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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Spry Fox @ GDC 2012

Want to learn more about the exploits of Spry Fox from its co-founders? Looking for insights into the nutty world of f2p, web-based, and/or mobile games? Curious to see if Danc and I are as relentlessly and unforgivably opinionated in the flesh as we are on the Internets? (Spoiler: we are.)

Well, here’s where you can find us at GDC:

Realm of the Counter-Intuitive God (SOGS Postmortem)
SPEAKER/S: David Edery (Spry Fox)
Monday 11:15-12:15 Room 135, North Hall
Social and Online Games Summit / 60-Minute Lecture
Description: Realm of the Mad God is a web-based f2p MMO with a penchant for breaking rules. It’s a MMO bullet-hell-shooter… in Flash. It is based on open source art. It features permadeath (the ultimate in retention challenges)! And it just so happens to be surprisingly popular and very profitable. This lecture will review some of the unusual design and business choices we made and explore which worked, which didn’t, and why. Financial and other data will be shared (and not just the stuff that makes us look good).

Create New Genres (and Stop Wasting Your Life in the Clone Factories)
SPEAKER/S: Daniel Cook (Spry Fox)
Tuesday 3:00-4:00 Room 135, North Hall
Social and Online Games Summit / 60-Minute Lecture
Description: Re-releasing old designs with pretty new graphics means me-too titles fighting off a crowd of similar products. This is the path to mediocrity. To become a master designer, you need to break past a slavish devotion of past forms and create vibrant, new experiences. This design talk covers practical techniques for reinventing game genres. The goal is the invention of a unique and highly differentiated customer value proposition that makes both strong business sense and is also deeply creatively fulfilling. We cover designing from the root, reducing design risk, and igniting original franchises. We also cover the pitfalls of design innovation including fending off shark-like fast followers and other cloners. The presentation covers personal examples from recent titles such as Steambirds, Realm of the Mad God, Triple Town and other innovative successes.

How F2P Games Blur the Line Between Design and Business
SPEAKER/S: Soren Johnson (Game Developer Magazine), Ben Cousins (ngmoco Sweden), Matthias Worch (LucasArts), Tom Chick (Quarter to Three) and David Edery (Spry Fox)
Friday 4:00-5:00 Room 2003, West Hall, 2nd Fl
60-Minute Panel
The free-to-play movement is here to stay and will touch every corner of the games industry. However, the format blurs the line between game design and game business, so that business decisions will become increasingly indistinguishable from design decisions. Free-to-play content must be fun enough to attract and retain players but not so much fun that no one feels the need to spend some money. Managing this tension makes free-to-play design extremely difficult, especially for traditional game designers who are used to simply making the best game possible. Our panelists will discuss this transition and best practices for building free-to-play games with soul.

Bucking Convention with RotMG

RotMG

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

What would the typical publishing executive do if someone came to them and said, “We’ve taken open source, 8-bit art and created a f2p, nethack-inspired MMO with permadeath. You can attain the maximum character level in just 30 minutes of play. The game currently has no means of generating revenue and can only accommodate 60 concurrent players per server. Will you work with us on it?”

That’s essentially the question posed to Spry Fox one year ago by Alex and Rob, co-creators of Wild Shadow Studios, when they presented us with an early build of Realm of the Mad God (RotMG). And I can guess what others might have said to them, because when we subsequently described the project to contacts of ours, the reaction was inevitably one of skepticism. Permadeath? In 2011? How the heck are you going to retain users? And surely you mean 600 concurrent players per server, not 60?!

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Standing up for ourselves

Sometimes you need to stand up for yourself, or you’re just begging to be taken advantage of.

We (Spry Fox) have filed a copyright infringement suit in federal court against 6Waves LOLAPPS in response to their release of Yeti Town, their blatant copy of Triple Town. This was a difficult decision for Danc and I. We are not enthusiastic about the prospect of spending our time in court as opposed to making games. And in general, we believe that only in the most extreme circumstances should a video game developer resort to legal action in order to defend their creative works — the last thing our industry needs is frivolous lawsuits. Unfortunately, it is our opinion that 6waves has behaved in a reprehensible and illegal manner, and we can not, in good conscience, ignore it.

The full legal complaint can be downloaded here. In particular, I will call attention to these issues:

First: Yeti Town, as launched by 6waves, was a nearly perfect copy of Triple Town. We’re not just talking about the game’s basic mechanics here. We’re talking about tons of little details, from the language in the tutorial, to many of our UI elements, to the quantities and prices of every single item in the store (how exactly did 6waves “independently” decide to price 200 turns for 950 coins, or 4 wildcards for 1500 coins each? That’s quite a coincidence!) But don’t take our word for it. Here are just a few quotes taken from the numerous press articles that were published shortly after the release of Yeti Town:

  • Gamezebo: “Unfortunately for Yeti Town, the only substantial difference between it and Facebook’s Triple Town is the platform it’s on. Otherwise it’s the exact same game, only this time with snow.”
  • InsideSocialGames: “Yeti Town is a matching game nearly identical to Spry Fox’s Triple Town”
  • Games.com: “Replace “saplings” with “bushes”, “tents” with “houses” and “yetis” with “bears”. What do you get? Something that would look a lot like independent developer Spry Fox’s Triple Town”

Second: what most people don’t know is that 6waves was in confidential (under NDA) negotiations with us to publish Triple Town at the exact same time that they were actively copying Triple Town. We gave 6waves private access to Triple Town when it was still in closed beta, months before the public was exposed to the game. We believed those negotiations were ongoing, and we continued to give private information to 6waves, until 6waves’ Executive Director of Business Development sent us a message via Facebook on the day Yeti Town was published in which he suddenly broke off negotiations and apologized for the nasty situation. His message can be found in its entirety in the body of our legal complaint.

It’s bad enough to rip off another company. To do so while you are pumping them for private information (first, our game design ideas, and later, after the game was launched on Facebook, our private revenue and retention numbers) is profoundly unethical by any measure.

Despite all this, Danc and I still struggled with the idea of initiating a lawsuit. However, 6waves brought the issue to a head when, rather than openly and honestly discuss their actions, they had the chutzpah to tell Gamasutra that they had developed Yeti Town completely independently, and characterized the legitimate public criticism of their company as simply “part of the natural process” of game development.

We believe that there is nothing “natural” or ethical or legal about 6waves behavior. What they did was wrong. And if they get away with it, it will simply encourage more publishers to prey on independent game developers like us. We refuse to sit back and let that happen.

-Dave & Danc

Partnering with Playdom

As you may have already heard, Spry Fox has partnered with Playdom and Playdom is now the publisher of Triple Town on Facebook. This is something that Danc and I are very excited about!

You might be wondering why a studio as focused on independence as ours would choose to work with a publisher. Here, in no particular order, are the reasons:

  • Our games have reached millions of users, but never concurrently. We have constantly worried about our ability to scale without major service interruptions or other related problems. Our fans are our lifeblood and we do not want to let them down. Playdom, unlike us, has grown and managed many games with massive concurrent user populations. We are grateful for the opportunity to learn from them and lean on them.
  • The social gaming market is the most hyper-competitive environment that we have ever worked in. Successful games are cloned with lightning speed and the clones frequently outperform the original. Yes, we could raise a bunch of capital and use it to spend our way to higher user counts, but raising capital takes time and, having never managed a major user acquisition campaign, it is safe to assume that we’d probably spend our marketing dollars inefficiently. Playdom, on the other hand, is in a position to not only cross promote Triple Town to its many existing players, but to help us advertise the game in an effective manner.
  • Playdom, unlike many other publishers, offered us a fair deal pure and simple. They did not treat us like creative-but-helpless indies to be mercilessly exploited. They treated us with respect. It was also clear from day one that they were totally in love with the game. We’re pretty sure that some of the execs at Playdom play Triple Town much, much more than we do!
  • We want to create great original games. We do not wish to spend our time creating a massive company with a huge operational arm, with all the overhead that entails. So, we will retain complete creative control of Triple Town on Facebook while Playdom takes care of the many important operational and marketing responsibilities that Spry Fox is not well positioned to manage.
  • Playdom has made some very advanced tools available for us which will make it substantially easier to analyze activity on Triple Town, to connect with our players, to do AB tests, etc. We could theoretically have built and/or acquired all this from third parties but even in a best case scenario, it would have been neither easy nor cheap, and we would not have had Playdom’s advice as we leverage those tools and grow Triple Town in general. We are not so egotistical as to think we have nothing to learn from one of the biggest players in this market.

So that’s the story. As always, you can expect to hear updates from us as to how it goes. :-)

-Dave & Danc

Multiplayer Panda Poet!

Triple Town for Facebook and Google+.

October has been an insane month for Spry Fox. First we launched Triple Town. Then we launched Steambirds: Survival, mobile edition. Now I’m pleased to announce the launch of our latest original game, Panda Poet for the Web, a total remake of our original Kindle game which was released in 2010!

For a limited time, Panda Poet is available exclusively on our website and the Chrome Web Store.

The Kindle version of Panda Poet is a single-player word puzzle game, but the Web-based version is focused on asychronous multiplayer, and the core gameplay mechanic has been completely revamped to accomodate that. The quickest description of the new Panda Poet is “Scrabble meets Go.” It is a battle for territory between two players, and words are your weapons.

Panda Poet is also our first HTML5 game, which is an interesting experiment for us. We’re looking forward to seeing how we can leverage some of the big platforms that have recently begun to emphasize HTML5 games and comparing the traffic they drive to the traffic provided by Flash game portals, our traditional bread and butter. And we’re curious to see how browser compatability issues affect our retention, if at all. One thing’s for sure: its exciting to fire up the browser on my phone and play Panda Poet on it without any major issues. :-)

As always, we’ve launched what we consider to be the “minimum viable product” and we expect to keep improving the game over time. Four months from now, Panda Poet will look very different. And of course, we plan to put it on social networks and mobile devices, so there is a huge amount of work to be done.

The current business model is simple: Pay $2.99 to disable advertisements and enable the option to play on a 9×9 board in addition to default 7×7 board. My guess is that this won’t be enough to provide the kind of ARPU we are shooting for, but it will hopefully provided a decent baseline that we can build off of. Of course, we expect to generate some revenue from the advertisements itself, but it is hard to imagine that being very significant unless Panda Poet becomes a monster hit. That’s just not something anyone can bet on.

So anyway, please check out Panda Poet and let me know what you think! I will post an update in a few months on the game’s performance. (Speaking of, I’m overdue for an update on our other games. I’ll try to post something in a few weeks.)

Announcing Steambirds Survival for iOS

Steambirds Survival for iOS and Android

Steambirds: Survival (SB:S) is now available on iTunes! iPhone/iPod version here. iPad version here. We hit a slight snag with the Android version but you can expect to see it launch very soon as well. :-)

For those of you who haven’t heard, this version of Steambirds is the result of a collaboration between Spry Fox and Halfbrick (aka the guys who made Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride.) We worked together to evolve SB:S, which we originally co-created with Andy, from its humble beginnings into a robust game with 120 missions — 64 available for free at launch — and some cool new features, like a recruiting system that lets you hire additional planes to help you beat more difficult missions.

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The return of Triple Town

Triple Town for Facebook and Google+.

I’m pleased to announce the public beta of Triple Town, our original twist on the match-3 genre, which is launching on Facebook and will soon appear on other platforms as well.

Triple Town has always been a very special game for Spry Fox. It was one of our studio’s first titles, and it was good enough to be chosen by Amazon as the first indie game to be released on the Kindle. Triple Town also has the highest user rating of any game we’ve ever released (4.72 out of 5 on Amazon.com based on 158 reviews as of the time of this writing.)

So, when Danc and I started talking about how we might want to dip our toes into the turbulent water that is Facebook, Triple Town seemed like a natural fit. We knew the game was fun. We knew it would appeal to a broad audience. We knew it wouldn’t require a massive development expense because it is a relatively simple game. And we had observed a relatively limited amount of content in what I’ll call “the Bejeweled Blitz genre” on Facebook… a market opportunity that we felt we had a decent chance of capitalizing upon with Triple Town.

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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.

Interview: XBLA, Steam, etc…

Paul Hyman recently interviewed several folks, including myself, for a Gamasutra article on digital distribution that can be found here. I thought you might be interested in the full transcript of our interview. Here it is:

(1) What are your current thoughts on Xbox Live Arcade and how it has evolved as a platform for developers? What about your thoughts on how it should evolve? Please be very specific.

What’s interesting about Xbox LIVE Arcade is that, other than from a content perspective, it doesn’t seem to have evolved very much over the past several years. What I mean by that is the *games* have changed, but the platform itself has changed very little by comparison.

XBLA started out as a place for “bite-sized” and retro games; the kinds of titles that would typically have a $250k development budget. Today some developers are spending $2m+ on their XBLA games and Microsoft has very clearly sent the signal to the market that it is looking for “bigger, better” titles. So that’s a pretty big shift.

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