Saturday 30 June 2012

iOS Sale Numbers

I've written way too much about money on here lately. Clearly it's something that's weighing on my mind. I have enough to live on for now, but I have worries about the future. I was intending to avoid it and stick to games and theory for a while but there are some things that came up and I feel are worth saying.

So there are some misconceptions around about the iOS appstore (the market for games in general, but the appstore in particular). Everyone's heard about the absurd successes - the shallow badly-aliased bird games, the fart apps - and there's this public perception around that it's an easy way to make money. This perception is harmful, I've seen it do harm, I've seen people who really couldn't afford to sink their time into making apps because "everyone knows" it's an easy way to make money, then have them inevitably fail.

But mostly it just pisses me off. I meet someone, chat with them, they ask me what I've been working on, I say I've been doing some mobile games lately. They say, "oh yeah? I bet that's pretty rewarding", rubbing their fingers together in a symbol for money.
No, it really isn't.
It is very rewarding in many other senses; there's cool hardware, there's a powerful immediacy to a touch-screen, it's great for in-person multiplayer games, it's an ideal context for small-scale games, it's lovely to be able to meet someone at a pub and right there show them something you've made.

I've been hearing among game developers for a while statements like "the iOS gold rush is over" (although some disagree that there ever was such a "gold rush"). But in the world at large, this perception's still there. People still believe in the gold rush. And it affects choices they make, it matters. I'm sure the gatekeepers are happy to keep this fable alive. It needs to be dispelled.
That's why articles like these two are valuable: Congratulations, Your First Indie Game is a Flop, IceBurgers: by the Numbers. Everyone hears about the successes - we need to tell more people about the failures. Or the.. things that aren't really failures, but aren't successes either. It makes me deeply uncomfortable to see millionaires rage at someone posting this kind of thing. The conclusions drawn by the developers in those articles may be invalid, but the raw data is not. Negative results are just as valuable as positive ones, but while there are a lot more negative results most of the attention goes to the positive ones. Maybe those are bad examples, maybe they're bad games (I haven't played either and certainly they don't look very attractive), maybe they approached things with the wrong attitude, but this type of message is valuable.

It's really easy to look at articles like those and with 20-20 hindsight explain why they failed. Had Minecraft failed, it'd be easy to write off why - unoriginal gameplay, looks bad in screenshots, no tutorial. But since it is successful we can comfortably praise the originality of the design, the distinctive graphical style, and the joy of figuring things out for yourself. It's much harder to predict ahead of time what will take off.

There are a lot of good reasons people might not make these kinds of numbers public - they consider it personal information, they're under an NDA, they want to avoid an internet comment backlash, they don't want to be seen as a failure and have that colour perception of their future work. It takes a certain courage to be public like this. I admire the people above for doing so. Maybe it's a tragedy of the commons thing - it's not in anyone's individual interest to say this kind of thing because it's negative publicity, but it's in the interest of the whole.

So, having talked about this, I should show some numbers of my own. I'm slightly reluctant about doing so - partly because of the reasons in the previous paragraph, and partly because I don't feel like they're very good examples. They're niche games, quickly made, without a focus on selling well.
Some background is necessary. I went through some serious burnout over the last few years, last year in particular. Trying to complete two very high-maintenance projects simultaneously. Hard work. Pushing my limits. Stress. Isolation. Depression. Sense of failure. Major loss of energy and motivation. Still haven't completely recovered from it. I've found some respite in working on small games that are easy for me to complete, using very low-resolution graphics because they allow me to work fast and still make something that looks good. So looking at things I've done in the last year.. there's some bloody good design there, I'm really pleased with some of what I've done, but I haven't been doing everything I could to optimise for sales because that's a kind of work that really drains me.
So please don't mistake me for expecting these to be big successes. I didn't. They're tests to see if I can generate some amount of income from the small-scale things I've been making. Minor forays into the appstore market. Experiments.

So, Glitch Tank. Sold 127 copies in 3 months before Zaga-33 was released. Another 251 in the 3 months since. 378 total.

Zaga-33. 1624 copies total. That's not so bad. At a dollar each, that's ~$1100 after Apple's cut. Not so much less than minimum wage for the month I spent on it. (If you disregard time spent on failed prototypes that don't get released.)
The free PC version's been downloaded some 1500 times. More people have paid a dollar for it than have grabbed it for nothing. I find this most peculiar.

These numbers aren't final. They're still selling a few copies every day.

So I've covered the cost of the iPad (and even the repairs after smashing it on the floor) and the Apple developer license. But not much more.
However, I emphasise again, I do not count these as failures. They've been good for my mental health, if nothing else. People have enjoyed them. I've had some very positive responses to them.
And looking at how Zaga-33 fared so much better than Glitch Tank, and how Glitch Tank tripled after Zaga-33 came out.. there's definite network effects going on. I'm reminded of Bennett Foddy's GDC talk - he showed a graph of ad revenues from his site as he added more games, and the shapes here are looking quite similar to the start of his graph. I suspect a comfortable level of income could be reached eventually just by continuing to release similar games. This is one major flaw in the two articles I referenced earlier - they're both looking at a single datapoint. Two is barely enough to be worthwhile, but at least it's something you can draw a line between. This is woefully incomplete research, hardly worth publishing at all. But maybe it'll be useful if contrasted with other numbers.

It's traditional at this point to ask what could be improved. The main thing seems to be graphics. Both these games look pretty good. Colourful distinctive style, appropriate to the overall design. But it seems like low-res graphics put a lot of people off no matter what. When I can bring myself to, I'll sink some time into high-res graphics and try to get a measure on how big an effect this is. I love abstract low-fidelity graphics and it'd suck to have to give up on them because people are shallow or whatever, but if it lets me keep designing games I'll do it.

Tuesday 26 June 2012


This is an album of nine 2-player local-multiplayer games:
Exuberant Struggle, March Eternal, Ora et Labora, Twilight Beacon, Capricious Atom, Chang Chang, Zeta Forge, Hostile Pantograph, Glitch Tank.

download (windows)
download (mac)

I started making these early last year, with Exuberant Struggle for the TIGSource Versus Competition. It felt very rich with possibilities, so across the year I made several more.
At some point someone suggested that I should try putting them on iPad. So I bought one, ported Glitch Tank over, and found it worked amazingly well. Better than the original in fact, as though it was meant for a touchscreen all along. (If you have the privilege of owning an ios device, I highly recommend getting Glitch Tank for it - even if you find this PC version too confusing for you, you'll likely get on with the touch version a lot better.)

I got a bit discouraged after that though, because the other games did not port over anywhere near as naturally and the sales figures for Glitch Tank were not very promising. So I've sat on these for a while, occasionally tweaking them a little, occasionally struggling with the ios versions. But they need to be released, to be played, so here they are!

They're local-multiplayer only: there's no AI, no networking, you just play against a friend sharing the same keyboard.

Find a friend. Play them.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Games vs. games vs. "games"

Yesterday this article by Keith Burgun showed up and sparked a bunch of discussion: a way to better games. Mostly fairly hostile discussion. And naturally so, for the article is written in a very provocative tone (intentionally or not). But there is something of value in there that may be being missed. Not something "new" that will pull us out of some ludic "dark ages" into "enlightenment", but something that might be of practical use to some people designing games.
(There's also a lot that I disagree with, but others are generously criticising most of that already.)

Going to backtrack from games for a bit, start at a high level and work my way down.

Logic allows us to deduce things that are absolutely true. This may be counterintuitive if you haven't studied it, since most of the time in real life we can't know anything for certain, but in logic we can. It's a conditional truth though - we only obtain statements of the form "if A is true, then B is also true", which may not be so useful if we can't confirm A. All mathematics is of this form; everything is logically deduced from a small set of initial axioms which cannot themselves be proved. Logic can only make true statements about abstract systems that don't necessarily correspond to anything in the real world. But as Wigner exclaims in The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences, surprisingly often these systems can approximate reality well enough to be extremely useful.

Formal definitions are a powerful tool in logic. I posted more succinctly about this last time this topic rose up: definitions. They let us specify a class of objects in a way that's amenable to logical reasoning, allowing us to deduce new facts about it.
How useful this is depends on how structured the objects you're dealing with are. In general, the more restrictive the definition, the more structure there will be, the more truths you will be able to deduce about the objects so defined.
However, if you have too much structure, this can complicate things. Even if you're only interested in studying a single specific object, it often helps to take a step back and abstract it out a bit. Figure out what are the salient features of this object and reason just with those. Very often it is actually easier to prove a general statement that answers more than your original question than to answer it directly on its own. So there's a tension when picking a definition in making it both restrictive enough and broad enough to be a useful abstraction.

You can give a word any definition you want. As when writing a computer program you can define variable names however you choose, when writing a text you can define terms however suits you. But obviously going against common usage makes it harder for others to read, so there's value in trying to construct definitions that are formally useful and also capture the intuitive meaning of the term. It's usually infeasible to define how words are used in a completely precise way, but approximations can still be useful.

A definition is not a value judgement. Specifying a category for consideration does imply that you feel it's worthy of study, but it does not automatically follow that anything outside of it is less worthwhile. (But it's not uncommon for people to treat such a classification as though it contains an implicit valuation. Please don't do this.)

A restrictive definition need not restrict creativity. Sometimes choosing to work under a constraint can be a helpful creative tool; going deep into one area and understanding it thoroughly can generate new ideas. Other times, while you might not have initially chosen to work under a particular constraint, you end up satisfying it anyway; and then you can usefully apply results about it to your work. And if a proposed definition fails to capture what you're interested in, looking outside the intersection of the two categories is often a guide towards good examples.

So, games.

There are two meanings of the word "game" in common usage. One is very broad; as Wittgenstein points out, the word is used to cover a vast range of activities with little in common between them. But the word is often used in a quite specific way as well, to describe a particular kind of structured play, as when one says "it's not really a game" in an attempt to describe a work of interactive art such as Proteus or Dear Esther.
I use both meanings all the time and expect people to understand from context. This expectation is usually justified, but it sometimes leads to confusion - for example, a few days ago I tweeted this provocative statement: "if a game's not worth playing a hundred times, it's not worth playing once", and I immediately received replies suggesting certain puzzles as counterexamples. I agree that once you know the solution to a puzzle there's usually not much value to interacting with it further, but puzzles are not the type of object I was considering; however there was insufficient context to make my meaning clear. (Note that I don't necessarily believe my initial statement, I was just trying it out.)

The first of these two meanings of "game" refers to a very broad unstructured class of objects. There's not much that can be usefully said about them in general! It includes a lot of interesting stuff, but it's not a category where we can expect to logically reason out much of value. That's okay, there are other ways to explore it. Anna Anthropy vocally encourages inclusiveness in the game-development community in order to get as many different people with different viewpoints as possible making different things, and I heartily agree.

The second meaning, however, refers to a tightly restricted class of objects. There's a lot of structure, and logic is useful for navigating it. Numerous people have studied this class over the years. There is not a consensus definition, but various have been proposed. Some authors seem keen to search for 'one true definition' (Burgun among them) but having multiple competing definitions is not a problem. There are at least six different definitions of "matroid" in common use - all equivalent, but not obviously so - and researchers will use whichever gives most insight into the problem at hand. The case with games is similar (although in general our definitions will probably be closely overlapping but not equivalent), and we can similarly pick and choose to think in terms of whichever characteristics suit our present goals.

Crawford defines a game as an interactive activity in which active agents (including players) compete with each other and can use attacks to interfere with each other. This does a fairly good job of capturing the intuitive common-use meaning, but the word "attacks" is problematic; it fails to describe positive mutually beneficial interactions like resource trades in Settlers of Catan or action selection in Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy. The concept of "active agents" is somewhat subjective as well, as he himself admits, but it can be a useful model.

Costikyan builds on this in I Have No Words & I Must Design, he declares decision-making to be the key characteristic of games; defining them as "a form of art in which participants make decisions in order to manage resources through game tokens in the pursuit of a goal."

Burgun's attempt owes much to the previous two, so I take issue with his claim that his definition is "new"; it's an attempt to codify a folk definition that's been in use for decades, and while his exact wording may be different he exalts decision-making just as Costikyan does. The claim of novelty suggests unfamiliarity with the work of prior authors (as do the claims that the craft of game design has not matured - we've seen incredible progress in board games in particular across the last couple of decades). However, it's a worthwhile attempt; the phrasing of "ambiguous decisions" is clear and evocative, and more flexible than Costikyan's discussion of "resources".

I will not attempt to provide a definition of my own, but I will suggest strong replayability as another characteristic of games with which a definition could be crafted (possibly rendering my earlier tweet tautological).

This class of "games" is by no means the only one worth looking at. Let's explore the entire world of play in all its variety! Kanaga presents one interesting framework for examining playspaces in general: Played Meaning (Concerning the Spiritual in Games).
But when the systems we create do fit into an established category, games or otherwise, it's useful to draw upon the body of knowledge accumulated about that category. And if we're not certain how to proceed with a design, whether it fits into an established category or not, it can be helpful to abstract out its salient features and reason logically about them - possibly inventing a new category as we go. As in Science, we must confirm our ideas through experiment, but a sound theoretical framework helps to point out interesting directions to experiment in.

So this may not be an approach that you find personally useful - whether because of how your mind works, or because you're not working within any conveniently structured class of objects - but it is not without value at all. I find it useful, and some of my work I'm most proud of has been inspired by this type of approach.

Friday 8 June 2012

Because We May results

Following up from previous post:

Sos had a similar idea to me; he raised the price of Super Office Stress to $99.99. Which is pretty great; I was too timid to go off the scale like that and I'm stoked that someone else did. His writeup is here. Between us we provoked some discussion and provided some entertainment, so I definitely count it as a success. I enjoyed browsing various forum threads about the sale and seeing people have a bit of a chuckle when they noticed what we'd done (or in some cases freaking out, getting angry, or assuming it was an error).

To clarify some things: I'm not stupid, and I know how sales usually work. I know sales do work - Vertex Dispenser was in the Indie Royale bundle recently and that was easily the most profitable thing I've done in game-selling, I'm very grateful to them for that opportunity. I know that not everyone has a huge amount of money - I don't - and I love that sales can make things (legitimately) available to people who simply can't afford to purchase them at full price. I certainly don't think that sales are something we should never do.

But it worries me if massive discounts become the only way to sell games at all, because that's an environment in which only those selling a huge number of copies can survive. I'm way more interested - both as a creator and a consumer - in weird obscure stuff that doesn't tend to appeal to a mass audience, so I'd like to encourage a system where that sort of thing is viable.

So here are some numbers:

Glitch Tank
Week before the sale: 14 copies.
During the sale: 7 copies.
Week after the sale: 25 copies.

Week before the sale: 27 copies.
During the sale: 3 copies.
Week after the sale: 90 copies.

So my total income from those games those weeks was about $40, $50, $100.
(It's fiddly to work out the exact numbers for this because appstore prices vary between regions, and they don't tell you directly.)

Thank you to everyone who bought my games - at either price.