Developer Blog: Rubicon Development on market visibility


Small Fish, Massive Pond

If you ask a thousand smaller game studios what their biggest challenge is, you’ll get the same answer a thousand times – visibility.

We’re trying a bit of an experiment this weekend, trying to gain some visibility for ourselves. Sales are old hat these days, so we’ve decided to go one better and just give all our games away, totally free, for this weekend only. Yep, FREE. You can check for yourselves if you don’t believe me. Of course we’ll lose income doing this, but the hope is that the media will pick this up, raise our profile somewhat and we’ll see a net win further down the road. I have no idea if this will work or not, but there’s one way to find out – just do it!

With that out of the way, I’ll now explain why visibility is such a big issue that developers will give their creations away just to try and get some…

This visibility thing may come as a surprise, after all you see tons of games all the time right? They’re talked about everywhere. This site covers plenty. There are other gaming sites, twitter, facebook, twitch, youtube – the list goes on. You’ve doubtless had games recommended by a friend, probably searched some out for yourself on the various digital or retail stores.

In short, games couldn’t be more visible – it’s easy to find a new game. There’s never been a better time to be a gamer and as I’m a gamer too, I like this a lot.

But I’m not being a gamer right now. I’m presenting this article as one of those small developers, and from there the view is not quite so rosy. All of a sudden, all those tons of games you keep seeing, they’re my competition.

I need you to see my games if I and my colleagues are going to eat this week. Although what I really mean, of course, is that I need you to buy my games.

Let’s face it, after having seen them, you might not like them anyway, or you might like them less than something else you saw today. Maybe they’re just not your thing. There are lots of hurdles to my getting an eventual sale out of you, but there is one rock-solid, nailed-on certainty. If you don’t see them, you definitely won’t buy them.

Focusing on mobile for a moment, how many apps and games do you think were released to the App Store yesterday? You probably think it’s a lot, right? Ten?, fifty?, a hundred? Not even close. According to this chart, there were over a thousand released yesterday. There were about a thousand released the day before. There’ll be another thousand tomorrow.

Yes, we all know that most of them will be rubbish. But they still take up store real estate and ensure that you’ll never get seen if you just publish and sit back. A new game will be visible in the “new releases” panel for about 1.5 minutes and then that’s it, you’re done.

But it gets worse. If you take that “most” away from the thousand, you’re still left with, say, a hundred half-decent games. A day. How many different reviews can you see from here? That is why it’s so hard to get visibility for a new game: the numbers just don’t work. The competition isn’t just stiff, it’s brutal. I know developers who finished perfectly decent games and not seen a single sale. We ourselves have a couple of games that only managed a few hundred sales in total.

Unless we have truly meteoric success in week 1, a week’s worth of sales isn’t going to pay a team of people for as long as it takes to make the next game. We need to keep on selling them at a reasonable rate for quite some time. But next week, all the media will be focusing on is what’s new next week [Editor’s note – not us! We continue discussing things for quite some time!]. There’s no space for us and our “old” game anymore.

With the combination of freemium and adware becoming ever more prevalent, customers are getting trained to expect free gaming. We have many one star reviews from customers complaining that there are adverts in the games they’re playing for free on us. I’m not going to comment on what I think of that here as it’s unprintable, but this scenario gives a good indication of how difficult it’s becoming to make a sale even when a person does see our stuff and likes it.

It’s pretty grim, which is why every developer will make that same reply to that original question. If you know your business, coding is easy enough, as is making good art, writing good stories, making compelling gameplay. For talented and/or experienced developers, game development is really just a function of time. What we need from outside is visibility.

Dog meet dog. Bring a fork.

So what can be done?

Due to the intransigent nature of the problem, there is no meaningful across-the-board solution. Not for everybody. Game development right now is a nightmare melting pot with far too many developers vying for attention.

There are some brutally Darwinian forces at work on that melting pot and more ingredients are being poured in all the time, so it’s always full to the brim and overflowing. And sadly, natural selection is more about random chance than fair play, so being good is not even guaranteed to help you survive – definitely not every time.

There is luck involved for everyone. But like most games of chance, there are things you can do to up the survival odds in your favour. Whew, hang on a moment, is that something positive?!

Store Feature / Steam Sale

As a member of several developer groups and forums, I must confess to being a bit of dick in my stock response to one particular and commonly aired gripe. “My app just came out and Apple didn’t feature it”. This was back when the App Store had the “new and noteworthy” front page spotlight. My response was always the same: “You got the ‘new’ part right. Did you remember the ‘noteworthy’ bit?”

I wasn’t trolling or baiting, I meant it – it’s not rocket science. Make your game noteworthy and people will take note of it. “People” being Apple, or Valve, or Google. The same thing can be said for getting media coverage. Is it deemed newsworthy? Then it’ll be news.

We’ve released eleven different games to the App Store over the years. At Rubicon we try to make all our games fully-featured with plenty of polish, but that doesn’t make them noteworthy by default – it’s simply us trying to be professional. Our Yahtzee game (Yachty Deluxe) has plenty of play options, 3D dice physics, graphical themes, and multiplayer. But it’s still just a dice game, no matter how buff we tried to make it. It’s not noteworthy so it didn’t get featured. It wasn’t newsworthy so it didn’t get covered. We were shocked and disappointed not a jot.

Of those eleven games, four of them (Combat Monsters and our Great Little War Game range) were all big games taking tons of development time, offering hours and hours of varied campaign missions, tons of replayability, multiplayer, loads of levels, the works. These four were properly big games you could sink your teeth into over a long period. And guess what? All four got featured when they came out.

Getting a featured spot is not random chance. If you make something that really is noteworthy, then the gatekeepers will see it and give you your shot. There might well be thousands of games coming out next week, but if they’re all badly made slot machines and timewaster games and you just did something to rival World of Warcraft then you’re golden.

To reiterate: a feature spot is not down to luck. It’s fully under your control, so make sure you step up and deliver a noteworthy game. This is the single biggest thing you can do to get good visibility, and to underline that, here’s a graph showing how effective a good spotlight can be. This kept the wolf from our door for a very long time all by itself.

Big content updates

Assuming you made a game which makes sense to have expansions, make sure there are lots of regular expansions. Free is better than paid, but the choice is down to you. What you shouldn’t be choosing though is to do or to not do. Design it in, get it done.

Every time you do a good update, several things are on the table.

  • The Apple review board will see your game again and maybe this time they’ll put it in one of those sub-categories like “hot driving games”. These aren’t in the league of a front page spotlight but they can get you a lot of new eyes.
  • You can tweet about it and contact the press. If they nearly covered you last time, maybe they will now. Maybe they intended to cover you last time but forgot or something bigger broke. Refresh their memory.
  • Your players will love you for it and be more likely to recommend to a friend. Or at least they might make a tweet or facebook post about how good the new levels are. Fresh eyes will see those. At the very least they’ll be more disposed to buy your next game because you support them after you’ve got their money.
  • If it looks like you care about your game, others will too. If it looks like you don’t care, how on Earth can you expect others to? You should want to do this, try to get your mindset right and it will show through and raise your profile.

Engage your players

Not everyone who likes your game wants to join your fan club. But some will, so you’d do well to have some sort of meeting place for them to talk. Even if you’re making a “proper” game and not “yet another farm simulator”, your game can still be social simply by means of the developer being sociable.

When people gather in groups, good things happen. Maybe they’ll start a tournament and spend the next week being perfect ambassadors for your game trying to recruit players for it. Why not suggest this? A weekly high-score competition? For fun, or an iTunes card?

At the very least, get a facebook page and man it properly. Be responsive. Arguably better, get a forum together – the software for that is free. If you go for a forum, advertise it on your store page and encourage that feedback goes there. It’s much better to get an angry customer complaining in your forum for a start, instead of leaving an indelible one star whine on your shop window. And you get to ask what the problem is and maybe fix it. It keeps your customers happier and it keeps your rankings cleaner. Win-Win.

If you’re doing a sequel or large update, be sure to ask players what they want to see in it. Not only will this engender some goodwill by itself, you’re likely to get some damned good replies. That will make your game better for new customers and please the existing ones. Another win-win.

If all else fails, buy your audience

There are a few different ways you can trade money for eyeballs. How that equation works out for you can vary with a lot of factors, so be careful going down this route.

The most obvious way to use money to get customers is to literally buy installs using in-game digital advertising. Cost-per-install advertising is a large and complex area not for the faint-hearted. If you’re not already adept at this option, I’d recommend keeping your money in your pocket and trying something else. I’ll be presenting a big article on this subject at a future time.

And one more wrinkle regarding the advertising route, you probably can’t afford it. If someone (honestly) says to you that in return for 100,000 dollars up front, you’ll get 150,000 back next week, that might sound like a no brainer. It is – if you have a 100,000 dollars spare at the time. Well, do you? We certainly don’t.

A safer and easier option to get right is simply to have a sale. Slash your prices and you’ll get a definite peak in traffic for no other reason than your game shows up on the various AppShopper type apps that monitor the stores looking for such things. We’ve thrown a few sales in the past and it can work nicely, but don’t do it too often. Have a sale once a month and pretty soon your potential customers are going to notice this and wait for it when your next game comes out.

Because it’s easy and because it works, it seems that developers are having sales all the time. This is certainly true in mobile and there the prices are pretty damned low to start with. Actually, when you see a game that costs more than a dollar, I’m sure it’s often only a higher price purely to allow room for regular price drops and not because the developer genuinely thinks their game is worth more. This isn’t helping anyone – it’s driven the pricing race to the bottom and it’s desensitizing customers that a sale is the special event it should be.

So, sales aren’t as impactful anymore. The press don’t cover them much because they’re just not news. It may be that they don’t even work for you at all, the loss in income during the sale may not be a net win longer-term and you’ve just thrown some money away.

Forget sales, that’s so yesterday

With the above in mind, we’re trying something new(ish). We’re not having a sale, we’re having a giveaway. This coming weekend, ALL of our paid iOS games are going completely free. They’re just sitting there, waiting to be downloaded. (We’d do Android as well but Google don’t allow paid apps to go free.)

This is going to cost us several days’ worth of lost income whilst we’re not charging for our wares, so this is a big gamble for us – we rely on that money to survive. Unlike a sale, there’s no possibility of it taking off and making us more income through getting tons more sales albeit at a lower price – we won’t have a price. There’s even a danger that we’ll lose future customers that would’ve paid us something next week. When your price is zero, there is no immediate upside.

But we’re trying to think longer-term than that. If we pick up a bunch of new customers this weekend, maybe they’ll buy our next game. A few of our games have paid DLC in them for expansions and so forth, so maybe they’ll buy one of those. But the main thing we’re hoping for is that the press and media will pick up on this and give us some of that vital publicity we need so badly.

In truth we just don’t know how this is going to go. This is part experiment, part gamble for us and there’s no way to tell if this idea is a work of genius, or a disaster in the making. What I can promise is that I’ll make our results public in a follow-up blog post so we can all have a jolly good laugh together.

If I’m still smiling…

Paul Johnson

Paul Johnson

Paul is the head of Rubicon Development, the BAFTA-nominated independent game developer behind Great Little War Game and many others.
Paul Johnson

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  • Claytino

    Cheers Paul – I hear you on the visibility thing. In my opinion (and many others who have also been hooked on the game), Combat Monsters is the best iOS/Phone game there has been…without a doubt when its comes to online turn base strategy games – but people just haven’t been able to find it. If people can’t find it (and in turn pay for it) why would you spend time and money updating and developing it. A real shame, cos it had so much potential for more.

    • Rubicon Development

      Thanks for that Claytino. I agree, it’s tragic when something fails not because it’s rubbish but because its invisible. I could’ve made “invisible” much more cheaply. 🙂

  • CraigStern

    A good write-up here. And I won’t lie–this makes me feel pretty damn glad that I’ve stayed away from the mobile market with Telepath Tactics.

    • Rubicon Development

      Yeah, we’re hoping to move over to Steam with future stuff. We’ll still probably do mobile as well as our engine is cross-platform. But a ceiling of 3 bucks combined with the above visibility problems is making mobile completely unviable as an only (or even ‘lead’) platform. Which is a damned shame. 🙁

  • Sven Van de Perre

    a strategy worth considering is this: first, make a name for yourself on platforms that are easier Visibility-wise, then use that name you made to get ahead of the pack on Mobile (getting press and Apple’s attention.
    You don’t even have to sell tons on those platforms. Great reviews and a loyal small fanbase / positive perception about your game will do.

    As going to iOS first is a challenge to get noticed. And if you fail there leaves you with a nasty ‘didn’t make it’ stamp.