Breaking Into The iOS Game: Experiences of Kung Pow Granny and a Chinese Company
What's it like for a design company in China to make their first serious entry into the iOS game industry? Actually, it has not been the gangbusters breakneck development that characterizes most other parts of the economy in this country, and not the least bit like those poster boy successes everyone is racing to emulate on the App Store.
Bluefir started out making ringtones, wallpapers, and themes, selling these to Sony Ericsson, Nokia, Meizu (a Chinese smartphone maker). A natural progression to making games took place around 2008, and we put out a bunch of titles for Windows Phone, Symbian, Android, Java, Bada, and even a couple of Chinese cultural themed apps (how to make dumplings and a Feng Shui compass called a Sinan) for Android and iPhone/iPod. Most of what we make is very well drawn, and executed, things generally look pretty good once we release them. However, sales haven't really matched what we put into making these products, and we have some theories and guesses as to why (money is always an easy thing to lack and suffer from lack of); still we'd like to put our story out there and see if we can shake the trees for ideas.
For our first big game effort, we morphed a product from a semi-polished game on Samsung Apps Market for Bada called Crazy Grandma to a full out, very polished effort for iOS called Kung Pow Granny. Along the way there were a couple bumps in the road, grinding as it was at times, with a team of programmers, illustrators, and sound guys (around 10 people in total) dedicated to birthing this incredible thing that we hope will do better sales in the coming future. Here's more on what went into our project, and what we have gotten out of it so far.
As a design company, we are not experts at gaming software. Moving into a creative industries park in Qingdao (which is on the east coast of China almost directly across from Incheon, South Korea) about 2 years ago, we were able to attract some decent talent to add to our already proficient in design outfit. We now have about 30 folks in our loft office, divided up roughly as 10 design (art included) and 10 coding, with the rest being admin, marketing, and interns, as well as 2 sound guys (both musicians and fx dudes). Still, we are not experts and it probably shows - we'll let you let us know how and why.
We spent 8 months on the development of Kung Pow Granny, based on Crazy Grandma, but with an overhaul of graphics, gameplay, music. Even though CG topped the France Samsung store, we needed to do a lot of work to make it ready for iOS and App Store. The first 4 months were spent on optimizing the the game, and our guys went back and forth on getting the controls to feel right - this took up at least half of the time we spent from Fall 11 to Spring 12 working on KPG. We spent a lot of time on details, like different animations for various action when the main character Granny used certain skills. One example of this is the use of the firestorm and its effect on the screen movement - we really put a lot into enhancing the user experience in this regard. Once we were satisfied with the game play and feel, the second 4 months were spent pouring in the design and getting everything to work right.
After making a decent game (we think), it was time to submit, and start some pre-heating promo work. Prior to release, we contacted at least 50 website editors to get a preview. No one took us up on the offer, and we probably were not presenting an appealing enough angle in any case. Some of our ideas were misguided a bit, we are not really sure about best practices in this area, and are conditioned by the domestic market here in China to look for some personal connections in media to help out. Not finding any success with befriending the besieged American editors for previews, we did get some very positive feedback and encouragement from people we sent ipa's to, almost every single one came back saying, great graphics, nice game. A good number of review site editors and forum posters were genuinely interested and anticipated the release of the game and our promo codes.
We did stumble a bit when we forgot/neglected to include a restore function for non consumables in the original code, and this got KPG rejected on the first submission to the App Store. Our guy named Wander fixed that up and we re-submitted as fast as we could, setting a launch date for about 2 weeks after that in hopes of getting the ok and then having a week to keep promoting the launch. A week later, KPG got approved, and the decision was made to launch immediately, based on some issues with domestic promo in Chinese media, they wouldn't wait for us and we just decided to go for it, ignoring the wisdom of a PR sage who once said to wait a couple weeks and have a firm launch date. Did this matter much? Hard to say the cost/benefit ratio - we got quick traction in China, had about 80,000 downloads in 10 days, the only problem being that most of them were pirates, 98.6 percent to be exact.
After launch, we sent out promo codes, got back in touch with all the reviewers we felt were necessary, and got a couple reviews so far, about 10 days into the process. On the day after our 1st media review (a very positive 5 star) we had 21 total sales on the US App Store. The following day, 4. We did have one other review that was 3 stars, praising KPG as a pretty decent TTL clone, which is what the game is based on. But that review took issue with our perhaps mistaken issuance of a large gift bag that unlocked all items/power ups in the stash box, citing the relative difficulty of players of later versions to make any headway on leaderboards. There are also currently about 100 reviews on the App Store, most on the China store, in Chinese language, almost all are positive, just a couple angry with bugs (which we are zapping away for an update soon). KPG's ratings have been excellent, 74 5-stars, 14 4-stars, 2 3-stars, 1 2-stars, and 2 1-star, which resulted from user anger over bugs - this really disappointed us but back to the drawing board and better days ahead. We know our fans are very happy - we've received comments such as one on Weibo (China's version of Twitter) that said "Kung Pow Granny deserves a great reputation ... what a great game, my daughter and I play it a lot".
Do reviews help? Good, or bad? Any publicity is good publicity? It's hard to get onto the front page of the App Store, and if we can get in the top 50 or higher, we guess we will be set off on the self fulfilling daisy chain reaction to keep getting sales, and thus keep getting featured. What does any of this have to do with making a quality game that many have reviewed as fun and addictive, remains to be seen. We did think we might do better on the US App Store, really the holy grail for us, but to date this has not been the reality.
At the moment, we are preparing a free version with the least intrusive banner ads we could integrate into the game without affecting play. The plan always was to do this in order to create more revenue from our game, and now it's vital that we do this to try to get something from all the jailbreak downloads. An important takeaway from this is that different regions require different strategies. It's not a secret that China has a real pirate problem, though we didn't anticipate such a high rate.
We were starting to wonder if the tilt dodge genre has jumped the shark, but this may be neither here nor there in the true assessment of success and failure in our efforts so far. When we started doing KPG, the success of Crazy Grandma for Samsung was ringing in our ears, and it seemed like a good way to go. Again, some very nice feedback and a large number of unauthorized players so far has been validation of sorts. So we are guessing that people like the game, if they are into that sort of thing and can find it in the market. Now if they would only pay for it, so we can keep making games people want to play.