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Postmortem of Flip, by Perro Electrico, or how can you make sure you will not make money on your game
by Sebastian Uribe on 05/20/14 03:18:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Flip was the first game I made in a long time. From 2003 till 2008 I run a small development studio where we made J2ME games, but after that I was not involved directly in game development (until now). I was still in touch with the game development community, from the academic side (lecturing and researching) and as an observer, as several of my friends and acquaintances develop games. I decided to return to game development last year, I started learning Unity, and after some experiments I began working on Flip at the beginning of 2014.

 

Screenshot from Flip

 

Flip is a puzzle game where you must rotate pieces to make them match a proper order. If you know the "Pancakes Sorting Problem", you know what it is about (funnily, I was not aware of the pancakes problem while developing it, but the idea came to me while attempting to sort coins in the same way). The first levels are usually easy to solve, but It can get very hard in the last levels. Some people told me they find it “hardcore“, as it requires a lot of logical thinking and is very strict regarding winning conditions, and players can be put off by that.


What went right


Short development time


The game went from prototype to launch in 3 months. I worked alone and did everything by myself, except for the sounds and some unity plug-ins. It was hard work, putting sometimes 10 to 12 hours a day 6 or 7 days a week. But that meant that my budget for the game was minimal, a good thing given that I was not sure if I was not going to recover the money.


Not rushing it out


The game was virtually complete a month and a half into development, and I spent the rest of the time improving usability. I changed several times things like the tutorial, the way pieces are moved, level selection, button placement, messages, dialogs, level progression, difficulty progression and more. My main objective was to get out of the way of the player, and allow him or her to flow through the game as if it was something natural. I think the end result, even though it could always be improved, plays quite nicely and is easy to understand. Particularly rotating pieces on touch devices provides a nice experience.


Doing proper usability testing


My main way of testing consisted of going everywhere with a tablet and asking people to play. I tested it with over 40 people, and I watched them play, taking notes without intervening. I later asked them why they did some things, and tried to reach conclusions and model user behaviour. This approach proved very useful, as changes introduced after this process (specially the tutorial) made the game easier to approach by new players.


Using the right Tools


I used Unity 3D. Even though I fought a lot with it at the beginning, it provided me with easy porting and a couple third party plug-ins that saved me a lot of time, specially when they provided services across multiple platforms. For graphics I used Gimp and Inkscape. Being proficient in the later allowed me to prototype new graphical styles, and generate all kind of assorted resources at a very fast pace.


Summary: development was very successful, given the constraints.


What I learned (or... the things that went wrong that I'm aware of)


I knew from the beginning that the marketing of the game would be my weak spot. I tried to learn from other developers' experience: posts, postmortems, conference talks, conversations with colleagues. But that did not help me anyway for two reasons: first the amount of tasks required for launching and promoting a game is probably as huge and demanding as developing a small game (and remember I was doing this alone). And second, I sabotaged myself by avoiding thinking and planning things that I did not want to do. And even when I knew what to do, I procrastinated a lot.


I did not build enough awareness


After reading a lot about how important it is to build a community around your game, I failed to do so, because:
 

  •  I did not use the appropriate channels. Just blogging in your own website and twittering while nobody follows you is like shouting in an empty room. I did not use forums like tigsource for letting the community know about my game, and I published only one #screenshotsaturday. I do not think these guarantee success, but they help creating awareness.
  • During development somebody called Flip a “nice little game”, and I think he was right. But I think that also means that for an indie game, Flip is just not sexy enough. So even when I started using the regular indie channels, it did not attract a lot of attention.
  • I experimented later with adwords and facebook ads, but the former was not cost effective given the low price of my game, and the second should have been used before launch.
  • I did not have a proper website for the game until launch, so information was only in the official Perro Electrico blog, spread among different posts. And it looks horrible.
  • Lastly... how much awareness can you raise in 3 months if you are not a well known developer and your concept is not hot? I never fooled myself into thinking my game was hot, but I did not act consequently.


Why is it important to raise awareness? Because if you launch and nobody knows about your game, you start with no sales, nobody talking about your game, nobody helping you spread the word.


I lacked some basic promotional assets


Some examples:
 

  • I made a 2:30 minutes video that showed a simple gameplay session. My objective with the video was that players could see what the game was about, but it was not very attractive. I would not feel comfortable showing something that is not in the game, so a teaser trailer with techno music would feel to me like lying. A friend helped me make one after launch which at least included music and some video editing, while keeping the general vibe of the game, and its repercussion was much better.
  • Some ideas I had for promoting the game required making custom versions of the game with changes that were not trivial, and I could not find time to make them later.
  • A similar problem was that I lacked an easy way for android reviewers to access all the levels without having to purchase them. I could have planned this better.


I did use pressKit(), and I always had some screenshots and the (boring) gameplay video, but I could have created much more material if I had put more thought into it.


My PR was a shame


I sent a total of 8 emails to the press, 3 to Let's players, and submitted a PR in gamespress.com. Considering that, the response I got was amazing, given that I had a short and favorable review on Rock Paper Shotgun, two mentions in smaller sites, and a couple postings of the press release (including one in gamasutra).


And my press release could have used a lot of improvement, mainly because...

I lacked clear launch objectives


I was so focused on the development and polishing of the game, that I did not stop to think clearly about what a “launch” meant to me, or even what would I launch exactly. I hacked an official website the night before publishing the game in the Google store. I created an installer for the Windows version that same day and contacted the Humble Store people for getting a Widget. I actually started contacting online stores after launch. What was I launching? “Flip”, or just “Flip for Android”? Or maybe “Flip for Android and Windows”? I just did not stop to think about this during development.


I waited some days for the PR until I could verify that the Humble Widget for the Windows version was up and running. That was actually good, as then I could get covered in RPS, a PC only site, which drove most of my sales.


This lack of a clear launch objective permeated all promotional actions.


Summary: self sabotaged, spent little effort on planning launch and marketing.


Moral choices


As other developers have already mentioned in their postmortem, mobile monetization models can be a difficult choice. I personally think that mobile stores are in a very bad shape, full of blatant clones, games that use abusive F2P practices, and applications that benefit mostly the advertising networks and not so much the developers. This makes it difficult for games to stand out.


I did not want to include ads or use a freemium model (e.g., charging for hints on how to solve a puzzle), so I decided to implement a “try before you buy” model using in-app purchases. You download the mobile version of the game and play some levels, and if you like it, upgrade to “full”. You can also try the same free version online (using the Unity Webplayer Plugin).


Using this model was actually a big motivator when it came to designing a good gameplay flow, as my reasoning was that if players could not finish the free levels because of interface or usability issues, then I was preventing them from buying the full version. But if they stopped before that because they did not like the game, then it is ok for me that they don't buy it.


This was for me as much a business choice as a moral one. In the end I cannot know if an ad-sponsored game would have made me more money, specially such a specific niche game, but I prefer to have a clear conscience.


Final words


Was the game a success or failure? I am sure that I will not recover my costs, so commercially it is a failure. But I am very proud about both what I accomplished, and the things I learned. Career wise, it is probably a success.


The main lesson was one I already knew: working alone in a game is not the best, as you can overlook huge aspects (like the marketing and business side) and nobody else will be watching and reminding you of them. For my next game I'm already planning a collaboration, and adding all that I learned from Flip, I bet it will do much better.


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Comments


Wes Jurica
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I cringed multiple times reading this! So much of your talk regarding IAPs, marketing, promotion, advertising is how I feel and deal with it as well. "I got into this to make games, not to have to think like an advertising executive" sums up my feelings. If there was one hire that I'd most like to make it would be a community/social/promotional/marketing manager.

Donna Prior
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This. So hard.

Thomas Happ
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I am so, so grateful to have help in this area. I still try to do some myself. But it's exhausting. Even just keeping up with social media.

James Yee
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I wonder, there are companies/people who do freelance/for hire community/social/promotional/marketing services are they too expensive for individual devs? Not good at self promotion or too focused on larger clients?

Just wondering what kind of costs versus fees you could charge for such a service.

Frank Washburn
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I don't know the costs myself, but I do have a good friend who explicitly does this, freelancing PR and marketing for various indie companies.

Sjors Houkes
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Hey Sebastian, great read man. But I do think you're being tough on yourself. You thought of a lot of steps many developers never consider. Many people never stop to think about the launch, website, contacting press etc. The conclusion sounds right, and we learn a lot from your actions and writeup.

If you should ever feel like hiring someone to do it for you, consider giving me a call. :)

Sebastian Uribe
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Yes, I know I sound hard on myself, but that's because I know that I could have done better, had I paid more attention to what I needed to do.
If I have some budget for my next game, I'll consider your offer. ;)

Thomas Happ
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Dong Nguyen should have read this article before making Flappy Bird! He made way more money than ever wanted ;-)

Juha Kauppinen
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Many times you need pure luck. Lot of poor games get 1M+ downloads while better ones get almost none and get forgotten. More and more apps appear every day so the good app itself don't mean much anymore if nobody know about it. Publicity is the key to the success, I have learnt. Good luck with you apps :).

Daniel Parente
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Very nice read, and you have just hit the principle barreer of entry into the industry which is no more technological but promotianal. I am facing all the time the same problems that you are commenting, specifically the moral and ethical ones.
I am currently in the process of promoting my game Upside-Down Dimensions from hydra-interactive.com and i am trying to use the "right channels" but everything is so saturared with games that it is also very difficult to get traction in there. ( i recommend the read of of Jeff.Vogel @spiderwebsoft article about this).

regards

d.

David Canela
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thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences! I'm in the process of making a game by myself and the whole marketing thing is something I'm very aware of, yet it still has me quite concerned.

Apart from the sheer amount of work it simply takes to promote a game, I think it can help to think about some sort of narrative for the press and see if there are design elements of the game that maybe lend themselves more to press coverage that I can add or even build the game around. Of course that doesn't mean we should only make games that make for good marketing stories, but if you have something like that in your game, utilize it to the fullest!

Sebastian Uribe
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I completely agree: the press and the public (usually) want stories. It might be inside the game or outside, and I thought of several different angles for promoting the game that way, but in the end I was not pleased with any.

Andy Hatch
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Your post mortem is not unlike my own. When you make your first game it's all about getting the game done and marketing never enters the picture until you are done. That doesn't mean that at some point your game may be discovered though so don't give up hope.

Daniel Shumway
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Really nice reminder about the marketing aspects, I appreciate you being so open and honest and sharing what you've learned - I, and I'd guess other developers as well, need all of the reminders we can get that making games is a business, with all of the baggage that contains.

PR is stinking hard.

I'd agree with some of the other comments that you shouldn't necessarily feel bad about your experiences - you considered a lot and learned a lot from the sound of things, and like you said at the end, this will enable you to do even better in the future. In any case, thanks again for sharing.

David Lin
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I don't think your PR was really a shame though. Getting that amount of mentions and reviews from 8 sent mails isn't that bad.

Try getting only 1 or 2 replies from sending over 100 emails.

David Serrano
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When you decided to develop the game, was the primary goal to make money? Or was it to create the best game possible based on your standards? If it was the latter, it wasn't a mistake to exclusively focus on development and polishing. But based on your bio, it is safe to assume that you've probably worked with marketing and PR pro's in the past. And even if you haven't, you must know designers, programmers, artists, producers, etc... who have.

So if I can ask... why didn't you take the time to reach out to your professional contacts to ask for marketing, promotion and PR help or advice before publishing the game?

Sebastian Uribe
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I actually started making the game just to explore the mechanic, and at some point I realized that I was making it "for real". My PR and business experience is mostly focused on B2B in the software industry and academia in Argentina, which you can guess is not so useful in the global games market.
My main purpose was to create the game, but that does not prevent from trying to reach the biggest audience possible, of course.

ganesh kotian
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Thank you for Sharing the post

Peter Lowe
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Thanks for sharing,a great read. I think the problem is that indie developers with no budget forget that most commercial games spend as much on marketing as they do on development. If you can't do PR then team up with someone who can, or accept that your cool game might well get lost in the vastness of the mobile space at the moment.

ps. I agree with your monetisation model ethically and practically.

TC Weidner
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Thanks for sharing, I think what you wrote rings true for many if not all of us. Making a good game is only half the battle, promoting it and getting it found is the other half. Problem is this usually takes two different skill sets, and to be honest PR either takes a lot of money, a lot of luck, or a lot of networking.

With so many games being made and released weekly now, I am starting to equate making games to buying a lottery ticket. You make it and put it out there as best you can, and then hope to get lucky.

Peter Harries
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Great read, thanks for sharing!

Ish Said
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Great read, and an almost exact situation to my fitness app that I made for iOS/Android, also used Unity. I treat my costs like continuing education. Learned quite a bit along the way. Best of luck to you in the future!


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