A group dedicated to indie and standalone game development.
The designer and Creator of Play-Bit Entertainment. I always loved to play games and to create them as well. I have two goals with Play-Bit Entertainment. One is to create high quality and entertaining games for online spaces like Facebook, Desura and steam. The other is to make a good living while doing so. :)
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With the iPhone, iPod Touch game Mole [and later renamed Terracore Adventures] having been on appstore for a few months now I wanted to take the time to look back and let the
game developer community know how it went. This Post Mortem is also written as
a warning to other Indie Devs thinking of entering into the app store with
aspirations to make a profitable product through their hard work.
Started around August 2009, Mole was my first game project
to enter into the indie game development arena. I had done a few years of
design work for a few console games but my aspirations started to lean towards
creating some smaller and purer types of games. The idea of releasing 2, 3 or 4
games in the time it takes to create one larger console game sounded like an
I contacted a programmer and explained to him what I wanted
to do. The original goal was very simplistic in its intensions: Create a small
$1 - $2 iPhone game over a period of 2-3 months. Release it onto the market and
make a few thousand dollars in profit for both me and the programmer.
The assumption behind the endeavour would be: “Make a cool,
fun to play game and make some money off it as well. Surely a great, solid game
would make a few modest thousand off just being a fun game.”
As I would find out, ideas under such simple logic fail to apply to the facts
of a real marketplace. Read on to find out why Mole as a game and product
failed on the app store.
The gameplay of Mole changed fairly rapidly and organically. We didn’t fool
ourselves in trying to stick to the “purity” of the original design doc once it
was created. I believe a designer has to understand that due to a whole myriad
of limitations and constant stress testing of how “fun” the game is after
implementation, a game almost always evolves away from the original design document.
Most of the time that’s a good thing.
Smooth development and solid teamwork:
For a new team and a game with an initial $0 investment budget, the development
of the game was fairly well oiled and straightforward. I did the design and art and my team-mate Ben
did all the programming. Turn-around times to get features from paper design to
implement was almost always quick.
I believe from a team-side of the project there were no hindering issues. And
it was refreshing to work on a project with such skilled and productive people.
Upon release Mole was well received and reviewed by the websites that
accepted it. We got reviews on websites like Appera and Touch Arcade and they
averaged around the B – 4/5 stars score, which for a first game with a new team
was a good critical success. As developers we must always reach for that
critical 5/5 score. But for a first effort 4/5 isn’t too bad.
Failure to understand the marketplace
Upon reflection it’s fairly obvious to say that I, like many other small indies
fell into the trap of not taking an initial step back from pure technical work to
understand what kind of products the iPhone marketplace supports the most.
While some time was spent looking into what games where selling well, there was
no consideration into what it was from a deep design and feature standpoint that
made these games so popular and sell so well.
As a result I ended up designing a game that to its benefit was fun to play and
well crafted. But that didn’t excuse the fact it completely missed the desires
of the target audience. Customers where investing into very specific types of
games in which Terracore Adventures failed to fit into. In this regard the
consequence is clear: While reviewers may enjoy and rate the game well, the
customer doesn’t desire the product. It’s not the type of game that they pay
$1-$2 on an iPhone.
Successes in marketing too spread-out
In the period of weeks and even months after release Mole received all the marketing
elements that could of made it a profitable game. We got solid reviews on over
a dozen websites and even got the game featured on the app store on the “New
and Noteworthy” list. The game was also averaging
around 4 to 3 ½ stars on the customer vote app store rating. All there elements
should spell success for the game.
Unfortunately, these elements occurred over a spread period of weeks after
the release of the game. And as we found out, in order for a game to create a
self supporting critical-mass of exposure all these marketing elements need to
happen around the same time. If the game can score 12 reviews, an app store
featuring and solid user reviews in the first few days after launch then
there’s some level of success to be made from that. But with each piece and review
trickling in over weeks instead of days, the ending effect is at the best of
times a small 1-2 day booster-shot to sales. At worst these promotions didn’t
do a thing.
Of course this outcome is also aggravated the first issue raised. Not making a
game for the target audience. Mole as a game didn’t “Fit” into the kind of products
iPhone users paid money for. Successful promotions are hindered.
“Mole” is a bad name
This was something that went wrong and could only be looked on as a bad
idea in retrospect. At the time, naming our game “Mole” didn’t occur to us that
it was a “dirty word” in the eyes of Apple. As we found out upon release of our
game, “Mole” was a censored word on a few countries app stores. And indeed
until we released a new update and changed the name completely to “Terracore
Adventures” we did not get an app store feature. Once the name changed though
our app got featured.
The release for Terracore Adventures was also initially rocky. We were approved by
apple and the game was released. However as we found the game contained a bug
created in the final compile of the game freezing up the game on start-up. It
was a fairly frustrating event to go through especially as this sort of thing
was what the app review process was supposed to finding in the first place.
This meant we had to quickly take the game off the app store and wait another
week for the game to be released. This event also hurt potential reviews as I
had to re e-mail and apologise to reviewers about the games initial
These points are directed to other Indies who are new commercial
world of indie game dev. Heed this advice:
Research the target audience
Terracore Adventures for the iPhone was my first self-made commercial game.
As such I had the mentality of “I’m going to make a game that I want to play!”
This mentality isn’t a recipe for disaster as long as what you want to play and
make is coinciding with the target audiences desires. Terracore Adventures was
a game that didn’t suit the audience we targeted and there was no initial
consideration for that.
It’s a harsh lesson to learn but one that needs to be stressed. Take the time
to heavily research into what your target audience wants and design the product
around a few of those key desires. Failure to do so will end up with your game;
team members and studio creating a game that’s tipped to fail before it even
Marketing must be tight and effective
As we found out through our experiences and reinforcement by professional
sources in the industry. Small markets like the app store, Facebook and digital
distribution services are completely a Hit-based marketplace. If you want to
make a profit then your games needs to be one of those hits. It’s very hard to
find a middle ground. You’re either making good money or no money at all.
With an increasing rate of products getting released everyday your marketing
plan is critical. And as we found out with Terracore Adventures, all the successful
marketing steps need to happen within a week after the release of the game and
preferably in the first few days. Failure to execute this will spell death for
a game on the iPhone market.
Be careful with naming the game
it’s a smaller point but one worth stressing. Names are very important so
take the time to consider the implications of your products name. Not much more
to say then that.
Double-vet your release builds
Don’t get sloppy in the eleventh hour of releasing your game! Make sure
that every single build you even think of giving to the distributor has been double
tested and approved locally in the team.
By all rights the buggy build of Terracore Adventures shouldn’t have gotten
through apples internal vetting process in the first place. But it somehow did
and ended up costing the product some credibility. Don’t rely on distributors
like apple to check your work. Do all the vetting yourself.
In my mind I think there are two key points that lead to success
in endeavours such as this on a personal level. Remembering these two key
points will help you grow as an individual and help to lead the business to success.
The first key point is that I can’t be scared to fail. To assume
that as a business my games will succeed the first time & everytime has to
be backed up with years of experience and finely honed intuition. Being at the
start of my journey as the head of an indie studio I accept that I will make
mistakes and that failure can happen.
This however feeds into my second key point. If you fail
then it’s your responsibility to understand the reasons why. You could palm the
failure off to market conditions or plain bad-luck and indeed they can play a
factor. But as a business it’s my responsibility to learn from my failures, missteps
and mistakes. I shouldn’t focus on how the world did me wrong. I should instead
focus on what I could’ve done better.
We’re currently remaking Terracore Adventures for Facebook
and other social platforms. We’ve taken all the lessons we learned from the
iPhone version and evolving the product to both match the target markets desires
along with a number of improvements.
It remains to be seen how effective this evolutionally approach
to creating our games will end up being. But I’m very confident in the abilities
of my team and the slice of fun we are currently making.
Thanks for reading.
A group dedicated to indie and standalone game development.
Play-Bit Entertainment is a small group of dudes who live in Melbourne, Australia. We're a brand new company and we're working our collective butts off...