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.

Developer for Hire

You have a game idea.  Let us create it for you.

SophSoft is available for game development now!This week marks 20 years (!) since we first took our company full-time.  In that time, we have developed more than 25 products for a variety of clients.  We have published games for Windows, Mac OS X, and iOS, and we have extensive experience.

Now, we are available immediately for new development contracts.  We have a significant opening in our schedule, which we need to fill soon.  This is your chance to have a world-class game developer working (or consulting) on your project.  If you want to explore this opportunity, please contact me directly at seelhoff@sophsoft.com.

For more information on SophSoft, Incorporated, please visit the web site, and you can also download our brochure [PDF, 2 pages] to find out how we can help you.

All clients get to deal directly with me, and if you are interested in my 25+ years in the game industry, please feel free to look at my résumé [PDF, 4 pages].

Act quickly!  Do not miss this opportunity.  It may not last long!

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.”

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 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.

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. 🙂

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.

Software Marketing 101

An outstanding resource to online marketing

logoI admit it: I am not the best at marketing.  This is why I am always looking for resources to help me learn more, get better, and ultimately sell more software.  On my system, I keep a large list of bookmarks to pages I need to read, and the ‘marketing’ folder includes, literally, scores of links to pages from DP Directory.

If you, like me, can use all of the marketing resources you can find, you will find their encyclopaedic Software Marketing Glossary very useful.  [In fact, I recently created a new ‘Resources’ category for it, on your right, beneath the blogroll.]  However, there are also more than one hundred articles about online marketing on the site as well.  Specifically for game publishers, they also provide a game press release writing and submission service (which has been used in the past for some of our games, and will be again).

DP Directory is a small company run by Al Harberg, who has decades of experience in the field and provides personal service to clients.  I first interacted with Al through the Association of Software Professionals, where he often dispenses advice (freely) to other members, and I first met him in person at SIC (now ISVCon) 2000 in Tampa.  Interestingly, I recently stumbled across a DP Directory mailing (to our company) from the late 80s, which shows that Al is not new to this game.  He actually offers a service whereby you can Rent Al’s Brain and tap (almost) directly into his many years of expertise.

This week, Digital Gamecraft has begun realigning some internal responsibilities [see opening sentence], and our prospective Director of Marketing/Business Development will be starting her transition by reading the DP Directory website, plus a couple of marketing books originally recommended by Al Harberg.  I am very hopeful…