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The Drei story - or why making a good game may not be enough?

Talking to Drei co-creator Christian Etter about his slept-on iOS title and why he thinks app discoverability needs to change.
Since I have a few Twitter followers, and help to organize GDC, I've started to notice one of the effects of the increasingly crowded indie game market - people with Kickstarters or underappreciated indie games are starting to contact me regularly via my personal website's contact form.
While I appreciate these, most of the time, their games don't necessarily catch my eye - not because they're substandard, just because there's so much amazing work out there. But just recently I got an email from Swiss designer and artist Christian Etter, who told me honestly:

"After three years of development we released Drei: While the feedback is great... the numbers aren't, to be honest."
To be honest, once again, I didn't take a close look - but then I realized that I'd seen several people on Twitter saying positive things about Drei after getting assigned it in the IGF, and realized that this could be a great example of what Christian later calls the 'asymmetric' sales problem, especially on iOS.
The issue? There's so many games out there that even game fans such as myself are having a rough time keeping up. Christian admits he made mistakes - some fairly massive ones - in not really understanding how marketing works for games, and just concentrating on making a neat title.
But the discovery problem - especially on iOS for non-F2P titles - is definitely part of what Drei is running into, and IMHO, that's worsened by multiplayer being a key part of its charm and the title being iPad only.
Perhaps the widespread nature of the iPad gives a false impression of a possible sales base. Perhaps I need to go back and do an update of my indie game metrics slides to give people a good idea of what they could really hope for in a paid-only iPad multiplayer-centric title. But Drei is still a beautiful title that deserves more - as many games do.
So I interviewed Christian via email about his background - which includes work on the Breaking Bad interactive trailer - his history of making the app, and his thoughts on marketing and discoverability. Maybe you'll take something away - as a game developer or consumer - too:
Q: Give me a little background on your design studio and some of the neat things you've done.

Etter Studio was founded by myself about seven years ago. It's a small interdisciplinary design and strategy firm from Zurich, Switzerland. Over the years we have been lucky to work for pretty much all of our favorite companies, such as IBM, BMW, The Economist, BMW, Puma, Hermès and so forth. We mostly create projects a the connection of creativity and technology, but often are involved in strategic decisions as well.

We are four people here at Etter Studio and have no intentions to grow, it's fun now. We prefer to collaborate with other companies and individuals instead. Publicly we are probably best known for our work we did together with Unit9, such as the launch campaign for Breaking Bad (some people even say the series wouldn't exist without us now, which is ridiculous). Or the racing game we developed for MINI, where players can create real-time multiplayer racing tracks on Google Maps to race against their friends around the world.
Q: When did you get the idea to work on Drei, and what did you know about the game market when you started?
Initially I conceived the idea of Drei while working on a project to correct the image of one of the US telecom giants back in 2006. But their advertising agency disliked the idea of a multiplayer stacking game and it was scraped. But I always thought that probably one day technology will be far enough to produce this project independently. And one day came along when Unity3D came along.
Back then I didn't have any deeper understanding of the game industry, and I still don't. As advertising game on a website it was never thought to compete with traditional games.
Q: How did you talk about the game as you worked on it (and how long did you work on it)?
I didn't. Secrecy is common if you work for the clients we work for. We often see products or contents in early stages and are trained to not talk about it, for good reasons. Coming from this culture I was worried that other companies could rip off our idea and release it before us, since we had limited resources we could move only very slow. It took three years to develop Drei.
Q: As you neared release, what did you try to do in order to get people to notice it?
One week before the release we started to contact journalists we knew and filled them in. All of them seemed to like it and a few print articles were published. But that was pretty much limited to our home turf in Switzerland, Germany and the UK.
Q: Are you regretting have iOS as the lead platform, given the problems with discoverability for non-F2P games on that platform?
Overall iOS is an amazing platform for us. Apple even featured Drei as 'Best New Game' in 31 iTunes countries for a few days. But it's clear that sales are asymmetric. Very few titles get almost everything of the cake. And that is not just a problem on iTunes, it's pretty much everywhere in society, it's a natural result of market power. 
This makes sense for Apple (and likes): it's more profitable to have a few well known blockbusters/franchises instead of a broad range of less known titles with average sales. But overall this leads unavoidably to a lack of diversity. And I do believe that only diversity can lead to really new things. And I also think comparable platforms like Amazon do have slightly better ways to balance market power and diversity by for example giving more weight to customer feedback (which interestingly also results in more sales).

Q: How do you think most people have found out about your game?

At the release day we entered Drei for the IGF award. Some pretty amazing people from the indie game community picked it up and have given us extremely positive feedback on Twitter. We are overwhelmed that people like Vectopark (Windosill), Superbrothers (Sword & Sworcery), Tales of Tales (Luxuria Superbia) or Chris Bell (Journey) publicly recommend Drei on Twitter. That's just crazy. I played all of their games (several times), they are my favorite favorite favorite games!



Q: What's been the biggest surprise thus far about spreading the word on Drei?
We're quite surprised that this fantastic feedback, and even the support from Apple, aren't reflected in the sales numbers. We assumed that if the customer ratings are great and we're visible the sales would follow automatically — which is not the case. 
We never did Drei for the money. And we didn't aim for the indie community neither. It's the deeper meaning embedded in Drei's gameplay which we care most about. But it would be nice if more people would experience it.
We are aware that we probably would sell more than 3 times more if we would lower the price from 3 to 1 Dollar, or use in-app purchase. But Drei is also a game about collective behaviors and I believe by doing that it would have a small, but negative influence on the quality of games on the app store in the long term. 
And I also like that fact that people have to ask them selves if they want to buy Drei, or not. I prefer somebody deciding against it than somebody downloading it for free and spending 10 seconds with it before going to the next thing. The three Dollars secure Drei a certain attention once bought. Which is important since it's a game with a subtle start and unfolding beauty after playing it for a little.
On a side note, I'm always bewildered when I see people happily pledging 20 Dollars to kickstart a game whose quality seems to be looking like being developed on an Atari, while it appears too much to pay even one Dollar on the App Store for something made with a lot of love. There is something wrong.

Q: Do you think making a game that has multiplayer elements helps or doesn't help to spread the word?
It does help since it's a new kind of multiplayer mechanism. People seem to be surprised when they find out that they play with real people and then let their friends know so they experience it too, even can play together. At the same time we had some criticism that Drei relies too much on having enough players around. Therefore we changed the level structure a bit so the game can be almost finished without other players. But it's certainly much more fun when played with others.
Q: Do you think things need to change with App Stores or discoverability in order to make more interesting titles rise to the top?
Yes, but it's not easy. It appears much more to be a mathematical problem. Currently you can only find titles presented by Apple, very popular, or titles you know already by name. Ideally you would want to discover new titles that you will love, dispite how much market power they own.
A way to do that is to feature what like-minded people like, the others-also-bought-function. But if that is done too much then less known titles get marginalized again, because it becomes a self-feeding loop. 
It would be nice to throw a certain percent of randomness into the algorithm, and then leverage titles disproportionally which are discovered like that and show positive engagement. This should ensure a certain diversity and therefore quality in the long run.

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