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.


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 Design Thwarted

Problems with our free-to-play design emerged.

As we analyze the results of Demolish! Pairs FTP, the free-to-play edition of our fun arcade/puzzle game, Demolish! Pairs, this is good time to review the basic design of the IAP (In-App Purchase) products and other options we provide for continuing play.

The Original Design

The first complete plan included the following four IAP products:

  • Golden Ticket  [$3.99] – This product permanently removes all game restrictions and all advertising, providing the same unlimited experience as the “paid” version.
  • Silver Pass  [$2.99] – This product permanently removes all game restrictions (but leaves the advertising in place).
  • Express Pass  [$1.99] – This product permanently removes all advertising (but leaves the game restrictions in place).
  • Two Day Pass  [$0.99] – This product would offer a 48-hour subscription, or a 48-hour extension to a subscription, with no limits or ads.

As we considered the various views that might be necessary to provide notifications of game limits, as well as how we would offer products to eliminate ads, it became clear that one unified store view, which doubles as a notification message, would serve the purpose nicely.  (We plan to refine this idea further.)

Additionally, we added the idea of a button to extend play, for free, which can only be used once each 12 hours.  In practice, we implemented the countdown timer to only begin at the next restriction notification, to make the idea of “appointment” gaming work for us more clearly.  We also limited the extension to the current game (for each player).

The First Hurdle

In an earlier post, Free-to-Play Take 1: Rejected, I documented the initial rejection of Demolish! Pairs FTP due to the fact that the 48-hour subscription was against App Store guidelines, which require all subscriptions to be at least one week.

The original IAP was designed together, as a unit, so each of the buttons would function in conjunction with the others to create the desired “menu” of offerings.  The most expensive (read: still really inexpensive) option was deliberately the same price as the original (“paid”) edition.  The crucial part was to have a cheap option, at only 99 cents, which provided some value, and then another option at each pricing tier.  Once a player commits (mentally) to spending (less than) a dollar, it is only another buck to reach another level of value, and again and again, up to having it all for only $4.  A customer can purchase a middle level of value (Silver Pass or Express Pass) and then, later, obtain the equivalent of a Golden Ticket by purchasing the other one, but the ultimate price difference ($0.99) is the incentive to go for it all at once.

When the lowest tier caused rejection of the game, we quickly removed it, accepting that this destroyed the carefully considered equilibrium of the menu of purchase options.  Also, because of simple mathematics, we could not drop prices and make it work correctly.  We have now designed a replacement (non-subscription) product to provide that least expensive option, though that will take a little more implementation time.

The iAd Problem

As mentioned my last post, FTP: Early Results, the only thing that was absolutely wrong was that iAd had not started serving any ads, so that completely messed up the IAP design.  The Express Pass was pointless, and even looked like some kind of idiocy, because there were no ads to remove in the first place.  On top of that, of course, that also relegated the Golden Ticket to the same value as the Silver Pass, so essentially our whole menu of IAP products had been reduced to merely one logical choice.

Two or three hours after I posted that article, iAd suddenly began serving some ads.  I actually discovered it while playing the game on my iPad just for fun and, unexpectedly, getting an advertisement for Small Business Saturday, after which I was able to confirm a handful of ad impressions (for thousands of requests).  I had never been so excited to see an online ad, and it briefly looked better.

Unfortunately, though ads are being served occasionally, the fill rate is still far below 4% (i.e., 1 ad for every 25 requests), which is almost worse.  Now, the very irregular ad appearances make them almost novel, so there is no real incentive for an Express Pass (nor for choosing a Golden Ticket over a Silver Pass), and there is no indication that the fill rate is going to improve substantially.  As an unexpected twist, most of the few ads that do show up look fine and unobtrusive; in fact, the blue and gold of the most common banner, from Progressive Insurance, almost matches our menu color scheme exactly.

The Next Step

Our next step will be analyzing customer behaviors to see if we can glean any useful information from the limited number of downloads so far.  We have a custom analytics package (that I developed) built into the app but we were waiting to see how the initial release progressed before “flipping the switch” to begin actual reporting.  It now seems fairly clear that our server will not be overwhelmed…

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.


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. 🙂

Demolish! Pairs FTP 1.0.1 for iPad

Our first “Free-to-Play” game is now available in the App Store.

Demolish! Pairs FTP, the free-to-play iPad version of Demolish! Pairs, our hit arcade/puzzle game, has now been released on the App Store.  Price: FREE

Demolish! Pairs 1.0.1 for iPad

Download and play Demolish! Pairs FTP here (no charge).

This version is our initial (and, perhaps, terminal) entry into the mobile free-to-play marketplace.  We would truly like to see this fun game in the hands of as many players as possible, and if we can recoup something for our efforts (on a simple game that took more than a dozen years, during which time half of the development team died), that would be nice, too.  Seriously, it is important to us to get this product as widely spread as possible for the integrity of the data/results, which I intend to (mostly) share on this blog.

Download and Enjoy…  and then please Rate and Review it on the App Store!

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).

You Lost Me at 'Buy'

Game development can really suck sometimes.

Let me set the (completely true) scene for you.  My wife and I are at an informal dinner with several other people, none of whom we had ever met before, except for my cousin (the only reason we were there).  At some point, while waiting for our meals, he started talking about our game, Demolish! Pairs, and when somebody wondered about it, he pulled out his iPhone and started demonstrating it.  One of his acquaintances showed interest in the game, so he told her, “You can buy it on the App Store.”  Then, to me, he asked, “How much is it, again?

She did not even wait for my reply before saying to him, “You lost me at ‘buy’.” 🙁

Although I was disappointed and slightly shocked at the direct rejection of Demolish! Pairs (or any game) on the basis of it not being free, it was not until days later until I realized exactly how much it was really bothering me.  This is truly a depressing sentiment for somebody who makes a living developing games.  I hope this rant exorcises that particular demon from my thoughts.

Point 1:  Games should NOT be free.  Worthwhile people are willing to pay for their games explicitly, rather than requiring coercive “free-to-play” schemes.

Shortly thereafter, we heard the common refrain about none of them really playing games anyway, followed again by the increasingly frequent mention that, ‘what I do play is this app called Candy Crush.’  Then, pretty much everybody admitted that they all play that game, and these “not real gamers” started discussing the game, including specifics of their approaches to winning and getting 3 stars on every level!

Point 2:  You DO play games; every interesting person does.  Playing a casual game is still playing a game.  In fact, that is the most common form of gamer.

It is gravely insulting to hear, repeatedly, that the games we develop somehow do not count as real games.  Just because a game does not involve a console and game controller, and shooting people on screen, does not make it any less of a game.  Lots of people play Call of Duty, but ridiculous numbers of people also play Candy Crush.  I do not like to segment people into hard-core/mid-core/casual/social/live/whatever gamers; they are all gamers.  Please enjoy Pretty Good MahJongg and Demolish! Pairs, but do not tell me that you are not playing a game while doing so.

Now, Candy Crush is the current flavor of the day, and that is a position it deserves.  It is a game based on a proven (addictive) mechanic, with a clear theme, nice artwork and audio to match the theme, and excellent execution of a good design.  For this effort, it currently earns more than $800,000 per day on iOS alone.  Puzzles and Dragons is reportedly earning $3.75 million per day!  By contrast, most games earn very little, and Forbes reports that the average iOS app earns only $4000 (lifetime), which is still far better than either Android or Windows Phone.  Needless to say, no proper game developer can make a living on an “average” iOS app.

Point 3:  Just because some games are reporting unbelievable revenue figures, it does not mean that the game industry, as a whole, is healthy.

Right now, more than ever before, we are seeing a huge influx of games on the market.  Lower barriers to entry have created a glut of content, much of it not very good, and this makes “discoverability” a serious problem.  Essentially every programmer I have ever met in my career has created a game at some point, usually while learning.  The difference, now, is that a much larger percentage (and total number) are taking these experiments and school projects and publishing them, either for free or on the off chance that they might make some “beer money”, while working a different job or living with their parents.

The result of all of this is that they are essentially peeing in the pool in which professional game developers have to swim.  Small (or “indie”, if you prefer) developers, in particular, have to deal with a ceiling of games with large development teams and huge marketing budgets, and a floor muddied by hundred of thousands of mediocre games (at best) that only serve to make our games harder to find and exposure much more difficult.  The current situation is unsustainable in the long run.

To be clear, I am very frustrated, but I am not about to “pull a Phil Fish“.  However, if our products do not find an audience to achieve significantly more than average sales, we will not be able to stay actively in business.  Sure we might be able to produce some games in our spare time while writing boring accounting software or designing web sites, but that would be barely acceptable after two decades as a full-time game developer.

To end on a positive note, however…  I overhead a conversation among some of the young people I know, and they were complaining about the IAP (in-app-purchases) in Plants vs Zombies 2, saying that they would much rather just pay for the game than being constantly bombarded with IAP (and not insisting that they were not gamers 🙂 ), so perhaps the pendulum is starting to swing back, away from “free-to-play”.