Dabe Alan

Quality isn’t enough: how producing a good game may have helped kill a studio

Quality isn’t enough: how producing a good game may have helped kill a studio

Hi everyone! Several weeks ago, we posted a link in The Cut to a developer blog about how the packaged goods business model is anti-developer. Shortly thereafter, I received an email from Dennis Dunn, head of Hope This Works, an indie development studio on its way out. The studio had experimented with buy-it-once and in-app purchase models, but neither of their games gained traction, despite doing essentially everything right from a content and business perspective. Dunn’s story was an enlightening, if not sobering read, and one I felt worth sharing. Enjoy.

In October 2011, my company Hope This Works Games Inc. set out to design a title that was rooted in traditional platformer game play mixed with the color-switching mechanic found in games such as Ikaruga. That title became Polara.

As an independent start up, we didn’t have the benefit of an investor fueling production, so it was imperative that we be frugal and focused. We had a great idea and knew we needed to jump on it as soon as we could.

Forward momentum

Our first release, Kunundrum, failed to generate capital. Our initial business plan with Kunundrum was to utilize a very popular trending model, which is to offer the game as a free download and then charge within the title with in-app purchases(IAPs). This proved to be ineffective and actually caused a backlash as people did not think the first 20 levels were challenging enough to warrant a payable unlock for the next 80.

Realizing this unfortunate mistake, we decided that for Polara, we should avoid the IAP game altogether and instead offer people more value from the core game play. Rather than spend time designing reasons why ancillary power-ups or level unlocks are where their money should be spent, we felt that it was imperative that the game be a worthwhile upfront investment. This allowed the level design and color change mechanic to form fluid game play, offering the user a more engrossing experience.

A lot of the design on the mobile/social platform relies upon pinch points in gaming. For example, in Farmville, you are requested to plant and sew crops. The designers place a time limit on these crops that causes the user to hit a virtual wall and have to wait until they can harvest resources to move forward. The idea is to incite the user to weigh their patience over the amount of money they are willing to part with in order to speed this action up.

Polara relies on the forward movement of the character through the levels. And though we could have used IAP-influenced pinch points in the design, we decided to guide the user and build skillsets that would help them as they moved through the game giving them a sense of accomplishment, rather than a sense of anxiety from post sale remorse. Our guiding philosophy was that the payoff the user feels at the end of a flawless run would far outweigh the feeling of giving up and paying to bypass a problem.

Standing out in the crowd

As Polara formed into a completed title, we felt that it deserved a more complemented launch than Kunundrum had. With Kunundrum, we used a service called prMac to create a press release that unfortunately read like stereo instructions and failed to ensure reviewers would be interested in trying the game.

When presenting your software to the media as a developer, you find you are standing in a line hundreds deep that exponentially increases as the days pass. To ensure our spot closer to the head of the line we went out of our group and hired Triple Point PR. We had done some research and found that their representation held a level of quality and credibility with some of the more successful mobile titles out there. Though we have yet to sell enough copies to replace the funds for this service, it proved to be the right choice as Triple Point were able to get our trailer displayed on both Kotaku and IGN a week or so before we launched. The trailer was made in-house and for a budget of almost 0 dollars, and we considered it a small victory. When reviews trickled out they were rife with compliments and perfect to near-perfect scores. Though this was ideal, it was far more important that reviews existed at all. The process of being noticed among the million or so apps on the iTunes library is arduous, so any exposure or attention is paramount in this endeavor.

Major sites such as Touch Arcade and 148apps praised the title as an ambitious breath of fresh air in a dried up genre that boasted incredibly fun and challenging level design.

They also focused on the initial price of $0.99 cents claiming that it was a steal with all the content and replayability offered. Eli Cymet of 148apps wrote, “The masses cry out for solid design, fresh ideas, and rewarding gameplay. Hearing them, Polara emerges from the shadows… And with the whole package going for under a dollar, this is a rebellion to get behind.”

There are dozens of articles and reviews written about Polara that claim the same worth and quality and have even gone on to state that our title may be one of the best of the year. Hundreds of people have left similar reviews on Google Play and iTunes, with Polara boasting an average app score of 4.8. But there was one response to a code giveaway we did on the forums at Touch Arcade that really solidified why we are in the business:

“I actually got a code a couple of days ago, it was the last game I downloaded before Sandy hit NJ and knocked out power and wrecked stuff. just wanted to say thanks, your game helped me through a difficult time, it was a great distraction in all this.

I’m not able to write a review on iTunes but I’ll be sure to shout you out on twitter and FB now that I have internet back

Again thanks for an awesome game”

What goes up

In spite of these positive responses, when the sale price was shifted up to $2.99 after the initial launch at $0.99 cents, we saw a major dip in sales. I can only speculate that consumers were unsure of an unknown developer, perhaps thought we may have paid for the reviews, or thought that their money could best be spent on three $0.99 titles rather than on a single $3 title. We reverted the price back to $0.99 four days later and though we had a spike for one day of 411 sales, the days following dropped to numbers anywhere between 2 and15 units moved a day.

Another possible issue that could have contributed to the quick decline in unit movement was a lack of response from other sites when contacted regarding reviews. We tried to reach out and offer our title, telling sites this piece of software was impressing a lot of people and delivering high-quality game play for hardly any money. We sat in silence.

Silence is the worst type of response. Either you failed to contact people or they simply do not have the time or interest in your title and rather are looking for a story to deliver to their readership. It is one of the most frustrating things about promoting a title.

Like most developers on the store, our toolset to drive sales is limited by exposure and price bots that report apps which are on sale or switching to free. We considered a free app-a-day giveaway, but we doled out over 140,000 copies of Kunundrum for free over the span of a year, only to see 60-100 sales in return over the week or two following the promotions. It wasn’t a viable solution when our game is not full of IAP content.

Though all of our reviews were coming back overtly positive, a small community was growing and our initial launch sales were showing a sustained bout of success, we still saw a major mismatch between the continued sales and lack of coverage around the title. The first 3 weeks of sales showed 4,740 sales. The next 3 weeks reported 419 sales. At the time of writing, our analytics display our app ranked lower than what the charts display (

<400) in just about every category. This is in spite of

another sale and a review this past Monday, Nov. 19th, 2012, shown on Electric Playground, a syndicated video game review show on G4TV. This was an opportunity for us to be viewed on television across North America, but response was minimal.

Must come down

As an app developer you have to deal with ups and downs. The continual refreshing of applications in the stores means you get buried quickly. Due to the volatile nature of this business model and the lack of returns on investment into our software my company is now facing its demise. For nearly 2 years every person involved within the company has not been able to draw a salary. Without any form of backing, support or return on sales we must consider closing down and moving on to other forms of employment.

Though I am proud of the software we have created, I have to consider that the dream of creating and maintaining my own company may be dead. I also must consider that the line between success and failure in this economic paradigm is so thin that even when a company creates something deemed high-quality, fresh or innovative, it can still be bypassed due to a number of reasons such as the vast majority of selection on the store, pricing trends, or lack of exposure in the media. In the end there is still one sentiment that rings true amidst all of the confusion; during the inception of this company there were numerous occasions where I would turn to my partners and say, “Man, I hope this works!”

Embracing the “never say die” spirit of Wyle E. Coyote from Looney Tunes, we strapped a pig to a rocket in our logo to remind ourselves that, even if we need to try something considered impossible, we will never give up until that pig flies. This path has been riddled with stressful, life-altering moments, challenges and problems. But I can tell you that it has been absolutely worth every single one of them any time I see a review come back saying we made someone, somewhere happy. Perhaps our success isn’t measured by dollars.

Though we’re on extremely thin ice, and holding on by a thread I still can’t help but think: I hope this works.