In this article I will be sharing my experience using the Pay What you Want model in a mobile game. The game I tested on is called Sheep Dreams Are Made of This, a story driven platformer/runner with unusual mechanics and a weird vibe. A user review on the store described it as “a mix of Catherine and Cannabalt”, and I like to think it’s on point, Catherine was actually an influence since I was playing it while working on the initial concepts for this game and it made me realize the whole dream/nightmare thing would fit the mechanics I had in mind really well. Plus, I’m a huge fan of Neil Gaiman and H.P. Lovecraft, so the theme really interests me.
Sheep Dreams was a project I sat on my drawer for more than a year, we (me and one friend) began working on it with the idea of it being a “one weekend” project, but we worked on it for one day and never touched it again. Got busy, contract work came up, that sort of things.
It was supposed to be a small game from the start so we actually did a lot of the work on that one day: animations, background, level design and most of the mechanics.
Initial character drafts
I really liked the idea of the game so one year later I decided I would finish it and release it. The artist was busy at the time so I took upon myself the task to do everything else that was missing, including the art.
What is this game?
The elevator pitch goes something like this: Sheep Dreams Are Made of This is a looping platformer about recurring nightmares, you control a man that wakes up in the same nightmare, every night, for the past 16 years. As you navigate the labyrinth levels you collect memory fragments that help the character remember things about his past, and your goal is to collect them all to uncover what has been causing the recurring nightmares, but you have to do it before he wakes up.
When I sat down to start this game, my initial goal was simply to try and make a game with no death and no enemies. An endless runner seemed like a good option, and later on turned out to work really well with the recurring nightmare theme.
As I was finishing the game I decided it needed something to make it more compelling. I was dabbling with the idea of a time based mechanic from the beginning, so I thought it would be interesting if the game had a time limit of 8 hours, representing a full night of sleep. This would be 8 hours of real time, so it would count even with the game closed. Not only it made a lot of sense given the concept of the game, but it also would make players stick with the game a little longer and present more of a challenge. Of course some people did not like the idea (I’ll get into details later on) but they were far fewer than I expected.
The Initial Launch
Finishing the game ended up taking a little more time than I expected (as it always does), but I was satisfied with the result. It wasn’t looking as cool graphically as I initially hoped, but I was happy with the camera tricks, and the very happy with how the story turned out.
Here’s how the game looked upon launch.
The original trailer is still up if you want to check it.
If you look close you will notice what elements I drew (platforms, doors, cubes…) because they don’t look as good as the sheep and the background. I thought it was good enough since the main thing about the game was the concept and story, and I was really curious to see if the mobile audience would like something like this.
Itch.io because I never released a game on PC and I wanted to get some experience, also makes it easier to show the game to other devs and get feedback.
And windows phone because I had a great experience with my previous game, great community and all.
Why not release on Android and iOS as well? I was still very unsure about this project, specially on mobile where players are more casual, I thought everyone would hate a game that was trying to tell a more deep and serious story. So this way I would able to test it first.
But I still had a big problem: monetization.
How the hell do you monetize a story driven endless runner? There are no power ups, no coins, no costumes. I only want the player to experience the story with no hurdles. Ideally this would be a $0.99 game, but I was sure that would flop, releaseing a paid mobile game without being known is tough. I bet Simogo would be able to get away with it, for instance (they are my favorite mobile dev btw).
So as I was getting to know itch.io better I saw the “suggested donation” thing, and I really liked that, that could work. But how would I do that on mobile? Would App Purchase work?
After a bit of research I found out that you are not allowed to get donations inside an app, if you are selling an IAP you have to give something to the player, otherwise your app will be refused. So I went back to the model I didn’t really want: ads with IAP to remove it, but instead of charging a flat $0.99 I gave the option of paying $0.99, $1.99 and $2.99.
I also tried to make the ads not very intrusive, I did not want banner ads, so I chose to show full screen ads every once in a while, after the player goes through a door and a story bit appears, since the game is paused on that moment. So I published the game and started the usual facebook/twitter/email marketing.
What Went Right
I really did not expect the mobile audience to be on board for the story, but I was really excited reading the reviews because people were really into it! I also got a lot of 1 star reviews saying the game was depressive or "don't play this game if you're feeling down". I really don't mind that people give it a bad rating, knowing that the story had such a string impact is more important for me, even if it made the person stop playing the game.
To my surprise, not only people did not complain about the graphics, but it got a lot of compliments! (Later on we updated the graphics a bit, we’ll get there)
Touch Arcade later used the headline “Sheep Dreams Are Made of This has a clever pun and a crazy gimmick”. It was the first time I got the attention of a big iOS website, and I think the name played a big part in getting their attention. My previous game had a very generic name that probably did not help at all (Tap Master Mondrian), e the following game I released also had this problem (Snap Quiz Challenge). They were also targeted to more casual players, but I think a better name would have helped them. I lost count of how many people made jokes quoting the Marilyn Mason song, and many people complained on the reviews that they wanted the song to be in the game.
I tried using the “exclusive to windows phone” tagline when I release Sheep Dreams, since my previous game did much better on windows phone than iOS and Android. And this worked really well with the community, they loved to have a game that could not be found on the other systems, and it also work with the mobile sites focused on windows phone, most of the major ones did a piece on the new weird game exclusive to windows phone. The game also got some small features on the windows phone store. Too bad windows phone did not have a ton of users, and by this point the ad revenue decreased by half if compared to when I launched Tap Master.
What Went Wrong
As I said before, this initial launch (maybe you could call it a soft launch) was more of a test, here’s what went wrong :
Music (lack of)
This one was also a big experiment. I thought I’d make this a “silent game”, since it’s very common to have dreams where you can’t hear anything. There was even a point in the game where the characters points it out in one of the sentences that appear when the character enters a door.
Of course it also made it a lot easier to make the game because I did not have anyone to make the music and sound effects, as I mentioned before, I was making this completely alone at this point.
What happened is I got a lot of 1 star reviews because people thought it was a bug! Later on I added music and sound effects, and of course it made the game much better. Still got some 1 star reviews complaining the music is repetitive. Oh well.
Menu (and very low IAP conversion)
I had this “great” idea of making the menu playable, so the character would have jump on the specific platform if he wanted to rate the game, see credits or buy the IAP.
That’s terrible. You really don’t want to make it hard for people to buy your damn game, or rate it.
So I immediately made a quick update and added a button inside the pause menu that would rate the game, and another one to buy the IAP, except that this one was defaulted to the lowest priced one ($0.99), so it poisoned the stats that I will show later on, at least for windows phone, because I fixed it before launching on android and iOS by adding a separate screen with the 3 prices (which you saw the screenshot earlier when I was talking about monetization)
The Language Barrier
Looking at the average review score after one week or so I realized the game was rated considerably lower in countries where Spanish is the native language, compared to English and Portuguese speaking ones.
The game launched in English and Portuguese, and since the main element of the game is the narrative, it makes sense that people that don’t understand the language won’t like the game. Other places like Germany, Russia and China had also a good rating average, probably because most of the population understands English. On a later update I added Spanish localization, and sure enough the average rating for those countries went from 2.5 - 3 to above 4!
The Time Limit
The 8 hour time limit was not made very clear inside the game, specially when the time ended, it would just go back to the menu and reset the game, so once again people thought it was a bug that was making them lose all their progress, and there came a lot of 1 star ratings.
Sheep Dreams 2.0
After seeing how the game was received, specially how people resonated with the story, the original artist was excited about the game and decided to work on the art elements that were missing (the ones I had do draw) so we could make the game more presentable for release on iOS and Android.
Here's the new art and the new trailer
(If you open the trailer on Youtube, read the comment by Mustafa Sarkisla, it's probably the first one. This is the kind of comment that makes game development worth it for me, I was having shivers when I read it. A lot of people send me emails with similar comments, or posted on the store reviews sharing their own story, and this made me really happy)
We also added music and sound effects.
Everything was set for launch, I posted the game on TouchArcade “coming soon” forums and something I did not expect happened: they wrote a post about the game.
It was a very short post, but even so it made me stop and think, because it was the first time they posted about one of the games I’ve worked on.
At this point I really considered making the iOS version paid, since I would get a bit of visibility from TouchArcade at launch (and looking back I wish I did, more on that later).
I posted on r/gamedev to ask for advice: “How do I monetize a story driven endless runner without enemies and upgrades?”
People suggested I should find a way to include a power up of some kind, something to help the user, make the game a bit easier. Took me a while, but I ended up finding a solution.
The Alarm Clock and the Sleeping Pills
So the game has this 8 hour time limit, the “gimmick” touch arcade mentioned. I thought it was an interesting experiment to have the game “last” for 8 hours, I wanted to see how the people would react.
Of course not everyone liked this, and some people didn’t even understand (to be honest in the first version it was only explained well in the game description, and who reads that?). So I came up with the Alarm Clock.
When your time was up, an alarm would ring and the screen above would appear. The player would have the options to “snooze”, limited to 3 times, where the player gets to play 10 more minutes, or to get some sleeping pills . The sleeping pills being an IAP that would remove the time limit (the character would keep sleeping indefinitely). I thought it was clever, of course some people complained it was a ripoff, that the time limit was there just to force them to buy the IAP. But some people really liked that they could finally play on their own pace and finish the game, it ended up being the most popular IAP in the game, because that was the thing about the game, people got really curious about the weird story and they really wanted to know that happened: what the hell did this guy do? Where is this going?
The Launch 2.0
In some ways the launch went better than I expected, at least on iOS. It had almost 5k downloads on the first few days, which was much more than my previous game. But on Android it was a rough start, since almost no website had something about the game.
At some point (more than 1 year later) the game was featured on China for iOS, it was a very small feature, but the numbers are interesting, I wrote a post about it sharing the numbers. There were no sales of IAP though.
We also updated the windows phone version with the new graphics, of course.
Android Strikes Back
Very slowly android numbers kept growing, but it wasn’t until december 2016 that they really kicked in, and I still have no idea what happened. The app had around 3k total downloads at this point. It jumped from around 200 downloads a month in november to 1.200 in december, almost 6k in january and 13k in march, which was the best month. As you can see on the acquisition report below, most of the downloads were coming from organic views, and from Brazil (my home country). I couldn’t find any features, so I really don’t know what happened.
Through 2017 and until February 2018 the game averaged 3-5k downloads per month, which I thought was very good. Then, as quickly as they came, they went away. Coincidentally, as the game reached 100k lifetime downloads, the average daily download came down from 100 to 10. I guess maybe when the app changed to a new tier of download (in this case 100k-500k) it affects the app position and visibility on the store, but I thought it would affect for the best.
Here’s the total game downloads by platform as of April 2018
Ok, so what about the “Pay What You Want” numbers I came here for?
I had 3 tiers of price, $0.99, $1.99 and $2.99. Looking back now, I could have made the difference a bit bigger.
What happened is very few people bought the middle tier. People either paid the minimum to just remove the ads or they really liked the game and paid the highest. That’s why I said maybe I could have made the tiers further apart, people who liked the game were really into it and wanted to show their support. Something like 0.99/2.99/4.99 could have worked better.
Here’s the breakdown of tier % by platform
And Here's the revenue comparison from Remove Ads and Sleeping Pills (the "cheating" IAP)
So, in the end, would I recommend "Pay what you want"? For most cases, yes. In my case, this increased the revenue in 37%, compared to if I had just charged the regular $0.99. Of course this will be different for every game, if I had tried this on the Quiz game I released later on, I'm sure this % would have been lower, because it's very casual and has no story, so it's harder for the player to be attached.
If you ever tried anything similar, please let me know how it went! If you have any other questions about number or stats that I did not include, get in touch on twitter @robsonsiebel or leave a comment below!
You can find the links to download Sheep Dreams are Made of This below: