Adrift at Sea – Where’s Captain Fishblock? Are we rich yet?

Hey everyone!

It’s been three weeks since Captain Fishblock, the game I made in 2 weeks as part of my own AIR to App Store challenge set sail into the vast uncharted waters of the various App Stores. A number of people have been asking how the game went – so I thought I’d write a small post detailing what happened after I launched the game.  First and biggest question – am I rich? Is the Captain sailing on rivers of diamonds?

lifeOfPi

Alas… no.

After three weeks, with the game launched on three platforms – Google Play, iTunes and the Amazon App Store, I’ve had a grand total of 166 downloads. Which, of course, is pretty humbling and many would say discouraging. I would tend to agree on one level, but on another – I’ve learnt some pretty valuable lessons, which I’ll break down here.

Firstly, when you’re releasing a game, you want to do two things. Sign up for App Annie, a free service that provides great stats on how well your game is selling, where its ranked in the various app store charts and so on. Also, make sure you add Google Analytics to your game. It’s very easy to add in an API right into your code ( in this case, Actionscript ) and it provides realtime data on just who is playing your game, for how long, and where they’re playing. In fact, it’s actually pretty frightening just how much Google knows about user behaviour.

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In the chart above, you can see the game has been played 639 times in Australia ( my home country ) – by far the highest amount. The USA is the next highest, with 190 sessions by 30 users. However, you can also track things like screen views ( for example, how many times have people visited the level select screen and so on.

What’s interesting to me is that although only 166 people have downloaded the game, they have visited the ‘main game’ screen a not insignificant 16,266 times. So in rough terms, every person has played the game on average 97 times. Which tells me this – the game itself is pretty playable. Those who download the game generally enjoy it , come back it and play it multiple times.

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So what went wrong? Why, when I have made a good game, with nice artwork and great music, aren’t people flocking to buy it? The answer is simple and yet it’s not so simple. I’m going to break it down with a few thoughts here:

  • Even $0.99, a humble dollar, is a significant price barrier to many people. It could be one dollar, it could be two, it could be five – the amount matters less than the fact that it’s not free. So, the moment you decide to set an upfront price for your game, be prepared to see your potential audience shrink by, if not tenfold, maybe even a hundred-fold. People don’t want to pay for games – it’s a sad state of affairs driven by Apple’s ‘race to the bottom’ culture that devalued games and allowed for the insidious rise of In App Purchasing (which I wrote about here ) . The genie is out of the bottle now, there’s no real way around that. Unless your game is very well known, setting a price of even a dollar means you’re probably likely to only make a bit of pocket change back from sales.
  • Friends and family are great for building an initial buzz of sales on the first day. They will champion and tell their friends, and in many cases, buy your game. So on my first day of sales on Google Play, I had nearly 40 sales alone – almost a quarter of the total sales to date. Although obviously this is unsustainable unless you have thousands of friends, it certainly helps to push your game up the ‘New Release’ charts against the other apps who are trickling in 1-2 sales a day. In Australia , I easily cracked the Top 50 for New Paid Release games with just 40 sales and eventually peaked at #12 on the New Release chart before falling again.
  • Promotion is hugely important. And for most indie developers, hugely expensive. I’ve got 633 Twitter followers right now – I created a bit of buzz writing a development blog for the game in the weeks leading up to release, and I tweeted quite regularly when the game was released on Google Play. I got a few retweets and encouraging comments from other developers but in general, it didn’t really make a splash – it didn’t capture the public’s imagination enough to go viral. By the time the game was approved to go live on iTunes, I had pretty much stopped talking about it – and it showed. Sales of Apple version of games historically outsell Android by 5 to 1 at least. In my case, for this game at least, it’s the reverse. The game has sunk to the bottom of the Mariana Trench – I checked App Annie today and yesterday I had only one sale – a lovely chap from Mexico, I believe.
  •  You gotta pay to be noticed – I sent out a few exploratory tweets and emails to various editors asking if they’d like to review the game. I even offered to provide free codes to the game. Nothing back – not a word – from any of the big sites. I’ve received a few unsolicited emails from other review sites offering to generously do their job and review my game for the paltry sum of, in some cases, $300 or more. I’ve declined on all fronts – if the game had a bit more traction already, I’d be willing to put some money back into marketing, but as it is, I’m already down money – I spent over $200 on Encryption software and Native Extensions alone – so I’m in the red.
  • Two words – Flappy Birds – more than enough ink has been spilt on this little curiousity, but interestingly enough it came out right when my game did. It taught me something though, something I hadn’t really factored into my game. People like to compete against each other, from the Super Bowl to tapping a screen to get a bird between pipes. The game itself is eye gougingly terrible besides the point, what it offered people was the chance to compete with each other – and compete quickly. You play, you get a score, you invariably lose, you try again. I think that in and of itself is an interesting lesson. Instead of spending time crafting 40 levels, adding many new features to the game and so on, perhaps I should have made the game even more simple – how many blocks can you stack on the boat, for example. I personally believe it would be a worse game but perhaps it would be more viral.
  • I was disappointed in Adobe’s marketing team. There’s all these great developers making games in Adobe Flash and Starling and Adobe don’t seem to want to know about it. They do many things in half measures these days – initially promoting AIR as a gaming platform, but yet not really providing a gaming framework (ala Unity) nor a well known showcase where developers can show off their work and be pushed by the considerable muscle of Adobe. I genuinely think they don’t realise what an amazing tool they have in their arsenal – it’s like they have a Ferrari in their garage but don’t want to learn how to drive manual. Instead they ride their bicycles every day in the form of pushing HTML5, while Apple beats them up at school for their lunch money.
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At any rate, the game is out there now – I have one more arrow in the quiver regarding promotion, and that’s releasing a web version to promote the game. It will be interesting to see what effect (if any) it has on sales.

No matter, it was a lot of fun to build the game – I learnt a stack about the entire process along the way.

So what’s next for me? Well, I’ve got a few ideas.

  • I’d love to build a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure/ Fighting Fantasy’ style app ( free first book, pay a dollar for each additional – all In App of course ). I used to sketch and draw a lot and I miss doing it.
  • I’m keen to build a little (free/ad supported) mountain climbing game for mobile. Got a lot of ideas for this, a fast paced endless climber, how high can you go etc ? It’ll be interesting to see how it does against the paid model.
  • I’ve been learning Javascript and Typescript using the awesome Phaser framework. It’s amazing, it really is. I knocked up this quick prototypes in mere hours. I’m pretty confident if the opportunity comes up I can make the transition to HTML5/Javascript game development without much fuss.
  • I’ve got my eye on getting hold of an old, long dormant franchise of mine and bringing it back from the dead. Those who know the game I’m most famous for will know what it is – I haven’t forgotten the fans and I promise if I do get the franchise back I will do things the right way – it’s been neglected for far too long and the fans deserve better.
  • I’m going to keep blogging. I wanted to say a huge thanks to those who have left comments on the pages – though I haven’t replied directly, these comments are really important to me and I appreciate them greatly. You have no idea how much it means to hear you have inspired someone, shone some light on a topic others are in the dark on, and so on. It really is rewarding.

At any rate, never forget – Indie Game Development is a hobby – a great hobby. Don’t chase financial glory, make games  because you love it and maybe the riches will follow. Maybe not.

Write an idea, write ten ideas. Write a hundred. Come up with a new game idea every day. Tell your partner about it, tell your friends, see what sticks and what doesn’t. 9 in ten will be discarded, and most of the games you do build may not match your original vision. But you gotta keep building them – it’s in your blood. One piece of advice I would give, and I’ve heard many times before, strip out all the extra trimmings – strip your game back down to its most basic form. Everything else is a distraction – if the main game mechanic isn’t fun and easy to grasp, most people won’t persist with your efforts – even if you know the game is amazing “just a few levels in”.

Game dev is hard work and for most part your efforts go unheralded. It’s worth it though – it really is. To make someone laugh when they play your game, to see random strangers make Youtube videos about your work, or randomly tweet each other advice about your game. That in and of itself is a great reward. Just like Luke Skywalker looking off at the binary sunset dreaming of what he might some day achieve – you too should dream big. The world deserves to see your creations.

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Cheers everyone, stay creative!

Oliver Joyce

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