13 October 2010

All Apologies

So I've been meaning to blog for awhile now but HOLY CRAP HAVE WE BEEN BUSY!

I think we entered hell right after E3. At the time it seemed like we were mere weeks away from launching Space Miner Blast and new updates for Ninjatown, but then Apple did what Apple does and released the iPhone 4. Man did that complicate things!

Obviously, we wanted to make our games optimized for the iPhone4, so we started with Ninjatown. Redoing the graphics wasn't too bad since we had the iPad assets done already, but the problem was the size - it was no longer fitting as an over-the-air download. To get around that, we created a system for downloading assets live, which was all fine and dandy, but then something really silly came up.

On iOS4, you can't actually quit your app.

Seems like a minor thing, but the problem was we needed a way to re-start the game and re-initialize the graphics system to use the Retina art assets. Since that was never an issue before, we had to go through and clean up the code to allow it to re-initialize cleanly without leaking memory. So after getting all that stuff done, and tested (didn't get any iPhone4's until late July), and out the door, we finally got the first of our "mere weeks away" projects done in August. Ugh.

After that came Ninjatown HD for the iPad, which was (is) its own minor nightmare. We got the game done and working and out the door, only to get numerous reports of crashing with low memory. Thanks for the 256MB Apple. It wouldn't actually be bad if you could use, say, even half of it, but for whatever reason the iPad can get into a state when it's been on for awhile that you lose literally 2/3rds of the system resources for textures. Most games don't really use that much, but Ninjatown had a TON of animation frames, and making all those pretty gradients requires 32bit textures, so there is really no good way to cut down the memory. We did cut it down about 25%, but that is still not enough though to not require a reboot on some devices.

Unfortunately that left us with a problem we literally couldn't fix without hammering the graphics and a shitty decision as a result - let the crashes continue or make the game look worse. In the end, I decided the look of the game was more important, and just hope that the next firmware update for the iPad makes things better.

So now we're down to one of our "just around the corner" projects left, and that is Space Miner Blast. At this time, it really is about a week or so away from being submitted (finally!), now that the rest of the Venan Arcade projects are clear. It would probably be done already but we decided to incorporate Game Center into it. If you're a dev and have used Game Center, you are probably chuckling/groaning right now in the commiserating way you might if I was talking about having my wisdom teeth pulled. I'll just leave it at that. But there will be GameCenter leaderboards and achievements so I hope everyone likes them.

Despite all the setbacks, this work would have been done much sooner if that was all we had to do. But in the background of our Venan Arcade woes were a number contract projects, which didn't help matters much. Unfortunately, those take precedence, so when bad things happen (and they happened), our Venan Arcade stuff gets shelved. It would be great to get big enough to have more separation between those two sides of the company, but we aren't there yet.

So as I'm reviewing this post, it seems to come across as somewhat apologetic, and I realize in hindsight that is exactly how I feel. I'm going to re-title the post to reflect this I think. It frustrates the hell out of me when our projects run late, or crash or otherwise don't meet consumer expectations. We're still pretty small so I doubt there is a huge hue and cry for our little iPhone apps (unlike, say, pushing back Gears of War 3), but nevertheless I hate saying stuff like "This will be coming out in a month" and three months later people are still waiting. We're finally catching up now, so if you've been waiting, thanks for your patience.

Now that you've waded through all that icky past stuff, what's coming up?

Well, our next big thing is going to be a Space Miner sequel. We're going to be more active for this one, and plan to do some blogging/developer diary stuff as we develop the game. Not sure if we'll create a new site yet or just do it on here, but if you are into "behind the scenes" type developer stuff, I'll be sure that you get all the mind-numbing, esoteric and unglamorous details that go into making our games. That being said, it is going to be awesome. Stay tuned :)

12 May 2010

Floaters and Sinkers and Coasters

This is a post I wrote back in May but never posted. Since it is sitting here mostly written, I've decided to post it now as I prepare to start blogging again. I have some more thoughts on the whole pricing mechanics of the App Store, but I think I'll save that for another post.


So it's been about three weeks since the last update, when we were just starting our coaster sale of Space Miner. Man, what can change in three weeks.

But let's start with the coaster. It lived up to its name.

Fortunately there was some goodwill from the press out there, and we got some decent pickup on our press release. That combined with the normal sales notification channels served to shoot our unit sales up about 30x over the weekend. We climbed the charts fast, and then peaked (again) in the high 20s, this time at 28. So for a couple of days at least we were riding high.

But then the fall came, and it came fast. Here is a chart of the results:

When the sale hit, we did get a little grumbling from people who paid more, but not a whole lot. We also got solid reviews, without some of the troll-like ones we got the last time we had a big sale. Unfortunately, we didn't get one more thing, and that is traction. Like our past experiences with Space Miner, our ranking didn't help us at all in terms of getting us visibility to increase sales enough to maintain our increase our ranking.

In other words, Space Miner is a sinker.

My thoughts on why this is just comes back to straight marketing 101 - having a clear message. I don't think most people know what to make of Space Miner, since it's not a nice clear cut genre that the consumer can easily identify with. It's essentially the game of Asteroids turned into an RPG. And I don't think people see that and think "Oh, that's a game I want to play." Because it is so strange there is an initial bit of resistance that we have to overcome. I can easily see them say "Oh people really like this game, but that must be because they just like these kinds of games."

Also, going back to the icon, I think it doesn't really have wide appeal, and the screenshots have always been a problem, since the game is all about the motion. So when you add all these things up, you just have something that has to fight through a lot of resistance to succeed on the App Store. We'll need to find ways to overcome this if we want to get some traction back for this title.

And then we have Ninjatown: Trees Of Doom!

To say we are a bit surprised at how well it is doing would be a colossal understatement. We had no idea how the gameplay was going to be received, and we have no direct contact at Apple, so really you just hope to get featured. We thought it would happen based on good will from Space Miner, but you really can't predict anything.

We did get the call early on though, and a week after we launched we got featured. We resisted the urge to drop the price immediately and decided to ride out the new exposure. What we saw was much different than our experience with Space Miner.

It rose, and kept on rising. It got to about 16/17 in All Apps, and short of Pop Cap titles, was the highest rated game that wasn't $.99. We were flabbergasted at how quickly it went up the charts and how it didn't give back

So what's next for Space Miner?

I don't think we'll be doing much more in the way of updates. Frankly, making updates to Space Miner is A LOT of work. The game is big, it is complicated, and it has a ton of interdependencies. And based on our past updates, they haven't generated enough of a bump that it makes sense financially. We could charge for them, but that also doesn't seem to make sense - why build something that can only be bought a fraction of an audience that is already not big enough?

iPad comes up a lot, but that is also an area I'm not too sure about yet. The installed based isn't that high, their App Store has even worse discovery problems than the iPhone store, and the port will require us to spend a good amount of time re-doing UI. We're also incredibly busy with other projects, so it's isn't a high priority right now.

A sequel is in the works. We have a lot of neat ideas planned for that, but it's gonna be awhile until you see something. Once we're able to start full swing on production, we'll discuss that a lot more along the way.

And finally - our free to play initiative. What we're working on now is a free version of Space Miner that is basically a take on an Endless Mining mode. It's faster and more of a straight-up arcade game.

We have a lot of work to do in any event. The adventure continues...

30 April 2010

Coasters, Consumers and A/B Testing

So Space Miner is going on a coaster this weekend. So what's a coaster?

Basically, a coaster is a term I'm coining to describe bargain pricing your app to take a ride up the charts. If things go well, then a day by day plot should show your app climbing up the charts very quickly (like the ascent on a roller coaster). Eventually it will peak, and hopefully maintain it's position for a few days before starting to fall again. Once the fall starts, the usual response is to return to normal pricing, which accelerates the decline, at least on the top download charts.

A number of companies do this to stimulate sales. You'll see Gameloft do this for brief stretches, and a recent example was the first week of April sale where EA discounted all their games (not all to $.99, but it is EA, not Joe Schmoe after all). However one game, namely Simpson's Arcade, went all the way to the top of the chart. At the end of the week, guess what? They left it there.

Why do this? Well there are a number of reasons, but the basic one is obvious - if it goes right, you'll make more money, even though your margin is reduced. Sales on the chart are in no way linear, and the top games sell A LOT more than games not in the top chart. I believe Lima Sky announced something like 4 million sales recently, so that tells you something.

However it may not go right, and there are consequences.

The obvious one is that your sales don't increase enough to make up for the difference in price. In Space Miner's case, we are going to 1/5th our normal price, and will need an increase of at least 5x to break even. And really something more like 8x-10x to make it seem worthwhile. Short of that means we're probably wasting our time.

Another consequence is eroding consumer confidence in the price of your games, and pissing people off. For whatever reason, $1 on the App Store is like $10 in any other marketplace, and you'll get more grief for that $1 than you can imagine. I do believe it's the vocal minority though - so time will tell how much stock to place in those complaints.

And finally, once you place your app at the hands of the $1 masses, expect to get a lot of customers who are not necessarily interested in your product for the right reasons. They do less research, spend less time on the App, and are more likely to hit you with the 1-star Rate on Delete. In general, the lower your price point, the lower your average ratings. There are certainly exceptions, but it follows normal consumer patterns. A great book that covers this type of behavior is Predictably Irrational by Dan Arielly, and it's a good read if you're into that stuff.

So why are we doing this with Space Miner? The official reason right now is marketing - we want more customers because we're launching a new game soon. With visibility being such a huge factor in App Store success, you could argue very easily that for a given daily profit, it's better to pick the price that gives you more customers, since if they like your App, they'll be likely to look at your other products favorably. We've also added a More Games type section to allow easier discovery from within our games. So hopefully we can get some sales synergies happening.

The second reason is probably, in reality, the real reason. And that is that I'm just damn curious as to what's going to happen. It is a compelling sale, since the game is normally $4.99, so if nothing else people should be interested in that. But do we have enough visibility that there will be 5x the number of purchases? I really have no idea. And what will be our peak? Can we actually break the top 25 with a game like this? I've certainly seen much worse games grace the top of the charts. We did a press release to lay the groundwork, but until we see what happens this weekend it's all speculation. It's pretty exciting to watch though, so it should be a fun weekend.

Our plan is to run it for three days, but like EA, I'll reserve the right to change my mind if we make a lot more money this way :)

Following up on last week, we did run an experiment with AdMob doing some A/B icon testing. We tested about six different icons, and the results were, unfortunately, not beneficial. Let me explain.

We had some technical difficulties just getting the test running. It was pretty difficult to get an even number of ads served in a single campaign, so I had to do a lot of manual turning on and off of different ads to get a high enough volume that each one had statistically significant results. But because of the different times of day ads were running, and since some ads just got served a lot more than others, it was hard to tell what was causing the deviations in ad performance outside of just the icons.

Be that as it may, at the end of the experiment the best performing icon was - the icon we're using. Go us! So when I say not beneficial, I mostly mean that there is no clear "better icon", at least superficially, for us to be using and hence no panacea to App Store success.

The sale is on, so it's time to sit back on the couch with the iPad and keep hitting refresh on the hourly rankings. I don't know if this will be profitable or not, but we'll have a bunch of new customers at least, and hopefully fans. Next week I'll update with some statistics from the sale, and any lessons learned.

23 April 2010

Three Months on the App Store

We launched Space Miner on February 5th, with no clear idea of what was going to happen. We'd been developing games for almost eight years as a company, but this is really the first time we exposed ourselves directly to our consumers besides a couple of minor Windows Mobile projects. Being primarily a third party developer for companies like EA and Sega meant that we never had to deal with getting a product launched. To say that we were unprepared would be a woeful understatement.

This was not due to ignorance. We knew about the importance of marketing, buzz, etc. but at the end of the day, we didn't have time. The game was way over budget and way late, and we just needed to get the thing done. Furthermore we also questioned how much value there was in doing this for a couple of different reasons. One was that we didn't have a clear message for what the game was - marketing the next great Asteroids RPG didn't seem like it would be a compelling message. The other was that it seemed like the App Store audience was completely fickle, and quite dispersed, meaning there was no clear avenue to really spread the word short of spending a lot of money. In the end, these may have just been justifications to make myself feel better at night because we hadn't done these things I knew we should do.

We did what we could though. We tried emailing some journalists, and ran a short promotion on TouchArcade the week before, but I think at launch maybe 100 people in the world knew that there was a game called Space Miner. Including us and our families. Not the best job there, by any means.

What happened afterwards is pure luck. Our little promotion on TA meant we had some people waiting for the game, and as soon as it launched, they got it, and loved it. They literally evangelized the product so much that our thread exploded and the editors of Touch Arcade got the game and ran a glowing review two days later. It was also a slow weekend so it was the top article on their site for nearly 48 hours. Our sales shot up, the buzz continued, and great reviews kept rolling in. A couple of weeks later we got featured by Apple, cut the price, and got into the high 20s for overall App Sales.

Saying this is pure luck isn't really true, since we did do one very important thing right - we made a good game. For the most part, hype can give you a bump, but if you don't deliver the goods, it isn't going to do too well.

But we did kind of hit this frustration point - we couldn't get onto the top of the App Store. I was seeing all these games ranked higher than us that weren't reviewed nearly as well, by the press or their users, and some of them, frankly, sucked. Perhaps if we cut the price to $.99 at that point we may have been able to breakthrough, but I felt it was a disservice to take a game at this production level and price it like Doodle Jump. So we stuck to our guns, and began our gradual descent back down the charts, finally going back to our $4.99 price point.

Thus I learned my first lesson - chart ranks don't really help sales, unless you are near the top. For the most part, our ranking always reflected how well we were doing, and never served to increase our sales. When we shot up, it was because of being featured by Apple, or it was because we cut our price, and it happened within a day of the event. But then it would always hold steady or taper. We never experienced a rise, followed by a rise, which would indicate that getting up the chart was helping us sell more product. Perhaps this visibility would have been helpful if we'd had a Lite version available at the time, but we messed that one up and didn't get it out until we were off of Apple's featured lists. So we'll never know really.

Things have been tapering slowly since then, not doing horribly by any stretch, but it's a tenth or less of what it was at its peak, and seems to keep tapering. And we're a long way from break-even.

So we're now in a new territory for us, yet familiar to many hardened App Store veterans, where we try to figure out ways to extend the life of Space Miner. We've done a couple of things so far, including a couple of feature updates and getting out a Lite version. These have given us slight bumps, but haven't made a material difference in our sales. So we need to look at other methods.

I ran across a really good blog post on A/B testing, which I was aware of, but in terms of applying it to your icon, which I had never thought of. Here is a link to it since it's a good read: http://www.markj.net/ab-testing-iphone-app-names-360idev/. It looks like a relatively cheap method to perhaps get some better response to your app listing.

Another thing we're looking to do is get some cross-promotion going between our products. Since we only have one now, that's not really possible, but we'll be releasing our new game, Ninjatown: Trees Of Doom! in a couple of weeks, so we can see if that helps get more visibility (which will of course depend highly on how well it does.) We're also working on an arcade version of Space Miner that will be a pure free-to-play with ads.

Then of course there is the traditional medium of just buying ads. We'll probably dip our toes in this a bit to see how well it works, but you can sink a lot of money here fast, and the economics may be questionable if you don't do enough to drive yourself to the top of the charts.

The final thing I'm considering is to take the game on a "coaster". I don't know if that's a real term or not, but if it isn't, I call dibs! As for what a coaster is, I think it's best described by what EA did with the Simpsons or what Gameloft does occasionally. I'll expound on it more in another post.

Anyhow, the honeymoon is over, and we're settling in and getting comfortable now. The business challenges remain, but I look forward to finding solutions and learning new ways to be successful in this marketplace. I think a lot of people give up and move on at this point, which is a mistake. I think there is a lot of life left in Space Miner, and if nothing else, we'll expect to see a bump when we finish Space Miner 2 ;)

And one last thing - we're going to actually try and make this blog worth checking occasionally, so look for more frequent updates.

25 January 2010

From Asteroids to Space Miner

It really did seem like a fool-proof idea at the time: make small games that could be wrapped up in a month, two at most, and focus entirely on simple gameplay mechanics. Graphics would be simple, UI would be simple, audio would be simple, everything would be simple.

Needless to say, Space Miner ended up being anything but simple.

It started out rather innocently with our original prototype, which was an Asteroids-type game that required the player to physically rotate their iPhone to rotate their ship around to face incoming asteroids. Tapping the screen fired your guns, asteroids would break apart when hit, and you would have to clear the screen to advance to the next level. That was the extent of it. It wasn’t meant to be a very complex game, just one of many tiny games we planned to design and develop using what we called the “Pivot-dot” mechanic, which was this idea of 360 degree device rotation as a core gameplay mechanic. There was really only one problem: the mechanic wasn’t very fun.

When we went back to the drawing board, we also drew a second conclusion: Asteroids is a classic game, but people have played it a million times before, and there are countless versions of it available on the App Store. If we wanted to make a game worthy of the Venan name, it would need to be more than just an Asteroids clone with a new control scheme.

This resulted in the earliest form of the current Space Miner, which asked a very simple question: “If Asteroids never came out, how would you make it today?” In that sense, Space Miner: Space Ore Bust became emblematic of some of the most popular design trends of the last 10 years: Non-linear structure, free exploration, loot collection, deep customization, physics-based gameplay, a storyline, even an achievement system through Plus+. However, despite our gameplay additions, we also kept the heart of the classic Asteroids gameplay – which is that blowing stuff apart is a lot of fun.

With this general gameplay philosophy mapped out, we started pondering the theme of the game. We were tired of generic sci-fi shooters with “gritty” characters and color schemes and decided early on that Space Miner’s universe would be colorful and lighthearted, with a cast of silly characters to accompany the player through the adventure. This led to the idea of Mega Space Corporation trying to take over your crazy Uncle Jeb’s asteroid field, which then evolved into the current game’s storyline.

We also used this lighthearted theme to help us with our gameplay mechanics. For example, the Ore Collectors used in the game to collect loot from asteroids and enemies are described as giant space vacuum cleaners, and the enemies in the game all have Wall-E-inspired robo-blurbs that they emote regularly. Not having to take ourselves too seriously resulted in a lot of fun additions to the game, from enemies with giant magnets on their faces to the inclusion of special asteroids like explosive “gastroids” and the ever-elusive “piƱatastroid”.

As the release of Space Miner: Space Ore Bust draws closer, we hope that you will join us at our Twitter feed or Facebook group to partake in the festivities which include but aren’t limited to:

  • Awesome new trailers!
  • New screenshots!
  • Concept art and character dossiers!
  • Lots of free stuff ranging from in-game music to promo codes!

You can also stay up to speed on Space Miner by checking the Venan Arcade website.

Until next time!