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Combat Monsters: A post-mortem

A sorry tale of over-expectation and under-performance, from the biggest CCG you've never heard of...

If you you’ve not seen it yet, which is highly likely, Combat Monsters is our latest game and has been out now on PC, Android and iOS for about three months. (There are links at the bottom if you want to try it). Combat Monsters is a very deep game, but a one sentence description of it is:

“Magic: The Gathering, with 3D monsters and proper rpg-style fighting on a game board.”

I think that sounds pretty compelling to be honest. If you don’t, you’ll probably stop reading about now, but for fans of card battlers like myself, the idea of the combat stage of Magic playing more like Final Fantasy might sound enticing.

When we first had this basic idea for a game back in the Summer of 2012, it caused so much excitement around our little office that it was hard to sit down and thrash out the detail – we just wanted to dive in and start coding right away. Now, three months after shipping, we still feel that excited about the game - and that’s pretty much unheard of in game development, despite what developers might tell you when toeing the company line.

To sum that up, we had quite a long break over Christmas and I spent most of my free time adding new cards for the next update. Not because our players want it, not because it might make us more money, but because it’s still bloody good fun to play with new cards - long past the point I should’ve become jaded to the game. (At time of writing, 2.5 million monster battles have been fought and it feels like I was in half of them.)

I’ve been in commercial games development for getting on thirty years now, and I can honestly say that no project I’ve ever worked on has held my attention like this one. It’s just ace. And of course I’m not biased when I say that, ooooh no!

But despite all this ebullience, this article is mostly a sorry tale about over-expectation and under-performance. We got some things right, we got some things wrong, and some things just went wrong all by themselves…

What went right

1. Design and Features

I can’t know for certain, but if the premise for Combat Monsters wasn’t new at the time, it was certainly invented independently. The deck-building part is of course fairly standard, but there are some new mechanics here which are not.

For instance, you have a hero character on the board and the objective is to keep yours alive whilst killing the opponent’s. You spawn monsters around your hero only though, so you must tread a fine line between aggression and defence. Get too close and next turn you might get hacked to death, stay too far away and your opponent(s) can pick off your monsters before they threaten.

This provides for a lot of nip and tuck tension throughout the combat and we think we got this exactly right. That’s not a given when you design a fighting game around a new way of fighting, so it was a great relief when this panned out.

It was also questionable why lots of companies, all with more experience than us in this genre, never trod the “3D monster rpg fighting“ road. (I wrote a piece about this long before we shipped the game, which you can read on Gamasutra here.)

It would’ve been easy to assume they’d all thought about this and found some fatal flaw and binned the idea, but I’m glad we didn’t get scared off and stuck to our guns as it really works.

2. Graphics Pipeline

We don’t get too many negative comments, but one of the most common is that the graphics aren’t exactly next gen, and this is certainly true for people used to playing PC and console games. We have spent some time prettying it all up, but this really isn’t a game to show off your new $1,000 graphics card with.

And in any case it’s this or nothing, which is why something negative sounding made it into the “what went right” section. Our art department comprises exactly one person, take a bow David Moss.

At time of writing, there are 144 different 3D monsters in the game, spread across 12 different races, all of which need to look different, act different, and animate in many ways. (7,000+ animation frames). On top of that there are tons of equipable armour, shields, weapons and special effects for the 50+ special abilities the monsters share. That’s a lot of art for a small team and for one man it’s ridiculous!

We clearly had to make some compromises here, finding good ways to reuse stuff without it looking too obvious, etc. The monster races share just one core model per class. All elf archers share the same body model with different textures. Orc warriors share a different body model with texture swaps, etc. ALL monsters share the same animation rig, which is why they’re all roughly humanoid in shape.

You get the picture. Designing the details to make all this artwork achievable by one man was no small task, but I think it works in the final product. We made a game with an epic amount of varied content in it with just one artist, and that is something we’re all proud of, especially David.

Given the above, we could not afford to make a custom build for the PC version, much as we would have liked. In a long six player battle, you can get an awful lot of monsters and equipment on the screen – hundreds – so we had to make most stuff quite a low polygon count to keep the frame rate up on mobile. This does let down the PC version a little though, and we’re making higher resolution art for this in a future update – it’s an on-going job.

But I don’t think it looks too shabby, at least there’s a lot going on. Here’s a recent screenshot:

3. Expandability

We set ourselves an epic challenge when we sat down and specced out this game. We wanted to ship with a lot of cards, we wanted lots and lots of options for players to make different deck styles, we wanted all formats to play together and we wanted it to be easy to test and tweak during development. We also intended right from day one to bill this as an active project with new content and features coming out all the time, so had to make room for that to happen.

We had a number of false starts and live patches shortly after release, but that’s all settled down now and things work as required. As testament to this we’ve already released one major content update and are currently working on another that has seriously tons more cards and features in it.

All players on all formats can upgrade to the new system at their leisure and it all just works, so this is a big win now that we can rely on it for the future.

The main reason it went smoothly is days and days of design work for how the server and client apps talk to each other. And this isn’t the fun kind of design where you get to make new spells and weapons. I’m talking here about the ultimate in boredom – data structure design, communications pathways, flowcharts, etc. This is the sort of unjoyous aspect of development that nobody ever wants to do, but we thank ourselves daily now that we sat through it and got it all mostly right.

Grunt work always pays off, but it does require discipline to do it properly so you get the benefit. The worst thing you can do is pay lip service to grunt work, have a crap week doing it half-heartedly, and then get nothing back from it later either.

4. Player Happiness

It’s one thing to enjoy your own game. It’s a poor developer indeed that doesn’t, let’s be honest. If you get to call the shots and come up with something you think is poor yourself, then perhaps you’re in the wrong job.

But it’s quite another thing to unleash your creation on the world and see what they think of it. I imagine this is always a moment of trepidation for any developer with any project, but for us the tension was palpable. Combat Monsters is a massive development for us, having over twice the amount of work put into version one than our previous title - Great Big War Game - which was no match three game itself. We bet the farm on this one and it simply had to fly.

And it did! (Sort of)

You’ll see later in this article that the gaming press couldn’t care less, but Combat Monsters is so far a big hit with our players, and they are ultimately the only people who matter. We have a long list of five and four star reviews on both app stores, and our forum has filled up with people who clearly love the game to bits, even to the point of spending money on it.

Another thing I think we got right here is to engage with those players as much as possible. We listen to our people and if we see a consensus building up then we roll in the required change/addition with the next update.

Although we have lots of ideas of our own for what content to put in for next time, rolling in stuff that players directly ask for has made Combat Monsters a much better game than we could’ve managed by ourselves, so this is a win-win.

If any developers out there are reading this and thinking they can’t afford the time or trouble to do this, then you’re missing out. Apart from goodwill going begging, your game is suffering because of a lack of player input. Those guys know more about your game than you do and they can make it better, better than you can.

What went wrong

1. Income – Myth Busted: “It’s easy to make money with F2P”

Earnings from this game have been tragically disappointing so far. The core team comprises six people, all veteran developers doing this as their full time and only job.

(We suffered our first ever resignation before Christmas. Our most junior member, having been with us for seven years, went to work at Rockstar Games. He should be starting about now actually, so we all wish you well Mick. Make sure to pop plenty o’ caps in those asses.)

With freelancers and other part time help, the team size actually peaked at twelve, and income from Combat Monsters is simply not sufficient to pay those people for their time - not even close. We’re in the fortunate position where income from previous games allows us to meet the wage bill, but if it wasn’t for that we’d be sunk – there’s just no way to pretty that up.

And even this is only possible because our guys are happy to receive fairly mediocre wages in return for the benefits of working at an indie firm on something they care about. I and my biz partner owe them an awful lot, and it would be nice to get those guys earning what they’re truly worth at some point soon – we all thought Combat Monsters was going to do it too.

Here’s our income to date from the iOS version. Android is similar, whilst the PC version earns us practically nothing. We’ve so far taken in a touch over $50K in three months across all formats.

The big bulge at the beginning was feature assisted, so to make an accurate forecast for the year, I’m just going to take that last month and multiply it by 12. With the other versions included, that’s about $110K for the year, assuming it doesn’t tail off more.

About $20K of that went on one-off payments for various things during development, so our team of six would have to share $90K between them. And this is skipping over inconvenient details like paying tax, insurance, rent, utility bills, server costs and etc., bringing the useable total nearer $50K.

2. Free to Play – Myth Busted: “It’s easy to get downloads”

We thought we were on to a winner here. Free to play has a lot of vocal detractors, but the quiet majority seem to love this pay model. I did a much more in-depth piece about the merits of free to play (or F2P) which you can read on Gamasutra here.

From our perspective, the most important aspect of F2P is removing the barrier to entry – i.e. the cover price. There are some (actually a lot) of freeloaders out there that will happily breeze from one game to another without paying a dime for any of them, but these people are neither ours nor anybody else’s target audience.

For everyone else, they know that free to play isn’t really going to be free, but nor do they mind spending some money on their hobby. No, the main reason F2P has become popular in my thinking is that players can find out if they like the game or not without risking any money up front. And whilst they’re about it, the more ethically written games like ours will show them the expected costs, so the player can know exactly if it’s the right game at the right price before they dive in.

This is all fine, but not charging even a nominal amount up front means we only get paid by people that actually do love the game. For a fairly niche game like ours, that means we need to get a ton of so-called “drive by” downloaders to see the game somehow, hoping that there are sufficient numbers of people amongst them who will eventually go on to pay something.

Because of that, we need truckloads more people downloading Combat Monsters than we do a prepaid game such as Great Big War Game, and therein lies a serious problem - visibility is even more important, and harder to do right, for F2P than other sales models.

Visibility (its lack thereof) is already a known major issue for prepaid game developers, so you can imagine what a problem it is in the free charts, wallowing not just amongst all those other decent games, but also amongst endless petabytes of utter crap. That infinite monkey theorem is definitely being stress-tested in the free app charts, I can assure you.

I’d not even thought about all this during development, so it has come as quite a shock to have the reality of this slammed in my face. My over-confident attitude was probably a common mistake remade: “If you build it, they will come - especially if it’s free.”

Also, to make matters even worse, this is where all the apps like Twitter and Facebook live too, along with every chain store’s shop app, tv and music apps, etc. etc.  You have no chance whatsoever of getting anywhere near the top of the “all” charts – not even in the top 1,000 - without a big advertising budget (millions) or a lot of word of mouth (millions).

Sadly, we don’t have much of either. We had hoped to do well in the word of mouth stakes, and maybe we even are, but it’s clearly not enough to get the download numbers we really need. The scary part is that we don’t know what to do to fix this, or if it’s even fixable. We have excellent user review scores on the respective stores, and we’re permanently trying to expand and improve the game still more, but we can’t force people to tell their friends about it.

3. Free to Play – Myth Busted: “Generosity brings goodwill”

We designed Combat Monsters to support essentially three tiers of paying players, so I’ll describe how each went separately.

Tier 1: Evaluators and Freeloaders

This is the “no cost” option that makes it a free to play game. Everyone is going to start in this tier, but the hope is to promote them to a higher one later on down the road. With that in mind, we made all gameplay features freely available to everyone. There are no pay walls, no limits to the amount of games played in a day, no begging for play tokens, no cool down timers, none of that stuff. In short, Combat Monsters has NONE of the things that people tend to complain about with other F2P games.

We were hoping this would earn us goodwill if nothing else, but not across the board apparently. We pick up a depressing amount of complaints (i.e. more than zero) that our free game just isn’t free enough, because the free content that took over ten man years to make just doesn’t get doled out quickly enough. I have no intention of fixing that. This is one of the most generous, content-packed F2P titles around, and if you like the game enough to want to play it even more, then put your hand in your pocket - we’re not a charity.  (ooh, that’s not very PC PR, ed.)

The bottom line here is that I’m sure we have a large number of freeloading players who might well have paid something, were we not giving them so much for nothing. That’s a big fail, and a kick in the teeth for trying to be generous and popular over calculating and tight.

It’s become clear to me now that there is a reason that more experienced F2P developers put these nasty paywall type things in place, even when knowing that players don’t like it. And that’s because they have staff to pay.

Whilst not having all these pay enforcement tricks makes us look better, it doesn’t do the same thing to our bank account. And clearly the goodwill from all this freeness doesn’t extend to “I’ll pay them something anyway to say thanks” either.

From most people who eat at Chez Rubicon for free, we don’t even get tips!

Tier 2: The Tripler

For a one-off three dollars, players can buy the tripler which, as the name suggests, permanently triples the in-game currency rewards they get from winning battles and making progress. We tailored the game so that players in this tier could ramp up to enjoy unfettered everything over a period of time, at the speed they might be expected to learn the subtleties of the game and use all this new stuff.

Basically, this tier makes Combat Monsters pretty much a prepaid title that costs three dollars. Given the sheer bulk of content, we assumed this would fly but it apparently doesn’t - we don’t sell anywhere near the number of triplers that we expected to in relation to our download numbers. In other words, our basic monetisation strategy failed and it doesn’t come more serious than that for any business.

At launch, Touch Arcade’s Jared Nelson pulled out Combat Monsters for his game of the week award, where he drew particular attention to this new twist on F2P pricing, and he liked it a lot. We took that as a really encouraging sign, but now with hindsight it appears that few agreed with him.

Tier 3: Whales

I really do hate that term as it’s slightly derogatory to my ear and you don’t want to offend your top payers. It’s kind of stuck now though, so I may as well continue the tradition with apologies.

We provide ways, via iap’s, for more generous players to bypass waiting for the tripler to deliver and just buy armloads of game currency right the hell now. We always knew we’d get a few of these, as after all yours truly could once have been considered a whale when applied to m:tg. But we even got this wrong – we got far more whales than expected!

This tier doesn’t really belong in the “what went wrong” section at all, as it’s where most of our money comes from, but we even failed to capitalise on these guys fully. We have a surprising number of light-hearted complaints from people eager to spend more money, but they’ve run out of stuff to spend it on. This, if I’m being mercenary about it, indicates that we sell all the in game cards and items too cheaply. Being more charitable, it means we dropped the ball with our content management.

I know that sounds awfully unappreciative, but I’m just trying to be objective for the post-mortem’s benefit – we love our whales to pieces and more content is coming guys…

4. Press Buzz / Reviews

Our marketing results for Combat Monsters rates as an epic fail. Easily our most under the radar game release ever - and a prior title actually got picked for an “under the radar” piece from SlideToPlay once. In fact, under the radar doesn’t really cover it for Combat Monsters. What we actually have here is “bury the radar, and then get under it”. I am hereby asserting copyright on the word “tunneldar”.

When speaking with other indies, it seems to be the common theme among us that our biggest problem is marketing. Small studios just can’t afford the cost of an in-house expert to advise and do, so that just leaves nerdy programmers trying to talk to journalists – rarely a pretty sight. Sadly we fall into this extremely non-exclusive club ourselves and it’s our biggest on-going general issue as a company.

There is a large volume of banal “marketing for dummies” pieces on the internet and they all do little more than state the obvious. Make a Twitter account, make a Facebook page, mail journalists often with news, release silly videos, etc. I say banal because if even this level of marketing activity is beyond you, then you deserve to fail. It’s obvious stuff, even for beginners.

That leads on to a fundamental problem never addressed by these “wisdom” pieces - what happens when journalists don’t read your emails, nobody comes to your Facebook page and you don’t get any Twitter followers? Reach out more? How exactly, when journalists don’t read your emails, nobody comes to your Facebook page and you don’t get any Twitter followers?!

This is a closed loop and I had no idea how we could break out of it ourselves. To that end, we hired a professional to do it for us – the old adage about throwing money at a problem.  If nothing else, he would come complete with a little black book full of more contacts than we could ever find, some personal relationships with movers and shakers already established, and hopefully some good general advice. 

He tried his damnedest, but it didn’t make much difference in practice, few people wanted to know. We got a small number of “next game from Rubicon is out” type news pieces on some of the bigger sites, for which we’re grateful, but almost none of those followed up with a review.

What we’re trying next is to spend the fees we were paying him instead on in-app advertising, just for a month or so to see if that works. You may have seen elsewhere on Gamasutra how that’s going, but it’s that or nothing so I think we’re screwed.

In summary, our performance with…

  • Major site mentions: Poor, some news items but hardly a PR explosion.
  • Major YouTubers: Epic fail, completely none.
  • Major site reviews: Major fail, almost none.

On a personal note, and I know this is a bit arrogant, but I’m just not used to being ignored so completely as this when it comes to reviews. I’ve suffered a few poor ones over the years, but there is something far worse than a bad review and it’s called no review. Only now can I see what a bleak and depressing place that really is, and I can’t say I feel any the richer for this new experience.

There is one nugget of positive news in all of this, so I hope I’m not reading it wrong. And that is that with such a total lack of media interest, a good deal of our existing customers must have come to us via word of mouth somehow, either from playing a previous title or a referral from someone else playing this one. As I mentioned above, we don’t get enough of that to live on (yet), but we do clearly get some and for that I’m deeply grateful.

5. The tutorial sucks

Yes, it really does and we’ll be fixing this as a priority for a future update. We’ve probably driven away a lot of potential customers by just how long-winded and clunky the first part of the game comes across.

And whilst it obsesses over some minor details that could be skipped, other more important stuff doesn’t get a mention, often leaving the player with a “wtf?” moment once the game proper starts.

No excuses here, we rushed it and dropped the ball. Version 2 will be better.

6. Listening to my heart

Given all those tales of woe above, together in one place at the same time, the sane thing to do would be to take the hint, shelve the game, lick our wounds and then go make Greater Even Biggerer War Game instead.

That would alienate our existing players as we’re always making big noises about on-going development, new content and feature updates, etc. This is mitigated to an extent by the fact that if the company outright fails then the game is dead anyway, but I doubt our player base would see things that way, and who could blame them.

Right now I wish I was some merciless suit and not a programmer who cares about his game and his players, because we really should be canning this and moving on. We’re not going to do that though, so that decision marks my final entry in the mistakes section.

What we’re going to do instead is blindly soldier on, adding new features and content until either we run out of money, or enough people notice that Combat Monsters is bigger than Scrolls, bigger than Hearthstone, more fun than Magic: The Gathering and much cheaper than all of them.

In Conclusion

This is a good game goddammit, and I’m not going to give up on it. Go play it!

PS. For what it's worth, we have a Steam Greenlight halfway cooked. I'd very much appreciate an upvote if you'd like to play via that, thanks:


Developer & Publisher: Rubicon Development
Release Date: October 18th, 2013
Platforms: iOS, Android, PC
Length of Development: 10 man years over 18 months
Number of Developers: Six full time, many contributors
Budget: Too painful to work out. If we subbed the project, over half a million.

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