XperimentalZ Games Says Take Care Of Your Customers
Project manager behind Don't Run With A Plasma Sword offers advice to prospective App Store developers.
We've heard a small number of success stories within smart phone gaming, rags to riches tales where inexperienced designers receive a windfall of cash, prompting hundreds (more like thousands) of aspiring developers to set off on some bizarre too good to be true gold rush.
It's time to come back to reality.
Yes, some have profited off Apple's iOS platform, but the bottom line is this: game publishing is a tough business, and like most things in life, you should do it out of love for development, and not because you think you'll go from parent's garage to mansion in less than a year.
That said, XperimentalZ Games' founder, Patrick Jacob, was a refreshing change a pace. A former Gameloft employee and mathematical physicist, Jacob went indie and helped create one of the more enjoyable titles on the App Store, the critically acclaimed Don't Run With A Plasma Sword. Released in December, the game impressed reviewers but was somewhat lost within the holiday rush.
A new and risky promotion, however, may change the company's fortunes, but as we learned from Jacob, there are no guarantees in this highly competitive industry.
Why did you make Don't Run With a Plasma Sword free for a week? More importantly, why flirt with making it free for a whole month? Won't you lose money?
In a world where visibility is so hard to obtain, free promotions often play an important role. Since DRWAPS (Don't Run With A Plasma Sword) has in-app purchases, it also allows us to flirt with the freemium model.
The general idea is that although the revenue generated per user is lower, the high volume of downloads might cover the losses.
We will see how things go for DRWAPS, but at the moment of writing this, we already reached 100k in downloads over a couple of days, so we're now committing to leave the game free for at least one month. Hopefully, we'll be able to stay free and build up a steady user base from there, which would be a win-win situation for everyone.
How did the game do on the App Store? Did it exceed expectations? Can you share how many people downloaded it?
The game was very well received by critics and players. It was also featured on the App Store (although not in all countries, perhaps due to a bug). However, it performed below expectations for a project this size, generating around 4500 downloads over a period of two months. Even worse, the income was lower than our initial tiny marketing budget.
December being a big month for AAA titles, the release date was probably not the best. But even without that, we've probably been suffering from the same problem plaguing tons of great indie games, which is getting lost in the mass.
What was the toughest part of releasing a game on the App Store?
Of course, just developing a great game and completing it can be an immense challenge. To be more specific, releasing a game on the App Store is a relatively straightforward process, which is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because this provoked a boom in indie game development and therefore brought a fresh source of ideas to the game industry. A curse, because the sheer volume of new game releases makes it extremely difficult to stand out. Not only the competition among high quality games is fierce, but they also get lost through a mass of lower quality or even fraudulent products. Since the offer is greater than the demand, this also puts a lot on pressure on the developers to lower the prices.
In a top-heavy market where winners take all, 90 percent of developers end up doing this for more or less free. These days, most of the time you need at least one of the following to make your way through: a huge fan base, one million in investment to develop a AAA title, a large marketing budget or an insanely addictive game which goes totally viral, which amounts to having a lot of luck.
How did you come up with this concept? Were you fans of "runners" and sought to innovate on a proven concept?
Actually, all this was a bit unplanned at first. We had just put together a larger dev team, and we wanted a simple project to get going before moving on to something bigger. The first idea was to make a simple fighting game involving a plasma sword type of weapon. Then we decided to convert it into a combat auto-runner, because this style is so well adapted to the platform. Back then, it made a lot of sense, because the amount of endless runners had not yet exploded.
As time dragged on longer than expected, we really got into the project. By then, we had seen the average quality of games rise on the App Store, so we decided to push the genre to its limit. That's the only way to make things interesting both for the gamers and us.
How many people worked on this game?
At the time of the initial launch, this was a 6,000 hours project made over a period of 14 months. Ten people contributed to it, excluding the 30 or so beta testers who helped us so much toward the end of the project.
Can you give us a hint at what the new modes may be?
On our website, we have a poll allowing players to vote for the following options:
- A boss frenzy mode.
- Local multiplayer, as a sort of runner racing game.
- A new chapter for the story mode.
- A tournament mode, where players compete for weekly prizes. This would be set on fair rules where everyone has the same set of upgrades.
- A Climber or combat jumper. The goal would be to reach the highest possible height as you battle your way up.
What really separates this game from competitors?
Probably the sum of its parts. Instead of trying to come with a big revolution, we tried to push back the boundaries on the genre by combining several distinctive elements. There's the humorous retro sci-fi thematic, the story mode with checkpoints and boss fights, objectives to accomplish in the endless mode, storyboards, skills and character upgrades, but the most important for us was probably the gameplay aspects. We wanted to increase the amount of action and control for the player, compared to the average auto-runner. That's how we came up with dash and dive abilities, which allow the player to navigate through complex level configurations.
What turns out, from the comments we receive, is that if a player is not seduced by one aspect, another will interest him.
What advice would you give to aspiring App Store developers?
For those who are new to the gaming industry, I would recommend to do it to satisfy a passion and to gain experience, not for the prospect of earning a lot of money. Learn, read books, ask for advice and information. Create a project you really like, because if you don't, no one else will.
For those with experience, or who want to try and make a living out of it, don't forget all the aspects surrounding the creation of a video game, which we tend to put aside. There's not much room for mistakes, so plan everything carefully: design, coding, art, marketing, finance. Study your market. Build a fan base and interact with it. Take care of your customers. Although they're also crumbling under the volume, reach out to review websites. They'll follow-up if they find your game interesting enough.
Freemium or not, try to fill a gap in the market, either with a simple, original, addictive and hyper polished game, or with a game which strongly pushes back the boundaries on a genre.
Although we could not try it, crowd-funding websites can also help a lot, sometimes.
But honestly, I see crazy things on the App Store that I don't understand, projects doing well even if they should not, by any standard. So I suppose that luck can also be useful
We'll probably have iPad 3s in the next couple of months. What do you expect from the device?
The iPad is such a nice gaming device, so we're extremely glad to have made DRWAPS as a universal app. I suppose that the most likely things that we'll see for the iPad 3s are a more powerful processor and retina display, which are both a big plus for gaming. Since retina display takes a lot out of the machine, I just hope that it won't cut down the performance gains by too much.