This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the seventh in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.
One of the most frustrating things a game developer will ever hear is “that [PERCEIVED GENRE] game isn’t worth [PRICE]—I can get [OTHER GAME] for [LOWER PRICE].”
It’s frustrating for a whole bunch of reasons. Your game might not be very similar to the games to which it is being compared, or might offer more content or replayability. Heck, you might simply think your game is “better” and deserves a higher price. But it doesn’t matter. The comparisons are being made and now you’re getting 2-star reviews calling your game good but your company “greedy.”
If that sounds familiar, congratulations: You are part of the very large and growing club of developers who underestimated the power of relativity. No, not E=MC2. I’m talking about the fundamental human tendency to compare everything in our lives to something else we’re familiar with. An organic apple seems ludicrously overpriced to you at $1.99 because conventional apples sell for $0.79, but that same apple would have seemed cheap if your grocery store only carried the organic variety and if organic mangos appeared nearby for $5.99 each. It’s all relative.
Psychologists tell us that something we can do to increase our happiness in life is to own the nicest house in our neighborhood. This is the exact opposite of what many financial advisors will tell you, but the psychologists are right—if you own the nicest house in your neighborhood, you’ll rarely feel jealous of your neighbors or dissatisfied with your lot in life (unless, of course, you spend a bunch of time driving around wealthier neighborhoods).
A huge part of traditional retail marketing is dedicated to countering and exploiting this fundamental human tendency. Retailers very carefully pick what products they sell beside each other. And they attempt to reel you into their stores with advertisements showing a product that you are likely to be familiar with, for a price you’re likely to perceive as cheap, while then upselling you in person on products (with high margins) that you’re less familiar with. (Who the heck knows what an 18k gold necklace in that shape, containing that stone, by that designer should actually be worth?)
Triple Town: The puzzle game that wished it wasn’t
So, to bring this back to game development: you’re making a game. Odds are, whether you like it or not, it’s going to be compared to some other game. And when that comparison is made, you will live the consequences. In the mobile world, more often than not, the consequences are rather predictable: you’re going to have to sell your game for somewhere between $0.99 and $2.99 or risk being perceived as “too expensive.”
You can try to fight this the way we did in Triple Town’s mobile edition. We believed that we had created something special, but we knew that nobody would pay what we believed was “fair” for unlimited turns. (Tricky word, “fair.” Your definition probably isn’t the same as mine.) So we gave people a limited number of free turns in Triple Town every day, with the hope that eventually the quality of the game would win over even the most jaded $0.99 shopper. It kinda worked. We started out with Unlimited Turns at $6.99 and consumers absolutely lost their minds with rage. How dare we charge so much?!? So we ratcheted that back to $3.99 and it seemed to work. We still get the occasional complaint, but in general we convert free players to paying users at a higher rate than most casual games achieve, and we do it at a price we feel comfortable with.
With all that said, what I want you to understand is that we did it wrong in Triple Town. Yes, even though we have a higher conversion rate than most traditional puzzle games.
We did it wrong precisely because we allowed ourselves to be compared to “most traditional puzzle games”; in other words, games that consumers are no longer willing to pay more than $0.99 for, with rare exception. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about spending the time to create something original and beautiful in a market that values it so little.
Realm of the Mad God: the anti-reference
Now take a moment and compare our experience with Triple Town to our experience with Realm of the Mad God. For starters, RotMG was generally resistant to comparison. What is an 8-bit bullet hell shooter MMO featuring permadeath and 80-man raids (in Flash!) similar to, exactly? More importantly, the things we sold within RotMG aren’t easily compared to other products. What, exactly, is a “character slot” in this context worth? What’s more inventory space worth? What’s a health potion worth?
Well, I’ll tell you: It’s worth what you’re willing to pay for it. No more, no less. But at least that number is derived from your intrinsic interest in playing RotMG (relative to any other game) and your personal opinion of a given item’s likely value to you. It is not derived from the arbitrary fact that Angry Birds sells for $0.99, and therefore your game should, too. What a concept… being paid in accordance with how much people like your game!
In other words, free-to-play games—especially original f2p games that defy comparison—have an opportunity to lift the goods that you are selling off the “supermarket shelf” and into a context that does not encourage such crude comparison shopping.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean “make a f2p game and you can charge whatever you want for IAP.” The perfect example of this is, again, Triple Town. Unlimited Turns are an in-app purchase that is nevertheless perceived by consumers as an upgrade to the “paid version.” Consequently, the game remains on the supermarket shelf and only manages to achieve a slightly higher sale price thanks to how extremely engaging and replayable it is. If you really want to break free of the supermarket, your IAP can’t simply be a thinly-veiled upsell to the full version of the game. It has to be different.
Relativity can help, too
Breaking free of unhelpful comparisons is just one side of this coin. The other side, of course, is to leverage the helpful comparisons. For example, in one of our recent games, Highgrounds, we generate essentially all of our revenue by selling booster packs of non-consumable playable units. Highgrounds has been described as “Magic: the Gathering without cards” and even though there are substantial differences between the games, we like that description so much that we’ve wholly embraced it.
The reason this comparison is helpful to us is that MtG has a very well understood revenue model. There are millions of people out there who appreciate the fundamental promise of the game: you can spend very little (or in our case, zero) and still have fun and be competitive, or you can spend a lot to really flesh out your library and enjoy a much greater diversity of strategic options. You don’t “pay to win,” you “pay to play differently.” Players really seem to respond well to this.
I should emphasize that our avoidance of “pay to win” is only part of the equation for Spry Fox. When the inevitable angry player complains about our business model in our forums, our fans often spring to our defense by invoking the long and respected history of games like MtG that have used booster packs as their revenue system. Even some trolls will grudgingly admit that they “get it” even if they “don’t like it.” That’s the benefit of comparing ourselves to a positive reference point as opposed to a negative one.
It’s worth noting that even if you’re planning to develop a traditional, non-f2p game, in a traditional genre, with all the traditional trappings, you can still make decisions that impact how your game will be perceived and compared. Take a game like Faster Than Light (FTL)—one of my favorite indie releases in the past few years.
If FTL had first launched on mobile phones at the exact same quality level and with an appropriate UI, it would have been unlikely to sustain a higher than $2.99 price point, and even that is questionable for an indie game of this scope nowadays. And once FTL had launched on mobile phones, it may have been branded as a mobile phone game and therefore somehow “not worthy” of a higher price without substantial expansion or improvement. But instead the game launched elsewhere, and was sold for prices as high as $10 with regular discounts to $5 on platforms like Steam.
If you ignore relativity, it doesn’t make any sense. Why should a game be worth several times more money just because it launches on Steam before it launches on mobile phones? Of course, you can’t ignore relativity, because your prospective customers certainly won’t.
If only I was selling coffee
It’s easy to feel bitter when someone holding a $4 latte says that your $2 game is overpriced. Unfortunately, bitterness won’t help you sell games, and there’s something to be learned from the fact that Starbucks can sell coffee for $4, or that Evian can sell bottled water for $3. These companies have marketing machines that spend millions of dollars convincing us to disassociate their products from cheaper and/or less-refined substitutes.
Their marketers are pushing a message: “you can justify spending a fortune on this water because we shipped it to you from a mountain spring in Switzerland.” And: “You can pay $4 for this cup of coffee because not only is it tastier, but you will enjoy the experience of drinking it in our comfortable and trendy café.” In other words, 7-11 sells you coffee; Starbucks sells you coffee++ and strongly suggests that you cannot compare the two.
The bottom line is this: You are not purely at the mercy of the market. Every choice you make, from your game’s genre, to your game’s business model, to your game’s launch platform will have an impact on how your game is perceived and to what your game is compared.
You are the first person to describe your game to the public; you decide what, if anything, you’ll liken it to. You control the context of your in-game purchases, if there are any in your game. Think hard about what comparisons those contexts will invoke, and how you might make them more favorable. And of course, you are the one deciding how original your game will be, in general; you don’t have to make something with an obvious competitor if you don’t want to.
Everything is relative. We simply can’t escape that. But relative to what… now, that bit is up to you.
This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the sixth in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.
Back when I worked for Xbox LIVE, I frequently commented on the dangers of what I called “developer tunnel vision.” Nearly all of the devs I spoke with were not paying attention to a diverse set of industry news sources. What’s more, they were focused on at most couple of similar platforms, and were ignoring the rest of the market. (Back then, everyone was talking about XBLA/PSN; today it’s Steam/iOS; tomorrow it will be something else.)
At the time, this seemed completely insane to me—even suicidal. Didn’t these devs understand how quickly things change in our industry? How quickly their current efforts could be rendered irrelevant by shifts in the marketplace, or by strategy shifts made by the platforms? Developer tunnel vision…it was so obviously reckless and short-sighted!
But then I started my own development studio. Almost immediately, I stopped dedicating several hours a week to following industry news and found myself giving it a couple hours a month—if I was lucky. I started fixating on a couple major platforms. Turns out, it’s damned hard to make games, be a good father and husband, and do anything else at the same time.
I justify it by comparing myself to other indies. Spry Fox is actively engaged with Google Play, Apple iTunes, Amazon’s Appstore, Steam and a bevy of web portals like Facebook, Armor Games, and Kongregate. Compared to most indies who are fixated on just iTunes and/or Steam, that’s pretty good, right? Of course, since I’ve stopped reading, I’m missing crucial context about what’s happening in the very ecosystems that we’re focused on. You can only get so much insight into the market dynamics of iOS and Android by studying the performance of Triple Town. And I’m clueless about emerging platforms, European and Asian game portals, among too many other things to mention.
This article is partially a mea culpa. Folks who work at games platforms (myself formerly included) tend to be pretty judgmental about what developers should and shouldn’t be doing. Actually being a game developer is an eye-opening and humbling experience. But more importantly, I want to take this opportunity to encourage my fellow devs to do the one thing that can help counteract tunnel vision: talk to each other as regularly and often as possible! It takes less time than comprehensively consuming several news sources a day and tends to be more fun, too.
Is there a developer meetup in your area? Join it. If there isn’t, consider starting one. [Places to start your search: the IGDA chapter list and meetup.com.] Are you a member of a decent industry mail list? If not, join one and/or make one of your own. The Stanford Graduate School of Business hosts an open-to-the-public game industry list that is large and diverse.
Once you’ve connected with other developers, do yourself and everyone around a favor and don’t keep secrets. Talk about the games you’re launching. Share details about their performance. Describe things that surprised you (player reactions, revenue fluctuations… whatever.) The more you share, the more the people around you will hopefully be inclined to return the favor. And their feedback on the information you share may turn out to be invaluable.
Most game developers are never going to fully avoid tunnel vision. One way to counteract that is by making friends and sharing ideas and data. Too many of us are fixated on our “trade and design secrets.” But odds are that your secrets are worth less than you think, and your ignorance is a greater liability than you can possibly imagine. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s true for me!
As several news outlets have discovered, we have amicably settled our lawsuit with 6waves. We are very happy with the outcome and glad to be finished with this matter. The full terms of the settlement are confidential, but I can disclose that as a consequence of the settlement, ownership of the Yeti Town IP has been transferred to Spry Fox. We look forward to putting 100% of our time and energy into our games, like the upcoming Leap Day, Steambirds 2 and Panda Poet mobile. :-)
A video of my 2012 Casual Connect lecture is now freely available online. TY to Casual Connect for sharing it!
This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the fifth in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.
The first successful f2p games — aka “games whose primary revenue source were in-game purchases” — hit the market over a decade ago. Now they’re everywhere. They account for 8 of the top 10 grossing games on iOS as I write this. Rumor has it that all the major consoles will support f2p games in the next generation. Even our industry’s most prominent, respected developers (i.e. Popcap, Valve, etc) have begun to embrace the model.
And yet there are still many game developers in the West who have mixed feelings about f2p, worrying that it is “evil” or that it perverts gameplay. But f2p is just a tool, and like any other powerful tool it can be used to create beautiful things or it can be used to create ugly things.
Let me tell you what f2p represents to me: an opportunity to bring entertainment to billions of people without relying on advertising revenue or government subsidies. An opportunity to embrace players who want to play our games but can’t (or won’t) pay, instead of forcing them to become pirates. An opportunity to stop making disposable entertainment experiences and instead create games that live forever, supported by devoted fans who happily spend money to keep their favorite hobby alive.
For the first time in the history of mass media, we can entertain huge audiences without first bombarding them with advertisements for sugar water and corn flakes and without making them pirates. How is it that some people don’t see the beauty of this?
(Note: I’m not personally opposed to advertising in games. But I find it puzzling that so many developers accept advertising – aka psychological manipulation of consumers – as a given while decrying in-app payments.)
Any good tool can be used for evil
Yes, you can build f2p games that resemble slot machines and are designed to prey on people with addictive personalities. This is also true of card games (i.e. Blackjack), but you don’t hear people protesting against all card games (i.e. Dominion or Solitaire) as a result. So please, stop confusing the bad things you could do via f2p with everything that can be done via f2p!
Here’s a challenge for every curmudgeon out there who hates f2p games: start thinking about them as a form of progressive taxation, and allow your mind to expand from there. That’s right: a system that subsidizes the poor via the willing and gratefully-made payments of the relatively wealthy.
Think it can’t be done? Check out Triple Town and Realm of the Mad God. Both heavily favor skilled play over “purchased” advantages; unskilled, wealthy players absolutely cannot purchase their way above skilled players on the leaderboard. Neither contain systems that encourage insane levels of spending, though large monthly expenditures are possible. Nothing beyond the level of what an enthusiast might spend on a favorite real-world hobby like RC cars, golf, gardening, etc.
RotMG as progressive taxation
Realm of the Mad God generates revenue primarily via the sale of “character slots,” which allow you to play more than one character at a time, and “vaults,” which allow your characters to squirrel away more loot. Neither of these things are required to play the game and both can essentially be acquired for free by creating additional free accounts, though that’s obviously not as convenient. A large additional source of revenue comes from the sale of “keys,” which are instant portals to dungeons that most otherwise be sought out in the game. Again, buying keys isn’t a precondition to playing the game or even gaining access to dungeons; they are simply a convenience.
What’s particularly interesting about the dungeon keys in Realm of the Mad God is that they are, in many ways, the purest incarnation of the idea of f2p as a progressive tax or social good. Players want to plunder dungeons because they contain good loot. But buying a key just gets you a chance to earn that loot; you still need skill to actually earn it. And because the most lucrative dungeons are also the most deadly, wealthy players who buy keys have an explicit incentive to invite along other players, lest they die alone and lootless in their own private dungeon.
It always amuses me when people pine for the “good old days” of game development, when designers weren’t concerned with base financial considerations. The arcade games that many of us grew up playing were explicitly and pain-stakingly designed to munch quarters every few minutes! But many of us still fell in love with Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Street Fighter, and were inspired by those games to become the developers we are today.
Even modern games have been impacted by their business model. Whether it’s DRM in PC games or unnecessary “online-only” features in console games intended to deter their resale, developers are constantly struggling with business challenges imposed by consumer desire for a cheaper (or free) product. There’s also the common player desire for online games to live forever, even when those games require servers and other expensive infrastructure. So why not embrace those desires?
I’m not suggesting that f2p is for everyone. There are many amazing games that would be difficult and perhaps impossible to make as f2p games. So yes, if you love those games, keep making them. Just understand why the rest of us have chosen a different path. We’ve chosen the opportunity to entertain millions of people, for free, often without any forced advertising or government support, for years and years to come. It’s an amazing thing when you stop to really think about it.
It is hard to let go of something you’ve worked on for such a long time, but such is life. After a rather successful launch of Realm of the Mad God on Steam and Kongregate, our partners at Wild Shadow Studios decided that the best course of action was to sell the game to a larger operator, and we agreed to sell our stake alongside them.
Kabam will be operating the game from here on out and Willem Rosenthal, who has been designing the new dungeons and loot drops in RotMG for several months now, will stay on board to guide the project going forward.
RotMG will always be a special game for us. Alex Carobus is one of the most talented programmers we’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, and the game itself pushed the boundaries of what an MMO could be. When we started out, RotMG had the bare bones of a multiplayer bullet hell shooter. The foundations of the game were fascinating: coop only, permadeath, procedurally generated worlds, and retro 8-bit art. It had such promise, but it was on track to end up as just another interesting game jam prototype.
Over the course of 2+ years, we worked with Alex to turn RotMG into a full-fledged MMO with more meaningful cooperation, a trading system, guilds, a compelling advancement system and community full of passionate players. We measured fun, retention and monetization and steadily increased all of them. At this point, millions of people have played a game that at first glance appears to be a niche hobby project.
We are particularly proud of how monetization turned out in RotMG. The game is completely free-to-play, but it is not a pay-to-win game. Skill matters — much more so than in many other games — and the items we offer for sale for hard currency never imbalance the game. In fact, some purchases, such as dungeon keys, are highly social purchases that can benefit free players as much as they do the original buyer. This game is proof that a game can be profitable without abusing its players.
If you are interested in learning more about how RotMG evolved, we gave a lecture at GDC that you can watch for free at: http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1015659/Realm-of-the-Counter-Intuitive
We wish the best of luck to Kabam as it proceeds to make the most of a very special game. And to the RotMG community: we want you to know how grateful we are for the years of support and encouragement you gave us. We appreciate how hard you pushed us to be better at our craft, and how warmly and generously you treated us when we weren’t screwing things up. ;-) We wish we could have continued to grow RotMG alongside you, but we know we’re leaving you in good hands. In the meantime, we’re going to keep cranking away on a couple of new online games that we’ve been quietly developing for the past year or so. We can’t wait to share them with you!
-Dave & Danc
Spry Fox is looking to hire a senior-level engineer/developer. If you are not this person but know someone who is, we would be very grateful if you introduced us!
Job title: we don’t really do titles. Call yourself something amusing and/or impressive.
What we’re looking for:
- Senior level engineer (five to ten years of work experience, minimum.)
- Can program both the front end and back end of an original online game – by themselves or as half a team of two.
- Has worked on multiple shipped games in the past
- Very comfortable with frequent, rapid iteration (daily to weekly)
- Excited about original, free to play games
- Familiarity with Flash and Unity is a major plus but not a requirement. It’s actually more important for whomever we hire to be flexible and not wedded to any given language, as we frequently find ourselves adjusting our tech to meet specific circumstances.
- You must be a self-starter who can work effectively without being closely managed or prodded. This is a company for entrepreneurs, not worker bees.
- Reliability and honesty are the two most important traits to us.
- Location is not an issue; we all work remotely. But if you live in Seattle or the Bay Area, you’ll get to have lunch with us pretty regularly. :-)
About us: Spry Fox is a successful developer of online games that have collectively reached over 30m people. Our titles include Steambirds, Triple Town, Realm of the Mad God and Panda Poet. We are passionate about two things: making great original games and bringing happiness to the world.
Send inquiries to jobs at spryfox.com
This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the fourth in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.
Some lessons are harder to learn than others. One of the toughest lessons you may ever learn is that granting someone a generous share of the revenue from your game in exchange for a service (assistance with development; publishing; etc) does not mean that you can assume your incentives are properly aligned.
Say that you give a publisher 50% of the revenue from your game in order to promote the game, to handle customer service, etc. Or perhaps you’ve agreed to develop a game in tandem with a few other individuals and split the future revenue equally. In either case, you’re making an important assumption: that a significant percentage of future profits will ensure that all parties will do their “best” to make the game a success. And sometimes, that’s exactly what happens. But not always, unfortunately.
Revenue shares and publishers
There are many situations in which even a large share of your game’s revenue may not result in the behavior you need or expect from your business partners. A publisher, for example, may view your self-funded game as just one of a great many small gambles in their portfolio; something worth putting a few hours of effort into and/or maybe a few thousand dollars, but certainly no more than that until the game “proves” itself. The fact that you’ve given them (for example) 50% of your revenue and paid for development yourself may mean very little to certain publishers because they view your game as a lottery ticket… and you don’t win a lottery by spending large sums on a single ticket.
But if giving a publisher ~50% of your revenue isn’t enough to get them to really get behind it and help you in significant ways, what else can you do? The answer, in some cases, may simply be “nothing.” If you aren’t effective at pitching your game and your studio, you may discover that the only publishers who are interested in getting a piece of the game are those who want that piece for free. If, however, you have a competent pitch, and if you seem like a developer worth building a long-term relationship, there are certain demands that you can and should make of any publisher.
For example, you may demand a recoupable advance against your future royalties. If the publisher believes strongly in your game, this theoretically costs the publisher very little (just the interest payments they would have received from that money during the time period in which they advanced it.) And it gives the publisher a good reason to get behind the game — they want to recoup that advance at bare minimum! An alternative is to ask for committments: i.e. 300,000 downloads, as a random example. If the publisher can’t get your game downloaded at least that many times, their revenue share should be reduced or in the case of an extreme shortfall, the publishing contract could be terminated.
Revenue shares and development partners
Things get significantly more complicated when sharing revenue with individuals or companies with whom you have partnered to co-develop a game. Such arrangements are a big leap of faith for everyone involved, and you absolutely cannot assume that healthy revenue shares will keep everyone on the same page. Here are just some of the reasons why a co-development partner might disappoint you (or vice versa!) despite the fact that you’re splitting revenue:
- Different financial needs. Someone on the team may not actually care much about money. Maybe they are independently wealthy. Maybe they simply aren’t motivated by money no matter how little or how much they have. In either case, a revenue share is zero guarantee that this person will share your goals.
- Different financial goals. Even if two people on a team have exactly the same level of financial need, one might be satisfied with a $10K payoff while another might be dissatisfied with anything under $1M. There’s a good chance the latter person is going to become frustrated with the former if the project is marginally but not largely successful right off the bat (and of course, most projects aren’t.)
- Different priorities. Even if two parties have the exact same financial needs and goals, there are other priorities to consider. How important is the success of this game to each party involved? If it’s a make-or-break project for one party, but something that could easily fail without consequence for another party, there may be problems down the road. If one party needs income from the project in three months to survive, while another can plug away for years without income, conflicts could easily result — especially if this isn’t discussed before the project is kicked off. If one party owns the IP the game is based on while another does not, once again, there may be a vast difference in motivation to perform.
The aforementioned examples are just a tiny slice of all the possible differences between people (and companies) that can result in serious disputes down the line, especially once real money is involved. And unfortunately, there’s no perfect way to predict and prepare for all possible disputes. To some extent, when you’re splitting ownership of a game and/or its revenue, you’re always making a big gamble. The best way to reduce the risk of all parties involved is to carefully talk through your goals, priorities and commitments before kicking off a partnership, and document in writing the results of those conversations.
Talking it through
Would you be disappointed if your partner didn’t work at least 20 hours per week on the game, on average? Discuss it, and put something in the contract that specifies exactly what happens if someone doesn’t meet their commitments (i.e. their revenue share drops from X% to Y% after a given period of time.) What if someone gets sick and can’t work for a month? Agree to something and put it in the contract, too. What happens if the game launches and is not successful? How long are you all willing to keep working on it? What happens if someone bails on the project before this time period has elapsed? Talk it all through, and put it all in a contract.
Unfortunately, doing this will not guarantee that you avoid disappointment or drama. If you partner with the wrong folks (or even with the “right” folks but under the wrong conditions) no contract is going to help you. But going through this process is vital. Most importantly, it may help you avoid getting into the wrong partnership. Additionally, it will give you a framework to rely on in the event that disagreements arise between you and your partners.
The challenges presented by misaligned goals and incentives have been a topic of intense study in business schools all over the world for decades. Whether you’re looking at a publisher, a development partner, or anyone else you will rely on in a significant way, do not simply assume that “things will work out” because the other party has a good reputation, is a friend, had a big revenue share, etc. That sort of assumption is exactly the kind of thing that leads to disappointing outcomes and hard feelings in the long term.
Danc and I do more than our fair share of taking platforms to task for their failings. We’ve (rather bluntly) advocated for shorter approval periods on Apple’s App Store; we’ve railed against Amazon’s poor management of the games marketplace on e-ink Kindles; we’ve given whole lectures about the ways in which platforms, in general, can become abusive when they become large and successful. What we — and most other indies, IMO — don’t do often enough is publicly thank platforms when they do something good for us. So I’m going to put away my cynic’s hat and call attention to a few nice things that platforms have done for us lately, in hopes it encourages said platforms to do more of this for more indies.
Apple and Google both take a lot of flack for allowing blatant clones on their respective platforms. So I think it’s worth pointing out that both companies have taken down some Triple Town ripoffs. Google has delisted two clones on Android Market… and one of those was taken down within literally three hours of being reported. Apple just recently delisted one Triple Town ripoff after a period of a few weeks. There’s certainly more than Apple and Google could do to protect indies from total ripoffs, but I think it’s worth mentioning that they aren’t just sitting on their hands right now.
Also worth sharing that Google and Apple have also been incredibly generous in how they’ve featured Triple Town. Google gave us the main banner over the Market homepage, and Apple has put us in the “new and noteworthy” section twice since February, in addition to tweeting about us. I am 100% confident that Triple Town’s mobile edition would be a dismal failure without this exposure.
Similarly, Facebook — which doesn’t have the most indie-friendly reputation — seems to be really ramping up its efforts to support innovation on its platform. Many people don’t know this, but Facebook spontaneously chose to feature Triple Town almost immediately after its launch, well before TTown enjoyed the good reputation it does today. Members of the Facebook team have spent many hours introducing themselves to us, coaching us on features which might help Triple Town, and generally being incredibly supportive. It’s clear they really want original, innovative games to succeed on their platform. The same is true of Google+, which gave Triple Town the honor of being only the 20th game on that platform.
Some people will read all this and think, “well, sure, they do these things for Triple Town, but not most other indie games.” So it’s important to understand this: Triple Town is not a “hit” by Google, Apple or Facebook’s standards. Not even close I’m sorry to say. We have a small, extremely passionate fan-base, but I don’t think platforms are supporting Triple Town for that reason, or because they expect to generate huge amounts of revenue from our game.
So, thank you to Apple and Google for standing up to at least some of the folks who have ripped off our games, and thank you to Apple, Google and Facebook for promoting our games despite the fact that they have essentially zero impact on your bottom line. We hope you’ll continue to do this for more indies… particularly those who are working hard to do something new and different, even when that isn’t necessarily the most profitable path. (And PS: you can find some of those folks here.)
Want to learn more about the exploits of Spry Fox from its co-founders? Looking for insights into the nutty world of f2p, web-based, and/or mobile games? Curious to see if Danc and I are as relentlessly and unforgivably opinionated in the flesh as we are on the Internets? (Spoiler: we are.)
Well, here’s where you can find us at GDC:
Realm of the Counter-Intuitive God (SOGS Postmortem)
SPEAKER/S: David Edery (Spry Fox)
Monday 11:15-12:15 Room 135, North Hall
Social and Online Games Summit / 60-Minute Lecture
Description: Realm of the Mad God is a web-based f2p MMO with a penchant for breaking rules. It’s a MMO bullet-hell-shooter… in Flash. It is based on open source art. It features permadeath (the ultimate in retention challenges)! And it just so happens to be surprisingly popular and very profitable. This lecture will review some of the unusual design and business choices we made and explore which worked, which didn’t, and why. Financial and other data will be shared (and not just the stuff that makes us look good).
Create New Genres (and Stop Wasting Your Life in the Clone Factories)
SPEAKER/S: Daniel Cook (Spry Fox)
Tuesday 3:00-4:00 Room 135, North Hall
Social and Online Games Summit / 60-Minute Lecture
Description: Re-releasing old designs with pretty new graphics means me-too titles fighting off a crowd of similar products. This is the path to mediocrity. To become a master designer, you need to break past a slavish devotion of past forms and create vibrant, new experiences. This design talk covers practical techniques for reinventing game genres. The goal is the invention of a unique and highly differentiated customer value proposition that makes both strong business sense and is also deeply creatively fulfilling. We cover designing from the root, reducing design risk, and igniting original franchises. We also cover the pitfalls of design innovation including fending off shark-like fast followers and other cloners. The presentation covers personal examples from recent titles such as Steambirds, Realm of the Mad God, Triple Town and other innovative successes.
How F2P Games Blur the Line Between Design and Business
SPEAKER/S: Soren Johnson (Game Developer Magazine), Ben Cousins (ngmoco Sweden), Matthias Worch (LucasArts), Tom Chick (Quarter to Three) and David Edery (Spry Fox)
Friday 4:00-5:00 Room 2003, West Hall, 2nd Fl
The free-to-play movement is here to stay and will touch every corner of the games industry. However, the format blurs the line between game design and game business, so that business decisions will become increasingly indistinguishable from design decisions. Free-to-play content must be fun enough to attract and retain players but not so much fun that no one feels the need to spend some money. Managing this tension makes free-to-play design extremely difficult, especially for traditional game designers who are used to simply making the best game possible. Our panelists will discuss this transition and best practices for building free-to-play games with soul.
This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the third in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.
What would the typical publishing executive do if someone came to them and said, “We’ve taken open source, 8-bit art and created a f2p, nethack-inspired MMO with permadeath. You can attain the maximum character level in just 30 minutes of play. The game currently has no means of generating revenue and can only accommodate 60 concurrent players per server. Will you work with us on it?”
That’s essentially the question posed to Spry Fox one year ago by Alex and Rob, co-creators of Wild Shadow Studios, when they presented us with an early build of Realm of the Mad God (RotMG). And I can guess what others might have said to them, because when we subsequently described the project to contacts of ours, the reaction was inevitably one of skepticism. Permadeath? In 2011? How the heck are you going to retain users? And surely you mean 600 concurrent players per server, not 60?!
A “mature” company behaving in the stereotypically mature (i.e. risk averse) manner would have passed on RotMG. Its design was unconventional and terribly hardcore. It was written in Flash and unsuitable for distribution on consoles. It was relatively expensive to operate. Its developers did not have an established pedigree in gaming. The list went on and on. Better to get behind yet another first-person shooter with slick 3D graphics and call it a day.
We (Spry Fox) had a different perspective. Here’s how we evaluated a risky project, managed that risk, and created a financial and critical success.
Alex and Rob were new to the gaming industry, but they had advanced degrees in computer science and substantial experience working on massively scalable systems at Google. They were smart, earnest and motivated, and obviously willing to buck convention. So we partnered with Wild Shadow, with the goal of refining RotMG’s design and implementing a coherent monetization plan. And, crucially, we treated the project not as a huge bet or investment that could not be allowed to fail, but as one of several experimental games in our portfolio. And as with all our other titles, we accepted — and embraced — the possibility of failure, because we do not believe that it is possible to truly innovate in any other context.
Going public early, and staying public
One technique we used to identify and fix major design issues in RotMG was to skip the “private beta” and iterate rapidly with a public audience throughout the majority of the development phase. Despite the public nature of our work, we regularly made dramatic changes to the game. Some of the changes were well-received by players; others caused riots on the RotMG forums. In each case, we did our best to explain our rationale to the game’s slowly-growing community, but we never stopped making big, public changes and observing the results. Most companies plug away at their games in secret, using (at best) highly controlled playtests to learn how to improve them. For an MMO, especially an MMO aspiring to any sort of originality, that’s an incredibly slow and taxing process. We believe that our methods were faster and more effective.
We essentially ripped the “beta” label off of RotMG when we launched it on Chrome Web Store on June 20th, 2011. Google featured RotMG on the CWS home page as well as two subpages. Shortly thereafter, the game became the subject of an ongoing series of articles on Rock Paper Shotgun, and was reviewed favorably by many other sites and individuals. The subsequent increase in traffic and publicity has been gratifying; we hope to leverage that and launch RotMG to great fanfare on many other online game portals in the months to come.
During the final phase of RotMG’s public beta, the “average user” spent approximately $1.68 per month. (There’s really no such thing as an average user; the vast majority of players spend nothing, and a very small minority spend enough to support everyone else.) Post launch, monthly ARPU has peaked at $3.40, partially because of an increase in retention, and partially because of high-value conveniences that new players tend to purchase soon after deciding they enjoy the game, like more inventory space (vaults) and the ability to use multiple characters concurrently (slots.) We expect our ARPU to eventually settle somewhere north of $2.00 but below $3.40, until we:
A) Enhance our methods of collecting revenue. With direct integration of a mobile phone payment solution, gift cards, and additional payment platforms that are locally relevant (i.e. outside the United States) we expect our ARPU to climb substantially.
B) Identify additional premium features and/or items that we can sell in RotMG without jeopardizing the spirit of the game.
C) Provide an optional subscription offering to our players, many of whom have told us that it is easier for them to sign up for a recurring billing plan than to pay piecemeal for things in a game.
We believe that a monthly ARPU of $5+ is totally achievable for a game like RotMG. That’s a heck of a lot better than selling games for 99 cents on iTunes! Our positive experience developing and commercializing RotMG is yet one more reason why we have abandoned the old world of disposable downloadable content and embraced the new (and much more satisfying) world of f2p games. The vast majority of players enjoy our content without ever paying a dime, yet we still earn more revenue than we would on XBLA, PSN, etc. What’s not to like?
And most importantly, this business model enables us to keep iterating and innovating. The Web is a huge and wonderful place where kooky ideas like RotMG can not only survive, but flourish. Technologies like Flash and HTML5, plus business models like F2P, make it entirely possible to bring original, “niche” content to millions of people.
There will always be a big market for the next derivative console game. And there will always be big publishers too risk averse to make anything other than the next derivative console game. Savvy independent developers can and should aspire to better than that.
Sometimes you need to stand up for yourself, or you’re just begging to be taken advantage of.
We (Spry Fox) have filed a copyright infringement suit in federal court against 6Waves LOLAPPS in response to their release of Yeti Town, their blatant copy of Triple Town. This was a difficult decision for Danc and I. We are not enthusiastic about the prospect of spending our time in court as opposed to making games. And in general, we believe that only in the most extreme circumstances should a video game developer resort to legal action in order to defend their creative works — the last thing our industry needs is frivolous lawsuits. Unfortunately, it is our opinion that 6waves has behaved in a reprehensible and illegal manner, and we can not, in good conscience, ignore it.
The full legal complaint can be downloaded here. In particular, I will call attention to these issues:
First: Yeti Town, as launched by 6waves, was a nearly perfect copy of Triple Town. We’re not just talking about the game’s basic mechanics here. We’re talking about tons of little details, from the language in the tutorial, to many of our UI elements, to the quantities and prices of every single item in the store (how exactly did 6waves “independently” decide to price 200 turns for 950 coins, or 4 wildcards for 1500 coins each? That’s quite a coincidence!) But don’t take our word for it. Here are just a few quotes taken from the numerous press articles that were published shortly after the release of Yeti Town:
- Gamezebo: “Unfortunately for Yeti Town, the only substantial difference between it and Facebook’s Triple Town is the platform it’s on. Otherwise it’s the exact same game, only this time with snow.”
- InsideSocialGames: “Yeti Town is a matching game nearly identical to Spry Fox’s Triple Town”
- Games.com: “Replace “saplings” with “bushes”, “tents” with “houses” and “yetis” with “bears”. What do you get? Something that would look a lot like independent developer Spry Fox’s Triple Town”
Second: what most people don’t know is that 6waves was in confidential (under NDA) negotiations with us to publish Triple Town at the exact same time that they were actively copying Triple Town. We gave 6waves private access to Triple Town when it was still in closed beta, months before the public was exposed to the game. We believed those negotiations were ongoing, and we continued to give private information to 6waves, until 6waves’ Executive Director of Business Development sent us a message via Facebook on the day Yeti Town was published in which he suddenly broke off negotiations and apologized for the nasty situation. His message can be found in its entirety in the body of our legal complaint.
It’s bad enough to rip off another company. To do so while you are pumping them for private information (first, our game design ideas, and later, after the game was launched on Facebook, our private revenue and retention numbers) is profoundly unethical by any measure.
Despite all this, Danc and I still struggled with the idea of initiating a lawsuit. However, 6waves brought the issue to a head when, rather than openly and honestly discuss their actions, they had the chutzpah to tell Gamasutra that they had developed Yeti Town completely independently, and characterized the legitimate public criticism of their company as simply “part of the natural process” of game development.
We believe that there is nothing “natural” or ethical or legal about 6waves behavior. What they did was wrong. And if they get away with it, it will simply encourage more publishers to prey on independent game developers like us. We refuse to sit back and let that happen.
-Dave & Danc
As you may have already heard, Spry Fox has partnered with Playdom and Playdom is now the publisher of Triple Town on Facebook. This is something that Danc and I are very excited about!
You might be wondering why a studio as focused on independence as ours would choose to work with a publisher. Here, in no particular order, are the reasons:
- Our games have reached millions of users, but never concurrently. We have constantly worried about our ability to scale without major service interruptions or other related problems. Our fans are our lifeblood and we do not want to let them down. Playdom, unlike us, has grown and managed many games with massive concurrent user populations. We are grateful for the opportunity to learn from them and lean on them.
- The social gaming market is the most hyper-competitive environment that we have ever worked in. Successful games are cloned with lightning speed and the clones frequently outperform the original. Yes, we could raise a bunch of capital and use it to spend our way to higher user counts, but raising capital takes time and, having never managed a major user acquisition campaign, it is safe to assume that we’d probably spend our marketing dollars inefficiently. Playdom, on the other hand, is in a position to not only cross promote Triple Town to its many existing players, but to help us advertise the game in an effective manner.
- Playdom, unlike many other publishers, offered us a fair deal pure and simple. They did not treat us like creative-but-helpless indies to be mercilessly exploited. They treated us with respect. It was also clear from day one that they were totally in love with the game. We’re pretty sure that some of the execs at Playdom play Triple Town much, much more than we do!
- We want to create great original games. We do not wish to spend our time creating a massive company with a huge operational arm, with all the overhead that entails. So, we will retain complete creative control of Triple Town on Facebook while Playdom takes care of the many important operational and marketing responsibilities that Spry Fox is not well positioned to manage.
- Playdom has made some very advanced tools available for us which will make it substantially easier to analyze activity on Triple Town, to connect with our players, to do AB tests, etc. We could theoretically have built and/or acquired all this from third parties but even in a best case scenario, it would have been neither easy nor cheap, and we would not have had Playdom’s advice as we leverage those tools and grow Triple Town in general. We are not so egotistical as to think we have nothing to learn from one of the biggest players in this market.
So that’s the story. As always, you can expect to hear updates from us as to how it goes. :-)
-Dave & Danc
October has been an insane month for Spry Fox. First we launched Triple Town. Then we launched Steambirds: Survival, mobile edition. Now I’m pleased to announce the launch of our latest original game, Panda Poet for the Web, a total remake of our original Kindle game which was released in 2010!
The Kindle version of Panda Poet is a single-player word puzzle game, but the Web-based version is focused on asychronous multiplayer, and the core gameplay mechanic has been completely revamped to accomodate that. The quickest description of the new Panda Poet is “Scrabble meets Go.” It is a battle for territory between two players, and words are your weapons.
Panda Poet is also our first HTML5 game, which is an interesting experiment for us. We’re looking forward to seeing how we can leverage some of the big platforms that have recently begun to emphasize HTML5 games and comparing the traffic they drive to the traffic provided by Flash game portals, our traditional bread and butter. And we’re curious to see how browser compatability issues affect our retention, if at all. One thing’s for sure: its exciting to fire up the browser on my phone and play Panda Poet on it without any major issues. :-)
As always, we’ve launched what we consider to be the “minimum viable product” and we expect to keep improving the game over time. Four months from now, Panda Poet will look very different. And of course, we plan to put it on social networks and mobile devices, so there is a huge amount of work to be done.
The current business model is simple: Pay $2.99 to disable advertisements and enable the option to play on a 9×9 board in addition to default 7×7 board. My guess is that this won’t be enough to provide the kind of ARPU we are shooting for, but it will hopefully provided a decent baseline that we can build off of. Of course, we expect to generate some revenue from the advertisements itself, but it is hard to imagine that being very significant unless Panda Poet becomes a monster hit. That’s just not something anyone can bet on.
So anyway, please check out Panda Poet and let me know what you think! I will post an update in a few months on the game’s performance. (Speaking of, I’m overdue for an update on our other games. I’ll try to post something in a few weeks.)
Steambirds: Survival (SB:S) is now available on iTunes! iPhone/iPod version here. iPad version here. We hit a slight snag with the Android version but you can expect to see it launch very soon as well. :-)
For those of you who haven’t heard, this version of Steambirds is the result of a collaboration between Spry Fox and Halfbrick (aka the guys who made Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride.) We worked together to evolve SB:S, which we originally co-created with Andy, from its humble beginnings into a robust game with 120 missions — 64 available for free at launch — and some cool new features, like a recruiting system that lets you hire additional planes to help you beat more difficult missions.
I thought some of you might be wondering why we partnered with Halfbrick as opposed to any other company, like Chillingo for example. There are quite a few reasons, but foremost among them were:
- I’ve been friends with the guys at Halfbrick since I greenlit their first XBLA title many years ago, and I trusted them to be good partners.
- Halfbrick has massive reach thanks to Fruit Ninja (and now Jetpack Joyride as well.) They can cross promote a game to millions of people.
- Halfbrick’s QA team is as battle-hardened as they come. We had trouble with unexpected OS-compatibility issues with the previous mobile version of Steambirds, and I wanted to avoid a recurrence of that if at all possible.
- Halfbrick’s games are polished to a brilliant shine. We wanted their help doing the same to Steambirds.
- We weren’t looking for a publisher. We’re perfectly capable of publishing and promoting our own games. We were looking for a partner. And I definitely think that we looked in the right place.
Our arrangement is atypical. Spry Fox is technically the publisher of the game, though if there was a way to have registered ourselves as “co-publishers”, I would gladly have done it (hopefully iTunes and Android Market will accommodate arrangements like this in the future.) We co-designed the game. We share the game’s cross promotional space and revenues. We are truly partners in this effort.
When we first started working with Halfbrick on SB:S at the beginning of this year, we knew we might have some competitors lurking in the shadows. Steambirds had already inspired a number of similar games on the Web, and it was only a matter of time before a strong alternative appeared on mobile devices. As many of you know, that indeed ended up happening just a few weeks ago.
There’s been some public discussion about whether “Crimson: Steam Pirates” is a clone of Steambirds or not. I think it’s pretty clear at first glance that Crimson was heavily inspired by Steambirds. Nobody appears to be disputing that. But its also fair to say that Crimson isn’t a total ripoff. It has some interesting new ideas in it and a different narrative style. I think Steambirds is a better game of course, but then, I’m biased. :-)
I’ve tried to keep my mind on what matters: our fans and potential fans. People just want the best possible game, and we’ve tried our best to give it to them. Steambirds: Survival offers hundreds of hours of tight, well-balanced gameplay to anyone who will give it a chance. It isn’t perfect, but it is a damned good game and it is going to get better with every (frequent) update. And it’s totally free, as opposed to “try/buy.” I can’t wait to see how people react to it.
The more successful we become, the more competitors we are going to attract. All we can do is keep making original games and keep trying to be smart about marketing and distributing them. Hopefully over time we’ll build a loyal fanbase that recognizes and reflects who we are and what we do. That’s ultimately what is going to make Spry Fox successful. Danc and I want to make people happy, and we want our fans to feel like they have a real connection to our company. That’s what matters most; everything else is noise.
And speaking of: if you’re a fan of Steambirds, of Spry Fox or this blog, I’d be very grateful if you’d help us out by telling all your friends to download Steambirds: Survival! Tweet it, Facebook it, Google+ it, email it. We can use all the help we can get. :-)
And as always, if you’ve read this far, thank you! (I’m always flattered that anybody does.)
I’m pleased to announce the public beta of Triple Town, our original twist on the match-3 genre, which is launching on Facebook and will soon appear on other platforms as well.
Triple Town has always been a very special game for Spry Fox. It was one of our studio’s first titles, and it was good enough to be chosen by Amazon as the first indie game to be released on the Kindle. Triple Town also has the highest user rating of any game we’ve ever released (4.72 out of 5 on Amazon.com based on 158 reviews as of the time of this writing.)
So, when Danc and I started talking about how we might want to dip our toes into the turbulent water that is Facebook, Triple Town seemed like a natural fit. We knew the game was fun. We knew it would appeal to a broad audience. We knew it wouldn’t require a massive development expense because it is a relatively simple game. And we had observed a relatively limited amount of content in what I’ll call “the Bejeweled Blitz genre” on Facebook… a market opportunity that we felt we had a decent chance of capitalizing upon with Triple Town.
Additionally, we thought that if Triple Town failed to make traction on Facebook for whatever the reason, it wouldn’t be hard to reskin and release the game on Flash portals. Those platforms have historically been our bread and butter, and we generally feel more comfortable with a project if we think it can eventually find a home in the Flash portal ecosystem.
Of course, the game needed a revenue model. Fortunately, Triple Town is an extremely deep puzzle game once you really wrap your head around it. An expert player can stretch a single game out for hundreds of turns… and that depth creates plenty of opportunities to sell virtual items that might appeal to players. Play the game for a while and you’ll discover how surprisingly tempting it is to purchase that final tree you desperately need to complete your magnificent plans… plans that you’ve been working towards for the past 100 turns!
But, as with most good f2p games, we don’t force you to buy the tree and many skilled players will probably learn how to succeed without doing so in 98% of situations… and in the other 2% of situations, they’ll have earned enough virtual currency to buy what they need for free. Is it possible we’re leaving money on the table? Yes. But we’d rather err on the side of leaving money on the table, rather than send a message that this game is for paying customers only.
We also decided to experiment with limiting the number of turns a player can take for free during any given time period. This is something that most social games do (i.e. limited energy in CityVille, for example) but most puzzles games on Facebook do not do this. It might work for Triple Town; it might not. We’ll find out during the beta. The questions for us are first and foremost: does limiting free play hurt retention? If so, is the revenue generated from selling more turns enough to outweight the downsides? Once we have the answers to those questions, we’ll re-evaluate our design.
I look forward to telling you more about our plans for Triple Town in the weeks to come. We intend to build a whole world around this concept; the current incarnation of the game is just the first step towards that goal. While we work our way towards that grand vision, please do check out the current build and let me know what you think!
I really enjoyed this panel; Jamil did an absolutely great job moderating it. Worth a watch if you didn’t happen to be there.
Moderated by Jamil Moledina (Director, EA Partners, and fellow board member of the IGDA), Jack Buser (Director, Playstation Home), Bob Meese (New business development, Google), and myself.
Paul Hyman recently interviewed several folks, including myself, for a Gamasutra article on digital distribution that can be found here. I thought you might be interested in the full transcript of our interview. Here it is:
(1) What are your current thoughts on Xbox Live Arcade and how it has evolved as a platform for developers? What about your thoughts on how it should evolve? Please be very specific.
What’s interesting about Xbox LIVE Arcade is that, other than from a content perspective, it doesn’t seem to have evolved very much over the past several years. What I mean by that is the *games* have changed, but the platform itself has changed very little by comparison.
XBLA started out as a place for “bite-sized” and retro games; the kinds of titles that would typically have a $250k development budget. Today some developers are spending $2m+ on their XBLA games and Microsoft has very clearly sent the signal to the market that it is looking for “bigger, better” titles. So that’s a pretty big shift.
But then you look at the platform and you have to ask, what has Microsoft done to keep pace with and support these bigger, more ambitious titles that it’s been asking developers for? It’s not much easier for a player to *find* XBLA games on the Xbox than it was when the 360 first launched (many would argue that it’s actually harder now.) To my knowledge, the platform still doesn’t support some basic merchandising techniques, like product bundling for example. LIVE Avatars were widely panned by hardcore game developers when they were first announced, but at least they were *something* new that developers could work with; then Microsoft basically forgot about them for a few years. The platform has become progressively more competitive for developers, yet its evolution — especially from a retailing perspective — has essentially been stalled for years. Not a great recipe for success, and one that I know frustrates a lot of very smart and passionate folks who work at Microsoft.
(2) With other platforms such as Steam and iOS having much lower barriers to entry, does Xbox Live Arcade have too high a barrier in an increasingly competitive market for talented indie developers?
XBLA’s 1st party group has had a high barrier to entry for years now. And back when a slot on the platform was considered a “golden ticket”, it didn’t matter. You were practically guaranteed to turn a profit if you released a decent game on the platform. If that was still the case — if the platform were even *remotely* as reliably profitable for developers as it once was — the fact that its 1st party group has a high barrier to entry simply wouldn’t matter. For that matter, if the platform was still reliably converting at least a small number of indies into overnight (and very wealthy) sensations, that might still be enough to inspire developers to hurl themselves at the gates. But the problem today is that we’re not hearing those boom stories anymore. Maybe they’re still happening, and they just aren’t getting talked about. I don’t know. But it’s bad for Microsoft. They need those inspirational stories to be told loudly and told often. Otherwise, there’s just no reason for a developer to put up with the uncertainty and the hassle commonly associated with the platform.
(3) What digital marketplaces are currently the most promising … and the least promising … and why? Please be very specific.
My business partner Danc and I have been saying for years that the most promising digital platform is very simply the open Web. There are hundreds of web-based gaming portals hungry for good content, ranging from relatively small sites to bigger players like Armor Games, Kongregate, Chrome Web Store, etc. That market is in many ways the best of all worlds; fragmented enough to prevent any given player from exerting undue control over developers, and yet unified by common technologies and conventions (i.e. Flash, and soon HTML5) that make it very easy to work across portals. This isn’t a theory: we’ve gotten games like Steambirds, Bunni and Realm of the Mad God in front of huge populations of players while spending zero dollars on any sort of tranditional marketing or advertising.
Unfortunately, some web-based portals (particularly some of the largest ones) seem to be stuck in the stone ages. They haven’t embraced f2p monetization systems yet. They still treat developers like unimportant distributors of disposable content. Those portals will change or die. The market is rapidly passing them by.
I’m also very excited about Steam, not only because its a well-built and well-managed platform, but because Valve has consistently exhibited developer-friendly tendencies. No surprise, given that in many ways Valve is still first and foremost an independent developer themselves! What Valve’s competitors may perceive as a quaint or even foolish respect for indies is in fact one of Valve’s greatest strengths, and one that I hope they maintain for many years to come.
I don’t know which platform I’d call the “least promising.” But for whatever its worth, Spry Fox has seven games currently in development; five are web-based f2p games, and two are mobile f2p games. No console games, and no games of any kind that require an up-front payment. That tells you what we think is worth focusing on.
(4) Since the question we want our story to answer for our developer audience is “what platform should you go to and what should you be aware of,” please tell me what developers should be looking for in a platform … and which platforms have those elements. What are your recommendations?
Whenever someone asks me a question like this, I tend to react very cautiously. The problem is that the game platform landscape tends to evolve radically over short periods of time. What you should be “looking for” today is not necessarily what you should be “looking for” tomorrow. The best advice I can give a developer is not “focus on the platform doing X, Y or Z” but instead “don’t become wedded to any single platform!” The former can get you in trouble.
That said, there are a small number of things worth keeping in mind about platforms. It’s always worth understanding their lifecycle patterns (for the sake of brevity, I’ll simply reference my old Gamasutra article on the subject.) And its obviously better to be focused on a developer-friendly platform. The challenge there is that platforms can (and often do) quickly evolve from developer-friendly to unfriendly the moment they achieve any sort of superior position in the market. Companies with a developer-friendly culture are less likely to cross over to the dark side, but it still happens.
Additionally (and obviously, given my previous statements) I’m personally focusing on platforms that have embraced f2p games or are on the verge of doing so. F2P is poised to become the dominant business model in our industry and I have little interest in mucking about with platforms that aren’t prepared to support that. Learning how to make good F2P games is hard, and I’d rather not waste time putting effort into old business models that are rapidly decreasing in relevance.
(5) In your opinion, to be successful, should developers be creating the kind of games they want to create … or develop to suit the marketplace they’re targeting?
There is no correct answer to that question. Different developers have different goals. Someone who is primarily interested in games for their artistic and expressive qualities may have little interest in profiting from their work, and that’s wonderful. The world needs artists who are willing to make profit a secondary (or non-existent) motive for themselves. That said, if you’re not independently wealthy, not supported by grants or academic institutions, and depend on your games for your livelihood, then yes, its probably a good idea to pay attention to the demands of the marketplace that you are targeting. To be clear, that doesn’t mean “copy whatever seems to be working.” That simply puts you in the same boat as thousands of other developers and increases the likelihood that your games will go unnoticed, unless they happen to have a massive marketing budget behind them…
(6) Has Steam become the platform of choice for developers? What sort of lifespan is it going through? And could it soon become too choked to compete?
Steam is an increasingly popular platform, especially for indies who want to make polished hardcore games but who are frustrated with the constraints and hassles associated with consoles. It has many great things going for it. But as long as Steam is a platform that serves millions (or even tens of millions) of people, it is likely to be very hit-driven. You rarely tend to see a huge number of niche successes outside of super-massive open platforms like the Web. This isn’t a knock against Steam or Valve by any means: I suspect they’ll manage their continuing growth better than many other companies have. And hopefully they will continue to invest significant effort into promoting niche content and building platform tools that help players find that content as easily as possible (something the console manufacturers have utterly failed to do, by the way.) If so, there’s a good chance they will remain a favorite of independent developers for a long time to come!
(7) Anything else you’d like to add (especially in the way of advice for developers trying to decide which platform to target)?
I really want to emphasize this one more time: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. There is no holy grail of platforms. No perfect portal that will meet all your needs for years to come. Life just isn’t that easy.
Just a short note to say that I’ve been really enjoying Google+ thus far. It feels like a perfect blend of Facebook and Twitter and enables me to easily take advantage of the things that I like best about both without some of the annoying limitations (character limit, inability to specify target groups, etc). If you’re using it, you can find me at: gplus.to/djedery.
This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the second in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.
Spry Fox currently has several original f2p games in development, not including ports of our existing IP. Each game is being produced by wholly separate teams that are geographically dispersed, using different technologies and tools, under different contractual arrangements. And each team is compensated entirely via their future royalty; none are being paid cash in advance.
While we won’t know for a while to come whether our development strategy has been wise or flawed, we’ve already learned a great deal about the ideal composition of small, geographically-dispersed development teams. Some of our active teams have exceeded our expectations in terms of game quality and development time, while some are significantly behind where we expected them to be by now. A few of the characteristics shared (or not) by the high-performing and slower groups may obvious to you, and some may surprise you:
Clear and frequent communication
Our teams with a predisposition towards communicating more rather than less are getting much more accomplished. We’ve found that it is hard for a small team to over-communicate (as opposed to a huge team, which can easily become bogged down by too much pointless communication.) But it is very easy for a small team to grind to a halt when a solitary, isolated member encounters difficulties of any kind.
Takeaway: To some extent, communication risks can be minimized by scheduling regular meetings, encouraging a social atmosphere, etc, but in a distributed environment there’s only so much you can do, and if someone on your team is a hermit or lone wolf, you may be in trouble. You need team players who can communicate.
It’s common knowledge that rapid iteration is the key to “finding the fun” in any game development project aspiring to originality. However, our view on this has become relatively radical; we shoot for daily iteration. We’ve found that iteration times of even just a week (speedy for most larger studios) can hamper the progress of our projects. Iteration times of two weeks or more usually signal that a project is in severe jeopardy. There are exceptions to every rule (for example, sometimes it may be necessary to invest in technical infrastructure, which will temporarily slow down iteration) but in general we’ve found fast iteration to be vital to team success and morale.
Takeaway: It’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that development is progressing in such a manner as to permit rapid iteration. Don’t allow the team to commit to a development path littered with the kinds of technical challenges that might cripple the iterative cycle. And don’t allow the team to become mired in the unexpected challenges that will inevitably arise despite your best efforts; find a creative way to work around them or change your design as necessary. Forward momentum is a small team’s best friend.
Commitment and reliability
Another characteristic of strong teams is that their members tend to be comfortable negotiating reasonable commitments and generally follow through on those commitments. While this should be obvious to anyone, the extent of its importance cannot be understated. We’ve found “reliability” to be the single biggest predictor of a team’s success; far above intelligence, passion, or experience in importance. A small team with a single unreliable member is in greater jeopardy than a team lacking all the other positive characteristics noted in this list.
Takeaway: Reliability is one of the most difficult characteristics to screen for in an interview. One of the major benefits of working with someone as a contractor, as opposed to full-time hire, is that you learn from experience just how reliable (or not) they are before making any major commitments to them. But whether you’re working with contractors or employees, helping people resolve the issues that make them unreliable — or gracefully parting ways with those who can’t be helped — will be one of your most important challenges as a studio manager.
Things a high-performing team does not need
Willingness to work long hours or to crunch — Not one of our high-performing teams has resorted to working unusually long hours for any period of time. We have already shipped four games without ever crunching, and this year we’ll ship several more without ever crunching. In fact, we have just one team that has ever engaged in anything even remotely resembling crunch; ironically and not coincidentally, doing so did not appear to actually move the project forward significantly. The phrase “work smarter, not harder” may be a Dilbert punchline, but in the game development world we need to hear it more often.
Shared location — As noted earlier, we work with people all over the world, from South America, to Europe, to Japan, to Australia. All of our teams are comprised of individuals who live nowhere near each other. What we’ve found is that a team with the positive traits noted earlier can easily overcome any challenge presented by such geographical dispersion.
Passion — Our industry is obsessed with the stereotype of the passionate indie, willing to work himself (or herself) to death in pursuit of a vision. But what we’ve found is that there’s a base-level of passion that almost everyone we encounter shares (why else would you even be in this industry?) and exceeding that base-level of passion simply isn’t necessary. Extreme passion, more often than not, seems to get in the way of compromise; specifically, the kinds of compromise that enable a team to function properly!
It’s worth noting that the bar for team composition goes up when you switch from developing disposable single player content to f2p games with a real backend. The first four games launched by Spry Fox were all of the former type, and our transition to the latter has not been painless. We’ve found that even the most simple server-backed games can be exponentially more challenging to develop, especially when the team lacks some of the fundamental traits noted earlier.
Bottom line: when you transition from developing single player games to social or multiplayer games, and/or when your teams are geographically dispersed, character traits and team dynamics that were previously minor annoyances can suddenly become fatal. Watch out for poor reliability, poor communication and slow iteration: these things will guarantee that your game does not ship in a reasonable state of quality and/or within a reasonable period of time.