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From a prototype to one of the biggest idle games in 3 years - postmortem

Enjoy a postmortem look at development of Gamex Studio's first military game War Clicks!

PART 1
Introduction.

We started Gamex studio back in 2015, starting with contractual work on (slot machine/casino)  some simple web games (scratch games, slot games...). Soon we reached a point where we wanted to start an independent project, so War Clicks was born – a simple military „clicker“ game, that destroyed your mouse and ruined your wrists due to all the hectic clicking going on – but even in this simple form, it was a lot of fun!


It's now been over 3 years since we released it as its own site, and since then the game has become massive – one of the biggest in the idle/incremental/clicker genre! Mainly thanks to publishing it to two of the biggest browser game platforms (ArmorGames and Kongregate) about 1.5 years ago, which exploded its growth. During this time the game was  voted in the top 10 of Best indie games of the year on Indie DB, reached the top 4% of most-played games on Kongregate – which is a huge feat for our first game!

There is not much talk about how browser-only games can be successful for indies, so we experimented and learned a lot along the way. And knowing things we know now, we would definitely change our approach back then, to make the game even more successful. We wanted to compact and share all of this knowledge, so it can help other developers make their games more successful.  Read on to uncover the secrets… or rather common sense practices learned through many mistakes that we did :)

About incremental and idle games…
Incremental games are games where the user has a ton of content, mechanics, features to unlock, and usually come with various gameplay styles to explore and a hefty measure of optimization options. Idle games can progress even without any specific interaction from the player – A player is a basically a „boss“, just taking strategic choices and letting the workers (game) do its thing. Imagine you distribute the work for today. Managers under you are watching on other  workers, so that all the work is done while you're away. Once you get back you see the fruits of their work done meanwhile, and now it is simply up to you to make a new decision, of where to best put those resources to use or how to improve their productivity, and let the cycle repeat!

Idle games are great at giving the most meaningful control to the player while reducing the needless grind, and making you feel accomplishing a ton whenever you get back. Because of this, they usually also have a lot of incremental aspects, as these combine for a great player experience.

War Clicks specifically puts you on the ground of the Boot Camp where you start producing army units. You have different challenges, goals, and missions to complete and once you're ready you head-off to fight battles and gain global reputation! Every move you make helps to grow your army, making you stronger, producing more and progressing further and further.

Boot Camp

But that's not all... It is also highly competitive as players try to out-perform others, on top of their power being important for their country – that is where the game starts getting real deep and fun! You are not playing alone, but your efforts help your countrymen as you fight invasions, country battles , participate in huge alliance fights, all while getting to give your say with a voting system



All of these vast features weren't there from the beginning, but were added with time as part of our long-term vision for a huge and immersive experience, as well as always taking feedback from our players to making the game event better. That said, we did a ton of things right, but also made dozen of mistakes along the way.

__________________________
PART 2
What we wanted to achieve with this game concept at first.
The game started as a side project at first. We've built a simple prototype with the basic game loop and just put it live on a site. After attracting some player-base that gave this concept a try and left feedback on it, we decided that all this might have a bigger potential, so we decided to work on it further. At that time it was just 'one-world' that was available to play (War Zone), where attacking was limited by the amount of fuel you had. As the game time was limited, we first focused on adding more content to play, while still keeping things simple. Why limiting the gameplay you'd say?

Due to the competitive nature and it being a clicker game, we didn't want our players to feel exhausted and bored of it clicking for hours, and basing the competition around „who can click for longer“. Instead we gave players many options to optimize the usage of their limited fuel, with various upgrades, build priorities and gameplay styles. The fuel limitation and focus on strategy/optimization also resolved the issue of players making scripts to play and dominating that way through infinite play.

This made for a really fun competitive model, but it also became one of the biggest time sinks for our team, as we had to ensure all future updates were exploit-proof, requiring for more complex code and a ton of exploit prevention logic on our servers.
 

The next steps were... The big expansion!
One of the main things missing at this point was lack of gameplay after you've used up your daily fuel. So it was time to add what is now known as Boot Camp – the idle part of the game, that neatly complemented what the active part of War Zone was missing – ability to play as much as you want each day, allowing focus on micro-optimization, or just playing it very casually, either way you got a great experience!

Besides adding Boot Camp we also did the following improvements:

·         Improved War Zone progression

·         New War Zone units and upgrades

·         Improved War Zone UI

·         Got rid of various bugs and optimized performance
 

Country battles

With the much improved gameplay, there was enough content to play War Clicks for years. And instead of launching this as a new version of the game, we decided to completely reset the progress, and have everyone start from scratch and experience all of these improvements in full. We also made sure to carry over any past spent bought and earned Gold (our in-game currency), so users wouldn't feel cheated. Some still did, and left the game, but for the majority the game was now even more fun to play. We also started attracting many new players and grew our community. So in the end the overhaul was a success!


What came next, was an even bigger overhaul...

While having the game on our own site was great, after a while it was time to expand... After we got the confirmation from Armor Games that they are interested in War Clicks to be released on their platform, we decided to go for the biggest update to-date, to capitalize on their big audience.


Before releasing on ArmorGames, this is what we updated:
 

·         A complete graphical and UI overhaul of the game.  Going from a cartoony, to a more realistic look, and making the ton of game features more practical to use.

·         An actual in-depth Connection between idle and active worlds -> units trained in Boot Camp became players' actual support army in War Zone. Not currency, but units. A true novelty in the genre at that time.

·         "Second prestige" in Boot Camp (called Army Privatization)

·         Simulation of PvP battles

·         Various new types of upgrades added to War Zone

·         Changes to the main scoring system

·         Boss Fights in War Zone with a special twist! (+ the Farming model introduced)

·         Major code rework for much better performance and game quality

War Zone
And with all those changes we were ready for the next step (or we thought we were)…

__________________________
PART 3
Publishing on ArmorGames – what mistakes we did:

This surely was a day we would remember probably for our whole life. After setting the release date, we were to continue work on smashing bugs and improving many other aspects of the game, while we waited on the release. The whole office was breathing with that release in mind. In that excitement, we just wanted to release and show it to new players as soon as possible.

 

It was quite a long journey coming here and we didn't really know what to expect. Will new players love our game?? How are they going to react to the game's overhaul and other changes we made during all that time?

So, in all that hype and inexperience we made some critical mistakes and were badly prepared for the launch, which cost us some better ratings and a drop-off of players that many would otherwise probably still be playing today.

 
So, what went wrong?
1) Lack of tests – too excited about our first publishing!

Our biggest update to date simply changed so many things about the game – primarily balancing and many new bugs were introduced, that we simply didn't take enough time to test properly. We were already late with some updates and took shortcuts in the testing department.

 

We now call this a rookie mistake, as we just weren't experienced enough on this release and didn't really know what to expect, and hoped for the best. While we did resolve most issues soon after launch it was already too late, the damage was already done. The ratings we received could've been much higher, simply delaying launch a bit and improving some of the core issues.

2) Issues with account authentication, session overrides and i-frame issues
As our game was integrated via an i-frame, a ton of other game sites picked up on War Clicks after it was launched on Armor Games, which surprised us with an unexpected amount of traffic in the first days. Our code and servers weren't properly tested for that, it resulted in some users' progress being overwritten and game response time being super slow, until we handled those. That coupled with other sites hosting our i-frame, where the game simply wasn't prepared to work on. Authentication didn't work properly, our in-game shop didn't work...

Imagine getting over 100k players in the first few days, and losing most of them because of such issues! While we still retained many of them, we lost a ton of potential and received a ton of bad ratings because of these issues – if we were prepared for that, it could have a snowball effect and our community would be far bigger by now as well.
 
3)Didn't distribute our team-members to be available for help during the whole first day – when players needed us the most.

The community is very important to us and we were aware of this, but …

We are mostly working together as a team at the office, and the same was on the date of the release. We were still preparing for the War Clicks launch just hours before.

 

What did all this result in the end? We were all focusing on the release and forgetting about the most important part that is coming right after… First players, help needed,…. We just didn't expect that and didn't separate our team into 2 groups that could handle the first players during the whole night long.  

During the first days, we were more occupied with keeping the game afloat, patching bugs, than on the community itself or marketing and other important stuff around the game's release. That was a tough experience, from which we learned a lot and will surely have it in mind for all future releases!
 



What else we learned by now:
  1.) If you're making a multiplayer/competitive game - make sure you know how to prevent exploits. It takes time (more than you'll think at first) and can be costly. Painful lesson, especially for a first game.

  2.) Squash as many bugs as you can. Not all users have bug spray and are scared off. Easy to lose players, hard to gain.

  3.) Don't hardcode - anything if you can prevent it. Use constants. If you don't have a final game state, make sure to dynamically calculate things/progress. It's easier than it sounds, often even much faster to code in the first place.

  4.) If it's not just a test/hobby project, graphics and UI DO matter. Yes, mechanics and progression are the key here, but even some time put into making things look decent and presentable/not overwhelming for new users, is extremely important. Some simple tutorial is often a must.

  5.) Listen to your players' and redditors, but don't let them command and lead what you do if you believe in what you're doing and have (good)reasons for it.

  6.) Balance. Progression. Very important to test, plan, and have easy ways to adjust it.

  7.) Canvas. CSS transforms. Self-correcting intervals/requestAnimationFrame. "cache" things in variables that are constantly recalculated. A few hours of reading/learning about best (and simple) practices for optimization of whatever language you are using will save you ton of hours & future hassle.

  8.) Be careful with IAPs - easy to break the game, even with good intentions. Really, really consider how and what you should monetize.

  9.) If you plan to make money from your game, marketing and monetization plans are important. Don't rely on luck. Especially if it's a standalone web game. Probably better to start off with publishers if you have no idea/team to help.


Anyways, even though the release wasn't as smooth as it could be, War Clicks managed to end the month becoming the most played Newly released game in that month! So, not all of our work went into pieces! 😊


__________________________
PART 4
Around 5 months later: The release on Kongregate
(What went right and what didn't…)

As we didn't want to make the same mistakes we did before on ArmorGames, we decided to postpone publishing here for a few months and not as soon as we could.

We decided to first fix the things we found out from players' feedback and internal analyses of the AG release.

So, after all those updates, tons of bugfixes, improvements, balancing, new features, QoL features, additional meaningful depth added we were just before releasing War Clicks on Kongregate. The memories of the previous launch were still quite fresh. So, one of our first steps, was going for a Beta launch with Kongregate, before the full release.

So, how did our Kongregate launch go and what did we learn from it?
 

1.      If you have a bigger game, request for a Beta launch. You get a ton of really valuable feedback that helped us improve so many things and be way better prepared for the actual launch

2.      Polish the game as much as possible – most notably try to take care of the most annoying/obvious bugs quickly, as otherwise you are pushing a ton of new players away quickly, on a game they might otherwise really enjoy. On Kong user rating and “game hotness” is extremely important for natural discovery, and retention. This was probably our biggest mistake, as we focused too much on new content first, while delaying fixes on some underlying major issues. With hard and consistent work we managed to climb from a 3.2/5 to a 3.9+/5 average rating. If our game was a solid 3.5+ from the start, we'd have a much higher average rating now, and our exposure after launch would probably be a few times higher.

3.      Collect the feedback and reply to comments sincerely, so the users will know what the game is all about (even though it is a weekend-project/ hobby – let users know this, so they won't expect that you will be developing the game 24/7). Admit problems, issues AND fix them.

4.      Community matters - it may sound cliche, but without the main group of your supporters and your game enthusiasts you won't come far. Keep to your promises – rather under-promise with future updates than over-promise and not follow up – they'll get annoyed of that fast.

5.      Optimize your time (have in mind different aspects; from working on game updates to improving the retention rates, improving progression, …)

6.      Define your goals with the game (S.M.A.R.T. goals; what you want to accomplish for every platform separately and focus working toward those; tip: First focus on making the game great to play, before focusing on improving monetization – beta is AMAZING for feedback here! After launch you want to keep your rating and try to improve it – players also love CONSISTENT updates.)

7.      If one of your goals is to improve the game's ratings, then it's best to ask your players for opinions on the current state of the game, give out some of your prepositions and see what the feedback will be, before focusing towards the 'quality improvements' only YOU think will help increase the ratings. The most negative comments are probably there for a reason, and a lot of players feel that same way – you can use them as a guide.

8.      Kong has great options for helping promote the game via their various spotlights. But these boosts are limited so treat every opportunity as your last – try to focus on bigger content updates around them for best results.

9.      Ratings, ratings, ratings. Again, game discovery is heavily focused on this, and the ratings will quite accurately describe your player sentiment. A good rating from the start is extremely important, and even if you mess up the launch it CAN be improved – BUT it will never catch up to what a solid rating from launch could've done.
 

__________________________
PART 5
After all those ''tornado-moments'' we hit during the game's launches, we'll now surely be focusing on any next releases with the previous experiences in mind. A strong launch is extremely important and can dictate the future success of your game.
As we are currently still a small team working on the games, it's extremely important to organize our work well, and first focus on parts that matter the most.

Overall platforms like ArmorGames and Kongregate are amazing to share and expand your webgame on, so we highly suggest looking into them and getting their amazing communities trying out your games.


In general we are extremely proud of War Clicks, what it has become and achieved, but just knowing  some of the above lessons, we'd have been able to do even so much more with it! We've built a great community, and still enjoy working on the game after 3 years and the many novelties we introduced to our genre with it!

 
War Clicks
Official Playlink
Kongregate
ArmorGames

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Just released/other games of Gamex Studio:
GamexGames
Area Raiders (on Kongregate)

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