Dokusen: The Art of Domination (iOS puzzle game) — A month later

It’s been a month since I released my latest iOS game Dokusen on iTunes. At first I considered polishing some aspects of the game and releasing an update, but to be honest the idea of developing a new game from scratch is more attractive, so I’ve stared down that path instead. So in a sense you can consider this post a “post mortem” of this game.

At heart, this game was an experiment to see if a bigger focus on visuals would reflect in more popularity in the store. I also spent a much larger chunk of time advertising on net forums, on roughly 20-30 different sites.

From a downloads perspective, my personal goal was to get at least twice the downloads of my previous game. Initially things went great, with the number of downloads from Dokusen in the first two days surpassing those from the first week of my previous game. Unfortunately downloads suddenly decreased after that on the 3rd and 4th days, such that I only reached 75% of my target downloads (to date, Dokusen got 1.5x of my previous game’s count). Though this is a bit of a disappointment, I should look on the bright side because at least things are going in the right direction. The large spike on the first two days is still a bit of mystery to me, since with previous projects downloads leveled off at a much slower rate. Oddly, I got a large majority of downloads those first two days from France.

These numbers are a further confirmation that advertising on net forums is not a great way to pull in downloads. I did, however, get some good feedback on the game’s rules from on a board game forum I posted on, since it shares some elements with Go and Reversi.

A week or two ago I talked to one of the people who informally tested for me, and he remarked that my previous game was much more fun and easier to understand. This was good feedback, though altogether not that surprising since I feel the same way. Ironically, with Dokusen I had tried to build a game that would be popular with others, but not necessarily myself.

For my next game (codename “T.E.” for the time being), I am planning on making something which I enjoy more myself, in terms of both coding and gameplay. I also plan to make a proper tutorial, as well as get more playtesters (please leave a comment if you are interested in helping). This next game is rooted in a longtime passion of mine, and the work I’ve done on it already is more challenging and interesting than Dokusen. I’m aiming for a release in 3-6 months if things go well.

Though I implied this project was mostly done, I am always open to feedback on Dokusen or any of my other apps. If you looking for someone to review your game I am OK with exchanging reviews of your game for mine.

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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

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.

Mobile App Review: Move The Walls [iOS] (Why is this game popular?)

When working on a mobile game, I typically try to stay away from playing other games. This is partially to maximize my available development time, but also to minimize introduction of elements from other games. (Though in all honesty, there is nothing really wrong with this.) However, I do try to view the apps on the Apple App Store for iPhone/iPad at least once a week to see what types of apps are popular and try to think about what made them popular.

One app I keep running across is Move The Walls (which is in this week’s “Best New Apps” in the App Store), so I thought I would write up some thoughts on it.

This app is a casual game whose gameplay is extremely simple. It’s a vertical scroller where your character moves through a narrow lane that contains walls blocking it’s path. Your goal is to swipe (or ‘flick’) left or right to remove these barriers and allow your character to proceed forward. The visuals are quite simple as well, with each level’s character, background, and walls changing according to the theme of the level. There is a driving theme with a car driving on a road, an outerspace theme with a UFO going through a mysterious place, and a boat trying to avoid what looks like sticks of frozen ice.

The app is free, but contains in-app purchases for certain levels. Even though it just came out, there is already over 600 reviews, with an average of 4.5 stars.

Herein lies the reason for my curiosity. How did a game this simple get to Apple’s “Best New App” list, and manage to get so many reviews (and surely a huge number of downloads)?

I tried playing the game myself but got bored quickly, so I decided to read some of the reviews. Interestingly, many of the 4 or 5 star reviews complain about the lack of variation in the music, insufficient difficulty, and the fact they beat the game’s free levels in an hour or two. If so, why did they give so many stars?

The reason for this amazing success starts to become more clear when I found out it was made by BeaverTap Games, who produced the 4-game series Mikey Shorts as well as another game (Radical) which had critical acclaim. Briefly looking at the screenshots of Mikey Shorts (currently $1.99), it looks like a simple Mario clone, though has the potential to be a lot of fun. This game is quoted as being listed under “App Store Best of 2012”, and also has a total of close to 1500 reviews.

Putting this all together, it seems clear that Move The Walls had alot of help from BeaverTap Games’s large fan base it built up over several years. I don’t know what level of advertising they have done, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they spent a good chunk of money on it, knowing (from experience) that it will pay off in the long run.

I have a hard time believing even if I were to write a game exactly like this, or even if I added major new features, that it would be as popular. Some might feel that being listed once on “Best New Games” doesn’t necessarily mean they are raking in the cash with in-app purchases, and we don’t actually know how many downloads they are getting, but to an indie developer, getting listed on such a high visibility place is a dream. Even if the game falls from popularity after a few weeks, being in this position gives it a great chance to be profitable at the present point in time.

I found this review of the game, which gives it 3.5 stars as a “decently fun distraction”. More interesting than the review text, however, was an embedded video of the game’s official trailer. Over half of the 30 second trailer contains live-action footage, which while clearly low budget definitely took time and money to film, edit together. It’s interesting to speculate how much this trailer contributed to the game’s success.

Mobile gaming and the importance of marketing

If you have spent countless hours trying to market your game and already understand the value of marketing and advertising, then this post isn’t for you.

However, if you tend to focus on content creation, leaving advertising as a mere afterthought, then you might want to keep reading.

I consider myself a fairly logical-minded person and until recently I held the mistaken idea that popularity and sales is primarily based on a product’s content – things like features, materials, quality, etc. If I devote a few years of my life to making the ultimate game, upon release that game should perform wonderful, since after all it’s a great game that deserves to be downloaded, right?

Not quite.

As I think more about products are made, marketed, and sold, I’ve realized that the content itself is only one of the factors that contributes to a product’s success. The more competitors out there, and the bigger the potential audience, the more a product must be advertised to have a chance to make it big.

Part of me screams out “but this just isn’t fair!”, but I have to accept this is reality. It’s been known for some time that human consumers are not robots, they aren’t always “logical” and don’t always but the “right” products. Instead, they are influenced by so many things, including the “image” of the product (hence celebrities are commonly used to buff up a product’s image) and what their friends and family think. Product naming, packaging, positioning – there are so many factors outside “what’s in the box” that influence whether we buy something.

Of course, there is no guarantee that marketing dollars will reflect to sales, which is why all all businesses that create and sell products have a certain degree of risk. You can think of it as an investment: If I invest X dollars on advertising a game that costed Y dollars to develop, what are my chances of making my money back? What are my chances of making significantly more than I invested? Without a doubt, a great game with a large marketing budget (assuming a competent and creative team of marketers) will have the best chances to profit.

Looking at popular products out there, I’m sure you can find cases where the top product isn’t always the best, but it may be a so-so product with a great marketing budget.

If you create an awesome game that is super addictive, there might be some chance it will go “viral” and spread to a global audience without aggressive advertising. But I think everyone agrees that your chances are always better with some type of marketing push, since without that your game will easily get lost in the sea of forgotten games that never got past a few hundred downloads.

If you work for a medium to large sized game company, part of your company is surely dedicated to marketing and advertising, but if you are a small team on a small budget, the importance of marketing makes your odds of success even worse. Apart from trying to find a person to advertise your game for free or cheap, you can try to become a marketing expert yourself, spending half (or more!) time just on this aspect. But this puts those of us who “just like to program” or “just want to make games” in a pretty tough spot.

Personally, I always get sort of a dirty feeling about advertising, because it essentially involves trying to convince or even fool consumers into believing a certain thing or feel a certain way. I’d like to think that straight out lies or deception will come back to haunt a product eventually (a sort of advertising karma), but I’m not sure if the world actually works that way. In any case, all I can do is try to keep my own marketing efforts from annoying people too much.

For example, it’s fairly common to use a blog to help get the word out about a game, app, or website, and this is clearly a form of advertising. I’ll admit that this is one of the purposes of this blog, which was originally created to be a support page for this game. But I don’t randomly spam people, telling them to check out my game. I feel that the practice of spamming – forcing your product down someone’s throat who probably doesn’t care – is one of the lowest forms of marketing on the Internet. Instead, I’ll read blogs about mobile gaming and other topics that interest me, and if I happen to appreciate an article I’ll give it a like, or even a comment. Some of those people happen to read my blog, and may even become interested in a mobile app I’ve written. This a kind, passive way to market a game without pissing people off.

With posting on forums to advertise a game, you can do things politely and only post in the appropriate areas in related forums at a reasonable frequency, or post all over the place any end up pissing off more people than not. The funny thing about spamming is that even with a low rate of acceptance (say 5-10%), the overall effect is still positive, whether it’s more people downloading an app, viewing an add, or purchasing some product.

Advertising a game is not just about where you try to push your message, but what your message is. Is it a single screenshot or a short movie showing off the cool graphics? Is there a list of features to just a short quip talking about the concept of the game? Or do you position it as “similar to so-and-so (popular) game”? You can write about your game on 100 websites, but if nobody finds the posts interesting your time will have been spent in vain.

I’ve used the terms marketing and advertising somewhat interchangeably in this post, but advertising is only one part of marketing. An important step that must be done before advertising is understanding the existing market (rivals, and what sets them apart) and identifying the demographic group(s) you want to advertise to. The better you can zoom in on to your target consumers, the more you can fine tune your advertising campaign. Trying to please everyone is a sure way to fail, since a 13 old girl with expendable income and a 60 year old man living off savings will have completely different buying patterns. When watching or listening to a commercial, it’s a fun exercise to try and guess what the target demographic is for that product.

Watching the initial presentations of Apple’s yearly developer convention (WWDC) yesterday, I was again reminded of the power of marketing and what a massive advertising budget can achieve. Generally there seems to be great polarization between Apple fanboys and haters, but I think it’s hard to disagree about the power of the marketing videos they have been able to consistently produce. Whether it’s about Apple trying to connect their products to the amazing legacy and history of music, or a group’s heartwarming attempt to help deaf children experience music for the first time using an iPad (Project Ludwig), their advertisements give us all something to think about.

[Credit: Featured image from Gratisography]