Dinofarm's decision to take an obscure genre and turn out a high-quality, high-price-point iOS title seems to fly in the face of the current swing towards cheap, franchise licence material. However, that decision seemed to pay off when the reviews started rolling in - journalists and critics praised the game for its flawless presentation, generous levels of content and deep mechanics. But how did that convert to sales?
We spoke to Dinofarm's Keith Burgun, lead designer on 100 Rogues, to find out if he'd do it the same way again, and where he sees the market moving in the future.
Q:100 Rogues had a great critical reception - how has that translated into sales?
Keith Burgun:Well, as you said, the critical reception has been really good, every time it's been reviewed it's been really good. Sales have been really rough. Every time we have an update or a sale price, the sales will shoot up for a while, then, after a matter of days, just three or four days usually, the sales will go back down to a very small amount per day.
So it's really tough. It almost seems like we have to have a constant media campaign, every day to make it bring in serious money.
Q:Is that something that you feel is a result of the way that the App Store is laid out? A lot of people at GDC were saying that the current set-up isn't conducive to a competitive market, in that - if you're not in that top ten or twenty on the first pages, it's incredibly hard to make money.
Keith Burgun:Absolutely. Since the beginning the top-heaviness of the App Store has been a huge factor in there. You know, there's other factors too.
First of all, when we started out, our game was $4.99, which was very expensive for the App Store. Also, it's a little bit less casual than most App Store games. We were trying to make a game which could exist on any platform, really. I think 100 Rogues could be a PC game, it could be a DS game or a console game. We were trying to make it work well on the device, but we weren't really trying to make an App Store app. We were just trying to make a game that we would really love.
So that's another factor, as well. But yeah, that top-heaviness is really rough. At the end of the day it comes down to how much we invested in that game. If it was a much smaller project, like most apps are, what we'd be making would be closer to financially rewarding.
Q:Is it Apple's responsibility to change that model if it wants to encourage higher quality games? Would you agree that the current storefront encourages cheap, throwaway development?
Keith Burgun:Absolutely - I think that it's frightening when I look at the App Store and look through all the apps. It seems to me that there must be some studios that put out an app almost every day, you know? Just changing a few things. I think that they're rewarded for that. It's probably the most effective thing to do, so yeah I do agree, absolutely.
I think that it's frightening when I look at the App Store and look through all the apps. It seems to me that there must be some studios that put out an app almost every day, you know?
Q:100 Rogues was in development for quite a long time, around two years. If you were to make another iOS title, would you invest so much in it again or would you be tempted to knock something out more quickly?
Keith Burgun:Well, it would be something in between. It wouldn't be something I would do in a month, but it wouldn't be something I would do over two years either. It would be something which took us about...Something like a three month game I guess. Somewhere in between.
I'm trying to establish our company, Dinofarm Games, and I'm trying to show that we're a company that loves games and really wants people to think "these guys really care about games, they love games, they know games." So that would be important for me, but yeah, the scale would defintiely be smaller.
Q:I wanted to ask what sort of percentage of income was coming from initial purchases of the game compared to the in-game purchase of the new character class. I know originally you'd hoped to release those classes for free, what changed your mind about that? Was it worthwhile?
Keith Burgun:It's hard to say, really. The attach rate has been pretty good. We've definitely been playing around with different ideas for the different classes - we actually have another idea right now which we're kicking around about some monster classes. One of which we will be giving away for free.
We had something like six months of free updates, one of which increased the size of the content in the game by something like 30 per cent. We had so many free updates before the Skellyman Scoundrel was released. By then we really just wanted to try something different, which was why we decided to see how it worked as an in-app purchase.
So it's done okay, but we thought it was going to be a much bigger deal, sales-wise. We thought it was going to be... It did okay at first, it seemed that everyone who wanted it, got it. Then, pretty much it seemed that we just had to keep hammering away, media-wise to make sure we were getting any significant sales, for the character or for the app itself.
Q:Did you ever think about releasing an ad-supported, free app?
Keith Burgun:Well we tried an ad, once, and the amount of revenue which it pulled in... First of all, everyone was extremely upset about it, probably because it wasn't a free app, it was $4.99. We tried one very small ad, just on the death screen. Everybody hated it. It was there for about three weeks and it made us about 14 cents.
If we were a bigger game... maybe. I think it would require a totally different model than what we've been working towards.
Q:It's interesting that you talk about your continuing plans for the game. At GDC, Peter Vesterbacka was talking about the prevalence of throwaway on the App Store, saying that people should stick with games and flesh them out, instead of getting them out there as soon as possible and moving on. That seems to be an attitude you've shared for 100 Rogues, is it something you'd do again?
Keith Burgun:I think that games deserve to be treated like that no matter what the platform is. My games are like my babies - I want to take care of them as long as I possibly can - indefinitely. I mean 10, 20, 30, 50 years. I don't see any reason why we shouldn't. As long as we have the financial capability of doing so.
Sometimes it's simply impossible to do so. If that's the case then that's the case. As long as it's a possibility it should always be made a priority to take care of your games. I think that Vesterbacka was absolutely right - I think it's threatening, not only your own game, but I think in a way it actually threatens the whole industry.
Everybody knows about the crash that happened in 1982 or 83, and that was because of a similar problem. I don't really know if that can happen again today, but it seems like we're asking for it, a lot of the time.
Q:Along those lines, do you have any plans for porting 100 Rogues? I'm guessing that if you're not keen on an ad-supported model then that would rule out Android?
Keith Burgun:Well, we would love to port to Android. We've had so many calls to port to Android. Honestly, if I could go back to 2008 right now I would say, "you know what, let's wait for the Android app store and put it on there." Because I think that, although we've had a good critical reception on the iPhone, I guess there's an impression that we might even have had a better reception on Android.
My games are like my babies - I want to take care of them as long as I possibly can.
The people who own Android are a little bit different, I think. A little more techy, perhaps a little more familiar with Roguelikes as a genre. I just think that it might work out a little better. We kind of just can't afford to port the game. It was coded in objective C, in Apple's nice little walled garden, and to port it we'd have to re-code it from scratch. We just can't afford to do that, at this time. We'd love to, in the future.
Our next game is going to be an Android game, actually. We've already begun development. It's a little similar to 100 Rogues, but as I said, a lot smaller scope. Much more focused design.
Q:Even for a big fan of roguelikes like myself, it's an interesting genre choice for an iPhone game. They're generally pretty tough, and perhaps not particularly suited to the five or ten minute play slots traditionally associated with iPhone gaming. What was behind that decision?
Keith Burgun:I don't think that roguelikes should be a niche genre, actually, and eventually I don't think that they will be. There's a series called Shiren the Wanderer - the DS version of that should have been one of the most popular games on the DS. Wonderful game.
When it shipped in the US it came with this hideous box-art, it had no PR whatsoever - they kind of bungled the release. Really that's an example of how you can absolutely make a roguelike game super-popular. I think someone's going to do that, eventually, and that's what our attempt with 100 Rogues was. Because, inherently I think that roguelikes meet all of the standards required of a popular genre.
They're a quick, pick-up-and-play arcade experience because it's just a one-shot, let's see how well I can do, Pac-Man and Galaga experience. They have the RPG elements which have now crept into every single genre in existence.
The reason they're niche is because the presentation has never been there. 90 per cent of roguelikes have been graphic-less, ASCII games which required you to memorise fifteen hot-keys to be able to play. Which is obviously not something most players are willing to do.
Q:We've talked about your great critical reception - how important are traditional reviews for App Store games now? Will the starred peer review system ever replace it?
Keith Burgun:I'm not sure. If 100 Rogues hadn't been formally reviewed or got good formal reviews... I don't know. I could answer that better if I'd had more games out on the App Store, then I could compare and - 'this one got five star reviews from everyone and sold like this...' I don't really have enough data to answer that. I can only imagine that good reviews help and bad reviews don't help.
Q:Would you ever consider doing work for hire? Pushing out smartphone iterations of big franchises, for example?
Keith Burgun:It would be something I'd have to think about. My first reaction is to say, no absolutely not. That would basically be like working in Dunkin' Donuts for us - it'd be just a job. It's not why we got into the games industry.
Q:Some people have been saying that an attachment to a proven franchise is the only certain way of monetising smartphone... Eric Brown of EA was saying that it's the only way.
Keith Burgun:I think that attitude is a serious problem. That's basically saying, and I think I can say this because it's basically what's happening, get an IP which everyone knows, then just copy another game and re-skin it.
You know, 'this is Halo, but with, I don't know, Jurassic Park', something everyone knows and loves. I think that is causing massive damage. Not just to the industry but to people's perception of games. I'm a real fighter for games' legitimacy. I really want people to understand that games are important, that games are culturally relevant. I really resent that kind of attitude, it holds us back.
But would I do it? I may, if I was really struggling. I wouldn't be happy about it though. I have a bunch of friends who work in the industry and I would not want to work at a big, triple-A studio. I mean it's not something I would remotely want to do. I'm very happy to be where I am, an indie who can actually make creative decisions. Make the games I want to make.
I have a bunch of friends who work in the industry and I would not want to work at a big, triple-A studio.
Q:Do you think that the smartphone market is trending towards quality at the moment, or will the throwaway model prevail?
Keith Burgun:Eventually, eventually, we're going to go in the good direction. One way or the other. We'll either go because people chose to go that way and there was a nice, smooth transition - or there's going to be a lot of serious turmoil, and something like a crash, then eventually out of that will rise a smaller industry.
I think that the industry, in the future, will be a lot smaller. I think that video games have achieved, in the last 20 years, this bizarre, rockstar status in our culture. Because of that, our industry has become way bigger that it ought to be.
That causes a lot of problems because when the industry is that big, and you get studios that are that big, you have to do the sort of stuff that Eric Brown was talking about. It's not their fault, they're right. When you get to that sort of outrageous size, you do have to do that sort of stuff. Everything is going to get smaller. Games are always going to be important, they're always going to be huge, but they're a little bit crazy right now.
If you look at board games - it's an industry that's doing pretty well, but there's a lot of quality. It's mostly people who are really into games who are into it, it doesn't have the same status as video games, where everybody is supposed to be super into it. I think that the way that the boardgame industry looks is something like the way we can imagine a future video games industry looking.
Keith Burgun is the lead designer at Dinofarm Games. Interview by Dan Pearson.