Cross-posted with our Studio blog
To date, we’ve released two original iOS games: Garage Inc. in January 2011 and KULA BLOX in September 2011. Based on player reviews, KULA BLOX is the superior title. However, Garage Inc performed better in the months immediately following launch. While underperformance of a good title on the app store is not particularly new or interesting in and of itself, I believe that many of the issues that contributed to the lesser performance of KULA BLOX were self-inflicted. We inadvertently made the game difficult for people to buy. This is a summary of our analysis, which we were mindful of during the design of our latest game Ants at a Picnic, and which I’m hoping will prevent others from making similar mistakes.
Have a one-liner / tag-line that gives a person who’s never heard of your game a good idea of what to expect. The exercise of coming-up with a one-liner will show you if your game is easy to describe succinctly which is a key factor to successful word-of-mouth marketing. If you are having a hard time coming-up with a one-line description of your game, chances are so will your potential “evangelists”.
The one-liner we used for Garage Inc. was “Diner Dash for dudes” and given the popularity of Diner Dash, that worked very well.
For KULA BLOX, we needed to tell an entire story to explain the game - there was no quick way to capture the essence of what was happening.
The tag-line for Ants at a Picnic is “protect your treats from pesky ants” which pretty much describes the gameplay premise.
A great way to describe your game, if your one-liner doesn’t quite cut it, is to try to compare it to another game or to describe it in terms of a particular genre. “Tiny Wings crossed with Monster Dash”, while lame gives you an idea of what to expect. Or, “it’s a cart racing game where guinea pigs race motorized zombies” might sound strange but you’ll get the concept of what kind of game you’re getting.
Having a reference point like this will allow potential customers to quickly understand if the game is of interest to them - it’s a great way to select for people who like this kind of game and to filter out those who don’t. You also won’t have to explain as much about your game since the general gameplay mechanics are immediately understood as are any genre-specific conventions. So a lot less “evangelism” required.
Garage Inc. was easy, it’s a time management game which is a well known genre with an understood set of gameplay conventions.
For KULA BLOX this was hard. There weren’t any well known games that we could use as a reference point and the game didn’t fit into any popular genres so we had to explain pretty much everything before a potential buyer would be prepared to part with their money.
Ants at a Picnic won’t be as easy as Garage Inc. but it can be described as a casual tower defense game where your finger will be your only weapon. That should work better than KULA.
Another important consideration, when you’re launching a game based on a new IP, is the title itself. Make sure that the title is to some extent descriptive of the gameplay so that potential customers can get a hint as to what to expect. Plants vs. Zombies and Cut the Rope are two great examples where an aspect of the game is implied in the title.
KULA BLOX is not. We thought we were being all fancy by using a Swahili word (kula means eat in Swahili) in our title. And we were. Too fancy though. KULA BLOX means nothing to potential buyers and therefore does not help describe the game.
Garage Inc. - unless you’re looking for the Metallica album, you’d probably expect a game to do with cars. Especially once you see the logo.
Ants at a Picnic - pretty much describes the game’s setting. The title combined with our tag-line should produce the correct impression of the game making the purchase decision easier.
Now, as much as I’d never suggest designing your game in a way that produces cool screenshots, having screen shots that are hard to interpret in terms of what’s going on gameplay-wise does not help convince potential buyers that your game is for them.
Garage Inc. - the screenshots showed the inside of a car garage with cars and mechanics - a well understood setting.
For KULA BLOX our screenshots looked pretty but because we didn’t have effects that indicated speed or direction of movement, it wasn’t clear what was going on in this already strange game setting.
We haven’t revealed any screenshots for Ants at a Picnic at the time of writing but they will show a top-down view of a picnic table with food and ants - we hope this will be easy to recognize.
The less obvious you make the setting of your game, the more you’ll have to explain. Think of Diner Dash - it was the first popular Time Management game but because it was set in a diner a lot of the rules of what happens in a diner were well understood and did not require explaining.
For KULA BLOX, not so much. Block-shaped animals falling from the sky eating each other while getting pickups and using powers is not something that most people would just ‘get’.
Garage Inc. was set in a car garage, Ants at a Picnic will be set… …at a picnic. Both of these settings should be equally easy for players to understand as should be any conventions of what happens in these settings.
You will need to write a game description for the app store. Make sure to use this opportunity to describe your gameplay. Don’t get too fancy. Just tell people what they can expect to be doing if they buy your game.
Since the mechanics of Time Management games are understood, for Garage Inc. we felt we could be more creative with the description which set the story more than describing the specific gameplay mechanics.
We got too creative in the original description of KULA BLOX and said cool-sounding things like: “Fight your way to the top of the Food Chain! Free-falling through exotic locales across the globe… it’s survival of the fittest!” This explained very little…
For Ants at a Picnic the description is written in an attempt at old English (the game is set at the turn of the 19th century) but the text describes the specific gameplay features clarifying any questions that our title, tag-line and screenshots might have still left open.
Overall, with KULA we’ve unintentionally created the perfect storm of unclarity - pretty much every facet of the game and its marketing made it difficult for people to quickly understand what it is. The result was that it was hard to even give the game away for free.
Further proof of our assertions came when we did a “Not Quite Bundle Bundle” where we offered all 3 of our iOS titles for free and Garage Inc. got the most downloads followed by Puzzle Quest and KULA BLOX was last. And of the three KULA BLOX was the newest, had the best user reviews and was never offered for free before! That should tell you something. Make it easy for people to buy your game.
As outlined, we’ve attempted to incorporate a lot of the lessons learned from Garage Inc. and KULA BLOX in the design of Ants at a Picnic. While doing so will not guarantee success we are hoping that making it easier for potential customers to buy our game will be reflected in the game’s sales numbers. Fingers crossed.