project, just trying to break even but never able to scale their business or make serious money.
SOFTGAMES decided to create an alternative to their worldwide native AppStore/Operator/Off-deck distributions. The result was the successful launch of their HTML5 games publishing and distribution platform, which features highly targeted, dynamic advertising. Krug believes this new platform tremendously improves opportunity for the majority of developers. He receives the greatest satisfaction in his work through seeing what the company has achieved with this platform.
He also feels there is nothing more rewarding than seeing everyone in the company doing outstanding work to reach their ambitious goals; saying hard work, persistence, making the right decisions and learning from mistakes are the basis for their present success.
Always Think of the New
Everyday, Krug finds new challenges to be solved and new ideas to be discussed. He emphasizes, “The industry evolves and changes so fast that it becomes more and more important to try and to work out new things. It is crucial in this young and developing business to be open-minded and to tackle new trends at the right time even if it means being a first mover.”
For the future in the games industry, Krug sees three massive trends coming. First, he believes within the next year, HTLM5 will be the major platform for most developers of cross-platform games, with the market now ready for the high quality cross-platform games SOFTGAMES is able to serve.
He expects the second trend will be the focus of developers shifting from the iOS to Android, since we are already seeing the impressive growth of the Android platform. And finally, he emphasizes the on-going shift from paid to hybrid freemium and ad-featured content as the dominant method of earning money with mobile games.
SOFTGAMES has prepared to meet these trends through the strong active partner and user base they have built with their early focus on HTML5. Krug maintains, “Go HTML5 or die!”
And he loves free-to-play! As he says, “It allows millions of users to play and enjoy for free. The word ‘free’ is the main part of our business.”
Taking a Break
When Krug is not involved with work, he enjoys running to stay fit and clear his mind. When time allows, he chooses to broaden his horizons through reading and traveling to exotic places, learning about their cultures.
And, of course, he enjoys gaming. These days, as the quality of HTML5 rises, most often he is playing the games at Softgames.com. His favorites are Candy Rain and Words with Owl; he recommends trying them out if you are willing to risk playing multiple times.
At Casual Connect Asia, Krug announced the world’s first publisher program dedicated to HTML5 games. This SOFTGAMES HTML5 games publisher program provides website owners, webmasters, and app developers with easy access to hundreds of free, cross-platform HTML5 games. This program allows them to choose games from SOFTGAMES’ online catalog or with automated tools using their XML and JSON feeds at no cost.
The Voxel Agents are developers of original handcrafted games for “on-the-go” fun. They are one of the most exciting indie teams in Australia, and are situated in the game development hub of Melbourne. Creators of the smash hit Train Conductor series and Puzzle Retreat, The Voxel Agents are proud producers of addictive game substances for millions of players worldwide.
How Puzzle Retreat Started
Puzzle Retreat has gone through many iterations and has changed a lot from it’s inception 21 months ago. Yangtian Li, our in-house artist at the time, pitched to the team an elaborate design for a lumberjack-come-carpenter game. The player had to fell trees in a forest, bring them home and make furniture.
Henrik Pettersson, one of our former designers, was immediately inspired by the puzzle potential of felling trees in a forest. His first design was a puzzle game where the trees fall into each other and knock each successive tree down like dominoes. The second design, and eventual winner, focused on your player character who stands behind each tree to push it over. There must be enough space to stand behind the tree to push it down and there must be space for the tree to fall into. This puzzle design requires you to find the right order to knock all the trees down whilst keeping the appropriate spaces free, and not locking yourself in.
The team really liked the potential depth of puzzles this mechanic presented, and the simplicity of the interaction in the very first playable prototype. The theme of cutting down trees in a forest on the other hand, did not rest well. We decided to explore over 20+ designs in art styles and themes and finally decided to stick to the original forest theme, but instead of cutting down the forest, the player was saving it by cutting down evil degenerative trees.
We’re BIG on Playtesting!
Our development process has always had a significant emphasis on playtesting, whether it be in-house within the studio, taking our tablets out on to to the friendly people of Melbourne in the city streets, or even amongst other local game developers. Playtesting can be heartbreaking at times, because it can reveal the hard truth that your design does not work. Being mobile players ourselves, we understand the importance of designing games that are easy to pick up and play straight away and playtesting let us verify this.
Early on, players struggled with understanding the objective and how to interact with the game. Some players were able to work out what the objective was and how to progress. However, some players weren’t able to without any assistance during playtests.
Players were also getting confused between what they could and couldn’t interact with on screen. For example, the affordance of non-interactable wooden logs, produced after cutting down a tree, made players try to pick them up and move them. We discovered that wood cutting wasn’t a great metaphor for the game mechanics and that the third-person character was a major distraction from the actual logical puzzle solving.
A Minimalist Design Approach
In the end, we adopted a minimalist design approach and stripped the game back:
– We removed the third-person character.
– We replaced the core mechanic with one of it’s variations, where trees were covered in ice and could slide over icy logs.
– We removed the ‘stand behind rule’ to cut down trees, this helped with opening up a larger space for puzzle designs.
– We reworked the theme into something much more simple and understandable.
The game received a much more positive response from playtesters after removing rules and making the game much more simple.
We managed to get the game down to two simple rules:
1 Slide the blocks to fill the holes.
2 Use all the blocks.
Relax, Unwind and Focus
While we were stripping back the design, we took the opportunity to look broader at who plays these types of ultra-minimal, logical puzzle games. We found that the audience of these games is more mature and predominantly female. The majority of logical puzzle game players solve puzzles to relax, unwind, de-stress and get some “me time,” the same reasons why we play. With this in mind, we crafted a world free of stress and distraction. By letting the gameplay be the focus, and pushing the art into the background, the game could really shine.
Through our journey, we have learned that the very best logical puzzle games leave very little in between the player and the core problem. All the information to solve the puzzle is directly in front of you, and you just have to solve it. By carefully handcrafting each puzzle and cleverly pacing out the puzzles in each pack, we have been able to give players a great euphoric feeling and make players feel really smart after solving each puzzle.
Puzzle Retreat is available on the AppStore and Google Play. The Voxel Agents still have a dedicated team adding more content and features to the game. The plan is to bring Puzzle Retreat to more platforms in the future. The Voxel Agents also have another game in development that is planned for release later this year.
An independent game development studio from New Delhi, India, SuperSike Games started in 2010 with nothing but a wish to create games. Now two year later, they have released their first game, Yet Another Bird Game, and have started to work on new projects. Amit Goyal shares their story in this postmortem.
“You know what would make a really cool game,” Arjun said as we both drove back from work, “a game with electrical cables and birds, with the player moving all those birds around.”
But I am getting a little ahead of myself here. I am Amit Goyal from SuperSike Games, and as you read this, our first game, Yet Another Bird Game, is out and about on the App Store vying for attention among millions of games.
This happens to be the story ofYet Another Bird Game, which started with the conversation between Arjun, the Co-Founder of SuperSike Games, and me two years ago.
The First Steps are the Hardest….
This would probably be a good time to mention that before starting SuperSike Games, we worked together for three years in a radio station. Arjun worked with production and programming, and I worked with sales. We both knew precisely squat about game development. So moving ahead from the idea to actual development was proving to be a bit of a roadblock.
In an effort to compensate for our lack of exposure to some extent, we decided to bring someone with experience on board for programming. We were lucky to find Sandesh Jain, who had only recently started up on his own with a development studio, Instafun, after putting some solid time in Digital Chocolate.
The art, however, was proving out to be tricky. We went through portfolio after portfolio in search of an artist we wanted to work with. From the onset, our objective was to achieve a visual design that could stand toe to toe with the best in mobile games, and finding an artist up to the task with our limited contacts was difficult.
From the onset, our objective was to achieve a visual design that could stand toe to toe with the best in mobile games, and finding an artist up to the task with our limited contacts was difficult.
A stroke of luck took us to Comic Con, New Delhi at the last minute, where we met Kshiraj Telang – an incredibly talented artist and animator looking for a break into the gaming scene. Kshiraj’s style matched the look we had in mind for our game perfectly. With Orange Byte Studios rounding off the team and after a search that lasted almost six months, our ragtag group was ready to roll out.
For gamers turned game developers, the initial development period is nothing short of a dream. We were involved in shaping a game to our fancy, and ticking off various design choices, brainstorming and approving character design options was like living in a dream world. We eagerly looked forward to our meetings with Kshiraj, who wowed us every day with fantastic character designs and the animations that brought them to life. Kshiraj’s imagination and prowess was the only thing slowing us down, as he often left us with far too many choices and each meriting a place in the game.
We powered on, confident about having the game ready in a few months.
…And the Nightmare That Followed…
It didn’t last forever, though. Experience counts for a lot in any profession, and the gaping holes really started to show as we moved ahead. We had initially imagined a more deliberate pace for Yet Another Bird Game, with emphasis on creating a sort of a ‘game board’ with the available options on screen, and new birds flying in and out of the screen to disrupt the player’s game board.
As build after build rolled in, it became increasingly clear that this approach was flat out boring. We proceeded to speed up the game considerably, with the various strategic elements associated with different birds changing to impact elements.
For example, in the earlier builds, Beanbag’s fart was meant to make the close by birds fly off to other unoccupied spots. This was a disruption technique. With a faster game, the strategy was constantly ignored and players were more concerned with surviving rather than caring about what spots the birds occupied. So we changed Beanbag’s fart to send the adjacent birds off screen. This made Beanbag especially useful against birds like the Spartan and Scarecrow, which the players would ideally not like to have around.
The other major problem we faced can be chalked down to our experience, but it turned out to be a huge pain. Many people have noticed that the birds in Yet Another Bird Game are incredibly detailed in their animation. While it is something that we are proud to show off, it required us to pack an abnormally high number of frames per bird in the game. This led to not only some major performance issue, but we also ended up cutting a bird from the game.
Slowly, but steadily, these issues were resolved as we plodded on towards a finished product, the six months of development period now standing at close to twelve.
What Did We Know And What Did We Learn?
The total development period for Yet Another Bird Game stands at around fifteen months, if a game can ever be considered as “done”.
With zero experience in creating games when we started out, Yet Another Bird Game has been a fantastic learning experience for us. Most importantly, it made us discover what we really love doing, which is probably the most important take-away for us from the experience.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve learned (rather started to learn) the various aspects of game development. We are still coming to terms with pre-production. We realized that the more games we work on, the more we will learn about all aspects of the development process.
One of our biggest takeaways from the development cycle for us was the importance of upholding timelines. The mobile gaming market has a very quick turnaround time. There are a lot of people working on a lot of ideas; there are new features and new devices coming out in a blink of an eye, and new ideas become old before you know it.
But once fixed, we go all out to meet it, sleep be damned!
There is always an argument against hard deadlines and how they might curb creativity. At SuperSike Games, we are fast moving to an approach where all team members decide the deadlines associated with their work. But once fixed, we go all out to meet it, sleep be damned!
So the moment Yet Another Bird Game got shortlisted among the Square Enix Game Development Contest, we immediately jumped into the pre-production and resource gathering for our next game, Catcher In The Sky.
The Battle Has Just Begun….
After development, we’ve had to deal with a whole new beast. The game is ready, and now we have to get it noticed. As most developers know, this in itself is no mean task even with substantial marketing budgets. With our meager budgets, we have kicked off our own marketing effort. We also have Joseph Lieberman helping us out with the PR for the game.
Just like the development process, we expect this part of the journey to be a great learning experience, and one from which we will hopefully come out wiser, better prepared and most importantly, with more stories to tell.
Kiragames is an independent game studio based in Thailand. It’s flagship game Unblock Me was released four years ago in 2009 and became the most downloaded application that year and to date is currently the #17 most downloaded game of all time in the US AppStore. Kiragames’ actual roots started from a sole indie developer named Kirakorn Chimkool that worked on Unblock Me to learn a new programming language for him. Little did he know it would be one of those life-changing moments and lead him to go full time with his game career path and establish Kiragames later on in 2011. Aun Taraseina, COO of Kiragames and a developer of Unblock Me, discusses the creation of the game.
To fully grasp the whole picture of how Unblock Me started, you will have to understand the nature of its creator, Kirakorn Chimkool. He’s the type of person who is really shy and rarely speaks to anyone he doesn’t know. He has always kept an extremely low profile of himself, so it wouldn’t be strange if you have heard or played Unblock Me before but have no idea what and who Kiragames and Kirakorn are.
In 2009, Kirakorn was working at an outsourcing division in a company from the US. His daily routine would be consist of looking trough list of issues that he needs to get finish and send back to his employers in US. While it did have good pay, it wasn’t something he wanted to do for the rest of his career. Kirakorn said his dream has always been to create games. After hearing that Apple will soon open its gateway for developers in Thailand to sell their Apps through the AppStore, Kirakorn quickly jumped on the bandwagon and started learning the native language for the iOS platform. Kirakorn said that the main reason for his interest of the platform was mainly because of his geek nature; he wanted to learn something new and he wanted to try the new platform ecosystem that seems to be very open to indie developers. I remember at that time, Kirakorn start sending some game ideas to me and one of our friends, Tim Promwanna, who is now the Game Director at Kiragames, to get a feel of what we think of his idea. One of the last game ideas that he sent us was a link to an iOS game that was already doing extremely well at that time, Blocked.
Starting with Concept
As a gamer and developer, I have really high respect for Blocked. It was a fun game to play with great fluid design. And for all the good reasons, Blocked had a good level of inspiration to Unblock Me, but the core concept of the game and theme would be different. Kirakorn wanted a game that anyone can play, so he made sure that there were different levels of difficulties to the game, especially the easiest levels. He felt that solving puzzles is a human instinct, the instinct to find answers and challenges, so he designed all the graphics to match the natural elements that surrounds him, such as the sky background or the wooden blocks. I later asked him about the the name Unblock Me came from. His simple reply was, the name Blocked seems like it’s stuck somewhere in the puzzle so he named his game Unblock Me in contrast to Blocked.
After all the core concepts were final, Kirakorn started his development by buying a $700 Mac Mini with 10-month installments and a $100 secondhand iPod. The development for Unblock Me took Kirakorn about six weeks during his free time to complete from start to finish, including the time that he used to learn Objective C, iOS development and Coco2d for iPhone, which was the game engine used for Unblock Me. The puzzles were generated by a C# program that runs on Windows, and another python script was written to sort out the difficulties of each of the puzzles that were generated. After that, he would manually copy the puzzles to his Mac Mini and work on Unblock Me from there.
Kirakorn recalls that he was very fortunate that the decisions he made throughout the development cycle were correct.He didn’t have any problems or delays with coding at all, but he did take a bit of time to work on the graphics for Unblock Me since he’s not an artist. If you see the work he had done with Unblock Me in the earlier versions, you can see it is much cruder. With newer versions of Unblock Me, we have professional artists to work on the graphics, but the same feeling of those early versions still remains. I tried asking him what he considers to be the most difficult issue during development, but he couldn’t think of any. Most of the features took a couple of days to work on during his time from his day job. And I can related to this, as a long time friend of Kirakorn and as a developer that has been lucky enough to work with many developers, I can really say he is among the most talented developer I’ve worked with.
Getting Unblock Me to the AppStore
Kirakorn didn’t have much emotions after the game was completed. He felt that he really enjoyed the process of learning a new language, a new platform and getting back to work on games again all together. If the game will succeed or not wasn’t much of his concern since that wasn’t the point for Unblock Me anyway. This make sense to me now because the first version of Unblock Me in the AppStore came in two versions: the full version for 0.99$ with 1200 puzzles and the free version with 400 puzzles for free with no monetization platform. I still remember the night he was about to submit the game to Apple, he was talking with me and Tim on Skype and was asking questions like “Do you think my game will sell at all?” or “Maybe I should just release one version and release it for free, I don’t think it will make that much money anyway.” Of course, I was against going with one version for free but in the end, it was his call. He did however, went with two versions, which proved to be a key factor to Unblock Me’s success at that time.
While the initial development of Unblock Me was a breeze for Kirakorn, he said that the most challenging process of getting Unblock Me to the wild was getting it to the AppStore. The game was stuck in the Apple submission process due to uncleared bank account info. Kirakorn said that the problem went on for about a month and a half, and during this time, he would constantly send daily emails to Apple for help regarding the issue. At the end, Kirakorn decided to apply for a new iOS Developer account and use a new bank for the account. The game eventually went live within days using the new iOS Developer Account.
Going Live and Wild
After the game went live, the paid version of Unblock Me was able to sell about 10 copies the first day and then 20 the second day and then 50 the third day, and it kept going on like this for about two weeks until it reached the #60 most downloaded game. Both the Free version and the Paid version did very well during its launch. The free version eventually became the #1 most downloaded app in every category within a few days and became most downloaded app of the year(2009) in the AppStore. A lot of Unblock Me‘s success has to be contributing to having a free version at that time. While the free version didn’t even have any ads in it, it created a huge buzz among blogs and forums. People have no problem trying the game for free, and most of them were willing to paid the extra 0.99$ for more puzzles. The biggest competitor at that time was Blocked, but it came with only 100 or so puzzles.
With the success of Unblock Me that year, Kirakorn decided to quit his day job after his contract expired. He continued to work on Unblock Me alone for another year before establishing Kiragames in 2011, which is when me, Tim and many more talented developers joined him.
The Ongoing Development…
This is supposed to be a postmortem of Unblock Me, but I think everyone at Kiragames will agree that Unblock Me is still ongoing and everyone on the team is still heavily involved. At the time of writing this article, I’ve just committed the last new feature for Unblock Me’s update on the iOS. Unblock Me on Android, which was released in 2010, will also get an update pretty soon, depending on how QA goes. We have definitely learn a lot from this four year process; we have seen how things quickly changed and got a better understanding of our users and the market in total.
Critical Force Entertainment Ltd is a new game development studio founded in Kajaani, Finland. The studio created Critical Missions: SWAT, a first-person shooter available for iOS, Andriod (released under Studio OnMars) and playable on Kongregate. The company focuses on developing premium and free-to-play crossplatform games with a special focus on the Asian market. So far, the company is self-funded, but investors are welcome.
Veli-Pekka Piirainen is CEO and founder of Critical Force Entertainment Ltd. He is a former studio manager of Supercell North as well as a lecturer and head of Kajak Game Development Lab. Piirainen is also co-founder of NMP Games Ltd.
A student’s hobby project
In December 2011, I hired Igor Levochkin – one of the students at a school I taught at – as a programmer in my new startup company after following his work for the past two years. Igor and I would make games for the Apple AppStore, and we started making a prototype of a game called BomberBall. At the same time, Igor put his hobby game project in Kongregate. Early January 2012, Igor showed me that there were hundreds of players playing his hobby project game, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. I just thought it could be a good marketing channel for our iOS game.
However, at the end of January 2012, there were a couple of thousand players playing it and I started to get more interested in it. I gave Igor a Sony Xperia Play phone and told him to port the game to that device. Igor managed to have it up and running in a matter of days. Next, I told Igor to port the game to iOS; this was bit more difficult since he was not familiar with Mac and Xcode. After a week, the game was also running on iOS. Now I really started to see some potential in the game. Despite all this work on Igor’s project, we also continued to develop BomberBall because I wanted to have a good prototype for the GDC in San Francisco. I demonstrated both prototypes at the GDC and Igor’s project, Critical Strike Portable, gained more interest from the public. After that trip, we decided to concentrate fully on Critical Strike Portable.
Keeping up with high popularity
Igor started fulltime development on Critical Strike Portable by adding new weapons and features. I still worked part time at the university and couldn’t fully concentrate on the game development. I trusted Igor and also a team of Russian volunteers, who supported us in the growth of the user community as well as map creation. Another important task was to make a proper and more user friendly User Interface (UI) for the game. Unfortunately, Unity 3D’s tools for this job were pretty limited and we didn’t have any artist or UI specialist in our team to design a nice, good-looking and functional UI. So Igor made a “coder-style” UI with many different settings and options inspired by Counter Strike style menus. That UI was easy to use with a mouse, but for mobile phones with touch screens, we needed a different kind of UI.
Because I was inexperienced in game marketing, I hired Teemu Riikonen in April 2012 to lead the studio as well as take care of publishing and marketing of the game. Our next employee was Thanabodi Thongchat, a 2D artist from Thailand. She started designing backgrounds and UI graphics for the game in June 2012. Igor implemented more and more features to the game like new game modes, zombies, graphical effects, as well as fixing bugs. We released new versions on Kongregate weekly and got feedback from players on how to improve the game. At the end of June 2012, we had nearly 30,000 daily average users playing the web version of our game, but we were still growing.
We got over 1 million downloads in one month.
On June 26th, we released a free Android version of our game with exactly the same UI and almost the same features as the web version. Even though it was not so easy to use and the menu elements were pretty small on a phone screen, its popularity surprised us. We got over 1 million downloads in one month.
But the problem was that many players didn’t continue the game after their first try. Only hardcore players did so. We decided to create a totally different and simpler UI for mobile devices, because the current quality was not good enough for Apple’s AppStore to sell it as a premium game.
At the end of August 2012, two game development students, Olli Lahtinen and Aapo Lehikoinen, started their internship in my company. They started to build a totally new UI, added new controls for the iOS version of the game with a new NGUI toolkit we bought from the Unity Asset Store and started to design new maps for the game with Hammer editor. We also needed new character models, guns and animations for the iOS version. Modeling and animations were outsourced to freelancers in Thailand and our Thai artist was leading that work. Unfortunately, the quality was poor and delivery was very late. After that, all animations were outsourced to two Finnish startup game studios and for the modeling of guns, I hired another student.
Unfortunately, we had to remake all maps done with the Hammer editor (16 total), because our lawyer said we probably weren’t allowed to use that tool, since it’s licensing agreement is not clear enough. Our lawyer also recommended us to change the name of the game from Critical Strike Portable to something else, because that name reminds too much of Valve’s Counter Strike (Critical Missions: SWAT was born then). Our original plan was to release the iOS version in the end of September, but it was released in the end of November due to these difficulties. A new Android version was released just before Christmas, a Lite version in the beginning of January 2013 and the Mac version is in the review process as of this writing.
The iOS market is very competitive
At the end of the year, the amount of our players had increased dramatically. We had almost 200,000 daily players on the web and over 100,000 daily players on mobile devices, but all were playing our free versions. Monetizing with premium version seemed to be much more difficult than we thought it would be. The iOS market is very competitive and full of games, so getting visibility is very hard. We also had bad luck with a very important review, because the reviewer didn’t like our controls at all (many other not so significant reviewers did like them, however). Because of this, we didn’t start to get income fast but our server costs rose dramatically due to the massive amount of users. We also had some trouble with one specific server provider, who just calmly cut off the lines to our map server without any warning due to dramatically risen network traffic.
Our biggest mistake was to save money in wrong places and get low quality from our international freelancers. We trusted our own artist’s capabilities to handle leading of the outsourcing, but she was too inexperienced for that. Of course, rates a quarter of the price compared to local studios were very attractive, but then the harsh reality revealed we had to do everything over again after that miserable trial period. It would have been wiser to use more professional outsourcing studios in the very beginning.
Our second mistake was not to solely focus on Critical Strike in the very beginning, but to also make the BomberBall prototype. Something else I would change was not to have a tighter management; everything went forward more or less without proper planning and scheduling. A fourth mistake was not to take a professional publisher to publish the premium iOS version. We thought it would be easy to self publish, because we had such great success with the free Android version, but we were wrong. A last mistake was not to pay enough attention to the server capacity, but that was more or less because of our inexperience with servers and also our idea to save money.
The team is currently working on a new game, called Critical Missions: Space. It has the same nostalgic fast paced FPS gaming experience as Critical Missions: SWAT, with the addition of space rangers, space pirates, laser guns, aliens, space themed maps and more.
Next to that, they keep adding more to Critical Missions: SWAT. They’ve scheduled new guns, characters and maps as well as unlockable content for the next update of their very popular shooter.
TAGS is a brainchild of Rajat Ojha and he is supported by the incredibly talented and driven Atul Sharma and Ajay Singh. There are 10 others who joined the talented team of TAGS. Team TAGS is considered as the most experienced team in India and the only team which has experience in mobile, PC and console game development.
When we started The Awesome Game Studio (TAGS) in April 2012, we had just branched out of a behemoth where we had been doing some serious console stuff and defense simulators. Some unacceptable decisions were made and we ended up with the idea to continue our journey in the game industry only and keep making awesome games. Coming from a console background, it was challenging because we had been completely ignorant about mobile market. The choice we had was doing something we already know or doing something new. Somehow in our case the latter would take less time than doing something we already knew, so we decided to try this. This was the first decision in the development of a game that would later be known as Wobble Bobble.
Minimalism is a good thing
The next challenge was to decide what exactly we wanted to do. We decided on two important things: minimalism and simplicity. Minimalism is a good thing, because you don’t have to go overboard with graphics in order to create a nice game. We focused on a game that was simple to play, in a way that it would benefit from the possibilities of a mobile device. The advantage of having a simple game also means that you can count on it to be almost bug-free. This all would turn out to be a big lesson for the entire team, as we had always been thinking of big games and big platforms. Going back and trying to do something really basic was a big challenge for all of us.
The entire team was assigned to think of an idea that would fit the above points and within a couple of days we had 15 ideas to choose from. After some discussion, we decided to do Wobble Bobble, an idea by our physics programmer, Ankur Aggarwal.
Some of the criteria we had while brainstorming:
1. Short, but addictive gameplay
2. Developed specifically for the device – it should not look like a port
3. One hand controls
4. Iterative – we wanted to focus on one simple game mechanic and focus further development on adding different pickups, modes and themes to keep the title fresh. Nothing deviates from the core mechanic, but the game constantly improves.
Expectations grow, Scope grows
When we started our work on Wobble Bobble, it was a very small game. The goal, our one simple game mechanic, was to keep the ball in the center of the table for as long as possible. By keeping the ball in certain circles in the game area, the player would earn points. We kept this feature and started thinking about expanding the gameplay mechanics to make the game more challenging. There was an immediate need to add fun to the game, and we took a routine path of adding new modes to the game. We added Challenge and Arcade modes and renamed the first mode to Classic mode. When we showcased the game to gameplay testers (including some industry leading people), they found the Arcade mode to be more fun. Because of this, we decided to make the arcade mode the standard.
Mistakes made, lessons learned
Since Wobble Bobble was our first attempt to do a true mobile game, we faced our own share of problems. Luckily, every problem taught us something we can incorporate in the development of new games.
One of our biggest mistakes was only checking the performance of the game on the latest iPod Touch and iPhone 4S. The game was working absolutely fine on these devices. When we tested on older devices, we found out the speed of the game was too slow. The speed of the ball used to depend on the processor of the device. When developing for PC, we take great care of issues like this, but we never bothered while developing a mobile game. We managed to fix this issue using Delta timing. In short: delta timing is used to handle complex graphics or a lot of code, by defining the speed of objects so that they will eventually move at the same speed, regardless of processor speed.
Another problem came from testing the Android version of the game on a Samsung S2. On the S2, everything worked perfectly fine, but on a Samsung Note the game would crash. We decided to do some quick ‘n’ dirty resolution tweaks so it would run on Samsung Note too. However, when we launched the game, we realized these tweaks were temporarily solutions for a bigger problem: Cocos automatically resizes the screen for Android. After more tweaking, we got everything working, both speed and resolution were permanently taken care of.
It was still a near perfect project
Though there were issues related to the shift, a lot of things went in favor of the project.
No major feature changes – Up until the development of Wobble Bobble, we had never worked on a game where the basic planned features never changed. Though we improved the basic gameplay mechanics of Wobble Bobble, no major changes occurred. Throughout the production, we were always aware of the exact scope of the game and things were neatly planned.
Our strong project management roots – Coming from large game projects, we always relied on strong project management. This worked in our favor as we had Microsoft Project, MantisBT and SVN running on our server, helping us to stay close to reality and allowing us to always have an up-to-date version of the code. There were stand up meetings every day and all the tasks were regularly updated in the Microsoft project. All the bugs were tracked in MantisBT and everything was accessible from home as well, so we always had access to what was going on with the project from anywhere.
Iterative Implementation – We never had a huge game design document written for the game, so we approached each module of the project as totally individual. Frankly, we didn’t even know what additional module will be added next, while working on the current one. We focused on perfecting one feature before even thinking about what the next feature would be.
A solid team – The biggest achievement of this project was that the entire team stuck together and kept sharing and debating ideas. Nobody in the entire studio was away from this project and everybody participated willingly. In most of the studios, the Pareto principle is in effect, i.e. 20% of the people doing 80% of work. In our studio, it seems like we only have the 20%, in a way that everyone is productive and 100% focused on the game.
The development of Wobble Bobble also saw people coming out and taking responsibility at an extraordinary level. For example, our QA manager took the responsibility of managing daily stand-up meetings and making sure things were transparent.
Playing games – In our earlier setup, we used to have at least 1 hour of Team Fortress 2 or Call of Duty LAN matches a day. We used to encourage everybody to play games whenever they were free, so there used to be a lot of single-player games, game-related discussions and showcasing in the office. When we started TAGS, we were busy working on games or game pitches, rather than spending time playing games. Most of the guys used to play 3 hours a day, but the initial struggling period left us wanting to focus more on development and gaming took a hit. We weren’t happy about it, but we had no choice. However, there was one thing that we religiously maintained: to stick to a five days a week schedule, so that the team could spend some time at home and play. It was a tough decision but we were spending more than 12 hours a day in the office. We all knew that it was a temporary phase and currently we are back to being normal, and normal people play videogames!
China’s numbers were unexpectedly huge
When the game got launched on June 27, 2012, it immediately caught the attention of a lot of people. We got decent review from gamers, even though we didn’t have the money for decent PR. Still the game spread with the word-of-mouth publicity.
We developed Wobble Bobble Pro, but it didn’t pick up sales at all. Anyhow, our focus was not to make money with this game, so we immediately made the pro version free. Surprisingly, it became a huge success in some countries like USA and China. China’s numbers were unexpectedly huge. Many people like it so much, that they asked to have a tournament for the game, so we set up a separate Facebook page for players and the contest. We were actually really shocked to see people scoring millions, scores which a lot of our developers couldn’t get (except our QA manager).
This contest helped Wobble Bobble to establish itself and establish the all new brand The Awesome Game Studio.
Right now, TAGS’s hands are full and they say they feel like those typical Indian Gods with 4 hands. They are working on one of their most ambitious mobile IP which is called Alphaman and will be released in Q1 of 2013. TAGS has signed a three-year contract with USA-based toy manufacturing company Imagability Inc. to develop games across all the platforms. TAGS is working for a Fortune Five company on one of their brand IP. In all these projects, they strive to maintain control over the game design and processes which gives them complete creative freedom.
Apart from all these, TAGS is also working on a console game which is in Pre-Production right now. They hope to continue their awesome journey.
Sergey Batishchev is an indie game developer and has been an enterprise Java developer and tech lead for more than 12 years. Still, games and game development have always been his hobby. After the successful launch of his Gluey game series, he is dedicating himself more on indie game development. Batishchev strives to make simple, polished and fun Flash and mobile games that appeal even to most casual gamers.
Gluey is a very simple action puzzle game. You just click the blobs, they disappear and you earn points. Large blob clusters give you bigger score bonuses. And, of course, it is seasoned with multiple levels, modes and power-ups. The idea for Gluey originated from an unusual source. Back in my university years, the demoscene was at its peak. I was amazed by the graphical effects in the demos and I wanted to learn how to do the same. So I spent many hours with my Watcom C++ compiler trying to code fire, fluid, and smoke.
Back in 2009, game development was purely a hobby for me. But one day I thought: Wouldn’t it be cool to create the simplest game possible, based purely on a rendering technique – like fire, liquid or particles? Surprisingly, no one made a match-3 or click group to clear-game with liquid blobs at that time! All other elements came quite naturally. I decided to use simple click group to clear-mechanics, as my friends really enjoyed games like that on their Windows 6.5 phones. It was also intuitive for the blobs to follow real physics, not just gridlines as in classic match-3. Within a couple of days, the prototype was finished. Although still in its early alpha-stages, the basic gameplay mechanic was already quite clear.
Art was a weak point for my hobby games before Gluey. Psychologically it was hard for me to fork out real money to hire an artist and a musician. I first needed to prove to myself that my games could generate some revenue. In retrospect that was not very smart choice. If you are a part time indie, you really should treat your home game development just like other expensive hobbies that you enjoy!
Luckily my previous game Cyberhorde generated about $1.5K in primary and non-exclusive licenses, so I posted a job offer for art design for Gluey. Bogdan Ene responded very quickly. Within my tough budget constraints he managed to create compelling characters and nice visual style. The visual design was completely done in a matter of days; there was no need to send anything back for revisions. After that, it took me about 6 calendar weeks (working through the weekends and evenings) to complete the rest of the game, which included levels, power ups, bonuses and transition screens.
Sponsorship and Release
To this date, the viral version has generated 14 million views
Gluey attracted good attention from sponsors on FGL – 28 bids. I went with king.com for the primary sponsorship of this game. It was my first game with 5-digit primary offer and, to this day, my biggest success. The game met king.com’s expectations. It hit Kongregate and Newgrounds frontpages and spread quite well. To this date, the viral version has generated 14 million views. Unfortunately, ads were not allowed, but game did attract quite a lot of non-exclusive licensing offers.
What Went Right with Gluey
Being on a tight budget means you have limited possibilities. This […] pushed me to only focus on the important things
Being on a tight budget means you have limited possibilities. This turned out to be a positive thing: it pushed me to only focus on the important things. So the game was very light on content: only 16 levels, which calculates to about 20 minutes of gameplay (although some players replayed the game a lot). In retrospect, it was a good choice to limit the number of levels. If you don’t have time or money to add unique content, don’t just add same-looking levels. It is better to have people comment “Too short, needs more levels” on your game, than receiving comments like “Got bored on level 14”.
Another thing that went great was the way the blob mechanics felt. They were smooth, polished, and natural. If we compare them to actual droplets on a surface, we can see three core similarities:
All blobs leave a trail behind, as if they are sliding on the surface with traction.
Actual droplets cannot touch without merging. So blobs of different color repel from each other and from the edge to look natural.
Sharp boundary around blob stressed how blobs merge and break apart.
I resisted the temptation to make the gameplay time-bound, like a lot of other puzzle games. Adding a time constraint is the easiest way to add some challenge to an action puzzle. However, players liked the fact that they had to act timely so that blobs structures do not slide apart. They felt smart for inventing this technique, instead of being forced to it by a timer. They also liked the fact that after a short burst of clicks, they were able to relax for some time and figure out the next move, instead of being bugged by the ticking clock.
What Went Wrong with Gluey
It looks like the sweet spot for a casual Flash puzzle is 30-45 minutes
Despite all the good things about Gluey, it was still a bit short. It looks like the sweet spot for a casual Flash puzzle is 30-45 minutes. Many players complained the game ended too abruptly, and down-voted the game for that reason. Yes, Gluey did feature the unlockable Zen mode. But this mode did not match the players’ expectations. The idea for the Zen mode was that for each cluster of n blobs, you get n-1 blobs back. So a Zen game ended pretty quickly (gameplay lasting only 2-3 minutes) and did not feel as an endless survival challenge.
Completing levels in Gluey was based on a simple and quite artificial premise: Earn score x to complete the level. Once you got to score x, your only motivation is reaching the top of the highscore table, which is not a very strong motivation. The game did not have any stars to rate the players’ performance on some level.
The sequel: Gluey 2!
As Gluey 1 was a success, I decided to go indie full time and started working on Gluey 2. The sequel was a much longer project (9 months compared to 6 weeks). I wanted to add lots of power-ups and polish every detail. Besides, I wanted to address the common complaint about “reach score x” as meaningless goal. The main mode of Gluey 2 was to survive the flow of blobs, a bit like a Tetris.
I was happy with the art of Gluey 1, but I felt I had to make the sequel totally fresh and new. So the game visuals were also redesigned from scratch! RetroStyleGames did a great job at keeping the game’s atmosphere, but making it look even more smooth and polished.
The banjo music track for Gluey 1 was very fun and recognizable, but probably a bit too sharp and repeatable for a casual game that you play often. People tend to either love it or hate it. Francesco D’Andrea created a much more subtle music track for Gluey 2.
Overdoing and Overthinking
The many changes disappointed the fans
Gluey 2 did okay when it was released. The primary license price tag was roughly the same as for Gluey 1 and the game attracted a lot of non-exclusive license requests. But the game did suffer a lot from overdoing and overthinking! In fact, the many changes disappointed the fans. Many claimed that the new gameplay was mindless arcade; they missed their clean and simple “Get score X” puzzles. Many people even wanted the stock banjo sound track back from Gluey 1, which quite a few players originally disliked and characterized as too sharp and distracting.
The new gameplay turned out to be creative, but very counterintuitive! When the blob flow comes, your first instinct is to click as fast as you can. But that’s exactly what you should not do in Gluey 2. Instead you have to carefully create huge clusters of blobs to save on the number of clicks you make. Numerous people left the game frustrated for this reason.
However, both Gluey 1 and Gluey 2 were successes for me. The total revenue from the games is approximately $68K.
Lesson 1: Target the player’s intuition
Going against intuitive behavior is dangerous, and it can go unnoticed until the actual release
Players feel smart if they can use their intuition and real life experience to predict behavior of the game. This is especially pleasing if the behavior itself is not trivial. For example, people immediately realized what the Shuffle Powerup is and does. Everywhere on the forum and in the comments it was called the Rubic cube powerup. Another example of this is sinking blobs. Both from real life and from arcade games players know that drowning is fatal. So it is relatively intuitive that you should keep blobs out of deep water. Only problem here is that players have no way to relate blob density to real world objects. They have no way to predict if the blobs would drown or float!
My partners used a similar metaphor for the iOS port, where they made the liquid look like green acid. Even though acid is dangerous and maybe out of place in a casual puzzle game, it worked really well. Everyone clearly knows from movies and comics that sinking in green acid is the worst thing that can ever happen.
Going against intuitive behavior is dangerous, and it can go unnoticed until the actual release. Pipes in real life feed water all the time (or at least when a valve is open). It turned out it is really hard to grasp that removing a blob on the screen actually releases more blobs from the pipe.
Lesson 2: A sequel does not need to be a revolution
Every little thing I changed in a sequel disappointed at least one player! People liked the original game for a reason. They wanted more of the same type of entertainment in Gluey 2, even though they didn’t want it to look and feel exactly the same.
From now on, my sequels will have…
● the same art style, just more variation and improved quality;
● the same music style, but evolved;
● the same pace;
● an evolved gameplay, not a replacement.
If I ever want to break those rules, I will be making spin-offs of the original. For example, arcade games in this Gluey universe can be Gluey Jumpers or Gluey Shooters, not Gluey 3.
Lesson 3: The Flash game licensing model is still viable
Casual single player games for portals can still pay the bills for an indie game developer. A quality casual game with solid gameplay, professional art will get sponsored and licensed. If I limit the development cycle to less than 4 months, the licensing fees in the first 6 months are likely to cover my costs and finance risky mobile projects.
Non-exclusive sales worked great for my type of games. They can occur years after initial release. Now I am even more reluctant to accept fully exclusive deals for my future games.
Recently, Gluey was ported to iOS. In the mean time, Sergey is working on Gluey 3. To see what else he has been up to, check out his website or Twitter (@sergebat).
Arges Systems is a micro-studio doing game consulting and application development in Unity – their specialty is on game logic and AI. Arges Systems has been partnering with companies specializing in 3D graphics and visual design, as well as doing contracting for companies building games with Unity. In this article, Ricardo J. Méndez (founder of Arges Systems) shares some insights on their just-released Hairy Tales.
I initially founded Arges Systems to take advantage of my experience running remote teams and projects. We had been doing contracting on various game projects for a couple of years before I decided to switch gears and start working on our own stuff. I had just decided to pull the plug on a turn-based strategy game for which I realized the scope was too ambitious and was chatting with Yuriy Mazurkin, our concept artist, about possible themes for a follow up game. The conversation drifted to Russian illustrators – somehow we ended up talking about Ivan Bilibin and it got me thinking about action/adventure games.
A sword-wielding octogenarian riding a warhorse charges forward from a hill. Nordic forests and evergreen trees spread before him. He’s also butt-naked.
It was a simple, straightforward picture by Russian illustrator Ivan Bilibin, from his Marya Morevna series, and my first encounter with Koschei the Deathless. He’s an archetypal antagonist of Slavic folklore, an even more evil version of their better-known Baba Yaga.
I took one look at it and with its combination of adventure and absurd, I thought “damn, this would make for an excellent slavic Zelda-like game”.
You can’t get there… from here
I wanted to do a game that was different, and this wasn’t it.
I experimented with gameplay styles while Yuriy drafted some concepts. We drafted several ideas for scenarios, including a story, but it quickly became apparent I had nothing new to say about the adventure genre. I wanted to do a game that was different, and this wasn’t it.
Partly as a way to cleanse our creative palate, I started experimenting with mixing puzzles in. You had to maneuver the main character through a corrupted land, frozen in time, but elements got un-frozen as you approach them. This had pros and cons, since you could activate machinery just by being near it, but enemies also came alive. The puzzle aspect was to figure out what to do when. I decided to discard this version as well. It seemed like a one-trick pony, with the sort of read-the-designer’s-mind approach that I hate, and lacked replayability – once you know the solution, that’s it. Also, the game was taking on a somewhat stoic tone that I felt dragged it down.
You will notice I haven’t mentioned anything about the modeling side of things. We had overenthusiastically already started modeling before I was done with the design, because I wanted to get the time-consuming assets out of the way – or at least properly estimated. Despite it being a bad strategic decision, it had a positive side effect: it made me realize early on that the 3D artist we were working with just wouldn’t cut it. The quality of his work had been in decline, he wasn’t paying attention to details, and both Yuriy and I kept having to bounce work back to him with notes. Eventually I had to let him go and start looking for a new hire. Fortunately we found Ash Barnard, from the UK, who meshed with the team perfectly. He has an eye for detail, very expressive animations and more importantly, just the right sense of humor to make the Hairy Tales animations memorable and peculiar. Ash also brought in a good eye for gameplay, and helped criticize mechanics as I was coming up with them.
Through several experiments and iterations, I ended up landing on something close to the current approach. The first few iterations were fixed stages, based around arrows that directed them and fences that made them turn two sides to the right. It also featured a first draft of the spreading corruption, with the twist that if it spread to a tile with a fence, then it got corrupted and the fence turned into a deadly wall of flame. I can hear the thought gears as you try to figure it out. Playtesters weren’t getting it, and even when they figured out stages the reaction often was “I know this is how it’s supposed to be, but don’t know why”.
That would not do.
Dragging it there
I started paring down the elements. At this point we’ve been in a production iteration limbo for months, and all the associated hair pulling is starting to take its toll on me. Everything is self-funded, so Arges is hemorrhaging cash while we experiment, and my focus is split between the game and the client work that is funding the process. I started trying different games to relax – mostly playing demos, so I didn’t get too involved and lost track of the project. One day I was playing a demo of Atlus’ Catherine, moving Vincent around, pulling and pushing blocks into place, and then a light bulb went on. After simplifying the elements, the stages had felt too straightforward, and the new levels depended mostly on size for their complexity. What if players could drag tiles from one place to another?
I didn’t tell the team, just sent them a build where some later stages required them to move tiles. They were rather surprised at first, but immediately saw the possibilities, like tiles that drag Hairys from one place to another, weapons you can re-use or teleporters. So finally, after months of iterations, we had a design we were happy with.
The 90-90 rule
It took a lot to get from a game’s design to the final product, of course. We still had to design the look for the various tile elements as we were going, which kept Yuriy involved while Ash created the models and I both coded the behavior and came up with the stages. Yuriy was also helping with the texturing. His true love is painterly work, however, so he came to me when we were about to enter the final stretch and brought up that he wanted to move on.
As sad as this made me, since I enjoyed working with him, I helped coach him for interviews and gave him a sterling recommendation. He ended up getting employed by Yager in Berlin, who recently published Spec Ops: The Line, and I expect is right now working on their next project.
At about this time I brought on board composer Levan Iordanishvili as a contractor to work on the game’s music. He liked the game and offered to take care of the sound effects as well. To ensure both were cut from the same cloth – he did a smashing job of re-creating the sound that Ash’s animations made in your head when you looked at them, and his scoring of the three worlds and bosses was top notch.
I had initially planned to release with five worlds and five bosses worth of content, for a total of 75 levels (15 per world). Playtesting had demonstrated that players needed a gentler level progression than the breakneck pace we initially had, so each world had increased to 24 stages. If we kept the same number of stages per world, we were looking at 120 stages total, plus the extra time it would take for the two other bosses and possibly new enemies to keep things lively. The scope was getting out of hand.
I made a judgment call. We would be launching with 72 levels and three bosses, using some minor characters as mini-bosses. Once we saw the initial reactions to these levels from our players, we could release a couple more worlds as add-ons and expand on those qualities that players enjoyed the most. The team agreed, and we geared up for polishing the worlds we had fully designed.
The initial stage sequence introduced one concept after another, presenting a more concentrated experience which gave the player little respite, with no stages that they could use to experiment with the mechanics they had just learned before throwing a new set of concepts at them. After various rounds of playtesting, I introduced some intermediate levels that presented the concepts they’d just learned in different contexts, so that they could play around a bit more, which made the initial learning process smoother. However, it also led to the initial stage sequence feeling a bit drawn out, so I then had to adjust the sequence once again. This process went on over several iterations, even after we had released.
Launch and everything after
We wrapped what we considered to be version 1.0, went back to talk to some publishers we’d been in contact with, and settled on Forest Moon Games and BAM! The game was out the gate.
The game is currently sitting at a Metascore of 81
It was exceedingly well received by reviewers – sites like TouchArcade, EuroGamer and Gamezbo gave it glowing reviews, praising its flexibility, difficulty and character. The game is currently sitting at a Metascore of 81, the highest Forest Moon Games has gotten (and one of the highest of its less-experimental sister brand Crescent Moon Games). Apple picked the Mac version of the game as an Editor’s Choice on the Mac App Store, and gave it a humbler New and Noteworthy feature on iOS.
However, commercial reception was merely lukewarm. We were aware that the characters, not being your traditional cute-and-cuddly puzzle game stars, would be an issue. But we were not sure what was the main problem. The initial game difficulty was rather high – a throwback to the old school puzzle style – which might be turning off casual game players who get it expecting an easier time and hurting word of mouth. At the same time, the visuals are cartoonish, which leads players who would appreciate the challenge to dismiss it as a merely a casual game. Once we get it in front of players they usually love it, but doing so takes a fair amount of effort.
We’ve also had an overwhelming amount of piracy – 95% piracy rates on iOS and Mac, with Windows being well over 99% (Windows sales are comparatively a rounding error). It’s great that players are enjoying the game but having gone with a design oriented towards making it a premium app instead of a freemium game means we get no benefit from those playing it for free – not even a ranking increase.
We have continued supporting the game, releasing so far three minor and one major updates, including an adjusted difficulty curve and 12 new tutorial levels (bringing the total up to 84), but as of this writing that update has only been out for a couple of weeks – it still remains to be seen what effect it will have.
Where do we begin?
Target it, goddammit – We focused too much on the gameplay and on crafting characters with a personality we enjoyed, without considering if we were sending out mixed messages that could confuse players, alienating precisely those we wanted to rope in.
Cut the dead weight early – the initial modeler and animator just wasn’t working out, and keeping him on board for longer than I should have was not only an expense I could have saved, but risked losing us an invaluable team member. Deal with these problems sooner rather than later.
Be ready to trim – we have a plethora of characters and elements we just didn’t get to use because we simply had no time to properly develop them. As much as you love your designs, chances are a lot of them will end up having to be left out.
There doesn’t seem to be a middle market on iOS apps anymore
If you’re indie and working on a premium app, reconsider – there doesn’t seem to be a middle market on iOS apps anymore – it’s almost all either huge AAA-quality projects, or simpler one-mechanic freemium games (and some freemium games have been getting shinier and more elaborate). Do you really want to bet the house on a business model with a piracy rate higher than 90%, when the market is flooded with competing titles that players can get for free?
Where to go from here
Stubborn as we are, we find ourselves already working on our next title, after going through multiple prototypes and even more concepts – this time applying the lessons we learned from Hairy Tales. I expect we’ll manage to retain the spirit of experimentation and sense of humor that we imbued the game with, while setting it into a game design more fitting for today’s game climate. Wish us luck!
Dynamic Pixels is a leading mobile games developer based in Russia and CIS. Established in 2004, the company has grown into an experienced studio with almost 40 titles for java, Android, iOS and Bada. Dynamic Pixels games are distributed by content-providers, operators and vendors across South-East Asia, Middle East, Far East, South Africa and Western Europe, reaching in excess of 5 million players across the world.
We are all fans of the tower defense genre. So when the question of what kind of game we would like to develop came up, we knew it would be a tower defense game. But knowing the genre was not enough. What we needed was at least the slightest idea of a style or some kind of plot for the game. We spent days and wasted tons of pizza trying to figure it out, but in vain. At that point, our programmer saved the project. We still don’t know how, but he did it. When everything seemed to be lost he came in and said: “Let’s develop a tower defense game based on sports!” And you know, it clicked: the turrets and creeps would be transformed into sportsmen, the battlefield into a sports ground; a humorous touch would level the usual view on sports as a protracted process.
Being generous doesn’t pay off (or does it?)
We wanted users to feel free to enjoy the game at its fullest
It’s very important for the rest of our story to mention that we planned on earning some money on the project. That is why we thought out the business model of Goal Defense even before we started development. We decided to give the game an extremely loyal model of monetization. Basically, users had access to all in-game features and could finish Goal Defense without purchases and tiresome replays.
Why? We hoped that loyal monetization at release would help us get: (a) a high number of downloads, (b) top 10 spot in categories and (c) a large and constantly growing user base. After reaching these goals, a series of updates would take care of the monetization (high profits). In other words, we didn’t want to make users pay. We wanted them to feel free to enjoy the game at its fullest. In this case only truly addicted players would purchase anything. And though the percentage of those is very low, we hoped a huge user base would make this percentage rather substantial.
From free to temporarily paymium
The release of the game went great. Goal Defense managed to reach the 6th and 7th spot in the top lists in the US. We even received a letter from Apple, saying that they were considering the game for a feature in the AppStore. However, as good as the release went, a month after (and after more than 350,000 downloads), we realized we didn’t reach or goals in the first place. We had a high-quality project, lots of positive reviews, but Goal Defense didn’t become as big as we had hoped. The project could not boast an exceptionally high rate of downloads and, consequently, didn’t bring in much money! We didn’t panic. We simply switched to a ‘paymium’ mode, until we could make a well-informed decision. Which meant that we had to figure out how to make users that are not inclined to pay buy something. This required some analysis.
We figured out:
– at which point users left the game and why (Goal Defense: in the middle of the first episode/6th level, mostly because it was too difficult to play);
– how many users kept playing the game after aforementioned point and how many finished the game (Goal Defense: 50% kept on playing and 30% finished the game);
– at what point in the game user made their first purchase (Goal Defense: at the start of the second episode/11th level);
– what they bought first (Goal Defense: bonuses);
– the sum of the first payment (Goal Defense: $1.99);
– what items were bought more often (Goal Defense: bonuses ‘hail’).
From this data we understood that we had to:
– motivate users to buy sportsmen as they are more expensive than bonuses;
– nevertheless increase the number of bonuses they buy;
– make the game easier at the start;
– motivate users to make purchases during the first episode;
– motivate users to make purchases.
We came up with a series of updates to be released. A couple of weeks after each update we would repeat our analysis to check on the effectiveness of the updates. Each update included new features. The features were picked taking into account the expected effectiveness of the feature, the expected reaction of the users and the expected amount of time for its introduction.
Goal Defense v1.0.1
Goal Defense v1.0.2
Goal Defense v1.0.3
Goal Defense v1.0.4
Raise the game virality
Motivate users to buy diverse bonuses. At that moment ‘hail’ was the most popular bonus.
Motivate users to buy sportsmen
Motivate users to buy sportsmen and bonuses and do this earlier
Features added/purchases introduced
– Recommend the game and get in-game currency
– Introduced an automatic launch of a free bonus. When a user was on the verge of loss a bonus would appear to show how effective it could be.
– Switched off the auto unlock of sportsmen and bonuses (basically left only one sportsman and one bonus to play with, to unlock the rest the user had to buy them with crystals)
– Placed certain sportsmen from the shop on the field on some levels with a consequent proposition to buy him. Thus we ‘advertised’ them.
– Follow us on twitter and facebook and get in-game currency
– Improved the tutorial and the descriptions of bonuses in the shop
– Introduced the pop up of a shop window after each loss to motivate the user to buy smth
– Raised the price of bonuses. They were more difficult to acquire and users had to solve problems in some other way: by buying sportsmen!
– Switched off crystals acquisition after the level replay. You win the level – you get crystals, you replay it – you don’t.
– Made the first 10 levels easier
– Improved the description of sportsmen in the shop user clear
ARPU – 40%
These measures affected the gameplay. It became less diverse. But the problem was that users managed to finish the game even with one kind of sportsmen and 1 kind of bonus.
ARPU + 103%
Paymium is a great way to get any money for your project […] but it is never as effective as hard, well-thought monetization
Concluding from our own experience with Goal Defense, loyal monetization may bring you lots of positive comments, lots of traffic and favorable reviews. However, your game will never reach the top 10 and you might not be able to break even on development of the game. In short, paymium is a great way to get any money for your project, without the need for further updates, but it is never as effective as hard, well-thought monetization.
Hard, well-tought monetization should be aimed at those who do and those who do not want to pay. Especially the last group is important. If your user base is not very substantial you’ve got to make the most out of every user. It is hard, but if you find a way to do this you’ll be astonished by your financial results. Besides that, monetization, in the way we used it, requires constant monitoring and analysis until it’s perfected up to the stage of “wow, that’s a great deal of money we get here.” And for that you’ve got to find a way to integrate data collection into the game.
There’s still lots of thinking and analysis to be done in terms of Goal Defense. A few more updates are to be released. We strongly believe that the best has yet to come so we’ll go on pushing it up.
Goal Defense is available on iOS (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad) in the AppStore. It’s available for Android as well, on Google Play. Check out Dynamic Pixel’s Dev Blog to see what the development team is currently working on.