Who is a bad customer?

For a long while now, the video game industry has had a very simplistic definition of a “good customer” and a “bad customer.” A good customer is someone who pays you $60 for your game (and better yet, pre-orders it.) A bad customer is someone who buys a used copy of your game or worse, pirates it. The problem is, this worldview ignores a variety of important factors and doesn’t translate very well to the digital markets that most indies are focused on.

Tell me which of these people is the best customer:

  • Customer A: pays 99 cents for a copy of your game immediately after launch, gives it a 1-star rating for some trivial reason and deletes it forever.
  • Customer B: pays 99 cents for a copy of your game, gives it a 5-star rating and even tweets regularly about it, but is such a toxic presence in the forums and/or in-game that she drives other customers away.
  • Customer C: pays 99 cents for a copy of your game and enjoys it, but never rates it and does nothing to promote it.
  • Customer D: pirates your game and regularly tweets about how awesome it is to her hundreds of followers. She also eagerly and politely answers the questions of newbies who visit your forums and happily beta tests your new games.

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Why Does Gamification Tend to Devolve?

Lots of people have been jumping onto the anti-gamification bandwagon lately. I’ve been surprised by the thoughtfulness and intelligence of the critiques that I’ve read… particularly those that are short, sweet and to the point. And since so much has been eloquently said about the problems with gamification, I won’t bother to repeat the arguments here. Instead I want to address something that everyone else has ignored up till now: why some of gamification’s proponents have allowed it to devolve into the mindless application of points, achievements and leaderboards.

Is it because the proponents of gamification are generally not game designers and don’t understand how hard it is to make a good game? In some cases, probably so. But there’s a deeper and more pervasive problem that is driving the “dumbing down” of gamification. The problem is: gamification is a very tough sell.

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Happy New Year

2010 was a very special year for me. From founding Spry Fox (which I would never have had the courage to do without a great business partner like Danc), to releasing our first games, to winning the IndiePub mobile games competition, to finding ourselves at the top of Amazon’s “top rated games” page… it’s been a better ride than I could have hoped for. But all of this pales in comparison to the most important news that I received in 2010: Eve is pregnant with a little girl — our first child — and due to give birth on March 4th. So here’s to a joyous and sleep-deprived 2011!

And, lest I seem ungrateful, I’d like to thank all of you from the bottom of my heart for your kind comments and encouragement. When I started writing this blog almost five years ago, I never really expected it to become a meaningful part of my life. I’m mildly astonished and grateful that it has done just that.

Happy new year, everyone. :-)

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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Kindle Game #2: Panda Poet

Just a quick note to announce that we’ve launched our second Kindle game, a neat little word puzzle called “Panda Poet.”. It’s a somewhat faster game than Triple Town, and it takes advantage of the Kindle’s keyboard. It also features really cute pandas, which is apparently the killer feature for many players. :-)

This is the fourth game in the word game genre on the Kindle platform (not something we realized would be the case when we first started developing it) so it will be interesting to see if Amazon’s customers still find it appealing. On other platforms in the “uncertain beginnings” phase, customers can definitely exhibit genre burnout.

That said, so far the reviews are good and Panda Poet is rising on the charts. I think the game’s success will depend largely on Amazon’s support of it, word of mouth, and the cuteness factor. We’ll be doing our own marketing, but thus far I’ve found it difficult to reach Kindle users — many of the traditional tactics (like using Google and Facebook advertising, for example) haven’t proven effective. I’ll do a post-mortem on both Triple Town and Panda Poet sometime in the next few months and will go into greater detail at that time.

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.


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. :-)

Announcing Spry Fox

Spry Fox Logo

Since well before I entered this industry, I’ve wanted to make my own games. At first, I thought I’d make exercise games, but that was before the launch of the Wii and well before I had any credibility in this industry, so it didn’t work out. Then I thought I’d make downloadable console games, but in a bizarre twist of fate, I was instead hired by Microsoft to review everyone else’s creative work. Well, they say the third time’s the charm, so I’m pleased to formally announce the birth of Spry Fox, a new kind of game development studio that I’ve co-founded with my good friend, Daniel Cook. The fearless Tom Buscaglia is our general counsel.

What do I mean by “new kind of game development studio?” Put simply: we focus on the business and design aspects of game development. We do not employ developers and we do not outsource. We create games by partnering with other talented individuals whose development abilities we respect, and everyone shares in the profit. In this regard, Spry Fox functions somewhat like a modern movie studio — we form teams around a project that everyone is passionate about, and the team disbands when the project is done (or, in the case of a free-to-play game, when the projects stops generating meaningful revenue). With a bit of luck, a team will gel nicely and may reunite many times (ala a Kevin Smith production), but it isn’t strictly necessary. We work together on what we love, and we part ways when our interests diverge.

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Building and Maintaining the Right Studio Culture

The folks at Casual Connect were awesome enough to make all of this year’s Seattle conference lectures freely available online. My talk was called building and maintaining the right studio culture. Check it out!

Debating F2P Monetization

One of the things holding back the evolution of F2P gaming in the West is the understandable discomfort that many Western designers feel about the “aggressive” monetization strategies employed by Asian game developers. For the purposes of this post, I’m defining “aggressive” as the sale of items that impact gameplay and/or speed up a player’s progress, in addition to other, less controversial premium features like aesthetic items and account personalization.

To many developers, the idea of designing a game to be anything other than “fun” is heretical (they may also fear the possibility of offending sensitive players.) Consequently, they either ignore the F2P business model or attempt to create games with relatively tame revenue-generating systems; for example, focusing on the sale of items with aesthetic benefit only, or roping off a portion of the game and hoping enough players voluntarily pay for access.

The irony of these fears should not be lost on anyone who was designing games thirty years ago. Classic arcade titles were explicitly designed to eat quarters over brief, regular intervals, and people of all ages still put up with it. By comparison, modern F2P games are positively generous to players!

All this is why, up until the social game explosion, we heard of so few financially-successful F2P games in the West. The social gaming companies get a lot of credit for leveraging Facebook and for rediscovering the market potential of asynchronous gameplay, but they deserve equally as much credit for realizing that people in the West are not culturally predisposed to hating any game with an aggressive monetization model. As with everything in life, context matters.

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