In this excerpt from Game Design Secrets by Wagner James Au, Randy Smith from Tiger Style (Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor and Waking Mars) shares the story of how he and David Kalina built a successful mobile game studio by adapting some of the core principles of great core game design and translating them to the iOS. In the process, they show how you can create thoughtful, artful, genre-defying games for Apple's platform and do quite well. The book is now available in paperback and e-book (use code "GDS12″ for a 40 percent discount at checkout).
In Spider, you play an arachnid, jumping and spinning your way through an empty mansion with the flick of your finger, discovering the mysteries of the family who once lived there along the way. As of mid-2012, the game has sold more than 360,000 copies and grossed more than $1,000,000. (Spider still earns more than $5,000 in a good month.)
In Waking Mars, you play a lone, stranded space explorer with a jetpack, lost in the caverns of Mars recently discovered to be full of life -- specifically, a living, breathing ecosystem of alien life forms. Mars, which launched in March 2012, has so far sold over 55,000 copies, grossing more than $240,000.
"Both games have a long tail," Smith notes to me, referring to their small but steady sales months or even years after launch, "and as of this writing Waking Mars is still in the beginning of its sales lifetime."
The sales numbers are even more impressive when you consider how much these games took to produce: Smith estimates it cost $15,000 to develop Spider and $38,000 for Waking Mars. This is possible because Tiger Style doesn't really have an office or investors, and operates, as he puts it, with a business model that's "more like a film production company or a cooperative, perhaps."
Spider's $15,000 budget includes the purchase of all equipment, licenses, and legal support. It also includes $10,000 in royalty advances paid to the team. That sum, however, doesn't include any salaries or benefits. For example, during its eight months of development, Smith lived off of his own money.
"We're all essentially unpaid contractors during a project; then we all collect lifetime royalties when the game is released," says Smith. On top of that fact, consider that Tiger Style is a distributed company without an office; the company employees work over the internet, and the company doesn't have investors. That's about as low of an overhead as companies can get.
Waking Mars operated under the same model. It was a two-year development cycle that was supported by the income of Spider, according to Smith. They paid out $38,000 in advance royalties and about another $5,000 in other expenses. He and co-owner Kalina lived off the income from Spider during the two-year development of Waking Mars. (While they were developing Spider, they lived off their savings.) Now they're living off of Spider plus Waking Mars' income to develop their next projects.
"The rest of the team is more like a film production company," says Smith. "They are contractors who work with us when we have projects for them to work on and find other income the rest of the time. We provide royalty advances to those who need it during production."
Social media is an integral part to promoting Tiger Style's games. According to Smith, the trailers for both Spider and Waking Mars (posted to YouTube) were key instruments in selling the games to players who had heard of them but wanted to see more before spending their money. "We consider the trailer to be the single most important piece of promotion that we can do," says Smith. "We choose to show gameplay footage while also communicating the fantasy and story that was being offered."
For social network promotion, Spider had a feature that let you brag on Facebook that you were playing it or that you solved one of its quests. (The adoption rate of that feature was 11 percent.) Waking Mars did something similar, allowing you to Tweet to your friends back on Earth when you had completed research on one of the Martian species.
Fewer people Tweeted from Mars than Facebooked from Spider, which Smith attributes to implementation. "The Mars Tweets were also a bit more mysterious," says Smith. "Sharing with your friends that you just solved a mystery in a video game is probably an easier sell than posting something cryptic like [a Waking Mars Tweet] 'Larians prefer to eat mobile life forms but are also able to derive some nutritional value from Zoa seeds.'"