Since the beginning of the smartphone era, games have been the most downloaded kind of app, and among the most profitable.
Games are such a popular kind of app, that Apple decided, for the latest App Store redesign, to dedicate a specific section to them.
Strategy is intended as those games like Clash of clans and basically all those games where a bearded warrior screams in anger.
I’m not a fan. Actually I’m kind of a hater, but I’m gonna talk of my disgust for free2play games in another post.
Puzzles are all of the Candy Crush and alike. Arcade are all those simple games, usually consisting in a single action, not really focusing on a story but rather on the fun of the gameplay itself. Please allow me to give this overly simplified definition. A good example on mobile is Crossy Road.
This last kind of game is the one you can usually play with just your thumb while riding a bus or a train to work.
It’s the kind of game also non-gamers install on their phone to kill time while waiting in line or, most commonly, while sitting on the toilet.
They usually don’t require any kind of thinking (unlike puzzles and strategy), they are quick and games are usually quite short, the learning curve is minimum. They just require to build up some skill on that specific action. Timing is usually key to master this kind of games.
Anyone can play, anyone can enjoy.
On the development stand-point, these are probably the easiest to make too.
For these reasons (popularity, revenue chances, ease of making) I’ve been interested in trying to make my own mobile arcade games.
Mobile arcade games share a lot in common with the very first videogames ever made: simple interaction, limited controls, simple gameplay… Just to name a few.
For this reason, many of today’s arcade games on smartphones, are a remake of old concepts (Crossy Road = Frogger)
I’m not a fan of remaking something without adding any value to it (you can read my article: Your great idea probably already exists, but that’s fine). It’s not really a matter of people wanting new stuff (they usually don’t), but a matter of ethic as a designer (of course if it’s unintentional, that’s fine. Nobody can know every single thing existing in the world).
Nonetheless, old arcades can be an endless source of inspiration for coming up with casual games mechanics.
So, I was thinking about old arcades when I asked myself:”Which one is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, electronic arcade game?”, the answer was: the Pinball!
What twist could I give to the classic pinball gameplay to make it original and different? Many casual arcade games don’t have levels and an ending, but they just go on endlessly and the player aims every time to beat the best score. This kind of games are easier to make, because the level design is continuously generated by some code logic and they don’t require to design each single level; for this reason this option is usually the cheapest in terms of coding time.
Combining the pinball with an endless mechanic (something like Doodle Jump) seemed to be something that still hasn’t been done (at the time, at least). I wasn’t sure if that could work, so the first thing I did was to team up with another designer, Mauro Gatti, and a developer, Davide Jones, to share the idea and see what they think, and eventually come up with a very first test.
Davide came up with a very rough version of the engine and the mechanic seemed to be working, in terms of gameplay, so we decided to go on.
This game is not really a 1-tap kind of game, as it requires players to use both thumbs on the screen. By tapping the right half of the screen the player moves the right flipper, by tapping the left half the other flipper moves. It’s possible, as in regular pinballs, to move both at the same time.
The sets of flippers are spaced of a certain amount (a little more than the height of the device) from each other. If the the “dude” (as we called the character) goes past the following set, this becomes active and the player controls it. If the dude doesn’t go past the next flippers, it falls down and the player can still control the same set they just used.
The design concept
My original idea was to have a very traditional pinball design, with the difference of being endless.
Mauro instead had the idea of having a character, instead of a simple ball, and instead of a classic pinball table, transform everything in something like a crazy extreme sport.
This idea was good also because having a character as the ball would allow us to have a series of different skins as in-app purchases.
Bonuses, obstacles, enemies, collectibles, etc…
Now that the main idea was set, we had to spice it up with collectibles, bonuses, enemies and so on.
The basic obstacle works just like a classic round pinball bouncer. From this basic one we defined several behaviours, like bouncers moving left and right, bouncers orbiting in circle and more.
We also added a “sudden death” enemy that, if touched, caused an immediate game over. We lately changed it because it was too mean and frustrating; so instead of ending the game, this enemy caused the dude to shrink down to about half its size, making it easier to fall in between the flippers.
Along the path there are also stars to be collected. Stars can be used to unlock new characters, as sort of an in-game currency.
Teaser, user test and survey
Once we got an MVP (Minimum Viable Product), we conducted the first user tests. At the same time, we started buzzing about the game, sending it to various websites, such as tourcharcade.com. We posted a game teaser on forums and social networks and we asked for testers for our beta release.
With a bunch of people wanting to try our game we prepared a survey to understand what was good and bad about Dude Ball, what we could improve, what bugs did they step into, if they liked the characters, if the gameplay was fun, etc…
From this survey we got some very good insights and we collected some good ideas, that helped us shaping an improved beta version to send to publishers.
Collectibles and monetization model
Beside advertising, the game offered a big catalogue of in-app purchases. 65 characters to buy, a no-adv option and a premium version that for just $9.99 unlocked all of the characters and removed the advertisements completely.
Characters could be unlocked also by collecting stars. The quota to unlock characters increased after every new character the player unlocked; so if just 20 stars were needed to unlock the first one, the second character needed 40 stars, then 60, 80 up to 100 from the 5th character and on.
The idea was to invite players to play more to collect all of them (more games means more advertisements displayed, hence more money). To make this easier we introduced a wheel of fortune with extra lives, characters unlocks and extra stars. This way the player could win more and be less frustrated so that they would try again and again.
Finding a publisher
Now, there is something to consider here. There’s a big difference between going on your own or having a publisher, let’s break down the pros and cons of each option.
Publishing by yourself:
- you get all of the money (minus 30% App Store fee)
- you can take all of the decisions
- you are not forced to push in- network adv or stuff like that
- your brand/name is the only name associated with the game
- you have to do all the marketing by yourself
- you don’t have a network of other tens, if not hundreds of other games, pushing yours
- having visibility on the App Store can be almost impossible, as publishers usually have direct contacts with editors
With a publisher
- you get support in marketing activites
- they usually have lots of fans on socials already
- they have a network of games for in-network crosspromotion
- can assist with developing
- provide useful advices based on previous experiences with other similar games
- easier to be featured on the App Store (and this is a game changer)
- you have to split the profit (with fees that can go up to 50% or even 70%, after App Store fee)
- you don’t have full 100% control on the game anymore
- they might ask you to put more adv than you’d like
- your name is not the only one appearing in the game even if you basically did all the heavy lifting
My personal advice is: go with a publisher. At least for your first game.
Finding a publisher is not THAT hard (provided your game is good). You can find name of publishers just by browsing the App Store.
Find just the ones that publish games in the same category as yours. It doesn’t make sense to send a demo to a publisher specialized in RPGs if you have an sport game.
Make a list, prepare a demo video and be ready with a beta on Testflight (or alike). Get in touch with as many as you can (avoid copy and paste, make it look like you know their products. It’s a bit like submitting your CV for a job).
If some publishers get back to you, listen to what they can offer, how big is the cut they want, etc… It’s not always “the lowest fee the better”, consider how big the publisher is, how many players they can reach, how many fans they have etc. Maybe it’s better to give a higher cut to a huge publisher, whose games constantly get exposure, rather than a cheaper cut to a small publisher.
We published our game with Appsolute Games, which had a very good amount of successful 1-tap casual games in their portfolio.
The Appsolute guys also had very good insights about things to change to our revenue model for the game as well as in-game advertising and in-app purchases.
Ready for the store
With all the feedbacks from testers, changes asked by the publisher and suggestions from other people in the field (particularly useful were some advices by a guy from Pik Pok games), we prepared the final build.
Once that has been approved by the publisher we prepared all of the marketing deliverables for the App Store and for social networks
The publisher ultimately decided the release date.
Some numbers and conclusion
Dude Ball got about 200,000 downloads in the first 10 days after release, being featured in China and some other countries. It’s not bad, but after the spike in downdloads cause by the feature in China, things slowed down at pretty fast pace.
The real goal is getting a feature in the US, that’s the market that changes the fate of an app. This unfortunately didn’t happen for us.
At the end of the day, despite the fact that I can’t absolutely consider this as a financially successful project (from that stand point, this is totally a fail), I’m happy with the experience I got from it. It’s been stressful, lots of times, it required way more work than we could imagine, we pushed back the release date for about a year (this was a side project for all the people involved), but what came out of it is a little underestimated fun game with some quirky characters, a catchy tune and I’m quite proud of the result.
A special thanks to fellow designer: Mauro Gatti, to our devs: Davide Jones, Andrew Theis and Logan Chang and to David from Appsolute Games