Category Archives: Platforms

The Power of Relativity

This article was originally published in Game Developer Magazine. It was the seventh in a series of business columns that I am writing for GDM.

One of the most frustrating things a game developer will ever hear is “that [PERCEIVED GENRE] game isn’t worth [PRICE]—I can get [OTHER GAME] for [LOWER PRICE].”

It’s frustrating for a whole bunch of reasons. Your game might not be very similar to the games to which it is being compared, or might offer more content or replayability. Heck, you might simply think your game is “better” and deserves a higher price. But it doesn’t matter. The comparisons are being made and now you’re getting 2-star reviews calling your game good but your company “greedy.”

If that sounds familiar, congratulations: You are part of the very large and growing club of developers who underestimated the power of relativity. No, not E=MC2. I’m talking about the fundamental human tendency to compare everything in our lives to something else we’re familiar with. An organic apple seems ludicrously overpriced to you at $1.99 because conventional apples sell for $0.79, but that same apple would have seemed cheap if your grocery store only carried the organic variety and if organic mangos appeared nearby for $5.99 each. It’s all relative.

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Your First F2P Game: Where You Will Go Wrong

A video of my 2012 Casual Connect lecture is now freely available online. TY to Casual Connect for sharing it!

Props to Platforms

Triple Town for Facebook and Google+.

Danc and I do more than our fair share of taking platforms to task for their failings. We’ve (rather bluntly) advocated for shorter approval periods on Apple’s App Store; we’ve railed against Amazon’s poor management of the games marketplace on e-ink Kindles; we’ve given whole lectures about the ways in which platforms, in general, can become abusive when they become large and successful. What we — and most other indies, IMO — don’t do often enough is publicly thank platforms when they do something good for us. So I’m going to put away my cynic’s hat and call attention to a few nice things that platforms have done for us lately, in hopes it encourages said platforms to do more of this for more indies.

Apple and Google both take a lot of flack for allowing blatant clones on their respective platforms. So I think it’s worth pointing out that both companies have taken down some Triple Town ripoffs. Google has delisted two clones on Android Market… and one of those was taken down within literally three hours of being reported. Apple just recently delisted one Triple Town ripoff after a period of a few weeks. There’s certainly more than Apple and Google could do to protect indies from total ripoffs, but I think it’s worth mentioning that they aren’t just sitting on their hands right now.

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Understanding Platforms at 2011 IGDA Summit

I really enjoyed this panel; Jamil did an absolutely great job moderating it. Worth a watch if you didn’t happen to be there.

Moderated by Jamil Moledina (Director, EA Partners, and fellow board member of the IGDA), Jack Buser (Director, Playstation Home), Bob Meese (New business development, Google), and myself.

Steambirds: iOS vs Android

I thought some of you might be interested to know how our experience launching Steambirds on iOS and Android worked out. So I’ve written up a little post-mortem of sorts, below. But first, some important notes: the excellent iOS version was developed and published on our behalf by Semi Secret, best known for their wonderful game Canabalt, and the equally-excellent Android version was developed by Flat Red Ball and published by us.

Both the iOS and Android versions of the game were featured by Apple and Google, respectively; the iOS version was featured immediately upon launch, while the Android version was featured a couple weeks later. We did little in the way of traditional marketing to support the game, but we did put a very prominent link in Steambirds: Survival to a page advertising both the iOS and Android version, and given that SB:S has already been played by over two million people, that’s a fair amount of promotion. We were also fortunate enough to get a shout out from Penny Arcade, among other notable sites.

So, enough background information. Here were the pros/cons of each platform we released Steambirds on:

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The Business of “Steambirds: Survival”

Today we launched Steambirds: Survival (SB:S), the first true sequel to the original Steambirds. It’s essentially “Steambirds meets ‘Horde Mode’ from Gears of War” — your goal is to fight off ever-growing waves of enemies for as long as you can manage. Aside from this central conceit, the key differences between SB:S and the original SB are:

  • In SB:S, you can choose from 24 planes, all of which need to be unlocked, and nearly all of which have very distinct characteristics which heavily impact your play style.
  • In SB:S, when enemies are shot down, they leave a collectible powerup where they crash. Judiciously deciding when to collect these (and how to use them) is key to your survival.
  • In SB:S, there are microtransactions. Seven of the twenty-four planes in the game can only be unlocked with cash. One of the twenty-four planes is unlocked for free, if you create an account and sign up for our newsletter.

Monetization headaches

Adding microtransactions to SB:S proved to be non-trivial. To understand why, you need to understand our distribution strategy. We’re excited about Flash because it opens up such a huge audience to our games. Part of that huge audience comes from the hundreds of Flash gaming portals who will happily host and promote your game for free, without any negotiation or formal arrangement needed, in exchange for the opportunity to monetize the game via their own site’s advertising system. Normally, all you get in return (aside from exposure) is a prominent link (or links) in the game to other websites of your choosing. But we wanted more than that – we wanted to monetize content inside the game, no matter where it was hosted. That turned out to be a huge pain in the butt.

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Why we created Triple Town for Kindle

This week is a big milestone for Spry Fox; we released the first independently-developed game for the Kindle, which we called “Triple Town.” Our playtesters have described Triple Town as, among other things, “the Civilization of Match-3 games”, which is both flattering and terrifying. :-)

Danc has written a nice post about the design philosophy behind the game. If you own a Kindle 2, Kindle DX or Kindle 3 you can purchase Triple Town directly from Amazon.com.

As a supplement to Danc’s post, I thought you might like to know our business rationale for creating Triple Town. It shouldn’t surprise long-time readers of this blog that I’m always on the look-out for platforms in the “uncertain beginnings” phase that may soon enter “early glory”. The Kindle seemed like just such a platform. Let’s break that down:

1. Platform prospects

First and most important question: is there a reason to believe the platform has a good chance of becoming a viable ecosystem for its first wave of game developers? Looking at the Kindle, I saw a platform with a reasonable number of users (Amazon will not release ownership statistics, but I’ve been guessing that there are currently at least 2m+ active content-enabled devices out there, based on publicly available information. I could definitely be wrong about that, but hopefully not by too wide a margin on the downside.)

More importantly, I saw a platform with users who are inclined and encouraged to purchase large quantities of digital content at relatively healthy prices. And given Amazon’s merchandising expertise, I hoped that unlike on so many other platforms (Wiiware springs to mind as a sad example), Kindle games would get plenty of visibility and Kindle developers would have reasonable marketing tools made available to them.

2. Content supply

Secondly: what is the supply of high-quality content likely to look like when the platform first launches? Will it be an overwhelming flood or a small trickle? The latter is what creates a supply-demand imbalance during the “early glory” phase, and which ultimately leads to strong returns for early developers. The Kindle was an interesting case in this regard. While I’d imagine that software developer interest in the Kindle is quite high in general, when I personally asked a large number of my friends in the game industry, “are you planning to develop a game for the Kindle,” the answer was always either “no” or “you can make games for the Kindle?” Furthermore, I didn’t see much Kindle-related news in the game industry press or at game industry conferences. To me, that indicated a potentially-unappreciated market opportunity.

3. Investment threshold

Unfortunately, even when both the conditions above hold true, there is no guarantee that the emerging platform will ultimately prove viable. Any number of issues — ranging from mismanagement of the platform, to unanticipated technology problems, to rotten luck — could cause the ecosystem to be less viable than you might hope. Consequently, the third major condition of a good “uncertain beginnings” investment opportunity is simply: can I dip my toe in the water with a project of relatively small scope? If entering the market requires a huge expense, it probably doesn’t make sense for most independent game developers. But Daniel and I were confident that we could create a great game that we were proud of in a reasonable period of time, with a reasonably small team. And so we did.

Conclusion

Of course, it certainly didn’t hurt that both Spry Fox and Amazon are based in the greater Seattle area. Knowing that I could easily meet the platform managers in person if they were interested in our company or our game was a nice bonus. That said, I wouldn’t call location one of our key investment criteria.

Anyway, long story short, we decided to give the Kindle a shot. I am very grateful to the people at Amazon for their decision to release Triple Town as one of the first games on the Kindle, and look forward to seeing how this grand experiment turns out. :-)

The Magic Test

“People are willing to pay for magic.”

That’s what my friend Brian replied when I told him that no one in Microsoft’s target audience would purchase an Xbox plus Kinect for a minimum price of $300 when they either A) own a Wii already, or, B) can purchase a Wii (with MotionPlus, Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort) for just $200. Brian, as I frequently must admit, is a perceptive fellow.

People are indeed very willing to pay for magic. They have lined up around the block to pay $500 minimum for a slice of magical iGoodness from Apple. They lined up to watch Avatar in 3D (multiple times.) And they — that is, we — will continue to line up for the products and services that dazzle us, recession or no.

So, if you want to know who “won” E3, perhaps one way to figure that out is to apply a magic test to the products that were unveiled there.

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Portrait of a Facebook Hangover

I’ve been casually tracking the daily active user numbers for the top 40 Facebook game developers for the past six weeks. Why the top 40? Because that’s the quantity displayed by Appdata.com on the first of 200 pages. Why daily active users? Because monthly active user numbers are widely considered to be an unreliable statistic for Facebook games, whereas DAU is, if not perfect, at least more directionally accurate.

I was mostly curious to learn how “hit makers” are faring on Facebook. (The 40th developer on the list has just 200k daily active users, so it’s safe to assume that all the heavy hitters are represented in the top 40 list.) Facebook’s total population has supposedly been growing by leaps and bounds over the past several months — it jumped from 350m “active” to 400m in the three months leading up to February 2010) so theoretically daily active users for the top 40 game developers should be growing as well, if for no other reason than there are more potential customers on the platform. However, it turns out the DAU count is down slightly since March.

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The Trials and Tribulations of Summer

For a couple weeks now, I’ve been getting calls from friends in the industry bemoaning their lack of inclusion in the upcoming Summer of Arcade promotion on XBLA. The tone of the calls has varied, but they’ve all shared one thing in common — frustration with Microsoft. As I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to the following conclusion: Summer of Arcade will have to change or, at very least, cease to be Microsoft’s ultimate promotion for the XBLA service.

First, a bit of history. Summer of Arcade was the brilliant brainchild of my good friend, Jeremy Wacksman. It was born of the realization that Microsoft desperately needed something that would draw positive attention to XBLA and make consumers, developers and the press take it seriously (bear in mind, this was during XBLA’s “inevitable misery” phase, when no one had anything good to say about the platform.) SoA served that purpose beautifully; it kicked off XBLA’s “triumphant return” and changed the tone of public conversation from “XBLA is full of crap” to “XBLA is the only place you can find games like Castle Crashers and Braid.” It also established the $15 price point on XBLA — an important and under-appreciated feat.

Dealing with rejection

Summer of Arcade still gives consumers and the press something positive to focus on. Unfortunately, SoA seems to be turning into a net negative for the developer/publisher community. Today, many companies will target a summer release in hopes of making it into SoA and may even choose to hold a finished game in their pockets for several months for that purpose. A couple months before SoA is scheduled to begin, ~five lucky development teams find out their games have been blessed; significantly more discover that they’ve been rejected.

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