It’s done. Cube Orbit is now available from all three major App stores (Apple App Store, Google Play, Amazon). During the development, I spend some procrastination time on gamedev talks and articles. There are a lot of interesting game design concepts and tips. Some of them applied to my context, others don’t. In this post, I try to discuss those gamedev concepts that every solo/hobbiest gamedev in the mobile market should know: Design to your Abilities, Deep Mechanics vs Kitchen Sinking, Retention/Virality/Re-Engagement, One Shoot Marketing.
1 Design to your Abilities
For me, abilities refers to two things. First, your actual abilities in terms of skills and second, the project scope that you can master in terms of time, focus, and resolve. Lets start with skills. Large game studios and most indies you know employ multiple persons with different “set of skills”. Therefore, their games have it all: captivating stories, gorgeous graphics, funky sounds, great balance, feel, and contain no bugs (well only a few bugs). And don’t forget all the trailers, posters, t-shirts, forums, communities, wikis, guerrilla marketing campaigns, blogs, posts, talks, etc. As a (part time) solo developer it is unlikely that you master all the necessary skills. At least I don’t, and I would consider myself a rather arrogant fellow. But I think, you can still make games that have some value. But, you need to focus on something you are good at.
I personally consider myself to be a good programmer, I am good with colors, and have basic graphic design knowledge (incl. the respective adobe skills). I am bad at figurative illustrations, animations, writing (thx for reading anyway), sound, and PR. Strengthen your strengths and manage your weaknesses. Therefore, I concentrate on unique mechanics, which I can program even if they are no prior resources about them, abstract graphics (cuuuuubbbbeees) and abstract narrative (see trailer). I use cc or bought sound design/music, and do the base-line things for anything else. If you happen to be a good artist and weak programmer, you might prefer a established genre with existing engine support and tutorials that keep your programming load low. If you are good at sounds, keep the UI simple and dark and create atmosphere with sound. If you are a musician … you get the picture.
Your time, focus and resolve determines the scope of your game. I for myself published three small projects (Cube Orbit, Gravity Racing Madness, Rope the Frog) with about 3-month of development time and started two more ambitious projects that I worked on for about 6-12 month. Guess which projects did not get finished. What is right for you, highly depends on your circumstances and character. If you happen to start multiple projects without finishing and publishing one, start smaller projects and keep a publishing mindset. Remember, when you published your game, you can start the next game.
2 Deep Mechanics vs Kitchen Sinking
Deep mechanics refers to multiple layers of game mechanics that unfold to the player gradually as they get better at your game. This continuous process keeps players engaged since they are constantly exploring new things and can try new strategies. Kitchen sinking (any design, not just games) refers to adding random/common stuff to your design if your design appears too less, dull, or boring. Common game design examples are power-ups, level-ups, achievements, leader boards, etc. that are just added because the core game mechanic on its own isn’t fun. The inexperienced game designer (e.g. me) usually intends to do deep mechanics but end up doing kitchen sinking. Once, I learned about these two concepts, it felt easier to distinguish both and to reason about game design decisions. Do my power-ups have a purpose and help to extend the core game loop? Can the user successfully use new strategies once you discovers game mechanics X. Does the player need to adopt his tactics once he reaches level so and so?
3 Retention, Virality, Re-Engagement
Disclaimer: In the old days games were sold at a fix price. Once marketing had done the dirty job of taking your hard earned money, game designers could give you the best possible entertainment without further marketing/moneytization constrains. In the mobile world, things are different. Marketing gives your game away for free, and game design need to constantly apply cheap psychology tricks to lure players into buying things, clicking ads, or sharing stuff. This section of the article is all about finding the right balance between earning some money and keeping your moral compass westward-ish. Don’t hate.
In their very entertaining and educating GDC talk the Hipster Whale Guys of Crossy Road fame discuss RVE or Retention, Virality, Re-Engagement as a major success factor for their game. They basically stipulate that you need specific game mechanics to actively boost your apps retention (aka keep users in your game), virality (users share your game), and user re-engagement (users come back to your came continuously) to succeed in the mobil marked, especially with a non advertising (no user buys) marketing strategy. Since my lack of experience in this particular field, I decided to basically transfer their ideas and techniques to Cube Orbit.
How do you keep players in your game? Have an interesting game with thinks to explore. There are two thinks that I wanted to do. First, offer deep mechanics. If there are several layers of mechanics, techniques and tactics that you can discover to improve your play then you are more engaged and psyched to explore more. Second, offer immediate goals to the player. This can be to reach a new level, finance upgrades, unlock new characters, achievements, etc. In Cube Orbit this is all about levels and upgrades. Probably the weakest point in the game. Achievements could be a cheap improvement. I know that many gamers like them, but I’ve troubles implementing them since they never got to me personally.
A distinctive retention feature that I stole from other games are gifts. It is basically a staged christmas that is promised every so and so minutes. After each level or game the user is reminded that they will get a random treat, if they just keep playing for x minutes more. The actual gifts are also a great way to remind the users of additional game features like boosts, upgrades, level-ups, characters. You want the user to know that these things exist, since these are usually your moneytization drivers (incentives to spend in-game currency or ad-time).
Constant reminders to share or rate a game are annoying as ads. No one wants to be forced to share something, you need to actually want to share something. That means the player needs to feel that your game or a particular game asset will provide value to his/her peers. You can basically control what they can share and when they can share it. The questions is now are what do players feel good about and when do they feel good about it.
The what-to-share is about your game, so better make a good game. But it can also refer to a certain game asset that your game provides or even better that the user “creates” and hence feels particular good about. In Crossy Road the game makes funny pictures of you failing. In other games like Mars: Mars, players can use a selfie or screenshot feature to make in game pictures themselves. In Cube Orbit, I make screenshots of particular intense in-game situations.
The when-to-share is about finding those times where the player is at a particular high. He got a new high-score, an achievement, beat a level he tried for 10 times, etc. This also means that you only allow people to share at these points in time and that you keep the option to share from them at all other times. The same can be said about rating your game. In Cube Orbit sharing and rating are only offered after the player beat a hard level or beat a level very closely. I also try to not over do it and keep the options to share and rate very sparsely.
Now it gets dirty. How can we help (aka notify) players to make the “right” choice and come back to our game the next day? If you played mobile games for a while, you probably know all the industry tricks. Candy Crush (and many others) for example only let you play a certain amount per day and therefore remind you the next day that you can play again. Players either buy game time with currency or get push-notified into playing again and again. Win-win, very clever. Tap and/or Waiting games have it build into their core mechanic. Every so and so you can do another action and of course you are notified. Daily gifts are also a neat trick and a proper excuse for notifications. There are a thousand more tricks.
In Cube Orbit, I took it maybe to far. I tied re-engagement and the level-up system. You loose hard earned level-ups over time and are notified to better play before you loose the benefits of a level-up. This has two positive side-effects, players cannot really max-out and they are constantly reminded that there actually are level-ups, that they can get them, or click an ad for them. I decided to make players loose their level-ups over time regardless if they are playing or not. Another possibility is to let them keep level-ups if they play and only make them loose level-ups if they don’t play. Better or Worse?
4 One Shoot Marketing
“To little, to late” is the common mantra in articles and presentations on (indie-)game marketing. This is probably true (these guys have way more experience than I have), but not all projects are made equal. What is true for a seasoned indie-dev studio on a 2-year PC game project, is not necessarily true for a hobby gamedev on his first mobile title. Should you invest your (and all other’s time) in project announcements, dev-logs, life-coding-streams, event-booths, teaser-trailers, alpha-keys, etc?
In my context (mildly talented solo, hobby, mobile gamedev), I am confronted with three facts. First, I don’t have a name, nobody knows me. Second, I am working part-time on a three month project. Third, its for mobile. Consequently, I am not in a position to (and also do not have the resources to) effectively build a community or build-up hype with ideas, screenshots, and trailers alone. Therefore, I should focus my limited means: One Shoot Marketing.
Three components. First, release your game (make sure it is available before continue). Create proper marketing assets: feature graphic, screenshots, trailer, promotional texts. Second, use all channels that you can directly control to spread these assets: twitter, facebook, tumblr, your homepage, reddit, MWU, slidedb, tigsource, itch.io, etc. Thirdly, try others to use the channels they control to help you: write to a couple hundred game press outlets. The latter is probably the most tricky one. I admit I have not much experience with this. I try to make it easy for writers to look up details about my game, provide a proper presskit with texts (link to Cube Orbit’s presskit), interesting stories, images, logos, screenshots, etc.
To keep a sane mind through all this. I try to manage my expectations and set concrete goals. From my experience with Rope the Frog and Gravity Racing Madness, think that securing a dozen articles and a couple hundred k installs during the first three month should be realistic. I’ll try to provide some data, once I am done with this part marketing.