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Being a successful failure on iOS with Crabitron

Crabitron is a lovingly crafted game about destroying the Universe as a Giant Space Crab. What's not to love?

Crabitron is a critical success but not a financial one. Here is an in-depth look at what what is means to be a successful failure on iOS.

John Millard, Blogger

July 23, 2013

8 Min Read

How it all started.

I spent the better part of the last 2 years working on Crabitron in my spare time along with my friend and business partner Simeon Saëns. It was a great experience, a challenge and both a success and a failure. The game has gotten recognition as a wonderfully fun experience and a salient example of a truly unique type of gameplay. To my knowledge there isn’t anything quite like it on any platform and people really enjoy the concept. 

The idea of the game came about in early 2010 when the iPad was announced by Apple and the preview SDK became available. The other two members of Two Lives Left and I started to brainstorm ideas for iPad games. My approach was to ask a simple thought experiment:

What sort of game can you make that would only work on an iPad?

An interesting question since iOS games typically make little use what the screen can actually do, which is multitouch. My initial musings were of some kind of physics based game where you use different gestures to manipulate your surroundings, like dragging, slicing and hitting objects. I thought about ways to combine these different gestures and eventually settled on the idea of using pinching gestures to manipulate objects. With two fingers on each hand you get 8 degrees of freedom, which seemed pretty amazing to me given that most games never give you more than 4 (a twin stick shooter for example). So with a single pinch you can move, rotate and squeeze objects with a surprising amount of dexterity. With two you can snap things in half, play catch or slam things together. I built a basic prototype soon after and I knew instantly that I wanted to make a game. 

For me the idea evolved in a fairly predictable way. You have two claws. What has claws? A crab. What is a fun setting for a crab? I was already thinking of Space as a good setting so why not. A crab in space should be huge right? Giant Space Crab. Fast forward two years and the game is released. 

Critical Success and Sales do not always Correlate.

I can argue that Crabitron is a very successful game from a Critical standpoint. It has an average of 4.5 stars on the US App Store. It has received very favourable reviews from Wired, Touch Arcade, Eurogamer, Pocket Gamer, Slide to Play, and the list goes on. We recently showed the game at PAX Australia and it was universally loved by more than a thousand members of the public over a 3 day period. If you goto crabstarter.com you can see exactly how many sales we’ve made and what our current revenue is. We used this as part of our marketing story and it was also well received by the media being featured on Wired, The Verge and The Guardian UK among many other publications. As of writing this article the game has made roughly 17k in revenue since release. For some this might seem like a good amount of money, especially given how saturated the iOS market is. It is and it isn’t. As the game’s revenue tends asymptotically towards zero you get little chance to recoup dev costs even after years. 17k is nothing to sneeze at, but at the same time I believe there is a huge audience that the game has yet to reach. 

Doomed from the beginning?

The reason for the game to exist is also one of its biggest flaws. When we started working on the game, not every game was universal, but by the time we finished, almost everything was. Selling an iPad only game is sort of like selling a car without air-conditioning. People expect it and without it, you are not providing an essential feature that makes people more comfortable with their purchase. What do we do about it? The game was essentially designed NOT to work on iPhone. We are looking into universal and making great progress but it is a difficult issue to overcome. 

Discovery is HARD.

So when you release a game you need to promote it, and the best way on iOS is to get Apple to feature you. The best way to get Apple to feature you is to make a great game, or to have a reputation for making great games or some kind of special relationship with Apple. We just have a great game (in my opinion at least). We do have a reputation for good games in the past, but none of those were a hit so they don’t really count as much towards lending exposure to future games. Still, Apple were kind enough to feature Crabitron quite prominently in the US App Store New and Noteworthy Games section. This had a profound impact on sales, however we made a huge mistake - Premium pricing. 

Just being unique isn’t enough to justify a premium price.

We thought the game was so unique that people would be compelled to pay a higher price than usual so we launched at $4.99. The New and Noteworthy feature ensured that people willing to pay for it would know about it and we did have healthy sales initially, however it was still a huge barrier for the majority of iOS customers, used to seeing iPad and universal apps at $2.99 or less. The ranks started slipping even before the promotion was over, and by the time it ended, the rankings were in freefall. To help combat this we reduced the price to $2.99 but we had already missed out on our biggest opportunity. 

Later we received some helpful advice that the App Store economy is largely elastic. This means that when you get a spike in sales, you want to reduce your app’s price because you’ll make up for the difference in volume, and end up with more users. More uses means more people playing and talking about your game, helping people discover your game organically.

Release date is important but hard to get right.

We released our game right as Apple was promoting Mr. Crab as Editor’s Choice. This probably hurt our chances of being featured as Apple probably doesn’t want to feature too many Crustaceans in a row. We also ended up setting our release date the day after Fish out of Water and shortly before Robot Unicorn Attack 2. Both games were heavily featured by Apple and there wasn’t a snow ball’s chance in hell of us getting promoted at the same time despite receiving a request for promotional artwork. Hindsight is 20/20 but remember that there is a major app store release every single week. A small indie developer like us will always have to contend with apps that will steal the spotlight until we gain enough notoriety to stand apart or release something that is simply too good to ignore. 

Crabitron demands a lot from players for an iPad game.

I was talking to Alexander Bruce at PAX recently and he noted that Crabitron demands a lot from players as an iPad game. It made me think about how most games on iPad have very simple or at least conventional control schemes. Things like single touch controls or virtual sticks and buttons. These control schemes vastly simplify the experience for the player, they make the game work on any form factor and have almost no limitations in play style. Crabitron demands the player use two hands, four fingers and they play while seated. These limitations are inherent in the game’s design but rewarding for the player who can master the controls. This makes the game less mass market because it requires the player to invest time and effort into learning the controls and becoming good at them to experience the rewarding content. At the same time my experience is that almost every player understands the controls within a short period of time, but there is a small initial barrier where before it clicks with them. 

Children Love Crabitron.

I heard that my when my Girlfriend’s nephew started playing Crabitron he used to sneak out of his bed late at night and play the game. From my experience at showing the game at PAX and previous conventions, children love Crabitron. The love the art style, they love the tactile and direct controls, and they love the character and his silly antics. Crabitron is like a puppet and it lets children use their imagination and play with it like a toy. You can hear them shout “Yum I ate a spaceship”, “Omnomnomnom!” and “Haha I ate my own eyeball!” and you can see them get visibly distressed when their parents have to take them away to see the rest of the convention. Maybe it’s better as a toy rather than a game? Something to think about.

What next?

At the end of the day I'm incredibly happy with the critical success of Crabitron but I don't know exactly what it will take to make it a financial success. I'm working on a new universal update to see how it impacts discovery. I'm also contacting more review sites and Youtube channels to help spread the word. I know there's much more I can do and I'm not giving up.

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