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Randy OConnor, Blogger

April 17, 2012

8 Min Read

Coming to terms with reality is annoying.  Like when your parents used to tell you rules to follow and why you should follow them, but you couldn't believe them because you had to find out for yourself.  And oh, yes, how you learned.

You might've caught me mentioning my game Dead End several times here.  Dead End, one-button zombie killing for iOS, was my professional debut.  Now that it's far out of the gate I can no longer call myself a rookie.  Naive, certainly, but Dead End is officially "complete".

In terms of sales, I've made enough for one month of rent.  I cannot claim self-sufficiency yet, but it's given me plenty to think about, and perhaps a useful tidbit or two for y'all.  



Finishing things feels good.

Hot damn, there is nothing as exhilarating as completing something.  And of creative endeavors, finishing a game is crazy difficult.  I pushed out the first version of Dead End in September 2011, sold about a thousand copies, and have since sold about 20 copies a month.

But games also don't get finished, they just get shipped.

Dead End wasn't really "finished" when I first submitted to the app store. I just needed to ship it before I went crazy doing all kindsa stuff without any consumer feedback. Today's model of updates was useful, because it allowed me to learn, refocus on what users liked and disliked.  The core model of the game was done upon release, but my recent update added an endless mode, control options, content, and tweaked a bunch of things that were wrong or weakly done.  

Zombie walk cycle v1

Zombie walk cycle v2
Zombie walk cycle v3

Never be afraid to optimize your game mechanics.

In the first release a medkit only healed one unit of player health, now it heals the player completely.  Medkits weren't very useful in first release, creating a degenerate experience when you started needing player health, but were often hurt on the way to picking it up, and thus continually needed more health.  Full reloading of health gave the player a much better chance at last-minute saves, which are my favorite part of the game.

Being overwhelmed is different than being killed.  Dead End is intentionally brutal, but almost every mechanic gives you the advantage.  You can often run through a crowd of zombies without being hurt, zombies don't hurt you without significant contact.  You are given powerful weapons (wrongly so [explained later]).  Health-kits now fully heal you.  It takes more than one hit to die.

Should I explain the mechanics of the game to players?

The best scores on the leaderboards belong to my two best friends.  Could it be that they are my best players because I have talked about the game to them?  They understand the mechanics of the game better than people I don't know.  Should I be translating some of the inner workings of collision and movement and injury timers and all those technical details to other players?  I worry about the fiction, what should I keep sacred about this kind of game?

End of game image

Do people want endless games or not?

I first released Dead End with only a 15-wave story mode.  Beat wave fifteen, you get to blow bubbles and run around a street now covered in flowers.  I did this because I had been reading and listening to iOS critics dismiss endless games.  I was only going to have one mode on release, so if they were so tired of endless games, I guess I should make the game winnable.  

For that matter, are endless games unnecessarily cruel?  Does even Canabalt lose its luster after 15k meters?  Isn't it harsh for a game to never let you actually win, never let you feel complete?

Jetpack Joyride's positive reception was decently justified for the way it wrapped an endless game up with replay potential.  What are seemingly inconsequential details to the environment end up playing a role in your continuing the basic one-button gameplay.  I probably played a solid three hours beating all of those little missions.  Without them, would I have played more than twenty minutes?

On the other hand, is Jetpack Joyride just engaging alternate impulses in me with these extraneous goals?  Was that the best way to round out a mechanic that I often felt was somewhat skill-less?  At the end of three hours I hardly felt better than in my first twenty minutes.

There's a disconnect between my main character and his guns.

I have heard people say that Harold, my scared little gardener, should just be running through mazes of a ruined town, the way he's set up.  I understand the sentiment.  Why on earth does the main character, a gardener running for his life, have a gatling gun?  The croquet mallet and exploding watermelon in the update make sense.  Possibly so does the pistol, and even the shotgun, but he also can wield a flamethrower and a GATLING GUN FOR GOSH SAKES!

I dislike thematic dissonance, and this one I neglected for the sake of fun.  But it does bother me.  Maybe you shouldn't have guns, maybe the main conceit of killing zombies is wrong in my game, and perhaps that's why players ignore it.  They are confused by a scared guy whose goal is to kill literally thousands of zombies.  It all feels a little off.  Maybe his shooting should be even more haphazard, more difficult, more like he has no control, rather than the cold calculating manner in which he spins and fires upon the encroaching mobs. 

Journalists need strongly unique hooks to promote your game.

I think that Dead End has a very strong control mechanic, I ardently stand by that.  But the single decision that screwed me over more than any other decision was to theme the game with zombies.  A journalist told me that she liked my game, thought it was clever and loved the art style, but zombies would not get on the front page of the site she works for unless it really passed muster.  Dead End has no major publisher, it's not a GPS running/exercise game, it's not on any charts.

When you look at my game, you see zombies, and it doesn't matter how it plays, your first impression is zombies, another twin-stick shooter, and you probably moved on.  I created this bad tendency when meeting people to say, "Hi, yeah, I designed this zombie game. BUT WAIT, there's more to it than that!"  FAIL.  The first words I speak should be the hook, and when I often have to couch things in more friendly ways, the hook is lost.  Perhaps I should have made the theme my original idea of a paranoid man being chased by illusions of the FBI.  But no, I wanted a knowable hook, and that apparently was a poor decision.  Go with the strong unique theme before any cliched popular theme.

 Free sales download stats

People expect stuff, and when they don't get it, they often move on.

A person expecting a zombie killing game doesn't want to find that the control scheme is very tough to manage.  He wants to kill zombies, and he wants it to be easier and better than his previous zombie killing game.  Stick with my game and you'll find yourself in the middle of a strange shmup that is most like Tilt To Live, with some Super Crate Box and Canabalt thrown in.

I made my game free for a 3-day weekend, and it proved that my game would not catch on.  Downloads decreased over that short period of time.  The initial discovery happened, people tried my game, and most moved on.  They didn't tell their friends, they probably played for a minute and then realized it was no ordinary zombie killer.  My sales are back to pretty much what they were, despite having 45,000 people install my game.  That is 45 times the number of people who had previously played it. Holy crap, 46,000 people have my game!

I'm still in a phase where I'm trying to break out beyond family and friends.  

Making it free for a time added to people's awareness of me.  And I do have ardent fans of Dead End, people I have never met who have told me that they love what I have created, people who call it an undiscovered gem, and addictive, and perfect for the iPhone.

But for the most part only family and friends really know I exist.  This world is big, and there comes a point where you cannot comprehend how many people may or may not play your game.  I want everyone to play everything I make, but it is weird slowly recognizing the daunting task of getting my games into the hands of enough players to actually make a living doing this.


I'm proud and ready to move on. 

It's time for the next stuff.  I will probably continue to do updates here and there with Dead End.  I like it, it's fun, and thankfully it's not very difficult to add content.  But I think I'm ready for my sophomore effort.  Here's to moving on!  (Once I refill my depleted bank account with contracting work.)


Randy is an indie developer/artist who shipped Waking Mars recently with Tiger Style Games and also makes his own games, namely his iOS masterpiece Dead End, which you should totally buy for a dollar!  You can also follow his ramblings on twitter.

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