To set the scene properly for Sling It!, I need to briefly mention this, first: In October of 2012 I released an adventure-RPG called Phantasmaburbia. It was a two year project, very involved and very intense. The game’s themes were very personal, and as I worked on it it went from being a simple experiment to something I cared for very much,and was highly invested in the success of. So it was pretty crushing when it released to abysmal sales.
There’s a lot of reasons that happened, that should have and would have been obvious to anybody not blinded by pride in their own work. The art was serviceable, but not awe-inspiring, which it should have been to sell people on a classic-style RPG. I was relatively unknown and it was my first commercial release for PC. The game’s themes were very specific to a niche audience; basically, it was a game I made for myself first, and as such most people had no reason to be drawn to it at all. Et cetera. Whatever the reason, it left a big gap in my bank account where money was supposed to be, and I was quickly under intense pressure to turn out something that was going to pick me back up.
That’s how I came to the decision to work on Sling It!, as a direct sequel to my most successful game ever, Pollushot. It’s not a title which my name is commonly associated with, but the fact of the matter was that Pollushot was a proven success and fun as hell to work on.
The basic premise: it’s a mashup of shoot-em-up and slingshot. You control a slingshot space-ship, and you slingshot to launch debris at enemies. Enemies come as large, multisegmented machines, which you break piece by piece and then utilize their shattered bits as ammo for your next shot.
I worked on it for about 3 months in total, in between other obligations (school), and then release it to the world on March 4. It, like Phantasmaburbia, was a bomb. Bad news only got badder.
But I learned a lot from the development and the release. And I’m still trying to make game development work for me. So I wanted to share some key points from this game’s development story to educate people who are going through the same hoops I did, to illuminate why the game has been unsuccessful, and to organize my thoughts on the experience for myself.
What Went Right
1. Stackable Powers
I’m really happy with the gameplay. The most important improvement to this game over the original, in my eyes, was the introduction of powerups.
When I was working on the original game, it came up more than once that I should have thought about making little pickups and powerups for the game. My gut feeling was not to, because when people suggested powerups, what they meant were things like little shields, or temporary damage boosts, or other things which I felt added nothing interesting to the gameplay and interaction between the player and the enemies. While the game is structurally very much like a typical shooter, I also felt its unique style of play meant that it didn’t make sense to shoehorn in shoot-em-up genre conventions because they were conventions. And while I still think all of that is technically correct, the truth is that I was, at the time, thinking very deep inside the box!
In the game, enemies come in a rainbow of color varieties, and depending on the color of the enemy piece you break and debris you catch, your shot takes on special properties. This was a very important aspect of both games. Sometimes you shot would explode, or split into 3 shots, or home in on an enemy, or be extra heavy, or who knows. The breakthrough I had in making Sling It! was to make powerups which all take on these properties too.
What that means is that when you collect a powerup, all of your successive shots take on some special property temporarily. All of your shots may explode for a bit, or maybe all of your shots split into 3, etc. This had incredible synergy with the existing shot effects. When you get a 3-splitting shot during an all-explode powerup, suddenly you can rocket off 3 exploding shots at once. Or maybe you have a shot that’s extra heavy, but homes in. Or explodes and slices through an enemy. The point is that the powerups combine meaningfully with the shots you use, and that made them infinitely more interesting in my eyes. The idea of stackable, modular powers is a fun concept to play around with in game design; I didn’t recognize the opportunity I had to do it until the second time around with this game. It’s definitely something to consider if you’re trying to come up with interesting powerups for your own game.
This is a game that needed leaderboards. That was completely obvious to me from the moment I started working, but didn’t become a major concern until late in the game’s development.
What I realized when I did start looking was that there didn’t seem to be any good, easy implementable solution out there.This game was launching for iOS, Android and PC. Apple has GameCenter, but Google Play has no equivalent. PC has some online services available to it, but they all seemed to involve tying your game to these third-party sites in some way which felt unprofessional to me. And none of these different systems would ever be able to interact, so you couldn’t have all iPhone users compete with, say, all Android users. This bugged me a lot!
So I decided, at whatever time expense it cost, I was going to implement leaderboards myself.
I’d never worked with web backend programming before and had no idea where to even begin. So I hopped on Twitter, and was fortunate enough to pick up a very helpful couple of friends who knew what they were doing. But the truth is that ultimately the implementation wasn’t all that crazy. A couple long php files which do some pretty basic interfacing between the game and my servers, some extra preventative measures to stop people from cheating, and badda bing badda boom, I’d set up online leaderboards in about one learning-filled week.
And boy do I love my leaderboards. Being able to see cross-platform competing scores is pretty damn cool, and dramatically increases your apparent userbase which would otherwise be disjointed between multiple platforms. And it’s all done in-game, in-engine, so I get to format the output however I like and you never have to see any other logo or popup or leave the game to see the scores. For me these distinctions were all invaluable, and come highly recommended from me to anybody seeking their own leaderboard solution.
3. Music & Collaboration
In the original Pollushot, I chose to use license-free classical music for the soundtrack as a way to cut costs and give the game some uniqueness (I was also inspired by an obscure pollution-themed Game Maker game by Cook, Serve, Delicious designer Dave Galindo, called greenTech). I chose to do classical music again for Sling It!, but this time focusing on Russian & Soviet composers, which I felt was fitting since the game is set in a sort of nuclear winter, to pay homage to Tetris, and to honor my Russian lineage a bit.
The most interesting part of the music in this was my chance to collaborate with new musicians. I’m a resident of Philadelphia, and because I know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy, I got in touch with local live band Beta Test, a 5-man orchestra who play arrangements of music from games. They weren’t explosively popular or anything, and they’d never done anything for an actual game before, but they had that unique crossover of video game and classical (which I had heretofore never even thought was a thing), and they were really excited about getting to work on something for a game. They offered to do the music completely for free, which was an awesome gesture and also saved my butt a bit since the game didn’t actually sell well at all.
Getting to meet and work with a local talent was really interesting, and fun, and it totally expanded my network in a direction I didn’t ever expect to. Up until now I’d always worked with friends of mine, but this experience opened my eyes to outsourcing and working with different people. Also, the music is pretty kick-ass, and the time I spent researching and listening to classical music was actually a pretty valuable cultural experience. Now everyone who plays my game will get a bit of that cultural experience, too.
What Went Wrong
1. Free Demo
One thing that shocked me about this game was the dramatic difference between the number of users who would get the paid version of the game vs. the free demo. In the free demo, a lot of the upgrades are unobtainable in the shop, and the game cuts you off once you clear a few rounds, whereas in the full game the game lasts forever.
On Google Play, as of writing, the game’s been purchased about 85 times, vs. over 2,000 free downloads. On iTunes it’s about 150 to 6,000. The free demo has plenty of messages encouraging the player to get the paid version, but it seems like people really aren’t biting. What’s more, the game just never really felt it generated any momentum in the press or amongst players. An all-too-common phrase heard from fans and friends has been, “I don’t understand why people aren’t getting this game; it’s amazing.”
A lot of people are talking about the value of a free demo vs. not having one, though I feel like I wasn’t seeing advice on this until after the came already came out. But, just to be clear, I will say what should have been said to me: don’t make a free demo for your game.
Okay, that position is probably a little extreme, but for good reason. The vast majority of games aren’t really fit for a free demo. I was naively looking at the free demo as a chance for people to try the game before they bought it, but most people look at the free demo s a chance to play your game and then throw it away without paying for it. At the very least, I should have put a lot more thought into the free demo--the game has one little in-app purchase, and it’s available only in the paid version, so my giant crowd of free players were completely unmonetized (again, I expected they would all be quickly upgrading once they tried the game). The other possible to solution would be to cater the game design more to working as a free demo. More on that in a bit.
2. Pressure to Release
I’m not sure how common a mistake this is. I’m guessing it probably isn’t for people with any level of basic marketing knowledge. But the truth is that I succumbed very easily to a lot of external pressure to get my game out as soon as possible, and as such neglected a lot of necessary steps that everybody should go through before putting a game out.
The pressures were these: I’m totally broke and need money to eat. The game spent an excessively long time in certification. It was rejected by Apple twice (for fairly stupid reasons), and there were at least two other occasions where I found a bug that was very obscure but needed to be fixed, each time resetting the game’s wait in certification. That all meant that by the time it was passed for launch it had already been finished, essentially, for almost a month. Beta testers had been playing the game and loving it and were asking when it was coming out on a regular basis. And then an announcement came for Radical Fishing, which meant I needed to get my game out right away lest I end up competing with them at launch and lose whatever hope I had at getting coverage and attention.
I launched 3 days after passing certification. I’d released a trailer a few days in advance of launch, but I’d otherwise only just started emailing people in the press, and hadn’t heard back from any of them yet. So the game launched to no buzz or press to begin with. It was practically dead in the water. Of course I fought tooth and nail post launch to get coverage, and in a lot of cases I got it, but it felt like a constant uphill battle. Those issues should really be taken care of long before you launch, so you can feel secure in knowing that on the day your game comes out, everyone will be talking about it. And ultimately I never landed a “big break” that suddenly drove crazy sales. A few sites mentioned it, some big, some small, and a smaller subset of those actually wrote out detailed reviews, but it just wasn’t catching on.
3. Teaching and Balance
The lack of press is a symptom, but not the source of the illness. The common adage for these situations, whether you want to hear it or not, is that a lot of press can only really come after the game you’ve made is truly good. Even if only a few people play your game at first, if it’s really amazing, they’ll want to tell everybody they know about it, and those people will want to tell everybody they know, and that’s how your work slips into the editors’ mailboxes and climbs its way up the ranks. That wasn’t happening for my game, and I think the following is exactly the reason why.
The barrier of entry in terms of skill is simply too high. There’s an amazing game somewhere in there, but for the vast majority of people, it’s too far buried under a difficult learning process to be discovered.
At some point I got the idea in my head that it’s really cool not to teach your player too much directly. Hand holding is stupid. The less you tell, the better. I had an image of my game being a bit like one of my recent favorites, Super Hexagon. It’s a game that takes a very simple idea--using the left and right arrows keys to dodge incoming walls--and finds a way to maximize that challenge to the extreme. And it starts out brutally hard right away. Nobody lives for more than 5 seconds on their first try, and that’s a very generous estimate. I loved that game to death, and it’s massively popular, so in my head it was pretty cemented: Super Hexagon makes you learn by dying a lot, and Super Hexagon is an excellent game. So if I do what Super Hexagon did, my game will have to be excellent as well. I knew better than to emulate its instant kills exactly, and I made my difficulty curve much much smoother than Super Hexagon’s. But that influence meant that I thought I knew better when my mom or dad would complain about the game being too hard for “non-geeks like me.” The answer to that complaint would have to be, “you just need to try harder.”
But the key difference between my game and Super Hexagon is that my game involves a much more unconventional set of inputs, because it’s a very unconventional genre blend of a game. It features a more complicated set of mechanics than what you’re dealing with in Hexagon. Super Hexagon isn’t excellent simply because it teaches you by letting you fail; Super Hexagon is excellent because the entire game is practically build around enforcing as much familiar gameplay as possible, controlled as simply as possible, and Terry was insightful enough to see that this condensed style of game was ideal for using fast and frequent failure as its own tutorial. This simply didn’t work for my game. When I watched people play for the first few games, they were always ginger and terrified of each new enemy; the first enemy in the game would be firing at them already, and enemies would start appearing that were small and moved around quickly, and players’ shots would miss all the time and then they’d start getting killed before they even had a grasp on what the game was supposed to feel like. For people who are trying the game just as a demo, this is an especially crucial failure.
When people can’t really get into your game, they don’t see what’s awesome about it and why they should pay for it. And they don’t get excited about it and tell their friends. That’s what I needed; I needed the game to be immediately grabbing, to have somebody who’s never played before have as much fun as somebody who’s been playing for weeks, and to tell everybody they know about the game. To anybody who makes game, this isn’t a new observation by any means; I’ve had it said to me 100 times before. But somehow it never really got through my skull until now.
Having the game on a paid-only model would have helped. Once they’ve invested in your game, players are a lot more likely to fight over the initial bumps in difficulty and find the gold in your game. But I also could have done a lot more to ease players in: make a set of enemies who are exceptionally easy for the beginning of the game, make power-ups appear more often, etc. The game already included an option to start at a later round with harder enemies right away; this is an awesome excuse to make the very beginning stupidly easy for new players.
So, where do I go from here? Over the last week I took the free demo off stores and cut the price of the full game from $1.99 to $0.99. I don’t expect this to have a huge impact from here on, but some part of me feels better just knowing that my catastrophic mistake(s) have been corrected to some degree, even if after the fact. Otherwise I’m just going to move on to newer projects, take on an extra job for income if I can find one, and I’m gonna keep trying until I get it right.