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!” 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

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.”

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. 🙂

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…

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)…