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”.

 

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.