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Why I've Said Goodbye to Mobile in Favor of PC
by Thomas Henshell on 08/07/14 03:02:00 pm   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.

 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. 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. 
     
  2. 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.
     
  3. 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. 
     
  4. 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!
     
  5. 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.
     
  6. 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!
     
  7. 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.

  1. There is a place where the cost of making games has dropped significantly.
  2. There is a place where customers have fierce loyalty and follow the creators every move.
  3. There is a place where the average game sells for $20 and they are happy to pay it.
  4. There is a place where customers regularly search out new games online.
  5. There is a place where you can get in front of your target audience for FREE through review scores.
  6. 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

Links:

SDG


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Comments


Kujel Selsuru
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Really good read!

Your concept thus far sounds really really cool and best of luck with it.

It's advice like this that kept me from fallowing the herd and going mobile. There was a time when I wanted to make games for mobile but after all the horror stories I decided to focus on windows/linux and later on Ouya as well cause I didn't want to have my dreams crushed too. Now I, like yourself, am working on a project I'm passionate about, something I wished existed when I was a kid. I plan to take my idea to kickstarter in time but first I need to finish the prototype and that is mybe 20% complete.

Thomas Henshell
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I'm glad you liked my story. And good luck Kujel, I look forward to what you create!

Todd Trann
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Awesome. Just awesome. Thanks for posting. I share a lot of similar background with you and have been met with as much frustration and failure in the mobile market, likely because also have not been making games that I would love to play myself.

Good luck, sounds like you're on the right track now.

Kyle Redd
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What a great, heartfelt story.

We don't often hear about how unsuccessful projects affect relationships between team members. It was tough to read about Tsung's reaction to the bad news, so I can only imagine what it must have been like to share it with him. I hope your relationship is reconciled sometime in the future.

I am excited to see how Archmage turns out, pretty much as soon as I read the words "SSI goldbox games." This one is definitely for me.

Thomas Henshell
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I think Tsung just needs some time. I hope a year from now this is all behind us. I think he's just got to get into a job he likes and then he can focus on the future instead of the past.

And if you like SSI Goldbox, then this one is for you! I loved the champion of krynn trilogy. I played it all the time. And thanks to dosbox, I still can! SSI goldbox is the best example I can give of what Archmage is going to play like. That, and sid meir's pirates.

Tomita Silvestru
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I think Tsung just needs some money. It's probably easier to get over your game failing when you can feed your family.

Adrian Mro
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Thank you for this article. It may very well change my life.

Thomas Henshell
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Hurray, that was the point! Can I ask how so?

Mitchell Turlington
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If it's like me, it dispelled any notion I had of going into mobile, and just sticking with PC.

I mean, like you said...I like PC anyway and it's a better market.

Luis Guimaraes
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We've done the same. We felt we were trying to sell meat to vegetarians. We even have a bunch of innovative touch control system prototypes for FPS, RTS and Fighting games, but won't be making them any time soon.

Benjamin McCallister
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"So this is the key: determine what your reasonable expected revenue will be, and work backwards."

This needs to be emboldened and plastered across every game design website.

Thomas Henshell
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Ha ha! I've thought about tatooing it on my forehead, but that would only help others. :-)

This time for Archmage I have researched, talked with industry people, all to figure out what a reasonable expectation for sales can be. It's isn't high. :-) But now as I spend on art & such I can know what is worth it and what isn't.

For catch the monkey specifically, my goal was to make it as good as I could. Well you can spend a lot that way. :-)

Benny Samuelsson
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You could tatoo it mirrored and use a mirror :)

Seriously though, great personal story and I believe in every advice in it. I just released my first mobile game and even though friends and fellow game developers seem to love it and think its a great game you're just dead after day one, even though you try all you can to get it out there.

I definitely took the right path doing it in my spare time so I only lost time, not money, and gained experience.

We did however make it at a reasonable scope. I'm proud of that since games usually fail because of feature creep. I'm about to port it to iOS though and hope it will do better. Not so sure anymore :)

David Canela
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I liked the article, but I seriously doubt it is in any reasonable way possible to calculate expected revenue, unless you're making something like a sequel to a succesful game or have great marketing capabilities. The variance in revenue in games is just far too high. Small games sometimes somehow resonate and make millions. Some big games tank. It happens across all genres and platforms.

Am I missing something or being too pessimistic? How do you calculate the reasonable expected revenue?

Thomas Henshell
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Hi David.

PLANS are useless. PLANNING is invaluable.

For estimating the potential (realistic?) revenue for my game I looked at similar type games. Meaning made with a similar sized team (1 to 2) with a similar amount of budget (less than 6 digits) and read up on how many they sold.

I then talked to my marketing company who has helped numerous clients market and sell their games. I asked him what he thought, in round numbers, many units he thinks I could sell. He told me the same number I had privately calculated.

So there is no certainty, but a researched educated guess is better than "From 0 to $10,000,000,000". You can't plan the latter, you can with the former.

David Canela
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Hi Thomas, thanks for your reply.
Imho it's good to have a plan as a point of orientation so you actually realize when things start to evolve differently.

I understand what you're saying and I m not suggesting to skip the educated guessing altogether. What I'm trying to say is that in games, the variance of financial success is not a couple hundred percent, but rather several orders of magnitude. So any numbers from other projects should be taken with a huge rock of salt, unless there is a very good reason why they can be expected to perform similarly. There is just too many factors that influence financial success of a single title...

I don't think we actually disagree, just wanted to stress this uncertainty :)

Thomas Henshell
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Gotcha, and totally agree.

Marvin Hawkins
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Thank you for the honest, unflinching look at the business! I had a couple of questions.

Like you I tried working with my friends. It didn't end well. We still talk, but we didn't finish the projects we tried so I don't really trust them professionally.

Would you ever work with friends again? What would you change?

Also, reading articles like these is tough for me. I love games, want to make games, and also want to own my business one day. Articles like this point out the stark reality. You at least had a stable business before making the leap. I'm currently employed.

What would you reccomend for someone in a similar position, is it better to focus on industry employment (which has risks) or still plow into your own business?

Would you attempt the indie life again?

Thomas Henshell
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Hi Marvin, thanks for the questions. I'm happy to help!

Would I work with friends again? No, not in the same way.
I hired my best friend full time. So whether we do well or not I gotta pay him. When I couldn't pay him, I was the one letting him down (in his mind). Contrast that with a contract job for piece work. First, I pay him for N images, and then there is no expectation of more work. If I do hire him for more, great. If not, well maybe he's ok with that or maybe he gets really upset.

I think it matters how close of a friend they are. I have another "friend" who i've only met twice and is helping me with the audio on Archmage. He's working contract and lives on the other side of the country. If we "break up" I haven't risked much because there isn't much of a relationship there (yet).

I put one of my most valuable relationships on the line when I made these games, and in hindsight I probably shouldn't have because it isn't something worth losing.

Second question:
I believe Industry employment is a huge benefit. The indies I see succeeding didn't go Highschool->Indie Games, they went Highschool->College->Industry->Indie Games. It helps to learn the business from the inside, make some connections, and then launch out. The other route is what I did: Make stuff, put it out there, and learn from what happens. I shouldn't have expected to succeed. Angry Birds was like their 50th game. So you need to keep doing it and releasing and going through the process.

I know a lot about entrepeneurship, I currently employ 19 people across 3 companies. But the games industry is quite different because it is an artistic/entertainment medium and that is probably why I struggled the most.

Third question:
Yes, I'm doing it again. I quit my full time job at the software company and I'm working full time on Archmage. I have a distributed team of 9 across the globe helping me with it. I'm having a great time working on it. I'm doing things VERY differently than before.

Marvin Hawkins
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Thanks for the response. I appreciate your candor.

One other comment. I did thesame thing with my previous project, i really enoy SHMUPs. I thought 'Gee a SHMUP is easy to make and I like it. This will be done quick: 4 years later and multiple configurations of teams later. The project is in Dropbox unfinished. Demoralized I moved on to something else I think better fit my passions. I like the genre, and would love to go back. That particular project became a slog.

My point: At least you have the ability to finish and evaluate your projects, and course correct. I'm hoping you find success in your new work!

Philipp Küderli
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For me this article sounds a bit too pessimistic. Of course your story is hard, I know it. I am in the same situation wanting to make the game which will sell. But even if there are millions of apps out there, its always the same, you see one screenshot of a game and you know if it sold 100 times or 100000 times. And thats the thing, if you have not this kind of game, you will not have any chance. To be honest, "Catch the Monkey" looks cute and very polished and professional. But it is what I call a typical mobile game. Perhaps I should not talk too much, since I have not yet had any success. But for me is clear, as long as a single screenshot does not have character, then its hard to have success.

The other thing is, saying "I should have started with PC games" is perhaps true. The creators of Angry Birds also would say why didn't we make Angry Birds the first game. But this is the experience you need. There are some programmers which have luck, like the Flappy Birds game. You can invest one day and you almost have the game mechanics. But this is luck. Then you have the big companies which make games which most likely will be successful because of the great graphics, the marketing etc. Then there are the game designers which think can also be successful, I hope to be one of these. You learn and learn and learn and try out and ask others what they like on your game and make another prototype and another one and another one and you wait so long until you can see your game every day and you know this is the game. I hope it will work some day for me.

edwin zeng
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I had a quick read through on article, and I had to say that the author (thomas) was doing the opposite for what mobile requires. The main problem is that he was making a game where all his effort was feasibly meant for the PC instead of mobile. Thats where the pessimism comes in, unfortunately.

Instead, he could have avoided his present situation if he makes "anti-video games" instead. For example, he could have significantly reduce his risk by doing it alone, thereby not incurring manpower costs (except for himself). That would also mean no fanciful art assets, no publisher, no expensive licensing etc.

And have many "anti-video game" apps instead of just one or a few. The more game-apps, the better the chances of scaling the advertisement monetisation as well.

But he mentions that he is not interested in the low quality games that is seen in the app stores. I happened to resolve this issue by investing in long periods of research & development first, essentially by thrashing away prototypes and features, one after another. The downside is obviously no early launches. The upside is that the quality and features improves significantly and the content production process matures. The first app will eventually be ready as the MVP. Then scale, make and launch a whole series of game-apps around that development process.

Benjamin Quintero
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My life has certainly had some similarities. There aren't many things worse in this business than losing your friends over it... Be thankful that it was only 1. Best of luck on your new game, I do hope it turns things around for you.

Andreas Ahlborn
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What a refreshing read! You practically confirmed all the suspicions and prejudices I had now for some years against the mobile hype.

When my company approached me if our games that are currently flash based and only available for PC/Mac could be ported over to mobile platforms, I evaluated the situation (this was 2 years ago) and quickly came to the decision that witha 2-man team we should stay away from mobile, because we would end up making worse games for target platforms that were already oversaturated at that point.

Apart from the resolution chaos there is this huge issue that if you don`t optimize for mobile right from the start, you will run into perfomrance issues, meaning your games that have no trouble running in any 5 year old PC at 60fps are very likely to end up as flip-books on a current high-end mobile device.

I come back every year to see if the mobile resolution/performance chaos is getting better, but It isn`t.

Often I have the feeling that there is a kind of brainwashing going around in our company. Everybody is screaming "Lets jump on the mobile train, let us make everything super-responsive html-fivey" but when I look at the numbers: 75% of our customers use Desktops. Yes the mobile segement is growing, but it is like 3-5% a year, and imo it has already plateaued out.

Best wishes for your Archmage-endevaour!

Thomas Henshell
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I fell for the hype. Good on you for not doing so!

Ivar van den Berg
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Really interesting article! It really educates about some of the less obvious pitfalls in game-design. I finnaly decided to sign up to Gamasutra just to let you know something about the trailer at the end gave me instant goosebumps. Thought it would be nice to let you know. Sign me up for the second copy!

Artur Moreira
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As I read each word of this article, I got filled with a really familiar feeling; A sense that I've been walking in your boots too, metaphorically.

Basically, I also went indie after losing my job, made games I didn't love for platforms I didn't like (mobile), just like you. Reached the same frustration, sense of failure in the end.

So, basically one month ago, I decided once and for all to ditch the mobile development and go head-first into the PC market. I discussed this decision with my friends and family and most people understood when I used the very same arguments I see in this article. Right now, I am wrapping up the mobile projects I had pending so the work isn't wasted, and in about a month I plan to start my PC saga. Hopefully I will find it as joyful as you are, since the previous line of work was really disapointing me greatly.

Thanks for this wonderful article, it was not only a great read, but also a huge confidence boost knowing that someone else walked the same steps and reached the same conclusions out of it. I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors!

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks, I really appreciated your comment! Good luck with your PC game too!

Ken Patterson
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Great article, having walked many miles in these same shoes, your insights are spot on.

Games as a business is a melding of craftsmanship, art, engineering, market research, extremely hard work, and a little magic.

The passion to indulge the creative passion sometimes overrides common sense. Every game is very exciting and enticing before it's launched, then consumers vote with their pocket books and reality comes crashing in.

Every developer should understand what their return on investment (ROI) is and not exceed it.

Kim Pallister
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Thank you for putting the heart-felt post-mortem out there for others to learn from. It takes guts to do that.

One point I noted: Other than mentioning $20k for marketing in your original budget, there's no mention of marketing anywhere in your piece. In such a crowded space, you need to do something to get your game noticed (other than throw it out on the app store). Was this the main problem, or did you do a bunch of things here you simply didn't detail in the article? I'm curious.

Thomas Henshell
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Great question Kim,

I love building stuff. I'm also a successful salesman having sold millions of dollars of custom software through my software company. But I am only good (or experienced) at the one-to-one sale. I don't know how to do the one-to-millions sale.

So this is why I sought out a publisher. I wanted to sure up my weakness with someone who was strong. To me, at the time, they looked like a great fit. They had 3 full time people dedicated to marketing games. They had relationships with all the storefronts (less so Apple), and so I was so happy THEY were going to take care of marketing and selling the game.

Except they didn't. Not really. Yes I got featured on the samsung app store, and Nook app store, and playbook app store, but they didn't spend any money pushing the game. All they did was put me into their referral link from some other apps.

So I flew out to their office in England (I'm in toronto) to meet with them after the first game and ask: Why didn't it sell?
I was fully prepared for them to say "Because your game stinks". If they said that, I would respect them for it because it at least answers why it didn't sell. I got an unexpected answer:
Because we didn't try very hard. We were under staffed, but we've corrected that, so the next one we will do more of a push.

That sounded pretty good, so I went ahead with them again.

So I had someone in charge of the marketing and they didn't do a very good job. Maybe they will say they didn't have a good product to market. It doesn't matter.

A second thing, and this is really important. I read in a game dev book:
Question "How do you know it's time to stop dev and ship the game?"
Answer "When can't work on it any more or you can't stand working on it anymore."

That pretty much describes it for me. The time that I'm most in love with my game? The beginning. The time that I like it the least? When I'm done and struggled through the last few bugs and I just want to move on to something else. When SHOULD you love your game the most and tell everyone about how wonderful it is? At the end when its for sale. So the act of making the game sucks the energy out of marketing the game. This is another reason to have someone else do the marketing who isn't the dev.

So this time around I have hired a PR firm: Novy PR. Proven experienced game marketers. It costs money. But why would I spend money on dev, art, sound, and NOT marketing? Sounds stupid, right? BTW, they were the ones who encouraged me to write this article.

I hope this answer was helpful.

Kim Pallister
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Yes, the answer was helpful, thanks.

I'm not a game developer, so take my comments with a grain of salt.

It's ok to work through a publisher and to hire a PR firm, just keep in mind what motivates each. The publisher wants sales like you do, but will be working with a lot of titles, and if they don't have a stake in development, then their best bet is to throw as much content out there as possible and then put effort behind the ones that get some traction. They are not DEPENDENT on your game succeeding like you are. Same goes for the PR firm, unless they are only getting paid based on results (my guess is no).

Ultimately, the responsibility to build demand for your game falls on you. There is a MASSIVE amount of choice out there. Only you have the must-do task of getting your game noticed. As crowded as the appstore is, the PC is going to be challenging too.

BTW, I recommend watching/reading Chris Hecker's Indie Game Summit talk from last year. Probably some good advice for you to take from it.
http://chrishecker.com/No_One_Knows_About_Your_Game

Alex Feng
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The experience sounds really familiar. Having founded a game studio with friends, and going mobile first then failing on 4 games already, it's exactly what I myself have experienced.

However, we are still developing mobile games.

What we realised is that mobile and pc platforms are 2 completely different businesses. A lot of things that apply in PC/Console gaming simply do not apply in mobile. Mobile gaming has always been a long-tail business, where most of the money is earned in the long term, as compared to PC/Console gaming where most of the money is earned during release of the game and falls off sharply after that. What this means for mobile is that we can't just stop working on the game once it's released. The game development process is only starting with the launch of the game, and not the end of the development process like PC/Console games.

And yes, premium games on mobile simply doesn't quite work. People are used to not pay for games on mobile. In-app purchase that functions similar to premium games where a single purchase unlocks the whole game doesn't quite work either. There has to be a business model where people who are willing to pay more could pay more, and cover up for the players who play for free, and in return, value must be provided to those players that pay.

All in all, the whole business model for mobile games and PC/Console games are very different. In terms of software business, the mobile gaming model is like the lean/scrum software development model nowadays rather than the waterfall model used mostly in enterprise software development.

In terms of expectations, mobile gaming business might turn out to be different from what you thought it is. Nevertheless, it's good to know you are doing something you are enjoying now and all the best for it!

Camilo Diaz
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Awesome Article.
I share a lot points with you and I have learnt new things with your experience.
Lately I have heard a lot of a thousands of schools teaching how to program videogames for portable devices and also teach them how to do the marketing, they make it look like the holy grail, but you have made a Lot of points that proves it is not.
People like you is that make me feel proud of being a gamer!

Thomas Henshell
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Awwww, that's nice. Thanks!

I have found many schools (lawyer, doctor, game dev) sell "the dream job" but really at the end just give you an education. They can't make any guarantees about success, but they pump it up to make it sound like a certainty.

Barn Cleave
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Barn Cleave
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Two thoughts reading this:

1) The press does disproportionally focus on the 'success' which is less than 1% on mobile. This gives the impression to new comers that everyone is successful, when in reality most are not.

2) If by PC you mean Steam, Steam is the new 'mobile market' with vast amount of content being added daily.

Thomas Henshell
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Yes I mean PC as in Steam.

And yes I'm sad that Steam, which once was the gold standard for pc gaming, is now on it's way to being another apple store.

Out of all my options, though, I choose to try PC Steam. It is what I as a gamer prefer. I like GoG, but I would RATHER buy my games on Steam.

Barn Cleave
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Then you may find you are repeating your pattern, but this time it's not platforms but stores.

Kyle Redd
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Even as Steam is being flooded by games now, there is no question that a quality game released on Steam has a massively greater chance of being financially successful than the same game would on any mobile store.

Particularly so with classic-style RPGs right now, as fans of the genre like me have been starved for content for so long. Even ports of 10-year old games like Trails in the Sky have sold well recently.

Jane Castle
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The thing is if Steam went back to the way it was before, then none of your games would have a chance of making it into their ecosystem. And you would be writing an article about those mean Valve people not letting you into their walled garden.

I am sorry that your games were not successful on mobile. But the videos I saw of your games were unremarkable and nothing stood out. No amount of marketing on mobile would have saved you.

Your next game needs to be orders of magnitude more polished than your current attempts if you wish to have any hope of success on Steam.

Thomas Henshell
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Agreed!

Florian Putz
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I really wish u all the best for your game and may it be successful! The only thing that makes me worry lately is that pc will have the same fate as the mobile platform. Steam grows more and more into an appstore where thousands of (low quality) games compete for visibility. Almost 200 titels get greenlit per month, most of them selling for less than 10$. Most of them will never make any profit. What makes u think it will be different this time? Imho the pc is already as flooded and crowded as mobile is.

Thomas Henshell
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I hear you Florian! And it's scaring me too! I just read a gamasutra article yesterday about this problem with Steam. I feel like I'm always late to the party: late to mobile, now late to steam!

As I identified in the article, the PC is a proven platform. It's been there for many years and will be there many years from now.

Within PC there are certain different fundementals:
Gamers research the game before they buy, mobile gamers don't
Gamers who like the kind of games I like are on PC, not mobile

I know my way around PC gaming more than I do mobile gaming. I had to learn about Touch Arcade being THE place for mobile, whereas I already knew about IGN and gamespot for PC. And I had to train myself to go to touch arcade, or 148apps, or whatever to read and learn, it wasn't automatic.

I don't expect to be a huge success on PC. I hope to cater to a small little niche of PC role playing gamers. For PC, I think I know how to reach those people. In mobile, I wouldn't know how to reach them.

Graham McIntyre
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From everything I have read about you Tom I don't think you are too late. You have the experience and skills to be able to do well (granted with Steam as it is you also need a bit of luck) but more importantly you have the drive. How you managed to raise a family work and find the time to make the games happen I don't know!

I have spent a few years developing an RPG and have an artist and writer/designer helping, but we are all doing this on top of full time jobs and sometimes I feel like I am the only one with enough drive

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks for your kind words. I got drive in spades. Probably more than brains sometimes. :-) I love the movie Rudy. :-)

You bring up a really good point: are you really working on a team of equals?

When I hired Tsung I was really excited (as he was too) and I saw it as us going on this adventure together. Of course, we both knew, I was the one taking the financial risk, but also would be reaping the rewards. So off we went.

But over the years, I was the one with all the new ideas. I was the one reading game design books by Schell, and Trefry, and others. I was looking for ways to improve our pipeline. He read Gamespot.
I went to events, I networked (which I dislike). I tried to find industry people I could ask questions of.
He read IGN.

Now that we aren't working together anymore I can see we weren't equal in our drive for making games. That is ok, companies need founders with vision and drive and not everyone has that, but when you only have two people I would have preferred 60/40 not 90/10 on all the "craft" improvement.

So I hear in your note you may be in the same situation. If you are, do something about it. Call people out on it, tell them how you feel, find a solution. Many times people are happy to sit back when they see someone else taking care of things. Let them know that isn't ok!

John Ardussi
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There is no question that PC games have a lot more upside potential. We have made more in Early Access and a Kickstarter campaign than you did for your whole game. I assume our after release numbers will be even better.

Thanks for this. I have been fighting this bumble bee swarming of ideas like mobile and additionally free-to-play as the no brainer ways to easily make money as a game developer. I did a free-to-play game when I worked for another company and the returns were similar to yours. Now I have something I can point to as evidence against mobile. I researched what games in our genre were making on mobile and the top game was $30k. And yet I get someone coming in to tell me that we need to do mobile about once a week still.

My advice to you is make the smallest game you can. Because it will take way longer than you think and most project fail by running out of money. We are in the 8th month of our 4 month project. Luckily we had enough to make it to release.

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks John for the encouragement.

I have learned about the "first 90%" and the "second 90%" of making games. Sorry to hear your second 90% is taking so long. Good luck getting it out!

Igor Queiroz
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Hi Thomas,

I'm the cofounder of a Brazilian blog (whosnerd.com) obviously about nerd stuff, and I have to say that this article was quite the best thing I've read in years. I'm far away from live your reality, but I do want to spread your word, and if this is not a problem, would you let me translate your article to Portuguese?

Thanks for your time and wish you the best luck!

Thomas Henshell
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Absolutely! If you think it would be good for your readers, go for it. Please have a link back to this gamasutra article.

And don't use Google Translate! :-)

Igor Queiroz
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Hi Thomas,

Finally I've ended the translation of your article. Here's the link for your concern: http://whosnerd.com/11370/dispositivos-moveis-pelo-pc/

I hope this could be useful for those who only know how to read in portuguese.

Thanks again and I hope you can make the game of your dreams.

Damien Foletto
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Excellent write-up. Good luck to you on Archmage Rises. Tackling an open ended CRPG is no small task. Even a linear CRPG is a daunting task! But I can relate that working on a CRPG is extremely rewarding, fun, engaging, and something I've been missing for quite a while now. Hmm, maybe it's time I dust off my old concepts and fiddle with Unity or Unreal 4... Thanks for the inspiration!

Thomas Henshell
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Do it!!!

The future is made by the fools who get off their seat and DO something.

No one ever changed the world playing it safe!

Daniel Smith
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Great article - much of it mirrors my own experiences (even made a kids app for my daughter!), and while i haven't abandoned mobile (yet!) what you wrote supports my own recent thoughts on shifting focus to other platforms.
Good luck with the new game!

Charlie Cleveland
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Killer read, man. Just amazing.

Your story resonates deeply with me, and our development of Natural Selection 1/2 (and my brief offshoot into casual, ugh). Our community has always been on fire for us, and have done everything that could to help us succeed. From pre-ordering, to QA, to programming, to running our booths at Gamescomm, the list goes on and on.

We would never have found this in a world of distraction, only in a world of love.

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks Charlie, this means a lot!

I own natural selection on Steam and I like it!

Ryan Creighton
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i've made a lot of similar mistakes (most notably hiring and firing a friend). Not to be a negative Nelly, but what happens when the bottom falls out of the PC market (as it's poised to do) and the majority of games start selling for $1 there as well?

Thomas Henshell
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Then I write another article on why i'm abandoning PC to pursue Console!
And when that bottoms out, then I write another article on why i'm abandoning Console for mobile!

Do you see how clever I am? I got press lined up for years! :-)

TC Weidner
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great read, I reminds me why I often remark, making a game these days is a lot like buying a lottery ticket. You cant win if you dont play, but the odds of winning big are LOOOOOOOOOng.
But as long as everyone focuses on the few winners and not the thousands of losers, people will keep believing :P
Best of luck with your new game.

Niko Ahonen
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Wow, this was hands down one of my top favourite articles on Gamasutra this year. Thanks for your gut wrenching honesty. I really wish you and Archmage Rises all the best, if you ever decide to start a crowdfunding campaign i'd be more than happy to back it!

Dave Hoskins
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Nice article!
Yeah, Unity removes a LOT of boiler-plate coding that can bog down creativity, especially the cross platform stuff. The sheer delight in compiling a Mac version on Windows and just running it on the Mac was great!

BUT, on PCs you have massive varying graphics card and CPU capabilities.

Do you do what Popcap did and aim for the average office computer with Windows XP? I believe that XP still has 40% of the market share for all computers. How much RAM can you expect you use?
Or do you go top end and impress people with lush graphics? Then of course you will end up with graphics driver updates needed for some machines, can you cope with that level of support and bug fixing updates? Some graphics driver bugs have no basis in logic, so do you buy the hardware yourself to test it?
Do you support controllers, and which ones? And you will still have the resolution and aspect ratio challenges to deal with. Etcetera.

Thomas Henshell
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You are absolutely right about the issues on variable hardware on PC. So I know it is funny to say I'm leaving mobile for PC because of platform disparity, as PC is the highest amount of disparity.

The iPad is a wonderful device. It has a set resolution, functions at the same speed for everyone. If all I had to do was build for the iPad I wouldn't have had many issues (I had some iOS facebook version issues but that was minor). When you step outside of apple? Total mess. And debugging these things live while they are running from a cross platform tool is NOT easy.

So the ability to debug easily on PC I accept. The variation in resolution and processor I accept. I've dealt with it my whole life as a player. None of it is a surprise.

Karl Schmidt
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Where did you get the 40% number from? XP accounts for less than 5% of Steam users: http://store.steampowered.com/hwsurvey (this has been trending downward heavily for the last few years)

Dave Hoskins
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Your quite right, I should have update my stats:-
http://www.netmarketshare.com/operating-system-market-share.aspx?
qprid=10&qpcustomd=0
24%
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usage_share_of_operating_systems

But my point was really, who are you aiming the game at? At what level of PC? For max sales, which state of the art should you aim for, hardcore gamers or casual 'family' PCs, like the mass of 2D retro games.

Thomas Henshell
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My game is 2d and will have low tech requirements.

Billy Bissette
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Unity can also hide some performance and compatibility issues. PC builds vary greatly, and Unity doesn't make it particularly clear just how much and what it needs for various functionality.

I've seen issues with Unity games on PCs that rely on integrated graphics. Not the standard expectation of performance issues, but in basic functionality being broken or missing. For example, I can think of at least two commercially released Unity-built PC games that did not (and may still not) display their GUIs when run on a PC using Intel HD graphics.

Thomas Henshell
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Stop scaring me!

Paul Tozour
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Good story, and an apt warning for indie devs. But I wish your teaser trailer showed some gameplay, or anything besides text.

Thomas Henshell
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I'm sorry. My UI and playable screens are so bad it was that or nothing.

I thought it conveyed the "tone" of the game. All I can promise is the next trailer WILL have gamplay!!!

Jeremy Alessi
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Glad you found yourself creatively. That and Unity ;) Also, the new game seems much more inspired, the others just didn't look interesting in the least. It's unfortunate, but seldom is value equal to cost when creating stuff.

Thomas Henshell
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Heheh, that's a good way to put it: more inspired.
Hurray Unity!

Kris Steele
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Great read. I especially liked your point about most mobile users just looking for a distraction, I think this is very spot on. I think you'll find PC and consoles have a higher percentage of people looking for games, though you'll still be fighting for their time. I would encourage you to try and bring something not of massive scale first though to feel out the platform and get those first mistakes out to prevent those first mistakes from being huge mistakes on something much larger.

I've also spent a lot of the last couple years porting games so I feel your pain there. It's really not fun nor creative work and very crushing when those efforts basically go for nothing.

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks Kris.

I plan to test my game with more of a community along the dev process, hopefully they will keep me in line and away from another blunder! ;-)

Rik Panero
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It seems like a lot of the problems stem from having a publisher making demands. They always say "the important thing is to finish" and with the publisher demanding changes, and with no apparent "drop dead" deadline or budget constraints (they assumed you would spend whatever it takes?), finishing seemed very difficult.

If there had been no publisher would it have been easier to get it out easier, assess success or failure, and move on from there in a much quicker and satisfying way?

Elisabeth Beinke-Schwartz
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Seems like this was a major issue in this case (esp them not marketing his game like they promised), but I'm confused as to why he went with the same publisher again after they failed him the first time?

Thomas Henshell
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A very astute question. Here's the answer:

I was disappointed with how Catch the Monkey's sales went. I analyzed it every way I could from market conditions, to I'm a sucky dev with a stupid game, to I have a terrible publisher and everything in between. Before I proceeded with the second title I flew out to England (from Toronto) and met with them FACE TO FACE.

I had only one question:
Why, do you think, Catch the Monkey didn't sell?

I was prepared for ANY answer. But I wanted one that would truly account for the results we saw.

They gave me an answer I wasn't prepared for: We didn't try very hard because we were understaffed.

They then told me about the new hires they made, how they really love our work, and how the next title they will do better, etc.

I believed them. It at least all sounded reasonable.

Thomas Henshell
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You are right, and the article is written with hindsight.

At the time I thought they were doing me a big favor by doing marketing and getting exposure. I wanted to be a good partner to them (like I am with my business software clients). So I trusted them and did what they told me. I didn't do EVERYTHING they asked, but most of it.

But in hindsight I had all the risk and they had zero. I should have listened less to them.

The constantly moving target was demoralizing for sure.

Timothy Tryzbiak
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Wow! Incredible article.

I thought I was reading my own story... they are so similar. When I left the company I helped start to work on games, I thought any game would do. In fact, while getting my Master's in Interactive Entertainment, they told us "You're not making games for yourself." Unfortunately, I believed it.

Two years later, we had a Facebook game, a mobile game, an empty bank account, and unfortunately some broken relationships. In truth, I felt like I let everyone down. Funny thing is (as you said) I was chasing after mobile games that I didn't even care to play.

Six months ago my wife and I sat down and I told her I wanted to create the stories I wanted. Like yours, all she said was "Do it!". Now, using Unity, I'm building game tools that have sold more than any game I've created and I'm actually building the game I want to play with stories that I want to tell.

Good luck to you and know you're not alone!

Thomas Henshell
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Awesome, you go brother!

What's yer tool? I'll check it out, cuz if it is to help tell stories then I probably need it! :-)

Timothy Tryzbiak
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Haha... Here's one that's that's currently being featured by Unity:
https://www.assetstore.unity3d.com/en/#!/content/13768

Focusing on the core functionality right now. Our game is an action-adventure (think Tomb Raider, Last of Us, etc). Story tools will come soon.

Brandon Sheffield
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I have a couple things to say about this - if you love games, and making them, why did you spend three years focusing on things you didn't like? make sure you don't repeat that mistake again with your PC work. If you're not making something you want to play, you're doing it for the money, and at that point you may as well be making business software (not that there's anything wrong with that).

I also would be careful of saying that god separated you from your artist. That absolves you of the responsibility as lead of having hired a person to make a game you didn't want to make, in a market that was, by all public accounts, not sustainable for casual games without huge budgets. And with untried publishers, to boot. And you didn't want to make casual games! It's clear you're angry with him, but if you're going to say that god had designs for all of this, it's equally possible to read from this account that god didn't want you to make games, either. Take responsibility for your own decisions, don't try to pass them off on a higher power, if you want to succeed going forward.

Thomas Henshell
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That is a good point: games you don't love is like making business software. And business software is easier!

As for taking responsibility, I do. Buck stops here.

Leon T
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Great story. I always find it interesting when everyone chases the same market like a lot of indies are doing with mobile. After reading how much games like flappy bird make a day I can understand the pull to go in that direction.

I was an invester before I started to work on my game and I still mainly follow the advice that if everyone is running towards something approach it cautiously and if everyone is running away from something it's about time to jump in. The indie console market is ripe, PC is still fresh, and mobile going stale.

Thomas Henshell
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Great advice, I like the way you put it! :-)

peter lacalamita
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This was an excellent read. Thank You for sharing. Go forward and do not look back.

Thomas Henshell
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Aye aye captain!

charles mcdowell
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This was a very educational and inspirational article, and I like the honesty. Still it's kind of daunting and depressing that someone with an amazing background like yours having such a hard time. When I here about people having 15 years of programming experience in C++, professional artist friends and prior successful business having a hard time making an indie game my thoughts are , " holy crap it's going to take foreveeer to achieve any of that." Oh well I won't give up on making an awesome virtual reality game for the next gen even though i have to first obtain all the knowledge and experience to do so. I may be impatient but like you I won't give up . Thanks Thomas!

Gautam Narain
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I have seen mobile development only for some time from a business stand point when I was doing stuff on my own like you are.

This is what I can say - its not enjoyable. It feels like some e-commerce website is being written where every objective is to ensure we can get some money out of players. So in comes IAP, Ads etc etc which may/may not money but takes up considerable space and cost. It takes up cost because it takes up areas you could use for having some nifty feature. It takes up cost because you get caught in various feature development around and development costs around it which was never really a part of your game. It was shoehorned in there in the last minute. This also adds in to your time lime and you get delayed because you wanted to ensure you leech the players to pay money.

In mobile development what I see missing is there never is can we give something good to the players. Maybe that works for some people and probably for mobile businesses. Or maybe mobile users/payers just expect such apps. But in the long run it removes the fun in game development.

Yes on PC there are technical issues that crop up like driver not supporting something, issues of making sure of sales etc etc (which is true even in Mobiles) but you get rid of the 80% of noise you hear or need to support to feel safe enough to ensure you will make some money which again you may not. Secondly I don't know of any PC games who will be so easily willing to let ads/in app purchases etc get in the way of their game playing fun. The backlash would probably be pretty hard.

Lastly I have told this to every indie developer I have met - you are responsible for your sales. Get those sales, get those fans, they will buy again and again from you. Fans are your best salesmen and your best critic. For that you have to reach out to them. Other publishers will have hundred of games they have to sell. They may have the best interests at heart but the time they give to each will be divided. Eventually it is you who has to make that sale for yourself.

Thomas Henshell
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I totally agree!

I was asked by the publisher if we could shoehorn in ads into one of our games. The answer was no. At least I said no to the publisher on something! :-)

And you are right, the PC customer is more discerning. I think there is a drive to try and get more casual players onto PC but I just can't see them closing down facebook to fire up steam.

Ivan Moreira
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great article. hope you got new emails on your list (mine is there now, anyways). And remember: PC, right now (mostly Steam anyways) is having a race to the bottom when you are talking about indie games.

Word of advice when you are ready to release (you probably know most of it, since you said you are a gamer), since every little bit helps:
http://www.polygon.com/
https://twitter.com/freekeyfridays (not huge, but it helps)
https://www.humblebundle.com/store
http://www.gog.com/
https://twitter.com/indiegameaday
https://twitter.com/indiegamescom
https://twitter.com/indiegames
https://twitter.com/gameinformer
https://twitter.com/Indie_Haven
http://store.indiegala.com/
http://kotaku.com (i personally dislike kotaku, but a lot of ppl read it)
http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/
http://www.bundlestars.com/store/
http://www.desura.com/
http://www.indieroyale.com/
https://groupees.com/
http://www.greenmangaming.com/
http://www.pcgamer.com/
https://www.playfire.com/

if it was an adventure game, i would add http://www.adventuregamers.com/

Something you might wanna try, too, is reach out to some webcomic owners and see if you can add your game on their adds. Maybe one of these:
http://blindferret.com/ (from time to time they make a huge wallpaper banner thing for a game)
http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/comic.php
http://www.cad-comic.com/
http://www.penny-arcade.com/
http://www.erfworld.com/
http://www.goblinscomic.com/ (this one is maybe dead...maybe the author will come back, no one knows)

Oh, and maybe try to make an AMA on Reddit. Or, maybe, use this article here in a post on steam reddit (http://www.reddit.com/r/Steam/new/) when you are near your release. It will probably be viewed by most of the more avid gamers (or the ones with more games anyway).


Anyway, good luck.

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks, that was helpful for not just me but probably many others.

And thanks for signing up to the newsletter!

Alex Schwartz
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Thomas, your article was great. I'm a guy that has hopes of making it into the industry. Reading this article, it cements my thoughts on how I want to go about my career when it finally gets started. I want to work for the right company, doing what I want to do, not just a job to get into the industry and tell myself I'm making games for a living now. Not my thought process. I have played so many apps on my phone but I can't recall any of them but a select few by name. Angry Birds, Ski Safari and Jet Pack by Halfbrick are the only three I can think of off the top of my head. And I play them all in spurts. Plants vs Zombies is the only one that has an end that I've finished. Angry Birds, I get three stars for the new batch of levels then wait two or so years when I have that craving again. I want a job, but I want the right job. Getting the first one will be hard, but I've been told once I'm in, it gets easier due to the experience on my resume. I'll keep an eye out for Archmage Rises, and also *cough cough* I'm an environment artist *cough cough*....sorry must be picking up a cold. XD Good luck to you Thomas.

Henry Banks
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Amen brother!

You got one more follower for Archemage Rises, BTW. That game sounds awesome.

neil sauvageau
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Awesome words shared in an inspiring and honest way. So many points that I share your view on and there are some cool comments to encourage you on too! Looking forward to the game very much as well!

Johan Glysing
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Great read and good luck with your next game!

David Lin
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Easily one of the best articles I have come across on Gamasutra.

I can really identify with you as I have also spent close to 3 years making a small RPG and some casual games for mobile.

While it wasn't totally financially rewarding, making the RPG was the most fun I have had so far (albeit spending the most time on it)

And when I started making casual games, let's just say that sometimes I don't feel the love for it. The only time I did was when I made YYYYY (which just released yesterday!) as it is really a materialization of my imagination.

In other words, I am also thinking of making my next game primarily for PC/Mac and maybe Linux ~

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks David for the kind words.

Don't come to PC, I want to be the only one there! :-)

Good luck with your game. I am downloading YYYYY right now. Congrats on getting it out! The second 90% is the hardest!!!

Celso Riva
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Nice story. I think your main mistake was to go with the "huge game" immediately, spending a crazy amount of money on the first game and also going with publishers that many times are as much clueless as you about what sells or not. I made several games, but I always do a SMALL game first to test the waters. If the small game sells, then I do another similar one bug bigger. Less risks :)
The mobile market sucks. I still do ports of my games but are just pocket money/side income compared to PC.

W DESKTOP GAMERS!!! :D

Thomas Henshell
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Ya, I think you are right about the publisher. I thought they had LOTS more expertise than me, but maybe it really wasn't much more than me. And I care a WHOLE lot more than they did about my success.

As for small games first? Yes.
As I wrote, the temptation for the true independent is "more awesome will mean more sales, RIGHT?" so we just kept making it more and more awesome. I didn't know. I was still approaching it from a business software mindset of more features = more market viability.

Nigel Spencer
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I came from a background in the 80s making C64 games in less than 64KB written in assembly code. I guess that and Atari was the first casual gaming platform. It's interesting how things are progressing in today's market.

sean lindskog
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The Radio Shack TRS80 (pictured in the main article) had 16KB memory. I once ran out of memory creating a (small) text adventure game.

Computers seem to have gotten a little better since then. ;)

Thomas Henshell
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ALL HAIL THE C64!

I always wished I had one, we went the tandy route with the Color Computer 1, 2, 3. It even took cartridges. :-)

My favorite c64 game has to be ghostbusters. With all those epyx sports games a close second.

Stefano Linguerri
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Thank you for sharing your experience. An heartfelt post mortem(s).

Good luck with your new project.

Thomas Doll
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Since i have happened to be a silent reader on Gamasutra for quite some time just because i am really passionate about games and the game industry (i think i dare to say that i fit your description of the PC Gamer). Most of the time i love to figure out how to play a game to get good at it. I never signed up on Gamasutra but this article really brought me to do it.

Especially your discription of the mobile game consumer and the PC Gamer nailed it, IMO.
I never reflected on this topic much, even less about the mindsets a mobile game consumer in comparison to a PC Gamer could have. But the more i read, the more you got my head nodding.

Overall a really good read. I wish you the best for Archmage Rises and that, first and foremost, it fulfilles your own dreams!

PS: Sorry for my grammar. Errors probably happened. ;)

Wes Jurica
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Very interesting story! Thanks for sharing.

It's too bad you gave up on mobile given your hardcore tastes. The market could use more! Our semi-hardcore racing game did quite well despite it being pretty niche. We tailored the hardcore ideas to mobile play and people responded. Also, we didn't make the mistake you had to learn from. We made the game we wanted to play.

I should add that I am impressed that anyone can develop a game that doesn't suit their gaming tastes. That takes a kind of motivation that I just don't have. Kudos on that. Just watch out on your upcoming game though, I spend way too much time playing our games when I should be coding.

Thomas Henshell
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Ha ha! Good advice Wes! I'm glad your core game succeeded.
I wonder, if you love the game you are making, do you still love it late in the dev cycle, when you are close to releasing and just trying to get it out the door?

Wes Jurica
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No! At that point it is the worst game ever made and I'm a failure at everything. The last month and a half was really tough. I was so low that I couldn't even enjoy the success we were having. Depression sucks. I think that was a valuable experience to have and the next game should take far less of a toll on me.

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks Wes. I had that experience myself and I've heard about this before too. Part of my hoped if you love the game then that love proceeds allllll the way through. Thanks for giving me a heads up that if I start to hate it at the end, that's normal. :-)

Rick Gush
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Howdy Thomas,

Ha! I really liked the clarity of your article. I'm also sad for you that your dev experiences so far have not been remunerative. I'm a writer, done some AAA PC stuff, and I'd be happy to write for Archmage Rises for free if that might help you.

I've been working in the industry for 23 years now, and I've seen a depressing number of cases very similar to yours, including my own failed studio. I also don't think it matters at all if you are making a game you love or one that you think the market wants. The statistics are equally depressing, but it hurts even more when your loved one is rejected.

I think honestly, as much fun as it isn't to say so, that the reason you games didn't sell was clearly twofold:
1. The games aren't that good really. Very competent, but not emotionally exciting, and certainly nothing to stand apart from the app store horde.
2. The marketing was an afterthought, not the main driving thought.

I think the answer Marmalade gave you as to why CTM didn't sell was a fib, and the real reason is that that they really don't know what to do. A miner who happens to stumble on a pile of nuggets in the river is not instantly an expert on mining.

What we are dealing with here is an artform in itself; figuring out what the ever-changing market might find amusing. The most dangerous thing I've seen in my years has been the assumption that there was certainly a market for a new version of a general game genre that already exists.

Art is dangerous because it's like what we do in our diapers, (Mommy, look what I made!) in that we become fascinated by our own creations and convinced that they are wonderful, regardless of the outside public's opinion. I won't bore you with a litany of the gruesome things I've witnessed, but I've seen millions and millions thrown at projects that were doomed from the start and I've lost dear friends in the process, and this is the case with the vast majority of all games developed. Game development is a neurosis similar to screenwriting. There's a gazillion more wanna-be screenwriters than there are successful screenwriters, but the lure of making games and or screenwriting is so freakingly seductive that many hundreds of thousands of people every year spend their nest egg either on making games or writing screenplays without ever seeing a financial return. Just like the gold rush in California, there are now more people getting rich selling supplies to would-be screenwriters than there are successful screenwriters, and the same is true in the games industry. The definition of a neurosis is that your own behavior is unknown to you but easily apparent to others. For the vast majority of game devs and screenwriters, it is obvious to outsiders that their projects will fail.

The unfortunate thing is that I'm pretty sure your Archmage game will have a similar fate, unless you really focus on building up a huge audience way before the game ever ships. The promotion of the game is more important than the game. Yes, the game has to be of reasonable quality, but reasonable quality itself alone is good only for an ignomius death.

So, a good game budget should spend at least half of the funding on marketing, a quarter on development costs, and a quarter for reserves. A good game dev project should ask first how, why and what could be promoted, and then work backwards to arrive at the definition of the software, of course taking budget into account.

Personally I think there's opportunity galore both on PC and mobile, and the future is good for some developers. I think the most successful new developers will take a hard look at what gameplay could be and come up with fun new ideas. The developers who look at who is making money now and try to emulate their success will mostly fail. It's been happening like that for decades. I got lucky years ago and made some adventure games that did really well, but not superstar, and in the twenty years since the first game's release I've been in touch with several hundred developers who wanted to make point and click adventures and spent a ton of cash and modeled their games after the bloom of adventures in the early nineties. Every single one of them failed, even though many were even better made than our games. Same goes for all the genres. Failure comes inevitably for the copyistas. The few salmon that do make it up the river to spawn are the charmed exceptions, and their tail fins were just a little bit stronger and their positioning in the river more fortunate and timely.

I think the secret gets back to the Mommy look what I made theory. The gameplay experiences that regularly attract the masses have a large Mommy, look what I did quotient. I think it's most important to give users something new to do, rather than just a game to win, so good games are really tools, masquerading as games. Most developers get so caught up in construction of the win-lose situation that they forget about the real responsibility of the game, and that is to be fun, and that means Mommy, look what I did.

My brutally honest feeling is that failed games are most often designed by programmers or
artists. As a long time game designer who has been making successful games since before there were computers, I'm a bit offended that so many people think they can do my job as well or even better than me, despite great evidence to the contrary. Game design is really a very rare skill, but everybody in the world thinks their own thoughts on game design are perfectly reasonable, sort of in the same way that everybody thinks they personally are a very good driver. But it's not true, and most people are not exceptionally good drivers, but are medium good drivers, or worse.

You seem pretty clever, even if you did fall into the trap of developing games. I'd love to be able to help you. I'll be delighted to write all your Archmage text, for free, just because I like doing that sort of stuff. But what would be cooler is if you wanted to chat a bit with me about promotion, and what fun new-age guerrilla antics could be manifested, and then design some low dev-cost games to take advantage of that promotion.

Thanks for your patience in reading, and best of luck with your game,
-Rick Gush

rickgush@gmail.com

TC Weidner
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its kinda sad but true, in today's age it's more about promotion,merchandising and marketing than about product. Terrible games, movies, foods, and other products continue to make money , not on their merit but on their marketing campaigns.

Its sad, but making a better mouse trap no longer means the world will beat a path to your door.

Thomas Henshell
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Great wisdom from someone who's slogged through more of the game industry terrain than I have.

Thank you for sharing, I like how people smarter than me are commenting and making this whole article thread better than it initially was. I concur with all your points.

You make a great point on game design with a perfect illustration of driving. Really hit home. I do (secretly) think I can be a great game designer, but how much time do I spend DESIGNING as opposed to programming? Well I learned how to program so I would have something to Design! Yet I spend 90% of my time coding and 10% (at best) designing. It's like thinking I can be better at golf playing once a month than a PGA tour guy. Even me on my best day wouldn't beat him on his worse because he has so much more experience.

I will be contacting you shortly for all that you have offered.

Austin Kucera
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God bless and let us know when the kickstarter starts!

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks. But right now I feel doing a Kickstarter is following the herd. Too late to enter the fray, the first movers got all the advantages.

There is a 1% chance of me doing a kickstarter. A much higher chance of me doing something more creative.

Brian Buchner
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Wow, this really hit home. Great article!

And if your game has the most remote similarity to the forgotten Goldbox game "Order of the Griffon" for TG16, which it sounds like it does, I'm in! Either way, best wishes to you.

Thomas Henshell
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I haven't played Order of the Griffon, and did you just reference Turbo Grafix 16?! +10 for loving an obscure old system!

I played tons of Champions of Krynn back when it was new (91,92). In replaying the game I noticed many things I loved about those goldbox games that I believe will work today. Gotta take the good and leave the bad. I also have way new ideas on game mechanics based on my experience with many tabletop rpg systems.

So while my game isn't nostalgic per se, it is a bit of a love tribute to the goldbox games.

Minh Le
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Awesome article man. Your experience is something I could really relate to. It's great to see someone with the courage to chase his dreams / fail / and have the humility to share it with others. Thank for sharing your story and best of luck chasing your dream..

Simon Andras
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This Gamasutra article was awesome! (I only registered to comment on this article.) You made some really good points.

As a startup business owner I can more than relate.

I had 3 employees, one old friend and the other two sort of became my friend through working hard together for 6 months.

However, - as is often the case with startups - things didn't work out as great as we hoped.

I had to let all three of them go.


At least the company survived, but man was it an emotional rollercoaster ride (an extreme one).


Now 6 months passed and things are looking up. I survived.

But I'm just really afraid to hire anyone, ever, again.

It left a mark.

Thomas Henshell
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Wow, I hear you man.

I think I have the same hesitation. I've gone with freelance contractors working by the piece. I don't know what will have to happen for me to hire someone full time again, right now I don't think I ever will.

JJ Jonasz
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Great post! And the comments are really great to read as well, lots of viewpoints and excellent advice.

Regarding PC development though, I can see your point about targeting gamers and higher price points, but with games I've developed I always find PC sales are far worse than any mobile platform. Our most recent game is a military strategy game, intended at a niche gamer audience, designed with PC in mind but it does about 10x better on mobile (tablets) than on Mac PC, and around 50x better on mobile than Windows PC. We have tons of press, great ratings and reviews across the board but trying to get a Windows audience seems to be far more difficult than any app store. (we have not been greenlit on steam, so I can't speak to how it would do there).

On mobile at least there is a chance of getting in front of a few thousand players, on PC if you're not on Steam or maybe Kickstarter, you never really get that kind of exposure.

The only way I can imagine any sort of success on PC (for an unknown indie) would be to either get on Steam (a few years ago), have a massive Kickstarter, or grow your audience during development by some variation of early access.

Does anyone else have any advice on how they created a sustainable game business for PC as a newcomer indie?

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks for sharing! Can you share your game, I will check it out!

Here is something you may not have thought of:
If you offer me your game on iPad or PC, i have a 90% chance of buying it on iPad. As a dad of a young child I just don't have a ton of time alone at my pc. But if I can play on my ipad upstairs while I watch her play, I'll do that for sure!
Also (generally) I've seen games on iPad sell for 50% or less than the PC version. Look at Balder's Gate HD for instance. I've overpaid on steam so many times when an iPad version was available way cheaper that I now check EVERY game I'm interested in against the app store before I click buy.

And, just another observation about my own customer behaviour: if it isn't on steam I don't buy it. I know that may sound silly, but it is just reality. I used to collect PC games in their boxes. I have every box from every game I bought (which is a lot) over 15 years. It was really hard for me to go to a digital game library. But now that I have, I have the same "collector" mentality about steam games. I love the fact my steam account has over 300 games and one day I'll be over 400. So if your game isn't on steam it isn't helping me with my collector mentality. Also if I want to play it at some random point in the future, I always know I can download it from steam and play. Some other games I've bought from other random websites I have no clue where I got them. I know I own it somewhere, but I can't remember where from nor a login. And steam has my credit card and everything so I just click buy and their ticky box and I'm downloading. I'm a time pressured busy guy. I want EASY solutions, price is not my main constraint. I was staying at my cottage last year and I just felt the need to play sim city 4. I already own it (paid full retail in a box), but I wanted to play it right now, so I bought it again on Steam for $20. Full pop, not even on a steam sale! All so I could have the convenience of never needing the DVD and play it any time I want. So ya, I'm huge fan of Steam.

So i'm just saying if you aren't on steam, and if people are like me, then that would explain why you see higher mobile vs PC sales.

JJ Jonasz
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Good points :) Maybe that's just the point of view of most pc games, if it's not on steam it's not worth it. So does that mean that your game's strategy relies on getting onto Steam?

My most recent game was Battle Fleet 2: http://www.battlefleetgame.com/

PS: I used to live in TO as well, great city :)

Thomas Henshell
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I'm sad to say that yes, my whole strategy relies on getting on steam. If I don't get on steam i'll cry and cry and cry.

So them lowering the bar to entry makes me both happy and sad. Increases my chances of getting on steam, but also increases the noise and decreases the value of being on steam.

I'm downloading battlefleet 2 to my ipad right now. BTW, you did exactly what I was referring to: $10 for PC $5 for iPad. If I own an ipad of course i'll buy it for half price! I'm a hardcore PC gamer and you made me buy the ipad version. This is why I think your pc sales are lower.

Toronto the Good! :-)

Joe Chang
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This is an amazing read - it is pretty similar to my own personal journey into indie dev. I started in mobile because I thought it was an easier entry point, and that I wasn't good enough for PC. However after a time, like you I became disillusioned with mobile for many of the reasons you stated above. Now I've decided to ask myself the question: am I really passionate about this? For mobile the answer was a resounding no, but for PC it is a huge yes. I'm a hardcore gamer as well first and foremost so the game I make will have to be one that I'll want to play myself. So no regrets, sometimes it will take a while to learn from our mistakes, but the main thing is that those mistakes are just course-corrections that point us closer to our real dream! Best of luck, and as a fellow indie I hope you do well!

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks! I cannot die that I have learned from my time in mobile games. I learned design patterns, and tricks, and all kinds of stuff that will help me make a PC game. So the EXPERIENCE isn't lost.

Good luck to you too Joe, I look forward to seeing your art!

Henry Fong
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Great article Thomas. Honest, passionate and definitely something that every indie developer or budding entrepreneur can benefit from reading. Like yourself, it was my passion for games that brought me into this business. I took a different approach than you did and instead of going into original games development, I founded Yodo1 about 2.5 years ago as a co-production publisher where we could work with some of the most talented indie studios from around the world and work together to break into very specific markets (namely iOS and Android in China).

Like yourself, the first game that we launched was something that we loved and were passionate about but financially, it was a disaster. We were fortunate enough to have enough funding to allow us to learn and pivot from that experience and have since grown into one of the largest independent co-production publishers in China with 170+ million users and growing at 10-20 million new users each month.

i'm encouraged that you haven't given up on your dream and I wish you every success with Archmage Rises!

Henry

Thomas Henshell
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Well done Henry!

I like what you said about "Pivot", read Lean Start Up?
I guess my article is me documenting my moment of Pivot. We'll see what happens next (hopefully the next pivots are smaller than his one!)

Henry Fong
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Start-ups are always an adventure and all about trying new things. IMHO, a "pivot" is just a fancy word for learning from your mistakes (and not repeating them), keeping what worked well, then trying out a bunch of new things to see what sticks. (rinse and repeat here).

Successful start-ups almost always consists of part luck, part execution, part timing and loads of passion for what you do. I'm glad that you're persevering with what your passionate about and it seems to me that you're able to clearly articulate and understand what mistakes you made in the past.

I wish you all success in your current venture and look forward to playing Archmage Rises when it's ready.

Henry

Thomas Henshell
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Hurray! A customer!!! So this is what it feels like! :-)

Lars Kokemohr
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I am sorry, but I don't understand how this article leads to the conclusion that it was the platform's fault that you failed. Please don't get me wrong, I am not trying to insult you, I am trying to warn you. From what I read I expect your next game to be an even bigger failure.

There are a lot of issues you mentioned yourself that are not related to the platform: adding too many features, misjudging the target audience, misjudging the amount of money you can expect from your project etc.
But there are also many issues you don't mention which in my oppinion are at least as important if not even more so:

You never question your qualification. From what I read you didn't have any experience making games when you started with the first of the two games you are referring to in this article and you didn't visit any kind of game development school. You didn't have a game designer or a project manager and all your problems seemed to lie in that area (you wrote how your programming impressed the Marmelade people and how your graphics were better than most on iOS, you wrote how your spendings exceeded the income by far, how you misjudged the target audience, how you didn't know which features to add and which to leave out etc.), yet you don't seem to see a problem in not having anyone with experience in game design or game related project management.
And now you think you were qualified to be the lead designer for a game on a new platform with a new audience in a new genre with a new monetization scheme using a new engine on new hardware? Please give me any reason besides being a game master for tabletop rpgs why you think you are qualified for the next project.

You seem to be oblivious to the team members' motivations. On the one hand you say it's totally ok to want to develop a game that your daughter likes and then you don't seem to understand why you are on such bad terms with your former colleague. Have you ever talked about your long term goals with the project? I seriously doubt that your colleague also had the goal to make your daughter happy, I am guessing job security had a higher priority for him. Would you say that your decisions throughout the project were in the best interest of someone looking for job security?

I am sorry for being so harsh, but while getting games done has become easier developing a good game has become quite a lot more difficult. You compared yourself to Blizzard when you said they also had gained their experience by creating a software company, but the difference is that when Blizzard started there were no game engines to help with the game creation and their competitors didn't have any experience in game design either, so being a professional programmer was a very good foundation. Nowadays there are tons of games that you could develop without an actual programmer on the team but that are based on years of experience in designing gameplay and monetization mechanics.

My bottom line is: if you want to run a successful kickstarter go ahead, you have everything you need to do that. You have talented artists (judging by the only asset in what you call your teaser trailer) and you are very self-confident and know how to sell your ideas. Anyone closely examining your project proposition will probably not back you, but there aren't many who do that on kickstarter.
If on the other hand you want to be proud of your results then hire a lead game designer, a lead programmer (who has experience with rendering and game engines) and a project manager and start questioning your qualifications and your team's structure.

Again I am sorry for this harsh feedback, I hope I don't come across as envious or hateful because I am actually trying to be of help.

Kyle Redd
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"I hope I don't come across as envious or hateful because I am actually trying to be of help."

What help are you providing with this post? The only advice you seem to be giving is "You're a bad game designer and should really quit."

The bulk of your post seems to be of the idea that the only successful games are those made by established development teams, comprised of a full hierarchy of individuals who all went to game development school at some point. Is that what you're trying to say?

It should be obvious at this point in time that even a single individual with no professional game design experience whatsoever is perfectly capable of making a great game (see Gunpoint as a recent example), just as great books, films, and music have been made throughout history by similarly unqualified people.

Also, he's already said he has no intention of running a Kickstarter, so it's a little odd to criticize him as if that path is inevitable.

Lars Kokemohr
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I thought he had mentioned Kickstarter but now I saw it was just one of the commenters, so that was my mistake.

Where did I say he should quit? I am saying that he seems to be lacking important qualifications and that apparently he is ignoring that instead of changing something about it.
His conclusion just doesn't make any sense - if he really wanted to work out the problems of his first projects he should stick to the mobile market and try to learn from the earlier mistakes instead of starting a new project where he can't reasonably expect to profit from his experience. Alternatively he could seek help in the departments where he had the biggest problems in the previous projects, that's why I said he should hire other people for the lead positions.

Yes, an unexperienced individual can make a great game, but does that matter in this regard? The only question is: are the chances of successfully developing a good game larger if you have an experienced game designer on the team?
It's easy to explain why there are examples for unexperienced yet successful game developers: because there's also a huge number of unexperienced and unsuccessful game developers.

I never said that the ONLY successful games are those made by experienced and educated teams, but I am saying that if you are uneducated and unexperienced it's not a very big surprise when you are not successful.

Kyle Redd
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Well, he is an experienced designer. He's developed and released three games already. None of them sold well, and he was never passionate about making any of them, so why should he do it all over again for a fourth time?

The project he's working on now *is* one he's passionate about, obviously, and it's not a game that would have any chance of success on mobile, no matter how good it turns out to be (I can't think of a single premium-priced mobile RPG that has sold well. Correct me if that's wrong.)

Even if you're advising him entirely from a practical standpoint: If Archmage gets on Steam, the chances for success are immeasurably greater than on any mobile platform, particularly if the quality is high. Even with no paid marketing effort, word of mouth is a powerful force on PC if you've made a game that people like.

So if he has the experience, the passion, and some resources to get started with, that seems like a no-brainer decision to me. I don't know what you see that he could gain by staying on the mobile platform that he couldn't get by trying on the PC instead (again, especially if he's making a premium-priced RPG).

Wendelin Reich
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This.

Had the same thoughts while reading the article (and I read it all). Why is the author blaming 'mobile' for all the errors he himself attributes explicitely to his own lack of judgement?

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks Lars,

I don't think your comments are too harsh. I have thought a lot about what you are saying about an experienced team. When I started my software company I already had almost 10 years of professional experience. When I started my game endeavor, I had 0. Which one made money: software company. Seems pretty obvious the difference experience makes.

I think the point of my article wasn't one of blame of an industry. I told my personal story of how I got caught up in the mobile gaming hype of 2010/2011. I have now realized I shouldn't have been there, and my reasons why. I didn't write my article in isolation, I have indie dev friends around north america, some who have been successful, and they reached the same decision point to leave mobile.

I hope my article was one of warning not blame.

Joe Chang
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So in summary what you are saying is that without industry experience (e.g. being employed by a game dev company in the past) you don't have any hope in growing a successful indie dev company, or alternatively you have to spend a ton hiring experts. If this were the case I don't think there would be many indies around.

I actually think that Thomas' experience in running a successful business is more relevant than having just the technical expertise. Many indie devs I've known personally (some who do have incredible industry experience) failed to deliver a successful indie game because they focused too much on development and neglected everything else.

From what I've read and seen there are many parallels between creating a successful game and a startup business. The core game is probably only a fraction of the effort - the remainder lies in all the "boring" stuff, i.e. marketing, planning, finance, admin, research etc...

Lars Kokemohr
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Joe Chang, I am sorry, your summary is incorrect.
I never said that you could't make a successful game without experience, I just said that if you don't have experience it shouldn't be too surprising if your game is unsuccessful.
There's a reason why experts can afford to ask for a lot of money. They can raise your chances of success.

Lion Loewe
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Hello Thomas,
thank you for sharing your experience, even though for you those experiences were obviously mostly frustrating, you may have helped a lot of us others. As it happens my current situation shows a lot of parallels to yours, though there is way less pressure on me which probably makes things easier for me.
For one, I am much younger than you, therefore there is no wifey and no kids that I'd have to get a regular paycheck for and I'm still in the "education phase" of my life, starting university this winter. Just like you I got interested in making games when I was a little kid and since then I've been developing (and thereafter, mostly frozen) games as well as some smaller pieces of software. All this as a hobby of course, even though I am also earning a little on the side with the software.
Anyhow, couple of months ago I also put Marmalade into my "working schedule" (if you want to call it that way) in order to develop the client side of a permanent-online game. As it happens, a couple of days ago I even stumbled upon your tutorial, wanting to see how animations can be handled with Marmalade, though animations are something that I'm, priority wise, miles away from. Unlike you though I seem to prefer the C++ over C#, even though I know what you mean by ease of use I found C# to be somewhat lazy. And C++ is just more versatile (imo). That doesn't matter for why I'm writing though.
Leaving aside the fact that I'm about 75% sure that my game will never be finished, after your article I'm not so sure whether choosing Marmalade (and mobile platforms) was the right choice though. Just like you I am a passionate gamer, obviously preferring the PC platform.
The reasons why I still chose Marmalade/mobile are simple though:
1. The kind of game I'm attempting to develop (I'm not really keen on throwing around the word MMO, though I guess that is what I'm trying to achieve) does not exist a lot on mobile platforms. I guess for the obvious reasons of being an enormous piece of work (with the potential of just going unnoticed) which may not work so well on a small display and crippled input control
2. I thought the audience was simply bigger. I don't know how many people have a PC that they game on, but pretty much everyone has a smartphone nowadays and lots of people use it to game. Though, after your article it became even clearer to me that complex games are most likely ill-suited for phones, and also the part about getting the attention of people...

Now, so far I've been mostly doing the server side of the game. There I know for sure that it is purposeful. Soon I'll be in a state with my client where the controls would be somewhat functional and I can get an actual feeling on how well it would work. I guess then will be the final point to consider the platform.
Additionally though, since we/I chose C++ I was thinking that it shouldn't be too hard to port it over to PC if it doesn't work so well. Replacing the networking and graphics part shouldn't be too hard, since I don't plan to write my own engine for that. Changing the control system to a (in my opinion) very simple input system with keyboard and mouse shouldn't be too much trouble either. Though then, on a PC my game (just imagining it were done) would probably never get attention either since it is intended to be, from the visual side, a rather simplistic 2D game without any of those very fancy graphic effects. Maybe 10 years earlier that would've been alright, but I'm very certain that on this point the mobile platforms would be the much better choice. Nobody minds playing a 2D game on mobiles. In real life I don't know a lot of people who play 2D indie games on PC though (even I very much enjoyed the likes of Terraria etc., graphics are not so important for me!).
Just like you I "can't draw a stick" either. Since I am just a student that is financially complicated so in the end it would probably be someone who does it more for fun than for money as well, so probably some other student. For now I am obviously working with just dummies and as long as I have nothing playable I don't think it would be useful in looking for someone right now. As said before, I have my doubts about ever getting to that state anyway.
Just in case it does, your experience with the Marmalade publisher doesn't seem to have been so well. I have understood that the problems were mainly of technical nature due to screen sizes but from the beginning on I have intended to address this problem by using relative graphic sizes/positions. Now since it is and is supposed to stay a hobby for at least some time now I wouldn't ever want to be under some kind of pressure from "them" (publishers) and as such I wanted to ask again whether the Marmalade team was helpful in any way or not (feelings for your "C++ memory leak"-fix-nights there, I know exactly what you mean. Marmalade memory management takes some getting used to). Just like you (it seems), I don't think I have a full embrace on what to watch out when developing for mobiles (aside from the resolution struggle), so maybe you have some more advise. Oh and just in advance, if I stay on mobile I don't intend to crap up the game with social networking stuff. In my eyes all that is just annoying and contributes solely to spam on someone's news feed. Another thing that you also mentioned was the billing stuff... Now, I intend to make my game F2P with "in-app-purchases", though it would probably be way simpler to just implement a website connected to the game that will handle such things, either via PayPal or Bitcoin or similar services. Now in a counter to that, most people probably wouldn't even bother to open up the site...? Have you considered something like this before?
Anyway, I probably have forgotten some things I wanted to write as well for now, but if I should remember something I can just write back here. So, I wish you good luck with your steam game, though in my eyes, the competition there doesn't seem to be simpler to overcome than on an app market... And obviously good luck with any future endeavours, if you have some words of advise for me, then those will be much appreciated :)
Cheers.

Thomas Henshell
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Hello fellow marmalader!

You've written a lot of elements into your question but you seem to be asking if you should continue in mobile with C++. I can't give advice, but I can share experience.

1) I switched away from C++ to C# Unity for one overwhelming reason: to shorten the development cycle. I simply HAD to get my costs under control and Marmalade gave me 2% of a game engine while Unity gives me 98% of a game engine. Add on top of that the asset store where I can just buy needed components, and now I've reduced a dev cycle from 6 months to 3 months. My third mobile title (currently shelved) was being written in unity for ipad/android tablet. Dev was going much faster and the ability to play AND make changes while playing was invaluable.

2) I have decided to build for the platform I love. I loved PC gaming when it wasn't cool or interesting to most people. I will love PC gaming when it is no longer popular. I'm going to put my art into the museum I frequent. You seem to like mobile a lot, so maybe you should be there.

Alexey Levin
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This is the post that made me register on this site. This is absolutely amazing read, and it's exactly the right experience for me to have right now (I'm 20 years old and I also have a dream of making a games on mobile devices, and have some ideas for it). The only question that appeeared for me is - why are you looking at mobile market as at a place just for casual games? I'm playing games on my iPad much more than on my PC not only because iPad is portable, but because it's much more convenient. I would've enjoyed playing some complex RPGs or even RTS (yes, I know, it's hard to create RTS with comfort interface on touch device, but it's doable, f.e. in step-by-step games), and I would pay for it $10 or even $20 if it's worth it. I've enjoyed Galaxy on Fire 2, I've enjoyed Majesty, and they're not casual AT ALL. And I think there's much more to be done in this direction, and there're only a few competitors. Do you think it simply won't pay for itself?

Thomas Henshell
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I haven't made a "hardcore" game for mobile. People commenting on this article have, so I leave it to them.

As a player, the app store has preconditioned me to think anything more than $5 is "a lot of money". I want to, but I still haven't bought the Balder's Gate on ipad yet because of this silly psychological barrier.

My thinking is if a game is going to sell 1,000 copies because it is niche and that is as many as you can reach with your marketing, etc, and the most you can get is $5 that's 5k in revenue maybe it isn't doable. But if you can get $20, that's 20k and maybe the game is doable.

JJ Jonasz
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I would say that that there is a lot of possibility with a core game on mobile, that's what I concentrate on and they can do pretty well. I think you'll find that it's easier to get sales on a paid app if it is niche or hardcore than if it's casual. You'll also get sales from searches (people search for RPG, zombie, sandbox, minecraft, war, etc.., but they don't search for casual, animal, puzzle, cute).

Here's what I've seen on mobile:
- Casual games have a tiny chance of making a massive success (probably slightly better than winning the lottery), but the rest will make almost no money.
- Niche or hardcore games have almost no chance of making a massive success, most will make a few thousand, and maybe 1/3 will make enough to create a sustainable game business.

The barrier to entry for a mobile hardcore game as a developer is also probably a lot less than PC where the expectations of graphics and amount of content are much higher. I think it's a good starting place where you can create a core game on a lower budget, have a chance to start building your audience with higher exposure and actually get a few thousand people playing your game.

On the other hand, mobile has a lot of technical challenges especially with core games where you might have higher poly assets, more complex AI, and other features that a PC has no problems with.

Galaxy on Fire was one of the games that really inspired me to create games that I wanted to see on mobile and they did very well.

Thomas Henshell
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Good point.

I haven't tried to make a "core" game on mobile and my first chance to do it (Archmage) I'm not going to bother trying. I will play your game more and Galaxy on Fire.

Craig Dolphin
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Thanks for the really interesting article. I wish you all the best luck with Archmage Rises. I really hope it works out for you. Buy your wife something nice: having that support from your spouse is a wonderful asset for any business owner! :)

One thing I want to say, as a potential consumer, by all means release your version on Steam: but please don't ignore other storefronts. Fact is that I don't buy games on steam. I hate DRM and generally avoid games that force me to use clients. I'm also a core western/C/RPG gamer. If you release only on Steam then you guarantee I won't be buying your game. Not trying to be a dick about it, just letting you know that stuff like that does matter to some of your potential customers even if you personally adore Steam. I can assure you that if you lived in a rural area without great broadband, you would probably take a much dimmer view of Steam/Origin etc.

I know Steam is the big store right now, but it is heading into appstore-like territory. Having your game appear in more curated stores too is something that I think will benefit you in the long run.

Thomas Henshell
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Thank you for your feedback, I totally agree. I will also make the game available on non-drm stores.

Felipe Budinich
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This was a very compelling article to read, please do a follow up once you get numbers from Archmage Rises.

I had a similar experience on mobile, as new indie game dev I followed the herd and went to mobile with my first project (we did get a successfully funded kickstarter campaign, and a we got a government grant because of that, but our design suffered because of the "mobile first" mentality, so we ended up pleasing no one with our game).

Our company splintered over different expectations, because we made the mistake of working with friends first. Now I started over, and funded a new startup, only with professionals that share the same vision and level of commitment.

We also decided to develop for PC first, aiming for the long run, with a strategy in place to build brand loyalty, as I do share your appreciation of the mobile platform. As a parallel, it's like if you wanted to do feature films, you would want to distribute in cinemas and netflix, it would be a terrible idea to distribute on youtube (and the argument could be made that youtube is a better platform to build brand loyalty than the iOS appstore).

I do share some of the criticisms against your article tho. I would strongly advise you that if you fail with Archmage Rises, do not give up, but do consider doing a year of "one game a month" while doing C# grunt work at your software company, to get a better grasp on game design, then start again with a smaller budget, working your way up to bigger titles. Bigger is not always better, you need your games to be polished and *cut* like diamonds, a small gemstone shinning in a sea of coal.

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks Felipe,

I promise to share sales numbers on Gamasutra. I agree that would make a fitting bookend to this article.

I think your analogy of appstore=youtube is spot on. :-)

I've also thought about exactly what you said: should I put archmage on hold for a bit and make some small games? It's a very difficult issue. I am going to some game jams so I think that will help.

JJ Jonasz
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Maybe you could release a core component of Archmage as a chapter 1 sort of thing or a multiplayer battle game to gain an audience? That way you can keep working on this one game but start to get some sales or feedback while you work on it?

Felipe Budinich
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That is not a bad idea at all, pretty much like Banner Saga Factions. The only problem is that the follow up release must happen briefly after that.

Thomas Henshell
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My marketing guy has suggested I make a companion iPad version, something that assists the main PC experience. You can probably guess my response: i'm not interested. But maybe once Archmage is working well on PC and I've got a fan base interested in it and people start bugging me for a mobile version, MAYBE then I'll look at it more seriously.

Eric Robertson
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Good article and thank you for sharing!

Personally, I like the idea of mobile development, since I spend more and more time playing games on mobile then I do PC. I feel mobile gaming is the future.

Sure, the deluge of new daily entries does seem daunting, but I'm hoping our own marketing strategy (for our mostly finished mobile mmorpg) can compete. That being said, I agree with you that it is better to work on something you enjoy and are passionate about, then just try to cash in on a genre you may not relate to.

I wish you and your team great fortune on Archmage Rises.

Jennis Kartens
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Awesome read. It's very helpful that you didn't shy away from all the personal affections this journey had to you, some of those I can quite relate to but seldom read anywhere about it.

However from the very little at the end and the website, regarding your next project, which seems comes from the same love I do share too (RPG, PC, RTS...) I am not only not impressed or intrigued, I am kind of bored even, a bit biased too (since, as you initially wrote regarding C++/ObjeciveC, I as an "artist" hate Unity and prefer other middlewares if any)

It feels a bit like a contradiction to your experience on the mobile market. PC gaming as well has a struggeling market, and Steam particular gets overflown with Early Access indie titles every day, in between AAA releases and old titles or whatever, it's even more clustered (of course, still more overview as on mobile... but really only if you keep an eye out too) - your new endevour falls into a "category" I personally avoid for quite some time now, since it got boring seeing one Unity/2D/RogueLike/RPG (combine these as you wish) after another with no end in sight.

While I agree that the mobile market as such is quite another story (like you said, no brand loyalty whatsoverver, more "casual" "time wasting" etc.) you still need to stand out on the PC too. Which often can be achieved through actual quality, but also needs a lot of luck nowadays.

So going "PC" may give you the freedom you haven't had before, but sales-wise it's even as hard if not harder, since the audience is smaller too. Standing out is a key factor there, though if you achieve that, it actually does help selling the game.

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks, I will work my hardest to stand out!

For clarity Archmage Rises is a 2D role playing game like the SSI goldbox 2d role playing games, NOT like a metroidvania 2D role playing game. There are not RTS elements, no running around and jumping, combat is like Dragon Warrior turned based and strategic with a front on view of the enemies.

Will Hendrickson
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I totally relate to this!

My passion project is a competitive science-fiction game :)

Good luck!

nicholas ralabate
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like, competitive science-fiction writing? that sounds awesome

Greg Quinn
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Great article, thanks for the read. I've been involved in my own 3-year long indie project, it has cost me all my spare time, money, and to a large degree my social life and some of my sanity.

So I can relate a lot to what you've been through.

Matt Mirrorfish
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hey Thomas,

Just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this as well. At the risk of sounding too care-bear-ish I think that people can intuitively feel the love and passion that's put into something. I think it's impossible to make a hit by calculating 'what you think someone wants'. You have to love what you're making and feel passionate about creating and developing it. I think that more than anything related to platform is what I take from your story.

As much as everyone is worried about the end of curation on Steam and the more app-store direction Valve is taking this ignores the fact that Gabe Newell has explicitly stated that his goal is to allow any and everyone to become curators of their own Steam storefronts. This means let's players, bloggers, gamers will all be able to create a store front and promote and market the games they are passionate about. This I believe will have a huge positive impact on solving the classic app store discovery and visibility problem.

The thing that will motivate these people to help with the discovery of your game is the passion they feel for it. Passion that you create through the love of the work.

Thanks so much for the candor and vulnerability you showed here. Wishing you all the best with Archmage and your future projects!

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks! And yes I agree that there is an indescribably "it" factor that comes from passion. I hope that comes through when people can actually play my game.

I think the crowdsourced curation store front can be a real answer to this. Only time will tell.

Curtiss Murphy
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Why should Archmage be a success? I loved how humble, personal, and well-told your article is. I also loved seeing your iterations through the Try;Fail;Improve loop - learning hard lessons about building stuff you don't love, on platforms you don't use, by burning bridges and friends. Your dedication and hard-work are admirable.

At the same time, I see little evidence that you have learned the lessons that will enable Archmage to succeed. Like Lars, I predict a similar fate to your last titles, if it doesn't fail even more spectacularly, costing you more money, time, and emotional heartache. After all, they do say past performance is the best predictor of future performance.

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the 10,000 hour rule, and in this case, I question how many of your 10,000 hours have been spent learning game design. You've learned business, marketing, and development. And yet, just as each of those involved many iterations of Try;Fail;Improve, there is a similar curve for game design that involves grokking: flow, simplicity, the paradox of choice, interest curves, mystery boxes, convexity, intrinsic motivation, and the dozens of other subtle nuances of the psychology of 'why games work' (google?).

You can't bypass the Try;Fail;Improve loop, and learning in one area does not translate to learning in all areas. The Difficult Years is a part the journey. I do hope, that you speed your journey along by investing LESS time, money, and emotional energy on each of your efforts. Build SMALL games (ex 1-3 months), and study why they fail. If you'd been doing that all along, these past years, you'd now have completed dozens of iterations of the Try;Fail;Improve loop. 'Fail fast' isn't just a cliche, it's how companies like Rovio, failed 52 failures and still had enough time, energy, and money to develop the 53rd title which made them a household name.

Thank you for sharing your crayons, feel free to borrow mine: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/CurtissMurphy/20140801/222424/Is_T
his_The_Best_Weve_Got_A_Critique_Of_Tech_Crunchs_Game_Design.php

Thomas Henshell
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I love Malcolm Gladwell and have read all his books. So your point is well taken. And I recently read Lean Startup which talks about the fail fast, pivot.

I am thinking about what you and Lars have said. I can't promise anything more than that right now.

Oh, and I read your article. Brilliant. It means more to me now as a failed designer than it would have to an aspiring designer. Thank you for sharing it!!!

Maciej Sawitus
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Thanks for article!

Similar story here. I have made 2 mobile games with MarmaladeSDK about 2 years ago (Puzzled Rabbit and Monstaaa!). They both failed financially even though I got a lot of positive reviews from mobile game reviewers, especially for the second one. Mobile market is extremely tough.

I am now about to release PC only game (Rainbow Hero) and some friends ask me "why don't you port it to iOS or Android? it is quick and easy to do". And I agree it is quick and easy. But it would still most likely be a complete throw away of my time. I'd probably need a couple of months (given this is my after hours project) and it would most likely not make more than $100. The way it is now I see no point coming back to mobile markets.

Alexander Brandon
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I'm going to repost this. I'm sure many will repost it. Stories like this have the highest value of just about any industry article. You didn't just write a sob story and a cautionary tale. You gave people good advice and provided information many are too afraid to disclose.

As far as Tsung goes, business is business, and he shouldn't stop talking to you because of a layoff. I've been laid off twice and have learned my lesson, which is why I'm in business for myself instead these days. Games are fickle and very difficult to make successful. If he can't understand that and blames you for it, well, that's not right. He needs to get over it.

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks Alexander!

For Tsung, sometimes are hearts aren't as quick as our heads.
I think we'll be ok in time, once he finds a new job.

William Volk
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First off, thank you for writing this. Most of what we see in the press are the successes, and the truth is that in mobile ... these are outlers. This "survivor bias" drives people to make irrational projections and leads to exactly the situation we have in mobile gaming today. a massive oversupply in inventory leading to a race to the bottom in pricing etc.

I've been in mobile games since the start, helped produce the first iPhone game (iWhack, a web based sack-a-mole that was released the weekend the iPhone shipped etc.) but I've been in the video/computer gaming space since 1979. To say I miss the days when I could sell a 32kb game for $25 a pop would be an understatement.

That being said, I'd like to share some helpful observations.

1. This must be a definition of 'publisher' I was previously unaware of. A publisher should have offset some or all your development costs. Instead they acted as a negative sink by forcing you to support many platforms instead of focusing on play tuning and successful marketing.

2. Do what you love. Doing a game based on a perception of what might sell isn't always a good idea.

The above being true, the other truth is that you could have executed perfectly and still failed. Success in mobile, as I have said, is an outler. It's lottery level odds.

The best bet is to focus on niches where you have advantages. For us, it's real money casino apps in the UK.

Good luck.

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks William!

When I was fighting with the ONLY 256mb of ram on the 3GS I couldn't imagine what it was like for guys working with 32kb! I'm glad to hear people with experience are in mobile!

Wayne Pearson
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This article hits home in so many ways: working with friends, trying to target every mobile platform, "regular" programming to help fund the game development. SSI and Gold box games. Unity. Canadian.

Thanks for the terrific and honest write-up.

Thomas Henshell
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If I've learned anything from the publishing of this article, it is that my story is not unique. I kinda wished it was, I thought I was special. :-)

Diego Martinez
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Man! this is the story of my life! haha. Thank you for this! It made me feel like I'm not the only one struggling this way. After one game in mobile, I ended up with the same conclusions. We made the wrong game for the wrong reasons. Now we are making a PC adventure game, it took a few years of our lives but it never felt like working or like we need to get rich with it. And I think that's the reason why it will rock!. We are getting a lot of Fans already and not a few good comments (like in mobile). Not the same thing.

I hope you can finish your game on time and in the quality you want. The art looks so cool!.
And I hope you get the reward you and your team deserve for so much hard work! Good Luck!
And Thanks!

Thomas Henshell
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Thanks and I never get tired of hearing i'm not the only guy who went down this path. I just somehow makes me feel better others got suckered into the hype too. :-)

What is the name of your adventure game?

Young Hsiang
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I was attracted by the title, just what I've planning for! For no reason I just like PC games more than mobile games. For now I am just a developer with 2 years work experience, I still have a long way to go. I need to prepare myself for all the skills to develop games on PC. If you will start a branch in China, let me know NOT KIDDING! :D

Thomas Henshell
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Ha ha! Well I think it's a little soon for me to go with an international studio. But you can connect with me on Linked In and we'll keep in touch. :-)
https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=2281945&trk=spm_pic

Darius Drake
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This is like your personal testimony. :)

Darrell Hunt
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Thanks for the honest post. I myself am just starting to try to get into the game development community and reading your post helps prepare me for the inevitable difficulties I am likely to encounter, though I am not a game dev but rather a musician/composer guy. Your comments on casual gamers not looking for an experience but just distraction are so right on point. I keep hearing how mobile gaming is where we are going in the future, and all I can think is that it's a future I don't really want any part of. I can still remember as a kid playing through the American release of Final Fantasy 2 on my super nes late at night not to finish the game, but rather to get to my favorite parts of Uematsu's score, then letting it run all night while I listened. Truly, my old snes was a trooper! It was all about the immersion and experience. These mobile games just feel so... soulless to me.

But the lesson is clear: we can fail at something, so we might as well fail at something we enjoy doing. Then at least the time was not wasted. Thanks again. And good luck on your release, I'm looking forward to checking it out!

Thomas Henshell
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"is that it's a future I don't really want any part of" I couldn't agree more!

I hear a lot in the industry (EA Popcap, but others) that this surge in casual mobile will equal more players in the future looking for more advanced levels of play.

I'm sorry, but my 30 something wife played hundreds of hours of plants vs zombies and she has NO interest in playing anything on the PS4, Wii U, XBox One, or PC.
My 60 something mother in law plays words with friends on facebook with her family members and she has no interest in what I do making games. I mean of course she isn't going to pickup Half Life 3, I get that, but she isn't even interested in trying something a family member made. Out of pity!

This to me says that the gamer stats (like Jane McGonigal's 180 million) are grossly misleading.

Could it be there are simply the same % of dedicated gamers now as there was when you and I were playing on our snes? But in those times the non-dedicated ones didn't play anything, but today the non-dedicated gamers play candy crush and solitaire and that's it.

Lucas Zanenga
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Like many others in the comments, I can relate. Well... at least a bit. I also started on mobile and right now am making my move into PC. I fell like I'm finally starting to make the games that I want to make. It's a really good feeling!

I'm the kind of guy that believes that magic always makes things more interesting, so you already have me just by the concept of Archmage Rises. Looking forward to see some gameplay!

Thomas Henshell
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Ha ha! Well stay tuned to the newsletter cuz your wish will be granted!

Phillip Harben
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Like many others, I joined Gamasutra just to comment on your story. Thanks for sharing it in such a brutally honest way. As a layman, I didn't realise that it was so difficult to sell games. I (wrongly) assumed that if your game pitches up on IOS, you make your money back at least.

I will be keeping a close eye on Archmage Rises, as this sounds right up my alley. As a fan of the old SSI RPGs I find it sad that 20 years later, there's still nothing to compare with them in a lot of respects.

Good luck with it and I hope it does well - I'll certainly buy a copy.

Thomas Henshell
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Hurray, a fifth copy sold!

I really value the goldbox SSI games and the players who loved them. So if you haven't already followed the facebook or joined the newsletter, make sure you do, because I want to talk with you further!

Aaron Mahan
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I also signed up on Gamasutra so I could write a comment here. I am a fellow PC indie game developer (http://facebook.com/forerunnergamesllc), but I hope to avoid some of your years of pain because I realized from the beginning that I had to create what I loved. I mean, that's why I started in the first place, was because I was playing a crappy indie game clone of an old pc game that I loved, and then realized that I could do way better.

It has nothing to do with mobile being "bad", it's just that you have to follow your passion. Soon there will be a whole generation of young people who grew up with iPad's and Android phones that will have a passion for creating mobile games - and they'll turn the market upside down innovation-wise.

That said, I love hearing an article that goes against all the mobile hype and defends the pc market. I'm really looking forward to your game. And I like how you talk about your faith unabashedly.

Thomas Henshell
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HI Aaron,

Glad you liked the article and I'll be checking out your game. My hope is no one has to go through what I have. That's why I wrote it! :-) And my faith is part of who I am, not ashamed!

Jitesh Panchal
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Incredible article! Loved to read your personal story and accomplishments. It is just great that you realized your passion (on the right platform) and went with it! It takes so much courage to do this :) Now, Archmage Rises is going to be on my radar for sure.

I would like to thank you for sharing your story and game development hardships. All the best and rule PC!

Thomas Henshell
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Glad to hear it Jitesh! PC for the win!

Andrew Brozek
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There is so much truth here, it's amazing. It's a real, heartfelt story about the life of an honest game maker. I see so many similarities between your story and my own experiences. This should be required reading for anyone who wants to know what it is like to make games. Thank you for sharing.

Thomas Henshell
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Ha ha, that would be funny Andrew to see this pop up in the syllabus of some game dev course! :-)

Bruce Cichowlas
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Sorry to hear about you and your friend. I went through a similar experience. Though he and I exchange emails on occasion, I still don't know whether he is really over it. I wish it had turned out better and think of it whenever friends or family offer to help on some basis on my projects.

Thomas Henshell
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Sorry to hear that Bruce. Sounds like we are both in the same mode.
He just returned some of my blu-rays cuz he is moving. But I wasn't home to receive them. I think right now is too soon to reconcile. But maybe in 3-6 months I will make a concentrated effort. Even if it doesn't work, I will not regret trying and knowing that I tried.

I still remain hopeful!

Joshua Dallman
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I see professional artists and professional engineers listed dutifully in your story, but no professional game designers. That is the cause of your problem, not platform audience or marketing.

Thomas Henshell
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You are right. Also there is a 4th missing component: Biz/Marketing/PR.

The PR I can outsource, but I find it hard to have a solution for game design. Plus the only way to get good at game design (after reading many many books on it) is simply to DO IT.

So I'm taking a different approach with game design in Archmage Rises.

Alexander Carparelli
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This Story is amazing.

And in many things so true like the "I hat xcode and Mac part" :) every developer who cames from PC to Mac does this lol.

As i am currently starting an indie studio , i started with mobile games. But you are so right with the Players - they dont care who Made the game or follow the IP.
Thats why i think mobile ASO and Marketing is hard at all. The Players are more searching the app store but didnt came from gaming Blogs etc.

Sure Players can heard about a game about it. But then its definetly luck.

I think the most reason why indie start mobile games First is that you can easy enter the Market and publish a game. Just 99 $ for an Apple Account or 25 $ for Google play and you can start.

Developing for PC is easy too in this case but you dont had a direkt Market for it - until steam, gog and humble bumble.

I was on gamescom last week and happy that the Trend goes more and more to indie console and PC games.

I would love it more to develop for this Plattforms.

Thomas Henshell
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I agree Alexander.

I was watching a video about Ed Fries (guy who created Xbox at Microsoft) and he talked about how the AAA blockbusters are getting more and more expensive so they come out less and less frequently, who is going to fill that void? Indies! It's an interesting point.

Robert Techera
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Thank you very much for sharing your story with us!
I'm happy that you do not stop fighting for your dreams.
In the country where I live (Uruguay) is very difficult to Studying in this area. And more excel with some project. I am currently working on a mobile project and I'll take your experience to do the best I can.

Greetings!

Thomas Henshell
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Good luck man. I take it for granted being born in North America and all the ease that brings.

Tess Carts
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This story really touched me, thank you for sharing it. I really felt your struggle, but also the freedom, and passion you must have felt when you realized what you really wanted to be doing all this time. After all that hardship with management, doing dances with the publisher, and having to fire your own friend, all while trying to support a family yourself, you found your home.
That's amazing, please keep going strong, and all the best with Archmage Rises! The trailer gave me goosebumps.

Best of luck to you.

Ryan Andrew Smith
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I just wanted to say thank you for this. I was at a mobile panel at GDC Europe and made a lot of the same points you did - a disgruntled mobile developer came up to me after the panel and basically said I was wrong, and listed success stories in a rather loud and aggressive way. "Think of the potential market! The sheer size! Who cares about brand loyalty when you've made a billion dollars like King has!"

Then he talked about about hitting customers with payment walls when they lose, that that was the best strategy to monetize.

"It works", he and a couple of others kept on saying. "King's model works".

Sorry if I offend any mobile developers here, but I disagree very strongly and find it a ridiculous way of thinking. Ignoring brand loyalty, ignoring keeping your customers long-term is not a viable business model. Yes, it's worked a couple of times. But, it's also NOT worked a thousand other times. It's not a viable business model if it only works if you have the capital to invest over a million in user acquisition every month like King does. If we're going to call that great because it's worked a couple of times, we might as well call winning the lottery an excellent strategy as well.

Look, I didn't study business so please correct me if I'm wrong, but I also want to point out that I'm not arguing this from an idealistic standpoint, but from a financial one. I'm still starting out and getting experience in this crazy (but exciting) industry, but I don't see how completely ignoring long-term user retention makes sense - in any industry.

Eyal Teler
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From a financial viewpoint I think that studying gamer psychology, doing AB testing, that kind of stuff, can work. It's not guaranteed, but it's probably as likely to work as doing a traditional game and trying to sell it, if not better.

The thing is, are you there for the money or for the art? (I mean, first and foremost. Of course everyone wants the money.) I think that's what Thomas Henshell articulated so well. If you want to make games, make games that you will enjoy creating. That way if they fail at least you spent your time doing something you enjoy.

If you do go the money route, doing what sells, then IMO the most important thing is: study and test. Don't make assumption about what you're aiming at. If you're making a game for teenage girls and don't try to get opinions from teenage girls (and you're not a teenage girl yourself), you've lost the game. When you make a game you want to play, you know enough about at least one gamer's needs. When you make a game you don't want to play, you need to find out what these gamers really want.

YongHee Kim
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Thanks for sharing such honest story. I think game development is harder than any other form of entertainment creation too.

Thomas Henshell
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I totally TOTALLY agree! I've often thought: what is harder? I've not yet come up with one that is.

John Owens
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I think you are already too late to the PC Party. You should read this

http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2014-08-22-indie-devs-facin
g-mass-extinction-event-prince

John Maurer
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Good point John, I haven't seen this kind of market saturation in the game industry since the 80's

Lekhaj Reddy
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Good Article, Your article clearly shows the difference between difficulties you face in Business software Industry and beloved Gaming Industry. Hope your new game will be a great success.

Andrew Grant
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Thanks for writing about your experiences in such detail, I particularly enjoyed the referenced blog post. Your conclusion appears to be that mobile was a mistake. Some Indies do succeed with mobile though. I think your big mistake was your ambitious and somewhat unorthodox multi-platform strategy. Most startups develop for iOS first and then Android later. The other platforms aren't really worth the effort for anyone with limited resources. For a startup with a single developer, even Android is probably too ambitious given the fragmentation in that platform, iOS only might be smarter.

It appears that you were originally panning at least an IOS first strategy but you seem to have changed course because you didn't want to learn XCode and Objective-C. I think that was a very poor decision. Its not that hard for someone with C# and C++ experience to learn Objective-C and if you still prefer C++, the Apple C++ compiler is excellent, much better than Microsoft's. You can right iOS games mostly in C++ using XCode and many game developers do. You may not think the IDE is as good as Visual Studio but its much better for debugging iOS apps and deploying them to the app store (as you perhaps found). You would have probably saved a lot of money and time.

Eric Bezooijen
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I want to thank you very much for writing this, it was a nice dose of reality and confirms what I believed about writing a mobile game: make it cheap, do it all yourself if possible, focus on a limited set of platforms, focus on the social aspect, grind it out fast and move on to the next one. Hope one of them goes viral (see Bird, Flappy).

I had the opposite reaction re: C++ vs Objective C. I spent a few years writing code in C++ and didn't like it all. I felt I never truly "got" the language. I took an Openstep programming course and I felt Objective C was so much simpler to master and pleasant to use! I never did write anything in Object C, though.

Robert Schultz
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Thank you very much for the post. It was quite enlightening. One HUGE lesson that I think you missed from all this... don't go with a publisher. A publisher is FAR more headache than it is EVER worth. Especially in this day and age of indie. You went with an understaffed publisher, didn't get any dev costs in return and then when they did a total crap job at pushing your game, you went with them again. I REALLY hope your next game is a success. But egads, please please don't go with a publisher again. Be indie. Be in charge.


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