Ellipsis is an award-winning action puzzler with retro-styled visuals and absolutely zero text. Designed from the ground up for touch devices, it was released on iOS in February 2016 and for Android on June 16th. Its intuitive concept is easy to understand but you soon uncover a deep and challenging universe of ever-evolving levels. Ellipsis is a polished game experience, developed with a bit of idealistic, opinionated approach. Released as a premium game, it features no text, no ads, no IAP. The developers headed by Yacine Salmi explore how these decisions impacted our development and release.)
At Casual Connect USA 2014, Amy Dallas, the co-founder of ClutchPlay, described her views of running an indie company during a panel. “When you’re starting a company with other people, you’re essentially getting into a ‘business marriage’ in that you’re legally bound to those people for as long as your company is around. So, you need to know that your co-founders share your goals and values and that you’ll stick by each other when times are tough,” she said. She was excited to announce the release of ClutchPlay’s second game, “Skullduggery!”, in Fall 2014 on both iOS and Android.
What is “Skullduggery!”
She describes the game this way: “”Skullduggery!” is an atmospheric, fling-based physics platformer, in which you’ll play a Semi-Organic Autonomous Skull, working as a collection agent for the INFERNAL Revenue Service. Your mission is to collect taxes from the ‘deadbeats’ of the afterlife. You do so by using the elasticity of your own brain to flick yourself around the fortresses of the netherworld’s worst tax dodgers as you repossess their underworldly belongings. You also get to do a lot of other cool stuff like slow time to avoid deadly obstacles, pull off crazy trick shots to collect riches, discover hidden caches, and slip past surly guards. We also have a multiplayer mode we’re calling ‘head to head’ which allows you to play against your friends to become the afterlife’s most successful agent. Oh, and you also get to fill out paperwork and reflect on the inherent emptiness of existence. And I ask you, who doesn’t want to do that?!”
“Skullduggery!” also features an endearingly grotesque art style created by Bill Mudron and inspired by the Max Fleischer animations of the 1930′s.
It was announced earlier that “Skullduggery!” will be featured in this year’s “PAX 10” Indie Games showcase at the PAX Prime event. “Being part of the PAX 10 is a tremendous honor,” says Dallas. “We could not be more honored that “Skullduggery!” was chosen.”
Determination & Experience
Dallas co-founded ClutchPlay in 2012 with Bernie Rissmiller, Jon Guest, and John C. Worsley. The studio they had worked for was downsized, so the four seized this opportunity to create their own studio. It wasn’t an optimal time to start a company with no promise of a salary for any of them. Dallas’s husband had also been laid off, Rissmiller and his wife had just had a baby, Guest had two children, and Worsley had upcoming major travel plans. They had no VC, angel investors, or funding of any kind. But they knew they had the right team, so they took a giant leap of faith to begin their company.
What they did have was determination, lots of experience, some savings, and an idea that became Little Chomp. Within their first year, they had developed a proprietary cross-platform game engine and had launched Little Chomp on both iOS and Android to great critical success. Little Chomp was selected as a featured game in the 2013 PAX East Indie Showcase. In their second year, they did a contract project for KIXEYE, Inc. which involved using their proprietary game engine to take KIXEYE’s Facebook game, Backyard Monsters, to mobile. Besides their consulting fees, KIXEYE licensed their engine source code, and the proceeds from that are funding the development of “Skullduggery!”.
She says, “So far, it’s been the scariest, craziest, and most exhilarating time of my career, and I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. It’s true what they say. Feel the fear and do it anyway!”
Because ClutchPlay is a small, four-person studio, and Dallas is the only one who is not an engineer, she does almost everything else, and is, among other things, the producer, chief of ops, QA, and biz dev person. She has worked at a number of different game and tech companies and has been a producer most of her career, so that part of her work is second nature. But other things, such as marketing, have involved a giant learning curve. She claims, “If you aren’t at least a little freaked out at your work, then you probably aren’t pushing yourself hard enough or learning anything new.”
Another Discovery Challenge
Discovery is unarguably the mobile industry’s biggest challenge, especially for indies, according to Dallas, given the sheer volume of games flooding the market. It isn’t enough to make a great game, you also have to be great at marketing it. But that is difficult for indies who lack the resources to compete with products from larger producers with more experience and greater resources.
“As a developer,” she insists, “you have to do everything possible to keep your game visible”. At ClutchPlay, they do this by going to as many festivals and conferences as possible to meet press people, reps from different platforms and, of course, other developers. She is amazed at how willing the indie community is to help each other out. They also share their development process through blogging, forums like Touch Arcade, and weekly events such as Screenshot Saturday. This is a good way to whet people’s appetite for the release of the game.
Dallas believes the next few years will bring the release of more premium games, especially on iOS. She disagrees with those who believe free to play is the only way to go on mobile. Free to play titles do have the potential to bring in more revenue for a longer period of time, but they also costs more to produce, have on-going maintenance costs, and require huge user acquisition budgets.
Bigger Spend Equals Bigger Risk
The more money you spend developing a game, the more it must bring in. This pressure leads to taking fewer risks and going with a formula you know will succeed. The result is a lot of very similar freemium games, which is why Dallas believes premium is due for a renaissance. Some of the exciting titles out now, such as Badland, Duet, Monument Valley, FTL, are all premium games at a higher price point. She claims that these games are made by small, scrappy companies who can not only afford to take risks, they NEED to, and because risk is at the heart of innovation, we’re going to start to see a lot more really weird, cool, interesting games come out of the premium space. And so far, people are buying them.
Dallas says that the best thing about working in the games industry, by far, is the people. Game production can be brutal, grueling, and utterly exhausting. Sometimes, she feels blown to bits by it. But what gets her through is the people. Game teams will do whatever it takes to support each other and get the job done. There is a passion and camaraderie that she hasn’t found in other industries.
More and more, she realizes she is a mobile gamer at heart. She doesn’t have time for epic console games or MMOs. But on mobile, she can play in short, concentrated burst, which fits her lifestyle much better. She has just finished Monument Valley and has recently been playing Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake, which has just been released by another Portland studio.
Dallas has discovered that when you are an indie working from home, the line between work and personal life becomes blurred. When not working or playing games, she gets as much exercise as possible “to keep from physically fusing to her office chair.” She also loves to cook, describing herself as a huge food nerd. She enjoys reading and is working on writing a novel.
“As an indie, I am a big believer that you are much better spending your limited funds in your testing phase while you are in soft launch as opposed to post global launch. The amount of money you’re going to be able to muster to spend on user acquisition post launch is not going to have a meaningful impact on your game’s performance, you’re much better getting everything tuned just right before you launch.”
Keith Katz is the co-founder and business chief at Execution Labs, a company that exists to help game developers become entrepreneurs and realize creative independence. He oversees all aspects of business for Execution Labs and their game teams. He also has plenty of input into the games, something he finds great fun. He works to make sure all teams that go through the Execution Labs program are equipped to handle all the business functions of a small game studio. All the different experiences he has had during his career, including user acquisition, PR, business development, monetization, understanding player behavior, and running a startup, feed into the work he is doing today.
Leaving The Nest
Katz announces, with great pride, “Our first two spin-off studios are leaving the nest after releasing amazing games, raising follow-on funding, and beginning work on their next titles. It is incredibly gratifying to know I had a hand in enabling these new independent game studios.”
The greatest enjoyment Katz finds in the games industry comes from the people. Most of the people involved are very creative and passionate, which is not something he has found in other fields.
The Distribution Challenge
A major challenge today, according to Katz, is distribution, as the industry shifts to digital delivery of games. On the app stores, he sees truly innovative games that could move the industry forward, but they are being suffocated by large publishers who can afford to spend money to stay in the top charts. He insists, “That’s not good for consumers or for the vast majority of game developers. I’m worried that Steam and other online PC platforms will fall into this pattern as well if we’re not careful.”
Give Your Teams a Chance
Execution Labs approaches the distribution problem from two related angles. First, they ensure their teams create innovative games that platform holders recognize as worth showcasing. Secondly, they maintain good relationships with their platform holders so their teams can get in front of them and have a chance to be featured. But Katz emphasizes, this is not a silver bullet, it just gives their teams a fighting chance. In his opinion, most indies don’t even have that.
Katz believes the next few years in the games industry will see more and more core gaming on tablets. He also thinks linking small devices to larger screens to get a console-like experience is coming soon. He says, “Often, our teams want to optimize for their tablet SKU, and we’re fine with this because we think core gamers will adopt this platform in greater and greater numbers over the coming months and years.” And he expects that there will be more premium titles on tablets as game developers realize free-to-play is not a fit for everyone and core gamers are willing to spend money for premium games on their tablets.
For the first time, Katz is now playing more on tablet than on console or PC. He finds it so easy to pick up and play, and the games are getting better and better. For example, Hearthstone is so good, he can’t stop playing it, claiming it is fantastic and perfect on an iPad. And Civ is coming soon! But he doesn’t really see a need for a gaming-only box any longer, although he has owned consoles since his first Atari 2600. He hasn’t upgraded to the next gen systems yet; he is busy playing on his tablet and PC.
Katz never has enough time for all his hobbies, but he keeps collecting more. He loves to barbeque on his smoker and this year, he has been curing and smoking his own bacon. He also likes to brew beer. But he offsets these foodie hobbies with active ones: running, scuba diving, camping, hiking, and fishing. He describes himself as someone who is interested in a lot of things, and who could never be bored.
“It’s true that the market is dominated by a few players, but still, if you look at the number of the 100 grossing apps right now on the IOS, it is doing about 30K a day,” says Giordano Contestabile during Casual Connect USA. “If you can keep it going for one year, that means a 10 million dollar round rate.”
Giordano Contestabile is the vice president of product management at Tilting Point Media, a company that focuses on partnering with elite independent game developers, helping them to succeed in the market with funding, product feedback, and marketing services. Contestabile’s team handles product management, UX/UI, analytics and user acquisition, working with developers from the very early stage of the development process to post-launch operations.
When Leo’s Fortune, developed by their partner 1337/Senri, won an Apple Design Award, they were extremely proud of this achievement that was the result of two years of work. The team’s focus on making the highest quality experience led to this recognition and support from Apple.
Leo’s Fortune was launched as a premium game on iOS at a time when everyone told them the market for premium games was dead. But the game was received extremely well, was a financial success and was Editor’s Choice in 135 countries, as well as receiving the Apple award. From this experience, Contestabile learned that even though F2P is the overwhelming majority of the market, there is still space for extremely high-quality, original premium experiences.
Building The Business
Now Tilting Point Media is looking to develop as broad and diversified a portfolio as possible in terms of genre, theme, and business model. The overarching intention is for all their games to be extremely high quality and original; the market is so competitive that only great products will be able to rise above the rest.
Prior to coming to Tilting Point Media, Contestabile was the executive producer of the Bejeweled franchise for EA; handling a massively popular live game, such as Bejeweled Blitz, taught him a great deal about how much complexity is involved in developing and operating free-to-play games. He loves the opportunity F2P offers to make games available to a large audience, with games now reaching hundreds of millions of people who weren’t playing them before. Unfortunately, the past few years have seen low-quality clones and uninspired games flood the market. However, the market has evolved, and low-quality games are finding it harder and harder to succeed. He calls this a great development.
Contestabile is a long-time PC gamer, but his current favorite platform is his iPad, not only for reasons of available time and portability, but because recently a large number of very high-quality games have been released. His game preferences include Threes, Leo’s Fortune, Twodots, Toy Rush and Trials Frontier. He also owns a PS4 and an Xbox One, using them mainly for sports games and to watch movies and videos.
When he is not involved in gaming, he loves art, design, fashion, food, and wine. Fortunately, these are found in abundance where he lives in New York City.
Believing In Mobile
Contestabile sees huge potential coming in cross-platform, and he believes mobile and tablet will be central to it. So Tilting Point Media is making sure all their games will be ready for a future in which a player will play on mobile, tablet, and big screen devices. Players will expect the best user experience on all of these. He believes in the future there will be a strong trend toward experiences that are differentiated on each device, but are interconnected.
A guest post from NativeX on how native advertising is becoming the clear front-runner for mobile games, with 225% higher click-through rates and 142% higher effective cost per thousand impressions.
Mobile gaming is one of the fastest growing and most rapidly changing parts of the entertainment industry. In just a couple years, we’ve seen it evolve from a wild-west market chock full of indie developers figuring out the best way to utilize a touch screen, to a place where developers of all shapes and sizes create AAA-quality games with strong lifetime values. Through all of these changes, there has been one constant: people are constantly searching for the best way to turn a buck in mobile games. Whether it’s premium games, lite games with ads, or freemium, monetization is arguably the biggest driving factor in mobile games, and native advertising is one of the best ways for game developers to make money off their titles without taking away from the user experience.
So, what exactly is a native ad? The term has been thrown around a lot in the advertising and public relations markets as the next big iteration of paid content. It could mean anything from a sponsored post to a branded advertisement. In mobile games, the native ad takes on a slightly different form. With mobile games, developers and advertisers are paired to games and products that share similar themes and are going after the same audience. Companies such as NativeX (formely W3i) help developers to create branded interstitials where the ad can be displayed.
For example, let’s say there is a developer whose game has an audience of mostly older women. They may want to advertise a children’s game in their native interstitial. Mom sees a game her kids might like without being taken away from the game experience, the developer makes money off the ad, and the advertiser gets targeted ad views from people that are much more likely to check out their game. It’s a triple-win situation.
Based on early data, NativeX found that click through rates on native ads are 225 percent higher than on traditional ads. Additionally, effective cost per thousand impressions (eCPM rates) are, on average, 142 percent higher on native ads than on traditional ads. This data was found by comparing publishers who used native ad interstitials against publishers who ran non-native interstitials from February 2013 to March 2013. Each publisher used the same relevant advertisement. Click through rates on non-native ads were .06 percent on average, with an average 3.46 percent on native ads. For eCPMS, non-native ads had rates of about $4.98, where native ads had average rates of $12.04.
In layman’s terms, this means that a gamer is almost three times as likely to click on an advertisement if they see it as a native ad than a regular banner ad. Having an eCPM that’s 142 percent higher in native ads means that total earnings gained from the ads will be significantly higher. Using native ads means more money for developers and a better experience for the user.
As developers continue to innovate new ways to monetize their games, it’s a safe bet that native advertising will continue to rise in popularity on mobile. In the relatively short time NativeX has been working on native ads, they’ve shown incredibly promising results as a new source of revenue for developers of all sizes. The time of native advertising is at hand, so consider well what ads to include in your mobile games when the time comes.
NativeX (formerly W3i) has worked with developers to help them build strong user bases and figure out the best ways to create revenue without affecting the gameplay experience. The company rebranded on March 20 to reflect this. For the last few months, we’ve worked with developers and advertisers to create better native ad experiences. So far, we’re seeing some very promising results.