Damon Marshall, vice president of SupersonicAds, has been working in the game industry since 2005 and finds it to be an exciting industry. He has seen it constantly change time and time again. With all the changes, it can be hard to keep up with the best ways to monetize. He provides a guideline to navigating ad monetization in this article.
In the ever-changing landscape of ad monetization, it is no wonder that many app developers become confused and/or intimidated by the number of ad platforms, ad networks, ad products, and integration options in front of them when considering their ad monetization strategy. Whether you are heavily invested in monetizing your app with ads, or you prefer a “plug and play” solution, here are a few questions to ask yourself when devising your path forward:
Which Ad formats are Right for My App?
There are platforms in the marketplace that can support multiple ad units and allow you to seamlessly test them all.
Display, video, static, rewards-based, interstitial, pre-roll, post-roll, offerwall, achievement ads, native ads, rich media, and hundreds of other ad formats can get confusing. Which ones should you employ? For those that take ad monetization seriously, the answer is: test MANY! Different ads appeal to different audiences, and it is up to the developer to determine which ads are right for their app. One size DOES NOT fit all. There are platforms in the marketplace that can support multiple ad units and allow you to seamlessly test them all. Ad monetization is like any other product in your app, and you need to test different ad formats to ensure you are delivering the best-performing ads to your audience while maintaining an optimal user experience.
Which Ad Networks Will Serve Me Best?
Once you have figured out which ad formats are right for your users, it’s time to figure out who to partner with to fill your inventory. Some of the bigger mobile publishers have their own direct sales force (think EA, Disney, NYTimes), but many do not. If you have a decent amount of traffic, you most likely have been contacted by tens, if not hundreds, of ad networks wanting access to your audience. Which network is right for you? Do you want (or even know how to) negotiate direct relationships with these networks? For those developers that don’t want to bother with the networks directly, there are ad SDKs that incorporate multiple ad networks into a single SDK, providing developers with a “plug and play” solution. For developers that are more invested in ad monetization, direct relationships might be the way to go.
The fact is that with a decent-sized audience, the best path forward is to work with multiple ad networks. No one ad network can fill 100 percent of your inventory, and no single network will always have the highest paying ads. Finally, networks usually have a limited number of ad units available to you, so in order to get the right mix, work with multiple ad networks and let them compete for your eyeballs.
The fact is that with a decent-sized audience, the best path forward is to work with multiple ad networks.
What is the Best Way to Integrate These Ad Networks into my App?
SDK or API? There are pros and cons to each. Some ad products require an SDK, and those that do usually deliver premium ad units. Server-to-server solutions also exists, but many networks prefer not to be mediated in this fashion because they don’t have direct access to your audience, and the ad product may get modified from its original form. The point here is that you should understand the preferred method in which each ad network wishes to be integrated and pick those that match your preferred integration preferences.
Ok, I have picked my ad products, I have identified the ad networks I want to work with, and I know how I am going to integrate them. What now?
GREAT QUESTION! There are platforms that can help put it all together for you. They are referred to as “mediation platforms,” or in some cases “ad servers,” or more recently: Supply-Side-Platforms. The level of investment you make in your ad monetization strategy determines how you will use a mediation platform. Here, you want to understand how these mediation platforms optimize the campaigns you are getting from each ad network so that you can make the most amount of money once you go live with ads. Supersonic operates a mediation platform called Ultra, which has been chosen by publishers like EA, SocialPoint, Wooga, and 100s of others to help optimize their ad monetization amongst the many networks and ad products they work with.
Some mediation platforms are better than others….focus on the technology that powers the mediation layer. Does it optimize in real time? Is it too manual? Does the platform pull the best performing ads from each network, or merely waterfall from one network to the next? Do your homework and find the one that fits you best!
LabRATory is a mobile action puzzle game full of passion, thinking, and lab rats. It is the debut game of Bubo Games, a small, self-funded indie game developing company based in Hamburg, Germany. Born as a student project, LabRATory has been through a long journey to become the game you find in the app stores now. Its creator Bjoern Bergstein shares the story.
Cut the Rope+a Lemming+Portal 2=Action Puzzle
It was a cold evening in December 2011 when three guys sat together to rescue their actual student project. There was a bunch of open tasks and lots of bugs and unsolved problems in the game’s design. We decided to kill the old one and concentrate on a new, achievable mobile game. Lack of time and resources gives the best circumstances for a good game design. So we ditched nearly everything we had, and gathered new ideas with new vitality and the will to succeed.
Around Christmas Eve, the vision was finally born: LabRATory should be a cute 2D action puzzle game with dozens of lab rats for mobile touch devices. The style should resemble Cut the Rope, the main character should act like a lemming, and the environment and features should be based on Portal 2.
This would be a timeless cute comic game, but not too childish. The mechanics borrowed from lemmings gave us a simple and easy-to-plan character without random behavior. As for the puzzle and setting elements, we liked to use Portal ideas…by the way, lab rats in a laboratory with lasers and portals are awesome just because! 😉
The ingredients were perfect! After six weeks, we presented a full playable mobile game and got excellent feedback. The teachers then forced us to use the prototype and transform it into a good-looking game. They didn’t just rescue the project, they even defined a new kind of gameplay called “action puzzle”! Furthermore, they saw the potential that this could be more than just a student project.
A Ship with 10 People Won’t be Faster Than a Rowboat if Everyone Discusses the Direction
It took a few weeks and lots of beer for Julien Rüggeberg, Philipp Soré, and me to dare to accept this challenge! We liked the idea of investing the next semester in improving LabRATory and making it ready for the market, but a highly motivated team was still missing. So, after pitching the game and the vision and presenting our plan in front of the other students, the team grew to 10 members. The goal was to get a full game into the app store to improve our portfolio.
But in the next two months, we were forced to realize that a vision can be easy to describe, but hard to transfer into a game. It was our first big lesson: a ship with ten different people will not be faster than a small rowboat when everybody is allowed to discuss the direction. We stopped development and went back into pre-production. The vision and style guide was not as clear as we thought, and we had no workflows or processes. Everybody was acting on their own, and the results didn’t fit together. Let me say it: the style was not as cute as we liked it, and the game lost its magic.
The style was not as cute as we liked it, and the game lost its magic.
There was a feeling that democracy is not always the clue to create a great thing. And after a few such weeks without a clear vision, we realized a strong need for someone able to make decisions for the whole team. So I was chosen as a vision keeper, and Floris Pfeifer became the lead artist. We were there to set up workflows and define our main goals. For example: the art quality needs to be exactly like Cut the Rope (but not too close to Cut the Rope),gameplay should be easy to understand without a tutorial, and we won’t have too much text in our game – so every button needed a symbol. After all these definitions were made clear, the great satisfaction motivated us again. We were back on course!
The Player and Developer Think in Different Ways
Powered by this tailwind, we created a few levels and began to do as many playtests as possible. I think almost every student and family member invested hours in testing LabRATory and giving feedback. It was good for us to present the game to some other students who understand game design and arts. We also involved parents who never played a mobile game before. Later on, we presented LabRATory at exhibitions and events to catch the idea of how strangers react while playing the game.
The testers helped us optimize the flow by rejecting some features, such as the second way to finish a level or the countdown in the beginning of each level. In our opinion, it was great to have the option of finishing a level with or without cheese (we had an exit at this time) or to just have a few seconds to have a look at the game before playing. But that was just designer-driven s**t that nobody really understood or liked, so we cut it off! But the testers also demanded new things, like the stars above the clock and achievements in the winning screen.
We also reduced the basic skill level of the game. It took a very long time to optimize the learning curve. This was really hard, because everybody we knew also knew the game. First of all, I built up new levels step by step, and tried to make them as easy as possible. After that, I looked for new opportunities at exhibitions to see how the players react to this. There were a few people who said the first level package was too easy, but most users were satisfied, and (the most important thing) everybody understood how the game worked. In addition to that, we got great advice from our teachers and mentors in coding and designing to develop according to high quality standards.
Gamefounders: a Check of Professionality
Strengthened by countless satisfied players, we finally decided to present the game and the team to the real market. We applied for the first Gamefounders round to see how professional we really were at that point. The expectations were very low, and we had nothing to lose. To our great surprise, we got to the last round, and could pitch LabRATory in front of the investors. We weren’t invited to the program just because of being students and having no track record. But at least trying was the right decision, and it was a very good experience for the team.
In different stages of the applying process, we needed to answer questions we didn’t even think about before. The difference between a student project and a business project turned out bigger than we expected. We didn’t care for monetization, localization, third person tools, advertisements, publishers, and so on. At that point, we just enjoyed building a great game with lots of passion and pure fun. We believed that a good game would be everything you need to reach the stars…
We believed that a good game would be everything you need to reach the stars…
So, we got back to earth and concentrated on finishing our semester with a brilliant mobile game. LabRATory won the Gameforge Newcomer Award in December 2012. And for most of us, the story ended there. Many of the students achieved their own goal and chose to work on other, less stressful things, or try out other genres or types of games.
Starting a Company: With Progress Comes Bureaucracy
Nevertheless, some people saw this award as a chance to build a company with its own ideas and an awesome culture, which was to be the cornerstone of many fascinating mobile games. This is why Bubo Games was born and gave us new opportunities. A team of four people who worked full-time and two people part-time rocked the house! Setting up our own place to work was awesome. Seeing our logo on all the documents and websites still makes me proud. But with all this progress, there came bureaucracy. I knew that building a business plan and trying to get an investor was to become a great part of my work. It was harder than I thought and took much more time.
We presented the game at the Casual Connect 2012 in Hamburg and found a few potential publishers for LabRATory. The deals seemed to be fantastic and for us nearly unbelievable. With those kind of deals, we didn’t need additional external money, and had a strong partner with knowledge and power. We also knew we had to negotiate with them until a contract is signed, and we were fine with that. We used this time to transfer the game into a professional gaming app with a local kit and tracking tools, along with other important features.
The negotiations went well! After a few months, our dream was almost coming true. The game was ready, the money was out, and we just needed to sign the contract with our favorite publisher. But this never happened. A personal change occurred in the upper management of this publisher company, and they decided to cancel all negotiations with external developers. And suddenly everything seemed to be too late.
Awesome Games are Played When People Find Out They Exist
We made the biggest mistakes of all possible ones. Having set everything on this one option, we forgot to care for alternative scenarios. We didn’t really pay attention to PR or marketing. It was the publisher’s task… wasn’t it? At that point, we understood that a deal without a sign has no value.
Having set everything on stake, we forgot to care for alternative scenarios. We didn’t really pay attention to PR or marketing. It was the publisher’s task… wasn’t it?
But we didn’t give up and reorganized ourselves quickly. LabRATory was this awesome premium puzzle game that the world must see! So we tried to do our best to promote the game at local exhibitions without any money for marketing and PR.
Finally, we released it into the App Store and hoped that the right people would realize the ingenuity of our game. We got no feature or response from Apple. Just a few downloads from our friends. But you can’t pay the bills with 100 downloads. That was the second time we were brought back to reality. Although we had the ability to make an awesome game, people wouldn’t be able to play it because they’d simply never find out our game exists.
It’s best to have a full-time team member to take care of PR and marketing. There will be no cheese in the end if you forget that aspect in your plan.
Through a reliable publisher deal with Tivola, the game is now available on Apple App Store and Google Play for free, and as premium on Amazon. It has recently received 125,000 downloads in less than four weeks, and the team aims on getting many more through updates and optimizing.
Kurechii Studio was just a team back in 2009, and was officially established in 2011. From three members, the company grew to four: Yiwei P’ng, the founder, Zyen, an artist, Lydia, a copywriter, and Nick, the animator.Working on their debut iOS project, King’s League: Odyssey, they also had a few others, so used extra help from Ritchie the graphics artist, and two more programmers – Shin Hean and Pei San.Since the Kurechii team initially had experience with Flash, having someone familiar with iOS was extremely helpful, Yiwei recalls as he shares the story of the game.
Lost the Feeling of the Game? Launch and See Whether it’s Good or Not!
The first version of King’s League (Flash-based and playable in the browser) was completed within a month just by myself to fulfill the goal of creating a monthly Flash game, something I set to stay motivated. The game was beta tested by a friend, who found it rather short. At that point in time, only simple quests and sieges were available, and the interfaces were pretty confusing.
With that conclusion, the game obviously wasn’t ready for a proper audience. I decided to scrap that version and rebuild a whole new one with better graphics and interesting features, the major feature being unique characters. In hindsight, that one feature has greatly impacted the game in a positive way. We had cool-looking characters, with better stats! And they can only be unlocked by fulfilling some special requirements.
By the time I got around to implementing a proper league system in the game, it was already four months since I started the revamp! As I was already rather numb to the changes (I couldn’t tell if it was entertaining or bad anymore), I decided to launch it on Armorgames and see what the response would be like.
Surprisingly, many players picked it up, and the game gathered about 2 million plays in the first month. Users were really generous with their feedback, so I kept note of the comments. Regrettably, I still had tons of ideas that weren’t included in the game due to my lack of experience, particularly technical, and time – I was still working alone.
For that same reason, I had to cover both the artistic and technical aspects of the game. If there was ever going to be a sequel, I thought – I wanted to focus on the programming and game design. But I would need someone who really excels in game art and enjoys the genre King’s League is: simulation and strategy. Ritchie fit the picture perfectly, and that’s how we began working on King’s League: Odyssey.
Listen to Feedback and Follow Your Path
While working on the sequel, many features were sacrificed to complexity and the game pace that we wanted to retain.
One of the most desired features (according to the feedback we received) was a pause button, or a button to manually control when the players wanted the next day to come. However, we chose not to add that. Instead of letting the players control the pace of the game, we wanted them to stick to ours – to keep the feeling of thrill as a league match approaches, and when every decision matters.
Another feature we did not provide (again, after some feedback), was to have auto-assigned training. It would’ve been convenient, but would also highly reduce the player’s choices in decisions to make and actions to perform.
For more depth, we also wanted to include a Spy upgrade – a feature allowing players to check what units the opponent team will have, and to make captured cities upgradable. In theory, these were interesting things to have in a game (and after the launch, some players were suggesting them, too). However, they hadn’t been implemented, as this would add a lot of complexity to the project. We tried to avoid making the game too hardcore to appeal to casual players.
We tried to avoid making the game too hardcore to appeal to casual players.
Our decision to withhold these features did not negatively impact the sequel, but managed to help retain the pace we wanted for King’s League: Odyssey.
We revamped the Upgrade Facilities three times in terms of mechanics and design before settling on the final version. The first few versions were rather complex and confusing, and did not give a solid sense of progression. Using icons in the interface also helped players in deciding which upgrades to go for.
Asset-wise, we initially wanted all the units to have animations for every training option available – but that would mean a total of 495 extra animations. In the end, we had to forgo it because of the size.
The Pains of Going Mobile
If we planned everything ahead for the mobile version, things would’ve gone smoother. On the other hand, we did not entirely forget to prepare for porting; it’s just that we were more focused on the visual aspects (interfaces and graphic ratios) than the technical ones. Nevertheless, we had the UX ready for touch screens, so didn’t have to redesign the UI during the transition from PC/web to mobile.
Prior to this, we had no experience in mobile game development. The “3-months-with-1-programmer” plan to port the game grew into “11-months-with-2-programmers”.
One of our biggest struggles was definitely the file size. High quality graphics were something we really wanted to deliver, but that just served to increase the game’s file size. In Flash, it would not have been a major problem, since vector graphics were used. The raster images used for the mobile version at first caused a delay in loading and also memory problems. Eventually, we managed to cut the game install size on iOS from 1GB to about 500MB, but this cost us a few extra months and was still not the most satisfying file size for players: it was always at a high risk of being deleted if a player needed more space on their device.
We didn’t change anything about the save system when porting the game from Flash to iOS, but later, we understood we’d better had it updated: compared to the browser version, mobile players were more likely to quit at random points in the game due to phone calls or other device activities. Another month was spent to patch up the things we had missed.
Mobile players are more likely to quit the game at random points due to phone calls.
We could’ve saved up a lot of development cost and time if we did not go through these mistakes – as inevitable as they seemed then. It’s a price to pay for inexperience, and definitely a lesson learned to be applied to our future projects.
Walking in Your Teammates’ Shoes
Everyone in the team has been exposed to developing for iOS in certain aspects (coding, visuals, design, etc), but none of us has gone through it from A-Z. During this project development, everyone has tasted the responsibilities and tasks of different roles: programmers learned how artists manage and export art assets, while artists got more than a hint about how certain codes work. This helped everyone work in a way that would benefit others, allowing for a more efficient workflow.
It was certainly a tough journey, but a great one. We grew as a team with the same goal in mind. As a more mature team, members now know how to use their expertise to help ease the tasks of other roles, too.
IAPs Done by Players as Support for Devs
Saying we did not hope that King’s League would do well would mean we didn’t believe in our own efforts. But with the help of our publisher, Gamenauts, the game got much more coverage during its launch than we could’ve managed to get on our own. Gamenauts dropped us an email after playing the first version of King’s League on Kongregate. Not many publishers were contacting us at that time, while this company made us an offer at an early stage of the sequel project. We agreed, and, as devs with little experience, we thought having a publisher can help us a lot in many ways, from development to monetization.
Initially, we wanted the game to be fully premium and without in-app purchases (IAP), but Gamenauts suggested having some better-looking and stronger units for sale. After some careful crafting, we included premium units that would not cause game imbalance, but still had unique features. Firstly, we made sure the game is playable without any IAP content. I can say that the advantages of our IAPs mostly come from aesthetic side. For instance, the characters-to-buy are slightly more powerful, but still require training like common characters to make them really strong.
The sales of these units surprised us – they were actually quite good! Many players bought the items after finishing the game and left comments letting us know it was an act to support us. We were very grateful for that. It also encouraged us to continue producing premium games, even though the freemium model is believed to generate more revenue.
King’s League: Odyssey also did well in the App Store ranking of various countries, serving to be a huge motivation boost. The Android version has been released in May, but, since Google Play is favor to freemium games, the sales there are not as good as on Apple’s App Store. The game also won the “Best Mobile Game” prize at the Indie Prize contest at Casual Connect Asia 2014.
After the success of Pretentious Game, Bari Silvestre decided to create a new game from scratch, but instead finished a game accidentally, while playing with codes. He shares the story of the Rubpix project that became a part of the Game Slam at Casual Connect Asia 2014.
Ideas Come as the Developer Plays With Code
When creating games, I usually think of ideas based on some games I really enjoyed, write them down on paper, and do a mockup of what my version will look like. Sometimes though, games appear just destined to be created.
Splitman is one of these. I came up with it when playing with codes that can move two characters in a platformer at the same time. I noticed that, with the right timing and by utilizing the platforms in the game, I can get one of the characters on top of another just by jumping and moving. When two or more characters are on top of each other, they can reach higher platforms and, potentially, do a lot of stuff. Thus, Splitman was born.
Rubpix is another such example. I was creating a combination of a block puzzle and an RPG fighting game where in order to do action, you have to slide icons to create one big link, and then tap the linked blocks to unleash the effect. I was having a problem coding the final bit – when I thought I could make interesting patterns with the colored blocks. I’m not really a good programmer, and couldn’t make things work, such as create a perfect game field filled with random values which do not form any free match. I set this project aside and made some pixel art.
Stumbled With His Own Game
The first pattern I did was the flag of France, since it’s simple and only consists of 3 colors. I recreated it in 3×3 pixels, shuffled with an algorithm, and played it in my game of sliding blocks. I was dumbfounded. I never realized that a simple 3×3 puzzle can stump me for minutes. I was going in circles, sliding in and out blocks, and couldn’t solve it.
At first, I thought maybe there’s something wrong with my algorithm – the blocks are shuffled randomly, making it impossible to solve. Then my wife saw me working on the puzzle and solved it in seconds right in front of my eyes. She’s a really good puzzle solver.
That’s when I knew this was indeed a great puzzle game. I made a new pattern, a ninja, and solved it just by using a good strategy and observing how my wife did it. No more going round and round over a misplaced color. I learned to study patterns in puzzles and come up with strategies instead of brute-forcing a solution.
I am now convinced I have a good puzzle in hand, good code, algorithm that can make hundreds of levels, and a hook in the form of mini pixel art. Time to go researching.
Inspirations: David Stoll and Kotaku
I googled “pixel art ” and found the recognizable pattern of blue, white, and red character. It only used 4×4 pixel art, but was clearly Sonic the Hedgehog. I read more about it on Kotaku and knew I was on the right track.
The man behind the genius was David Stoll, and he has hundreds more to show. Seeing and recognizing easily characters like Blanka, Chewbacca, and many more, brought lots of good memories in me – how good I was with Street Fighter and beating players with obscure characters like Blanka…
This looked like the perfect combo: a puzzle game that doesn’t require too much of your brain, like a quiz game, but rewards you with amazing nostalgia.
In order to make the game feel right, I had to cater to both casual and hardcore gamers. So I made a few 3×3 levels, and some more of the interesting creations of David. For the hardcore player, I knew I needed to make 8×8 levels, that would possibly only be beaten by a few.
It was time to make everything perfect, and that means user experience should be focused on. I wanted to make a good impression by introducing the player to a new way of starting a game. The way you begin the game in Rubpix explains how to play the game further.
Swipe to play. That’s it! Players will notice that the shapes wrap to another side as they slide the circle with the words “Swipe to Play”. Then they will be greeted with a nice-sounding bell, and their eyes will be guided to a small pattern that flashes on top of the screen. Surprise! You have just recreated the pattern above in the big square in the middle.
People Swipe Too Fast
Swipe to play – it can sometimes be so hard for someone just jumping into the game! It turned out they can’t even get past the title screen. As I let my friends play the prototype in Wizards Wink and Mythic Moogle (local hobby stores where I play card and board games), I found out people swipe too fast! They can’t get the circle to the middle, and so they don’t match the pattern above. There’s nothing wrong with them, but it’s definitely a serious mistake from my side. I came home, edited how fast you can swipe to make the circle lock in its right place, and let the title screen be failproof.
Here’s an interesting thing about the title of the game. It comes from Rubik’s Cube, which is what most people say about the game: a one-sided Rubik’s Cube. The “pix” part is to pay homage to games like PathPix and others, where you make interesting mini art out of simple colors. When I posted about my game online, people pronounced its name as “Rab-Pix”. Like rubbing it in my face, such an ugly title for a profound game.
My 7-years-old daughter saved the situation while watching me testing the game. She said, you should try something like Mario in Nintendo 3DS, where, after you press “Start” the game says “LETS-SE-GOW!” (Let’s go!).
My 7-years-old daughter said – try something like Mario in Nintendo 3DS, where, after you press “Start” the game says “LETS-SE-GOW!” (Let’s go!).
This is the story of how a game was made, kinda accidentally, and how I worked on it with the help of friends, families and fellow developers. Rubpix was part of the Game Slam in Casual Connect Asia 2014, and it was a roaring success. The audience are literally roaring with laughter. That night, it was also nominated for Most Promising Game in the Indie Prize Asia 2014.
Rubpix is available on iOS and Android, and was featured in the AppStore under Best New Games worldwide. Bari says it is indeed a fairy tale with a happy ending.
In 2012, James Barnard from the Springloaded studio left the glittering world of AAA game production behind for a life of creative freedom and indie developer dreams. The first five games he made failed to gain any real market traction, so James was surviving on a part-time teaching job while coding almost every minute of the day and night. He shares the story of Tiny Dice Dungeon, the game that evolved Springloaded from just James Barnard and a laptop to a fully-fledged company with employees and a slightly cramped office.
One of the patterns you can see in game development is people getting bored and wanting to start something new. As a teacher, I always ask students to finish what they start, because completing a game is the hardest part, and what good are two unfinished games compared to a completed one?
Nevertheless, working on your own means you can ignore even the best advice, so I ignored my own and decided to take a break from my ambitious space game. Instead, I planned to spend a weekend building a small, fun thing to release as soon as it’s done. After two days, my idea of a dice-rolling dungeon crawler came to life as a bad-looking Mario-style character with a sword walking through one room after another fighting monsters. As I worked on the game, more and more ideas started to flow, and I realized that this quick recreational project probably deserved a little more time…
So I ended up with two games with something I thought was a lot of potential. I had to pick one to focus on. Having just started the RPG, and believing it only needed about five more weeks, I went on with this one. It’s amazing how with hindsight you can see how utterly wrong you can be about things.
It’s amazing how with hindsight you can see how utterly wrong you are about things.
Casual Connect Asia as a Totally New Experience: First Conference Ever Attended
Despite being in the games industry for 15 years, I had never attended a conference. I was always staying in the studio crunching on something or working to hit our next deadline. When Casual Connect Asia came round, I somehow ended up on an email thread asking for entries to the Indie Showcase. With a belief that my business wasn’t really going anywhere and was quickly devolving into a hobby, I understood I needed the help of a publisher, and this opportunity to meet some was too good to pass up.
I applied successfully, and was given a table in a room with 50 or so other developers. I rescheduled my classes and went along with several of my previous games, and my Tiny Dice Dungeon prototype to show to potential publishers. I had no idea what to expect, but was looking forward to finding it out.
Before the event, I arranged as many meetings as I could through LinkedIn and printed my first ever business cards (for a company that didn’t exist yet).
The conference was a world of opportunities, and I showed my game to every random person I met. I didn’t care about NDA’s or any kind of secrecy, I was just having a bunch of fun showing Tiny Dice Dungeon to people, and they seemed to be enthusiastic, offering plenty of feedback and making suggestions.
Without actually realizing it, I had designed a game that sat in line with certain demographics and trends that monetize and retain well. Therefore, Tiny Dice Dungeon happened to be interesting to publishers and even some investors. After a few discussions, I signed with Kongregate, who seemed to see things a lot like I do. I had to turn down some other offers, despite being tempted to sign two games. I stuck with just this one, which I think kept me from ending up dead.
An Official Company Created for the Sake of a Bank Account
I set up Springloaded as a company to have a bank account for something other than my name. And then I put my head down and started building the game for a September launch. Being a teacher helped me recruit a couple of people from the University: one person to do the networking and another one to help with balancing and art. My initial plan for the Tiny Dice Dungeon game was to use a few new features that weren’t there in my previous games, like very light network play through Gamecenter, and a Facebook “Like” button. But very soon, I realized that I needed to do a hell of a lot more in order to create a competitive product.
A Publisher is an Ally
Kongregate really helped me understand the freemium world better, and their input felt more like guidance and not forcing their will on me. It’s like we were both working together to build something. It’s totally opposite to my previous experiences, where the companies I worked for treated the publisher more as an enemy than an ally.
Therefore, I don’t see myself self-publishing on mobile again. The increased risk, lack of a second opinion, and inability to leverage a network of connections and options to help the game grow just make it impossible. Developers are always the first to mention Flappy Bird or some other self-publishing miracle story, but I feel like the chances of that happening again in the indie free-to play space are so minimal that you may as well call it impossible.
Interns: A Blessing and a Curse
As the project got bigger, our schedule became busier. The game I originally planned as a sole developer working alone wasn’t really going to cut it against the feature sets most players were probably expecting, and all the exciting ideas that would normally be called feature creep were somehow getting implemented with the belief that they would improve retention.
My team was expanded with interns from the university, which was both a blessing and a curse. Interns take a while to get up to speed, and just when they start being useful, they have to leave!
Testing the Markets
The science of metrics and refining your game through trusted data seems obvious, but I think without the push of our partners, I would have been lazy and just forced the game out early, killing our chances of maximising our impact at launch. That said, even with the analysis at work, we found our ARPU not high enough, and, due to adding all the fun new content, we had overrun our original global launch date by nearly six months. So, with the development money all gone, and the company running on fumes, we just had to release it.
All these careful adjustments had pushed the retention up and steered monetization in the right direction, but we hadn’t hit our targets. That’s why in the last moment before release, we agreed to add a couple of large new features. It was a calculated risk, but we all believed it was worth it. Stability wise, this step was dangerous, with us launching a new multiplayer mode just days before our global submission deadline. But the importance of drawing retention/ARPU up before the initial launch cannot be underestimated.
Eventually, we would be releasing Tiny Dice Dungeon globally some 13 months after starting, which is quite staggering for a game that was intended to take 48 hours to make.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
We made an original and fun free-to-play game that people seem to enjoy. Having a good grasp of all elements of development meant I could work pretty much uninhibited throughout the development of the game. As a passionate team all working together in a single space, we somehow developed the most relaxed and fun office atmosphere I’ve ever experienced, which made making the game pure joy (most of the time).
Hiring a full-time QA person (who is amazing at his job) really made the difference in the last month, because we were so busy adding features and fixing bugs that we simply didn’t have time to play the game.
Last but not least, we’ve achieved a great publisher-developer relationship that validated our decisions and helped us focus on what was best for the players.
There’s no project without the bad sides, and here they are: Tiny Dice Dungeon wasn’t originally intended to be this big, which meant we had to make some big design changes along the way, costing us some time. Integrating metrics and SDK’s too late created crash bugs that went out to the public in early builds. Not fully understanding what works in free-to-play from the very beginning is the reason why some design decisions were slower to nail down than they would be now.
Mind the Work-Life Balance
I did my best to protect the team from too many long hours, but my personal dedication to the project meant that I pushed myself as hard as possible, without much sleep and with no days off (including weekends) for almost a year. Because of the impending deadlines, I always promised myself it would only be for a short while more, but, as each deadline loomed, we decided we could make the game even better and did more and more changes. The result was an additional six months of development that left me very tired and laid waste to our finances.
The game was launched on iOS and Android globally in April 2014, and thanks to getting great features with Apple and Google has had nearly 2 million downloads already. While the game hasn’t been a raging success financially, it became very popular with the fans. Springloaded is now ready to do bigger and better things with their next title, and hope to continue working on Tiny Dice Dungeon for the foreseeable future, adding more content and new platforms.
Lucid Labs is a small indie team based in India, formed by a group of students right after participating in a 24-hour game jam and assuming they had made the best game in the competition. Because of the community feedback and praise from their trainers, they decided to complete the game and make it available to the global market to enjoy even more appraisals. This debut game is called Roto. Chirag Chopra, the founder of Lucid Labs, shares the story of the game about big balls.
Chirag Chopra also presented at Casual Connect Asia 2014:
An Announcement That Turned Students Into a Studio
Since we all come from a video game design college, news about various game jams come our way very often. One usual day, as we were about to go to the lectures, we saw a poster about the Global Game Development Student Competition on our notice board. We got excited: this was a 24-hour game jam on a weekend, so we could easily participate without missing any lectures or assignments. Also, it was a wonderful opportunity to hang out with global game-makers.
So, the team was formed of three members: game designer Pramod Nautiyal, programmer Sujeet Kumar, and myself as game designer and artist. I decided to name it Lucid Labs.
The rules of the game jam were simple: develop a small game/prototype on a given theme. After about three hours of brainstorming and rejecting ideas, we finally had a concept in mind. Priority was given to something casual that could be made, polished, and tested within 24 hours. And then the work began. Since the game had to be made really fast, we decided to use an engine which is easy to use, yet powerful. Sujeet suggested Construct 2, so we decided to enter the Browser category, because it was easy to make HTML5 browser games with that engine.
College Dorm: The Place for Instant Testing
One positive aspect of developing a game while living in the college dorm is that we could have some people come over to our room, make them play a specific portion of the game, and get instant feedback. This helped us make a good prototype, crafted on community feedback, and make sure we were creating something good.
Since our game was pretty simple and straightforward to play, I decided to keep it as minimalistic as possible in terms of art. I experimented with basic colors like grey and black (I love grey and black) and got good results. After hours of no sleep, playtests, and hard work, we had a good game in our hands. We decided to call it Black Sun. It wasn’t for any specific or racial reasons. It’s was just because the game had big black balls.
It was time to submit the game, get some sleep, and hope that we’ll win. The results were announced in about three months. Unfortunately, no one won in our category of Browser Game. Nevertheless, two games, including ours, won an Honorable Mention, and we received a $1000 cash prize. We were really happy and sad at the same time: disappointed that we didn’t enter the Top 3, but happy since no other game did either. On the other hand, we were glad that the jury appreciated our creation, and it was enough to motivate us to complete the game and release it.
Another advantage of studying in a video game design college: you are always surrounded by creative people.
After deciding to work on our game further and bring it to the global market, we knew we needed more members in the team. And here goes another advantage of studying in a video game design college: you are always surrounded by creative people. We needed one artist and one level designer, and I already had perfect candidates in mind: Ankush Madad (one of the best level designers in the college) and Rahul Narayanan
(one of the best artists in the college). They were the perfect addition to the team. After explaining to them the concept and our vision, they instantly agreed to work with us. Now, Lucid Labs had five members in total. Woohoo!
Going Mobile, as Suggested After the Game Jam
Production began instantly after we set up the team and made sure everyone was on the same path. One common feedback we got after the game jam was to port our game to touch mobile devices. We knew we had to do this, and it was easy, since our game had a very simple tap control scheme. But going mobile meant that we had to switch from Construct 2 to some powerful engine for mobile devices. Sujeet recommended Corona SDK due to its superb performance and usability. Our programmer was comfortable with Corona, since he has prior knowledge of Lua – the language used in the SDK.
Going mobile required switching Corona SDK to a mobile engine. Sujeet recommended Corona SDK due to its superb performance and usability.
The whole game code was re-written in Lua. In about a month, we had a small prototype ready for Android devices. Just in time for GDC 2013! We decided to take the game to GDC India to showcase and meet some publishers. Everything was planned and going smoothly, but, as we discovered later – not for long.
GDC 2013 – The Big Luck and a Disappointment in Publishers
We had attended GDC India previously in 2012, but this time, it was special. Now we had a game in hand and were looking for potential investors/publishers. Those two days were spent talking to numerous people and showing them the game. Surprisingly, we managed to grab the attention of a couple of publishers, who got interested in publishing the game and investing some money into it. That was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in all my life. A small team of students from India, who had no prior experience in the industry, managed to attract publishers for their first game! What else could we possibly ask for?
A small team of students from India, who had no prior experience in the industry, managed to attract Publishers for their first game! What else could we possibly ask for?
After coming back from one of the best GDCs ever, it was time to decide and choose the best publisher (in terms of deal offered). This was very hard. Eventually, we decided to go with one who was somewhat new in the scene, but offered a good deal. At least, that’s what we thought.
We started working on legal things and lots of other stuff. We also changed the overall theme and art of the game in order to please the publishers. But soon we decided it was a bad idea, and realized Roto plays best when accompanied by its original minimalist art style.
After about a month of negotiations with our preferred publisher, we decided to look for other opportunities as well. Maybe this was a bad idea, but it helped us get a broader view of how things work under a publisher. Call us immature or naïve, but we realized we were not meant to work with a publisher. Not because there were restrictions, we just didn’t like the idea of selling our own game to someone else.
Call us immature or naïve, but we realized we were not meant to work with a publisher.
We decided to drop the idea of getting our game published by other people and said a big NO to everyone. I’m sure they were really upset and angry with us, but at least we chose a path which WE wanted. We were even more excited about self-publishing.
“What the Hell is Black Sun?” Means Time for Changes
“What the hell is Black Sun?” This was the most common question people asked us when we told them about the game. The name sucked. It was obvious that we had to find a new one which could match the game and sound less racial. I have no idea how Sujeet came up with the name Roto, but we all liked it.
The development was in full production. Meanwhile, we were looking for events and awards to showcase our game and gain exposure. One such opportunity was the Indian Creative Tech Awards. We decided to give it a try and submitted the game. To our surprise, we got nominated for two categories – Excellence in Browser Gaming and Excellence in Mobile Gaming. The results are still due and we are quite positive in our expectations.
The name sucked. It was obvious that we had to find a new one which could match the game and sound less racial.
Thanks to our level designer Ankush, we created a lot of new levels for the game, making it even more viable for the global market. And Rahul helped us refine the art and make it even more polished and beautiful (yes, it is beautiful for us :P). Rahul also created a lot of visual feedback for every action in the game. This was something that the game lacked since its early prototype.
The Game Needs Sound!
All of a sudden, we realized we needed sound for the game – initially, it was completely silent! How could we publish the game without any sound? We didn’t think about this at all before. Fortunately, I have a friend who is studying sound design, and I thought he might be the best candidate for this job. I explained the game to him, as well as what kind of sound and music would suit it best. Samples started coming in. A lot of samples. But the team was somewhat not happy. Not because the sound guy was bad, mainly because his style of music didn’t match our vision of the game.
I started looking for another sound designer. A video game sound designer, to be precise. After looking almost everywhere on the social networks, I found The Perfect Guy.
The guy who had worked on games like Watch Dogs and The Crew, agreed to be our sound designer – Ash Read. Un-f*cking-believable! I still have no idea how I managed to convince him to work with our game. Ash’s music is one of the most important assets in Roto. Apart from being one of the most talented sound designers ever, he’s one of the best people I’ve known in life.
Finally, we’ve released our game on Android. iOS is now the priority and we might bring it to Windows – depending on the demand. Meanwhile, the team is preparing the next update to the game, with new level packs and, possibly, a new game mode. Right now, our dream game is still Roto and we want to make it big, not only in Asia, but all over the world. We don’t want to get rich or become millionaires. If we wanted that, we would have made this a paid game. We just want to create a fan base which loves the game and is always excited for future updates. We want to tell the world that people from India can create unique and fun experiences for the world. The proof of this is already coming our way: we’ve been featured on IGN and the biggest website in China.
Seadelphica follows the adventure of Jengu, a black dolphin connected to the global network called “Oversense”, as he searches for answers to his existence, love, and a way to save the consciousness web from the virus that has been embedded in it by Lil It, the sovereign of the largest settlement of their world. This game combines its gameplay with Tumblr for a connected experience. Anton Zoripov, the author of Seadelphica from Russia, shares the inspiration behind Seadelphica and their plans for the future.
Venting Through Games
It is said that everyone has his or her own talent, and you just need to work on it from childhood. For example, the only God’s spark I had was the ability to cause a feeling of hostility from other kids. Kindergarten and school were just a long and banal loser-story in Meg Griffin-style, with surrealistic pictures of Russian life in the 90s. To cut a long story short, I did not enjoy my school years. After a few crashing and humiliating attempts to socialize, I decided to bail education and just wait for the moment when it all will be over, and just enjoy life.
I was a typical hedonist – at big feast days, I got fake Adidas and Nikes, which was nearly sacred to me. I was inspired and ensorcelled by their shape and gracefulness, and was absolutely captivated by the mystique of logotypes’ attraction and self-expressive force. Swooshes and three lines – these symbols was magical for me. All day long, I was watching Terminator 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc., again and again.
Of course, I was also playing Dandy, followed by Super Nintendo. Games are such a vent! All my pictures, dreams, and thoughts were only about them. From a young age, I was just like a lil ugly emo, playing games all the time and realizing that real life sucks.
And all this ended quite despondently, of course. I finished school at 17 and had no direction. I didn’t even know basic things, and I couldn’t adapt to a new reality. That was quite a strange state of consciousness; I knew nothing and got some playing instincts – “to be courageous”, “to be cool”, to be attractive to the opposite sex, and of course, my love of games was a constant feeling. I spent two more years in a half-asleep state of inactivity, until I got my first computer and access to the internet.
Learning Through Livejournal
I found a free, unrestrained flow of knowledge, which I could absorb without any annoying initiation rites of submission and humiliation.
Then I discovered Livejournal, which became a special phenomenon in the development of the intellectual life of the former Soviet Union space in the first decade of the 21st century. Suddenly, everything changed. I found a free, unrestrained flow of knowledge, which I could absorb without any annoying initiation rites of submission and humiliation. Then, I just added different pages and read them all in a row. I liked everything – any opinions, any thoughts, any area of knowledge: politics, science, culture, and so on and so on. Whoever I am now – it’s all from the internet. My mind and my moral ideals were formed from an endless stream of Livejournal news.
Like any other normal ordinary artists, with the increase of years, I began thinking about how I could monetize my childhood and adolescence experience. When I was a boy, I wanted to create computer games – and only at the end of the third dozen did I finally decide to plunge into adulthood.
Seadelphica is the myth of the internet, which brings us to its origins. Internet is considered the mystical space of the soul. “Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live,” wrote John Perry Barlow in A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. The complicity to the Declaration was very important for me. It was also crucial to preserve sincerity of its main promises that are nodal points in the development of the plot. Seadelphica is the dream of a “civilization of Consciousness, which is more humane and fair” than the old world. “We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before,” wrote John Perry Barlow.
The black dolphin is a symbol of the new generation, living in the margins of the real world. The ocean is a cradle of the emergence of new forms of life. Young internet mutants whose DNA has mutated from the constant overdose of displays radiation became the new superheroes who replaced the obsolete superheroes of the past. Whereas Superman, having unlimited physical strength, tries to preserve the “eternal present” and guards the current order of Metropolis, the purpose of the black dolphin is to reprogram the Universe itself.
We did not want to pass that border, fearing to seem too serious. So we decided to get serious about irony and humor. After the first reactions to the game in the media and social networks, we could breathe easy, because the word “mindf@ck”, which has been used several times as an epithet, indicates that we are on the right path. Given my love of Robert Anton Wilson, it became our own «Operation Mindf@ck».
Genre and Story
The mechanics of the game are similar to old school games, and the story is divided into 24 chapters. To finish each chapter, you go through several runners or complete several free-play quests. In addition, there are eight bosses, each with its unique battle tactics. At first, we were not going to create a runner game. We had a storyline, so we were looking for the most appropriate genres in a bid to preserve unsteady balance between our narration and the gameplay. Eventually, we chose the genre of runner games – sort of kitsch in the industry of mobile games. It appeared to be the most applicable one, since it offered the desired balance.
Now it’s high time to talk about the main feature of our game – its integration with Tumblr, which is realized through free-play game tasks. It is supposed to bring the game up to a new level. The plot of the game is about a black dolphin who saves a social network of consciousnesses called “Oversense.” The dolphin is able to see echoes of people’s souls by looking at mystical and magnetic “Soul screens”. The concept is simple: these screens show pictures and photos from players’ blogs and their news feed, thus creating an endless flow of contemporary petroglyphs. Integration with Tumblr is our “perverse core” – our source of heresy and hesitation of different kinds. Considering the storyline, showing pictures and photos inside the game would be enough, but we decided to go further.
First of all, we had to choose which social network was best for our goals. Everyone forgot about Livejournal many years ago, so I decided to concentrate on Tumblr and VK. These two social networks are the best, but we had to choose one of them, and the answer was clear. VK has many advantages, such as liberty in the content’s distribution and some very interesting public groups. They could serve as separated spaces in the game. But it has a big minus – orientation especially on Russian audience. Recently, the creator of VK, Pavel Durov, was fired, and from that moment, Vk was not cool and special any more. All in all, Tumblr, I love you! You are perfect ❤
As I mentioned before, we want to implement something more than just simple demonstration of pictures from Tumblr inside the game. We decided to incorporate traditional Tumblr’s “Like”, “Reblog”, “Follow”, “Tagging”, and “Post Creation” functions into the gameplay. Being the developers, we see no differences between Tumblr and our imaginary “Oversense” social network. What would the “Like” function be for a man connected to a social network of consciousnesses? This function would be a way of communication with people’s souls and a tool for transferring positive energy, which you would be able to accumulate and use when required. The most important thing in life are “likes” (let us be forgiven by the chaste Internet-Desert Fathers). The “Follow” function would allow players to attract attention, make new friends inside “Oversense”, win their followers, and gain previously unachievable influence, which is required for progress of the storyline. The “Reblog” function would allow people to freely copy different stuff and information and easily access it. We also decided to create Tumblr profiles for all of the major and minor characters of the game. For instance, the bosses will run their own pages – post their thoughts, publish photos of themselves fighting against players. Each boss will have a certain number of followers, and after a player beats him, the boss and his followers will follow the winner, thus making the black dolphin more and more powerful.
By and large, we have described our concept of integration with Tumblr – the idea seems to be pretty clear. We have many ideas on how to integrate our game with Tumblr, and we are going to gradually implement them with each update, making the integration more deep, various, and interesting. Unfortunately, we cannot back up our dream of implementing everything at once with our capabilities. Step by step, we want to achieve a wide list of regular players, who would become our “born and bred citizens”, so the time they spent in Tumblr would be inseparable from the storyline. We dress ourselves in a black dolphin’s skin and look at our real life from within a social network. We look into the future of social networks, whose concept was described by Donna Haraway as “a network society without hierarchy and with no privacy bounds between the I and the world.” In the film Annie Hall, Woody Allen brilliantly expressed his experience in communication inside a network society of that sort: “I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me”. This is the implementation of the old New Age dream of the extension of consciousness. And this is why we feel saturated with New Age aesthetics mixed with some elements of ancient myths, science fiction, contemporary pop, and internet-culture. For example, the main hero’s name – Jengu – may be considered both as a reference to the name of the water spirit from the beliefs of Cameroonian ethnic groups, and as a reference to Django from the Django Unchained film.
A Bump in the Road
Now to the sad news. We invested our own funds into the game and a few months ago, we ran out. When it became clear that we were broke, we did not despair, because even then, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel and moved to “Plan B” – organizing a campaign on Kickstarter. The results were disappointing; there was no light at the end of the tunnel, but only the blazing eyes of the chimera. We suffered a resounding failure, but I can not say that failure greatly saddened us. Rather, in the cold winter evenings with a cup of coffee, it was a good excuse to sneer and laugh at ourselves (Thank God, we managed to do it before Russia banned irony! Now we are trying to get the game done before it bans the internet). But actually, I have to say a huge thank you to all the guys who are involved in this project for their patience, love, and non-indifference to the black dolphin.
We are looking for funds, and we continue to work together, because we sincerely believe in miracles and that in any case, we can handle all the complexities. Our team members are spread across different countries – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, USA – but our true homeland is the internet. And if our team relationships are not affected even by political squabbles between our countries, the possibility of conflict over money is completely eliminated. Paraphrasing Groucho Marx: “We started from scratch and by hard work, we have reached a state of extreme poverty.”
A Personal Project
You might have noticed that I did not pay much attention to the development process of the game and the details of our workflow; I did not treat the game as a commercial product and did not consider its economic potential. Forgive me, but these things seem boooooring, though this does not mean that we pay no attention to them at all. Certainly, we dream of putting our game on the market, earning money, creating the game’s sequel, and starting new projects. Instead, I wrote about personal things. Probably too many personal things. I have just noticed how disproportionately big the part I devoted to my childhood was – the more a man talks about his childhood, the older he is. Well, this is excusable. Such a stupid adult life! Each member of our team spends time on the game for a variety of personal reasons, but all of us are like-minded. Ultimately, we proceed from the assumption that “life sucks,” and we have nothing else but to improve it ourselves.
Let’s get back to those inspiring words from the Declaration one more time: “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth”.
Since the writing of this article, the Seadelphica team has found additional funding to continue the game. To learn more about Seadelphica and its progress, follow the team on Twitter, Facebook, and listen to the game’s music on Soundcloud.
Video game industry veteran, Nick Thomas, and CEO/Co-Founder of SomaTone, Inc., has been through 10years of creative kick-off meetings, both productive and unproductive. In this month’s Game Audio Artistry column, Nick highlights 10 tips to make the most out of your creative meetings.
One of the most daunting stages in the collaborative process relates to how and where to start with the creative and logistical partnership with a game developer or publisher.
Approaching a new game or, even more so, jumping in on a live product, can sometimes be an overwhelming experience. We have participated in more than a few meetings with game developers, producers, game designers, programmers, and creative directors wherein time was spent in discussions, but at the end of the call, we are no closer to understanding what is needed, or what the vision for the game is. This phenomenon birthed an approach for us that works well for all stakeholders in the project.
Developing a Process
Over the years, we have developed a tried-and-true process in which we lead these creative meetings and drive the conversation forward to a successful launching point for the collaboration— rather then squandering that key opportunity to drill down and get to the core of what is needed. We seize the moment at the outset to ask the key questions, explore the possibilities, and develop ideas that will help us realize the vision.
To this end, here is the SomaTone process for leading a creative kick-off meeting, along with key questions and discussion points that are often forgotten, but should be standard in nearly any creative partnership. These suggestions are outside of the obvious discussions on the scope, technical requirements, and timeline for the partnership, which are (of course) necessary details, but they do little to define the goals for the game or the vision of the game designers and producers.
Creative Kick-Off Playbook
1. No Surprises: It is amazing how rarely meeting agendas or creative summaries are provided from our clients prior to a meeting. So our standard practice is to take the time internally before the kick-off and create a list of all the key questions that need to be addressed in the meeting (many of which I will share with you below). Simply laying these key discussion points out in a format that is easy to edit or notate is a very helpful exercise, and provides structure and clarity to a meeting which can otherwise often feel loose and sloppy. Better yet, send these questions to the meeting partners in advance so they can prepare answers prior to meeting, and not be caught off guard and left thinking on their feet.
Getting inside the developer’s head and establishing the baseline for a collaboration are key to a successful outcome.
2. Creative Mind-Meld: The kick-off meeting is the best opportunity for a creative mind-meld. Getting inside the developer’s head and establishing the baseline for a collaboration are key to a successful outcome. Having access to and reviewing the GDD, concept art, or, best yet, prototype of the game build itself are highly important to clearly understand the vision of a game. Ask for these materials before the meeting, not after, so all questions can be understood inside a clear picture of where the project is heading, not on guess work and assumptions.
3. Use Existing Samples in Your Discussions and Don’t Forget the Love-Child: Looking to existing games, mechanics, art, animations, and musical scores is a great way to help frame a creative discussion. This is often confused as a process of cloning, which is quite different. It is amazing how often Candy Crush is referenced in a creative meeting (or Hay Day or other hit mobile games). However, 9 times out of 10, these titles are not referenced in an attempt to replicate the creative style, but rather to point to other aspects of the game, such as the mechanics or production values. To say I like ___ aspect of Candy Crush really helps communicate the vision without asking for the aspect of said game to be copied. Another tried-and-true method is the love-child analogy. “I’m looking for Clash of Clans meets World of Tanks” is a very helpful way to communicate the game style, mechanics, and production values, and gives us a very clear idea of where the project is headed.
4. Get the Vision: Who is the visionary of the project, or do they have a “vision” for the gestalt of the game? Often times, we find this is a role that developers are looking to outsource, while their primary concern is on the mechanics and technical execution of the game design. The exact look, feel, or sound of the game is generally a 50/50 split between the internal game producers and designers knowing what they want, or asking for outside assistance and leadership in helping to define the vision. Either way can lead to a successful outcome, but it is best to specifically address this early in the process so if a vision is not being provided, we can create one.
5. Know your Audience: Who is the audience? Sooner or later, all game developers learn that making music/SFX/art for an ultra-wide demographic means you make no one very happy. While it is tempting to say I want 5-80 year-olds to like my game, the reality is that this strategy is rarely successful, and if so, it’s often by mistake rather then by design. So, defining the demographic you are appealing to is key to the approach taken. A Pokémon-style card game is quite different from a slot machine in its demographics, and the creative conversation should leverage that key point, not hide from it.
6. Identify the Game’s “Wow” Moments: What are the key moments of the game? Game design and audio/visual supporting elements often have wow moments, or payoffs for the player at key times within the game play. These can be moments such as level up or quest complete, or are used to support other Free-to-Play elements to encourage the player to pay for features. These key moments are great to identify, so they can be given special attention and help brand the game. Internally, we call these “signature sounds”, which are the key branded SFX in a game that help brand the experience.
7. Factor in Time Expectations: What is the time play-length expectation? Is the game designed to support long play sessions, such as an RTS, or are they usually short and dynamic play sessions, such as Casino? Again, understanding the tempo of the game helps define how to support the game play sessions with impactful or more subtle audio. Long sessions, for example, call for more ambient, less thematic music that is not intrusive, with subtle sound design. Short game play sessions, such as in casino games, tend to really pop.
Assuming this is the case, creating a plan for ongoing support is a good idea to discuss so all parties know how best to support the game post-launch.
8. Think Ahead: What is the plan for new content support? Setting up a pipeline for new content is helpful to discuss up front, while still in the pre-launch production mode. Many game designers have not thought much beyond just hitting a code lock version of their games and successfully launching on the app store. An important comment I have heard many times is: “releasing a game is the easy part, growing your audience and supporting the live product is the real challenge.” Assuming this is the case, creating a plan for ongoing support is a good idea to discuss so all parties know how best to support the game post-launch.
9. Identify the Lead: Who is the ____ Lead, (in our case audio lead)? In AAA/Console gaming, there is almost always an internal lead who is tasked with managing the creative pipeline for whatever is required, such as audio. However, in many small studios, and even in larger mobile publishers, there is often no dedicated person assigned to the audio, or even the art. Many mobile producers wear many hats and as such, they are responsible for overseeing a variety of the creative aspects of the game.
10. Find the Fun: What makes this game fun? That is a tough question to ask flat out— it’s almost like asking on a first date why you should spend your time with someone— but ultimately, that’s what we are all trying to figure out. If you can navigate that key question, and help the game developer identify what is inherently “fun” about their game, that can often be the building block for the vision of the entire collaboration.
Admittedly, this is not such an easy task. As a self-professed Candy Crusher, I have a very hard time communicating exactly why that game is, in fact, so much fun.
However, when I stop and think about it, I realize that the fun is not just the matching of items (after all, there are hundreds of games that do that); the fun has to do with the overall creative experience of the game, with its delightful glossy candies, trippy dreamlike music, and the saga aspect of the game, which compels my curiosity to need to know what is behind curtain #348.
Exploring these fundamental questions and ideas at the beginning of the collaborative journey assures that the process will lead to the best possible outcomes and rewards for all.
Look forward to next month’s installment, when Game Audio Artistry will share lessons learned from an indie collaboration.
Meanwhile In A Parallel Universe started late in May 2013, when I had my summer holidays at university and nothing much to do at hand. I found out that Yoyogames (the creators of GM:Studio) was hosting a competition for developers to create a game for the Windows Store, with pretty awesome cash prizes. It was worth a shot, and also looked like a good chance to expand our portfolios. So I called Pranjal, who I had worked with on a few game jams before, and, since he was free for the summer as well, we decided to go for it. I also got in contact with Rahul, who, although busy with his internship, said he’d help us with background art.
Castle Defense for the Zombies Against People
In the beginning, we didn’t have any fixed idea of what we were going to create. But the goal was clear: make something that stands out somehow. After a lot of brainstorming, we chose a pretty rare genre to build stuff on – castle defense.
Zombie invasion seemed like a very cliche topic, and we decided to build our game based on just that – except reversing the roles of zombies and humans this time. I wasn’t aware of any existing games like this, so we thought it was a pretty decent idea to enter a competition with.
Since it’s hard to have a game which would give direct control over the protagonist character on touch devices, (and we really wanted to avoid virtual DPads), we chose not to let users control the battlefield at all (the initial idea was based on Caveman Craig, where, in addition to managing resources, you had to control one main character). Instead, the player’s duties are to maintain the conditions of the battlefield – gather resources, build the armies of the type they want, and use the defense that suits them.
How to Test a Mobile Game Without the Necessary Device
Our biggest challenge about controls was giving the player a full view of what was happening on the battlefield while offering a load of options: building/upgrading/creating etc. The only proper way looked like having the GUI buttons on a transparent surface, which we eventually ended up with. We didn’t have the correct device to test the game on, as none of us had a Windows smartphone. So we performed it on our laptops (with a mouse) and hoped that the ported game would work on touch devices.
Touch-specific controls like swiping haven’t been used in the game for the same reason – because they’re hard to test with a mouse. Instead, there’s tapping for everything, which was sure to work on Windows mobile devices.
We had around 15 days to playtest, balance, and create all the levels for our competition game. At this point, I asked my friend Anirban Gorai to help with the level design, since Rahul and Pranjal were busy finalizing the menu. This was obviously very little time to get all balancing right, so there were in-game strategies which, in the end, which worked much better than the others. For example, using ranged attackers with a few basic melee units to protect them, and also as a bait, was a pretty foolproof plan for any level.
A Game That Isn’t Completely Ready Can Become a Competition Winner
Meanwhile, our summer holidays were over, and we had even less time to work on the game. Nevertheless, we somehow managed to submit the game in time, albeit with a lot of rough edges: only six levels with a lot of new things crammed into each, and the player couldn’t get properly used to those.
Infinite Mode didn’t (and still doesn’t) have a proper scoring system – it just counts score on the basis of maximum number of waves survived. The UI had a lot of blank spaces since we didn’t get time to implement all the features we planned during that time. As for now, they have been redone. It was a free game in the Windows Store, and we had absolutely no plans to expand it further or to monetize it in any way.
Going the Tizen way
We got 2nd place in the competition, winning a cash prize of $5000. This changed many things for us – including the game’s future. Now our team had the money to invest in the full version of the software (which would mean we could port to other platforms), and that’s what we did. Shortly after, The Tizen Project announced its App Challenge, and we decided to join with the newly acquired opportunity of Tizen export. The game was updated with new content – more levels, enemies, zombies, and buildings. We balanced it up more and submitted for the challenge, as well the Tizen Game Drive – another competition hosted by Yoyogames. To our surprise, we received an honorable mention in the App Challenge, as well as 3rd place in the Game Drive – which gave us a lot of momentum to continue as a team.
One huge difficulty for the team was that none of us had actually met the others in person at that time. Collaborating online is rather hard when you can’t even Skype due to low internet speed. That aside, we didn’t pay much attention to memory management and handling different resolutions, since we didn’t originally have any plans for the game aside from making it for Windows. And this is something that we heavily regret now. Huge texture pages mean the game can’t run on low-end devices, and, since we made the GUI for a 16:9 resolution specifically without proper planning, we currently have to alter it in some places to make it handle different aspect ratios.
Another issue was that our friend who made all the soundtracks for my previous projects couldn’t find time for this one. So we had to search for a composer halfway through development, and were eventually lucky to meet James (of Refinery Audio) to fill that role.
Developing specifically for Tizen, though, had only one major problem – again, we didn’t have any mobile device to test on initially. So there were a lot of assumptions involved. Just like in the original competition, we only believed that stuff would work on the device.
The Zombies Indie House team is currently working on an Android port of the game which is still in beta stage, and have already planned iOS versions – but still without any monetization. While doing their best to complete all this as soon as possible, they also have another yet unnamed infinite-action game for mobile devices in the works. This one is to be monetized: the young developers want to see how far they can go with a well-planned project being made with no rush.
Involved in the entertainment industry since 1993, DFC Intelligence researches the digital entertainment markets and provides an analysis of issues and trends in many different parts of the world. They also provide data and consulting services to many companies in the global digital entertainment business. They share some of their thoughts and findings on their recent brief on Candy Crush Saga and mobile games.
On May 7, King announced results for the first quarter of 2014. These results were quite strong, even if investors may not have been ecstatic. With Candy Crush Saga, King has shown that casual games can not only generate huge amounts of revenue, but also that they can have long legs, which is clearly the holy grail of the game industry.
Earlier this month, DFC Intelligence published a brief entitled “Candy Crush Saga and What it Means for Mobile Games“. That brief took a detailed look at Candy Crush Saga and how King built it into a mega-hit, including an overview of how King’s extensive knowledge of casual games and experience with delivering social games set them in a position to have one of the biggest success stories in game industry history.
This article looks specifically at how Candy Crush Saga and King performed in the first quarter of 2014. The focus is on mobile revenue and usage, where King has seen the most rapid growth. We have done our best to let the numbers speak for themselves, but as an editorial comment, we note that Candy Crush Saga has had very long legs, even if it does show signs of slowing.
Candy Crush Saga Numbers
For the first quarter of 2014, Candy Crush Saga had gross bookings of $430 million, which was down about 13 percent from the fourth quarter of 2014, where gross bookings were $493 million. Investors clearly don’t like to see declines, but these numbers remain staggering for a casual game that is two years old. Overall, it is a great sign for the casual game industry. It shows that when a company has a hit, they can have a nice period of time to deliver a second act.
Going forward, the Candy Crush Saga numbers look very positive for any sequels and spin-offs King may look to release. There is also potential upside as Candy Crush Saga has now gone into China via a partnership with Tencent. Of course, very few, if any, casual games will be the next Candy Crush Saga. Nevertheless, there are many lessons that can be learned from King. At the very least, it is a clear message that successful casual games have greater distribution and revenue potential than ever, and most importantly, they can generate revenue for quite a long time.
Candy Crush Saga Monthly Mobile Downloads 2013-2014
Candy Crush Saga is an interesting case, because it built an active user base over time, even though a large portion of downloads were in the first part of the year. According to Priori Data, Candy Crush Saga was downloaded 268 million times during 2013. Nearly 60 percent of those downloads occurred in the first half of the year. However, it is clear that downloads have leveled off versus plummeting, which is good news for a game that wants to have longevity
Candy Crush Saga Monthly Active Mobile Users 2013-2014
The Monthly Active User (MAU) base for Candy Crush Saga remained remarkably steady from June 2013 onward, even as downloads started to decline significantly. What this means is that users continued to play the game and there were probably even a great deal of lapsed users that came back.
Candy Crush Saga Monthly Mobile User Churn 2013-2014
Mobile User Churn is a measurement of how many users were lost month over month. The lower the number, the better. It is clear that after starting with a high churn, Candy Crush Saga had low churn while adding users. DFC attributes this to the social network snowball effect that helped keep users engaged.
King Revenue by Platform: 2012-2014
In the first quarter of 2014, gross bookings for King were fairly flat versus the previous quarter. Bookings on mobile were up, while web/Facebook bookings were down slightly. Candy Crush Saga revenue was down 13 percent, but it was replaced by growth in Farm Heroes Saga.
King Monthly Active Users and Monthly Unique Users: 2012-2013
Monthly Active Users (MAU) is the number of people that played a specific game within a given month. With MAU, there will be double counting of users that play multiple games. Monthly Unique Users (MUU) is the number of people that played any game within a given month. This eliminates the double counting. Because Candy Crush Saga was the dominate game for King, MUU was incredibly high.
King DAU by Game
King Monthly Unique Payers: 2012-2013
Monthly Unique Payers (MUP) is the number of people that purchased an item from one of King’s games in a given month. Clearly the number of MUP is on a downward trend, but it remains very high.
In order to receive a complimentary copy of the brief “Candy Crush Saga and What it Means for Mobile Games” from DFC Intelligence, click here.