In this interview, yellowHEAD’s Marina Sapunova speaks with Javier Castro, Head of EMEA Apps Gaming Sales, to find out about the person behind the title, what interests him in life besides work and what brought him to Casual Connect in Kyiv.
Marina: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Javi. Could you kick things off by sharing with our audience what company you work for and your title?
Javier: For the last 5 years, I’ve been working at Google. I started working at the Google Cloud team and then I moved to the Google apps business. Currently, I am managing a team of colleagues who are working with gaming companies across EMEA, so pretty much working with most of our top gaming companies.
By Marina Sapunova, Marketing Content Manager, yellowHEAD
At Casual Connect Kyiv last month, yellowHEAD hosted an insightful panel titled “Accelerating Your Game Growth into 2020 with Key UA Techniques”. The participants were Javier Castro of Google, Jan Chichlowski of Vivid Games, and Alex Keselman of AppsFlyer.
During the panel, they discussed the future of user acquisition, the impact of app store optimization, the growing role of creatives, and the major changes that happened this year which will influence UA strategy in the future. They also touched on the constant challenge of rising CPIs and shared strategical approaches on how to overcome it and get set for growth moving forward into 2020.
The role of AI and machine-learning technologies with predictive algorithms were particularly in the spotlight of the conversation. A lot of insider information was shared by Google regarding Universal App Campaigns, how to adapt to the shift of all mobile app install campaigns coming together under one umbrella, and what to expect from this change.
It was a unique opportunity for the audience to get a 360° view of the industry and learn from the experts on how to overcome the current UA challenges, while seeking innovative ways to fuel app growth going into the near future.
Sergio Salvador, the head of games partnerships at Google, developed an interest in video games at an early age. He was 12 years old when he received his first computer, a Sinclair Spectrum 48k (a popular choice in Europe at the time). He was expected to learn to code on it, but quickly discovered he enjoyed the end product much more. So he spent many hours playing games like Elite, Manic Miner, Skool Daze, Gauntlet, Way of the Exploding First, Fury of the Furries, and Atic Atac.
Salvador’s career has also focused on the end product, as he has served as business development, product marketing, product management, and general management. Most of his career has been spent with Electronic Arts spanning several countries, including Spain, UK, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
A Life of Games
While studying for his PhD, he made his first entry into the serious side of games with an online games magazine he founded with a friend. The magazine had reviews and editorial content and was a great success, becoming the most popular games magazine in Spanish in the world.
One particularly rewarding experience in his career was the international launch of Battlefield 2 while he was based in London. He decided to do something rare for EA at the time: launch a special edition of the game with a great box and memorabilia inside. It became incredibly popular, and the game did well overall. He still owns one of these special editions in an unopened box.
The games industry when he started out was quite different from today. One of his first roles with EA was in the online division in Europe, working on the launch of the online games services, known as EA.com at the time, a very early predecessor to the Origin service. The launch of the service was difficult at the beginning; it came just after the dot.com bubble burst. He emphasizes that it was hard going at first, with uncertainty and diminishing support both internally and externally, but eventually, as the online industry overall began to recover, the service started getting off the ground.
Focus on the People
Salvador’s career has always focused on the business side of the games industry, and he finds the skills necessary for success are interchangeable with those needed in other industries. One of the skills he feels is critical to develop is a laser focus on the user, whether external, or, less commonly, internal. He insists, “Identifying a problem or need a user has, and doing everything in your power to find a solution for it, almost always results in a positive outcome.”
Unfortunately, Salvador has noticed it is common under certain company and industry conditions to feel pressure to focus on driving revenue. He asserts, “This is anathema to a great partnership. Focusing on the partners’ needs and working to help them find a solution is the right premise to any partnerships-focused work. Solving the problem a partner has will routinely end up being beneficial to both partners, with revenue being a common desirable side effect.”
Leave Room For Fun
These days, he is spending quite a lot of his time in China and Japan meeting partners and presenting at conferences. Working globally requires flexibility and long days; early morning is a good time to connect with the team in North America, work with Europe starts at about 3:00 PM, Singapore time, and in between, he is involved with the Asia-focused work, reviewing the status of different discussions or working on overall strategy for different partners.
Salvador believes it is essential to take time away from work; he normally does this on weekends. Usually he devotes this time to his family, but when he is not with them, he is training for marathons, playing tennis, attending yoga classes or learning to play the electric guitar. He also lectures on digital marketing one evening a week at a local polytechnic, claiming this change of pace feels like free time, and is on the boards of a local NGO and a global games conference.
Tips for the Next Gen
To people starting out in the games industry, Salvador recommends focusing on the future with mobile, mobile, mobile! He recognizes that the online games industry is large in Asia and consoles are a big part of the industry in Western countries. But he insists, “The future is in mobile, and that doesn’t mean only smartphones.” He recommends, “Settle on an idea you are passionate about and start experimenting with it on phones, tablets, wearables, and virtual reality platforms.”
Passion is the attribute he feels is most important for the next generation of games professionals. “Games are a form of art, possibly the most interactive and entertaining form of art,” he insists, “Players are almost always passionate about games they play and games they love if they can feel the passion that went into making them, whether they are hardcore or casual gamers.” So professionals should be passionate about the work they are doing, whether that work is directly designing and creating the games or is the business side of the games industry. It all contributes to great gaming experiences.
Defining the Market
Saturation and business models are always important concerns when he is working with partners. To some extent, he says this is an Asia-focused view of the world, particularly China, where games markets are reaching the point that makes long-term business unsustainable for small companies. Business models are now gravitating to micro-transactions and in-app purchases, models which are essentially the same for different platforms. Today, with the number of games available in online and mobile, only the top developers are making any real money, while the majority of companies only generate enough revenue to continue plodding along, but are limited in how much they can innovate. Salvador recognizes that this will be damaging to the industry long term until a painful market correction happens.
He believes that mobile platforms will continue to define the market in the foreseeable future, with new platforms bringing both challenges and opportunities. This evolution of the games industry will allow games to be more portable, possibly more customizable, and will make them significantly more mass market. He points out that there are great experiments going on now, such as Google’s augmented reality game, Ingress. Salvador says, “The team will be working this year with a select group of developers to build games using geographic data from the game, with a full API expected to release to the public in 2015.”
As a gamer, Salvador is excited about virtual reality technologies, claiming we now have the right talent and the right computing power in small formats. He believes, “Both Morpheus and Oculus seem to be inspiring developers, and whether they deliver what they promise or not, inspiration always leads to creativity and new ideas being generated. That can only be good.”
Sergio Salvador will explore solutions for the challenges facing developers who can’t live on in-app purchases alone during Casual Connect Asia 2014. More on his session can be found on the conference website.
This year was a sweet homecoming for Casual Connect Europe as it returned to the city where it all started: Amsterdam. It may have started with only a few hundred attendees back in 2006, but this time, about 2000 game industry professionals gathered in the beautiful Beurs van Berlage for three days to create new connections and learn more about the industry’s current trends. Over 120 lectures were presented by international speakers from companies such as Wooga, Youtube, Facebook, Google, and GamePoint. Lectures included information useful for the current game market, such as Godus creator Peter Molyneux‘s session on design re-invention, new technology, and mobile development.
Casual Connect isn’t just about the handy lectures, but also the professional relationships that are built through meeting and sharing with close to 1000 other companies in attendance. Whether during the day at the show or the sponsored parties at night, there is always the opportunity to reach out and help foster the growth of the game industry community. This was true not only for the seasoned veterans, but new developers as well. Over 100 indie developers displayed their work at the Indie Prize Showcase held at Casual Connect Europe. In addition, 13 teams won various awards, from Most Innovative Game to Best in Show. The winners can be viewed on the Indie Prize website.
Looking forward to returning to Amsterdam next year, Casual Connect is currently focusing on the preparations for Casual Connect Asia, held in Singapore May 20 – 22, 2014. Check out the conference website if you are interested in more information: http://asia.casualconnect.org/
If you were not able to make it to Casual Connect Europe (or if you want to relive fond memories), videos of the presentation are available for free on Gamesauce and the conference website.
While participating in a panel discussion at Casual Connect Kyiv 2013, David An says, “We are seeing casual games being mingled with hardcore elements, so there seems to be no limit to the genre of games which can go free-to-play.”
David An describes himself as Kimchi-eating. For those of us unfamiliar with this delicacy, Kimchi is fermented cabbage with garlic and hot pepper, and is a daily part of every Korean’s diet. He is also involved with Kendo in his free time and enjoys classical jazz music, as well as the music of Mozart and Bach’s partitas and sonatas.
An is Director of Mobile Games at ProSiebenSat1. His responsibility is to build their mobile games publishing business. He has always been entrepreneurial, either with his own startups or as an entrepreneur, and sees this as the leadership profile that is needed today, incorporating execution-incorporation, low fear of failure and seeking for pragmatic and quick solutions.
At Casual Connect Kyiv, An announced the release of Heroes War, a mobile action RPG developed by Com2Us, one of the top Korean game developers. ProSiebenSat1 will be publishing it in all the major European territories.
The Project of His Life
An’s career goal is to steadily improve and become a better entrepreneur and leader each day. The most challenging time of his career occurred when his first startup failed. The business received huge national PR, but never monetized. He learned a great deal from the experience including the importance of business-model thinking as well as attempting to see products in a holistic fashion. He also emphasizes, “There should not be, and never is, ‘The Project of My Life.’ In the end, it’s just a company.”
He also expects Google’s domination of all aspects of digital business to occupy all our minds for years to come.
Open Ecosystems Rule
He has noticed several directions in the games industry that he believes will continue through the next few years. From the time he saw the first Android prototype, he expected it to take over because of the openness of its ecosystem, creating massive network effects. He also expects Google’s domination of all aspects of digital business to occupy all our minds for years to come. On the dark side, he notes that as more transactions are entrusted to mobile devices, users will become subject to more and more cyber attacks.
Critical Force Entertainment Ltd is a new game development studio founded in Kajaani, Finland. The studio created Critical Missions: SWAT, a first-person shooter available for iOS, Andriod (released under Studio OnMars) and playable on Kongregate. The company focuses on developing premium and free-to-play crossplatform games with a special focus on the Asian market. So far, the company is self-funded, but investors are welcome.
Veli-Pekka Piirainen is CEO and founder of Critical Force Entertainment Ltd. He is a former studio manager of Supercell North as well as a lecturer and head of Kajak Game Development Lab. Piirainen is also co-founder of NMP Games Ltd.
A student’s hobby project
In December 2011, I hired Igor Levochkin – one of the students at a school I taught at – as a programmer in my new startup company after following his work for the past two years. Igor and I would make games for the Apple AppStore, and we started making a prototype of a game called BomberBall. At the same time, Igor put his hobby game project in Kongregate. Early January 2012, Igor showed me that there were hundreds of players playing his hobby project game, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. I just thought it could be a good marketing channel for our iOS game.
However, at the end of January 2012, there were a couple of thousand players playing it and I started to get more interested in it. I gave Igor a Sony Xperia Play phone and told him to port the game to that device. Igor managed to have it up and running in a matter of days. Next, I told Igor to port the game to iOS; this was bit more difficult since he was not familiar with Mac and Xcode. After a week, the game was also running on iOS. Now I really started to see some potential in the game. Despite all this work on Igor’s project, we also continued to develop BomberBall because I wanted to have a good prototype for the GDC in San Francisco. I demonstrated both prototypes at the GDC and Igor’s project, Critical Strike Portable, gained more interest from the public. After that trip, we decided to concentrate fully on Critical Strike Portable.
Keeping up with high popularity
Igor started fulltime development on Critical Strike Portable by adding new weapons and features. I still worked part time at the university and couldn’t fully concentrate on the game development. I trusted Igor and also a team of Russian volunteers, who supported us in the growth of the user community as well as map creation. Another important task was to make a proper and more user friendly User Interface (UI) for the game. Unfortunately, Unity 3D’s tools for this job were pretty limited and we didn’t have any artist or UI specialist in our team to design a nice, good-looking and functional UI. So Igor made a “coder-style” UI with many different settings and options inspired by Counter Strike style menus. That UI was easy to use with a mouse, but for mobile phones with touch screens, we needed a different kind of UI.
Because I was inexperienced in game marketing, I hired Teemu Riikonen in April 2012 to lead the studio as well as take care of publishing and marketing of the game. Our next employee was Thanabodi Thongchat, a 2D artist from Thailand. She started designing backgrounds and UI graphics for the game in June 2012. Igor implemented more and more features to the game like new game modes, zombies, graphical effects, as well as fixing bugs. We released new versions on Kongregate weekly and got feedback from players on how to improve the game. At the end of June 2012, we had nearly 30,000 daily average users playing the web version of our game, but we were still growing.
We got over 1 million downloads in one month.
On June 26th, we released a free Android version of our game with exactly the same UI and almost the same features as the web version. Even though it was not so easy to use and the menu elements were pretty small on a phone screen, its popularity surprised us. We got over 1 million downloads in one month.
But the problem was that many players didn’t continue the game after their first try. Only hardcore players did so. We decided to create a totally different and simpler UI for mobile devices, because the current quality was not good enough for Apple’s AppStore to sell it as a premium game.
At the end of August 2012, two game development students, Olli Lahtinen and Aapo Lehikoinen, started their internship in my company. They started to build a totally new UI, added new controls for the iOS version of the game with a new NGUI toolkit we bought from the Unity Asset Store and started to design new maps for the game with Hammer editor. We also needed new character models, guns and animations for the iOS version. Modeling and animations were outsourced to freelancers in Thailand and our Thai artist was leading that work. Unfortunately, the quality was poor and delivery was very late. After that, all animations were outsourced to two Finnish startup game studios and for the modeling of guns, I hired another student.
Unfortunately, we had to remake all maps done with the Hammer editor (16 total), because our lawyer said we probably weren’t allowed to use that tool, since it’s licensing agreement is not clear enough. Our lawyer also recommended us to change the name of the game from Critical Strike Portable to something else, because that name reminds too much of Valve’s Counter Strike (Critical Missions: SWAT was born then). Our original plan was to release the iOS version in the end of September, but it was released in the end of November due to these difficulties. A new Android version was released just before Christmas, a Lite version in the beginning of January 2013 and the Mac version is in the review process as of this writing.
The iOS market is very competitive
At the end of the year, the amount of our players had increased dramatically. We had almost 200,000 daily players on the web and over 100,000 daily players on mobile devices, but all were playing our free versions. Monetizing with premium version seemed to be much more difficult than we thought it would be. The iOS market is very competitive and full of games, so getting visibility is very hard. We also had bad luck with a very important review, because the reviewer didn’t like our controls at all (many other not so significant reviewers did like them, however). Because of this, we didn’t start to get income fast but our server costs rose dramatically due to the massive amount of users. We also had some trouble with one specific server provider, who just calmly cut off the lines to our map server without any warning due to dramatically risen network traffic.
Our biggest mistake was to save money in wrong places and get low quality from our international freelancers. We trusted our own artist’s capabilities to handle leading of the outsourcing, but she was too inexperienced for that. Of course, rates a quarter of the price compared to local studios were very attractive, but then the harsh reality revealed we had to do everything over again after that miserable trial period. It would have been wiser to use more professional outsourcing studios in the very beginning.
Our second mistake was not to solely focus on Critical Strike in the very beginning, but to also make the BomberBall prototype. Something else I would change was not to have a tighter management; everything went forward more or less without proper planning and scheduling. A fourth mistake was not to take a professional publisher to publish the premium iOS version. We thought it would be easy to self publish, because we had such great success with the free Android version, but we were wrong. A last mistake was not to pay enough attention to the server capacity, but that was more or less because of our inexperience with servers and also our idea to save money.
The team is currently working on a new game, called Critical Missions: Space. It has the same nostalgic fast paced FPS gaming experience as Critical Missions: SWAT, with the addition of space rangers, space pirates, laser guns, aliens, space themed maps and more.
Next to that, they keep adding more to Critical Missions: SWAT. They’ve scheduled new guns, characters and maps as well as unlockable content for the next update of their very popular shooter.
TAGS is a brainchild of Rajat Ojha and he is supported by the incredibly talented and driven Atul Sharma and Ajay Singh. There are 10 others who joined the talented team of TAGS. Team TAGS is considered as the most experienced team in India and the only team which has experience in mobile, PC and console game development.
When we started The Awesome Game Studio (TAGS) in April 2012, we had just branched out of a behemoth where we had been doing some serious console stuff and defense simulators. Some unacceptable decisions were made and we ended up with the idea to continue our journey in the game industry only and keep making awesome games. Coming from a console background, it was challenging because we had been completely ignorant about mobile market. The choice we had was doing something we already know or doing something new. Somehow in our case the latter would take less time than doing something we already knew, so we decided to try this. This was the first decision in the development of a game that would later be known as Wobble Bobble.
Minimalism is a good thing
The next challenge was to decide what exactly we wanted to do. We decided on two important things: minimalism and simplicity. Minimalism is a good thing, because you don’t have to go overboard with graphics in order to create a nice game. We focused on a game that was simple to play, in a way that it would benefit from the possibilities of a mobile device. The advantage of having a simple game also means that you can count on it to be almost bug-free. This all would turn out to be a big lesson for the entire team, as we had always been thinking of big games and big platforms. Going back and trying to do something really basic was a big challenge for all of us.
The entire team was assigned to think of an idea that would fit the above points and within a couple of days we had 15 ideas to choose from. After some discussion, we decided to do Wobble Bobble, an idea by our physics programmer, Ankur Aggarwal.
Some of the criteria we had while brainstorming:
1. Short, but addictive gameplay
2. Developed specifically for the device – it should not look like a port
3. One hand controls
4. Iterative – we wanted to focus on one simple game mechanic and focus further development on adding different pickups, modes and themes to keep the title fresh. Nothing deviates from the core mechanic, but the game constantly improves.
Expectations grow, Scope grows
When we started our work on Wobble Bobble, it was a very small game. The goal, our one simple game mechanic, was to keep the ball in the center of the table for as long as possible. By keeping the ball in certain circles in the game area, the player would earn points. We kept this feature and started thinking about expanding the gameplay mechanics to make the game more challenging. There was an immediate need to add fun to the game, and we took a routine path of adding new modes to the game. We added Challenge and Arcade modes and renamed the first mode to Classic mode. When we showcased the game to gameplay testers (including some industry leading people), they found the Arcade mode to be more fun. Because of this, we decided to make the arcade mode the standard.
Mistakes made, lessons learned
Since Wobble Bobble was our first attempt to do a true mobile game, we faced our own share of problems. Luckily, every problem taught us something we can incorporate in the development of new games.
One of our biggest mistakes was only checking the performance of the game on the latest iPod Touch and iPhone 4S. The game was working absolutely fine on these devices. When we tested on older devices, we found out the speed of the game was too slow. The speed of the ball used to depend on the processor of the device. When developing for PC, we take great care of issues like this, but we never bothered while developing a mobile game. We managed to fix this issue using Delta timing. In short: delta timing is used to handle complex graphics or a lot of code, by defining the speed of objects so that they will eventually move at the same speed, regardless of processor speed.
Another problem came from testing the Android version of the game on a Samsung S2. On the S2, everything worked perfectly fine, but on a Samsung Note the game would crash. We decided to do some quick ‘n’ dirty resolution tweaks so it would run on Samsung Note too. However, when we launched the game, we realized these tweaks were temporarily solutions for a bigger problem: Cocos automatically resizes the screen for Android. After more tweaking, we got everything working, both speed and resolution were permanently taken care of.
It was still a near perfect project
Though there were issues related to the shift, a lot of things went in favor of the project.
No major feature changes – Up until the development of Wobble Bobble, we had never worked on a game where the basic planned features never changed. Though we improved the basic gameplay mechanics of Wobble Bobble, no major changes occurred. Throughout the production, we were always aware of the exact scope of the game and things were neatly planned.
Our strong project management roots – Coming from large game projects, we always relied on strong project management. This worked in our favor as we had Microsoft Project, MantisBT and SVN running on our server, helping us to stay close to reality and allowing us to always have an up-to-date version of the code. There were stand up meetings every day and all the tasks were regularly updated in the Microsoft project. All the bugs were tracked in MantisBT and everything was accessible from home as well, so we always had access to what was going on with the project from anywhere.
Iterative Implementation – We never had a huge game design document written for the game, so we approached each module of the project as totally individual. Frankly, we didn’t even know what additional module will be added next, while working on the current one. We focused on perfecting one feature before even thinking about what the next feature would be.
A solid team – The biggest achievement of this project was that the entire team stuck together and kept sharing and debating ideas. Nobody in the entire studio was away from this project and everybody participated willingly. In most of the studios, the Pareto principle is in effect, i.e. 20% of the people doing 80% of work. In our studio, it seems like we only have the 20%, in a way that everyone is productive and 100% focused on the game.
The development of Wobble Bobble also saw people coming out and taking responsibility at an extraordinary level. For example, our QA manager took the responsibility of managing daily stand-up meetings and making sure things were transparent.
Playing games – In our earlier setup, we used to have at least 1 hour of Team Fortress 2 or Call of Duty LAN matches a day. We used to encourage everybody to play games whenever they were free, so there used to be a lot of single-player games, game-related discussions and showcasing in the office. When we started TAGS, we were busy working on games or game pitches, rather than spending time playing games. Most of the guys used to play 3 hours a day, but the initial struggling period left us wanting to focus more on development and gaming took a hit. We weren’t happy about it, but we had no choice. However, there was one thing that we religiously maintained: to stick to a five days a week schedule, so that the team could spend some time at home and play. It was a tough decision but we were spending more than 12 hours a day in the office. We all knew that it was a temporary phase and currently we are back to being normal, and normal people play videogames!
China’s numbers were unexpectedly huge
When the game got launched on June 27, 2012, it immediately caught the attention of a lot of people. We got decent review from gamers, even though we didn’t have the money for decent PR. Still the game spread with the word-of-mouth publicity.
We developed Wobble Bobble Pro, but it didn’t pick up sales at all. Anyhow, our focus was not to make money with this game, so we immediately made the pro version free. Surprisingly, it became a huge success in some countries like USA and China. China’s numbers were unexpectedly huge. Many people like it so much, that they asked to have a tournament for the game, so we set up a separate Facebook page for players and the contest. We were actually really shocked to see people scoring millions, scores which a lot of our developers couldn’t get (except our QA manager).
This contest helped Wobble Bobble to establish itself and establish the all new brand The Awesome Game Studio.
Right now, TAGS’s hands are full and they say they feel like those typical Indian Gods with 4 hands. They are working on one of their most ambitious mobile IP which is called Alphaman and will be released in Q1 of 2013. TAGS has signed a three-year contract with USA-based toy manufacturing company Imagability Inc. to develop games across all the platforms. TAGS is working for a Fortune Five company on one of their brand IP. In all these projects, they strive to maintain control over the game design and processes which gives them complete creative freedom.
Apart from all these, TAGS is also working on a console game which is in Pre-Production right now. They hope to continue their awesome journey.
Kjell ‘t Hoen is a game designer from the Netherlands, specialized in casual games. After creating his own concepts for his ‘Ludomo Gamestudio’, he is now mainly working as a game developer at Tingly Games. Kjell has a passion for making games and is always looking for new and original gameplay. This article describes the process of one of his games that he made in collaboration with YoYo Games, called Rick ‘O Shea.
The original idea for Rick ‘O Shea came from one of my earlier games called Curve Ball. Its core gameplay was controlling a metallic ball with the environment, i.e. launching it with flippers, bouncers and canons and having it follow rails. The concept came to me by looking at some beautiful clockworks and jewelry, which inspired me for the original design. The goal was to make something shiny and fun.
Since I was working with Gamemaker for a very long time, I had enough game concepts to show
The Rick ‘O Shea journey originally took off when I met Mark Overmars, the creator of Gamemaker (the engine I had been working with for years) at the Festival of Games 2011. He was interested in working together with indie/amateur Gamemaker developers who had interesting game concepts for mobile devices. Since I was working with Gamemaker for a very long time, I had enough game concepts to show and since most of them were one-button they were quite fit for mobile devices. So I met with Mark a few times, where I presented some of my ideas which I had already polished a little in the past and we picked the one that seemed the best fit.
Working together with Mark and YoYo Games, we developed my raw concept into a fully fletched app for iOS and Android. Both Mark and the YoYo Games crew put in a lot of effort to steer the design and gameplay to an even higher level and I feel the eventual product is as polished and fun as it can get. As a great bonus, half way through the process, I was invited to fly over to Scotland where YoYo Games was situated, to finish the game. Personally this was a great opportunity and made for an amazing experience.
Tackling art issues
Right after the kickoff, the biggest issue we tackled was the theme and art style. It had to look great and we needed a believable ‘world’ as a setting for the rather abstract game mechanics. As my original idea was clockworks and jewelry, I first did a redo of my own graphical design for that. This design however lacked a likable character and believable world, so after it was rejected I thought about coins and how you could collect coins with a living piggy bank. That concept was also rejected, this time I think due to my personal lack of art-skills. Eventually we decided to move the entire art-issue over to Yoyogames. They were kind enough to assign the project to one of their in-house artists: Alan Morris, with whom I worked on the game from that moment on. He came up with the circus concept, and since that theme had actual cannons it fitted the mechanics perfectly. Also, with the art out of the way I could now completely focus my attention on gameplay, level design and programming.
Mistakes made, lessons learned
The original concept was focused on one-button, being the entire screen. I had designed the levels in a way that experienced players could do speed runs, which could change pace of the game and offer some immersive gameplay. Mark and the Stuart however, convinced me early on that it would be better to give the player more control, by enabling the player to aim, turn the canons towards the finger of the player and not having to wait for the canon rotation. This was a tough decision for me because my entire concept was based around this mechanic. On the other hand, my original concept had huge levels, but the app version would consist of smaller levels. So I decided to go for it. This turned out to be for the better. Even though I had to let go of all my initial levels, I found that I could create even more interesting and challenging levels and that the gameplay now offered more freedom.Rick ‘O Shea would have been an entirely different game if not for this change.
The model would go from paid to in-app purchase where players could unlock two new worlds for each payment.
Another big issue was the business model. The idea of getting my old game concept to mobile devices got me really motivated, so before I knew it I had created 100+ levels. After showing them to Stuart, he suggested to break up the levels and sell them separately. The model would go from paid to in-app purchase where players could unlock two new worlds for each payment. This would also be a nice trial for YoYo Games to see if Gamemaker, their main engine, could handle in-app purchases properly, making it as Stuart called it the studio’s ‘guinea pig’.
I believe this has been a big mistake. What we did was divide the levels into 5 different episodes and give the first episode (24 levels) away for free. Even though we thought long and hard on how many levels to give away for free and what mechanics they should contain (and what mechanics to save for later), this was nothing more than an educated guess. And so it turned out to be. Even with more than a million downloads the number of actual sales was extremely disappointing. Looking back at this decision, there are simply too many risks I would never dare to take again. For example:
The player plays the free levels, has the feeling he has seen most of what the game has to offer and deletes it.
The player plays the free levels, loves them and downloads the game for free from some obscure website.
The player does not open the game at all and still mentions it is shit, causing a bad review (this actually happened!).
The player plays one level, doesn’t get it and deletes the game without looking beyond the first try.
I do believe the in-app purchase model can work nicely for extra gameplay variations (other weapon types and new features) that make it easier to play the game or offer the player more choices and strategies. The old demo/shareware model we went for though, was just not working out.
I learned I was making levels too easy, this was a huge realization for me as I looked back at many of my other games
During the playtesting phase, done in the university where YoYo Games was located, I learned I was making levels a bit too easy. This was a huge realization for me as I looked back at many of my other games. The game was simply not challenging enough and I ended up giving 120 levels more ‘teeth’ and dangerous situations, which really made the game way more interesting and balanced.
Working with Mark and Stuart was a big deal for me and I was interested to see how a company like Yoyogames operated. They turned out to really supportive and had a lot of experience with creating games. They also gave me a lot of freedom and useful feedback while creating the game and tweaking it. But I also learned, when signing contracts about royalties, is that you should always check when you are supposed to get paid. I completely trust Yoyogames and I enjoyed working with them, but waiting for 9 months for a royalty payment is not cool and eventually took away some of the enthusiasm for making games on my own. I always say I’m not in it for the money and I am very patient, but without any financial results it’s hard to keep going and stay motivated.
Don’t do in-app purchase for levels, it’s simply not working. In-app purchase for extra variations, gameplay, strategies or guns can work fine, but not to complete the journey the player is on. In Rick ‘O Shea we also sold extra skins, which I think comes closest to what could have worked
Playtest with a wide variety of people. The play testers Yoyogames invited were really good, but most of them were also heading into game development. We could have done a better job if we had had some little children or grandparents play the game as well. I realized this after returning home and showing the game to my friends and seeing them have a really hard time getting past infamous level 5. So it was great feedback to make the levels harder, but what we missed was the feedback from the non-gamers as to where the game was too hard.
The day after
The day after Rick ‘O Shea was published on Google Play and iTunes it got featured on Kotaku, who made it ‘Gaming App of the Day’. I remember Andrew McCluskey, an employee at Yoyogames who became a good friend, coming over to my desk, tabbing me on the shoulder and telling me ‘Dude.. you’re on Kotaku’. Pocketgamer was next, giving the game a Silver Reward and a few other smaller websites gave some pretty nice reviews.
Checking some of the first levels of the game and looking at my bank account made me doubt whether or not my game was really as good as it could have been
A few months later, in March, Rick ‘O Shea got featured on Google play. I have an iPhone but I got a photo from one of my friends who saw the game sitting right next to the new Angry Birds Space and Sims. That really good news and as I heard later, caused for some 80k extra downloads per day. All this was great, but the best feeling I have comes from the fact that the game still has a 4 out of 5 star rating with 3300+ votes. That made the game my greatest success so far. But even though Rick ‘O Shea was such a great success, I realize I also made some mistakes. Checking some of the first levels of the game and looking at my bank account made me doubt whether or not my game was really as good as it could have been.
After creating Rick ‘O Shea (Apple AppStore & Google Play store), Kjell decided to move forward and work for a new exciting company called Tingly Games as a Gamemaker developer. In his spare time, Kjell is still working on his own games. For example, he collaborated with NextGamez and Gamious on a hidden object game called Excursions of Evil, which is to be launched soon. If you are interested in what he’s currently up to, check out Kjell’s blog.
Located in Gothenburg, Swedens second largest city, Free Lunch Design employs a creative team that produces world class games for multiple platforms. The team has produced over 70 games for PC/Mac and iOS/Android so far; some of them have been downloaded millions of times. Free Lunch Design is looking to keep innovating and develop games that will knock your socks of, no matter what platform or genre. In this article we will focus on describing some major events in the development of Icy Tower 2.
A successful release of a Facebook version of Icy Tower in 2009 solidified the pursuit for B2C, and a name change to Free Lunch Design confirmed the decision.
Free Lunch Design was originally a one-man-army (consisting of Johan Peitz ) making retro-inspired PC games for free download. Out of the numerous games released, one of them stood head and shoulders above the rest: Icy Tower. Since its release in 2001, it became especially popular among young students around the world, in part due to the ease in which it could be installed on a school computer. The simple and fun game found a following and lived a life of its own for the remainder of the 00’s. Meanwhile, Johan Peitz joined forces with local game developers Muskedunder, to create advergames. Soon Muskedunder aimed to change focus from B2B to B2C, and to build on the previous success of Icy Tower became the obvious first step. A successful release of a Facebook version of Icy Tower in 2009 solidified the pursuit for B2C, and a name change to Free Lunch Design confirmed the decision.
Once mobile gaming became the next big thing, we knew the time for Icy Tower 2 had come. The game hit the app store in November of 2012, containing several exciting changes from the original to keep it fresh and suitable for handheld devices. The release was another success with 1 million downloads in 10 days, which led to the decision to bring the game to Android.
The Game Design Gauntlet
Game director Johan Peitz had the initial game design responsibility. This was during the early phase of the production, where the game had to have the “Icy Tower feeling”, something Johan has a unique sense for. Shortly after we completed a good version of the core game play, Johan had a son. This meant he was leaving us for more than a month in a critical stage of development: fine tuning the gameplay and evaluating new features. Luckily game designer Jimmy Öman jumped in to take over where Johan left off.
Johan’s short leave could have gone horribly wrong, but in the end just cost us a little bit of extra time. Actually, it led to a new way of working with game design proposals. Johan and Jimmy are game designers with different approaches and strengths. The key was not to let egos run the show, but to allow them to contribute mainly with their respective strengths. We went all in with this approach, involving the entire team in the game design. This made the differences between the designers play a proportionally small part and tapped into the full potential of each team member.
The way we involved the whole team was by letting all game design ideas run through a “gauntlet”. Every member of the team sat down in a “group design session” and it was the designer’s (or anyone else in the team with an idea) job to sell an idea for a problem solution, a feature or design change. It was everyone else’s job to try their hardest to shoot the idea down. If the designer could defend the idea in a convincing way, the idea passed the “gauntlet” and earned a slot in the next sprint. This went on for several weeks and really made a huge difference for the design quality, team morale and general fun factor of working on the project.
Be problem oriented and assign a moderator to pull the brake
Everyone was involved and felt they could bring up worries they had about the game in a constructive way. This was a new way to work with design for us, and even though it cost a lot of hours, we’ll be using “the gauntlet” again! One important thing to remember is to have some form of emergency brake, when the sheer joy of being creative is no longer relevant to solving your problems. Be problem oriented and assign a moderator to pull the brake.
Good is not good enough
One lesson from our former B2B business model was that “good is good enough”. This had to be repeated as a mantra whenever our pride and ambition to deliver premium quality products was larger than what the budget allowed. At the end of the day we had to deliver what was paid for, not what we wanted to deliver in order to feel proud.
The game was good, but not quite good enough, when the budget was spent
Going from B2B to B2C, we had to re-program our minds in this area. Simply being “good enough” wouldn’t cut it, facing the cut-throat competition on the mobile platform. We had to raise the bar several times, which was an internal struggle. The uncomfortable truth was that the game was good, but not quite good enough, when the budget was spent. The budget for the project was set with the old “good is good enough” in mind, and we had to admit defeat when we realized the production would need to be extended several more weeks in order to get the game where it needed to be.
In retrospect this could be viewed as a failure to see the obvious, but the lesson is to understand that every start-up company has its growing pains. The discomfort it brings must not be seen as failure, but instead an opportunity to grow. We had in fact changed our business model completely and there are hard lessons every time you face a new area of expertise to master. This was one of them. Handling them successfully – albeit at a real cost – makes you grow. Growing is painful, so prepare to deal with it.
The complexities of being simple
You would think that having simple gameplay and having made several successful incarnations of that gameplay would make things easier. In some ways it is easier, since we have the experience and a proof of concept. In some ways it’s harder, since you work under the restrictions to not stray too far away from the original.
We knew there would be some fundamental changes to the game. The big one was controls. We wanted to design it for the handheld touch device and that meant getting rid of keyboard-like controls. This seemingly small change has effects that ripple throughout the product. It sets the bar for the speed of the game, the difficulty level of interactions, input frequency, etc. Getting it right took numerous iterations and only through hard work were we able to create controls that felt simple.
One other challenge was to add new and exciting features without changing the objective of the game. It has always been about getting as far up the tower as possible. Introducing mechanisms to acquire money – and things to spend the money on – diluted the simplicity of just beating your high score. We were obsessed with the thought of keeping the game objective true to the original. In the end we had to accept that the game could be played with different objectives for different players. Some want to complete stuns, others try to hoard money and yet other just want to have the highest score possible. You can’t tell someone how they should have fun, just let them play and figure it out themselves. We could do other things though: put in extra effort in the tutorial; adjust the timing in which we introduce new features and in overall presentation of the tower collapsing.
You don’t have to be a designer to propose an idea, just getting a design idea challenged from different points of views is healthy.
The biggest impact from a personal growth aspect was probably the way the game design gauntlet affected the team. Some team members stepped out of their ordinary role and got to shine elsewhere, either with an idea or throwing something wacky out there that triggered another person to formulate the “sane” version of the same idea. You don’t have to be a designer to propose an idea, just getting a design idea challenged from different points of views is healthy. It leads to constructive dialogues where people not only grow closer, but team members can have a lasting impression on your personal methodology in creative scenarios.
The development of Icy Tower 2 took longer than initially expected, but resulted in big value. It taught us how to act when losing key members, what it takes to raise the bar (quality-wise) and how to keep our heads in the game when assumed simplicity grew complex. Involving all team members in the design process gave us a fresh take on the creative process and we think that’s reflected in the game, which we feel successfully introduces new and fun ideas to a classic game.
Icy Tower 2 has recently been released on Google Play. Free Lunch Design will be sharing more in-depth insights on Icy Tower 2 during their indie-postmortem talk at the Casual Connect Europe conference in Hamburg, Germany.