Mobile Game Review: Quantum Cheeks [iOS/Android]

I came across Quantum Cheeks on a fellow developer’s blog on WordPress, and decided to review it. It’s the first game from a small team of developers who are learning Unity, and the tone of my review takes that into account. The game is out for Android, iPad, and iPhone. I only played it on iPhone 6.

The concept of the game is simple – guide a hamster through a series of radioactive barrels. The controls are very simple: click anywhere on the screen to make the little thing jump out of his (her?) current barrel and hopefully into another one. Many of the barrels are in constant movement, rotation or translation along some path, and the core gameplay element of this title involves getting the timing right with respect to the barrels on screen. Each stage ends when you reach the ladder at the end of it. There are also some seeds you can collect along the way to get extra lives, similar to coins in Mario Brother.

The graphics are fairly simple but sufficient to support the gameplay. There are some little visual touches that caught my eye, like the fireflies on the first world. There was clearly a bit of effort put into this effect since their paths seem dynamic and there are different sizes of fireflies, plus a fading effect in and out. There is also a nice parallax effect with multiple layers of background, but I had to really pay attention to notice it. One minor nitpick is that the resolution of the barrels on the first world is too low and could use some refinement. The barrels on the second look pretty nice, though those on the third stage have a weird design, maybe a space ship?

Because of some issue I wasn’t able to hear sounds or music, although I think it is supposed to be there. Will update this post if I get that figured out.

My favorite thing about this game is element of shooting a hamster back and forth between barrels. It’s challenging, a little addicting, and adding the “hamster” idea gives life to what would otherwise be a dry physics simulation. I am not sure if the team plans to keep working on this game, but I think it would be interesting to expand on the concept, with more barrel types (maybe ones that explode after a single use) and more interaction with the world, for example bouncing off walls and such. Since they already have a physics engine I think some of these additions wouldn’t take that much additional development time.  I also like how you can just randomly shoot in one direction and have a chance at hitting a barrel in the distance, and I think if they can foster this sort of experimental play the game could be even better.

My biggest issue with this game is the bugs or inconsistencies I saw, which I notice even more being a software developer. I’ll give a detailed list here because I think they can probably fix these in a follow up release if they like.

1) Sometimes clicking on a barrel doesn’t seem to do anything. I noticed this mostly on barrels that are rotating back and forth 180 degrees, since it requires nearly perfect timing to eject the hamster at either endpoint. I would allow ejection at any point, and if the designers really want to limit this, queue up a click and eject when a valid point is reached.

2) Sometimes a rotating barrel will start ‘twitching’ back and forth for several seconds, after which it eventually stabilizes again. Seems like something has gone awry with the physics engine here. 

3) Once or twice it seems like a barrel ejected me before I touched the screen, though this is hard to reproduce.

4) There was at least one barrel (pointed up and to the right 45 degrees) which seemed to have less power than the others, so the distance the hamster was projected was unexpected.

5) At least once, I saw the game end before my character was completely off screen (on the right side). It would have gone off screen eventually, but the timing caught me off guard. This one is very minor, though.

6) I usually played the game in landscape mode, but there seems to be several issues with portrait mode which automatically triggers upon device rotation. Rather than go into all of them here, I recommend just disabling portrait altogether since it’s probably not worth the effort of supporting it.

In spite of these issues, the game is still fun to play, and I recommend you check it out. If you do, please consider giving their team feedback, since as a developer I can tell you this is one of the most important things for them (:

Link to the game’s release blog post with download links: https://rhyskucharski.wordpress.com/2015/07/04/quantum-cheeks-has-launched/comment-page-1/#comment-7

Why you *really* don’t want to make your mobile game anything but free

In the last year or so, I’ve had conversations with several developers who had tried to put their game or app on a mobile store with a price of “only” 99 cents. Of course, all of them were disappointed with only a handful of downloads.

Several years ago, I had the thought that if I could make any money, even a few dollars, it would be a way to get my foot in the door of a new opportunity. After that point, all I had to do was keep working on increasing that income slowly but steadily, and eventually I could make a significant amount of profit.

But, after having a few apps on the store myself, and doing some research, I realized how wrong I was.

I don’t have the exact figure in front of me, but I’ve read several places that nowadays something like 90% or greater of mobile games are free. Frequent browsing through iOS games pretty much confirms that, especially given that the apps I usually peruse are in the “popular” categories and even many of those are free. But what is more important than the fact that most are free is that many of the free games are really well made, with top-class graphics and gameplay – clearly something not done by a lone developer.

As you might expect, many of these games use in-app purchases to try and make a profit, and some games still use advertisements, though use of ads seems to be gradually decreasing over time (I consider that a good thing). There are other free games which, surprisingly, seem to have neither of these – the only explanation is that they are just trying to get their name out there in preparation for a followup game.

As a budding mobile game developer, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking your game will somehow be special, and achieve great popularly while earning you thousands of dollars (at a price of only $0.99). While this might be true if you have one or more people on your team with a great deal of experience making and promoting mobile games, for the average small team or hobby developer your odds are not so great.

So let’s say you were trying to decide between making your game free, where you could potentially have a few thousand downloads, and 99 cents, where you would be lucky to have a few hundred downloads (if that). Your first instinct might be to go for the cash, but that would be a terrible waste.

The reason is that while very few small-time game developers will make much money on their first game, they have a great potential – the potential to gather precious information.

The more downloads you get, the more chances you have of getting reviews, either directly in the app store or from a third-party website. Reviews are one of those things whose value can’t be measured easily. Not only do they tell you someone cared about your game enough to write a review, but they get to the heart of what a user enjoyed, or didn’t enjoy. For my first app I only got a handful of reviews, but they were all very valuable information, and helped me drive updates.

Another advantage of free games (especially if they have no in-app purchases or ads) is that it’s much easier to advertise them on the net, or with friends. You’ll less likely to get people saying your spamming or just trying to make a quick buck from a forum post. You still need to exercise caution and tact when advertising, but it’s a little bit easier.

Also, there is a higher chance your app will go ‘viral’ if it’s free, since all that takes is one or more people who have popularity to happen to mention your game, whether in a tweet or on their blog. At $0.99 if you get only 50 downloads compared to 500 when free, your odds of going viral are 10x higher when free.

And don’t forget other sources of hard data. Now with Apple’s analytics being released to all developers you have much more data to mine, and even the most basic data can be extremely valuable if you know how to analyze it. For example, using the number of reported upgrades gives you some idea how many people actually cared enough about your game to not delete it immediately. If you have used something like Flurry in your app you have even more data from each person who downloaded your free app. Tools like this can help you determine engagement, which is a measure of how much the user was really involved when using the game. Did they make it to level 7 after 2 hours of play, or give up due to frustration in the middle of the tutorial?

The other reason the bar for paid games is so high is because there is so much competition even in the realm of free games. As a user, I can tell that there is a major psychological difference between free and 99 cents, regardless of the monetary fact it’s “only 99 cents”. I’ve only paid for a handful of iOS games, but I’d say that at least 30% of them were disappointments which I stopped using after only one or two sittings – in spite of the fact the screenshots or app preview seemed impressive. Gameplay does matter. After being fooled I’m even more hesitant to spend anything on mobile games. In spite of my annoyance with the concept of in-app purchases and the “freemium” model (especially coming from PC gaming where everything used to be one-time purchases), I have to acknowledge that using free games to get users to experience the gameplay is a key aspect of the current mobile game market.

As a final note, while it’s true that you can do aggressive advertising to help up your downloads for both the free and paid models, your improvements in the free case are bound to be more drastic. Compare spending a few days of advertising all over to increase your sales from $20 to $40, as opposed to making free downloads jump from 1000 to 2000 (with a handful more reviews).

Once you’ve reached a moderate success with the free model, you can then either decide to add in-app purchases, ads, make a ‘pro’ version (as a separate download), or just use your newfound knowledge and start over with a new project. Whichever option you choose you can leverage the popularity of your free app to drive traffic to wherever you are trying to actually make money.

Play The Field – Android version?

Though PTF has only been in the store for around a week, I’ve already gotten one request for an Android version. This is great feedback, please keep it coming!

To be honest, I have actually thought about an Android version from day 1, before I wrote the first line of code. Because of that, I’ve tried to implement much of the core logic in C++, as opposed to Objective-C. I haven’t done a line-by-line comparison, but I would guess 60-70% of the game is in C.

A few minutes of googling shows there are even frameworks that supposedly allow compiling Objective-C on Android platform, such as Marmalade Juice, and another one called Apportable.

I’m eager to get more users to play PTF so I can get more feedback and refine it even further, but at the same time I don’t want to stretch myself too thin. Even if one of the aforementioned frameworks, there will be surely some parts that are non-portable (like the UI), and those will have to be maintained across both platforms.

In related news, Microsoft announced this week at their yearly Build developer conference that they had a mechanism to easily convert iOS apps to run on a windows device, all while using Visual Studio. I think it will take some time to work out the kinks in the system, but maybe months from now it will be a breeze.

For those who do have an iPad, you can the iTunes page here.

If you are interested in an Android port of PTF, please like this article to show your interest.