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App Development and the Art of Plumbing
by Simon Tomlinson on 03/14/13 11:13:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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

 

This is the story of a one man Android game studio, and a renegade central heating system.

It all started around five years ago when a man, a younger man, was asked to do some work on a poker game. The man was an artificial intelligence specialist, and relished the opportunity. But his ideas never quite got into the published game, so like most game programmers, he started a personal project. Then around three years ago, that man published his ideas to the world, here on Gamasutra. Two more years passed, and the opportunity arose to build an App, and the man was pleased, but the plumbing wasn’t.

The first task was to decide on a platform. Android was the obvious choice due to low (virtually no) barrier to entry and the personal project already existed as Java code. The Android SDK is free and you already have the hardware – any half decent PC will do. The latest Android SDK now even comes with the Eclipse IDE included. The two are well integrated for development and debugging, not perfect, but for a grand total of $0 they are a great investment. Of course iOS was an option, but would have required the purchase of Apple hardware for development. The project wasn’t going to be low budget; it was going to be ‘no budget’. But the man was not naïve. He knew that it is much harder to make money on an Android project, because Android users simply do not like to pay. But he would take that risk.

Next was staffing. As well as the AI and Poker engine the man needed a graphics and UI programmer, sound, art, design, and later on, marketing. There was, quite literally, only one man for the job. Art work was going to be the hardest. The man could have asked one of his many artist friends for favours, but he asked himself, “would I be willing to provide my professional skills for free?” No of course not. So art would be in-house, in the back room in fact. But the project was low on art requirements and by carefully designing the UI and game flow the amount of art required could be kept to a minimum. That would also mean no complicated loading or compression would be required to deal with memory restraints.

Next was Design. Now the man was a professional. He had spent many years making games and knew it was important to have a solid outline of various parts of the project before development could begin. So the man produced a mission statement for the project – “An app designed to help learn basic and advanced skills for No Limits Texas Hold’Em poker and practice those skills in an environment most suited to do so” - or something like that. There would be a scripting system to allow different games to be set up (Scenarios) and also for lessons to be built where the game engine could be stepped through example of plays. The UI would be simple, and uncluttered. This would be a learning tool, so there was no need for a back story or secondary game objectives. Indeed these often obscure the poker play itself. The man had seen many other single player poker games where the objective of making a million as quickly as possible, or having to beat player X before progressing had led him to frustration and the habit of playing poker for quick gains in the sure knowledge he could just start again. In multiplayer social games with imaginary money the same is true, the game is distorted into a high rolling game by individual maniacs (a poker term for super aggressive and loose players, not a personal sleight). That is no way to improve your skills for the beautiful and highly tactical game of poker. True, a good poker player must learn to deal with maniacs as well as more sedate opponents, and the AI would feature specific playing styles, but the man would not set up a game that would encourage unrealistic play which, if you tried it in the wild with real money, you would become very poor, very quickly. No, this would be a simple app, it would just allow you to play as you should in real life, just Play Poker; hey – now there’s a good name. It was spring and there were flowers. The man was happy, and started to code. The plumbing was happy, and it was mostly on vacation.

Next - the development. Unlike iOS where the number of platforms is limited, Android has a huge range of mobile phone and tablet sizes to cover, with different screen densities, aspect ratios and API versions. But the man was not fazed; he had seen this before with J2ME. He could have used an engine like Marmalade which allows coding in one language but manages deployment to many platforms, but this costs money that the zero budget did not allow for. So the code would need to be entirely in-house, fortunately time was one thing the man had in abundance. Luckily Android has one big advantage over J2ME: even using the earliest API versions objects on the screen can be re-sized and freely rotated. Indeed even in API 1 and without using OpenGL you get access to a 2D transformation matrix. You can do a lot with that. So the code developed in layers: an application layer – containing the details of the UI layout, management of the poker engine and all the actual game content; and a core layer which contained all the common graphics, resource handling and an application stub. If the game ever did get ported to other platforms, the core layers would only need porting once, or at least not very often. The main substance of the core was a 2D scene graph to contain all drawable objects for the UI or in-game. In fact there would be multiple SGs, switched in and out depending on the game state. Much like a 3D game the SG would encompass matrix operations, transparency, draw depth and branch disabling so that objects could be grouped and treated together for animation as efficiently as possible. The spring turned to late summer, it was damp, but warm, and the plumbing remained undisturbed.

Next was testing. Now the man always built automated testing into his game and AI engines, so that was not a problem. Indeed that could be left alone to automatically optimise the AI using a learning algorithm. But the UI and general state flow all had to be tested manually. Now this was a problem. Thus far development had used the myriad of emulators available with the Android SDK. But it would be far too risky to release the app having never been used on a real device. So the ‘zero budget’ rule had to be broken. But the man reasoned that if the app works properly and at an acceptable frame rate on older low spec devices, and emulators proved all the permutations of screen size and density rendered properly, then that would be enough. It would have to be. So a used mobile phone was purchased, an old one, cheap. And a cheap tablet was purchased, but that did not work – it seems very cheap tablets like the Disgo do not actually allow debugging as most Android devices do. So a slightly more expensive HTC tablet replaced it, and that was good. It was autumn now, the dampness had got cooler, but the plumbing was still there, bubbling away.

Next was deployment. The one thing you have to pay for with Android is a one off fee of $25 to register as a developer using a gmail account. The app was packaged, using Proguard (which comes within the Android SDK) to obfuscate the code and protect it from those pesky pirates. The man could have included Google licensing for extra protection, but the internet forums said it wasn’t really worth it, and he wanted his app to be independent of any need to connect to the internet to play – a mobile app should be play anywhere, regardless of connection availability. The game, Play Poker, was then uploaded to Google Play and payment methods were set up. The app was published as a paid app for a measly few dollars. The man did need a bit more artwork now, for icons and promo images on Google Play and some screen shots, so they were done, in a day. It was winter now, and getting cold. The heating was on, but the water was not as hot as it should be.

And now – we are brought to marketing. The app languished. There was a Facebook page, but there was no big viral avalanche of interest. Facebook is like a closed central heating system. You have your friends and social network, but they mostly circulate within the same limited confines. To break out of your immediate circle you have to promote the page, and that is not free. The structure of the Google marketplace does not help. Your app is like one tiny drop amongst hundreds of thousands in the hot water tank, individually invisible to anyone browsing in. They say the cream rises to the top, but that is not the case. You could have the best app in the world, but if it has no visibility it will go nowhere, just sitting in the sludge at the bottom of the tank. In fact it is the hot water droplets that rise to the top – simple physics. But how do you make your droplet hot? The big developers heat it, with money, lots of money. And once it starts to rise a hot app will pick up momentum. The Google Play search engine is designed to favour apps which are popular and have lots of good feedback. Really it would be better to actively promote the apps at the bottom of the tank which show potential. But why would they when they can receive the majority of their profit form the superheated apps at the top? The rest of the cool droplets just make up the numbers in the battle with other distribution platforms for who has the most apps. But the man did not accept that argument. The whole premise of development was that there are in fact many apps with a few tens of thousands of downloads, and that would represent a healthy income for the one man.

The plumbing was making strange noises now. The hot water heater would shut down for no reason with error lights on the console. Now in the UK professional plumbers can be difficult to find, and especially so for small, difficult jobs. There are local guys who can do the easy stuff, but will they really guarantee success. And the expert plumbers charge hefty fees, and often just want to replace the whole system and give you an eye-watering bill. So what does every good man do – he ‘does it himself’. It turned out that it was just a build up of sludge preventing proper circulation, and draining down and using a magic cleaning fluid fixed the problem. And the man thought … this is very similar to marketing. To do a proper job would cost a fortune and effectively take the success of the poker app out of his hands, and while there are smaller marketing experts who will push the app for a small fee, will that cost actually produce results? What the man needed was a bit more circulation – get his little droplet to been seen at the surface now and again. But there is no magic fluid for Android apps.

And that’s where we are now. The man has drained down the system, re-evaluated the app based on feedback and upgraded it in some areas (mostly the art). There is now also a free version of Play Poker on the Google Play marketplace. This is a cut down version with adverts. Ads are easy to add – there is a built in API for Google Ads with the Android SDK. They can produce some revenue, but the returns are still small until the download numbers get very large. The Ads, along with restricted functionality are really there to help drive people to the paid app by providing a free taster of the game. Google users love free. There are also plans to publish on Amazon. This is also quite easy; there is an approval process, but the Kindle Fires are basically plain Android devices and you can add Kindle emulators within the Android SDK. Amazon users also don’t mind paying for their content. The man is also engaging in a promotional campaign: posting on Android forums and requesting reviews from magazines and web sites. It will be a long hard road though as this approach is now common knowledge and those sites must be inundated with requests. Indeed one review site actual states that they receive 50+ submissions per day and only review 10% of those. This may just be another large tank for the droplet to swim in.

So was the ‘zero budget’ option correct? Well it was for the plumbing. But for app development I’m not so sure. It may have been better to pay an artist and have a marketing budget, even if the programmer man worked for free. But if there was a budget of say $30,000, then the app would need to make two to three times the revenue to make a reasonable income. And is a few thousand dollars of marketing really going to achieve enough downloads? Would more and more marketing spend ever break even? The man would love to continue to make bigger and better Indie games, but he also needs to eat, and is asking the question is it really worth it? Of course the app could simply be not very good – and maybe that news would end the pain. The poker app has now become some sort of bizarre experiment in the realities of app publishing. We shall see how the plumbing holds up.


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Comments


Pascal Michaud
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Cool article my friend. I really enjoyed your writing style.

I think you have some interesting insights into how the app market works. I think, one thing that is probably making it hard for your app to break through though is that its one poker app among many hundred (or probably thousands) of poker apps out there. For your next app, you might want to find an idea that hasn't been redone so many times before.

Don't give up.

Cheers

Martin Edmaier
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Dont give up try also the samsung store its alot easier to get downloads ...

I think you should improve the game and add some gametypes like 7card stud or razz etc.
Because there not that much apps for different or older poker game types...

Stephen Richards
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As Pascal said, I think your problem was choosing a type of game for which the market is already very saturated, with both big brands and small. I searched for 'Play Poker' on google play and couldn't find it within the first three pages. So you're probably getting very few search listings, which are your primary means of discoverability as an indie developer.

I've also gone for the 'almost no budget' approach (I won't self-gratuitously include a link) but I did a thorough search of the google play store early on and realised I'd found a fairly unexplored niche. I don't expect my game to sell hugely when it releases but I'm hopeful it'll appear fairly high up in relevant search rankings and that might give it some longevity.

Simon Tomlinson
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Thanks for the comments - and a few points of follow up.

I did Poker as my first app because it was what I knew, and had a head start with, but I always knew it was a busy market. Other modes like 7 cards stud would be do-able - but would take quite a few months to do the rules and particularly AI, so unless I can get a baseline of interest I don't see the point.

The comment about the search is interesting. I had a discussion with Google support about this - if I searched for the exact name of my app it still did not come up on the first page. That is a huge hadndicap to new apps as it means even if my on the cheap rpomotion works, potentual users still cannot easily find my app. I should probably have chosen a more obscure name, but then of course you get into the territory of missing users because the name does not actually describe the product.

Anyway watch this space - I will probably do a follow up blog in a month or so on how the marketing turned out.

Martin Edmaier
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you could release it on samsung appstore my experience with downloads are better there;)

Simon Tomlinson
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I'd have to check - but are gambling sims allowed on Samsung store? I ask because I had to delete S.Korea from my selling list of countries on Google Play because I was informed it wasn't allowed.

Paul Gaze
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Seems like you are on a similar path to me. I released a card game on Android a couple of weeks ago. Sales so far aren't very good. I think the main problem is that people are going to have difficulties finding it. I called it Cards World but if you search for Cards World on Google Play you dont find it till the 5th page :(. I was hoping to stand out from the opposition by offering many different card games in the one app but if people don't even know it exists I'm not going to get very far.

Interested to see from your profile that you studied Physics at Manchester. I did that as well. Must be that great minds think alike.

Simon Tomlinson
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I've looked at a lot of other apps recently and quality is really not a measure of downloads. There is a whole bunch of card games from one company that just look like re-skins of each other - I guess on the basis each can have a different name to hit on the search.

BTW - I'm still around Macnhester if you fancy a beer?

Phil Maxey
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There's an important point to be made here. To the end consumer it doesn't matter if you are a lone developer, it doesn't matter if you have no money, it doesn't matter if you have dodgy plumbing, it doesn't matter if you can't afford a graphic artist. It doesn't matter if you can't afford any money to promote the game, what do they care?

They open their phone, they search they find a game that looks good to them, or they hear about a game from a friend or they see one advertised on a well known site etc. Who made it, or how it was made makes no difference to them.

I'm a lone developer and I'm in exactly the same boat as you, so I feel your pain :) I do, it's incredibly hard right now to be a developer and make a success if you are more or less starting from scratch in regards to presence on mobile. Make no bones about it you are competing with companies that have 100000k's of dollars to spend, and use to make games.

I know that sounds like there's no hope or no point trying, but each year there's always a number of lone developers or small teams that do succeed against the odds. That with perhaps a bit of luck create something that makes a real impact on the App stores and get the rewards that come with it.

You said you have time, which to a lot of developers is actually a commodity they don't have, so perhaps try researching niche area's of the app stores like someone above suggested? spend as much time looking into the business of making mobile games as actually coding the game.

Are you on Twitter?

Simon Tomlinson
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Nope - not on twitter, but that is an option for viral promotion. Of course the same arguement is true of Facebook - my circle of followers may be too small to get any real traction.

I also here what you say about the consumers don't care. However I think my conclusion is that small scale development is not viable for that reason, or rather it is indeed just a gamble that you may be the 1 in 100 that hits the Zeitgeist. I guess what I was naively hoping for was a slow burn moderate income from steady but unremarkable downloads, but I think the market (for small and large developers alike) is more like sink or swim, there is no middle ground. You spend enough on marketing (a non-trivial amount) then you do well, otherwise you do nothing.

I'm not really complaining about the ambivalence of consumers to my situation, but trying to raise the issue for other potential small developers that they really need to understand what they are getting into.

Phil Maxey
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@Simon,

I would say that Twitter is critically important these days to any developer lone or otherwise, simply because it's one of the only true viral channels left that you don't have to pay for. The only downside is that it takes time to build up followers.

It's not the same as Facebook, FB closed down most of it's viral channels some time ago. FB is about friends/relatives it's very hard to grow that circle of friends on FB, much easier to do on Twitter. Because of your article on here, I'm sure you could pick up a few hundred followers fairly quickly on Twitter.

And again those followers are not there to represent sales, they are there to act as influencers on their own followers for whatever game you might one day want to promote.

If you do get on Twitter, add me @biggerplay and I'll follow back.

Last year I put out 2 games on the iOS App store as a means to learn the process and also to see what the result would be of putting a reasonable quality game on there with not much advertising. And the result was nothing happened, basically no sales. I made the game free with ads, that gave me a few 1000 downloads but hardly any revenue.

My conclusion from my experience was that a) the games weren't good enough in certain area's and b) You need awareness of your game BEFORE you launch, can't stress that enough.

So my advice is to build awareness of your project as you are making it, blog about, tweet it, go on forums, ask questions, do as much of that for as long as you can. It's hard work, but it's as necessary as the actual coding. 2nd, find a decent graphic artist. Again this is difficult because most decent graphic artists will want a fair old amount for graphics, but if you look it is possible to find people who if they believe in what you are working on will work on a percentage basis.

If you want to discuss these issues further, feel free to email me at hello@biggerplay.com.

Simon Tomlinson
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So it looks like I should go on twitter - so I'll get on it. But what tack should I use - just link my games and talk about them? How do I encourage followers? So far I have gone on blogs and forums with little or no repsonse - they seem to be just as clogged with people looking for free PR as Google is with floundering apps.


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