What's up indie game developers?
It's been 5 months since I released my 4th game George: Scared Of The Dark on the App Store and it's time to reflect on my main project for 2016 and discuss what went right and what went wrong. It's time for my first ever post mortem!
So, in 2015 I decided to quit work and take time out to explore what I wanted to do. I started a small code academy teaching people how to code and I also quickly fell into games development, re-connecting with early passions for making simple games on my Commodore 64. I made 3 casual games for the App Store which were pretty budget and then craved a slightly bigger project. A showcase of sorts.
Like many games, it all started with a jam! The project evolved from an entry to Procedural Generation Jam 2015. Originally called "Mountains That We Climb", I experimented with generating 2D scenes with simple mountains, clouds and changing weather systems. The jam entry got good feedback on its strong visual aesthetics and I decided to start developing the concept further into a game. The hype was real. I would make it into an awesome game and it would rise up to the top of the App Store!
Mistake Number 1: I went from jam entry to full game build pretty much overnight without much thought on how long the project would actually take. I also did not consider the target audience. I didn't consider the competition or my chances of making a commercially successful game. I believed my own hype.
I wanted to create a game that was more than just a casual mobile game. I wanted it have more depth, mystery and story. In particular, I wanted the game to feel atmospheric, for the player to be temporarily immersed into the magic of the game world. At its core, I wanted it to have a central theme of overcoming challenges and conquering fears. I decided it would have 10 levels, with a story narrative running through it with a twist at the end. I wrote the story, designed the levels and jumped head first into development.
- George: Scared Of The Dark
It took 6 months to develop the game. Much longer than I expected. As the game spun out of a procedural generation jam, I naturally decided it would be... well, procedurally generated! This seemed like a good idea at the time.
Mistake Number 2: Procedural generation for a game with only 10 levels is overkill. I spent more time fine-tuning the level generation algorithm than anything else. I scrapped it at least twice and started from scratch. It would have been quicker to lay each level out by hand and make it static.
- Swamps level
I worked on my own most of the time at home, soon enough the days blurred into one. I didn't have anyone to keep me in check, to bounce ideas off. Planning and striking a balance between work and play went out of the window. Working 7 days a week, the pressure was building and I was burning out quick.
Luckily I realised this and started to take trips to London Indies co-working space at Scenario bar. This provided a great opportunity to get out of the house, mix with other indies, get feedback and just hang out. I started to take it a bit easier and the pressure eased off a bit.
This was my 4th game at the time and I wanted it to be the best it could possibly be. I took marketing a bit more seriously too, enlisting a small PR company to help with getting the word out.
Mistake Number 3: Hiring a PR company is great but I relied too much on it being some sort of magic bullet. It's not, if your game is not generating any hype early on, it's time to reconsider. I posted to game forums generating little interest. I silenced out those alarm bells and ploughed on.
I did a few PR bits like running an art contest to get a community character into the final game. This was fun and all but I don't think it helped with marketing much. I used social media extensively - Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Product Hunt and Reddit - all with little success...
- Contest Nominations
I made trailers and play through videos too! Taking time to edit and polish them trying to drum up interest.
The PR company also included QA services and provided feedback. They told me two things over and over, the game was too hard and the controls weren't quite right. Fix these two things, they said, and you could be sitting on gold. I ignored the feedback, I felt the controls were good and I wanted the game to be super difficult. I was the creative genius! I wasn't going to listen to some PR guys! I stuck to my guns stubbornly. I also felt the game was taking too long, I wanted it to be done, I was losing patience.
Mistake Number 4: I didn't listen to feedback and wanted to finish the project and get it out there asap. I lacked the discipline during that last push to polish the end product. That last bit of polish takes the most time and requires the most patience. I realise now that during that critical time you can make or break the final game. I broke it.
Initially I wanted to make the game free with in-app purchases and adverts. However as release day approached, I decided at the last minute to make the game premium. I wanted to experiment and see how premium game market worked. This was my first game that felt like a premium title. I also felt the game looked too cluttered with ads. I decided to go premium, remove the ads and keep in-app purchases which I felt were optional add-ons anyway. Good idea right?
Mistake Number 5: A premium game with in-app purchases is a bad combination. Players immediately think that there is more to pay for following the initial purchase. This hinders sales.
On release day, I had a big breakthrough, my game got featured on the App Store in the "New Games We Love" category in several countries. The game went straight to number 1... on SlideDB! :)
- Topping the charts... on SlideDB
My wife got me some game themed cupcakes! Downloads started to flow in and I was on cloud 9. For about a week. Then downloads started to tail off, my game was falling out of the charts fast and there was nothing I could do to save it.
- Sweetening the deal!
The PR guys actually done a great job reaching out to grass-roots sites but reviews were mixed. Pocket Gamer gave a scathing review which hung around in the first position on Google like a bad stench. It hurt. They said the same things that the PR guys told me weeks ago, the controls weren't quite right and the game was too hard! To rub salt in the wound they called the article:
"George: Scared of the Dark review - The best platformer on mobile?"
That's when things started to get a bit painful. I took it personally. But hey, as an indie, any press was good press. Right? Right? However I did get some nice feedback...
- "Buy George: Scared of the Dark. I dare you"
- James Bolton, Snappzilla
- "In a scary way it's kinda like Guitar Hero"
- Patrick Hickey Jr, Review Fix
- "Charming visuals... with some brutal difficultly."
- Cokamouse, Pookybox
- "You’re gonna die a lot"
- Delano Cuzzucoli, HeyPoorPlayer
- "Doesn’t leave much room to breathe"
- Annemarie Gallagher, Bit Cultures
- "A lot more challenging than it looks"
- Lena Hedley, Gamemob
- "This is a challenging platformer — even by console standards"
- Admin, Invision Community
- "An ending you will never expect"
- Angelo Agustin, Fanboynation
- "Surprisingly difficult."
- Admin, Gamecry
- "We could say it’s do or die…"
- Galit Gordon, Gaming Cypher
- "There is no easy mode"
- Victoria Irwin, Fangirlnation
- Jess Landry, Horror World
- "Delivers A Spooky Adventure"
- Amanda Dyar, Bio Game Girl
- "Challenging, fun, with a captivating plot"
- Chrisanna Lazaridou, Download3K
- "Addictive due to it’s relatively unforgiving difficult"
- Chrisanna Lazaridou, GameReviewsAU
- "Overall: 8/10"
- Dave, Squackle
- "You won’t be disappointed."
- Adeline Gear, TheAppTimes
- "New and original gameplay experience"
- Andrea Scrimieri, iPhoneItalia
- "One of the most enjoyable indie games this season"
- Marina Belli, Games Princess
At the same time, my game was selected for Radius game festival and fuelled by the hype, I jetted off to Austria to show it off. I burned through more cash than I could afford. This part I don't actually regret, I had such an awesome time meeting other game developers. It felt like one big awesome family.
On reflection, this was the best part of my indie journey - meeting people with similar passions. I met some great game developers, even veterans of the industry and got some really good advice.
- Me at Radius Game Festival
I also remember speaking to a few students at the showcase and being asked for advice about making games. It was really humbling. Their passion was inspiring and I wandered what games they would go on to make.
- Showcasing at Radius Game Festival
Over the coming months, my game slipped out of the charts and into obscurity. I wanted people to play it, for it to go viral. That never happened. Running sales, releasing Halloween specials and iMessage sticker packs did little to help with sales numbers.
There was nothing I could do, it had a 1 week boom and that was it. All that hard work just went poof! I got some nice feedback from some players which made things worthwhile though.
- That brief moment when George ranked higher than Street Fighter and Sonic
The money was bad. That $30billion spent on the App Stores each year? I got roughly 0.000002% of that pie. Do the math if you wish. Once you factor in PR, travel expenses, App Store's cut and taxes, I failed to break even.
I'm happy though, I learnt a lot, I quit my job, went all in and failed and that's OK. I don't regret it. That freedom that I felt was worth it. That chasing the dream feeling was worth it. That "what if?" feeling was worth it. Listening to Stormzy's "Dreamers disease" while coding was totally worth it!
Ultimately making and publishing a solo, self-funded indie game is hard. It's tricky to stay objective working on your own too. On reflection, my game is pretty sweet and I'm proud of it but is it ground breaking? Risky? Innovative? No. It's just a 2D platformer, in a sea of platformers. Yes it has a unique story but that is not enough to stand out in the crowd. Had it been 2009, things may have been different but my game was about 8 years too late! That's the reality.
I also got the cartoon visuals mixed with brutal difficulty wrong. If it looks cute it shouldn't be so damn hard! I also got the pricing model wrong.
The App Store has moved on and become super competitive. Saturated. Players expect more and for less now. The big studios have moved in with massive marketing budgets and super fine-tuned monetisation and user acquisition strategies. Big business guys came. Winter set in.
The indie games coming through now are ground breaking. They have teams, budgets and sometimes even publishers. The days when a hobbyist created and published a commercially successful game on the App Store are long gone. It still happens but you would have more chance in Vegas putting your game budget on black.
It's been an awesome journey though and the experiences I have had have been priceless to me. I took the plunge, dived into the deep end and came out stronger and wiser.
Recently I took a consulting job and went back to work. I enjoyed working in a team again, bouncing ideas around and learning. Game development has become more of a fun hobby which I am happy to continue exploring. That's the best place to be for me. I can have full creative freedom without the pressure. That's the beauty of being indie.
People have asked me what George: Scared Of The Dark is all about? Well, it's about conquering your fears. And at times, we have all been fearful of doing something we want to do. Often, putting it off. And for me, it was making a game.
So, what's next?
I'm moving on, trying to innovate and experiment. Dusting myself off and looking to the future. I once went to a game festival and this guy gave a talk and what he said stuck with me:
"as an indie, you need to be really risky for a chance at success"
I'm trying to carve out a niche and "gamefy" news. Sounds crazy? Well it probably is but it's fun working on a new type of game that has not been done before. The passion is still there and I'm continuing being creative. The experiences make the journey worth it. I'm also working on Super Game Kit - an iOS starter kit allowing first time developers to create casual games quickly for the App Store.
My new game #mmmews which is the first game created using Super Game Kit is out on the App Store now. It's doing OK. Making a game has now become just an enjoyable process with no pressure on the end result. I'm striking a good balance between game development and enjoying my journey.
I also decided to make George: Scared Of The Dark totally free with no ads so that more players may experience it. Oh yea, and I fixed the controls but kept the difficulty in the last update.
I hope you enjoyed my first ever post mortem. It's the final step with making a game and it feels great writing it up. A closure of sorts. Hopefully you gained an insight or two as well.
Happy game development guys. Enjoy the journey.
About Wall West
Wall West is an independent micro development studio based in London. Founded in 2015 by Alex Petlenko to focus on developing iOS games and born out of a life-long passion for video games. The name of the studio - "Wall West" - is inspired by building a wall or a foundation brick by brick, one small step at a time and chipping away at something that you are passionate about.
This blog post was originally posted on the Wall West blog.