The Enterprise

How we developed our Free-to-Play game

Michael Pankov •

Disclaimer: This post is still personal and I explain a lot about my motives and goals, rather than focusing on the business strategy, if you wish.

Quite a long while ago I developed a game with Oleg Leonov. Now it's almost not active, and I decided to reflect on our enterprise a bit. There are some lessons to be learned from mistakes we made.

The Dream

A product we set out to develop was an Android game in arcade/smasher genre. The idea was proposed by Oleg initially, I think — and for some reason I picked it up and decided it was my chance to shine as a game designer. I'm hardcore player and have some education in the field — some courses and books.

It was not just one of these plain bug smashers — we intended to have a career mode with global map, character development, plenty of specials, and In-App Purchases. That last part worried me a bit, but the hype around Free-to-Play games was so high, the temptation to try was hard to overcome. 

We decided to have a nice cartoon graphic style and comic-like intro to campaign. And the setting was a tiny bit crazy — but we stuck to the idea of heroic mission of one slipper (a "male" one) to save another (a "female" one) from the terrorist cockroaches.

This is never published graphic by Jane, my girlfriend — lo and behold, fans of the game!



We were naive and dreaming of lots of dollars the delighted gamers would put into our pockets. We started to work.


The Plan

Most of the planning was done by me in the form of design document in the beginning of the project. I wrote it sitting on a bench in a park on Bolotnaya square, using some nearby cafe's Wi-Fi — and I remember that moment vividly. The enthusiasm was raging inside.

The plan was to try to make the game in about 3 months, without making it the primary job of any of us. Besides me and Oleg, there were some friends who helped us from time to time — with opinions, playtesting, and ideas. We used BitBucket as the project platform and tracked the issues there. The reason we needed that platform and bureaucracy is simple: I lived in Moscow, and Oleg did in Tula — some two hundred kilometers to the south of the capital.



Oleg was already experienced with Android development, so he took all the technical work. Later he also became an actual stakeholder by investing some money in graphics, which we outsourced to the freelancers. My job was making sure the gameplay was fun and the monetization worked — that's basically game design, playtesting, and balance tuning.

The one thing we both missed already at that time is the actual monetization. We knew what to sell — we introduced a lot of bonuses and slippers skins. We didn't know how to sell. Or rather we didn't want to sell the stuff the way the most successful F2P games do. You know how it works: the game offers you a tiny bit for free, waits until you have a habit of playing, and starts nagging you for bucks. We hated that and decided that people will just pay for optional stuff. You might have guessed what happened.

The Execution

As we both kept working on our day jobs, there was not quite a lot of time for the project. The progress was slow. We underestimated the complexity of the project significantly. Some deadlines were missed. That would probably be a show-stopper for "real" businessmen. But we, amateurs, just continued making this game for fun.

At some point we had to outsource the graphic design. I tried to recruit some of my friends — but, well, none got a lot of interest and motivation to work. That was most probably my bad HR skills — nevertheless, as I mentioned above, we ended up paying for the job.

That part went quite good — the graphics looked nice. I discovered some glitches later, but well, I believe they were not obvious to the casual players. And while we're at it: we never aimed for casual ones. I believed the game should be pretty hardcore. But the fallacy of not wanting to beg users for money already led me to balancing the thing to be hard-but-passable without paying.

That also led to another debatable decision: the character progression was session-wide and randomized. Once you had "game over", you had to start with level one. That was intended to keep players entertained but it's hard to say if it worked.

This was, however, playtested (although mostly by our friends), and seemed to be enjoyable. People were trying to get further in the waves of insects.


All-in-all, we had the game in production for far much time, than we initially planned. It was over a year. The morale started to fall and we had to cut most of the features — namely, global character development and career mode.

At that moment we decided that we have to release what we have, otherwise we risk failing the project completely.

I'll tell you about the results in a moment, but let's side-step to discuss another important aspect: promotion.

Promotion

We never had a proper site of the game. We've set up a few groups in social networks, and at Indie DB. The traffic was not particularly high, and we were not featured by anyone. I suppose there was not enough traction — most of our friends seemed to be not very interested in the game itself. Maybe the setting was not quite right for the demographic, or genre, or it wasn't ambitious enough — it's hard to tell.

I decided to do a press release as we were nearing the finish of the development — but somehow missed it. I wasn't quite sure in the quality, and thought that we'll advertise more after we fix some problems of the game.

It's worthy to note we also did some alpha and beta releases on forums. There was no particular reaction. People downloaded the completely free non-finished game some thousands times, however. And then it leaked to the China and…

We had around 10000 new users from China in one or two days
That all was before actual release. We weren't able or wishing to control the spread of the game and probably missed a good demographic.

The Release

The day we went online in the Google Play we were downloaded a mere 30 times. The "release tweet" was retweeted just ten or so times. But numbers started to climb. We were in the "New releases" tab of the market for a month — as any new app — and people installed the game and rated it pretty well. For some time we had an average rating of 4.8 (today it's only 4.1).

Anyway, the game entered the top of Arcade & Action, All Games, and even All Apps in at least Russia. We were in eighties of the arcades roster when the free featuring in "New releases" ended.

That would be quite good numbers — we had 2 thousands installs per day for some time — if not for conversion. The monetization was such an utter disaster that we didn't reach the payment ratio of even 0.1% on our nearly fifty-thousand-user base.

The Conclusion

Today the game has just 500 active users. The retention was quite bad, too.


I think we had a success as a free game. As a business, we failed miserably.

For me, that underlined the dangers of F2P model. The developers of such games must always tune them, leaving gamers wanting even if they payed, and quite blatantly use the whales. As a frequent gamer myself, I am now disgusted by blunt techniques of game developing corporations, trying to suck all the money from the player. I often think that our financial results would be much higher should we publish a paid version with all the benefits unlocked — rather than relying on non-mandatory payments.

I never perceived the business' purpose as to maximize profit — and maybe I'm wrong on that. But what I would like to do is making an excellent product — a game, a program, a library — which is loved by users. And I will try again.
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