Erik Asmussen: Why PWN will be my last iOS game

By Guest Post 28 Oct 2013 0
I'm on holiday until Wednesday.

After his most recent release failed to breakthrough on iOS, indie developer Erik Asmussen has soured on developing for the App Store. Erik was kind enough to share a very detailed post-mortem with us about his experience. Come back this afternoon for a take on indie iOS development from someone who's decidedly more bullish about it. -- Owen

P-owned! Strong Bad doesn't know how to pronounce this.

Hi! My name is Erik Asmussen, and I’ve been developing iOS games for the past three years under the studio name 82 Apps. I built games like New World Colony and Shape Shatter, and I’d like to share my experiences with my most recent project called PWN: Combat Hacking.

I’ll walk through my approach to the development process all the way from idea to launch. Hopefully players can use this to get an interesting behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to make an iOS game these days, and other developers can avoid some of the unexpected pitfalls I encountered.

The Idea

Is it Gwen What's in the box?

PWN is a three-dimensional real-time strategy game where you engage in pseudo-hacking battles against rival computer hackers. You launch viruses and trojans at your enemy, and protect yourself with encryption and firewalls, all in order to gain control over a virtual network of nodes and knock your enemy off the grid.

I had always wanted to build a competitive computer hacking strategy game. It appealed to me because it’s the perfect combination of three factors:

  • Taps into the Zeitgeist: Fake Hollywood hacking is a subject that just makes people’s eyes light up. Everybody knows those scenes in 90s movies or techno-thrillers where a punk with sunglasses and spiky hair sits down, types wildly at a keyboard, and cracks into the FBI mainframe. This seemed like a great hook to grab the attention of press and potential players.

  • Unrealized genre potential: Hacking games generally exist as mini-games and have almost nothing to do with real hacking. They miss out on the rich strategic potential inherent in computer hacking - concepts like encryption, firewalls, viruses, trojans, backdoors and scanners that fit beautifully into categories of defensive abilities, offensive abilities, hidden information, traps, and detectors.

  • Competitive appeal: There are real life hacking tournaments where people try to take over each others’ computers, and felt that this idea of battling wits and technical skills was extremely compelling and could resonate among a wider audience, perhaps even becoming a new kind of eSport.

Market Approach Hacking like Sandra Bullock.

Going into this project, I was well aware that making a profitable game in the mobile market was going to be very tough. The App Store is flooded with both good and bad content. Discoverability is an enormous unsolved problem. Free-to-play is the dominant model, and premium apps are a very difficult sell and generally require very low price points to get any traction.

These were true well before I started developing in July 2012, so I knew what I was up against. Even so, I figured I stood a chance at success because of these factors:

  • The strategy niche is favorable because players of this genre are more willing to buy premium games, invest a lot of time into them, and share interests with similarly-inclined players.

  • I would start with an attention-grabbing and eminently marketable concept.

  • I had developed and released several games for the iOS market before, and could leverage this experience to make good design decisions and improve my chances of success.

  • I have a base of 175,000 players from previous games, most of which are strategy game fans, that I could use to jump-start sales.

  • My bar for sustainable revenue was relatively low. I’m a one-person studio with minimal overhead, so I didn’t need to hit the jackpot in order to keep making games.

Design Challenges

I can feel it. Dave. My mind is going.

From the start, I had a pretty good idea of how the game was going to work and a lot of the design fell very nicely into place. Players would capture network nodes in real-time, try to split enemy nodes apart from each other, and use an array of hacking skills that attacked or protected nodes in different ways. These skills would have situational strengths and weaknesses, and would be able to counter each other. For instance, Viruses will spread and capture nodes quickly, Firewalls protect against Viruses, Spikes will disable enemy nodes and destroy firewalls, and Encryption will protect nodes and block Spikes.

One significant problem unique to this game was finding a way to pack lots of visual information into each node that was readable at a glance in the midst of battle. For instance, a single network node can be encrypted, be protected by a firewall, have a hidden trojan, be scanned by both players, be owned by a player while another player is actively capturing - all at the same time! It took many attempts but found a pretty effective solution by combining different permutations of color, animation, spatial position, and iconography to communicate the total node state.

The biggest obstacle by far, however, was figuring out how to teach all this information to new players. It’s a lot to absorb, but even more troublesome was the fact that the game just isn’t that interesting or fun when players only have one or two hacking powers - it would be like a fighting game with only one button. So I had to find a way to introduce concepts at just the right pace that walked the razor thin line between boring and scaring off users.

After a huge amount of work, rework and scrapped code, I finally figured out a set of best principles for the game:

  • Build the tutorials directly into the campaign levels, instead of having a separate tutorial feature that nobody would use.

  • Teach players one and only one big thing per level. Let them try it out on their own before teaching something new.

  • When text is necessary, use very simple and direct statements. Pause the game and highlight relevant visual information, or else players will just click through without reading.

  • Use dynamic AI difficulty to maintain the right the challenge level for a wide range of players. Players must feel challenged, but also safe enough that they get a chance to think through their actions.

  • Present information on a ‘Need to Know’ basis - only show some messages if/when a player actually tries something against the rules. I owe a huge thanks to this GDC talk for helping with this approach to tutorials.


Just about where it needs to be but not quite. "The music gets old"

I was definitely successful in using the marketability and polish of the game to get press coverage and Apple’s attention. It was chosen as a ‘New and Noteworthy’ selection when it launched, which in turn helped it get reviews and coverage on all the big sites like Touch Arcade, Pocket Gamer, Kotaku, Pocket Tactics, GameZebo, 148 Apps, Ars Technica, and GameSpot. I had a booth at PAX East and players loved it and seemed to genuinely share my excitement about it.

Reviews in the press, however, were mixed. It received an Editor’s Choice from one site, and a 3 out of 5 from another. What I learned from the more negative reviews is that sometimes ‘More is Less’ - meaning that including some features can actually generate more criticism than if they weren’t even there in the first place. You’re basically raising the bar on yourself, and this was surprising and very frustrating. Some example criticism:

  •  “The story is barely there.” I included eight different characters, each with a slick hacker name, an in-game hacking specialty, and a snippet of background history that united those attributes. I had figured that in fighting or strategy games the backstory is ancillary and that even hinting at a deeper narrative would be sufficient to draw players into the concept. However, reviews frequently criticized the insufficiently developed story. This is particularly frustrating because most mobile games include zero backstory, and this never seems to be a problem. But it seemed that including a small amount of narrative had the effect of creating disappointment for those that wanted it to be developed further.

  • “The campaign is repetitive.” This one was a fair criticism, but it was frustrating because the campaign was never meant to be the heart of the game. It began as an optimal way to teach players the basics and turn them into experts, and wound up being about 8-10 hours of single-player content where you progress through each character and battle other hackers to unlock new abilities. It’s true that the basic gameplay is the same for each character, but they each start with a different specialty skill and unlock other abilities in a different order. This requires players to be resourceful and learn to use their skills in different combinations and situations, and therefore the strategic approach varies quite a bit between campaigns. But most reviewers don’t play games for that length of time, and perhaps were turned off by early difficulty, and so many of them quit before those nuances became evident. My other strategy game New World Colony has no campaign mode, and this never seemed to cause any problems. It may have been best to not include this mode at all and just let players teach themselves, or at least to make the campaign much shorter.

  • “Needs online multiplayer.” I knew going in that real-time strategy games would not be a good fit for online multiplayer on mobile: an extremely small number of mobile users want to play real-time competition against strangers when they open their phones, and the game would never have the critical mass necessary to make it likely that two random players would be looking for a match at the same time and find each other. PWN did include local multiplayer via bluetooth at launch, because I wanted to encourage face-to-face trash-talking battles and thought this was more compelling anyways than matching against random strangers. But the complete impracticality of online multiplayer didn’t stop reviewers from almost universally criticizing the game for its omission.

I had to make a choice during development to build out the story and campaign with lots more art, cutscenes, and voice acting, and build in online multiplayer from the start, but I wasn’t comfortable with the huge financial risk this all would add (plus increasing the download size drastically - it was already perilously close to the over-the-air download limit). I had assumed these aspects were low priority luxuries given the genre, platform, and design - but surprisingly they turned out to be significant issues for reviewers.

The Reboot

Down here at the PWN shop. Re-PWNed.

After seeing these reviews, I decided to try and remedy the biggest and most easily fixable flaws and see if that helped anything. After all, New World Colony only became a success after several large updates.

  •  I implemented an XP gain, skill upgrade and level progression system so that even when a player fails a level, they can strengthen their character’s skills and re-attempt with a better chance of success. This gives players a chance to customize their characters differently for each campaign, which adds another layer of strategy and makes campaigns feel less repetitive. It also creates a nice self-correcting difficulty curve, as players that breeze through early campaign maps will have gained less XP and will be naturally be at a lower level and a greater disadvantage in later stages.

  • I got rid of some early mandatory tutorials to get players in the main game sooner, spread the most important lessons out further, added more ‘set-piece’ levels that felt like special scenarios, and made the AI even more responsive to player skill to smooth out the first campaign.

  • While I still figured online multiplayer was not actually going to be used on a widespread basis, I could add it without too much effort and try to create a fresh news cycle and generate more exposure.

It took about three months to tune this new version. When I launched the update though, the game had pretty much already disappeared from people’s radars and it received minimal additional coverage. I ran a free sale that generated an underwhelming 35,000 additional downloads, during which the online multiplayer was full of players (and a ton of fun) but afterwards rapidly turned into a ghost town, pretty much as expected. On the plus side, I could tell that people were playing the campaign for much longer, so those balance and pacing changes did work well.

Market Headwinds

From that Clash of Clans money. Locked out.

Despite these gameplay faults, a lot of things went right with the release. It got an Apple feature, was covered in a lot of big-name review sites, it performed well in the charts, got overwhelmingly positive user reviews, and even got an extremely fortuitous mention on the Penny Arcade blog.

But even when all these things fell miraculously into place, the revenues simply weren’t there:

  • In the first month: 14,000 downloads generating $7,500

  • Lifetime (~8 months): 50,000 downloads generating $10,000

(Discrepancies between downloads and revenue due to price fluctuations between free and paid.)

Provided by Erik. PWN's first month-and-a-half of revenue.

Provided by Erik. PWN's app store ranks over the same time period.

The scary thing is that these numbers are actually pretty good for an iOS title. This survey is old, but based on these numbers it performed better than 75% of games in the app store. (Nowadays, it was probably even better relative to other paid apps.) And while it’s not a disaster, it’s a pretty weak return given a year’s worth of time and my expectations for the game’s potential.

PWN's best ranks in the U.S. were #149 in paid games and #18 in paid strategy games. This kind of ranking only earns about $300-$400 a day. This would be great if sustained, but hanging on to these spots is nearly impossible without an ongoing feature in the App Store or a huge install base.

I had definitely counted on a more robust long tail, and I realize now that making the game turn-based would have almost certainly helped keep players in the game and playing online for longer. For comparison, my two-year old turn-based game New World Colony has 5000 sessions per day and 1200 daily active users, while PWN has 400 sessions per day and 150 daily active users.

Lessons Learned

In summary, here’s what I learned from this experience:

  • Many things that used to work (press, Apple feature, free promotions) have lost effectiveness.

  • Never ever ever build a real-time multiplayer game on mobile. Turn-based is vastly superior for the platform because it can potentially give you a sustainable long tail.

  • A player base of 175K seemed like a lot but isn’t enough to get a useful launch boost, especially if only a subset of them are still active.

  • It’s better to exclude a feature than include one that may feel incomplete.

  • Climbing the charts and grabbing attention as a paid app is just as difficult as before, but now with significantly lower reward.

This last point is the most important. While mobile has been ultra-competitive for a very long time, the quality bar is higher than ever and the pie that everyone is fighting over is getting smaller and smaller. Check out these recent articles that all emphasize the same point: creating paid mobile content just isn’t working as a business model.

It’s possible that if PWN were a catchier game, or if it had a better icon or a slicker PR campaign it could have performed better. But the fact of the matter is I keep seeing the same thing happen over and over: high quality paid games are released that are a great fit for platform, get prominent featuring, get tons of press, and achieve excellent chart position - and still pull in meager revenue.

The only paid games that succeed either come from developers that have already had a huge success under their belt, or contain well-known IP, or land an extraordinarily rare Editor’s Choice banner. But that ‘success’ is tempered - a vast majority of top grossing apps are all free apps, so even the ‘jackpot’ scenario isn’t worth what it used to be either.

Yet I’d argue the free app market is even tougher to compete in, because all the big money players are now staked out there and it takes a massive ad spend to get anywhere close to the number of players you might need to get decent revenue.

I can’t fault consumers or Apple for any of this. I wouldn’t be a game developer without Apple’s marketplace, and they’re just facilitating what consumers want, which is an infinite supply of high quality free content, which in turn sells devices. Players may grumble about IAP, but as a group they made their true preference very clear. It’s all part of the natural evolution of markets, and unfortunately that means some models just don’t survive.

Pretty grim, huh? Well, me being an eternal optimist, there is a bright side.

What’s Next

Featuring Daft Punk. Robot Roller Derby Disco Dodgeball, currently in development.

I decided that iOS is just not a market that I think is viable for me to compete in any more, let alone depend on as a sole source of income. Instead, I am developing games using Unity and targeting several other platforms first. The most important benefit of this shift is that it opens up a ton of new avenues for promotion and distribution that were unavailable to me as an iOS developer:

  • Allow large numbers of people to purchase and play an early access version give away free keys

  • Frequent updates that involve and sustain a community and get involved in YouTube Let’s Plays and streaming

  • Make more effective use of advertising (as it is difficult to target advertising for just people that own iOS devices)

  • Utilize crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter

  • Release on platforms that still contain reasonable perceived monetary value for games

  • Target Steam, one of the primary revenue sources for many game developers

  • Take advantage of emerging tech like the Oculus Rift and Steam Box

I know these markets are still highly competitive and have their own problems and obstacles, but they don’t feel like the dead end that iOS appears to be now for someone in my position.

And so, I’m currently building a first-person multiplayer dodgeball game for PC called Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball. It’s stupid crazy fun right from the start, is accessible to pretty much anybody, works equally well on console and desktop, is perfect for recording and live streaming, and best of all doesn’t require building a tutorial!

Someday, I may jump back into the strategy world. Who knows, maybe I’ll update PWN to be turn-based and port it to other platforms. I’d still love to build a sequel to New World Colony and a number of other hex-based strategy games I have planned out on paper. But while these games may eventually appear on iOS, it simply won’t be a very high priority for me.
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