Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I Hate Missing Gold Rushes

I wrote a few months ago in some detail why I was running scared from iPhone development. Recently, there have been more indications that the handful of people who made bajillions of dollars developing little apps for the platform got lucky. Now everyone and their housepets are making apps, flooding and overwhelming the store, getting the apps lost in an arcane approval process, not making money when they come out, and being sad.

It was a classic gold rush. I can't take much satisfaction in the inevitable crash, because it never makes me happy when indie developers get stiffed. I'm happy that some people made a lot of money. But for anyone else to feel bad that they missed out is like walking past a roulette wheel, see that a '17' came up, and being angry at yourself for not having just bet seventeen.

But all of this does confirm one rule about indie game development that I've felt for a long time:

In the long run, the only way to make money is to make non-trivial games. If your products don't take a done of work and care to make, you will fail, because someone will copy you and do it faster and cheaper.

There is no way that quickie 99 cent apps were a surefire route to a profitable life for anyone. The inevitable result is 20 different Sudoku apps cannibalizing the market. I hate spending a year at a time on the fiddly work of making a full-length RPG, but it is the fact that other people can't do this that makes it valuable.

32 comments:

  1. It's amazing how many people, when I show them the non-trivial game I'm developing, tell me that I should put it on the iPhone and sell it there. People seem to have just gotten the perception that there's lots of money being made, and don't stop to think about price per copy * expected units sold of a weird mathematical game, or the effort of porting to the iPhone when I don't even have one (or even a mac), or whether it'll even run on the damn thing, not to mention serious issues with the heavily keyboard-oriented interface which the game is largely designed around, or the fact that (as you say) the goldrush seems to have passed.
    It's just frustrating how it's clearly not a good idea, but it happens almost every single time I show it to someone, and even when I explain why it's a bad idea they still don't seem to get it.

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  2. Making a non-trivial app for the iPhone can be done. The problem is understanding the playing style. You have to make a game that is capable of being played in small segments (perhaps a short as a minute or two at a time), yet keep the player coming back for more so that they feel that your price point is worth it.

    The simple games do this by making the entire game playable in that short time, and then just provided added value with levels etc. The nontrivial games know how to make playtime short, but have gameplay evolve over many sessions.

    Indeed, shortest meaningful playtime is one of the most important lesson that a game developer right now. Much of this casual vs. hardcore gamer dichotomy is a canard. A good number of "casual" gamers are older, lapsed hardcore gamers who do not have the time to devote to long playing sessions.

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  3. Slow and steady wins the race. If you keep trying to jump from platform to platform, from gold rush to gold rush, in an attempt to make quick cash, you will miss out on the opportunity to come up with a truly compelling product over a longer period of time which has much higher profit potential and staying power. I appreciate this post, Jeff, it really puts things in perspective. Thanks!

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  4. @Walker: You're right, of course. But that requires a real commitment, in terms of time and thought. But I've gotten a million e-mails that say, "Hey, just throw something onto the iPhone." That scares me.

    - Jeff Vogel

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  5. Mr. Vogel I'd love to get your response to this: http://www.videogamer.com/news/world_of_goo_sale_a_huge_success.html 2D Boy's offer to let people name their price for their game World of Goo (which was worth more than the $20 I paid for it). Do you think they are hurting themselves in the long run? Why pay anything for their next game when I know they'll sell it for next to nothing in the near future? How do they recoup design costs using this model?

    Thanks, I'm looking forward to your thoughts

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  6. The thing to remember about the World of Goo sale is that it's for a game that was released a year ago. The people who would have bought World of Goo for $20 had mostly bought it already. The sale was a way of drawing some attention to the game and squeezing some more money out before it faded into obscurity. I doubt it'll hurt sales of their next game, because most people who buy games don't want to wait a full year for the game they want to go on sale.

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  7. I expect that anyone who would be willing to wait a year or more to purchase 2D Boy's next game out of an expectation that they'll try this sale again likely either has a very low or otherwise limited income or isn't overtly interested in the game. Twenty dollars isn't an impossible asking price and I expect that the majority of the 16,852 people who purchased World of Goo for a cent already pirated the game or otherwise would have. They're at least people who never would have purchased World of Goo at full price, which probabably applies equally to the 15,797 who payed less than $2.00 for it.

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  8. This is a mostly unrelated game development question, but I came up with it while being frustrated by one of those "trivial" games you're trying to discourage programmers from making, and it feels somewhat appropriate:

    In many art forms, it's understood that to improve one must constantly expose one's self to the work of others. For example, for a writer to continue to get better, they must read a great deal.

    When it comes to video games, however, following this practice usefully becomes problematic because games can take so much longer to experience than other art forms, and most of the content is usually unavailable at the start. Very often I find myself taking a completionist approach to a game simply out of curiosity to see how the upper levels of its upgrade system work.

    This is incredibly consumptive of time, and I've come to recognize that I simply can't keep doing it anymore. For example, I'm particularly interested in seeing other's approach to the unstable equilibrium in games with economies, and that's something that by definition you can only see towards the end- and what I find more often than not is that the designer just lets game balance go to the dogs, and I've wasted my time playing this far to see how the problem was approached.

    What I want to know is, what can a programmer do instead, to get exposure to new ideas on how to solve design problems? Or is there some trick or rule of thumb to use when playing for exposure, to decide when you've learned what there is easily available to learn, and move on to something new?

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  9. As someone that has played Spiderweb games since the mid 90's I would certainly hate to see any of the games on the iphone. The mouse and keyboard combo make RPG-type games highly usable. Additionally, your style of games aren't made for the short attention span of the iph-oh shiny look at that. That's really neat and-hey look at this other neat-oh and that. Anyways, your games are perfect for the person that wants to play the game from beginning to end in one sitting and at the same time perfect for someone who plays for a half hour every day or two. Even more amazing, your games are still enjoyable and challenging when the player cheats to maximize every aspect of each character from the start. There's no boredom or tedium like many other RPGs. I'm looking squarely at you Bethesda. Don't even get me started on the MMOs. For $60 I get the privilege of paying $15 a month to play for 60 hours a week, assuming I want to actually rise above the first level, only to pay $60 again for an expansion pack where I'm still paying $15 a month and playing for 60 hours a week while dealing with the fun of dealing with other idiots and then have to start from scratch should I find I screwed up my character's development somewhere along the line, which doesn't really end up being efficient game play since all your guildmates are busy playing their level 4000000 characters because you had to pay for back surgery and couldn't spare the $60 for the latest expansion.

    I find using my giant sausage fingers on the iphone difficult at times , or more correctly, all of the time. I have recently discovered that I'm actually faster and more reliable using Palm graffiti-style text input, which is sad as graffiti is slow and tiresome, especially when gripping a tiny stylus that doesn't sit in the hand like any other writing utensil. They're not even as comfortable as those short pencils used to keep golf scores.

    Keep up the good work. I've purchased all of the Avernum games, a couple of the Exile games back in the day, and two or three games from the Geneforge series. I check back every few months in the hopes of a new release. Now that I use a Mac, I'm even happier as I get the games sooner.

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  11. Interesting article. Actually, there's no guarantee you'll make money as an Indie. I guess many people will end up frustrated.

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  12. FYI last two blog posts were spammers :)
    what's your take on MMO or online games? I think this could be a good topic for a new post!

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  13. While I don't know just how much it would cost to port your existing games to the iphone, I can guarantee a few things...

    - You would have no need to compete with .99 apps. Virtually all the decent games in the RPG niche are more expensive than the typical impulse buy amusements. (though you'd probably have to live with 6-7.99 tops for the mobile editions)

    - You would have no trouble rising through the mass of unknown apps added daily because you already have a loyal fan base and the opportunity to market to your existing customers.

    - By only adding a few bonus items, areas, side quests to all of your existing games you would virtually guarantee that most of your existing fans who own an iphone would re-purchase and re-play the entire series.

    And I completely disagree with the earlier comments which suggest that only a game that can be played in small bites has an appeal in the mobile market... the real appeal of games like The Quest/Dungeon Hunter/Civilization/Sim City on iphone is long commutes, road trips, airplanes, or anyplace else that gamers want to play in the absence of a laptop/desktop.

    Since all of the actual storyline, game mechanics, graphics, and functionality of the existing games have already been completed, the only question is how many copies at mobile prices would need to be sold to cover the cost of porting the game to a touch based platform.

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  14. "As someone that has played Spiderweb games since the mid 90's I would certainly hate to see any of the games on the iphone. The mouse and keyboard combo make RPG-type games highly usable. Additionally, your style of games aren't made for the short attention span of the iph-oh shiny look at that. "

    I have to totally disagree with this. I would love to see at least some of the older Spiderweb games get a new lease of life on the iPhone. There are some very lengthy RPGs already on there - try The Quest and its numerous expansions, it must be close on 100 hours of gameplay at least.

    Obviously it may not be practical or commercially viable. But there would be a hungry audience for them. I find that with RPGs I usually don't tend to play them more than once, so I need a continual supply.

    Incidentally for those that are interested in RPGs on the iPhone I made this list, because it was so hard to find them in the App Store what with all the MobWars-style game points upgrade spam in the RPG category. http://www.rpg-site.com

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