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Things Spotkin Learned That May Help You In The App Store

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 Making This, We Thought We Were Ready
After Making This, We Thought We Were Ready

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.

    RESULT: Our first game, Quick Shooter, was supposed to be this quick game, but it didn’t end up being quick, so we failed on this goal. (check out Jon’s blog post about our failure.)

Fun, great art, obtuse, didn't monetize. Our fault.
Fun, great art, obtuse, didn’t monetize. Our fault.

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

  • http://www.spottedzebrasoftware.com/ Spotted Zebra

    Great post, thanks for sharing these hard earned lessons. When I first started Spotted Zebra I made some of the same bets you outline. In my case I bet on Windows 8 with less than stellar results. (Though I suppose that’s a story for another post mortem!) I think Android-first makes a great deal of sense while you figure out whether there’s a market for the game. Looking forward to hearing how things work out!

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      I would love to hear the post mortem on your Win8 game. We are not looking at that market yet, but someday I hope they do well enough that we can. More places to sell our games is better :)

  • Dave

    I’d love to know who you spent your $1,100 ad budget with. It seems like you got a lot more installs for your money than I’m seeing from most ad companies.

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      Like I explained in the comments on Hacker News. I wasn’t as clear in the article as I should have been. The ads we purchased were enough to push us onto several Google featured areas, so most of the installs were organic.

  • http://underscorediscovery.com/ Sven Bergström

    Great post as usual Jeff.

    The only point that stands out to me is the Spotkin Network, from what I gather as a mobile user and from other networks (there are thousands), the network itself is also just one in the thousands of networks that are tied into a single product. Every developer loves their own backend :)

    I think having a neat crowd of fans use the network for all of your games over time can be very valuable, but I wonder how many users – users that install countless apps each week – want a new social network for each one?

    I don’t even know anyone that has ever wanted to use flurry (back then even) or Openfeint or anything of the sort. I know there is a huge market for the achievements and stuff like that so I can see it working out on platforms like Android but on iOS users tend to expect Game Center, and I haven’t heard of many wanting 1000′s of social networks to remember logins for. Not to mention their concerns with third party privacy and all that.

    I am curious on the decision to press forward on the network, is it purely for “best experience possible” where the game experience is not tainted by third party junk? I think a really solid slick experience is important but how many of the users want Yet-Another-Social-Thingy on mobile and how do they interface that with their established profiles (Game Center, for example)?

    Good luck with the next one – And thanks for taking the time to write up these posts! They are invaluable.

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      The Spotkin Network is actually tied in with a much bigger network that we and some of my ex-partners at GarageGames are working on. It is a much bigger deal than I made out of it in my post. I hope to be able to talk more clearly about it in the near future.

      We would have used OF if it still existed, but it doesn’t. We did support Game Center on iOS, but there is really nothing like it for Android. Our implementation is really in the background, and not evil. We’ll keep pushing forward on this. I believe in it. Even if we only get several hundred thousand users, it is still much better than launching with nothing in the future.

      • http://underscorediscovery.com/ Sven Bergström

        Yea no doubt – I don’t think it’s a bad idea I was just curious on the overlap of existing stuff and how many MOBILE users would be interested. For example sharing a save between desktop and mobile, a custom game-specific (at least in branding) solution would definitely beat out third party stuff.

        I look forward to hearing more about that in the future then!

  • neil

    Hi Jeff,

    Can you describe a bit more where you spent that $1,100 on getting initial installs? Are there types of advertisements that worked better than others? If you had to spend $1,100 again where would you spend it?

    Thanks,

    Neil

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      I answered this above, but to repeat, AdMob and TapJoy. Like I explained in the article, TapJoy users are pretty fleeting, basically coming into your game long enough to collect hard cash for their latest Bahamut, Puzzle and Dragons, or whatever. However, they can still be used to get your game far enough up the charts to get organic installs. When we launch our next game on Android, we will use TapJoy again.

  • http://blog.jdconley.com JD Conley

    Up until recently I worked at a large mobile publisher and we spent out-of-this-world sums of money to advertise games once the LTV was modeled and we had a high confidence level they would be profitable.

    Ironically, App Store distribution is becoming nearly as difficult and cost prohibitive as pre-internet game retailing. Everyone is competing for the same limited shelf space and end caps. Cross promotion is helpful once a network of games is built, but entering the market is extremely expensive. You either need to win the featuring lottery, have something that is organically viral, or know your LTV and spend tons on marketing.

    Unfortunately it seems the most surefire way to build a top 100 mobile game nowadays is to partner with a big publisher in order to leverage their marketing dollars and cross promo network. Hopefully some of the early indie link sharing cross promo networks will do some good to change that.

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      JD, I didn’t realize it was you on HN until I clicked on your name. I don’t think we have met in person, but you used to talk to Ben Garney (my partner at PushButton Labs) quite a bit, and we also have being acquired by Playdom in common :)

      Being an Indie has always been difficult. For a brief time, the early adopters putting their games on iOS had a nice situation where they got free users, and it caused some out sized success stories. I am afraid you are right that we are going to end up back in a situation where publishers with a lot of money will control large chunks of the app stores because they will be able to move their users around to prop up their titles.

      Thanks for posting.

      • http://blog.jdconley.com JD Conley

        I have a feeling that the Windows app stores are in this early adopter stage right now where there are going to be some Indies that do well there and establish a strong network. It’s obviously a big risk in that we have no idea if Microsoft will actually bring enough users there to get the big player numbers we see on iOS and Android. Then again, if the players are cheaper to acquire, one might end up with more on WP8 as they would have been able to grab on iOS. If I were doing indie games right now I would very strongly consider starting there, especially if I were building on cross platform tech such like Ben’s new stuff.

  • http://twitter.com/JessiDarko Jessica Darko

    (My question was answered below… nevermind.)

  • http://ryan.snook.cc/ Snook

    As a consumer and a user of Android since the G1, QS did feel cross platform to me. There are little signs that kind of bug me about apps that are cross platform. No use of any native Android interface elements like menus or long press features etc, and the 2d graphics didn’t seem like they were crisp or meant for my screen. There is also the actionbar overflow button that doesn’t do anything.

    I’m not a f2p fan myself, I generally don’t pay for anything that has micro transactions. I prefer to just buy the game outright or possibly if it only had one or two unlocks.

    I agree with the developer network discovery, I do usually check for a developers other apps if I like one of them. One in particular I bought all their apps.

    As far as app store noise and being drowned out, I still look for high caliber games should be getting exposure on the news blogs. I think of this whenever the Xbox indie devs complain about their section getting buried in the menus, I still won’t know or care if it doesn’t catch the eye or get pushed to the news sites for coverage. Like Gamewoof getting me to check out things I never would have just by browsing the store or seeing an ad.

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      Hi Ryan. What phone are you using now? We had a bunch of native resolutions supported, I wonder if we missed yours. We are using 3D graphics and they should scale for what ever resolution you have. Maybe there is a bug.

      I may be naive, but I don’t recall seeing native Android menu items in many games. Can you point me to some? What is an action overflow button? I live on Android as well, and have been on it since G1, but I am not aware of lot of things you are talking about.

      Again, I am not saying our game was great. In fact, we didn’t believe in it and that is why we dropped it. I hope the main point of my article was about different things that we tried that worked and didn’t work for others as they put their games in the app stores. Bottom line is, if we had made a great game, none of the issues I wrote about would matter, and we would have had better results.

      • http://ryan.snook.cc/ Snook

        Hi Jeff, I am using the Galaxy Nexus. The menu graphics seem like they were meant for a lower resolution, they appear to be fuzzy for me. Here is a screenshot http://imgur.com/a/8NnfX#5b0h45M compared to Quell, Sleepwalker’ Journey or Sprinkle things seems more crisp like they were designed specifically for my screen size http://imgur.com/a/8NnfX#zUYrA4y These other games may be cross platform, but they feel more like my device was the priority. There is just a feel to QS for me that almost feels like a port from another platform. I can’t put my finger on any particular aspect, it’s just a feeling I get from the app.

        The menu button, I think I’m calling it the wrong thing, it’s not the actionbar overflow, as I think that is the term for the top menu on apps, but it is the 3 dot menu item in the lower right corner that showed up when they started phasing out physical menu buttons for the on-screen bottom navigation bar. It is a non-functioning button, seems to show up in apps that use code from older versions of Android. Some make use of it, it appears in Sprinkle and Minecraft, but pressing it there brings up the settings menu. In QS it does nothing when I would expect it to bring up settings.

        Your right as I look through my games that a lot of the games have a styled graphical settings area, Minecraft uses standard Android interface for settings.

        I guess my point to my feedback here as a consumer is to let devs know that I like to feel like I am getting an Android experience, that my platform is being utilized to it’s full potential, either from simply using the menu button to open settings, graphics that fit my screen or on/off switches that don’t look like iOS light switches. No matter how cool the app, it likely won’t get my purchase if it feels like half my money went to iOS dev instead of a better Android app.

        Thanks for listening :)

        • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

          Strange. We have three Galaxy Nexus devices that were the main devices we played on during the entire development process. It is not actually a port, but was developed more on Android than iOS. I have to admit that we didn’t think of the OS as having fans like OSX vs. PC. We did get reamed for overlooking the back button, but I still think using it in a game feels like a kludge. Thanks for the feedback though. We have a new game coming up and we would love to have you look at it before we release it. Simultaneous development again, but like I said launching first on Android.

  • http://twitter.com/arowx Allan Rowntree

    Nice article as a unity developer I am fascinated to know why you did not choose it as a technology, could you provide brief bullet points or hurry up with your next article please? ;0)

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      Unity is an awesome technology, and it is taking over the world. I thought it would be a no-brainer for us to use it, but it ended up not being so. Here are the main drawbacks in our opinion. I don’t want debate, so please don’t hate on me.

      1. No source code. This is important. I have seen too many developers get to the end of their game, and are begging four source code. Having access to all source code allows us to control our own destiny. There are commercial solutions out there that include source code.

      2. Executable is 8M in size before you write a line of code. When we started, downloadable size was much more important than it is now.

      3. It is expensive. By the time you purchase all of the version and upgrade to pro it becomes a significant expense. We did not want to send $5,000 Unity licenses to our programming partners half way around the world.

      4. It is overkill. We wanted to do simple games for cell phones, so we did not need terrain, 3D animation systems, etc.

      There are more reasons, but those are the main ones that I have time to cover right now.

      • Sl

        I’m a Unity developer, and I have to say these are pretty sound reasons.
        The Pro version fixes the 8MB initial size thing you mentioned, but yeah, the pro is expensive. I’ve been lucky enough to get the Pro version via student licensing, but for the full suite, with Pro licenses on all platforms, the cost is immense for an indie.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jquave Jameson Quave

    What kind of advertising network did you use the $1.1k for?

    • http://www.makeitbigingames.com Jeff Tunnell

      AdMob and TapJoy. TJ was what got us into the New Trending Android games that resulted in organic installs. On iOS we used Flurry, Playhaven, and others.

      • http://www.facebook.com/jquave Jameson Quave

        Interesting, I recently used TapJoy with about $200. I found that almost every download they reported was not a real download, but a pirated copy. I asked them about it and they ended up giving a refund. Interesting to hear your experience was actually a positive one.

  • Omar

    Very nice, i disagree with one point though, i think designing the game around the monetization strategy is not a good thing, you end up doing stuff like The Sims on iOS, beautifully designed and lures you in but extremely greedy

  • http://www.twitter.com/travisirby Travis Irby

    Love hearing what developers with more experience are trying in the current climate, thank you. You are the first I’ve seen that proposes an Android first strategy… Very interesting. More articles please! :D