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