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Mobile pricing discouraging, frustrating - Lee Perry

BitMonster Games co-founder on what he's learned going from AAA to indie, and the biggest challenge for any mobile dev

Lee Perry left Epic Games last year to co-found a mobile-focused indie house, BitMonster Games. Since then, the company has finished two projects--Lili and a charity project called (THRED)--and is working on a third in Gunner Z. As he explained to GamesIndustry International, there's been no shortage of challenges in the process, some of which are well out of any single developer's control.

"Ultimately, the biggest challenge comes down to the fact that the industry evolves just so rapidly," Perry said. "I mentioned in a GDC talk how crazy it is that in the span it takes to create one AAA game, in the three years we spent working on Gears of War 3, how much mobile games changed. At the start of it, free-to-play wasn't really heard of. People were still excited about Doodle Jump, and everything was supposed to be simple enough to be played with one button. And by the end of that time frame, you had Clash of Clans and screenshots that looked like Excel databases, just incredibly complex games. That's the biggest challenge for any mobile developer, just trying to ride this incredibly wild bull as the entire market moves along so rapidly. We've only been making Gunner Z over the course of six months, and it already feels like there are trends that have changed in that time. It's just a crazy time to be making games."

"We've only been making Gunner Z over the course of six months, and it already feels like there are trends that have changed in that time."

Lee Perry

Looking at BitMonster's still nascent body of work shows a similarly unpredictable range of movement. The studio's first effort, Lili, was a violence-free adventure RPG. Its next title, (THRED), was a one-off arcade-style game for the AIDS charity (RED) featuring music from Tiesto. Now the six-person studio is working on Gunner Z, a turret shooter with zombies. Perry said he's learned a lot in the course of making those three games, not the least of which was just how easy it was to take being part of a AAA developer for granted, from specialized support staff to focusing on just one skill set.

"Every day when there's only six of you in the office and there aren't departments to call on for getting a sound effect or a writer," Perry said. "Every task for a UI is something you end up doing yourself. Every day is like a giant learning curve to tackle. You don't get to just sit down, specialize and say, 'I'm going to be the animator.' There's nobody who's just the animator. The animator also cuts together the trailer and does the music in the trailer, stuff like that. I think mostly it's been refreshing a lot of very old, practical skills for just getting stuff done. And that's been pretty cool."

With Gunner Z, BitMonster's indie status means embarking on a new business model without having a horde of bean counters speaking from experience about what works.

"Just like everything we've done, it's going to be a big learning curve for us because we haven't done microtransaction games before," Perry said. "The ones that were in Lili were entirely optional, and it was never meant to be like a free-to-play game. With Gunner Z, it's very much about this being a learning experience for us in trying to figure out how to make an economy. Honestly, we don't quite know yet whether it's going to be charged for up front or not."

Perry said BitMonster will test market Gunner Z in some smaller countries for a couple weeks to see how people react to it, and will nail down the details after that. Speaking only for himself and not for the studio, Perry added he finds current attitudes toward mobile game valuation can be discouraging.

"[I]t would be great if you could just create a game that people would be happy to pay $5 or $7 for, but I think those are the exception..."

Lee Perry

"We reduced Lili for a week to $.99 and there were forum threads saying, 'Hey guys, what's this game? Is it worth $.99? I don't know; I'm on the fence about it.' That's really frustrating because a lot of work goes into this. There seem to be some projects that are pretty successful doing premium stuff. Personally, I'm a little timid of that right now. In an ideal world, I think it would be great if you could just create a game that people would be happy to pay $5 or $7 for, but I think those are the exception in the app store right now."

Though he admits going indie hasn't been what he imagined, Perry isn't about to second-guess the decision.

"I try not to look back and have any regrets," Perry said. "I think it's just a very different experience. Everybody has to romanticize it when they leave a company to go start something else. I certainly don't regret it; it's just been a very different journey than I was expecting. You go into it thinking it will be a cool, working in the basement kind of environment. But it's still way stressful. It's much more stressful than I was expecting. You get a lot of creative freedom, a lot less people involved in any random decision, and you can put a lot more of yourself into any random project. But there's still a lot of cooperation and consensus required to do things. But all of those decisions have much more of a direct impact on your group of people."

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Latest comments (21)

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development7 years ago
'Hey guys, what's this game? Is it worth $.99? I don't know; I'm on the fence about it.'

I made a similar comment in sarcasm during someone elses spat with some mobile gamers on a forum. They took it at face value and saw nothing odd at all about the question, didn't even give me any stick. Madness.
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Boon Cotter Artist 7 years ago
I've had my mind changed on this. I used to laugh at the seeming absurdity of people hesitant about purchasing a $1 app while drinking a $5 coffee. But then someone pointed out to me that the $5 coffee is a known entity. It's not the cost that matters, it's the (lack of) reliability.

If you buy a $5 coffee from a coffee shop and it's bad, you never go back. You don't line up and keep buying $5 coffees because they're "only $5".

The same thing is happening in mobile gaming: Way too much choice, way too little reliability or consistency. So it's not about being hesitant to spend $1, it's about being hesitant to spend $1 on something which odds are is buggy and flaky and probably not much fun.

So selling to these people isn't about convincing them to spend a dollar, it's about convincing them that your product is worth playing in the first place. I am one of those "Is it worth it?" consumers. I won't baulk at spending $1, or $3, or $5 or more. What I baulk at is spending ANYTHING on a bad bet.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 7 years ago
@Boon: Even if it's from a developer you know? Even if you can hit "the Google" and look up art, screens, videos and previews of some games? Even if you can (and this is not too new) actually ring up or email the developer and ask them to justify their existence as it were and tell you why you should spend that dollar? Granted, sometimes if a game looks like crap and plays like crap (if there's a demo), it's going to be crap when it's completed.

On the other hand, there are many games that wind up really good and more than worth a buck and I feel sorry for the dev that's devalued his or her work just to get it to move in a sea of other games that aren't as good where a chunk of user reviews say stuff like "this is worth more than a dollar" or "I'd pay more for this" or other words to the same effect...

I think many people are just at the point where they've thought paying at all for games in an era of free or cheap games galore (including free games all over the internet, some of which rival AAA in quality) is something they need to question, no matter who makes what they want to play.
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Show all comments (21)
Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development7 years ago
This is where the rise of F2P came from.
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James Boulton Owner, Retro HQ Ltd7 years ago
I still prefer the old days of having a demo and a full priced game. Get to see what you're paying for, and pay for it as a whole if you like it. I refuse to pay micro-transactions for virtual goods and will never do so. Personally I really despair at the direction the industry is going, and the attitude of consumers at expecting everything for free. It really does feel like mobile games have died for me (which may seem like a strange comment given how much money some are making). Crowd funding is the one shining light for me in getting some control back without playing roulette and giving your games away for free.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by James Boulton on 7th August 2013 11:21am

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Dave Herod Senior Programmer, Codemasters7 years ago
I'd prefer a free trial followed by a fixed price to unlock the full game. I can't understand why paid for games on Android don't have demos. I'd prefer to avoid games full of in-app purchases or ads, but I'd like to at least try the game before I decide whether it's worth a buy.
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Eyal Teler Programmer 7 years ago
Games don't have demos because demos mainly help decide not to buy the game. More people buy games when there's no demo. That said, many Android games do have demos / free versions, just like other apps.
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Its hard to know how much of the pricing issue is customer inspired and how much is self fulfilling prophesy. While we can say that obviously any customer likes free or near-free, it also seems fairly likely that publishers forced themselves and their games down this route because they couldn't get a handle on a new market and noticed some ftp games were making boatloads of cash on Facebook and then mobile. FFWD a year or two and here we are. Personally I think killer apps are killer apps no matter what model they use to sell, customers will go where they see something they want to play, regardless of payment model. But the over-emphasis on ftp at the moment has some roots in publishers being scared of a new market/platform and betting on something, anything, that works. The "customers want it the market this way" reasoning whilst true in some ways also has a whiff of whistling in the dark about it.
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development7 years ago
I think it's important to remember that people don't need to buy these games. And it's not just whether your game is worth $1, but whether it's worth using their next $1 on your game rather than another.

These are mostly impulse buys, and funnily enough I nearly impulsively purchased a chicken steak burger a minute ago, then I thought about it and realised I could wait another ten minutes and eat a sandwich when I get home. Which reminds me of the Motown philosophy. They decide whether a song makes it on an album by asking a panel whether they would rather buy this song or a cheeseburger with their last dollar.
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Samuel Verner Game Designer 7 years ago
@greg 99,999% of the apps out there are crap. even if there are shiny screens and known names. i wouldn't bother to spend 5 or 10 dollar on a mobile game if i know its good. even 20 dollar would be ok for me, if the quality and the content are worth it. but chances a new game is terrible are extremely high. so if i see a game which catches my interest i would rather download it from some forums instead of paying a dollar on something i probably wont start a second time after the installation. the quality on the mobile market is just too low. at the the moment its just a pure swamp for shady rip-off monetization platforms aka f2p games. its a market where everyone sells shit and the customers are used to getting sold shit. its a bad environment for companies who real want to deliver something good.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Samuel Verner on 7th August 2013 7:54pm

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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 7 years ago
Welp, the it's a lost cause then isn't it? I hang out on Desura, and a few other sites where folks with free games seem to be doing better work than all these "crap" apps no one wants to pay a buck for (but seem to keep multiplying by the week)..

So what's the solution then? Run around telling people to stop making shitty dollar games so the good ones can float up? Tell the successful app makers with good to great games to stop showing up the crappy games? Eh, whatever - I know there are good game makers out there (and I've seen some decent mobile stuff), but unless quality control replaces freedom to dump junk onto the marketplace, you can't stop anyone from creating, correct?
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Saehoon Lee Founder & CEO, Pixellore7 years ago
1048jack11 , What the hell man... ( Edit : well spam has been deleted ) Good.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Saehoon Lee on 8th August 2013 4:21am

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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development7 years ago
@sam. I think you need a bit more hyperbole there mate. Your blinkered and ignorant generalisations didn't quite have enough venom.
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 7 years ago
With console the business model is mostly cast in concrete. So developers and publishers have a long established framework to create their products on.
With mobile there are a whole range of business models and they are constantly changing and being added to.
In mobile it is no good having a great idea for a game, making it and then adding some monetisation mechanic/s.
In mobile it is essential to start with the business model and monetisation mechanics and then to build a game round it. That way you have more chance of making payroll.

If you know what you are doing then from a ROCE perspective mobile is hundreds of times better than console. And far less risky. In fact it can only be inertia or ineptitude that sees console development continuing.
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This basically means that the core game designer has to be a businessman. This is hardly something I'd wish for as something the entire games industry should become. It's like saying that all car designers should be attorneys, paying more attention to laws than aesthetics (unfortunately this is already kind of true today)
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Gareth Eckley Commercial Analyst 7 years ago
In the current market, you can always find a new, free game that is of reasonable quality. And then you just change games when you hit the paywall. Thanks to this, my expenditure on gaming has dropped to almost zero nowadays.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 7 years ago
Ha. In a goofy way, the title of this piece could also be another response to this GI article from today:
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Clash of Clans crashes regularly for my son (fails to load on resume).
Secondly, unlike more in depth tower defence / SRPGs (god knows what CoCs is...) it's not even a real game - it's just a bunch of interconnected units that must be upgraded after waiting or paying. The only thought applied is the placing of the units and walls. The rest plays itself. Some would argue about the need to balance units, but that's not something you do by choice - if you don't then you find you can't upgrade lots of things. Production values (apart from buggy loads) are incredibly high, but if this is all drones want to play.... I'm going to refuse to install any more like that. I'd rather he play minecraft - at least it doesn't even pretend to be a game - it's just a giant lego set which stimulates the brain a bit more via creation.
So, Gunner Z is an FPS, but it looks different and is actually a real game requiring skill. \o/ But web comments are already saying "I'll try it if it's free" :( Where will it all end? [tongue in cheek] Maybe soon, devs will pay you to download their game and give you free credits for upgrades[/]
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Fazi Zsolt Game & Level Designer @Atypical Games 7 years ago
Knowing what the business is about, it's not all bad as people make it sound. In fact it really helps a lot, and you can go a long way with a little knowledge of the business side.
You know what they say, don't throw the baby out with the bath water.
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Ehh.. there are lot of crappy console / PC games too, with a price tag of up to 70 euros. Just bought the new Space Hulk for 27 euros from Steam and it's crap. There are plenty of mobile games with better graphics, yet it still runs like a snail in a tar pit...

But yes, with so many games being released every day, it becomes a matter of not money but time: Do I want to spend my limited time on this game or not?
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development7 years ago
In mobile it is no good having a great idea for a game ...
My point exactly.

I guess there are people who are interested in creating compelling games, people interested in monetising behaviour and people who sit somewhere in between.

But Bruce, thanks for reminding us that it's no longer about the games. Now we just need to rename this site to and I'll go get my coat.
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