Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The project - 2 years on

Its very common at the end of a year to look back and see what has been achieved over the previous 12 months and to look forward to the new year with vigour and positivity. For me it offered up a greater opportunity to not just look back on last year but also my "project" I have been on for 26 months.

On the 9th October 2011 I kicked off a journey of writing games and hopefully turn it into a pursuit that would secure the financial future of my family while applying the 10,000 hour principle to my dream.  Back then I wrote a blog entry that set out goals of which all going well as I sit here today I would be writing this blog as a full-time game developer and having secured at least a number one game.

I knew when I wrote it (the blog) I was being incredibly ambitious and, in fairness, set myself some pretty unrealistic goals.  Well the reality is I haven't hit any of my targets, in fact nowhere near, but nonetheless I am as involved and as motivated in the pursuit of writing games as I was when I penned the blog over 2 years ago.

The best advice I got early on was getting your early apps out the way as quickly as possible.  Strange advice you would think but hidden within that simple sentence was that you gain so much from each app you write there is no point dwelling nor seeking perfection nor never releasing but to take something from it and move on. Yet despite this so many people give up after their first game as they think they will make a load of money or its easier to do than it actually is.

I know having completed Astavoid I really struggled for the second game not that Astavoid was any kind of success but difficult without the experience to know where to go next.  What was a blessing was a concept called one game a month (1GAM) which as it suggests sets focus on writing small games in iterations of a month.  This really changed the focus for me and so I kicked off 2013 in quite a structured way.

Kicking off the year I took quite a big decision to move from Corona SDK to Unity3D.  At the time it was a very big decision because the little I did know I gained through learning the LUA programming language as well as writing for Android and iOS in Corona.  However, the types of games I wanted to move on to in 2013 were hampered by the lack of progress the Corona platform was making and while Cocos2D was a consideration I felt Unity3D would cover off most scenarios I could come up with. As this was a big shift for me I decided to turn a game around in a month I would stick to what I knew and rewrite Astavoid in c#  and in Unity3D not least for future support. I'll be honest I found Unity3D overwhelming at first because as a developer I was far more code centric, programming sat better with me.  This is why I decided to engage with Unity3D using Futile the 2D code centric framework which worked pretty well for me and got the job done.

Having ticked off the first month I wanted to do something completely different so I decided to write a game that could fit on one screen but would build upon what I had previously learnt. I decided to write a game that was a twist on the classic game frogger as I wouldn't need to consider game play elements as in principle I could copy but then put my own twist on it.  My twist was on the joke "Why did the chicken cross the road ..." where I changed the frog for a chicken.  This really helped as I learnt to use packages such as glyphdesigner and customised and scaled fonts. Not a bad little game in the end but one I was never going to push on to iOS as it lacked polish and depth.

Have a play here there if you fancy seeing progress made.  

March was really where my year started to change.  As it happened Easter was falling quite early in 2013 so I thought seasonal games always did well so I would make that the focus of my March game.  However, over half way through the month I really hadn't come up with anything good but was determined to not fail with 1GAM so early in the year.  Instead I decided to focus on something that wasn't graphic focused but could easily generate a number of levels of code rather than anything too time consuming.  I had played and enjoyed games like Gauge and decided something like this would be the direction and from which 1800 was born.  In essence the game was written within a week and the last week of the month was taken up implementing the analytics framework, Flurry, and reacquainting myself with Testflight for beta testers and the invaluable feedback.

I won't bloat this brain dump anymore than I need to but all the intricate details of 1800 can be found in the postmortem I wrote back in June.

I mentioned in March I wanted to not give up on 1GAM but to be honest April is where it ended.  But it was positive reasons this time as 1800 did far better than I ever expected. As such I had review sites wanting press kits and players of the app (1800) wanting to remove adverts via IAP.  It was during this month that I decided to turn my progress to "One new skill a month" ensuring that while I wouldn't be pumping out a new game I at least was learning.

So having put a press kit of sorts together of various press releases (via prMac), icons, images et al and implementing in app purchases using the Prime31 plugin I was pretty content with the first third of the year.

As 1800 continued to be downloaded I wanted to make as much use of the user base I was acquiring to promote future games to.  It was for this reason I wrote a new game mode for 1800 called "reaction" and decided rather than unlocking via an In App purchase to experiment via Twitter followers.  This meant implementing another plugin from Prime31 for social networking which if the user clicked the call to action within the game to follow us it unlocked the game mode. It didn't get a huge up take but it did at least get some new followers and I had learnt a new skill.

During this month I also refactored some of the code I had butchered over the previous couple of months and also implemented a scene manager to help the additional game modes and screens I was adding.

I drew a line under 1800 in June and started writing a new game.  This was focused on something that I could apply my new found knowledge of In-app purchases to and the game design would be driven from this.  I started writing a game based on consumables that meant the player would have to engage in some monetary activity of which I chose Black Jack (twenty-one).  I created a basic game system and implemented GameCenter and Turn-based plugins for the social and community side to keep people on the game.  A busy month.

Throughout the month I worked on artificial intelligence of the computer (dealer) player for the one player aspect of the game.  This was a first for me as I had only ever worked on one player games to this point. Furthermore, I worked on the turn based aspect of Game Center which I found a very very time consuming process while testing.  This meant me testing either on the same app and logging in and out to see if move had passed or having two devices with a potentially buggy piece of code.  A large amount of this month was taken up with not much progress.

Over the previous two months the game was certainly coming on I just wasn't convinced by it and if I wasn't why would anybody else.  Already I had spent around 10 weeks on something that I felt was not any closer to being launched and therefore had become disillusioned.  There were certainly positives to this time spent but not something I could call a game.

Being mindful I struggled for over six months the previous year for inspiration and misdirection I decided I wanted to be a little more structured with my next game(s) that I could apply the principles of app flipping to I had read so much about during this period to help me achieve the goals I had set about in the initial project blog.  I decided I would write a grid framework that I could write Match-3-esque games that was flexible and I could build upon as my skills grew.

With that the start of writing a game focused code library and framework started as well as deciding to include localisation in my next game that would also be built into this framework.

Work continued in earnest over this month on the grid framework so I decided to develop to known game mechanics again such as Tic-tac-toe, Connect 4 and Peg Solitaire so again there would be familiarity to the player and I could concentrate on my learnings.

I also thought a lot to social engagement and keeping the "stickiness" of the app so looked to push notifications through Urban Airship to be added to this framework.

Throughout October I was considering more and more the monetisation of the app(s) but I still didn't think I was established enough with my skills nor the ideas were original enough to warrant being paid games.  That said with my previous efforts of Astavoid and 1800 although they were advert supported the financial returns were awful so I decided to turn my attentions to writing my own advert logic that would principally focus on using Chartboost backed up with RevMob.

By this time I had decided that the peg solitaire version of the three games was by far the strongest. I had struggled again with Connect 4 and Tic-tac-toe with the turn-based logic and without this the games were very poor and one dimensional. So I put all efforts in launching my third game, Solisqr.

Having (prematurely) announced that Solisqr would be one of three games to form the froglet collection I had subsequently decided that I wouldn't be launching the other two.  This was because much better games of those mechanics were coming out and I again became disillusioned by those not working. So I pushed on with Solisqr and engaged with a brilliant beta team using Testflight, my third game was ready.

I was a lot more structured with my marketing this time.  I set a date in December and worked on a marketing campaign for the second half of the month.  I revamped the company website which was overdue and then used the excellent Presskit() to create a whole new press section and a specific page for Solisqr.

With the game approved the marketing and PR intensified and for the first time I did pre release promos.   Having read this article I used the redeem-now website so I could tag and keep track of who had engaged with my personalised email and offer of a promo code. Not as many as I would have liked and some who said that would review didn't and those I didn't send a code wrote a review or article.  Jury is still out on the effectiveness of this process.

December also threw up some new opportunities which were probably the biggest achievement for me of the 2 years in that the community chose my journey significant enough to want to work with me.  I had to turn down some offers of collaboration earlier in the year as the timing wasn't good. However, one in particular came to me in December just around the launch of Solisqr which was right for lots of reasons.  Project M (as it will be known for the time being) is going well and looking at an April-ish launch.  Very excited by this as it allows me to work with other people who have there own talents and again accelerate my learnings.

These sort of reflections are also best summarised by statistics I feel so lets look back at some of the headline figures.

First, downloads, during 2012 Astavoid was my only launch and in the main most of the download for it came in the first fortnight.  However, during my first year I achieved 2,732 downloads.  As at time of writing (31/12/2013) and with two new games (1800 and Solisqr) and a handful of Astavoid downloads I have had 41,223 in 2013 which is an increase of 1409%, not bad!

Second, revenue.  As I noted in my Astavoid postmortem for 2012 I made the principle sum of $10.  This, however, didn't payout until $20 was reached which was only hit in March 2013. The total revenue for 2013 is $2,034.71 so again not a bad increase but nothing like the figures I was looking for from my initial blog.

So how have the games faired in terms of highest rankings, another metric in my initial blog.

For brevity I will include the best of the two formats (iPhone or iPad) and in the case of Astavoid it has faired significantly better on iPad.

Currently, 1800 is my most successful title and at time of writing has been out for about 8 months.

At time of writing Solisqr has only been out for about a fortnight but has faired pretty well, particularly in Canada.  The first 10 days of downloads were very similar to 1800 with a very different spread of downloads across the days.

So all in all pretty happy with progress.

So what does the new year have in store?  Well without a doubt new learnings, new games and continuing the journey on this project and eating in to those 10,000 hours. Very excited about Project M and how that is progressing as well as the imminent arrival of 1800 and Solisqr on Android.  Already game design documents for a handful of games exist for an exciting yet busy year ahead.

Happy new year all.

Solisqr1800 and Astavoid are available on the app store for Free.


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