GDC, design and last-minute monetization

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Golden Gate dev run

A couple of weeks ago, Tim and I were in San Francisco for our first GDC. Our goals were to network, get feedback on Under the Sun, talk to a few media peeps, learn a bit, and party! We managed to do all of the above; it was heaps of fun and we met a lot of great people. Everyone was pretty up front about their agenda when we were showing off our game, “Woah cool!” “Would you relocate to work on gambling games?” “Australian? Do you surf?” “This isn’t fun.” “I love it, you have to release in Japan!” “How are you going to monetize it?”

It was that last question which was always the hardest to answer, and we aren’t really sure yet. Under the Sun started out as a bit of fun, and has evolved into something we have sunk a lot of time into. Something in which every design goal seems to conflict with making any decent amount of money in the mobile market. Luckily we don’t need to make money off it to survive as it is a side project as we both have full time jobs. But as every second person at GDC kept saying, “…. if you make enough money you can make games full time!” Hmmm, let’s think through the options, and help me figure out the best way, late on a Sunday night.

Initial design goals

At GDC we went to a great talk, by Threes creator Asher Vollmer, about tutorials. He had a cool venn diagram (oxymoron?) containing his design goals, and concluded that the intersection of all the goals left him with relatively few solutions. This clarified to me a few things with our design that we had done, and could do better to give focus to our next game. However, something absent from both Asher’s and Stegabyte’s design goals, at least in the initial big picture vision stuff, was anything about making money. For our first game, we wanted something that tied together mechanics and narrative; having a deep theme; being challenging; and being on accessible platforms, both to us as developers, and friends and family for playing. But most of all, we wanted it to be fun (entertaining, engaging, satisfying, kick-ass, addictive, awe-inspiring, whatever the academics are defining it as these days). This ended up being a turn based, spatial puzzler for mobile, made by two people, the first game they have ever released, with themes of death…. Not the easiest thing to turn a coin over.

Make it free, add in-app purchases?

As a first game, this kind of makes sense; we have no credibility, few contacts and not much money to throw around. It’s what most mobile games do and what a lot of people have told us to do. However our game is slow and turn based; you make a move and then wait for the world to age. We have built everything in the game around making this fun and not irritating (our major goal being “fun”). First we kept the levels short so they didn’t become overwhelming; then we added rewind so players can undo and try different things; then we added a button to fast-forward time so the solution can be quickly executed once solved.

Every step has to count

All of these things go against the type of IAPs that speed up a player’s progress. We could make them buy currency to rewind time, but this would effectively add a price to each step the character takes, as every mistake will require redos. This makes every step stressful and removes all experimentation from the game. No dice. We could add a hint system, but as we have made our levels small and self contained, this would give away the whole stage, robbing the player of both satisfaction (fun) and 99c. How about something trivial, like hats? Works for TF2 right? Ours is a single player game about death and the transientness of everything; giving the player a collection as a reward, either purchased or earned by completing levels, goes against the grain of the theme. Our game is about the opposite of acquiring “stuff”. So that’s off the table.

The last thing we could think of is having level packs, e.g. free for first 10 levels then buy subsequent groups of 10 levels for $1.99 or something. As far as fitting with the game’s personality, this seems as close as IAPs get. The downside is, from word of mouth, and from people with lots of experience, is that level packs and paywalls don’t make much money. Doh!

Premium then?

Potentially, but no one knows who we are. We don’t have a popular diary on TIGSource or any indie forums, we aren’t chummy with any press. We don’t have money for advertising and acquisition. It is so tempting though; it would be so easy to just chuck it up on the app store and not have to worry about checking metrics, changing IAP prices/spawn rates, measuring player retention and adjusting the free level count. We wouldn’t have to worry about ruining the integrity of our game and its initial goals.

Alas, we get a lot of people saying the production value isn’t high enough. We are a couple of guys doing this in spare time, and we don’t want to do this game forever. If we did, we could polish till the sun shines out. But it is a 3D spatial puzzler, and 3D arguably takes a while to polish. In hindsight, maybe we could have gone for a more stylised look. But we are here and now. And with absolutely no personal experience, never having released a game before, I’ll say it would probably struggle in the premium market.

What about ads?

This is the option we are considering along with premium (as you can probably tell I don’t like IAPs). Ads don’t necessarily interrupt the gameplay and its message, rather appearing in between each gameplay segment. There is some kind of dark irony there though; wasting people’s time watching ads, in a game showing that time should be used wisely, doesn’t feel quite right. Ads are also pretty annoying and go against the “fun” idea. But isn’t paying $1.99 for a game to start with a bit annoying? Why can’t it be free? It seems hard these days to mark when I as a player have a right to play a game; when I pay for it? When I pay again? If I wait long enough? When I download it?

So… Maybe if we can make a really clear separation between the adspace and the gameplay, and keep it consistent, we can keep it fun. And then people can pay $1.99, remove ads, and have something funner*. But then the majority of people will have a sub-funner experience, and that is a bummer. We’ve gone into all this effort to make something fun, engaging, exciting, rewarding; and then made it worse again and given it away.

In closing

Keep an eye out on the various application stores for Under the Sun, coming soon, somewhere between $00.00 and $10.00!


*more fun


2 thoughts on “GDC, design and last-minute monetization

  1. Are you considering releasing on PC as well as mobile? If you were to do that, you could price it at £2 and I’m sure people would be more willing to pay; from my experience I know I’m willing to pay a little more than I usually would for an indie title, whereas, even if it’s indie, mobile games with ads give off the idea of a mainstream mobile game, which I find it highly unlikely that I would want to pay for. IMO, level packs and ads seem to be the most viable option, but like you said, you don’t want to limit the game.

    1. We’re aren’t really targeting PC, everything is designed for touch screen, and short play sessions. Technically though it’d be really easy to port; maybe we could look at it in the future. And I get what you mean about the vibe that ads give off, will keep it in mind 😉

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