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Marketing On The App Store: The Cautionary Tale Of 100 Rogues
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Marketing On The App Store: The Cautionary Tale Of 100 Rogues

February 3, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[When an iPhone project begins in 2008 and launches in 2010, that's a huge challenge -- and 100 Rogues developer Keith Burgun here describes the bumps in the road that the well-liked, high-quality game has hit on its long slow journey towards release and profitability.]

In December of 2008, my team and I began working on our iPhone game, 100 Rogues, which wouldn't get released until May of 2010. A widely reported iPhone gold rush combined with our desire to get a great game out to as many people as possible seemed like a great match, and so we charged into development full-force.

The Genesis of 100 Rogues

Strangely enough, the concept for our game, initially, was to "make a POWDER clone". For those who don't know, POWDER is a roguelike game that's been widely ported to a ton of platforms. For those who don't know what a roguelike game is, it's a genre of computer game that's been very active for 30 years (they're named "roguelikes" after the game that started it all back in 1980, titled Rogue.)

Imagine turn-based Diablo on Hardcore mode with high scores -- randomly-generated maps, turn based combat, and crushing difficulty usually are hallmarks of the genre.

Due to the fact that we chose our price point first, we ended up expanding out in a lot of ways that took us completely off the POWDER track. Probably the most striking difference is in presentation -- our game is pure fully-animated pixel art, with an original score, opening and closing cutscenes, and a detailed user interface.

Though we had originally planned for it to be un-animated and rough, like POWDER and many PC roguelikes, we eventually decided that the should look and feel like a Super Nintendo or PlayStation release.

Gameplay-wise, 100 Rogues has a skill tree (similar to Diablo II's) and is highly tactical -- most of the spells are not too helpful unless applied at just the right moment. I was also heavily inspired by the boiled-down simplicity of Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer and even games like Team Fortress 2, and I tried to make the items system be as simple as possible.

So, no two items do the same thing; each item has its own specific role and doesn't step on any others. This again stands in stark contrast, I think, to the design of POWDER, which is much more of a conventional roguelike game. Again, most these changes were largely sparked by the price-point -- which is very relevant to my overall point here.

Unlike so many commercial games of today, 100 Rogues is not about completion; it's about improving your skills at the game. It follows more closely with an old arcade game like Galaga or a competitive game like Chess than it does Final Fantasy. A huge concern of ours was to make sure this element of the game was exorbitantly clear to our players.

The Challenge of Visibility

Our approach to making this clear was to dispel the "hero" image of the player classes, and paint them as societal rejects -- losers who seem as destined to fail as they actually are. To our surprise, this seemed to have worked; the expected complaints about the game being "too hard" simply because people couldn't complete it never came.

The game was also very well received by all who formally reviewed it, getting at least four out of five stars from every publication we're aware of (to be fair, there were early complaints about the stability of the game, but this was addressed early on).

Though we started in 2008, we didn't really understand what the game would be until somewhere in late 2009 or early 2010. Furthermore, we lacked an overall gameplan for marketing the game, beyond simply being active on forums and word of mouth.

The experience of trying to guerrilla-market 100 Rogues was, and continues to be, frustrating. The story goes something like this. Sales are sucking. We work our asses off on a significant update and on promotional materials (be they a video, a contest, an illustration, or just a blog post).

The update goes live, sales increase ten-fold, and everything is great, until we notice that on Day 2 after the update, our sales have reduced by 50 percent or more. Same with the next day, and after two or three days, we're back to square one.

It feels like the only times we have good sales are when we are at the top of the "What's New" app store page, because of a patch. This speaks to the aforementioned top-heaviness of the App Store (by the way, it isn't possible to release patches any more frequently than our team does; Apple takes about two weeks to put one out, and we usually have another patch ready to go by the time they do). We only get any visibility when we're in the "What's New" section due to a patch.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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E Zachary Knight
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Glad to see this. It seems that free to play is the new business model for mobile and web games. I like that. It is what I have have decided to do for my game.

I hope that you find that success you are looking for.

Marshall Abbott
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I'm no expert, but I would guess that a big part of 100 Rogues' sales dropping off a day or so after each new update is customers discovering just how incredibly buggy it is and warning people away from it. I've personally seen this phenomenon in action, so I would say word of mouth is working pretty well, just not in the way you probably hoped.

Admittedly, it's been a while since I played 100 Rogues so it could be loads better now. I'm not particularly inclined to try it again though; in the past I would pick it back up after every new update only to discover some new, bizarre bug that ruined my game more often than not.

Adam Miller
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That's my experience with 100 Rogues, and I wrote a review stating as much. I think the game could be very good, but the bugs in conjunction with poor play balance really kill it for me. Which is too bad, because the game really does have nice pixel art.

I encountered numerous bugs, some helpful (like giving me max items in my inventory), but even the helpful bugs tarnish the experience. The worst, though, was the game crashing when I beat the final boss, so no cut scene for me.

Regarding the play balance, the most obvious flaw to me is the nature of the bosses. The battles are tedious, serving as roadblocks to replaying the game. Not that this mattered for me, as I easily made it through the game on my first try (and I'm not fantastic at roguelikes or anything), simply because the teleport skill is vastly overpowered, as very few monsters do much from range and all fo the bosses require moving quickly to various room tiles. The teleport skill tends to be more helpful when it "misfires," sending you to some random corner of the floor. In essence, this is like giving you a huge amount of free exploration, and half the time it drops you right at the stairs to the next floor. It was dissapointing to so mindlessly work my way through the game.

Hugh Shelton
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"It was dissapointing to so

mindlessly work my way through the game."

It's a letdown when a developer allows those kinds of loopholes to exist, but if you would have enjoyed playing more without exploiting said loophole then you letdown yourself as a gamer.

Kirt Thomas
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I agree with this. It's better, and most of the play breaking bugs are gone, but it was a hard word of mouth sell when 9 times out of 10 the game would crash and all progress would be lost. This is kind of a kiss of death for a rogue like game.

John Rose
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I'm sorry, but this project sounds so painfully misguided. The complete lack of business sense here is a huge pet peeve of mine. The concept itself ignores the iPhone market in general, which is just begging for failure. I don't want to hate on RPGs, but it's hard to imagine a real market for throwback roguelikes in a crowded cell phone environment. You know that this is the Angry Birds/Cut the Rope audience, right? How can your game possibly stand out in the first place, much less in the SRO App Store?

And I take it that your conclusions are supposed to apply to all iPhone games? Of course, there's no reason to give your game away just because it's your own IP. There are countless top-sellers in the App Store without a previous license behind them. And it should be obvious that $30,000 is a completely risky budget for a game lacking a marketing department and selling for a couple of dollars. Number crunch that shit.

I haven't played the game, but I can appreciate why the monster contest was the only way people could get excited about it. It's a shame that your project is struggling, and I hate to see developers frustrated by the game market. But the market is a real thing, and we are stereotypically awful at the business end of things. I hope it turns around for you, but a little proof-of-concept interest testing would have gone a long way for you guys.

Cristian Heidarson
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John, you seem to say that the only objective on the app store is to make a pop hit 'a la Angry Birds. In this case however we have a developer who was passionate about a particular type of gameplay. It's fascinating to learn from their experiences in trying to make that work. Clearly the rules that apply for physics puzzles are not going to apply to less mainstream games.

Luis Guimaraes
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Writte down, both the article and the comments above.

Matt Hackett
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"This is all, of course, assuming your game is a relatively new idea; but if it isn't, then why are you making it?"

^ This is a surprising comment from a developer making a self-described clone

100 Rogues initially interested me because I'm a retro gamer, I enjoy supporting indie developers, and I recently purchased an iPad, so I wanted to buy some cool lesser-known games. Unfortunately I was disappointed with 100 Rogues. I was sold on the fact that it seemed to be a medieval fantasy roguelike, but later found myself fighting cowboys and other kinds of wackiness that just happens to turn me off as a gamer. It also seemed unbalanced (particularly, it was too easy) and I felt that it didn't bring anything new to the Roguelike table.

Most importantly I saw what I assume was one of the developers posting about the game on Reddit, so I offered what I believed was some constructive criticism and was basically attacked by the developer's responding comments. This struck me as extremely unprofessional and made me immediately regret having given them my money.

As an indie developer myself I still want to support indies but now I feel it necessary to research a developer first before opening my wallet, because I refuse to support indies who aren't professional and courteous to their customers.

keith burgun
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I said at first the idea was to make a clone. It absolutely was a clone of nothing by the time it came out.

Sorry to hear you didn't like the silly theme, but we think it did bring something new to the roguelike table. Have you played a roguelike that has a skill tree like Diablo 2? Also, how many roguelikes are there with fully animated pixel art? All I can think of is Shiren the Wanderer (a wonderful game if you haven't played it!)

Eric Ries
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"You know that this is the Angry Birds/Cut the Rope audience, right? How can your game possibly stand out in the first place, much less in the SRO App Store?"

Yup, that's it right there. 90% of the audience here is NOT what I would call a "gamer" they like to casually pull up something to entertain themselves while riding the subway. They are not the kind of people who are willing to invest hours and hours into a game. It just doesn't matter to them. They need 10 minutes of "keep me occupied" time until they get where they are going.

Wesley Paugh
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The game does everything I could think it should to target a niche effectively without breaking the standards for the OS, and I'll explain why in a bit. Before then, I should say that RPG is a bit of a misnomer, here. 100 Rogues player characters have skills and both become more powerful as levels are gained, so it looks an awful lot like one. However, there are key differences to Roguelikes that make them great iOS titles for several reasons.

1) Throwaway characters. As Keith said, these guys aren't the D&D characters you carefully wrote a back story for, dreamed up armor and agonized over naming. They're rejects that you're going to grow very comfortable watching die repeatedly, and yet I personally think they don't lose their charm as a result.

2) Turn-based. Stop at any point, reload exactly where you left off, and your reaction time won't be shocked by entering real-time combat in progress.

3) Relatively short play. 100 Rogues can be beaten in an hour, hour and a half, depending on how experienced you are. That hour and a half can vary greatly in the combat scenarios encountered, and the goal was to make the game difficult enough to where most people wouldn't be getting to the final boss in less than dozens of hours of play. The game has gotten much easier in both difficulties since launch, partly in preparation for a third, Hard mode.

To me, it seems like the game should have circumvented the battle for dominance against the currently popular game designs, which are either large IPs or cute physics puzzlers, and appealed to players that have already had those genre needs met and enjoy classic paradigms of gaming that also happen to be very platform-appropriate, like not having a guaranteed continue point, being comfortable with failure and building skill with the game over time.

I don't think this should be a suicidally niche audience to target on the platform, but then again the game has not been a financial success.

Anthony Gowland
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I may be misreading this, but are you saying you still haven't put your competition winner's monster into the game? As far as I can tell from your site the competition closed over five months ago.

Bruno Sommer
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I can't help but feel that the 100 Rogues story is in actuality a list of things not to do when you release a product on iOS.

The main points of interest here are:

1) Niche game, turn based rogue-like in a sea of puzzle games and casual games.

2) High price point in a sea of $0.99 and free apps.

3) Buggy launch leading to lost momentum

If you had launched at $0.99 and the launch was stable and bug free, you guys would be pretty profitable right now. Getting reviewed as an indie developer releasing a game for the App Store is non-trivial. The fact that you got reviewed at all, let alone got good reviews, coupled with good word of mouth, would have sent you guys to the bank. There is a lesson to take from the post, but it's not the 3 bullet points on the last page. It's more like:

1) If your game isn't a mainstream IP and/or is a niche genre and/or isn't AAA quality, releasing at anything other than free or $0.99 is financial suicide.

2) A buggy launch can ruin your momentum and rob you of one of the most important marketing tools: word of mouth.

3) Failure to differentiate yourself from your competitors, namely games of the same genre (especially clones), will make it hard for your game to stick out, even with great reviews.

Andrew Dobbs
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It's like any other entertainment market: it's a crap shoot. It's pretty hard to plan for any sort of success as a small group creating one game.

I think there's several valid points in both the comments and the article.

It's incredibly risky to try and build a game and live off that income. Let's say you want to make 30k off your game (and theoretically then be able to live off that 6 months to a year). To make 30k (before taxes), you need to sell almost 43K of product. If you price your game at .99, that means you need to sell around 43k units.

I'd not be shocked if 99% or more games released on the store sell less 1,000 units. Even if you are exceedingly generous, and you say that 10% of titles sell at least 50k units, how long do you really think your game is going to sell at that level? What are you going to do the next year if your next game doesn't sell?

Check out that post for more info. The App Store revolution is a revolution for a lucky few who both design a quality game and strike on that unpredictable win. This all reminds me of my attempt to sell ebooks after I quit my job. I figured I could keep afloat by working my way up to 1,000 "fans" who would buy new work every month or so. I got 10,000 views, hundreds of downloads of samples and free versions, and one actual purchase.

People may love what you do, but that doesn't mean they will pay you for it. I also tried using social funding site, again for a relatively measly amount of money, and I got like 3 pledges.

It's easy to say someone just didn't hit the right quality bar, or they made a marketing mistake, or their design wasn't the greatest fit, but at the end of the day do any of us really *know* why stuff like Angry Birds or Farmville take off while similar games just do okay or don't sell at all? We like to think we can control our destiny, but the reality is much of our success or lack thereof depends on chance.

Some times, the dice come up deuces.

Josh Foreman
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This article and comments all add up to one depressing and discouraging experience. I think I leveled up my apathy.

Tomiko Gun
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So, poor marketing, poor business sense, bugged launch title, very extensive development time, 30K dollars; on a niche and tired genre that has a lot of stand out offerings already, but neither of them ever cracked the top of the charts.

Sounds like a recipe for success (money in this case, as that's what they are whining about) to me /s

Cristian Heidarson
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Keith - thank you for your insightful and honest dissection

I am a big fan of your game. I found that the tactical element turned the rogue-like concept on its head and created an entirely new experience. The game is obviously a labor of love.

Much of the discussion so far centers on how to make the game succeed as a mainstream hit on the App store. As pointed out however, Rogue games are likely not mainstream and so trying for the semi-weekly boost from "what's new" will be like paddling water. Rather, I would say that your game is more of a niche game with passionate fans. It becomes not so much a question of how many sales (since there is a finite market) but rather how much $ per fan. As you mentioned in your article, the new character class is an almost entirely new game. I would have been more than happy to pay $10 for it.

My advice would be to do market research on your current fan base. Segment them into purchasing power and start designing new content for those willing and capable of paying for it.

And rather than asking your fans "what do you want to see next", ask "what would you be willing to pay for". In my case, $10 for a new character, $5 for a new world and $1 for "special levels or features".

It's a controversial discussion to have with your fans, but as you say, the old days are over and we're going to have to figure these things out sooner or later. I've watched games die after they introduced IAP designed to allow gamers to "cheat" their way through grindy passages, so you have to tread lightly.

Anyways, I have been inspired by your efforts and I hope you guys find a model that works. And I've been writing this while downloading your latest update, so now I'm off to play around with the 2.5 new ammo types :-P

David Deeble
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I was just wondering how effective the XBLIG marketplace is at translating trials into actual sales - basically users are given access to the full game for a limited period of time (~8 minutes I think) and then prompted to purchase the full game once their time's up. I think if they purchase there and then, gameplay simply continues from that point.

Does anyone know if the App Store supports this sort of system? (as far as I know if you have a Lite version of a game the only way to buy the full version is by a direct link to the AppStore). I think a trial system like this would benefit this sort of game in-particular.

Joe Houston
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It's definitely true that price expectation narrows the kind of game you can successfully market and sell on the Apple store.

It's funny, I recently made a blog post that made a similar observation:

The Democracy of Digital Distribution

And to a lesser extent this one too:

Gamers Whiny Crybabies Because Game Developers Suck at Games