Welcome to 2016!

This year is poised to be the “Year of Cool” (so read on).

Digital GamecraftHere we are a couple of weeks into 2016 and, having fully recovered from our year-end break, and I have already seen enough to declare that 2016 is the “Year of Cool”.

For many years, my definition of a “cool” product has been something that is really intriguing, enough to make somebody want it, but is ultimately not worth buying, or just generally pointless.  It is the kind of thing that you may be excited to receive as a gift, but very quickly begins to just collect dust.

It seems to me that early October, 1929 probably felt like one of the coolest times in the history of the United States (not that anybody would remember it that way).

Note that there is nothing wrong with “cool”, per se.  It is wonderful that we (some of us) have the luxury to pursue cool stuff for the mere sake of it.  It is enviable that certain products and people exude such a sense of style; equally, it is undeniable that without any actual substance, they are not particularly beneficial in the long run.

PinballsFor example, a collection of ball bearings is definitely one of the coolest things to see and handle, but it does not really have a function until they are put into a pinball machine (or a bearing, I suppose 🙂 ).  My friend used to have a box filled with dimes; surprisingly cool, so much so that I have often thought about recreating this, but it illustrates my point nicely.

This year, for the first time in decades, I had a motivation for paying attention to CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas.  Perhaps this skews my perspective, but most of the “innovative” products that got “everybody” (i.e., the tech press) talking seemed to elicit the necessary question: “Why?

Now several products I saw did have benefits for a particular market.  I was intrigued to see the Nima portable gluten tester, but only because my family happens to be affected by Celiac disease.  Of course, Stern Pinball is always worthwhile.

It remains to be seen if any of the “game changing” technology touted as the next big thing will actually have any lasting general impact.  (Light bulb speaker, anyone?)

Here’s hoping that your 2016 is fantastic!

2015: 10% Done

No news can also be bad news.

It has been a couple of months since my last blog post, and in that time, there has not been a lot of encouraging news about the game industry, business, or life in general.  We have often heard, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.”  More specifically, I do not want to spend a lot of time and effort whining (or whinging, if you prefer) and filling this Gamecraft blog with negativity.  However, that can result in a very quiet site sometimes.  That said, it is past time to provide an update, despite its somewhat unfavorable tone.  (Besides, with 475,830 spam comments rejected and very few actual comments, and fewer informed opinions, evidence is that few will read this anyway.)

The positive is that we are still alive and kicking and, with Goodsol Development, we continue to publish and improve the best solitaire games on the planet.  Nevertheless, what has been appreciated in the past as fantastic fun, quality workmanship, and excellent support is now just expected from us as par for the course, and rarely recognized nor appreciated.  If “the squeaky wheel gets the grease“, then perhaps by eliminating any squeaking wheels from our products, nobody cares anymore. 🙁

Winter of disappointment

The overwhelming feeling over the past several months has been one of disappointment.  Nothing catastrophic has happened, but the total weight of one minor setback after another, and one dissatisfying interaction after another, without many positives to offset them, is definitely sapping my remaining optimism.  At first I was interpreting most of this solely in terms of the game industry, or even just our little part of it, but it is now clear that the same type of problems run throughout our society and culture.  This realization does not inspire a hopeful mood in me.

Still, the Richard III interpretation of this section title provides something on which to hang my hopes.  After all, there has to be a thawing in the spring (whenever that comes), and if my general expectations have fallen low enough, it makes it much easier for me to be pleasantly surprised.  There have to be more people out there who do not automatically approach every interaction with the thought, “what’s in it for me?”

In other words, there is nowhere for my attitude to go but up.  Actually, I have fallen to a very succinct phrase that describes it perfectly, but since the command verb is an expletive, I will go ahead and leave that to your imagination.

Practical adjustments

Given the current situation, we are making a slight switch away from “business planning” and toward “take things as they come“, especially since something significant is likely to change our course in the short term anyway (or else there may not be much of a long term at all).  Independent game development has become (practically) unsustainable.

As part of this shift, I am reorganizing my general schedule, compressing the business functions (which have been generally unsatisfying) into just a few days each week, leaving the majority of my time for pure (hopefully, uninterrupted) development work, which is what I truly enjoy.  After any client needs are met, I will be focused on designing and building the kind of games I want to make.

The next game industry crash is already underway, but I will not go down without a fight!

Anybody who wants to prove me wrong can do so, easily, by hiring me for game development.  You can find my résumé linked from my online portfolio.

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”.