GDC 2012: Sword & Sworcery's Vella warns against making an iOS game for everyone

Capy's Nathan Vella today warned GDC attendees that creating iOS games to appeal to everybody all too often results in games that appeal to none, taking you "away from a game that is fresh or has soul."
"One of the scariest parts of the massive success of the iOS platform is that it has taught people that they should focus on making games for everybody." So claimed Nathan Vella, co-founder and president of Toronto, Canada-based independent developer Capy Games (Sword & Sworcery) at the Independent Games Summit at GDC today. "At first glance, the logic makes sense," he continued. "Super mainstream games such as Fruit Ninja, Angry Birds, and Cut the Rope have each sold tens of millions of copies. Attempting to replicate that success is natural. But in reality, if you are making a game for everyone, you are actually making a game for no-one. The hit-based mentality takes you away from making a game that has soul or is fresh." "Internally at Capy, we talk a lot about playing the iPhone lottery," he explained. "That’s what happens when you are competing with everyone. You are walking up to a slot machine, putting the budget of your game into the machine, and praying that you’ll get three cherries. In reality it rarely pays out." The success of Sword & Sworcery, a game that has sold 350,000 copies in just under 12 months, and garnered thousands of five-star user reviews, points to another route to success, according to Vella. "We targeted a culturally aware audience who want music to be a core component of the game," he explained. "It's quite a specific niche that we thought was maybe 20,000 people at most -- possibly enough people that we could make our money back. But we knew it was a specific enough group that they would understand what they were saying to them.”
In reality there was a far greater number than this, demonstrating that the sheer amount of iOS users make appealing to niches a more sensible business decision, rather than a weaker one. "Different and risky games are a rarity," said Vella. "I think maybe 1-2 percent of all games fall into that 'risky area' on iOS. Which begs the question: is making something that risky really that risky? Or is it riskier to create something generic in order to appeal to a 'wider audience?' You really have far less chance of standing out on the platform." Vella was also keen to encourage developers to push through in order to "properly finish their game," rather than releasing a version that lacks refinement. Sword & Sworcery was originally planned as a 10-month project with a budget of $110,000. "However, seven months in, it felt like we weren't half done," said Vella. "We initially made plans to slash and burn scope in order to release in three months. But as we reflected, we decided that it was a bigger business risk to not finish. Rushed games will rarely sell as well as a finished game." In the end, the game cost over $200,000 and took a year and a half to complete. "As well as improving your chances of selling a greater number of copies, there are massive intangibles to completing something great," said Vella. "For example, I don't believe that Jim [Guthrie, composer] would have been asked to produce the music for Indie Game: The Movie had the game not been in a 'finished' state with that sheen of quality. "Sometimes you need to swallow your pride and go ask your parents for some money to allow you to finish your dream without compromise."

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