Dead Server was Dead

The Gamecraft blog hiatus is now over.

Digital GamecraftBack in the summer, our primary web server died.  When I say, “died”, I mean that it completely lost power suddenly and never came back on again.

Fortunately, we had a much more powerful server already online ready to take on the new hosting responsibilities (having been acquired to do just that).  Alas, the transition was planned to be a slow rollout, not an under-the-gun quick turnaround.

Resource prioritization

There were some services provided by the late server that needed to be replaced and restored post haste, so those clearly had priority.  However, the number of employees here skilled to handle server administration duties can be counted on the index finger of my left hand.  We took care of the emergency issues as soon as possible, and then we triaged services that felt like high priorities but which could actually wait.

Restoring this site was one of those lesser items.  The measurable ROI (return on investment) for the blog was negative, it takes a significant amount of time to manage and provide content, and the readership was dropping far below its peak.  In fact, we had been cutting back on the number of posts out of necessity.  On the other hand, we had as much contract work as we could handle, one product needing some critical attention, and a new project in danger of falling further behind our planned (albeit arbitrary) schedule.

After getting over the initial emotional reaction and making the decision to wait to restore the blog, it became easier to keep pushing that effort further into the future.  Not only did we save (well, postpone) the immediate time requirements, we also saved the time it takes to write original content and maintain the site.

As an interesting bonus, traffic to our Facebook page increased by 1600% shortly after the server went down.  However, that boost was short-lived.

The intangibles

I surmised that the unexpected boost to Facebook views, which trailed off reasonably quickly (especially since we have not posted an update there in a long time), was actually an influx of blog readers checking to see whether we were still “alive” as a company.

We were very much alive, just too busy (and short on resources) to restore the blog.

Additionally, there were a small number of items that came up which we would have liked to communicate to our readers, but given that such a post required the initial time investment to revive the blog, many of these were simply dropped or forgotten.  We have also had three (unannounced) product update releases during this “hiatus”.

Finally, however, I made the call to relaunch the blog when we had a lull in time-sensitive work, combined with a number of upcoming announcements in the next few months (not to mention a growing concern about the impression left by a landing page).

As is so often the case with such tasks, once the decision was made to go ahead and get it done, it took less time than feared and embarrasses me to have procrastinated so long.

We are back

Now, the Gamecraft blog is back, and we have lots of posts to make and, as noted above, expectations of news to announce in the coming weeks.  Of course, because of the abrupt and complete failure of the previous server, there are still a few niggles that have to be worked out of the system, and a few changes to be made, but that is always the case.

Welcome back, readers!

35th Anniversary!

SophSoft has been in business for 35 years as of today.

Digital GamecraftOn Wednesday, January 13, 1982, thirty-five years ago today, Sophisticated Software Systems was officially founded.  That company was later incorporated as SophSoft, Incorporated (because that domain, sophsoft.com, was still available).

Five years ago, I wrote a post, 30 Years in Business, giving more information.  You can also see the About SophSoft and Digital Gamecraft page (and sidebar).

Over time, some years have been more productive, and some have been more “interesting” than others.  Notably, back on the 25th anniversary, I actually posted about the results of our annual off-site meeting, rather than the major milestone; in that vein, I will keep this celebration limited and generally mark the occasion with more development. Still…

SophSoft, Incorporated is the oldest indie game development company in the world!

Ha!  Beat that. 🙂

Fifteen Years with Goodsol

We have been working with Goodsol Development for 15 years now!

Goodsol DevelopmentOn this date back in 2001, SophSoft, Incorporated made our first software delivery to Goodsol Development.  Since that time, we have never stopped working together, producing the best solitaire software ever created.

I posted about this collaboration 5 years ago in my post, 10 Years of the GDcard Library.  We have continued our progress since then, adding an entire line of iOS products and 400 more games to Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition, along with much more.

For fun, I thought that I would take a look at some of the numbers:

To save everybody a little bit of math, this means that, on average, we have delivered a new product version once every 10 days, and we have added a new game of Solitaire every two days, for the entire 15 years.  Amazingly, the number of delivered versions for Pretty Good MahJongg and for Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition are currently exactly the same: 88 of each.  [Spoiler: PGMJ will take the lead with a macOS Sierra bug fix.]

In lieu of anniversary gifts 🙂 , just tell your friends about our excellent products!

SophSoft Relaunch

SophSoft, Incorporated jumps back into the fray.

SophSoft, Incorporated - custom game developmentAfter a respectful (and necessary) period of readjustment, while SophSoft, Incorporated and Digital Gamecraft™ added a second office on the west coast, we are making our public reappearance.

It has, admittedly, been a while since I have made any concerted effort to market our development services or published games, or to comment on industry events.  Instead, I have retrenched to focus on our core concerns: key clients, business organization, and (of course) financial stability.  Having made significant progress on all fronts, it was time for us to again perform those functions that go beyond simple maintenance to actually growing the company.  To that end, I am not only committing time to this effort but getting more assistance in areas that I can efficiently delegate.

Here is a quick roundup of the news (past and upcoming):

SophSoft, Incorporated

Over the past year, we have continued our previous development work, most notably for Goodsol Development, with whom we have been working for 15 years (later this month); there have been several releases in that time, and many more are still scheduled to be shipped (for Windows, Mac OS X, and iOS) during the rest of 2016.

We have added to our collection of mobile devices (iOS, Android, and Windows) for development and testing, as we have continued to improve our knowledge and experience on all three platforms.  (I can neither confirm nor deny reports that Apple Watch, Android Wear, Apple TV, and Android TV are included in our forthcoming lineup.)

As a departure from games, development is underway on a new line of productivity tools that aim not only to enhance our bottom line, but also (actually, primarily) to significantly increase our internal efficiency and organization.

Digital Gamecraft

We have continued to support (albeit not promote) Demolish! Pairs for iOS, while we have been making progress on an Android edition.  This progress on a new platform for Demolish! Pairs has gone from fitful to steady, and it is now increasing in velocity.  We have some new marketing prepared, including an online playable version (in HTML5).  Expect new features and new platform announcements fairly soon.

In addition to that title, our next game is already under development.  This one will be the first of our “Gamecraft Classics™” series of classic board and card games, and it represents an early step along our roadmap of upcoming titles in five major genres, as well as a few experimental (‘one off’) titles.  All of these games feed into our SophPlay™ System for robust game development, strengthening its foundation.

Finally, plans are in place for renewing and enhancing our presence on social media, expanding from Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ into more places for community.  Follow us via these links now and experience the resurgence as it happens.

Still More…

As noted, we now have offices in both East Lansing, MI and Los Angeles, CA, and it has been a chore getting our infrastructure working (together) in both places.  Now that we have stability, we are enhancing our capabilities with new, faster servers.  Although the switch-over and retirement of older hardware is still in progress, users should experience more responsiveness and better reliability (if not now, then within a couple of weeks).

As ‘no battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy‘ (in this case, the challenges of limited resources and product discoverability, primarily), there is no doubt that our goals are ambitious and our priorities will change.  However, as an entrepreneur, I find that merely maintaining the status quo is more stressful than risking failure.

Summer Slump

Mobile games may not play by the same rules.

We have now entered summer (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway), which is traditionally a slow time for sales in the game industry.  The explanation over the years has generally been that this is a time during which people take vacations and spend more time outside, so they spend less time at the computer or game system and play fewer games.  This certainly makes sense for desktop and console games, but in this day of increased use of mobile devices and handhelds, the traditional explanation may not hold (as much) water.  When one of your game systems (i.e., phone) travels with you everywhere, it makes sense that it would get used as much as usual; in fact, it is likely used more in places like airports, the back seat of a car during a long drive, and the hotel room after the swimming pool has closed for the evening.

Of course, if summer shifts play to mobile games, where the (dubious) profits are marginal, at best, this is still likely to result in an overall slump for companies who support more than one type of platform.  Nevertheless, I expect that consumer behavior changes differently in the summer with respect to mobile games.  I would hope for extra game purchases in preparation for a vacation or while waiting during travel.

Interestingly, our limited data (with a little squinting 🙂 ) can fit that scenario.  Since the holiday weekend at the end of May (Memorial Day in the United States, Late Spring Bank Holiday in the UK), downloads have changed.  At the start of that weekend, we saw a spike in downloads which mostly persisted through the (holiday) Monday, after which they essentially flatlined for a few days.  Then, last weekend, we had another (smaller) spike on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, then (now) back to zip.  Alas, our total download counts are too small to draw definitive conclusions (or even be statistically significant 🙁 ), and it has only been a couple of weekends.  (Our sales do not definitively correlate with downloads.)  Also, many schools around here are still in session, so we are not really into the heart of summer vacation season either, though the weather is definitely much improved.

Demolish! Pairs 1.11Operating more on the assumption that mobile sales may persist through the summer, and the knowledge that sales really need to improve, than on the need for experimental data, we have decided to put Demolish! Pairs on sale for 50% off throughout the month of June, and we have likewise discounted all IAP products in Demolish! Pairs FTP similarly.  Sure, it may skew the data, but in a good way. 🙂

As a reward for reading this blog post (assuming that you have done so in a timely manner), I will tell you that we are approaching the 1 year anniversary of the Demolish! Pairs release, and to celebrate, we plan to make the game absolutely free for one day only, on June 18, 2014.  You can download the game on that day (two weeks from today) and keep it forever.

“There’s a hole in the cat bag!”

SophSoft.com Relaunch

Our game development consulting site is back online.

SophSoft game development and consulting servicesEarlier this week, we relaunched our SophSoft web site, which lists some of our quality game development services and professional game contracting experience.

The site is sophsoft.com.

Historically, this site has been the main web site for SophSoft, Incorporated, our parent company.  We have had and used the domain name since November 14, 1995, and the official corporate name was, in fact, taken from the domain name.

The site has been down for a while, though.  Honestly, we found ourselves in a bit of a weird and unfortunate situation.  When our business partner and artist, Rick Tumanis, died back in 2011, it was a huge loss.  Not only did we need to regroup from the sadness, but we also no longer had our Art Director to draw upon.  This meant both that the services we offered would need to change and that the person in charge of web design and appearance was, shall we say, unavailable.

After more than two and half years, with the site having been pulled when we replaced a web server quite a while ago, I finally made the move and built the new (albeit small) site and published it for those who have been looking for our game development services.  I kept a few items from Rick on there, but realigned the focus.  At some point, I will add pages specific to our various contracting projects, but for now, the site is back.

If you need game development assistance, either with technical programming challenges or with higher level management and design, or want to have an entire game created by a professional team with decades of experience, be sure to check out SophSoft.

“Nothing Short of a Masterpiece.”

2014: Full Speed Ahead

The new year has gotten off to a snow start, though.

For us here at SophSoft, Incorporated and Digital Gamecraft, 2014 is starting a little bit later than originally scheduled.  We took our usual couple of weeks off at the turn of the year, but the weather decided to insert itself into our plans.  On the first full day of our break, we were hit by a serious ice storm, and although we were very lucky to be mostly unaffected by the power outages, our immediate neighbors were without electricity until New Years Eve.  Fortunately, they were back online just in time to watch the Michigan State University Spartans win the Rose Bowl!

On the first day “back” from the break, we received more than 18 inches of snow, which essentially shut down all of East Lansing and surrounding communities for a couple of days.  Although we could still get development work done, the first priority was digging out, and that took many hours of physical effort, so it was not easy to just jump right back onto the project schedule.  On top of that, we received several pieces of personal news, both bad and good, so it was an emotional week, too.   (Personally, I managed to get sick in the midst of all of this, from which illness I am still recovering.)

Nevertheless, despite the slow ramp up, we are now approaching full speed ahead with game development in 2014.  We added some newer development systems to assist with our desktop and mobile development, so now we have a state-of-the-art environment for creating games for Windows (up to 8.1), Mac OS X (through Mavericks), Linux (Ubuntu), iOS, Android, Windows Phone, HTML 5, Silverlight, Flash, Xbox 360, OUYA, and more.  If anybody needs to contract some programming talent, you can contact me here.

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi (Russia) are just three weeks away, and we expect to have unprecedented coverage, both through our @DGOlympics twitter feed, where we will again provide results for all events (as we did for the London Summer Olympics in 2012), as well as through a new (broader) game site that we plan to announce shortly.  If you have any interest in the Olympic Games, please follow us at @DGOlympics and spread the word.

On the Solitaire front, our top priority is finishing the substantial rebuild of Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition and the other Goodsol Solitaire Engine games.  While we have, unquestionably, the best technical platform (and the most games) for the Mac, we are revisiting the interface to make it even more fun to play.  Of course, we are also planning to add many more new games in our relentless march toward 1000. 🙂

We have a new iOS upgrade for Demolish! Pairs (and later, Demolish! Pairs FTP) in the works.  We are adding (at least) one new play mode, by popular request, and several other new features.  (The exact list of features will be determined based on scheduling considerations.)  Of course, you can buy Demolish! Pairs on the App Store now and get the upgrade for free when it is released.

There are currently three more major projects in design and development, but I will announce each of those here at an appropriate (later 🙂 ) time.  Additionally, there are always a number of maintenance projects which, at this point, include changes to our iOS games mandated by Apple to be “optimized for iOS 7”, modifications to most of our Windows games to properly handle touch interface changes made in Windows 8.1, and of course, everything can use a fresh coat of virtual paint for 2014.

Rather than spend any more time typing about this, I should get back to actual development work, as 2014 is looking to be our most exciting year yet!

2013: Year in Review

Overall Performance Grade: B

Digital Gamecraft / SophSoft, IncorporatedAs the number of hours left in 2013 dwindles down to minutes, it is a good time to look back on the past year and do an honest performance review for the work we have done at Digital Gamecraft and SophSoft, Incorporated.

Major Events

#10: Lack of Ideas?  Really?

We created a roadmap of our upcoming development projects, which list “contains 30 games, in 6 different genres, spanning approximately one dozen platforms, plus a productivity application and an information web site.”  Toward the end of the year, we also did a reevaluation of our company purpose, vision, and mission, confirming our goals and how each of the above products help fulfill them.

#9: iOS Development

We finally released our first iOS titles this year, and once we started on the new platform, we shiped 12 SKUs for iOS (7 titles and 5 updates).

#8: Goodsol Solitaire 101 Touch Edition 1.0 / GSCITE 1.10

We released the initial iOS version of this collection of 101 favorite Solitaire games (plus 34 bonus games) on June 3, and we released a significant update on September 27.

#7: Most Popular Solitaire Touch Edition 1.0 / MPSTE 1.10

We released the initial iOS version of this collection of 30 most popular Solitaire games (plus 13 bonus games) on April 25, with a significant update on August 14.

#6: FreeCell Plus Touch Edition 1.0 / FCPTE 1.10

We released the initial iOS version of this collection of 8 FreeCell type Solitaire games (with 4 bonus games) on April 2, and a significant update on July 31.

#5: Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition 2.50

We released this update to the premier Solitaire program for Mac OS X, bringing the total to 500 games, after two previous updates, PGSME 2.42 (420 games) and PGSME 2.44 (440 games), earlier in the year; we also launched a major upgrade project to make the next version of PGSME, due fairly soon, even better.

#4: Pretty Good Solitaire Touch Edition 1.0 / PGSTE 1.10

We released the initial iOS version of our flagship Solitaire product with 500 games, the biggest Solitaire package available for iPad, on July 16, and then followed that up with a significant update on October 22, with 520 games (plus 72 bonus games).  We also refined our upgrade development process for this title.

#3: A Little Solitaire Touch Edition 1.0 / ALSTE 1.10

We released the very first version of this collection of 9 Klondike, FreeCell, and Spider Solitaire games, for iPad, on March 22, and published a significant update on July 26.  This was a major event not only because it was our first ever iOS game, but also because, on March 27, it became the #1 card game in the App Store.

#2: Demolish! Pairs FTP 1.0.1 for iPad

We released a free-to-play version of our arcade/puzzle game, Demolish! Pairs, on November 6.  This was the second SKU from Digital Gamecraft, and our very first venture into the “free” section of the App Store (with decidedly mixed results).

#1: Demolish! Pairs 1.0 for iOS

On June 18, we released Demolish! Pairs 1.0, our puzzle/arcade game for iOS, thereby reentering the self-publishing arena.  It was the first title published by Digital Gamecraft, and the last to contain fully custom artwork (and sounds) from our late artist, Rick Tumanis.  Although it was not the runaway success that it should have been, it provided a positive first step and, along with Demolish! Pairs FTP, gave us some very useful information about the iOS market.

What Went Right

Digital Gamecraft has remained a full-time independent game development company for (now) the 19th consecutive full year (stretching back into 1994, as Sophisticated Software Systems); this alone is a significant accomplishment.

Our product development continued apace, as did our strong affiliation with Goodsol Development, resulting in 15 SKUs released in 12 months.  We firmly established ourselves on the iOS platform, and Digital Gamecraft has published its own titles.

What Went Wrong

The video game industry, as a whole, is in a period of crisis, even though some “evangelists” continue to preach the opposite.  Continuing to survive in this depressed climate is a true challenge (though we strive to thrive).

We have seen falling sales and reduced revenues, and our entry into the iOS market with products on the App Store has done little to stem the negative trend.  In fact, it distracted us somewhat from Windows and Mac development, where the sales are slowing, but which are still a better investment than mobile platforms (for now).  Our experiments in free-to-play marketing suggest that it is not a general solution.

Final Evaluation

On balance, I awarded a grade of B (again) for overall performance in 2013.  My initial inclination was to grade our efforts as a C+, but when I looked back on what actually happened in the year, we met most of our development goals.  Digital Gamecraft released its first two games, and we broke into the iOS market with numerous titles.  Although reduced income does cast a pall over the year (and my mood), I determined that it should not count against our productivity grade.

That said, though, things will clearly need to improve in 2014, and we have already taken steps to achieve that, but this is a discussion for another post. 🙂

A Dozen Days of Disappointment

Results show few opportunities for optimism.

When I wrote an earlier blog post, FTP: Early Results, I stated that it was too early to draw any conclusions from the very early data from Demolish! Pairs FTP.  However, now that we have almost two weeks of data from Demolish! Pairs FTP on the App Store, the results are beginning to look more conclusive.

Day-to-Day Play-by-Play

Here is a rundown of the basic results since the app has been available:

Day 1: [baseline]

As previously reported, the first full day of downloads was Thursday, November 7, 2013, which provided more downloads, from 24 different countries, than we had sales of the “paid” version, Demolish! Pairs; therefore, I will use that number as the baseline figure for downloads (i.e., 100%) and all other percentages are relative to this figure.

Day 2:

On the second day, we did not do any additional marketing in order to determine the approximate natural fall off.  The icon was no longer visible on either of the game category pages (and certainly not on the main game page).  Downloads were at 72%.

Day 3:

We announced the release (again) on the Digital Gamecraft page on Facebook, this time using ‘Boost Post’ to promote the message to two countries, the United States (our biggest market) and Australia (an unrepresented English-speaking market).  For $51.69, we “reached” 30848 Facebook users.  Downloads: 64% (none from Australia)

Day 4:

We stopped the Facebook post promotion and allowed for residual effects to accrue, which they did by virtue of Australian downloads outpacing US by one.  Downloads: 37%

Day 5:

This time, we tried a targeted Facebook ad, selecting for puzzle game players, in (6) English-speaking countries, who used iPads.  (Oddly, I could not find a way to target only mobile users, so some views would be on desktop systems. 🙁 )  Facebook reports our total reach to be 50541 (about 3% of the selected audience).  Downloads: 20%

Day 6:

After stopping this latest Facebook ad, there was an unexplained “blip” in the results, which could have been a residual effect.  Downloads: 27%

Day 7:

With the slight increase in downloads on Day 6 (and, frankly, with other priority tasks), we decided to wait another day to see if the upward trend would hold.  Unfortunately, downloads plummeted to the worst level yet:  Downloads: 4%

Days 8 through 12:

Risking “zombification”, we left the game alone to simply observe.  It continues to draw low levels of daily activity.  Downloads: 4%, 3%, 6%, 4%, 2%

Three Strikes

Clearly, the download figures were destined to drop toward a minimal level, with the Facebook marketing making no discernible difference.  However, there are three worse facts that make a big difference here.

First, although the number of iAd requests climbs steadily, the number of ad impressions is phenomenally low (as the fill rate remains below 3%), so advertising revenue is essentially non-existent; it has not yet eclipsed the $1 mark (total).

Second, despite the number of downloads, nobody has purchased any IAP product at all.  The game is being played, as shown by the iAd requests, but the conversion rate is 0.0% as everybody plays only for free.

Third, the existence of a free-to-play version has cannibalized “paid” sales.  Not only is nobody paying for any IAP, but sales of the original edition dropped to zero when the FTP edition was released, and it has not sold a single unit since.

Conclusions

Although I still have some things to try yet, my recommendation to anybody considering the mobile games market is not to waste any time on it.  In fact, I would suggest that anybody who is looking to begin a career in game development right now strongly consider a different line of work entirely.

Note: This is blog post number 405, which is the HTTP status code for “Method Not Allowed“.  Coincidence?  You decide.

FTP: Early Results

In a word: Inauspicious. 🙁

On Wednesday, Demolish! Pairs FTP was released on the App Store.  Here are the initial results for this launch, keeping in mind that, so far, it has been fairly low key to remain in line with the initial launch of Demolish! Pairs to allow a comparison between “paid” and “free-to-play” editions.

Day 0: partial day

The app was first available on the (US) App Store shortly after 5:00pm EST, and it became searchable/discoverable about a hour later.  Therefore, the results, which are reported around 7:00am the next morning, represent only a partial day.  I am not sure when a “day” actually ends in Apple-land, but I assume it is around midnight in the Pacific time zone (3:00am here), so this data probably represents about a third of a full day.  Also, this also means that the release only hit part of the globe in prime app time.

That last part proved particularly true, as all downloads for the first (partial) day were from only two countries, the United States and Mexico.  Interestingly, and disappointingly, when compared to first day sales of the “paid” edition (at $1.99 each), free downloads only exceeded this figure by ONE.  This is, of course, an apple and oranges comparison, but I still would have expected more downloads.

One primary reason for the low download count was the huge number of “free” releases every day (even relative to paid submissions), so while Demolish! Pairs FTP was on the category front pages, it was beyond the “fold”, so users would have to scroll right to even see the icon.  I also discovered that, unfairly, the free releases are not put in chronological order, but alphabetical order, so beginning with D put us off the visible part of the main page, and the poor bastards whose apps start with I through Z never have them appear on the front page at all.  This meant that, while the “paid” version had a couple of days visible on the main category page, the FTP edition never had that at all, and partway through day 1, it was swept off the page entirely by the next group of freebees.

Day 1: first full day

As stated, day 1 (Thursday) was the first full day of downloads, and things looked a little bit better.  The first indication, via hourly iAd updates, was that the number of countries requesting ads went up significantly throughout the day.  When the final results came in, there were downloads from 24 countries, which exactly matched the iAd country count (though, oddly, iAd also had a few “unknown” requests).

In sheer numbers, downloads for the second (first full) day were up 544%, which was more than double the expectations if day 0 were 8 hours (and downloads were level), so the trend is positive.  Also positive (I guess 🙂 ) is that the number of day 1 downloads exceeded total (lifetime) purchases of the “paid” version, which means that our free-to-play edition is now in more hands than the original (and, as iAd shows us, almost all of them have been played, not merely downloaded).

Now the Bad News: I have not mentioned IAP sales because, thus far, they equal precisely $0.00, so our game is being played more, but nobody has paid us anything.  Of course, some of the incentives may take a while to work, so I am not jumping to conclusions yet.  Not at all unrelated (as a causal factor) is the fact that iAd has received thousands of ad requests yet has served exactly 0 ads.  None.  Nada.  Not one.  I have lots of strong words and strong feelings about this, but I will compose them (and myself) in my next post.

Conclusion

It is actually far too early for any conclusions (except that the iAd 0.00% fill rate is a major problem), but the data is enough to decide to delay the next marketing step for at least one more day, to see what kind of falloff we get for a full day with Demolish! Pairs FTP not on the front pages of each category.  After that, experimentation continues!

For the scientifically-minded of you, please do not worry about skewing our data, and just download Demolish! Pairs FTP from the App Store already. 🙂