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Mobile tales of epic fail

Four developers share what they learned from mobile games that went nowhere

There's no shortage of Game Developers Conference sessions focused on success, games that hit it big and found critical or commercial success. There are fewer sessions about games that failed. Tuesday afternoon saw one panel devoted to four mobile developers reliving defeat in agonizing (and hopefully enlightening) detail.

Massive Damage CEO Ken Seto started things off by discussing Pocket Mobsters, a game released in the summer of 2013.

"I think the game kinda sucked, but there's some nuance to that suckage," Seto said.

"I think the game kinda sucked, but there's some nuance to that suckage."

Ken Seto

Pocket Mobsters enjoyed decent promotional support from Apple and was downloaded 200,000 time in its five-month life, but retention was a key concern. Day one retention was 13 percent dropping to 3 percent by day 30. The game was effectively dead on arrival, Seto said.

Part of the problem was the game was made in the midst of studio turmoil, with the headcount being halved to just a dozen devleopers combined with the departure of Seto's brother and co-founder. They were hoping to churn out a quick hit and bring in cash and get the company going again, but there were issues. The Pocket Mobsters dev team, for example, was made up entirely of junior members, as the rest of the studio was focused on supporting its previous hit, Please Stay Calm.

There were also issues matching the theme of the game to the audience. It had a Boardwalk Empire-inspired setting, but with charming pixel art. Seto said they hadn't taken into account that the audience for a mobster game might prefer a visual style more hardcore than cute.

The game was also built on the backbone of Please Stay Calm, which Seto said was created in a very hack-y kind of way. The result was a huge technical debt such that any changes to the game required navigating spaghetti code and changing hard-coded things in time-consuming ways. That probably hurt the game most, Seto said, because there were a ton of features planned for the game, but it just took too long to actually implement any of them.

"We decided to sunset the game, and that was one of the hardest things we had to do with a project we all loved," Seto said.

They gave players four months' notice, turned off the in-app purchase store, and offered paying players the opportunity to transfer their character to an equivalent strength character in Please Stay Calm.

One of the big lessons Seto wanted to impart to developers was not to fall in love with your ideas. If something's not working, cut it quickly and move on. There were other issues, but in the end, Seto said it was on his shoulders to make sure it doesn't happen again. You can't learn from your failures if you're not willing to take responsibility, Seto said. The studio is down to 10 people now, but it has plans for its next two games, starting with Halcyon 6, which will have a Kickstarter campaign launching next Tuesday.

East Side Games CEO and co-founder Joshua Nilson was next, talking about the Vancouver-based studio's MightyBots. The idea behind the game was to make an intense robot puzzle fighter, with secondary goals of proving out the company's tech and "Swill n' Spill" game jam processes, and to churn out a hit game in three months. That timeline quickly fell apart, as the development team couldn't settle on making their main mechanic time-based or turn-based.

During production, the team leads broke the game into six week do-or-die cycles where the team needed to hit milestones or be killed. Nilson said that killed morale. It also gave developers the sense that the studio was never completely behind the game's development, partly because they hadn't even proven out the core mechanic. Months into development, with the game already live in the App Store, the decision was made to switch the game from a time-based game to turn-based, which ticked off a lot of people. In the future, Nilson said he's going to pay closer attention to when the changes being suggested for a game are so significant that they might actually be better off making a separate game entirely.

Nilson also acknowledged that East Side could have handled the decision to pull the plug on MightyBots in a smarter way. The game's development was so labored that it got to the point where the team had to speak up and prompt the studio management to figure out what it was doing with the game in a more concrete way.

The good news was that MightyBots got nominated for a Canadian Video Game Award, but they also learned a lot about project costs, burn rates, and tracking. A lot of studios have management that keeps that information close to the chest, but Nilson said East Side shares it with everyone on the team.

"I think we made an error about assumptions and experience... Our own success was stomping on some debate. We weren't able to think outside our own box that we created."

Bryan Mashinter

Backflip Studios game director Bryan Mashinter took the podium next to speak about one of his studio's misfires. He started by talking about the importance of expecations, and how failure is often judged relative to them.

"Expectations in general can be soul-crushing," Mashinter said as he showed images of movie posters from Star Wars: Episode I and The Matrix Revolutions. Then he showed the poster for Fast & Furious 6, saying he quite enjoyed it as he expected it to be pretty terrible, but was pleasantly surprised.

Gizmonauts was Backflip's Episode I, its free-to-play follow-up to the hit DragonVale. As the spiritual successor to that game, with an improved engine, more social mechanics and better communication, expectations for Gizmonauts were high. While the two games had similar retention rates at day one, by day seven Gizmonauts had cratered to 13 percent, compared to DragonVale's more than 20 percent. The game's daily active users spiked at launch, predictably, but tapered off after that. That might not be so unusual, but it looked very bad compared to DragonVale, which gained steam after launch for "a really impressive time." Comparing the revenue between the two games was an even more sobering experience.

"I think we made an error about assumptions and experience," Mashinter said, adding, "Our own success was stomping on some debate. We weren't able to think outside our own box that we created."

Much of Gizmonaut's design borrowed from things that worked in DragonVale. But when the soft launch provided poor metrics, they didn't respond properly. They had fallen in love with the things that worked, and had too much faith the game would still find success like its predecessor.

They also didn't challenge the assumption that people would love the game's cute robot theme. It turns out people don't actually like robots that much, Mashinter said, pointing out that of the current top 200 grossing games on the App Store, not a single one has a robot theme. Since then, Backflip has learned to do more A-B testing, look at the data with a more impartial perspective, and to be terrified of robots.

"Publishers didn't really fit the way that we operated as a studio and the way that we make a game."

Alex Schwartz

Owlchemy Labs' Alex Schwartz rounded out the panel by talking about how going with a publisher (Sega, in this case) made no sense for their game Jack Lumber, about a supernatural lumberjack out for revenge on trees after a tree killed his granny. Schwartz said the game was self-funded, created by a team of four beginning as a prototype log-chopping minigame in January of 2012. They polished up Jack Lumber in time to be part of the Indie MegaBooth in April, and things were going well. Fan feedback was great and they were on track for self-publishing when they were approached by Sega to be part of a new mobile initiative called The Sega Alliance.

It was 2012, and paid apps were tanking on the App Store, so Owlchemy took a deal that would help with marketing and let them keep the IP. Sega was only taking a minority revenue share and only publishing the iOS version, so it seemed like an acceptable idea. However, as launch approached, there were problems with that marketing. Sega wrote a press release for the game, which Owlchemy entirely rewrote because it had missed the tone of the game. The same thing happened with the key art for the game, so instead of Sega saving Owlchemy's time with the marketing campaign, they had done more to waste it.

Despite glowing reviews at launch, the iOS release struggled. Owlchemy ported the game to Android and Steam, got involved in the Humble Bundle and created ports for Leap Motion, Windows Phone, and so on. In the end, Owlchemy made 86 percent of the overall money on Jack Lumber on platforms that Sega was not involved in and the iOS build became "the red-headed stepchild of Jack Lumber."

"Publishers didn't really fit the way that we operated as a studio and the way that we make a game," Schwartz said.

Sega didn't do anything catastrophically wrong, Schwartz said, but they didn't do anything amazingly right, either. He also credited them with transferring the iOS app back to Owlchemy as a gesture of kindness. There's no hard feeling as a result of the deal, and Schwartz also noted Sega was kind enough to transfer the iOS app rights back to Owlchemy, but he said it just didn't make sense for the studio to bring Sega in at that point of development. Jack Lumber did wind up doing fairly well when the other platform ports were mixed in, but Schwartz said the biggest lesson for Owlchemy was that they have to have absolute control when it comes to growing their own brands.

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