Dream Bot Studios, the self-funded game studio based in Hollywood Beach, Florida was founded in 2012 by entrepreneurial risk-taker Markus Skupeika, who had been somewhat new to game development. He decided to take the plunge, bringing with him only his knowledge, experience and juggernaut-like drive from his other successful tech businesses he started throughout his entrepreneurial career.
Not to do it alone, he ransacked his office to pull one of his trusted coders and friends, Sergey Velychko, to ride along with him on this magic carpet ride. Releasing mobile games like Turbo Train, Sailor GT, War of The Walking Corpse, and many others, the studio has already dove deep into the world of gaming. Markus himself tells their story.
$50k+ Demanded By The Troll Guarding The Bridge
Dream Bot Studios really couldn’t be more truer to our mission “fail fast to succeed faster”: we poured our hearts and soul into our first game that flopped miserably. This flop left the studio’s pocket book with burn-marks where the $50k+ development cost fell right through, yet Turbo Train would not be possible if not for that superhero-sized slap in the face. It was primarily my dirty little “Ahh… this game may be good” mentality working on our first title called Flicked Off At The Movies that did it. It became the culprit for the painful face palm that prevented me from ever again assuming, “Oh, I’m fairly sure people may like this type of game, and let’s keep trying to make it perfect before allowing our fans and friends to play it.”
Our studio is self-funded, so assumptions and long development times are no longer in our vocabulary unless the game has been proven with a prototype or soft launch. That slap in the face by that troll guarding the bridge was my entrance fee into the gaming industry, which I kindly accepted.
After discovering the reality of the gaming industry, I decided to do deeper research on the app market. I reviewed top charts in the app store and literally played dozens of high-ranking and top-grossing games while scribbling notes of gameplay mechanics that kept me hooked. After my rugged research, It was clear that specific themes were ranking in the top charts, as well as similar game mechanics which gave players a sense of accomplishment. From this, I flirted with conceptualizing building a simple racing game.
A “Horchata” and Train Horns – The Start of Something Great
One day, after deciding we would focus on racing apps, I wondered how we could speed up and slow down our racing vehicles. I saw multiple games using a one-touch type of acceleration game mechanic.This game mechanic was fun and super easy for anyone to pick up and seemed to be proven in many of the top-rankings games in the App Store, but I needed a little more proof to convince me entirely. Innovation costs money, so we didn’t wish to re-invent the racing genre, only to make it a bit better.
That same night, I was celebrating a friend’s birthday in a Mexican restaurant. The birthday boy brought his son with him. I asked my buddy if his child wanted to play with my phone. Don’t forget, my phone had dozens of games I was testing and prototypes we previously were developing. Having his son play with my phone would allow my buddy to enjoy some time with friends, but also give me great feedback for some prototypes we were developing.
I gave his son my phone, but he became bored very quickly with most of the games. The only games he did play nonstop, allowing his dad to celebrate his birthday with some adults, were these simple one-touch racing style games. This finally proved to me the type of game we would develop. It became so crystal-clear, unlike the white creamy “Horchata” I was sipping on. I gave our junior dev team the news that we would dive into the racing category focusing on one-touch mechanics.
We had the game category and mechanics confirmed, so our development team began building the core mechanics. Even while the team was building the core prototype, I wasn’t sure what type of racing game we were going to build until a fateful drive to the office. I was waiting at Dixie Highway while a train crossed an intersection in downtown Hollywood, Florida. While waiting for the train, I heard that ever-so-cool train horn! I remember seeing the locomotive zip by me and immediately began visualizing ideas of all the different engines we could build and allow players to jump in and blow their train horns!
This became the start of Turbo Train.
How To Reduce Cost And Speed Up Development Time
Upon finishing the concept and mechanics, it was about getting this app live and ready to be tested. We had a very minimal approach, focusing on speed of development. After each update, we would decide if we wanted to add more mechanics. Most of our work modeled what was already working in the App Store, allowing us to reduce cost and speed up development time.
I would say a huge error we ran into was from our junior development team. Let it be known that I fully appreciate failures and only publicize this learning experience because it holds so true to our mission of “fail fast to succeed faster”. During our development and release, we messed up the in-app purchases, and the review mechanic didn’t go to the correct app. This put an initial hinder on our long term rankings. Fans couldn’t buy cool trains or give us a review or feedback.
Yet this mishap is why I prefer to throw our junior development team to the wolves. The younger guys will always remember the “freak out” they went through when they found out the app was submitted with the wrong in-app purchase ID’s and incorrect review ID. I asked Sergey, the studio’s more experienced developer, to break off from his 3D project, War of The Walking Corpse and come in just to make sure our latest update was up-to-par. He saved the day for us, tweaking the app to be more polished. I’m grateful that our the junior development team was able experience the “fail fast to succeed faster” mantra firsthand so quickly.
It does turn one’s stomach in a knot when certain issues like that happen. Due to the mishap, we expanded our studio’s level of comfort in order to move onto more challenges.
A Troll’s Toll Must First Be Paid
When we first started in 2012, there was that ugly troll guarding the bridge demanding payment. In order for our studio to pass, we had to pay, thus allowing us to enter the beautiful world of game development. Not understanding the market and what gamers have already voted for as a “cool game” was my first lesson. The $50k+ development cost of our first title was our entrance fee to the gaming industry— an expensive lesson learned.
After this lesson, it was clear that I wanted the studio to never focus on perfection until we see a prototype in the App Store or receive users’ feedback. The gaming industry is clearly a marathon, and developers who are looking for perfection during app development stages are clearly running this marathon in loafers. The only part I feel about development where it is a sprint is building the first prototype to send to fans for testing. This is where I tell our developers they should slip on their Nikes for that 60-yard dash.
It can be tough to throw guys to the wolves as a studio head, but you really get a lot of feedback on who can push through the rubble to become that special team member you can count on. Developers should not be afraid of mistakes, they should welcome them. In a way, this is innovation at its core. It also allows the team to understand that the studio trusts them to complete the project. The developer learns a lot, as do I.
Tips After Being Neck-Deep in the Mud
I love games and creating them has been more fun then playing them at times, and in some cases more expensive also! As both a designer and taking on the role to ensure Dream Bot Studios is profitable, I feel I have some gaming scars that can really help other fellow developers.
If you plan to monetize your games, it is clear: downloads equal money. What I share with our team is that each game we release, without any advertising or hard core game mechanics, has roughly the same expectancy of downloads during the first week of release. As a developer, you must ask yourself how can you achieve the most downloads with the least amount of energy and cost incurred, so you can continually make great games for your players. As a developer, you have a few approaches, but I will share the most popular approaches.
One could create many small unique games to see which game style sticks, then building that winning game further with continuous updates to offer a better experience to your players.
Another approach is designing larger games which take more time to release. This is risky, as there is no certainty that your game could be a winner until you get feedback from players. Once released, you then continually update your game to create a better user experience.
And of course, if you have a game that flops like we did with Flicked Off At The Movies, you keep chugging along and give players the chance to blow their horn when they find what they like, and then you build it! That is how Turbo Train became so successful for our studio.
Regardless of which approach a developer chooses, it’s imperative you reduce risk by getting something out to gamers to play quickly, though I am not suggesting releasing unfinished or poorly constructed games. It’s important to release your passion in your game, but do it quickly.
What Did We Learn?
Based off my research of games, when publishing a game without paying any advertising or implementing any viral mechanics, I found every game should receive similar amount of downloads during the first week of launch. Here are a few tips:
Discover What Works
If a developer wishes to have a successful game, he or she must first discover what the App Store users want by sending out new titles to see which gets the most downloads or giving your prototypes to friends to play. If you can’t do these two things, then simply research the market and review top rankings charts. Discover what games are always reaching the top rankings in your category and why.
Decide The Mechanics Which Enhance User Experience
To continue increasing one’s downloads, a developer will need to do the following:
-Viral mechanics to turn players into your apostles
-Ask for reviews from achieving moments in the game
-Advertise to get the word out about your new baby
-Implement core mechanics that entices players to continually come back to your game
Of course, the most important is making a great game that hooks players, makes them feel accomplished and easy to pick up and play.
So How Did The Launch Go?
It’s immediately clear when you have a winning formula in the App Store. It also amazes me how true the 80/20 rule is: 80 percent of our games released were so-so titles, and the 20 percent were the true winners.
Immediately upon release, we became a Top 100 App title in the racing category and saw many In-App purchases and a pleasant amount of ad revenue. This success happened even after messing up the initial launch. We messed up a lot, but it wasn’t the end of the world. We adjusted our plan and continued to make updates of the game, and it was a huge success for everyone at Dream Bot Studios.
During the journey of making Turbo Trains, we really identified who was able to step up as a developer and take on some new challenges. We also discovered who was not yet ready for the big show. It’s a learning process for everyone, including myself.
I am happy to say Turbo Train has been successful in bringing profit to the company. This doesn’t mean we will begin spending development dollars on crazy innovation just yet. We will continue to improve what gamers have already decided is a “cool game”. Once we have a good foundation of players and games out in the public, we can add more innovative titles to throw out into the world. By the looks of our success, this should be very soon.