Things have gone a bit silent here lately. The main reason is that I have been doing an evaluation of what I have been working on and where I wanted to go with my skill set.
While making iOS games for over a year, releasing three different games to varying degrees of success, my heart wasn't in it to continue along that path.
Having now been out of the startup realm of businesses for 18 months, I am starting to feel like I want to get back in that game. I wasn't burned out after T2Media sold AboutAirportParking.com (which had a good financial upside for me), nor during the next year where we worked to replicate the prior success, but I felt I needed a change which is why Skejo Studios was started.
I could work on the projects I wanted, on the timelines I crafted. Of course I had to finance the work that I couldn't do, which brought in a whole new set of skills and management that I yearned to grow in. Which I know I have.
But now, as 2013 is half way through, I am again focusing my development skills toward web applications and away from iOS games. Another time I will write about exactly what I have been doing that last month.
Deadlines. Love them or Hate them. Evil things that demand overtime from underpaid artists and engineers, or the only thing producers can use to nail down those creative types to actually deliver assets.
I don't want to get into the pros or cons of deadlines, I just want to share my perspective as an indie, and how some deadlines helped us ship our latest free to play, iOS title, Block You.
As an indie developer, the 'It ships when it is ready' mentality is very prevalent. Not constrained by typical oversight, with costs less than visible than normal (didn't get paid this week, won't get paid next week, so who cares if it slips a week), it is easy for an indie to keep plugging away at code and art assets, watching the days and week fly by.
That is exactly what happened to me on my first two games. Both missed their original timelines for over 50%. Sure chalk it up to learning curves and features creeps, but really, how can I plan a 6 or 12 months of releases and projects, if what I call a 3 month project really takes me 5 month to do. So here is my take at trying to set some deadlines, add some time pressure into my development cycles and see how I do.
Having not taken a regular course of level design outside those offered by the experiences of life and trial and effort, I now endeavor to document the phases of level design and polishing that went into Lab Bunnies, now available in the AppStore.
Steps in Brief
Hand Drawn Designs
Constructed in Level Editor (at times by another person)
Game Tested and Tweaked for Playability by original designer (in case the original design was untenable or not fun)
Level replayed many times to gauge correct time and movement bonuses
Decorations were added (by original designer or another)
After all this, a series play testing revealed a some levels that needed further improvement or updates.
We at Skejo Studios are glad to announce our debut title Lab Bunnies, which weaves the story of the first, super smart, cloned sheep, crafting their own creations, cloned bunnies. But as they experiment on their own clones, someone is still experimenting on them.
Lab Bunnies is an iPhone/iPod touch top scrolling puzzle platformer. Created for casual players and serious gamers alike, but either way, we are crafting a delightful game.
Operation: Eradicate, has been in the AppStore a bit over three months now, and I wanted to give a report of the ups and downs regarding the financial outlook of the game. Eradicate was a great game for us to create, laying a good foundation for our studio both from production & technical standpoints for which we can launch our newly announced game: Sheepo (A Kickstarter just started to help our artists).
According to a survey last year of indie developers, 50% of first time games don't clear $500, and 75% of indie developers don't make $10,000 off a game in a year.
As of this writing we are a couple days away from $10,000 in NET Revenue (after Apple's cut), which only took three month in the AppStore to hit. Thus regardless of my own personal expectations, we shouldn't call Operation: Eradicate a flop. But until we cover about $20K in net revenue, I can't really call it a break-even game either, as far as time and money spent.
This graph is the fast way to represent where we have been since launch. As can be seen, being listed as a Staff Favorite for iPad games isn't a game changer. It moves the needle a bit while on the list, but doesn't fundamentally change sales like a New & Noteworthy featuring, or a What's Hot notice (two years ago I had a free app featured, 15x downloads for that week).
But we do feel that our quick update to include Retina Display ready images from the new iPad is what placed us on the Staff pick list. Thus continual maintenance of a game, may get rewarded by Apple in the long term. But, other's experience may vary.
Also, we have been playing with the price every couple weeks, moving around from $3.99 to $1.99. The further we get from the initial launch the harder it is to retain revenue at the higher price. We feel now that for our niche Strategy game, the $3.99 was briefly sustainable, but now $1.99 is the highest we can go, and will in the future do periodic 1/2 off sales to $0.99.
Where we are headed now
Besides working on our next game, we will continue to support Operation: Eradicate. We are currently translating it to German, and will do a few other translations next month.
We are weighing the cost of adding in new game modes and possibly charging for them. We are also toying with the idea of setting it free for a few days (not using any paid service, just free on our own) and see how that affects sales. Partly we will do that to establish a baseline if we later try a free app promotion type thing.
I hope some of these facts and figures encourage other indies, or at least show a transparent light on what happens around small iOS studios. Skejo Studios is committed to the long haul. We have much personal and studio financial reserves to keep us going for a while, and a great budding team to keep pressing our game designs as we strive for fun and successful games.
Following up on the Development Post-Mortem I wrote for our new iOS game, I wanted to give a quick look into how our marketing push was planned and how the first few weeks of sales went.
Though I am a coder first, I have many spare cycles in my brain to approach the business side of things, and I knew I didn't want to neglect the marketing and promotion side of the app. A failure to launch is many times cited as a source of frustration of independent developers and I wanted to give my new game a fair shot at success.
We finished up the game the first week of February, and it was submitted on Feb. 15th to Apple. We were hoping to launch the app before GDC since we didn't want to compete with GDC news and events. At this point, I was a bit worried that it would linger in the Apple review pipeline for too long, and I would have to postpone the launch until mid-March. Gladly, the game was approved on Feb 20 and we scheduled the launch for the next Sunday, Feb 26th.
Now that you have a basic timeline, I want to break down our efforts into two segments: Pre-Approval, the time between App submission and approval. Pre-Launch, the time between App approval and the release data.
During the Pre-Approval timeframe, which lasted only a week for us, we had two goals: prepare all the needed marketing material, and contact our high-target sites. During this week we created our promo trailer setup our website, started gathering emails for a LaunchRock promotion (more on that below), a few other presentation items.
Over the course of the last few months, I had gathered a large list of sites to contact, and from that list I selected 10 main sites that I wanted to write about us. I wrote a short 'new studio' type email, with links to the trailer, our website, and we offered a sneak peak through Testflight (since we couldn't give out promo codes yet).
One article was written by IndieGameMag.com and a few others expressed interest. Really I was just hoping to set the table to the release announcement, so I wasn't discourage that we had only one hit at this point.
When Apple approved our app, we entered our Pre Launch phase, which was a bunch more work. Even though our release date was 6 days into the future, Promo codes still work once the game has been approved by Apple. So I templates and sent out at least 75 emails to game and app review sites offering promo codes for an early look at the game. I focused the email on the release data, included a few screen shots and links to the app on iTunes and to our trailer. I also offered to a few of the larger sites a sneak peak to our Press Release since the feel of an exclusive might get the wheel turning.
About 30 different sites or writers got back to me with interest, and I distributed 35 promo codes to writers leading up to and right after the launch.
This effort resulted in three decent sites, AppAdvice.com, Gamezebo.com and Appmodo.com, writing Preview articles. All three would then write Release or Review articles in the days following the release of the game. In the 10 days after launch 6 more articles were written about the game, including 148Apps.com and SlideToPlay.com, and two from Board Game specific sites, which is the genre of the game (Board and Strategy categories in the App Store).
So as far as effort, 75 emails resulted in about 30 people asking for promo codes, and about 12 or more articles written about us. We issued over 35 promo codes to writers/sites, and only about 20 of them were ever used. Most of those codes were given to people who expressed direct interest in the game as opposed to the fill out this form and add a promo code type interactions. This effort alone probably totaled to over 2 full days of work on my part.
A word of warning: Don't get excited about 'interest' or even 'commitments' to write, only about actual articles. About half of 'enthusiastic' writers never wrote an article, and two higher profile sites wrote 8-10 days after launch, and one firm 'we will write about you' never happened.
The other main item of effort was the writing and posting of the press release. We posted the release in two different places (PRMac.com and GameRelease.net), scheduled it to go out at 3am EST the day of our release (Press Release text).
We felt the press release was part of our multi-pronged approach. They are a low cost way to spread the word to hundreds of sites and writers at one time and shouldn't be neglected.
Giveaways and Promotions
We ran two free game promotions, one for Twitter Followers and one for Facebook fans. Since this is our first game, we decided to only have studio accounts instead of game specific accounts. This way we can increase the followers and fans for the studio which hopefully will be leveraged for later games and updates.
We decided to give 5 free games to five random Twitter followers, and 5 free games to Facebook fans. For Facebook, all they had to do was Like our Skejo Studios Facebook page. We purchased a couple days worth of targeted ads on Facebook which gathered about 100 likes, and cost under $50.
Not sure exactly what the impact was from these giveaways besides increasing our Fans and Followers a bit, but for the cost of $20 worth of free games, and very little actual time, it felt worth it.
2/15 Submitted app to Apple
2/17-2/19 Contact High Profile sites for Preview or Studio Spotlight
2/20 App Approved
2/21-2/25 Starting email campaign, announced Follower and Fan free giveaway, and posted trailers to Youtube
2/26 Issued Press Releases very early in the morning, then started checking the charts
But the true impact needs to be measured in sales and app position. We moved steadily up the iPad Board and Strategy rankings until on Monday morning we hit the #4 and #5 spots on those boards. Very satisfying. Of course we have since fallen to around 80 or 100 on those charts, but we are releasing a Retina graphics update for the new iPad and will probably do another promotional push after it is approved. #4 iPad Strategy Game
#5 iPad Board Game
Here is a quick sales chart. The exact legend is removed, but for scale the tail is a shade under 50.
Here are some quick summaries of the efforts we pursued.
LaunchRock: Set up Launching Soon page in minutes. They allow you to setup an email capture form, that is nicely wrapped. Then they help those who have signed up to spread the world virally through email, twitter, Facebook and other social avenues. Works best if you can give early access or other tangible benefits to the people who are referring to your sign up.
Cost: FREE Impact: 23 Signups, only 6 referrals, about half were people I knew and would have contacted anyway. A waste of time.
Avenues of improvement: Start the signup earlier. Find a more viral message, or a better award for the top referrers.
PRMac: Most of the multi purpose app review sites repost PRMac.com press releases. You will also get 10-20 emails from paid app review sites asking if you want to pay $50-$125 for 'featured reviews'. All of those were ignored. Cost: $19 Impact: Was sent to 700+ contacts, and viewed 11000+ times according to PRMac. According to Google, over 30 sites have reposted the press release, including 148Apps.com and other large general purpose iOS review sites. About five reviewers approached us for promo codes because of PRMac. I don't think any actually wrote.
GameRelease.net Press Release Service
The GameRelease.net community site has a members only system that allows you to post one press release a month, along with member only forums. Cost: Either $150 for full membership, or $15 a month for 12 months. One Press Release per month included. Impact: Press Released uploaded to GamePress.com, which resulted in reposting by Gamasutra.com. Not sure exactly beyond that.
Development Diaries: I posted about 12 development diaries along the 17 weeks of development. All were later cross posted to Gamasutra where a few of them were Featured. Cost: Lots of time writing Impact: Hard to know, if any. I pointed to the dev posts in the review solicitations, but don't know if that had any impact on reviews being written. At least provided some back history to both the project and the new studio.
Forums: No outreach was done at all in any forums. I did check some major sites after launch and replied to a few threads that popped up, but I it was only reactionary on my part. Cost: Free Impact: Hard to measure, gives the perception of engagement.
Promoter is a great service that scours over 1000 gaming websites for mentions and reviews of your game (load it with a few specific keywords to look for like your studio name or game title). An example, the public reviews for Operation: Eradicate.
Cost: Free for one app, 12 Euros a month, or 99 a year.
AppFigures.com, used for tracking apps sales. Breaks down country sales.
This wraps up a wandering guide into our marketing efforts. After a few more weeks of sales and pricing adjustments, I will write about how 'successful' the game has been for us, both in regards to the raw sales numbers, and from the studio perspective of laying a foundation for future success. So far, it looks solidly in the middle of my expectations, have already passed the cash expenditures break even point, and is forecasted to probably hit the 'time and effort' break even point. If our first game out the gate breaks even, I will be happy, and we have plenty of new stuff brewing that I hope has much more potential.
For four or the five months, I have been working on Operation: Eradicate, an iOS turn based strategy game. With my graphics designer, we at Skejo Studios have revisited the last few months, and wanted to write about the highs and lows, and lessons learned for next time.
First I wanted to start with our initial hoped for timeline:
* Sept 2011 - Start
* Oct 2011 - Code fleshed out and Art assets started, first round done
* Nov 2011 - Dev and art near finish, start beta testing
* Dec 2011 - Wrap up loose ends, ship by Christmas
What really happened
* Oct 2011 - Started full-time on the first project with part time UI graphics guy, and contract artist
* Late Oct - Basic gameplay with dev art done, still hoping for Xmas release. Yeah right!
* Late Oct - First hard-drawn art assets issued
* Early Nov - Save/resume games implemented, iOS 5 turn based games (a selling point, to Apple more than anyone).
* Late Nov - Wife got a new job, moved new city little dev done. Art still slowly making progress.
* Early Dec - Final non-colorized artwork done. We were advised the game needed a full event driven tutorial to on-ramp players to game. Ugh! - Moved goal for launch to end of Jan.
* Late Dec - All game mechanics done, first beta test sent out to 5 players.
* Mid Jan - Many UI redesigns occur, plus tons of polishing adjustments.
* Late Jan - Finalized, full color artwork delivered. Pushed launch to Feb. Another round of play testing, polishing, tweaking.
* Early Feb more weeks of polishing.
* Submitted to Apple, Tuesday Feb 14.
* Approved by Apple, Mon Feb 20 (on my birthday)!!! Massive Marketing push ensues.
* Released set for Sunday Feb 26 (to get in front of GDC)
I will also be writing a Marketing Post Mortem to trace and dissect the good, bad and lessons learned from the launch.
The first lessons we learned is to be flexible with due dates, but still have them in place. As I was the only full time person, I was pushing hard because I could, but it is difficult to push part time contractors to speed up. I now will factor in slips in the timeline for artists. But even missed deadlines serve the function of putting a mark on the calendar and pushing for it. Motivation sometimes can be lacking, and that date keep things in focus. Just don't use missed deadlines as a source of depression, just learn to estimate better. Deadlines also help you look back and realize how much you did get done before that date passed.
Deadline Tip we learned
One way to help contractors (of any stripe, not just artists) create deadlines they will really try to hit, is to incentivize the deadline. Maybe add a 5% bonus for each delivery deadline hit, or maybe a lump bonus if 75% of delivery deadlines were hit. This will help them suggest dates they can hit, and gives them reason to hit them more accurately.
What Went Wrong
As already mentioned, this was my first time working so closely with artists directly, and a few false starts, and all deadlines missed made me realize I was working with people different that me (an analytical engineering type). We are all different minds, and that is all good. For me, I felt the artist delivered more than I asked for, but took longer than I wanted. But how do you direct them to do less to hit the deadline, when they are working on hand drawn artwork. Especially when the artist insists that he won't charge. Again, this is where the incentivized deadlines can come in handy
The other deadline item is setting realistic timelines for part time contributors. Rarely did their contributions come in smooth, predictable chucks. More likely they came in spurts, sometimes unpredictable. We will keep that in mind on our next projects, and as we develop updates for this game.
The last huge mistake is that we didn't add a zoom to the playing map for iPhones and iPod Touches. During one UI redesign, we took it out, and none of our play testers complained so we thought we were good. Except all of our play testers were experienced gamers, and had used the controls so much they didn't notice (or didn't report) issues with the map on smaller devices.
But we were nailed in the reviews w/ numerous 1 star reviews, and many emails asking for a zoom to be added. Thankfully we already had the code generally working, so it only took a couple hours to get an update to our testers, and wrapped up a submission to Apple in two days (numerous other typos, small fixes and enlargement of other buttons included).
Two things we learned from this issue is to specifically ask the impressions of a change you make if you are using the same testes. Them not reporting that the disliked a change, doesn't mean they liked it, just that they didn't report it. Second, use more new testers each time you have a test release. Otherwise they might be too familiar with the and attuned to the rough spot, thus not reporting them.
What we did right
We allowed enough time for UI rework. We didn't kid ourselves into thinking that we were going to get it all right the first time. I worked on a first pass developer UI just to get the game to a playable state. This I pushed to the UI designer while I worked on other behind the scene stuff like turn based games, Game Center integrations and other items. Then I implemented his design and we through it to some testers. Their feedback, and more time to imagine gave the designer more inspiration, which eventually lead to a good interface.
* Send stuff to publishers. They may reject you, say mean things about your progress, but they might also give you hints on how to improve. They did for us.
* Fix bugs/broken stuff when you see it, don't add toa todo list. Fix it NOW!
* Biting off too much is very easy to do!
Don't Listen to these Fears
Fear 1: What will other people think of it? Maybe I will wait until I get more done.
No, the earlier you get feedback the better. Test users and honest feedback gets you off wrong paths and deadens, and spot glaring issues sooner. Polish added to a feature you remove later is a waste of time. Don't polish anything until you know you have nothing more to cut out.
Fear 2: We are done, but I don't want to send the game to reviewers because they might be critical.
If you think your game doesn't blow away the competition, or that the reviewers will hate it, then why did you make the game? If you aren't proud of it, send it back for more polish or rework. If you are proud of it, send it out, get as much talk about your game. Anything is better than silence. This last point is more for a marketing post-mortem, but it felt like it fit here.
Finally, we do have the first week's worth of sales data, and we must have done a few things right. We landed in the #4 iPad Strategy spot and the #5 iPad Board game spot at launch. We didn't write down targets for launch, but this would have exceed anything we would have written.
What is coming next for Skejo Studios?
Vertical Scrolling story telling platformer, to be official announced shortly.
With a side scrolling indirect platformer using same artwork/world/back story.
Very high concept resource management, mini-game, character advancement game.
Short update as I prepare a much larger game dev post-mortem. But I am very glad to say that we have submitted our game binary into the Apple review pipeline. Now it is just a matter of waiting, and then we can schedule the release and marketing.
The other item that was created our teaser trailer for the game. Not even a demo, but it does highlight some of the artwork. Check it out.