Earlier this month a Boston-based PR firm sent out a press release tuned to impress: one indie developer's Early Access game, it read, had "dethroned" Counter-Strike as Steam's top user-reviewed multiplayer game.
It was an impressive achievement, however fleeting, for Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball, a multiplayer first-person dodgeball game that represents developer Erik Asmussen's first stab at Unity development.
But what's more interesting about Asmussen's current project, at least from a developer's perspective, isn't so much where it is now as where it isn't -- namely, Apple's App Store.
Like many developers, Asmussen quit his job a few years ago to dive into mobile development full-time; but despite some significant success with mobile games like PWN: Combat Hacking, Asmussen has decided to devote himself to PC development.
"I finally gave up on iOS after I got a 'Best New Games' feature and saw how little revenue that actually brought in," Asmussen tells me, via email. "The risk/reward profile was just terrible, combined with annoying barriers like having to put all updates through a review process. So I decided to switch to PC. That has proven to be a good decision by any measure."
Mobile seen as a 'winner-take-all' market
There are multiple factors involved in the developer's decision, of course; Asmussen likes to make real-time multiplayer games, which are often a hard sell on mobile. But he notes that just about everything is a hard sell on mobile if you don't manage to get your game top billing on Apple's App Store, and that "winner-take-all" market is prejudiced against low-profile developers.
Asmussen declined to share Steam sales data he did note that his final mobile game, PWN: Combat Hacking, earned roughly $10k in its launch month.
"Which sounds cool, until you consider that it took a year to build and about $3-4K in art," adds Asmussen. "And that that figure is in the top percentile of indie mobile games. And that it got the biggest app store feature short of the top banner."
Asmussen laments the fact that mobile game makers often can't get people into their games until after they're released, and believes that developing PC games for Steam's Early Access service is more empowering for small-scale developers.
"On PC you can release alpha builds, post a webplayer on your site, get YouTube attention, give out tons of keys, and build up a community of fans over a long period of time," says Asmussen. "As a result, Disco Dodgeball has significantly outperformed any of my mobile games - and it's not even released yet."
The former mobile developer suggests that Early Access sometimes gets a "bad rap" -- understandably, as Valve continues to iron out expectations for the service in the wake of developers abandoning work on their games -- but that it's been a "fantastic opportunity" for him in his new career as a PC game developer.
"I certainly couldn't or wouldn't have invested as much back into the game if not for the stream of revenue and feedback coming from players," says Asmussen. "It's not that succeeding on PC is necessarily easier, but at least it feels [like] the tools for success are in your hands."
His latest venture has proven successful enough that Asmussen believes he can formally launch Disco Dodgeball next month after roughly a year and a half of development, but he's not sure how much effort he'll devote into polishing the game's striking visual aesthetic.
Turning your weaknesses into strengths
"It's a weakness disguised as a strength," notes Asmussen, who admits he wanted the game's arenas to look like the space stations of Mass Effect but lacked the "time, budget or skills for that."
"I guess what I tried to do was find the sweet spot in the curve of diminishing returns," adds Asmussen. "I know the game could look better, probably even significantly better, but at a massively increasing cost that wouldn't necessarily make the gameplay more fun."
As an example, he points out that his frugal decision not to expend time and money furnishing players with 3D robot arms and Mega Man-esque dodgeball arm-cannons has actually proved to make the game play better.
"Right now, your imagination kind of fills in the gap and you don't really even notice there aren't any arms. Your brain just accepts it," says Asmussen. "As a solo developer it's really all about trying to figure out where the correct balance is so you can create the best possible game given your real-world limitations."