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The outlook for small/indie games developers….not so good?

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The CoronaLabs Blog featured a guest piece written by Paul Simons, developer of Plasma Pig (iOS and Android). The article is a honest and worrying illustration of how difficult it is for small/indie mobile games developers to get user traction for their games. Game discovery is an issue I am particularly passionate about and Evil27 Games is currently exploring ideas about how to tackle this exact problem (see www.everyonesplaying.com).

In the meantime, I wanted to post my thoughts on the subject to this blog. We are seeking to engage with social/mobile games developers and publishers to share and discuss our ideas. If you are interested in having a chat please drop us a line.

In response to “Guest piece: For the love of game development”, I posted the following response on the CoronaLabs blog

I think your experience is extremely common and not just for one-person developers; it is just as hard for small studios that spend $100k, $250k or more on a game.

I was Studio Manager at a mobile games developer in the UK last year and joined just as they released the first version of a side-scrolling RPG. Whilst I couldn’t claim that the game – at v1.0 – was earth-shatteringly good, it was nonetheless a pretty compelling game (cost us approx $250k) and was free (FreetoPlay at least). We spent in the order of $25k on incentivised installs in order to get AppStore chart visibility in the hope of getting that ‘organic uplift’ that we’re all conditioned to aim for. The reality was that the game hung around the top 50-75 for about a week then fell from view. I recall that we got 50k or so downloads from that but the install rate fell off dramatically once we were no longer in the charts.

My point is that the whole app/game ecosystem is now geared in favour of those with deep pockets and the companies that control access to the player audiences (offers, incentivised installs, in-game promotions, paid-for cross-promotion, paid reviews etc etc). We have ‘free’ distribution as small/indie devs but we do not have free access to players; far from it.

I see ‘services’ that claim to be able to deliver a top 10 chart position for $100k and I regularly hear of developers/publishers who are spending $100k on week one burst advertising. The larger publishers are reportedly spending between $1m-$5m on marketing some titles. This isn’t a level playing field and is rapidly pricing all but the big boys out of user acquisition (read; “commercial viability”). IMHO this is failing not just the smaller dev community but consumers. That’s a broken market in my view. The correlation between product visibility and product quality is, generally speaking, highly distorted and that is not good for the wider industry as a whole.

Its unrealistic to think that marketing isn’t important in a maturing competitive industry, but when success is so highly-dependent upon AppStore visibility (or, for example, Facebook App Centre visibility) and, in 99% of cases, this is only achieved through huge advertising/incentivised installs, then the outlook doesn’t look too rosy for small devs (and, by extension, tools makers like Corona ).

Apple have just started incorporating user reviews into their ranking algorithm but all that means is that companies (cough..Zynga) go and pay 250 people for a 5* rating and bingo they rank in the top 20.

Personally I think there needs to be a better way to connect GOOD games with players that might want them. I’m working on an early-stage concept for a discovery platform that can surface visibility to games that are engaging their audiences irrespective of the volume and velocity of installs or the current revenue levels.

I’d dearly love input from smaller/indie mobile games developers along the way. I’ve set up a launch site for devs and players alike to register their interest and am currently (separately) in the process of raising some seed funding to get an MVP of the platform together.

If the potential platform/service is of potential interest to you please do visit http://www.everyonesplaying.com and tell us your email address so we can let you know how things progress.

It’s no longer good enough to “just have a good game”….but it should be!

Kevin

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Developer diary – 20th June 2013

Technology selection risks

So much is written and said about how it is now feasible for a single-person or micro team indie studio to exist these days, what with digital distribution, rapid/easy dev tools and a much more diverse player audience. Indeed it is so celebrated I recently asked on Twitter as to whether being an indie game developer is the new ‘being in a band’?

The flip side of this celebration if the virtues of being an indie is that you are far more at risk from external factors that you cannot possibly predict or plan for. This happened to me just today.

We recently got a verbal OK on a project for a local client. I cannot disclose anything about the client or the project but I can say that I had proposed a multi-platform game (iOS and Android), that had asynchronous competitive multi-player and a bunch of cloud features. This was very achievable (note ‘was’) due to the dev tools we prefer to use; Corona SDK and their recently released cloud gaming services.

The Corona Cloud services were pretty much unique as they enabled developers to quickly set up and integrate not only leaderboards and achievements but to have a single, cross-platform sign-in, cross-platform asynch play and cloud synching, CMS and analytics all from a single application build process. Apple’s Game Centre and Google Play Services offer most of this but not in a cross-platform way. Developers need to create two versions of their games and the feature sets manifest in very different ways meaning a different user experience depending on whether you are an iOS or Android device user. Cross-platform asynchronous competitive gameplay requires a proprietary (hence costly) approach.

Corona Cloud 'backend as a service' gaming features

Corona Cloud ‘backend as a service’ gaming features

It was with much angst, therefore, when I received an email from Corona Lab’s COO this morning informing me that they have decided to pull their new cloud services permanently. Clearly they recognized that they couldn’t deliver the vision that they had promised and they had taken then commendable decision to own up to that, receive a lot of flak now but avoid much more pain for them and their developer community in the future.

However, I now need to deliver on the project proposal that I promised, in the same time frame and for the same budget but know, now, that will require significantly more effort on my part.

Making technology and service provision choices is never easy irrespective of your scale but for a micro studio, where your options are probably already limited by lack of free capital, getting those decisions right is even more critical.

Developer diary – 17th June 2013

So…for those of you that don’t know (most people probably), I’ve been working on a mobile puzzle game called Lunar Loot Drop. The game is intended to offer the accessibility and ease of play that games like Diamond Dash and Candy Crush Saga provide but with a less cutesy theme and a more cerebral challenge. The game blends ‘falling blocks’ and ‘sliding squares’ puzzle game formats, adds a bit of crafting, time pressures and a unique theme and character back story and will be initially released for iOS (optimized for iPad) in Q3.

Image depicts the title screen of Lunar Loot Drop game

Current title page for Lunar Loot Drop

I’ve worked in and around the games industry for about a dozen years in my own companies in various design, producer, project manager, product owner and bizdev capacities. I’ve never made a game by myself – i.e. actually done the coding – in all my years. I had some experience with BASIC in the 80’s, HTML and classic ASP/SQL in the late 90s and some ad-hoc AS2 exposure in the early 2000’s but I haven’t had any formal computer science or software engineering training. As such I would not dare to call myself a developer.

About six months ago I started learning Lua and the Corona SDK. I was blown away by Corona’s capabilities and with the user ecosystem around it (200,000 developers and counting). The last six months have seen many new features and improvements to the offering, such as some heavyweight cloud gaming utilities and I have found it to be an excellent tool thus far. I’ve thrown myself into mastering Corona and Lua and have since written about 30,000 lines of code which now form Lunar Loot Drop. Actually it is probably more like 50,000 if you include the really bad stuff that I have since re-written. There is no official IDE as such so I’ve hand-coded everything in Notepad++, but that is no bad thing and forces a certain discipline and requirement to do things properly.

The game is really taking shape now albeit there is a long way to go before it will meet that ‘minimum viable product’ stage. What started out as a physics-based ‘sort em up’ is now quite different in nature but, I believe, much more coherent as an entertainment product. I’ve had my kids play it and shown a few people – with plenty of useful feedback – and I hope to get a formal alpha release out to select individuals via Testflight in a few weeks time.

My goal is that Lunar Loot Drop serves to begin to build a player community upon which I can build EVIL27 Games as a business. I don’t hold any monetary aspirations for the game, certainly not in its initial public guises. The cost of paid-for player acquisition is beyond my budget and I can’t compete on production values not feature scope with well-resourced studios. What I do hope for is a bundle of great insight and lessons learned about taking a mobile game from concept to the digital stores and then through a journey of constant iteration based on quantitative and qualitative feedback.

I’m going to post regular updates on my progress plus share some screenshots and artwork. I’d truly appreciate any input, questions, feedback or ideas about the game itself, about learning to programme or anything game industry-related.

Kevin Corti
‘Chief Evil Officer’
@kevcorti 

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