Mobile Game Review: Lost Echo [iPhone/iPad]

I discovered this game from the promotional category “15 Greatest Storylines” in the iTunes store for iPad/iPhone. Most of the mobile games I download are free, but an impressive trailer plus the fact that the game was on sale ($0.99 from a usual price of $2.99) was enough to make me buy this game. Lost Echo has been out for some time, released on Sep 2013 for the first version.

This game is an authentic adventure game where you control the main character, following a storyline that gets pretty mysterious after the first few minutes of play. The game’s graphics are all 3D rendered in real time, and depending on where you move the camera angle changes, sometimes gradually and sometimes suddenly.

When I first saw this game’s trailer on my iPhone, I was blown away by the graphics, but after playing it for about an hour or so on my iPad my impression dropped a notch. This is not only because the larger screen size shows off the flaws more easily, but because the design quality of the environments varies significantly, with some contain areas of very simple geometry that stand out. Also, the app preview shows some of the more interesting and better-designed areas, which is only natural from a marketing point of view. Overall they have done a great job with texturing the environment to create realism without using too many complex models.

I’ve been playing for around 90 minutes total time, and the story and dialogue is pretty well-written so far. I am not sure if they are purposeful, but I feel there are similarities to some of the Final Fantasy Games (story and dialoge-wise), plus Half Life series (mostly visual). I haven’t played many true adventure games on iPhone/iPad, but it’s great to know there are some serious adventure games like this on mobile devices. The only drawback story-wise is that sometimes I feel this game devolves to a click fest where I have to just click on everything in sight until I hit upon the right object.

The controls on the game take some getting used to be able to efficiently navigate the world, but even given this learning curve I think there are some things that could be improved. For example, clicking on a location to move there does not normally show any UI confirmation, unless you have happened to click on a hotspot representing a object or other important place. This makes for a frustrating experience, especially because sometimes it isn’t clear whether the place you clicked on is a legal location to walk to. Usually I end up clicking many times quickly to make sure the character starts moving.

There was one scene I just played involving a card game where clicking on a button on an overlaid menu to look at my hand of cards didn’t work properly – instead it acted as if I was trying to touch something on the backdrop, giving me the message “This is a wine crate”. Eventually I figured out I had to click my cards on the table first but I was almost ready to give up. There is one more short scene involving fixing a rattle that was surprisingly hard to control, and I feel that part should be cut completely from the game since it didn’t add anything tangible to the experience.

I also had to struggle with the camera angle, since it would change unpredictably and sometimes I didn’t know where I had to send my character to force the necessary angle change. I think some of this is unavoidable in adventure games with dynamic camera angles, but I think they could refine things a bit. Once you get to the camera setup on each area it’s not that bad though.

For some reason, part of the time when I was playing this game there was no music, even though I had my volume turned up all the way. When I went back and played the next day music was suddenly working, and from what I’ve heard it’s pretty good. This issue might be related to my device, however. Another thing that I experienced once is my iPad getting extremely hot after playing for a few minutes, though this too could be a device-specific problem (it’s an older model).

Almost immediately after starting this game I could tell it was a low-budget effort – not in a negative sense but rather that the team tried to do the best with limited resources. For example, the fact that areas are reused several times in the story, and also the fact there is a lot of dialogue. Both of these things could be attributed to their storytelling style, but with a big budget I’m pretty sure would exposed more areas to be explored.

Looking at the developer’s site (KickBack studios), the team is in fact very small with only two people, who must have worked very hard on this game (their first) in the last two years or so. I’d be very happy if I could ever make a game this cool that could get such visibility from Apple, and I’m looking forward to this studio’s future releases.

Despite the few flaws and annoyances, for $0.99 this game is totally worth it, so I recommend you check it out on iPad or iPhone.

lostecho

Mobile Game Development: learn your weaknesses and strive for consistent quality in all areas

Having taking a few iOS projects from conception to release on the Apple Apple Store, I’m starting to discover patterns in how I go through the development process. I plan to use this information to tune how I handle future projects, resulting in efficiency improvements as well as a higher quality result, hopefully leading to a larger user count.

I recently became more aware of the stages I go through in a typical project. I start development in what I would call a “creative” stage, where I am thinking of new ideas and enjoying the implementation process, as well as the iterative design that goes along with that. At some point when the project far along enough, I start to feel the need to just release something – what I’ll call the “get it done” stage.  I think this stems from my fear that other things will come up in my life and not have time to finish the project, or that I’ll just get bored of it and quit partway through, similar to why I would be hesitant to start reading a long novel.

The “get it done” stage is dangerous because the remaining tasks are done quickly, with lower quality than things done in the “creative” stage. For example, I usually create my app’s icons near the end of the project, and rush to just get something that looks reasonable enough. This is a bad idea since an icon is an extremely important part of the overall marketing presence of an app, and some people have even claimed changing only a game’s icon resulted in a major change in the download rate. Another example of this is creating a tutorial, as well as general visual polish.

For my next project, I’m going to try to get myself to think more long-term, and not jump into the “get it done” stage until the product is nearly ready to be released with high all-around high quality. It may be appropriate to rush to the finish line if there is a hard release date you are aiming for, for example to coincide with the release with a new OS version. But in cases where no such deadline exists, there isn’t much value in pushing things.

I am not sure if it is an appropriate comparison, but this reminds me of when I used to train in running to shave time off my mile. I measured how long it took for each 1/10th of a mile, and I found I got the best result when I had a good balance between these times. As opposed to having one or two areas where I sprinted and exhausted all my energy, a consistent good speed gave the best result. I feel that app development is similar, in that a consistent push through all areas is the best way to get a well-rounded product.

If I feel like I am too busy to make proper progress on a hobby project, rather than rushing it to release I’m going to try to just take a break. Odds are that I can just continue where I left off, whether it is a week or a month later.

The exception to this discussion is if you are working on your first mobile app or game. In that case I think it’s OK to just get something on the store, since you’ll gain valuable knowledge going through the entire process for the first time. For your second project, you can slow down and properly plan things out using your newfound knowledge. If you are worried about a low-quality app giving you a bad reputation, you can always pull it off the store at any time.

Mobile Game Advertising: don’t be afraid to get creative

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of sites out there that can be used to advertise your mobile game, in the form of directory listings, reviews, or forum posts. If you have enough time on your hands, you can try to submit your game to as many as you can find, but in many cases you’ll be required to pay some sort of fee to be listed or to accelerate the process, which can take weeks or longer.

If you are getting into mobile game development gradually, you will likely start out by releasing your game as free. But this means that if you start reaching into your pocketbook you’ll quickly be in the red, which isn’t a great way to get motivated to continue game development as a hobby.

Besides sticking with just the free sites, you can try to get creative to avoid paying some of these fees.

To give an example, I recently received an email from one of the sites I did a free submission for my latest game, which had a long advertisement about the paid service, talking about the benefits of a premium listing plus the fact it was on sale.

The text, however, had several English grammatical mistakes or awkward parts, and while reading it I had a mini Eureka moment.

I replied back to the email, saying that I would like to help clean up the marketing text which would surely bring in more paid users. In exchange, if I could get a premium listing as compensation, that would be great.

In less than a day the admin replied back and said we have a deal. I rewrote much of the advertising text, and though I am not a specialist in this area, the end result was much better than the original one. The admin said I will get a premium listing in the next week or so. (If this doesn’t pan out I’ll be sure to let you know in a later post)

These sort of opportunities come by only once in a while, but if you keep an eye open and think creatively, you might be able to find some unique ways to further your game’s marketing efforts.

In my case, I only saved around $15, but the satisfaction from a well-handled negotiation was worth many times this. Creating a win-win situation for both parties is one of the key parts of business-minded thinking.

Mobile Game Review: Does Not Commute

Does not commute, by Mediocre AB, is a game for the iPhone/iPad which was originally released on April 15, 2015. It recently won an Apple Design award and was listed in a special category in the app store, which is where I discovered it. I only played the iPhone version so this review is limited to that.

The game has a pretty unique concept: your objective is to drive a series of vehicles through a city, each from a starting point to a destination point. The interesting part is that as you begin controlling the second vehicle, the first vehicle starts taking the path you choose at the same time, and each successive car’s path gets layered onto the map until it becomes difficult to navigate and reach your destination in time.

If you are able to help all vehicles reach their destinations before time runs out, you get to go to a new area of the city which is effectively a new stage. On the way you can grab items to increase your remaining time, and use the rewind mechanic to retry the path of a car, though you loose some time in the process. Each vehicle has a little different steering, and there are upgrades to can get to improve things like traction. Hitting other objects damages your vehicle, which makes it start smoking and slow down.

The strongest point of this game by far is the graphics, which are done with an extremely visually pleasing top-view rendered with 3D and heavy use of lighting effects, such as headlights for each vehicle. The models are pretty simple but generally good enough, except for some of the lakes which look badly designed. The visual effect during the rewind function is pretty cool looking, and the intro pages are also very nicely designed. Above all, the entire game has a very distinctive visual atmosphere.

I enjoyed this game for around an hour but eventually started to get bored with it. One of the reasons is that the control of vehicles is pretty limited, such that you can only turn left or right, with no braking or acceleration. Also, I found the top-view much more disorienting to drive than a typical first-person view, though I understand why they chose the former to fit with the concept of each car commuting simultaneously.

Does not commute tries to give a personality to each character by giving a short textual description of what is going on in their life and why they are in a hurry, but I found that underdone and insufficient to make me care about any of their lives.

Having said that, with stunning visuals and a very creative concept, this is one of the better games I’ve played on mobile in the last few months, especially considering it’s a free game (with some In-App purchases).

Six nice things about advertising your game online

Though I’ve never been a huge fan of advertising (as a consumer or producer), after spending a few hours trying to push my latest game on various online spots, I’ve started to get used to it, even enjoy it a bit.

The main purpose of advertising is to get more people to learn about your app and actually download it, but there are some other perks that come along with the ride. I’ll mention a few which I’ve noticed.  Most of my efforts have been put into posting on forums and these items reflect that.

1) It’s a great form of market research – you can see what types of games are out there being marketed, as well as how they are marketing them (videos, contests etc). You can also get a feel for which games are getting more attention from the views on their posts. One might argue that looking at the various app store’s ‘popular games’ categories gives similar information, but often the apps that get that far have a large marketing budget, and those techniques don’t necessarily apply to the average indie gamer.

2) You can advertise your game using very small chunks of time, unlike development which may take you just 15-30 minutes to get ‘in the mode’ and actually start writing code. Once you prepare your screenshots, videos, and text for your posts, the actual process of posting is pretty quick and can be done in a few minutes. Often the most time is just spent registering for an account.

3) You can get much more feedback about your game, whether from hits on your various forum posts or comments. Much of this feedback comes quickly, sometimes in only a few hours. Though not nearly as nice as actual downloads, these can translate to some type of satisfaction or motivation to continue marketing your game.

4) After you have found the first few top forums and posted to them (i.e. Touch Arcade), you have to start spending a bit more effort to find those which are less popular, but have a chance to help bring in more users. Finding such forums can be rewarding, as can be the judgement process in deciding which are worthwhile.

5) Rather than using the same text for all posts, you can customize each one based not the form theme, user base of the forum, and what games seem to be popular on that forum. Through this process you can improve your writing, creativity, and ability to perceive trends. For example, if you find out a certain post on that forum seems to be getting a lot of hits, you can see if you can relate your game to it somehow.

6) Knowledge of how to advertise software online is a very valuable asset, since it can be applied to any of your future or past projects, irregardless of genre or platform.

Fallout Shelter – What’s so great about it?

Fallout Shelter was released a little over a week ago on iOS, supporting iPhone and iPad devices. This game developer, Bethesda Softworks, owns the rights for all the previous games, the first of which goes all the way back to 1997. I am a big fan of Fallout 1 and 2, and after catching sight of a few reviews that said Shelter was great I decided to try it out.

Fallout Shelter, like the rest of the games in the series, is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where the remaining humans have to do their best to survive in harsh conditions. You play as an overseer of a shelter in the wasteland, and must manage it’s various buildings and inhabitants.

You start by bringing people found outside into your shelter, and assign them to various rooms and roles, for example a diner or power plant. Each of them has their own set of unique stats which influences their performance in their assigned role. As you gather more resources you can eventually build more rooms, unlock new types of rooms, and expand your shelter both horizontally and vertically. You can also assign characters to explore the surrounding wasteland.

The game’s main screen consists of a cross-sectional side view of the habitat with it’s various rooms. The visuals are quite beautiful with a combination of striking 3D and cartoon-shaded characters, though the base view in XCom: Enemy Unknown on PC is quite similar in terms of overall appearance. You can freely zoom out to the point you can see several rooms at once, or make an entire room fit the screen (I played on an iPhone 6).

So far, so good – up to this point the game probably sounds to you like it has great promise. Unfortunately, I saved the worst for last.

After playing this game for around two hours off and on, I got rather tired of it and wasn’t very motivated to keep playing. I tried again a day later, but after 5 or 10 minutes quickly got bored again.

Although I am a big fan of detailed simulation games like SimCity, this game’s scope is just too limited for me to get into the game world. For example, when you explore the wilderness, your are only shown the results of your character’s actions via a textual log. The rest of the time you are sitting staring at your base, which while pretty, gets old quick. I can see how the resource gathering can be addictive for some, but ultimately this game falls in the bucket of “games you play when you aren’t playing”, which means that to gather resources you have to wait minutes, though there is a “rush” option which can speed up production if it succeeds. I can see how someone could turn on notifications and just play this game in spare moments here or there, but I’m just not into those types of games. Of course there are ways to speed up the process by using actual cash via in-game purchases, but this game pushes these a bit less aggressively than other mobile games I’ve played in this genre.

I think Bethesda has done a good job of making a casual time-wasting mobile game in the Fallout universe, and from the looks of it they have addicted a great crowd of people. In all fairness, I think they built the exact type of game they intended to, and the usability is overall pretty good (except for a few times when I had trouble selecting a character when I was zoomed out).

But for me, the real allure of the Fallout universe was the element of exploration and adventure, which is mostly missing from this game. Having characters upset due to lack of food or electricity is much less exciting and engaging than being chased by a giant scorpion, and reading about that in text form doesn’t count.

For the younger generation who is already into these types of games, I can see how it became popular. But for those who are old enough to have played and appreciated the first two Fallout games, I have a hard time believing much satisfaction could come from playing Fallout Shelter. Though I’m sure Bethesda spend a good amount of time developing this game and will make some profit from the in-app purchases, ultimately I think it’s primary purpose is to act as a marketing tool for Fallout 4, which should be released near the end of this year.

[If you enjoyed this article, please consider checking out my latest mobile game, a unique puzzle game for iPhone]

References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallout_Shelter

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/a/a1/XCOM_Enemy_Unknown,_illustration_of_the_strategy_UI.jpeg

A dozen tips for marketing your mobile game on internet forums

In the last day or so I’ve advertised my new mobile game on a few internet forums to try and pull in a few more downloads. I started with those which gave the highest hit count for my last game, and tried some new ones as an experiment.

Here are some tips for doing this for your own games (or apps), based on my experiences.

1) Make a list of sites you want to advertise on first before you actually make any posts. This will not only allow you to streamline the process, but also will let you focus more on which forums you want to post on.

2) Make sure you read the rules on each site before doing any posting. Getting your post removed, or worst, your account banned will only hurt your chances of getting many people to download your app. There are some basic rules which apply to most forums: no deceptive titles, don’t re-post the same content several times, post in the right sub-forum, etc.

3) Write the title and text in advance for your posts. For boards that are similar (i.e. game development boards) you can reuse these items, but feel free to write custom posts for the boards that have something unique about them. For example, one of the boards I posted on recommend giving details about how the game was developed, so I added a section giving that information. If you are not sure, err on the side of making customized posts for each site, since it will make your posts look less spammy.

4) Many forums don’t allow you to upload images and other attachments directly, so you must provide a URL linking to the image. There are many sites to host your images, and I ended up using http://postimage.org. It was free and easy to use, however it shrunk down the resolution to a pretty small size that wasn’t ideal. Some sites that do allow direct attachments will not allow you to scale them down manually, so consider re-scaling your screenshots and other images to a proper size before uploading.

5) Think creatively about what forums you can (safely) advertise to. For example, my latest game was related to board games such as Othello, so I advertised in a board-game related forum. To be safe, when you do this I recommend posting in the ‘Off-Topic’ areas, since often there is no to little moderation in them.

6) Before writing your posts, consider checking out some of the posts which have a large number of hits, and see what type of verbiage and style they use.

7) Don’t overlook the importance of the post title, often it is the only thing that decides whether users will start reading your post or ignore it.

8) For some forums, there are special ways to write posts advertising games. For example, on forums.toucharcade.com, there is a special meta tag of the form [appinfo=all]put iTunes URL here[/appinfo] which is supposed to (among other things) automatically get the app’s icon and show it next to the title on the post summary screen. I had mixed results with this, so make sure you check that any such meta tags are working either at preview time, or immediately after submission.

9) Many sites will allow you to embed videos from YouTube or other video sites in your post. Consider uploading your app preview (if you have one) to a video site and adding it to your post this way. You can use the same one you uploaded to the app store (if applicable), though you have the option of making a new one just for the purposes of advertising, the advantage being that you have less restrictions on time and content.

10) If you are maintaining a blog about your game, I would recommend to NOT include it in your post. Advertising your blog is fine, but do that separately. The reason is that if you imagine people only have the patience to click on one link, you want them going to your iTunes page rather than a page about development of your game. I wouldn’t consider your advertisement a success if you get a bunch of hits to your blog, but very few downloads to your app. For this same reason, (to go against what I just suggested in #10) you may want to even avoid embedding videos or if you do, include a easy-to-see link in your video’s description.

11) Make sure you test any links you include in the post, such as your game’s iTunes link. Particularly on iOS, I found out that even though my game was supposed to be on the app store, there was a delay of about an hour or two where the iTunes link I got wasn’t properly working and my game wasn’t actually in the store yet. If you want to be safe you wait until the day after your game goes live before advertising.

12) As the popular saying goes, “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst”. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there with several hundreds of apps submitted to the iOS app store each day, and forums where mobile game marketing is done are often equally flooded. Keep your expectations low, but experiment as much as possible and learn as you go.