Charitable Results

Our late October promotion flopped.

While we wait for Demolish! Pairs FTP to be reviewed (currently on Day 8), I figured that I would write about some results we got with our tiny promotion that ended almost a week ago, attempting to earn some money to donate to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.  The basic numbers are based on tracking provided by Facebook, so perhaps we should start there.

(Cheap) Advertising on Facebook

Back in late August, as an inexpensive experiment, we decided to dabble in Facebook advertising.  At the time, our Digital Gamecraft page had an embarrassingly low number of ‘Likes’, all from people who I knew personally.  In order to increase this number, I clicked on ‘Promote Page‘ to suggest this page to other people.  In conjunction with this, we created a short 75% off sale for Demolish! Pairs, to provide brand new content (and a deal) for the page.

The results of this “campaign” were fairly decent, increasing our ‘Like’ count to more than 50 (from fewer than 20) in just a few of days, and for around $15.  The real benefit, though, turned out to be the availability of Facebook Insights once we passed 30 likes; this puts a figure for the number of people “Reached” on each post, giving an immediate idea of how well propagated your message becomes.  That initial post reached fewer people than had liked the page, but it gave me data to consider.

The next step was making a new post, warning that the sale was going to end in 3 days, and then, rather than continuing the page promotion, I instead clicked on ‘Boost Post‘ to advertise the sale directly.  This appeared to be more successful in terms of sales, and also brought a smattering of new followers as well.  The reach of that post was 5862 people (a 27814% increase from the previous post).

The first campaign, to increase the number of page followers, was successful in its goal, with the added benefit of providing more marketing data, but did not increase sales much.  The second campaign was more successful with sales, but not quite enough to overcome the decrease in income from the sale.  Still, it was a good amount of experimental information received for only about $25 total, with costs offset by the minor sales bump.

With improved copy, a better plan, and perhaps a somewhat more profitable price point, Facebook advertising could prove worthwhile (or, at least, break even).

Game Promotion for Charity

Armed with little more than Facebook data and good intentions, I decided to make the offer to donate $1000 to JDRF if our game could sell 350 copies in the last week of October.  The target sales number was chosen to be feasible, if the promotion caught on, and would amount to a donation of all proceeds, plus a small additional contribution from us.  In truth, I would (and probably should) have gone further to authorize the donation of all profits from the sales to charity, but I wanted to see how a target number might work.

To “promote” this offer, I (only) posted it at the end of this blog post, on the Digital Gamecraft Facebook page, and on the Digital Gamecraft Google+ page.  From my personal accounts, I liked/+1’d and shared both posts, and then sat back to watch.  Though my friend (and indie game developer), Gianfranco Berardi of GBGames, shared the post on Google+, I am only using the Facebook numbers and total sales figures.  (You will understand in a moment why this does not affect the results.)

The results were notable.  The impact of an offer for charity seems to bring in views, as the reach of that post, without any paid promotion, increased 385% from the previous non-sales post (and 1724% from the first sale post).  That was promising…  until the sales figures came in.  Despite the significantly increased reach, not only did we not meet our target figure, but there was no discernible change in sales at all.

The Bottom Line

It is going to take a lot of community building and experimentation, and probably quite a bit of luck, before we start figuring out marketing and social media, but this is a start.

Free-to-Play Take 1: Rejected

The first submission of Demolish! Pairs FTP was rejected by Apple.

As I mentioned in my last post, I decided to embrace the free-to-play concept fully (if perhaps halfheartedly).  Unfortunately, my first attempt for iOS did not result in reciprocation, as Apple reviewers rejected the IAP (In-App Purchase) products submitted with the product, Demolish! Pairs FTP.  (Alas, it took the product 8 days to get a review, which then lasted only 15 minutes before the rejection notice.)

I had designed what I thought was a well-balanced menu of (4) IAP products, ranging from a “Golden Ticket” at $3.99 (the current price of the “paid” game) down to an inexpensive “Two Day Pass“.  This last item ran afoul of a guideline I had overlooked:

Content subscriptions using IAP must last a minimum of 7 days and be
available to the user from all of their iOS devices

The inclusion of that product was intended to mimic a standard overnight video rental, which is a clearly established mechanism for viewing movies, instead applied to a downloadable video game.  I felt that the inclusion of a $0.99 item (subscription, in this case) was important to anchor the bottom end and provide a quick, low resistance, purchase option for the customer.  The economics also basically require that a product priced in such a manner be something of a standalone, since the gap between pricing tiers is 1 dollar US, so this lowest (non-free) tier does adequately fill the space between any two other tiers; the short subscription would have met the need quite nicely.

I accepted the decision (since I had completely missed this restriction in my earlier review of submission guidelines), but not without registering my thoughts on the matter:

I realize that you do not have the authority to overrule the cited guideline, but I personally feel that it is misguided and stifles innovation.  In particular, overnight rentals have been well-established in the video rental industry, and our “Two Day Pass” option was intended to be analogous.  Now we have no method to test the acceptability of this approach (to customers) under iOS.

Indeed, I do intend to experiment with this option under Android, if possible (and I will read payment guidelines with this in mind), since one major goal of this whole procedure is to learn what does and does not work in this arena.

Preparing a second submission

Clearly, Apple was not going to allow me to experiment with this idea (as is), and I was convinced that extending the subscription to 7 days would unbalance the design, as would increasing the price of what was, very deliberately, the most inexpensive choice.  Besides, the “Two Day Pass” idea was already engraved in button artwork. 🙂

Rather than taking a bat to my IAP product design and hoping it remained stable, or delaying release long enough for a redesign to accommodate a different low end option, I decided to simply remove the “Two Day Pass” entirely, initially offering only 3 IAP products for sale.  Although the anchor I wanted is no longer there, this whole exercise is somewhat experimental and, certainly, incomplete data now is better than complete data delayed (and, hence, no data in the interim).

It pained me, due to the many hours of design, implementation, and testing, but it was far easier to remove the option than to add it in the first place; the second submission of Demolish! Pairs FTP was completed on the same day as the initial rejection.

Planning for the future

The design for the free-to-play version of Demolish! Pairs already envisions several updates to the IAP system that were not (fully) implemented for the initial release.  A replacement for the inexpensive subscription product was just added to the list of features to be added in future upgrades, and an idea is already in the works.

With the removal of the fourth product button from the store page, the “hole” in that page looks even larger than it did previously.  However, the view actually contains (hidden) controls for some of the upcoming options, including the fourth product button, so the store will look progressively better as we roll out these features.  Of course, all of that is premised on the free-to-play edition actually registering on the income needle.

So, now we wait (again)…

Mental Retooling

Grizzled veteran embraces free-to-play concept.

In my last post, You Lost Me at ‘Buy’, I was ranting about a scenario that really had me down-heartened about the direction of the game (and, in particular, mobile game) industry.  However, not being one to wallow, I already had a plan in motion (and development) to adapt to the changing landscape of the business I chose (back in the 80s) to be part of.

In the two months since that post, I have been working on Demolish! Pairs FTP, a free-to-play version of our latest iOS release.

In truth, the process was already underway when I made that blog post, but a comment from Joel Davis, along with an intense read of the book he recommended, Free-to-Play: Making Money from Games You Give Away, by Will Luton, caused me to revisit the (free-to-play) design from the top, with a different attitude and approach.

I ended up with a separate design document just for the free-to-play features that was longer than the design document for the game itself.  I did not change anything about the actual gameplay, deciding against banner advertisements that would adversely affect the experience, and determined not to allow “pay to win” in any sense.  However, I did incorporate several features into the product (interface) to allow for free-to-play, including certain (temporary) game restrictions and advertising, as well as means of playing for “free” forever (wherever time is a valueless commodity).

To be clear, I “embrace” free-to-play approximately the same way as I might embrace a great aunt who I have never met, and may never see again.  Of course, if it turns out that this great aunt happens to want to enhance my income substantially, then the least I could do would be to visit more often and get to know her, and my embrace may grow sincere.  It would be the polite thing to do. 🙂

In the world outside that metaphor, the new version is designed to allow, and encourage, players to give us money for the fun product we have created.  However, it does not force anybody to part with money and, actually, players may not be significantly restricted until they get decent at the game.  The other major drive and purpose of the free-to-play version is to get information about the market, relative to the paid version.  Although the first/paid version of Demolish! Pairs did make some money, that income stream deteriorated to the point that the possibility of cannibalizing sales with a “free” version is no longer a serious risk.  (A game needs to make a meaningful contribution to keeping our company in business, or it may as well be free anyway.)

So, I created this new free-to-play edition, Demolish! Pairs FTP, over the last couple of months (in addition to a whole new round of iOS solitaire game updates for Goodsol Development).  The actual development time for just the FTP (which does not stand for what you think it stands for) version was 80% of the time it took to build the original iOS (paid) version of the game from the prototype.  The game has been submitted to the App Store, so now we are just waiting for approval (I hope), after which we will see how the initial sales stack up against the initial sales of the paid version.

The free-to-play edition should have a much longer tail than the paid version, so when (<optimism>) this new version matches or exceeds the income of the paid version over the critical first 3 days, and then grows instead of plummeting, then my attitude will truly be changed (</optimism>).  I have a very specific target in mind for iOS to be considered a successful platform for us, and I am anxious to see whether we make that goal.

I plan to write more about the free-to-play features and results once there are actual results to consider.  In the meantime, you can buy (the original version of) Demolish! Pairs in the App Store, with no ads nor restrictive baggage.

Note: If we get at least 350 purchases of Demolish! Pairs 1.0 before the end of this month [October], Digital Gamecraft will donate $1000 to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, plus 50% of all net proceeds for sales beyond 350 (before November 1).

Not-so-Free Agent

There’s a hole in my schedule, Dear Liza, Dear Liza.

For the first time in years, my game development time is entirely my own.  Today was the first day of business since late 2001 on which I did not have a time obligation to a consulting client.  Feels weird. 😉

Having made arrangements with our largest client to take a short hiatus (while we weather the vicissitudes of App Store reviewers), we did have an interesting quasi-game project penciled into the schedule.  Unfortunately, as happens all too often in this industry, as we were warming up the fountain pen, the prospective client proved to be yet another “tire kicker” not actually serious about having the project produced professionally.

So, this means that…

You, yes you, can retain a professional game developer with more than 30 years of industry experience to design, program, or consult on your project.

Currently, I am actively working on Windows, Mac OS X, and iOS projects, with C++ and Objective-C code, though my abilities range far beyond those.  I have particular knowledge of quality control, artificial intelligence, and traditional games.  For more information [serious inquiries only]: seelhoff@sophsoft.com

Of course, I am actually reveling in having the extra development time for Digital Gamecraft projects, starting with Demolish! Pairs, for which there will be a number of announcements in the coming days and weeks.

The only thing (and the real point of this post) is…  I need to get used to having all of my time for these projects.  At the moment, I still habitually kick into time management mode, making sure that I stay on top of everything that needs to be done for each client.  For now, I suppose, I am my only client.  That works. 🙂

2013: Year in Preview

Happy New Year!

Digital GamecraftWe at Digital Gamecraft have emerged from our two-week “break” into a new year with a fresh sense of optimism, renewed productivity, and an almost overwhelming prognosis of much greater success in 2013.

There are three major factors that play into the very positive outlook for this year:

  1. We had a strong finish to last year, with a large number of product updates shipped and a significant stabilization of our development platforms and processes.
  2. Despite officially being “out of the office” during the break, I actually fell back to my love of game programming, hence Demolish! Pairs made fantastic progress.
  3. The first day back in the office saw us ship another major update to Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition, adding another 20 games (to be published very soon).

After a certain amount of adjustment during 2012, we are not making any changes to priorities for the new year.  However, we did map out our course of development for the foreseeable future, and just seeing the project list is fairly exciting itself.  We have four brand new game products to launch within the next six months, as well as a new web site project and a productivity application.  Of course, success begets success, so new clients are also contending for SophSoft, Incorporated game development resources.

Personally, I am resolved to both read and write more; my desire to spend more time programming games is handled nicely by the facts in the above paragraph. 🙂

So, here’s wishing all of you a great deal of success (however you choose to define it) for the coming year, and a nice recovery for the game industry in general.

2012: Year in Review

Overall Performance Grade: B

Digital Gamecraft / SophSoft, IncorporatedDespite being in the middle of our two-week break, I decided to take a short hiatus from the warm tropical sunshine (actually, the snowfall outdoors and a space heater in the office) to do a performance review of this past year at Digital Gamecraft and SophSoft, Incorporated.

Major Events

#10: FreeCell Plus 4.10

We released a maintenance update to this popular collection of 8 FreeCell Solitaire games (plus 4 bonus games) on October 16, for both Windows and Mac OS X.

#9: Most Popular Solitaire 2.10

We released a maintenance update to this top-selling collection of 30 Solitaire games (plus 13 bonus games) on October 12, for both Windows and Mac OS X.

#8: Goodsol Solitaire 101 version 2.12

We released a maintenance update to this collection of 101 favorite Solitaire games (plus 34 bonus games) on September 25, for both Windows and Mac OS X (after the earlier release of GSCI 2.10 on July 3).

#7: Are you kidding me?

During August and September, we experienced major failures of systems running (in order) Mac OS X, Linux, and Windows, while development continued (mostly) apace.  All systems were restored, development processes were optimized, and this Gamecraft blog was improved.

#6: Action Solitaire 1.50

We released a significant upgrade to this arcade Solitaire game on May 15, adding 5 more games for a total of 75 games, for Windows (only).

#5: Preparing for Mac App Store Submission

Starting in January (and extending into March), we published a 6 part article, plus introduction, giving a most detailed listing of guidelines and pitfalls associated with submitting a product to Apple for inclusion in the Mac App Store (for OS X).

#4: Pretty Good MahJongg 2.41 / ME 2.02

We released an update to this definitive collection of MahJongg Solitaire, tile matching, and puzzles, which contains 55 games and 300 layouts, on September 25, for Windows (PGMJ 2.41) and Mac OS X (PGMJME 2.02).

#3: ISVCon 2012: Success!

The company attended the inaugural ISVCon conference (renamed from Software Industry Conference) in Reno, Nevada, and I presented Quality Assurance for Small Software Publishers and also spoke on the How Games are Different panel.

#2: Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition 2.40

We released another major update to this largest collection of Solitaire games for Mac, adding 25 new games for a total of 400 games (plus 60 bonus games), on November 27, for Mac OS X 10.4/Tiger through (current) 10.8/Mountain Lion (after the releases of PGSME 2.30/2.32/2.33/2.34/2.36/2.38 earlier in the year).

#1: 30 Years in Business!

In January, our company celebrated its 30th ANNIVERSARY, making us “The Most Venerable Independent Game Developer in the World.”  (It may be a bit of hyperbole, but we have been doing this since well before many “indie developers” were even born.)

What Went Right

Digital Gamecraft has remained a full-time independent game development company for the 18th consecutive full year (stretching back into 1994, as Sophisticated Software Systems). Some internal projects, including Demolish! Pairs, have made huge strides, and we have multiple iOS projects poised to release early in 2013, while maintaining our expertise in Windows and Mac OS X platforms and adding others (to be announced).

Product development was really solid for the entire year, and our strong association with Goodsol Development continued, as evidenced by the numbers: 18 SKUs published (plus two quiet updates), 16 closed beta versions, 6 internal (alpha) versions, and 3 more updates pending release.  That is a SKU/update shipped about every 8 calendar days, on average, not at all bad for a small company.  A new development/release schedule for Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition is more efficient and working well (so far).

What Went Wrong

The heavy release schedule of various Solitaire games on multiple platforms took a toll on the resources (mostly time) available for other projects, compounded by the several weeks of hardware and system failures and recovery, so Demolish! Pairs was delayed (again) until early 2013.  Marketing efforts are nascent as well.

Despite the improved release schedule, desktop sales have not lived up to expectations, based on results from previous years, so some rethinking and second-guessing has taken place.  In particular, the division of effort between (tried and true) desktop development and (less reliable) mobile development (for lower price points) is a matter of some risk.

Final Evaluation

On balance, I awarded a grade of B for overall performance in 2012.  Although specific tasks, especially the intention of shipping a new Digital Gamecraft product, were not fulfilled, the entire year was fully productive and reestablished forward momentum after a disappointing 2011.  This also takes into consideration progress on a number of projects that do not (yet) figure into the published release schedule.

We are capable of an A+ grade in 2013, so that is clearly the goal.

2012: A Year of Connections

Planning for success in the new year.

We Rock!Now that the SOPA Blackout is over, we look toward the rest of this year with great anticipation.  Although Digital Gamecraft had a rather subdued performance last year, it looks like 2012 is certainly going to be our most successful year ever!

We are (again) preparing to release our first iOS title, Demolish! Pairs, with other projects (and platforms) in the works.  Additionally, SophSoft, Incorporated, our parent group, will be continuing our aggressive development program in conjunction with Goodsol Development.

For this year, we are making a concerted effort to connect with others more effectively; this means colleagues, customers, friends, and the game industry at large.  We are continuing to expand our presence on social networks and are being not only more “vocal” (and, hopefully, prolific), but also more open and transparent.

We are now laying claim to being The Most Venerable Independent Game Developer in the World, unless and until somebody proves otherwise!

Having recently watched this interesting TED video by Derek Sivers: Keep your goals to yourself, I am going to keep the specifics of my personal and business goals to myself; however, it can certainly be inferred that the unfulfilled goals for 2011 would be among them.

That said, I did adopt and will share one resolution for the new year: “Do Things Better…”  (Thanks to Frank and Ernest.)

30 Years in Business!

Today we start our fourth decade in the computer game business.

Thirty years ago today, January 13, 1982, I walked into the Ingham County Clerk’s office in downtown Lansing, Michigan, and filed a “Certificate of Persons Conducting Business Under Assumed Name” (a.k.a, DBA, ‘Doing Business As’) for Sophisticated Software Systems.

You can read more about how this originally came about in A little bit of History, Part I, but for just a $10 filing fee and a notarized document, I started my first company.

After some false starts, Sophisticated Software Systems self-published its first successful game in 1990.  The company went full-time in late 1994, and incorporated in 1996 as SophSoft, Incorporated.

In 1998, SophSoft, Incorporated spawned a division specifically for developing in-house game projects, Digital Gamecraft (as well as another division for non-game products in 2003).

However, it all started officially 30 years ago today!

Below are a few of our logo images from over the years, demonstrating the changes over time:

Here’s to the next 30 years!

2011: Year in Review

Overall Performance Grade: C+

As we officially begin 2012 after taking our annual two week “break” (during which I actually worked every day), it is a good time to do a quick review of the past year at Digital Gamecraft and SophSoft, Incorporated.

What went Right

We started the year with enthusiasm and energy.  A new product, Demolish! Pairs, was designed from the ground up for iOS, the artwork went from specification to final in short time, and a playable alpha version of the product was programmed within a few months.  Internal procedural changes brought better efficiency and productivity (and require few changes going forward), and our marketing and social media efforts got off the ground late in the year.

Additionally, our collaboration with Goodsol Development passed the 10-year mark in September (and continues on).  We shipped 10 different SKUs of Goodsol projects for publication, as well as 5 more that remained unpublished for various reasons.  We ended the year strongly with another 2 products essentially finished, one of which will be published this week (while the other will remain a private bonus for beta testers).

What went Wrong

Despite the quick development of Demolish! Pairs to a playable alpha version, it did not ship during 2011, which was one of my primary goals for the year.  In fact, I/we did not manage to reach any of the three challenging goals I set (business, individual, or family).  As noted at the beginning of the year: “no excuses allowed.”  I failed to meet those goals.

Although the Goodsol projects were flowing early in the year, during the second part of the year, I (personally) got bogged down in the development and testing of two lesser features for Pretty Good Solitaire Mac Edition, along with the 50 new games added, and the beta test became much longer (and more tedious) than anticipated.  That was not ideal.

What went Horribly Wrong

Of course, the worst and most significant occurrence of the year was the loss of my close friend, business partner, and artist, Rick Tumanis.  That, alone, colored the whole rest of the year a little darker.  (City Pulse recently included Rick in their remembrance of 10 people who died in 2011.)

Final Evaluation

In the end, I awarded a grade of C+ for overall performance in 2011.  Looking back, although specific goals were not met and perhaps productivity could have been higher, the fact remains that we are still here and viable, several products were published, new games were implemented, and progress was made towards our long term corporate goals.  Even in light of a major setback, we still left the year in better shape than we entered it, hence a slightly above average grade.

How did your 2011 wind up?

Moving forward in 2011.5

Digital Gamecraft continues on.

Despite the loss of a founding partner, Rick Tumanis, we at Digital Gamecraft are still committed to making fun, high quality games, following the vision that he helped refine.

While Rick’s artistic talents will surely be missed, his guidance and friendship cannot be replaced.  When I last saw Rick in person, I joked about how our plans for the year, and even the annual company meeting, had slipped to the point that we were actually setting our 2011.5 goals.  However, we did establish our goals for the next year and planned the tasks to achieve them; despite the serious setback, we aim to maintain our decided course of action.

Interestingly, in the requisite reassessment in the wake of our Art Director’s sudden and unexpected death (of natural causes), I found that there was no need or desire for any significant course corrections, professionally or personally, as we were already moving toward what we wanted (i.e., “what is really important”).  The only change may be my level of commitment: I am extra focused on development (and spent a lot of time on that this past week), somewhat less likely to blow off a workout, and still grateful for time I get to spend with my family (including a nice vacation day in the very near future).

We still have a game in the development pipeline with Rick’s artwork, plus another at Goodsol Development, so look for those to be released before the end of the year.