This Gamasutra post is adapted from a blog post over at radiangames.com.
[Quick background: Radiangames (aka Luke Schneider) has been around as an independent developer since 2010. I've focused on making small games quickly most of the time, with many arcade + puzzle releases on XBLIG, PC/Mac/Linux, and especially iOS/Android. After working on a spiritual successor to Descent called Overload (out now on PC/PS4, coming soon to XB1) with a small team for the past few years, I've returned to solo mobile development, this time focusing on free games with ads (I've done almost entirely paid games before). Pivotol, an endless block puzzle game, is the first of those games. It released on October 18th on iOS. Slydris 2 will follow in November (it's done now except for sound effects, beta testing, and all the promotional stuff like icons/screenshots/trailers/etc).]
Pivotol has been out a bit over a week, and I wanted to review what I’ve learned so far, not only for everyone else’s benefit, but also for my own. So far, the game has not made much money (<$700), with a peak of $125 on the 20th (Saturday), and an average of $80 per day, but that's dropping steadily. It has had around 7,000 active players every day over the past week, with a larger and larger portion coming from returning players.
According to Apple, there have been around 44,000 downloads of the game, with those downloads coming from a variety of countries (18,000 from the US). Unity’s analytics dashboard says there have been only 33,000 new users, which sounds a bit low (I would expect closer to 90% of people who download the game to have at least played it once), but it’s good to have reference data for the ratio of downloads to new users in comparing future data sets.
Apple didn’t feature the game in the US as far as I can tell, but it definitely did in some other “Tier 1″ countries like the UK, Canada, Australia, and some European countries. The US generally gets more than all those countries combined (by a small margin), so not getting featured in the US probably cut my downloads by a decent amount.
Many of the US downloads can probably be attributed to the coverage of the game, particularly on Touch Arcade (a 4-star review), and again on Touch Arcade (Game of the Week!). The GotW award was especially surprising since none of my other games have gotten the award, but they seemed to really appreciate that the game put a new spin on matching block games (instead of being a match-3).
Quick Aside on Pivotol’s “Originality”: I came up with the mechanics on my own (I’ve prototyped a number of simple puzzle game mechanics), but I did find video of a game, Swivel, that had similar mechanics (because its creator told me about it), and which released on iOS in 2010! I didn’t know it existed until last week, but the basic idea is quite close, even if many of the details are different. Sadly I can’t play the game to really compare the two, because it got de-listed from the AppStore (it doesn’t have a 64-bit version).
Getting back to the first subject, I need to discuss why that total is not a horrible amount of money, in the context of Slydris 2, but first: Pivotol had a number of small issues that added up. The first problem was that the version released really should have been 1.02 (1.01 had a couple pretty annoying bugs). But 1.02 didn’t go live until this past Tuesday (3 days ago). I definitely need to have my games undergo more thorough testing before launch, so with Slydris 2, I’ll be doing a limited beta on the Touch Arcade forums. Version 1.03 of Pivotol should be coming along before Slydris 2 is out to address the last couple issues with the game balance and usability.
On the numbers side of things, the Unity Dashboard tells me a few things: The number of DAU (Daily Active Users) is decent, but they’re not watching/completing that many ads. The ratio is around 0.4 finished ads per daily player. That number should be 1.5 or higher based on the comparative data I’ve seen. The other big issue is that the game is not retaining players that well. I’m not sure how accurate the numbers are on this issue, but it looks like the Day 1 retention is 20-25%, and the Day 7 is 5-10% (depending on the day). Those numbers will likely change a bit over the next few weeks, but either way they’re too low.
[I should briefly mention IAP for a second: It’s about 20% of the total revenue right now, but it’s been trending downward. I expected that in general, and in a month or two it’ll probably be under 10% of the revenue.]
Pivotol is a solid 4-star game, and it appeals to certain players, but it’s also fairly simple and some people want more, or need something a little special to capture their attention. I’m not sure I could change the game in any obvious ways (aside from completely revamping the ad/IAP structure) to make it into a much better game at generating revenue. It is what it is, and pretty well done, and it’s also obvious I shouldn’t spend too much more time on it. Retention is the one metric that is very hard to change for a game, and for whatever reason, lots of players just aren’t coming back to the game.
I hope that the game will continue to make money for a longer time than something like SideSwype or Devastator, which both dropped off to almost nothing after the first 2 weeks on sale. I believe it will, though it may take a long while before it matches their first month of sales. At this point that statement is complete guesswork, but I’ll do an update in another month or two. At the very least, Pivotol provides a baseline for what to expect and shoot for with Slydris 2, and it also has a good audience that will be receptive to the cross-promotion of Slydris 2 when it arrives.
Why Slydris 2 Should Do Better
Slydris 2 has one primary advantage over Pivotol right out of the gate: It’s a more interesting/fun game to play. Pivotol’s color-matching and pivoting mechanics are just no match for more intuitive sliding and line-destroying mechanics. The pace of Slydris 2 is more relaxed/chill when you’re doing well, and when things get tense and the stack is building up, you always feel like there’s a solution if you just look hard enough (unlike Pivotol, where sometimes it feels nearly impossible to get out of tough spots without a bomb). Not only that, but when you get into a near-death state, you can often find one key move that will trigger a huge combo and relieve all the tension that’s been building. Those moments can be found in Pivotol on occasion, but they feel more satisfying for some reason in Slydris 2. It’s not Pivotol’s fault, a design issue that could be “solved”, it’s just how the game mechanics work.
So I expect Slydris 2 to get better reviews/coverage because it’s a better game at its core, and I’ll be pushing Slydris 2 to as much press as possible (even big sites that don’t cover iOS games much). The original Slydris won a couple good awards (iOS Game of The Year on one site, and #2 iOS game on another), and has had a lot of downloads across all platforms, so if press know any of my puzzle games, it’s Slydris.
I’ll also be doing a *lot* of cross-promotion, with ALL of my other games becoming free for a few days at the launch of Slydris 2. And I’ll be using whatever free ad incentives I have for various networks (like iOS Search Ads), and Pivotol will be showing lots of Slydris 2 ads for a week or so. I have more hope that Apple will feature the game in the US because it’ll be better quality in multiple regards (better tested, better core game) and have a better “story” (Slydris’ download numbers/reviews/awards/etc, Tetris always being on people’s minds, and Pivotol winning the TA Game of the Week).
Slydris 2 also includes GIF sharing. It took a little while to set up, but now that it’s in, I think it actually works well. Strangely, the GIFs compress faster on my phone than on my PC. The quality is a bit lower than I’d like to ensure they fit within the 3MB limit (for Twitter), and there are 2 ways to share (directly share the GIF, or post it to Giphy). Slydris 2 isn’t the ideal game for sharing GIFs, but they do look pretty cool to me, and the share button is always right there when you’re playing. Some players will probably enjoy having the option, and all the coding/setup will save time for my upcoming racing game. That game really needs GIF sharing, so I had to do the work anyway. I don’t know if the sharing feature will really get much more use than Pivotol’s score-sharing feature, but it can’t really get much less.
Finally, Slydris 2 doesn’t use the same ad setup as Pivotol. You have to watch ads every so often, one way or another, but it does it in a fair and visible way. There’s also a $3 IAP to disable those ads (and unlock all the songs/colors), and some other details that make me believe it’ll perform better on that axis. The ads are also firmly separate from the gameplay progression/difficulty, which I never liked that much in Pivotol (having to watch ads to get resources or progress more). The one positive side of Pivotol’s ad setup is that the revenue per watched ad is higher than I expected. I’ve since learned my expectations were incorrect, but either way, if someone watches a rewarded ad video, it’s worth $0.02 or so instead of the $0.005 to $0.01 I expected. That value assumes that the person has a small (<1% chance, but not 0%) chance of actually engaging with that ad. Non-rewarded ads aren’t worth as much (about half?), but I hope the way I’m presenting them in Slydris 2 should make them feel like less of a penalty/surprise than other games.
So Slydris 2 should hopefully get far more downloads (and maybe a little more sharing), have better retention/reviews, and generate more revenue per player. My hope is to roughly double everything, and all 3 of those essentially multiply together to create a large increase (8x or greater) in revenue over Pivotol. By my estimates, the downloads are the most likely to be more than double, and the retention will likely be less than double, but either way, I need to improve all 3 metrics with Slydris 2. If I can’t, it will likely be my last infinite puzzle game, and all my hopes for Radiangames will rest on the upcoming physics-racing game.
One more quick thing: This link has really good reference numbers for what the average free mobile game can/should expect from the various metrics. I’ve seen lots of videos that mention these numbers in various forms, but it’s nice to see it all on one page even if the data is 2 years old.
The Android Multiplier?
Note that I didn't mention Android or the Google Play Store at all. It's another potential multiplier on the list of multipliers above. I don't know if it's a 1.1x multiplier, or a 3x multiplier, or (probably) somewhere in between. I haven't had good luck with simultaneously releasing on Android and iOS, but had better luck with a delayed cluster of releases. My theory is the cluster is more likely to get press, because it's more newsworthy to release/port multiple games than one, and because the Android sites will be more likely to have heard of the game before. Either way, I'm planning on doing 4 Android ports at once early in 2019. If other devs have more data on simultaneous releases vs. delayed ones on iOS/Android, I'd certainly be interested in hearing about it.
The Final Equation
It's a simple equation: If more people download a game, play the game longer, and watch ads more frequently, the revenue from a game could be magnitudes higher. Not just a little higher, a LOT higher. For some reason that math wasn't entirely clear to me before the launch of Pivotol, but now it is. Pivotol was always intended to be a learning game for me, to prepare me for the launch of Slydris 2, and it has done that job. Now I just need to execute on the lessons learned.