The explosion of indie gaming in the past decade has not only allowed for smaller companies to enter the gaming market, it has allowed for people from various background and unique games to have a place. One such person and game is Erin Robinson and her game, Gravity Ghost. To learn more about Gravity Ghost, Gamesauce has talked to Erin Robinson about her background and developing games.
From Researcher to Game Developer – Leaving the Academy for Games
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.
Stolen Couch Games is a young Dutch game studio formed by six alumni from the Utrecht School of Arts who decided to continue working together after their college projects. A part of the team came together to make a multiplayer prototype for XBLA and PSN title Chime made by developer Zoe Mode in collaboration with the One Big Game initiative. Stolen Couch Games then reformed and expanded the core team with an extra programmer and artist. Gamesauce recently featured a post-mortem on their first game Kids vs Goblins.
Early 2011, everyone at Stolen Couch Games was still in school developing our exam year project Kids vs Goblins. Jay van Hutten, a fellow year mate, was developing a game of his own called Ichi. It was a elegant puzzle game that utilized a one-button mechanic in a way that didn’t feel gimmicky. The goal of the game was to guide a ball past a number of rings on the screen. By touching the screen you rotate bumpers, which caused the ball to change in direction. You could also hold your finger down to draw a line, once the ball hit the line it would travel back in the direction it came from.
About a half year later we spoke to Jay at a congress were he was demoing his game. I (Eric) shared my interesting in redeveloping Ichi for multiple platforms and making it a really great commercial product. Jay loved the idea and the day we finished Kids vs Goblins we were working together to make a bigger and better version of Ichi.
No developers were harmed during the making of this game
Because the core of Ichi was so sound, it wasn’t hard to come up with dozens of new puzzle ideas to make the game better.
Redeveloping a game is nothing new to us. Stolen Couch Games actually started in 2010 when we got an assignment from Zoë Mode to create a multiplayer version of their hit game Chime. The multiplayer demo we made eventually led Zoë Mode to develop Chime Super Deluxe, which featured some nice multiplayer modes. While the programmers were re-creating Ichi in Unity, Jay and I were designing new features to add to the game. Because the core of Ichi was so sound, it wasn’t hard to come up with dozens of new puzzle ideas to make the game better. The final product had teleporters, splitters to create multiple balls, objects that could disappear and a few more things. Nothing too fancy, but it all worked great. The best thing we added was the level editor that allowed players to create their own levels and share them online. Since then, 11,000 levels have been shared, quite a bit more than the 50 levels we originally included with the game. Ichi launched in June, after 3 months of development, which went mostly smoothly. The actual problems started right after we launched the game.
We knew that many people would consider Ichi as just another puzzle game, so we had to let people know how special the game really is. We spent about a week contacting the press about our game and we got a nice amount of coverage. But press alone won’t make your game a hit. If you read any guide on marketing for mobile games you always get to the point were the importance of getting a feature by Apple/Amazon/Google is expressed. We already got a feature on the Mac app store for our first game, but our published arranged that. We didn’t have a direct contact within Apple, so we had to come up with a way to contact them.
Luckily we had a few device IDs that belonged to Apple employees on our Testflight account. So we found out the matching email addresses and we send separate emails to every one of them. 2 of them, responsible for the iOS AppStore, loved the game and showed the game to the rest of the team. Our contact from the Mac AppStore was in love with the game. We Skyped for a few hours and everything was set.
We’ve seen developers doing no marketing at all for their games because they believe they’re games will sell themselves. This is mentality is wrong. Just look at the top grossing games on iOS. Almost all of them spend enormous amount of time and money on marketing. Only by spending time and money, will you actually earn money.
The lessons we learned from this is that you should be prepared for something you can’t predict or test.
The launch of Ichi went great. We were selling thousands of units a day and those numbers were actually increasing the days after the launch. But than something went wrong. Suddenly the game would crash once it has launched. This had never happened in any of our tests before. Why did the game crash all of a sudden? It turned out that the firewall at our server provider, which hosted the user created levels, was malfunctioning. Since we had never encountered this before we weren’t prepared for this. As you can imagine we were pissed off, but the gamers were even more pissed off. The 1-star ratings were poring in, so we had to work quickly. Within a day we made a quick patch that made the game run again. We submitted it and Apple was kind enough to approve it in record time. But the harm was done. The sales momentum the game had was gone. Sales plummeted because of the bad reviews. Instead of getting thousands of sales at $4.99 a piece we were down to hundreds.
The lessons we learned from this is that you should be prepared for something you can’t predict or test. We expected our server to send just numbers to the game, instead it was sending lines of random code. For our next games we’re making sure that the game handles these rare cases the correct way. One day of extra development time is better than losing thousands of dollars in revenue.
At the end of 2012 only 300 people out of 400.000 bought the in app purchase, an insanely low percentage
We wanted to use in-app purchases in the game to earn some extra revenue post-launch. We were thinking of putting an in-app purchase on the level editor. So if you wanted to make your own levels you had to pay a dollar extra. But we opted against this because the editor would generate content for the game. Content is important so we couldn’t make the overall package weaker to earn some money. Instead we asked for an in-app purchase when the player played more than 10 user-created levels. We guessed that only 5% of the players might create a level and 70% would play user created levels. More people means more revenue. Unfortunately this tactic didn’t work.
We launched the game with 50 built-in levels and player could play 10 user created levels for free. At the end of 2012 only 300 people out of 400.000 bought the in app purchase, an insanely low percentage. Why did almost no-one buy the in app purchase? We think it’s because people were done with Ichi after playing 50 build in levels. Nobody is going to play 10.000 user created levels, let alone 100. Ichi’s retention wasn’t high enough.
Getting a lot of players, quickly
Instead of letting our game die we looked at “free app of the day” deals.
A few months after the release of Ichi sales were basically dead. We were making about $15 a day, which didn’t get us one step closer to world domination anytime soon. So we had to do something. Instead of letting our game die we looked at “free app of the day” deals. The first free app of the day deal we did was Free App A Day (FAAD). In one day Ichi was downloaded 130.000 times. We were blown away by this number. After this we contacted Amazon USA if they could feature us. They loved Ichi and featured it as their free app of the day. After that, Amazon Europe featured Ichi as well. AppEvent did the same, resulting in another 30.000 downloads from mostly the Netherlands
Free app of the day promotions are great. Unfortunately it is unlikely that your app will become super popular once the promotion is over. We earned only $80 from the days after the FAAD promotion. But still it is better than nothing. One good tactic might be to get a lot of downloads using these promotions and then switch to a freemium model. You will have hundreds of thousands of players who will generate revenue though ads and/or in app purchases.
Critically, Ichi is a great success. We’ve gotten wonderful reviews and players seem to love the game. But commercially the game hasn’t done that well. We barely broke even on the development costs. Most of the revenue came from the Mac version, mainly due to the feature by Apple. iOS came in second, revenue-wise. The Android, PC and Linux versions didn’t make more than a few hundred dollars. Despite all of this we feel that Ichi was worth our time, it was great developing it and we delivered something we’re proud of.
Krome Studios recently celebrated the release of their newest downloadable title Blade Kitten last week. Krome Studios’ Creative Director and creator of Blade KittenSteve Stamatiadis took some time to talk to us about the challenges his team faced pitching the game to Atari, moving from a comic book concept to an actual game and tackling the competitive market of downloadable games.