Tales from the Back Burner: Stack

Sometimes we learn more from our failures than our successes. In this series, we’ll take a look at some of our projects that didn’t pan out, and see what lessons can still be gleaned from them.

What was it?

Stack could be pitched as an innovative brawler-style free-for-all about hoarding, hauling, and hurling super-powered stacks of blocks. Think Super Smash Bros. crossed with NES pariah Bible Adventures. Wait, where are you going? I swear it’s better than it sounds!

The setting: a 2d platform-littered arena

The cast: 2-4 players vying for control of a limited supply of valuable blocks

The objective: collect stacks of blocks and carry them back to your goal. Meanwhile your opponents will do anything in their power to collect them first. Luckily, blocks are good for more than just scoring points – many have powerful offensive capabilities, like the rocket and flame blocks. Each match is a chaotic struggle between collecting as many blocks as possible, and expending blocks to prevent your opponents from doing the same.

How’s it play?

Players scramble around the stage, picking up blocks and carrying them in a large stack over their heads. As a stack grows, it becomes more unwieldy, and blocks at the top are at risk of falling off if the player runs into low platforms (not to mention providing a bigger target for attacks from other players). Individual blocks can be tossed in to a goal for individual points – even from far across the stage, if nothing else gets in the way – but running into the goal with an entire stack earns the player a big “touchdown” bonus. These differing incentives (large stack = lots of points, small stack = agile and less vulnerable to attack or mistake) provide plenty of opportunity to develop and refine strategies, react to counter-strategies, and develop personal mastery of the game.

The blocks themselves are a blank slate on which to paint an array of surprising and delightful gameplay concepts. It starts simply: a vanilla block is worth one point; a gold block is worth many. But throw a fire block at an opponent and they’ll burst into flames, periodically shedding blocks off their stack until the fire is put out. A direct hit from a rocket block will blast the entire stack out of an enemy’s hands. Hit a seed block with a water block, and it’ll suddenly grow into a vine that provides a convenient ladder to higher platforms. A well-lobbed milk bottle block will drench an opponent, attracting a swarm of hissing cat blocks, tying them up and causing them to drop their stack (cat blocks can also be picked up and thrown, but they don’t like it and will try to escape!).

What went wrong?

Stack was incredibly fun to design and showed a reasonable amount of promise as a game concept. The reason I decided not to move forward with it had little to do with the idea and everything to do with competitive analysis. Couch multiplayer games are already a well-served market segment. Even putting aside AAA heavy hitters like Smash Bros., Steam is littered with quality indie offerings like Towerfall, Ultimate Chicken Horse, and countless others.

What’s more, even with full confidence in my ability to compete on quality, the fact remains that the segment itself is very challenging in terms of market size. Titles cost just as much to bring to market, but in all but a few cases only one person has to buy the game in a group of friends for everyone to enjoy it. A few more might shell out based on an enjoyable experience at a game night, but most players would be happy with a few fun play sessions and quick to move on to whatever the new, exciting release was. This means these games tend to have a short tail.

Lessons

  • An interesting idea doesn’t necessarily mean a viable product
  • Competitive analysis is a critical component of the decision-making process. With limited bandwidth to work on ideas it’s important to dedicate time only to the ones that offer the best chance of success
  • Study the size of a potential market. Lots of competition doesn’t always imply a profitable segment. Red oceans are red from the blood of competitors, not customers after all

BuildDown, Monetized

Part 2 of a discussion of game design decisions made for BuildDown. Part 1 is here.

BuildDown is a simple, action-oriented game, which made it somewhat challenging to figure out how to monetize. There are no levels, so I can’t exactly sell more content. The mechanics are not friendly to puzzles to force such a content model, either. Instead, I had to weigh the various popular approaches to see which played best to the strengths of the game.
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Ad-Supported

Voyager, like all my games, is free to play and was designed to be supported by in-game advertisements. So far, players have responded very positively to the game. Unfortunately, my bottom line has not.

So far this month, about 300k ad impressions have been served to Voyager users. This chart breaks down those percentages by region:

From this perspective, it appears the game has been most successful in Asia and Europe (and my App Hub download numbers, Flurry analytics, and the huge number of positive reviews from those regions corroborate this). This next chart tells a different story:

In terms of revenue, many of the regions where the game is the most popular barely chart. In fact, almost 80% of the revenue earned in that period comes from just 12% of the total impressions.

Why is this happening? The answer is eCPM. eCPM means “effective cost per thousand impressions,” and it’s what determines how much money a developer makes from ads. An eCPM of 1 means that 1000 impressions earns the developer $1. The value can vary wildly, from a few cents to several dollars. Unfortunately, because I’m using Microsoft’s ad control, “a few cents” is often overly generous.

This complex chart demonstrates the relationship between impressions, eCPM, and revenue. The further to the right a country is, the more impressions, while height equals higher eCPM. Finally, dot size correlates to revenue. Notice how most countries have an eCPM at or near 0, including many with highest number of players.

I’m thrilled with the amount of support and positive feedback I’ve been getting from abroad. Ultimately though, what this boils down to for me is that unless my game does better in the US, UK and Canada (or unless Microsoft gets its act together with worldwide advertising), it’s never going to make money (on Windows Phone, anyway). I’m still surprised it hasn’t done better in the US, but I can always hope that it will someday get featured and attract the audience it needs to thrive.

The Worse Bug

Rare Earth is not profitable. Let’s get that out of the way up-front. The game was released as an experiment to see whether the mobile games platform would be receptive to an unfinished (but frequently-updated) game concept. In many ways, the experiment was a failure. Users were extremely divided about playing an unfinished product (almost all the reviews were either 5 stars or 1 star), and there were nowhere near enough users to generate enough impressions to make any money off the game. Or so I thought.

Here’s a graph of my impressions for June and much of July. Rare Earth is just one of the pack among the 3 ad units from BuildDown:

However, when I was finalizing the latest Rare Earth release (v0.6), I noticed an oversight on my part.  had programmed logic into my ad control wrapper to detect errors, wait a bit, and try to recreate the ad control, in an attempt to recover from any crashing issues in Microsoft’s ad control. Unfortunately, I had forgotten a critical component – to actually call my update logic! Ultimately, any ad crash caused the ad control to stop functioning until the game was started up anew. I had no idea I was missing out on potential impressions until I fixed the bug. Here’s the same chart, with another two weeks added in:

Well that’s interesting. Flurry tells me there hasn’t been any significant uptick in my userbase or number of sessions. Isolating for the variable, that means I have a 5-20x upgrade in my number of impressions just by compensating for errors in Microsoft’s ad control! Extrapolating backward, Rare Earth could have been sitting on hundreds of thousands more impressions over the two months it’s been live.

I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Experiment

Conventional wisdom is that only the most polished and complete games are successful on mobile phones, but some guys made a rudimentary implementation of Pictionary and sold their company for $200 million, so screw conventional wisdom. I’m going to try something different.

In a few days, Rumor Games will be releasing Rare Earth on Windows Phone. It’s a project I’ve been working on for a long time (in mobile game terms). It started as a prototype to see what kind of fun ideas would come from playing with orbital mechanics. Over the last few months, it has grown and changed, leading to several spin-off experiments. But the core mechanic of flinging planets into orbit was something I wanted to see through, and while the experiments were fun, none really brought it to the next level of excitement that I was looking for. Usually, a prototype like this would end up shelved and never see the light of day.

Now, I’ve followed other peoples’ projects that seemed interesting and fun from the outside, but ended up being canceled for one reason or another. Maybe the sales projections weren’t quite where they needed to be, or maybe the product just wasn’t gelling right. But my interest was real and genuine, and I absolutely would have tried them, and would have supported them if I saw promise in what I tried. And with the low barrier to entry of mobile, why not let people try?

All of this led me to this experiment. I’m going to release Rare Earth as-is – beautiful, but unfinished. There are no tutorials, no music. But there is an opportunity. I’ve included a (to my knowledge) one-of-a-kind voting feature, to empower players to help direct future updates. I hope people will see as much promise in this game as I do, and I want to hear from them about what excites them the most.

I want to start a conversation. Email us. Tweet us. Write reviews for the game. I promise I’m listening, and I promise I’ll keep working on Rare Earth as long as there is interest. In the meantime, we’ll keep working on our Next Big Thing.