Update 4/9/2013: This has been the most popular article on MBG, so I just updated it. Also, for more information about getting started in the games business, take a look at my other articles on my Getting Started Making Games page.
Lately, I have read a couple of blog articles about starting your own game company. To me, they are too short, overly simplistic, and not very complete. So, I decided to start at the beginning, and write a step by step approach to starting your own development company. I hope to string all of these articles together, along with a few of the posts I have already written, and create a freely downloadble eBook. I will still circle back around and finish the “How much money can Indie games make” series, but it will be a part of the eBook.
You’ve played games since you could walk. Fond memories of your NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, GameCube, and PS2 fill your brain like your console collection that fills your closet. Your Gameboys are piled up in a box that you just can’t bring yourself to give away. Your collection of current hardware, i.e. Wii, PS3, DS, Xbox 360, and a hopped up PC hooked to the Internet powers your play while you are saving up for your new XBox 720 or PS4. Meanwhile you are constantly playing on your phone or tablet device as well. Your game collection looks like a museum or a small library, with countless birthday presents, allowances, and parental gifts adding up to thousands and thousands of dollars worth of investment. Playing this collection of games over the years must make you an EXPERT on gaming! Well, at least on playing them. Making them is a different story.
I recently put all of the original Incredible Machine CD music up on Spotkin’s Soundcloud to preserve it for myself and future generations of players that may be interested in that bit of history. I then exposed the Soundcloud content in a blog post on our Contraption Maker site. In addition to saving the music, part of the motivation is obviously to put up evergreen content on Contraption Maker to get Google to send us traffic.
This technique is called Content Marketing, and can be very effective in the long run. Within the first couple of days, this post has brought over 100 visitors to the Contraption Maker site, which is peanuts. At our current conversion rate of 1.6% we have gotten maybe a couple of sales. This is definitely not worth the money, but over time this traffic will build on itself, and you never know when you may hit an article out of the park that bring thousands of people to your site.
What kinds of unusual things are you doing to promote your game?
After Spotkin’s pivot from mobile games back to the warm arms of PC development last year, it feels so good to get our first game, Contraption Maker, launched on Steam Early Access. We have only been up for a few hours, but our sales have definitely exceeded our expectations.
BTW, Steam absolutely kicks both of the mobile app stores to the curb. I will write up a post later explaining why I think this.
I have been on a rant lately, but I think this is really important. Instead of complaining about the app stores, I want this post to be a more positive approach of offering ideas that I think could make them better.
First of all, I think the app stores are amazing. The original app store was particularly amazing four years ago, but I don’t think anyone thought that apps would essentially become the primary method for people to obtain their information and be entertained. With that in mind, both Apple and Google essentially need to recreate many of the mechanisms that the Internet has had 20 years to perfect.
I think the basic flaw with the app stores is that Apple took what they developed for iTunes music and adapted it for apps. From there, Google basically copied what Apple created, so we essentially have two of the same approaches. The problem with this is that music has built in discovery via Pandora, Spotify, satellite radio, terrestrial radio, etc., so while you can browse iTunes, most people already know what they want to buy. Games do not have this luxury. With that in mind, here are my nine ideas for making the app stores better.
- 1. Allow the store listings to have analytics and A/B tests similar to web pages. Developers are flying blind and have no idea if their sales text is working.
- 2. Sales Leaderboards are not the best measure of the best games. Top Grossing is an especially strange leaderboard that could be exposed to developers, but is not really relevant to players. I know people have a passing interest in top grossing movies or books, but I don’t think that is the most relevant discovery mechanism for how people choose to consume those items. However, in the app stores, it is essentially the only mechanism for making decisions.
- 3. Use analytics signals for leaderboards. This would be things like how many times a game is played during the day or how much time is spent on it. This would allow leaderboards such as what is the most played game, this instant.
- 4. Create better game taxonomies, categories, and tags, so it is much, much easier to browse by clicking around. RPG, boom a bunch of games. Roguelike, boom less games. Pixel Art, boom, even less games. Wait, there’s Heroes of Loot, that looks interesting.
- 5. Allow me to opt in so I can see what games my friends are playing and so my friends can make recommendations to me.
- 6. Have better Leaderboards, and back end support. Google does not even have this, and Game Center is not as good as it should be. This helps with virality.
- 7. Confirm users that rate games own the game in a much more strict fashion so the ratings cannot be gamed. A simple solution would be to make sure the player has played X minutes or several times before they are allowed to submit a rating for review.
- 8. As I mentioned before, run the stores as a backend distribution system so there can be many, niche stores. These sanctioned stores can be officially allowed on the phones. An affiliate fee would be paid to the stores and the money would come out of the 30% fee the stores are charging developers. Of course, Apple and Google could keep their stores, but having more options would be a good thing. For instance, a really great Educational/Family store or a nichy RPG store.
- 9. Have a more Netflix like recommendation engine. I know that is not perfect either, but it is way better than Genius. When was the last time you used Genius?
- 10. Once the sales leaderboards are not the definitive list of the “best games” (at least in Apple’s mind), then they would not have to worry about services like AppGratis. Those kind of curation services would be viewed no differently than how the Internet views Woot.com, with its amazing deal per day.
Anyway, these are the ideas I have off the top of my head. Do you have any more ideas? Also, the idea that you need to make a great game has already been thought of.
-Jeff Tunnell, Game Maker
Make It Big In Games <–p.s. this is a joke. You can’t make it big in games, you do it because you love it!
Last week I published what turned out to be a popular post, We Can’t Make It Here Anymore, about how discovery problems in the app stores are making life hard for small Indie developers. Like I said in that article, Spotkin was started 16 months ago to make mobile-first games using Free to Play (f2p) monetization models, but at the beginning of this year we pivoted to become a PC-first, fixed price developer. We thought it might be helpful to the community to discuss our decisions, so you can learn from our mistakes.
After our successful exit from PushButton Labs making an Open Source Flash game engine, PushButton Engine, and a top 10 Facebook f2p game, Social City, for Playdom (acquired by Disney), several of us were ready to make a new game production company. At that time (late 2011), going mobile-first and f2p was not as obvious as it is now, and there were indicators of success that we thought we could model. We were quite aware of the crowding of the app stores, but we thought we had a plan to help circumvent those problems, so we set about finding technology, and creating the designs that we would back. Our plan to compete in the “app store lottery“, as we called it, was as follows.
- Create a Cross Platform Game: Our thought was that Apple was too controlling, so we wanted to make sure iOS was not our only option for monetizing our IP. We chose Cocos-2dx so we could simultaneously develop our games for both iOS and Android (We had a lot of reasons for not using Unity which I will cover in a different post). BTW, this turned out to be an excellent technology choice, allowing us to build and test on both platforms throughout development.
RESULT: This was, and still is, a great plan. We are still very happy with this decision.
- Create a Network Effect: We did not want to go to market with only one game, so we started up three games. We were also working with some other developers to create a “keiretsu” where we could help each other promote our games. Our thinking was that a big discovery mechanism was the that people that liked one of our games would look in the store to see our others.
RESULT: As I explained, the results of our first release of Quick Shooter were not good enough, so we quit working on the other games even though they were nearly done. We still believe having a network of games is essential, but have not had a chance to prove it.
- Create a Social Backend: If any of the games ended up getting traction, we wanted to be able to get back in contact with the players, so we created “The Spotkin Network”, a mini-social network that allows players to compare high scores, make friends, etc.
RESULT: We did not do a good enough job “advertising and selling” this feature in the game, so we did not get a big percentage of sign ups. Had the monetization been better, we would have worked on this harder. We are extremely happy with the back end technology we created and are moving forward with that initiative and will use it in other products in different ways.
- Fail Quickly: Most of our original ideas were in the one year development range. We didn’t want to wait that long to find out about the market, so instead of starting one of those we thought we should quickly create a free game to test out our technology, learn the release process, and get our feet wet in the mobile space.
Quick Shooter is an OK game that looks good, proved cross platform technology, got good reviews, and good engagement, but took too long to develop and totally failed on monetization. We felt we could probably work on it and turn it around, but none of us believed in the product enough to go through that pain. We know it is totally our fault that the product failed and we are not blaming app store discovery for our problems with this game. However, we are taking app store discovery problems into account going forward.
I know you are going to continue to try to win the “app store lottery”, as we are, but we decided to make a bunch of changes. First off, we put all of our games in development on hold, and decided to put all of our resources into one PC-first game that we could bleed on, i.e. a game that we believed in enough to go down in flames trying to make it. That game will be announced soon, but is not what this article is about.
In the past few months, development on our PC game has been going so well, that we decided to revive one of our on-hold games and roll the app store dice one more time. With that in mind, here are the changes to we are making in the release strategy. We have no idea if they will work, but they look good on paper (to us anyway).
- Release on Android first: In our experience, we feel that Android is the far superior store for Indies. One of the biggest reasons is that you can release a game in minutes instead of days. Our Beta submission of Quick Shooter to the Canadian Apple app store took NINE DAYS for rejection because we missed a checkbox, then it took another NINE DAYS for final approval. Android takes 10 minutes, where releasing your game is essentially like updating a website, so you can try a lot of different ideas without waiting. We have heard that releasing on Android first will negate your chances of getting a featured slot on Apple’s app store, however we feel that trading one lottery for another is not worth it. Releasing on Android and making enough changes to the game to get reach and monetization optimized will allow you to release it on iOS KNOWING it will work. We believe that will make you a LOT more money releasing Android first than riding the Apple featured game glide slope to obscurity.
- Release With No Monetization Strategy: We do have ads in our game, and players can pay to turn them off, but that is not really a strategy. Creating a true monetization strategy is really hard. There are only so many that work, and you need to design and build your game around them. We don’t know if we believe in the game enough to do this. If the game goes out, and gets great reach and engagement, then we will circle back and add monetization. The game design does have the correct “bones” to allow this, but we decided not to do the development yet.
- Use Asynch Multiplayer Competition for Virality: Similar to Bike Race Free, our next game is a multi-player first game with single player practice mode. Our hope is this gets us a lot more sign ups for the Spotkin Network, as well as getting us organic installs via word of mouth.
- Put Some Money In To Attract Initial Players: We have a benchmark now. For Quick Shooter we spent $1,100 in ads which was enough to get boost the game onto some of the leader boards, causing organic installs. For that amount of money, we got over 50,000 installs. If our next game does better than that, has great reviews, and the other metrics of reach and engagement look good, then we will consider putting more investment in. If it doesn’t work, then we will not continue development or release it on iOS.
I hope that getting these ideas out will help you with decisions you need to make for releasing your game on either Android or iOS. We will continue to let you know what is working (or not working) for Spotkin.
Jeff Tunnell, Game Maker
Make It Big In Games
Normally I take a pretty upbeat stance about the opportunities in the games business here on this blog, but this one is down a little more than normal. I’ll try not to be too depressing, but as I was getting ready to write this article, the James McMurtry song of the same name kept popping into my head.
Last year when we were first starting Spotkin I was stoked about two things, Free To Play (f2p) and the mobile market. Having just come off the success of PushButton Labs creating f2p Social City (Facebook) and seeing f2p hits like Jet Pack Joyride coming from relatively small companies in the Mobile market, I thought that the future direction for our company and for others was clear. Unfortunately, a bunch of things changed during the past year and a half, so we have changed our direction by 180 degrees (in Silicon Valley parlance, we have “pivoted“). In this article, I will just address the problem with the mobile market, and talk about my views on f2p in another article.
I still love the mobile market, and Spotkin will continue to make games for it, but we are changing the way we go about it. Over the next couple of years there will be literally billions of mobile devices in the hands of people, but the App Store discovery system is so broken that the “long tail” barely exists. Your game is either a hit or it is not, and in fact, even most of the “hits” are not working out (see below). If you consider that there are literally hundreds of thousands of games in the marketplace and several hundred more per day entering the market, there is not enough room on the virtual “shelves.” Finding a game that is not in the Top 100, is nearly impossible. Even if you know the name of the game you are looking for, search is so broken you can barely find it. Put another way, hundreds of thousands of games are vying for about 200-300 slots that are readily seen when a player opens the app store on their device.
Of course, we have all heard the siren song of the unbelievable success of Clash of Clans, CSR Racing, and Puzzle and Dragons, but no self resecting Indie developer believes they will get that kind of success. However, they do think the next level down is attainable. Many, many Indie studios can make a game like Ski Safari or Plague, Inc., but even those games are incredible outliers with only a few coming each year.
So, instead let’s examine a game like Color Sheep from my friend Tom Eastman’s company, Trinket Studios. Color Sheep is a simple game with a nice play mechanic and great art. In spite of winning the two “app store lotteries” and getting featured by both Apple and Google along with stories in the New York Times and on huge traffic YouTube channels, their game has only sold around 50,000 copies, which has grossed $35,000 (after app store cuts). Considering that they spent $10,000 to launch and market their games at PAX, they have netted $25,000 before paying their wages. This is great because they do get to live another day (assuming Raman livability) and make another round of games, but what are the odds your game is going to do this?
Well, according to 148apps.com, there are an average of 126 games per day entering the Apple App Store, so that is 882 games per week or nearly 46,000 per year. Assuming Apple features five games per week, your odds of getting featured are .56%. The odds are actually a little lower than that because any time a popular company like Rovio releases a new game, it is essentially an auto-feature. So, Color Sheep could essentially be called a one in a thousand game. Do you have what it takes to make a game like that?
Now, back in the day (2009) when the Apple App Store had a whopping 25,000 games, I posted an article telling developers to quit whining, that the App Stores are simply distribution mechanisms and owe them nothing. It is your responsibility to market your game and drum up player demand. While I still believe that, apps are becoming so popular that many people are not even using the Internet anymore, so creating that demand outside of the app store is getting harder and harder. Apple and Google are doing little to help this problem, and the eco system is becoming unbalanced.
Just so I am not a whiner myself, I will offer a suggestion of what Apple and Google could do to fix this situation. The main thing would be to act like a distributor and create API’s that allow others to create “stores” around their content. Imagine a great RPG store or a thoughtful educational store that was free of all of the clutter of the App Store. This would open up discovery so much, and allow many, many more games to be found and sold.
As to making a living making games, it has always been hard. If you are in it for the big money, you probably want to get out. If you love it, you will find a way, and will make games in spite of the odds.
Jeff Tunnell, Game Maker
Make It Big In Games
In the movies we have Kirk and Michael Douglas, in music Bob and Jacob Dylan, and many, many, many more. It is natural for kids to follow in their parent’s footsteps. It happens in all industries, but the games business was too young for it to happen until just recently. Being one of the earliest career guys in the games business, I think this is an exciting trend, and I am happy my son is moving it forward. At a recent Casual Connect, we ran into John Romero, and found out that his son, Michael, is a designer. Game attorney Thomas Buscaglia’s son, Thomas just finished up on the mobile game BladeSlinger as the lead designer as well. I’m sure there are others, but I don’t have a list. Please comment if you know of any more.
Since he was a young boy my son, Jonathan, has designed his own games as well as analyzed, play tested, and demonstrated games for me. I was always on again, off again about whether I would encourage him to try to make a living in the games business, but my encouragement was not needed, for Jon, getting into games was pre-ordained. After years of play testing, he joined GarageGames as an Intern while he was finishing up his Digital Arts Design degree at the University of Oregon. Upon graduation, he joined us at PushButton Labs as a designer, where he was the lead on Social City and Grunts. After we sold PBL, Jon was asked to be a partner at Spotkin, where he is designing and producing our lead titles.
It is such an honor for me to be able to work with Jon on a daily basis. After so many years of discussing how games work, we have a shorthand, almost telepathic way of talking about design. Kind of how musicians that have played together for a long time know what the other guys are thinking. I love it!
Again, I am looking for more second generation game makers. I hear Frank Lantz has an offspring in the biz, but I have have not been able to get through to him. Please leave comments if you have any leads.
-Jeff Tunnell, Game Maker
Make It Big In Games
Normally, I write about making games here, and I am woefully behind on my duties, but I have been trying to figure out why I was so upset that Google killed Reader. I think I figured it out, and I have to get it off my chest.
For the last ten years I have been the world’s biggest Google fanboy. From the first time I ever used their “magical” search engine I was hooked. They literally made my life better in many ways, but while I might have been in love with search, but I was totally blown away by GMail. It just worked, and it gave be a GIGABYTE of storage. Boom, mind blown. After years of running our own email servers or using some bullshit isp mail address, I could finally relax, fall back into Google’s arms and never worry about email again.
After Search and GMail, everything else was automatic. If Google came out with, I used it and recommended it to friends. Even if they didn’t quite get it right the first time, they would iterate until it was great. I signed on for Calendar, Reader, Picasa, Apps, Drive, YouTube, Chrome, G+, Android, EVERYTHING.
Google was a bunch of geeks, just like us, but they had this other thing that made a ton of money (ads) that supported all of the cool things we all wanted to do, but couldn’t afford. They thought big. They shot for the moon, and created things beyond my imagination. I mean, how could a company even think of running a million servers, or creating self driving cars, or gigabit Internet? I cheered them on, bought their stock, and was over the moon in love.
I always joked that Google knew way too much about me for my own good, but I was willing to go along because we were buds. They were not going to do “evil”, their founding story always told us that, and I believed them. Yeah, I was naive, but happy.
Even though our company was one of the only ones in the world using it, when they cancelled Buzz, I didn’t think twice because they replaced it with G+, which was a much better product. Even though they stole the design from Diaspora, I still thought the product was awesome (we use it as a free private Yammer-like service). Kind of like a free, much better UI, much more private, less spammy version of Facebook. So, I was still hypnotized by the big G.
Then it happened. Killing Reader was like a glass of cold water thrown into a drunk guy’s face. I’ve woken up and realized that the geeks are no longer in control of Google. They are not on our side any more. It’s not just the death of Reader, it is the death of a rich, geeky friend that I could count on to solve big problems for me.
I realized that I had gotten lazy, relied too much on a single vendor for incredibly important services in my life. I need to get hard again, like the old days when all good geeks had to rail against the Microsoft Borg to keep their vision of the future from coming true. I need to look into Linux again. Consider using markdown text and storing it on my own servers or on Dropbox to replace Docs, spread my photos and documents out onto different services, look into Linux or Firefox OS powered tablets. Everything is on the table. It’s going to take a lot of work.
It sucks when a friend dies.
-Jeff Tunnell, Game Maker
If any of you still have your RSS readers connected, you know it has been over a year since I have posted anything to this blog. The reasons are myriad as I’ve been under intense product deadlines, tight NDA’s, and entrepreneurial/company pressures. While NDA’s prevent me from giving you all the full story, suffice it say that all of that pressure is now gone, we got a great exit, and it’s time to start firing up the blog again.
While I still stand by my thoughts that all professionals should blog (see The First Day of the Rest of My Life article), in a world filled with Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, and Google Plus, etc. blogging is starting to feel quaint. I do most of my everyday posting and observations on my Google Plus account because it is just so easy to click on the +1 button, and instantly be connected to a large audience. However, I don’t want to be a Google sharecropper forever, and longer in-depth posts need the attention and depth that only a blog post can provide.
I am bursting at the seams to get started telling you about my take on the wonderful opportunities that are available in the gaming market today. These opportunities have been building for years, and you should count yourself lucky to be making games right now.