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I am fed up with the whole mobile/tablet gaming market. I’ve worked hard for three years and released two games to almost every mobile device you can think of. Never again. From now on I am focusing all my development resources on the PC. Frankly, I should have started there to begin with.
So how did I reach this conclusion? I am going to share my story with you. Openly and honestly. Some of it is gut-wrenchingly honest. Maybe this vulnerability won’t paint me in the best light, but I’ll take that risk in the hope you can learn from it. (I have changed some people’s names to protect their identity.)
I love games. As an art form, as an expression, as an exploration of ideas and worlds only possible in the imagination. I got hooked at 6 years old on a TSR-80 in 1982. Ever since that moment all I have wanted to do is make games professionally.
Unfortunately, life threw me a bunch of curve balls instead.
I knew this would catch on!
I started my professional programming career in Toronto during the late '90s. I built websites and e-commerce sites with many tools, but most of my work was in C++. A good language to work in if you want to eventually make games (especially PC or console).
After being married for five years and working as a senior web developer for seven, my wife and I sat down to discuss what would be involved for me to make a game. I thought I had built up my programming and tech skillz enough on the side, maybe now was the right time to go all in. We prayed about it. I sent out my resume to various game studios around Toronto. No bites.
At the same time, one of my contacts from the e-commerce company I worked at left to become president of another company. He wanted a technology overhaul and he wanted me to build it. I wasn’t interested. I wanted to make games! But I wasn’t getting any traction in games. I thought about starting my own software company and taking this guy on as my first client. He agreed and we struck a six-figure deal that Friday. On Saturday I got two emails from Toronto area game developers interested in interviewing me for game contract work. Doh! I was already committed to this new business venture! So I got mad at God and the world for tricking me into starting a software company and taking me away from my dream. But I was wrong.
Like all new businesses, the software company struggled at the beginning to make ends meet. Agonizing over when to hire another programmer, stress over customers not paying their bills on time, squeezing through a payroll by cash advancing my mastercard. The professional services business is tough: regular expenses of staff and rent yet variable income based on client whims. Any money we made was reinvested into the company. Profits could be quickly eaten up if we didn’t close another project quickly enough. I worked 80-100hr weeks. I did everything from sales, project management, coding, marketing, accounting, to repairing the network, and even buying the plastic forks and knives we used at lunch. I didn’t get a paycheck for the first two years. My wife wasn’t impressed: I was never home AND didn’t bring home a paycheck (wives usually want one of two, but are happiest with both). But in the end it worked. We built a talented team, shipped some great projects, won some awards, made a name for ourselves in the enterprise mobile space in Canada. In a few months we will celebrate our 10-year anniversary.
Now if you have read any of the stories on game company startups, like Blizzard, Brøderbund, EA, or Ensemble, you’ll know (as I do now) that building a software company from scratch was precisely the right thing to learn before I went into making games as an independent studio.
So in 2011, with my software company running well, I stepped down as president to pursue my dream of making games. I would use the profits from the software company to fund my game development. Little did I know how much it would cost.
I should have paid more attention to Game Dev Story
In high school I met Tsung. Tsung was an international student from Taiwan studying in Toronto to learn the language. He loved video games and was an amazing talented artist. We became quick friends through Street Fighter II and SNES. Every game idea I had in high school, he made the pixel art for. He was best man at my wedding. When I joined the work force to make websites, he went to one of North America’s top schools for animation. He graduated and worked in TV shows and comic books while I was busy doing business software. But in 2011 I asked Tsung if he wanted to join me in making games. He absolutely did, and so we were able to pursue our high school dream together. We couldn’t have known 20 years prior we would be working together, but reality IS stranger than fiction. I founded Mirthwerx and Tsung became the first employee. Working with your friends can be great, but it also brings unknown pitfalls...
I put together a business plan for our first year of operation. We were going to make three titles in 2011. It is a 20 page business plan, but here are some high level numbers just between you and me:
- Employee wages, benefits $160,000
- Equipment $10,000
- Marketing/Promotion $20,000
- Misc $10,000
- Total: $200,000
- Cost per month: $16,667.
In 2010/2011 the world was enamored with iPhone, the mobile game industry was growing by leaps and bounds, no one I knew played a console machine anymore, and I just came off 10 years of business mobile software development. It was obvious what platform I should target: jump on the mobile rocket and ride that sucker to the top of the world. For context, it's just like how “Games as a Service” is all the rage nowadays.
We decided to make a simple game, something easy in scope, for our first one. We wanted something that was "art heavy and programmer lite" as Tsung had more time to dedicate to the project than I did. We decided to target teenage girls and make a delightful non-violent game called Catch the Monkey. Curious monkeys were getting into a farmer’s field and the player needed to tickle and distract them so the farmer could catch them and safely remove them.
I’m a PC guy, always have been, and I have 15 years of programming experience in Visual Studio C#/C++. I started working in XCode in ObjectiveC on a Mac and I HATED IT! If this was my dream coming true, it was a real nightmare. One of my friends found Marmalade which allowed you to program on a PC with C++ to make multi-platform (iOS, BlackBerry, Android) games. I tried it out and loved it. I missed all the enhancements of C# over C++, but I’d do anything to avoid working in ObjectiveC!
For brevity, I won’t go into all the details of how we made Catch the Monkey. I wrote a 4 part article series detailing the four major phases of the game for GameDev.net. It was well-received, being featured by the editors and read more than 30,000 times. The editors took the series and made it a permanent feature article under mobile game development. If you're new to mobile or any game development, I highly recommend it.
I posted our game progress on the Marmalade forums and was immediately contacted by Marmalade. They wanted to publish the game. They would take a percentage of revenue in return for taking care of all the marketing for the non-ios builds (Android, Blackberry, Kindle, Nook, Intel, etc.) They would leverage their contacts with the existing stores to get us featured. We also got premier (premium) support and free licenses. We talked to some other publishers before we decided to go with them. My dream was coming true!
I had a playable alpha of Catch the Monkey in six weeks. It took us another eleven months to complete. Why? Because the publisher wanted so many different versions of the game. It’s a 2D sprite-based game with thousands of frames of animation. When we were required to create a Blackberry Playbook version (if you actually remember what it was!) we didn't have to deal only with a different screen size, it was a totally different aspect ratio. And Video RAM is handled differently on the various operating systems. Then there was Kindle Fire, then Nook, then Android phone with its 14 different kinds of resolutions. Then there was Android’s new requirement that a game package can’t exceed 50 Mb, and ours was 70 Mb. Marmalade’s framework didn’t support the Google OBB file streaming, neither did Nook because they had their own store. So I had to write my own http file streaming processor that would work on all these various platforms. The one thing iOS has going for it is a very tightly controlled OS/Hardware environment. Once you leave that, it’s a total gong show! But all of the non-iOS builds is where Marmalade really shines, and so their motivation was to get Catch the Monkey on as many different devices as they could. And hey, they weren’t the ones late at night fighting with a C++ memory leak, so why not!
Catch the Monkey shipped in 8 different flavors to various mobile phones/tablets from Feb 2012 to August 2012. I was miserable. But did it sell? No!
In total, across all these platforms, we made around $7k. $200k and 12ish months of our lives for $7k. But at least I got to make games, right?!?
We made a lot of mistakes in Catch the Monkey, ones that weren’t easy to see at the time. Here are a few:
- Always chasing the next platform. Sure it didn’t sell on Kindle, but Nook, it’s gonna be huge!!!
- If it isn’t selling on one platform, don’t bother with the others. Maybe you have a fundamental flaw, maybe you aren’t marketing it right.
- Making it too good. Sounds silly, but as a self-funded indie developer there was no one to tell us to stop, or not to add that feature. You get caught in a loop of “if I add this feature it will be more awesome, and more awesome games sell”. We added too many features and created too much content.
- Catch the Monkey has about 6 hours of content, at a quality closer to Nintendo DS titles than what you typically see (at that time anyway) on iPhone.
- If I had of known I would make $7k, I would have only spent $5-20k making the game.
- So this is the key: determine what your reasonable expected revenue will be, and work backwards.
- Targeting the wrong audience. We were trying to go for teen girls, but what we created was more suited to teen ASIAN girls by being ultra cutesy. In North America and Europe, everyone who sees our graphics immediately thinks it is for kids. Yet our gameplay is for teen, so it is too hard for kids.
- It sounds so obvious, but EVERYTHING from the art style to the difficulty to the feature set must be set for the target audience.
After all the lost money and time I still think Catch the Monkey is a good game. It isn’t very fun at first, but it is very fun and challenging in the later levels. Problem is no one gets there :)
A very important lesson comes out of Catch the Monkey that I don’t want to skip over. At the beginning, why did I make it? Because I thought it would be easy. It wasn’t. It was ridiculously hard. It was harder than anything I had ever done before, and I’ve worked on some big software projects and founded three companies. And how much did I care about Catch the Monkey as an idea, as an expression of art? Not very much. We made what we thought would sell. It didn’t. From that perspective we failed. I don’t want to just do work, I want to do something meaningful to me and my team.
So out of the disappointment of Catch the Monkey, Tsung and I tried to decide what to do next. The software company was still doing well, we had financial support, so let’s try again. The birth of my first daughter would answer what would come next.
When she was born I saw all the baby books we had and they were all about animals, and fruit, and fire trucks, but nothing about technology. I love technology and I want my little girl to love it too. Where is the baby book for the IT mom or dad? Don’t see any. Let’s make it! We’ll call it A is for App!
So as I figured out how to deal with nipples, dirty bums, and holding something that can’t support the weight of its own head, we designed an interactive alphabet book of technology for little kids. This time it was personal: I wanted it. For me. For my daughter. This is a big and important difference over Catch the Monkey.
This time we set out to shrink our development budget. After fighting with screen resolutions and aspect ratios I determined to forget phones; from now on we are only doing tablet titles. The publisher pushed back and said I was shrinking my market, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to deal with fourteen different types of “Android Large” screen again.
Since Marmalade sold more copies of Catch the Monkey on various platforms than we did on iOS, I decided to try again with them. This time, with them getting all the publishing rights on all platforms. My hope was if they had a bigger pot, they would have more incentive to help push it in the marketplace.
We tried to get A is for App out for Christmas of 2012. I wanted to hit the new iPad mini that came out. We had a saleable stable iOS build in only 2 months and were ready to get it out. The publisher decided it was too rushed and there wouldn’t be time to get it noticed during Christmas, so we would release in January or early February. We agreed and put it down for a few weeks.
During that time we experimented with new technologies, and worked on a really cool fantasy-sim game prototype. I also made a funny video to advertise the game. I hoped people would share it, which means it could possibly go viral.
You tell me, is this funny?
Then in late January the publisher contacted us. They wanted some changes. They wanted to do a multi-platform deployment, and maybe an exclusive with one platform for a while. This was good news, I was excited.
Early 2013. Free-to-play and in-app purchases were all the rage. So I needed to change A is for App to have a certain portion free (we chose up to the letter I) and the rest is an in-app purchase unlock ON FIVE PLATFORMS. The multi-platform nightmare began; again. The SDK I was using didn’t even support the latest version of in app purchase on some of these platforms, and each one had to be coded differently with different authentication techniques. This began a multi-platform cycle of despair:
- Monday – get email from publisher of problems in QA test on some device or request for changes
- Tuesday – try to replicate issue
- Wednesday – confirm fixing the issue, or if I can’t reproduce it on all my devices, make a stab at it
- Thursday – ship new build to publisher
- Friday – pray to God this was the last time I’d have to make a new release
This cycle repeated, weekly, for 7 months. 3rd party features work differently on each platform, from in-app purchase, to Facebook integration, and other stuff. Nothing “Just works”. It was more frustrating than Catch the Monkey.
A is for App, on all platforms, was finally complete Fall of 2013. A year from when we first started it, and 9 months after we had a stable playable (store purchase-only) version. Our project cost went from $25k to $200k.
After making every single change the publisher requested, did A is for App sell? No! It sold worse than Catch the Monkey. I think (they haven’t said this) the reason is the publisher was frustrated with the project and got a bad taste in their mouth. At first they were excited to publish it, but after many months of thinking this build is the one, time to do the press releases and get it featured, only to have a new bug crop up on some obscure device, and delay everything, I think they lost interest. I don’t blame them.
My daughter (almost two now) loves A is for App. That was my goal. As uncapitalistic as it sounds, that is a worthy endeavor. I think a lot of dads spend a lot of time doing things their kids don’t like or appreciate. I’m glad mine does. Yet, while my little one is playing it and giggling it’s hard for me to look at it without remembering all that frustrating work. Maybe one day that will disappear. Maybe not.
In summer of 2013 the software company started having financial troubles. While I was busy doing all these releases for the publisher, Tsung was going full steam ahead on our next project: a revolutionary new kind of spelling game. He was making characters and backgrounds and all kinds of interesting stuff. I was excited to get on the project too.
On October 2013 the head of the software company booked a meeting with me to talk about the next year. I was interested to brainstorm with him about some new directions our software could go in.
It wasn’t that kind of meeting.
He proceeded to tell me that the software company was in trouble, there was no more money for Mirthwerx. He said a few more things, I saw his lips kept moving, but all I could hear was my heart beating.
After about 45 minutes, and some tears being shed, I tried to see what could be done. There was nothing to be done, the software company was in jeopardy and couldn’t sustain Mirthwerx. The dream was dead. And now I had to lay off my friend.
I went to his house and told him the news. He sat quietly and stared at the floor. He asked a few questions. I told him we could pay him until the end of the year (2 months) and then that was it. He needed to find a new job.
Tsung was in anguish. His livelihood was being taken away and he had a wife and three little girls to support. I didn’t say anything. There was nothing I could say.
Over the months I was consumed with things at the software company, and Tsung was to finish up certain art assets of the spelling game so I could continue the dev later. He didn’t. He spent all his time panicking and trying to find a job. I don’t blame him, I understand, but it still frustrates me. I'm out of money and yet I'm basically paying him full time to look for a job. We struck a deal that he would work the several hundred hours he owed me after he found a job.
About a week after his last day he stopped talking to me.
We got together one time for wings. He was still struggling, working freelance while looking for a job. I thought our time together went pretty well, but it was clear he was angry. At me, at God, at the world. I think seeing me reminded him of what once was.
A few months later he defriended me on Facebook.
Working with friends has its risks. The money lost isn’t important, lost relationships are. Most indies dive into their games with their friends thinking “this is gonna be awesome”. And it is, because game dev is hard and takes a LOT of time, so having your friend(s) right there through it is great. But what happens when it doesn’t work out? Few if any think this through at the start. Will bitterness over certain decisions set in? Will you fight over money? Will your friend’s wife see you as competition for time with her husband? What about creative disagreements? After all the discussion and attempt at buy in you can say to an employee “Well I’m the boss and I’m deciding we go this way”, but with a friend? That may go over like a lead balloon.
I had to return to working full-time at my software company. I took the lowest job in the company: programmer. I’ve been there for 6 months. I work coding web services in C#. I had more than enough time to reflect.
I spent hundreds of thousands on making high-quality mobile games in a booming market that went largely unnoticed. I spent years of my life making games, but never the games I actually wanted to make. Here are the important takeaways from my experience:
- People always say “Write what you love”. I didn’t. I wrote what I thought others would like. I wrote what I thought would sell. I’m poorer for it.
- I don’t like casual games. I don’t play them. They bore me. I think I made it to the 4th level on Angry Birds, and about 12 floors in "my" Tiny Tower. I love sophisticated war games with tons of menus. I love RPGs filled with stats. I love FPS like Far Cry and Battlefield. I love highly competitive RTS games like Starcraft II. In short, I love PC games. What the hell am I doing making games for a platform I don’t use myself? Write for what you love.
- Yesterday 304 apps were released in the App Store. I didn’t bother counting, but about half of them look to be games. 152 fresh new dreams went on sale. How many of those will hit the top 100? Probably 0. How many of those will be profitable? Probably 0. How many will cover their costs? Probably 0. But here is the real kicker: tomorrow, 152 NEW dreams will go on sale. Today's will be old and discarded, for you only make the new lists the day you launch. Apple boasts about hitting 1 million apps. That is about the worst number a developer could hear. It means 999,999 other people are competing with me for a customer’s attention and wallet.
- There are 100 winners and 999,900 losers in the App Store. Each month the media spend (banner ads, ad words, intercessionals, facebook ads, free apps) for attention keeps climbing. The trend isn’t headed down. The trend isn’t even for costs to stay the same. The trend is that the cost of customer acquisition keeps climbing, from $1 to $2 and change now, to soon $3 per install. Casual players don’t read review sites, or follow Facebook sites, or read developer blogs, or watch threads on Touch Arcade. They are casual! This isn’t an important part of their life!
- The average casual game app store player has NO brand loyalty. The casual player loves THAT GAME ONLY, for some reason they don’t care what else the developer has made. This is completely backwards from other businesses. Music: people follow an artist. Movies: people follow an actor or director. Cars: people follow a manufacturer if not a specific model. The casual player who likes FarmVille doesn’t care Zynga made something else, they like FarmVille. It is next to impossible to make a business in an environment of no brand loyalty. Every win of a customer requires you to re-win them on the next sale, as if they were a stranger. Look at how Zynga lost big on Draw Something. All those customers didn’t leave Draw Something to other Zynga games like they hoped, they just left to something new and shiny in the store. One of the 152 new daily dreams.
- The cost of making an app continues to increase. I remember when I first installed Flight Control on my new iPhone. I was thrilled. If that game came out now? No one would pay attention to it. Graphics are too simple, too basic. No multiplayer to rope in your friends, no in app purchase. The cost of being status quo with graphics keeps rising. But the selling price of games? Still $1. Even though costs have doubled to make a game, they still sell for $1. This is lunacy!
- Casual gamers don’t love games, they love distraction. Distract them from waiting, distract them from their surroundings, distract them from their lives. This is what they pay for if they can’t get it for free. And when it comes to distraction, quality doesn’t matter anymore. All that matters is fast in and fast out to kill the time. Well I’m not going to put my heart & soul into making something that could be just as easily replaced by reading celebrity gossip in Us Weekly.
If I asked you for $100,000 to invest in a business, and that business was going in competition with 1,000,000 existing other companies (domestic and international), and the cost of marketing is constantly increasing, and every customer we win 30% automatically goes to someone else, and when we win a customer we only get $0.70, and where someone who buys from us today is unlikely to ever buy from us again, and they don’t really want what we sell anyway, would you do it?
I won’t. Not again.
- There is a place where the cost of making games has dropped significantly.
- There is a place where customers have fierce loyalty and follow the creators every move.
- There is a place where the average game sells for $20 and they are happy to pay it.
- There is a place where customers regularly search out new games online.
- There is a place where you can get in front of your target audience for FREE through review scores.
- There is a place where customers pay above and beyond the asking price just to get art books and soundtracks.
It’s called Indie PC/Mac/Linux/Console game development. And the target audience calls themselves “gamers”.
- They wear game logos on their hats and t-shirts. Games are part of their lifestyle.
- They put in-development game art on their computer desktop and facebook profile.
- They share game development news throughout their social network.
- They have an unquenchable thirst for their favorite thing: new games!
The sad thing is I knew this all along. I knew this not because of a fancy degree or esoteric research, but because I am one of them. Yet somehow I got caught up in the euphoria of being invited by the cool kids to the mobile gaming party only to realize I was too late and didn’t fit in with that crowd anyway.
You may wonder if my story ends here. It doesn’t. See, just between you and me, I can’t help making games. I love doing it. It is the only thing that satisfies some artistic creative urge deep inside me. I enjoy playing Watch Dogs but there comes a point where I put the controller down and fire up Visual Studio and have more fun creating than consuming. Not everyone is afflicted this way, this is my cross to bear.
So while I worked at my software company programming I played around with Unity at night. I love Unity. I love how it is a readymade professionally designed game engine. I love I can program in my favorite language C#. I love the asset store where I can spend $100 and save $10,000 in time. I love how there is a growing vibrant community of developers to talk to.
As I worked away the winter of 2013 one thought kept reverberating in my soul: write what you know, write what you love.
I made various prototypes, a what-if zombie game, an epic war game, and then one day I was reading a favorite fantasy fiction book for the third time, but this time inspiration overcame me with such force I couldn’t run to my keyboard fast enough. In a panicked flurry I mind mapped all the ideas before I fell out of “the zone”. What I mapped out is the ultimate open world role playing game. The ultimate game I would like to play. The ultimate game I would like to make.
I love role playing games. I’m old school table top AD&D 2nd edition, D&D 3.5, D&D 4th, and Pathfinder. I find it far more enjoyable to make and run the adventures than to play. I won’t use premade campaigns or adventures, nope, I gotta do it all myself from the ground up! I enjoy Dragon Age and Skyrim, but I wanted to make something that would feel more like the tabletop. I love the SSI goldbox games of yesteryear and felt there was something good there that could be brought to the present.
So while working 40 hours a week at a not very interesting day job, I worked 30 hours a week on this proof of concept. About 3 months later I felt I had something. Something I and maybe other people would like. I showed it to a friend and he said “I have always wanted to play a game like this.” Those were the right words at the right moment.
That weekend I gathered up the family for a family meeting. It was my wife, my mom (who recently moved in with us), and my 12 month-old baby girl. One thing game developers may not appreciate is that, like any artist, when they pursue their passion it affects more than just them. I wanted this to be a whole family decision. Either we all agree to make this game, or I stop now. I explained to my family that I was at this important juncture where I think I’m onto something. But to really go to the next level it will take some investment, especially in art since I can’t even draw a stick. I estimated $12,000 - $20,000 to get a playable prototype of the game, then we can decide what to do next.
My wife said if this is what I really want to do, she’s with me on it. My mom seconded that. My baby chewed on some Duplo. It was unanimous!
I kept working at the game on evenings/weekends and loved every minute of it. The euphoria of creating is beyond words. It never felt like work. After 4, 6, 8 hours working on the game I would end with more energy than I had when I started. I hired the best contract fantasy artists I could find through deviant art to make some backgrounds and characters. A friend who is a musician heard about the game and said “I’ve been waiting for a project like this, I want in” and so agreed to do all sound and music for a generously low sum.
I knew that Tsung was struggling as a new freelancer, so I hired him to draw some stuff for the game. He was happy to get the work but he charged me a lot per hour, more than the other contract artists. I went with it anyway because I really just wanted to help him and his family out. While my heart was in the right place, I think God separated us from working together for a reason. The work went poorly. On one deliverable I asked for some changes and he threw it back at me saying I should have hired a more talented artist. I think the wounds of laying him off were too fresh, I think deep down he feels like a failure. I still think one day we may work together again, but not any time soon.
I named the game Archmage Rises. You play as a solitary mage who is born with incredible talent, probably the greatest the world has ever seen. You go to school but get kicked out for something that wasn't your fault. You now have to make your way in a totally open randomly-generated world. Will you fail, or will you live up to your potential and rise to become the greatest mage of all time?
This is my artistic baby!
I have assembled a distributed team of 9 to help in varying capacities to make Archmage Rises a reality. Each one is being paid, with me as lead designer with full creative control.
If this is the last game I make, if my hands get sawn off in some freak cycling accident and I can never type again, this will be my artistic contribution to the world. Even if no one else likes it, even if it sells only 1 copy to my mom, I am being authentic and writing what I know, writing what I love. I can do no more than this.
Getting the right tone of the art style is very important.
I learned a ton in mobile. I even broke some new ground with Marmalade and helped other mobile devs along the way. But I’m making Archmage Rises for PC. I’m going to sell it through Steam. This feels right, familiar like where I have always belonged. This feels like home.
But don’t follow my advice. I don’t need the competition. :-)
Here is a little teaser trailer I put together with the musician for Archmage Rises