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Inside an indie cross-platform launch

Premium mobile games aren't really dead, the industry is more nuanced than people think, and other lessons from Butterscotch Shenanigans

We designed a cross-platform game for desktop and mobile called Crashlands. While making the game we had to tackle a bevy of questions related to the Cross-Platform Problem. Do we launch on all platforms simultaneously? How do we choose price points on each platform? How can we make an engaging game that controls beautifully on mobile while being deep enough for desktop? Will sales on mobile cannibalize our sales on desktop?

What we wanted to do was launch Crashlands on all storefronts at the same time, but we didn't know if that was a good idea. And so we turned to the experts to see what they thought. We read industry blogs, talked to publishers, and scoured the GDC Vault for examples of people pursuing a simultaneous cross-platform launch strategy. In meetings with potential publishers we were bluntly told "No one does that."

"Despite all the arguments against our launch strategy, things worked out well for our specific financial and studio goals."

We wanted to price the game separately in a way that made sense for each market it would be in. But, we were told, $15 Steam sales would be cannibalized by the $5 sales on mobile (and premium is dead on mobile anyway, didn't you know?), especially with a simultaneous launch. Further, we were told the mere presence of Crashlands on mobile would make desktop gamers assume it was "just a shoddy mobile port," no matter our design choices. Supposedly, then, a game that blurred the lines between two disparate markets would find a home in neither and would live a sordid life in limbo.

So we thought about our plans, a lot. And after that deliberation we decided to attempt the cross-platform design and simultaneous launch anyway.

We published Crashlands on January 21. We didn't pay for any advertising, instead spending all our energy on PR and relationships with our launch platforms. Things seemed to pay off in the end: Crashlands received Editor's Choice on the App Store in all the top tier countries, got a pop-up Steam feature over launch weekend, and minor featuring on Google Play. Since launch, Crashlands has had a high enough ROI that we gave ourselves backpay for 2 years of development, then doubled the size of our studio to six people, built a year-long runway, and are earning over our burn-rate even today - seven months after launch.

Despite all the arguments against our launch strategy, things worked out well for our specific financial and studio goals. With so many voices against that strategy I wanted to provide some countervailing force to the usual industry arguments regarding premium pricing, cross-platform design, and cross-platform launches. Depending on your place in the industry you might find that cross-platform design and launch can be a winning strategy for you and your crew. And regardless of your place in the industry, you'll find that it's always wise to evaluate industry wisdom relative to your own context.

First, let's talk about cross-platform design.

Designing for Everything (or: OH GOD WHAT HAVE WE DONE)

There's one common notion we must dispel before proceeding any further, and it's the idea that a player on desktop and a player on mobile want fundamentally different things from a gaming experience. Both groups of players are searching for a game that can deliver enjoyment. It so happens to be the case that mobile players are more likely to play in shorter bursts, due to the nature of their devices, and desktop or console players are more likely to play in larger chunks. But no matter the platform, players prefer games that are enjoyable both by the minute and when played for hours on end.

Making a great game, then, is the common difficulty all of us in the industry share. The additional difficulty in cross-platform game design lies in providing controls that work gracefully regardless of platform, without having to sacrifice depth or complexity from the game. Without fully native controls, many interactions in an otherwise great game can cause player frustration and ruin the overall experience.

"A successful cross-platform game must not only control like it was built natively for any device it's played on - it must also live up to players' platform-specific expectations."

A successful cross-platform game must not only control like it was built natively for any device it's played on - it must also live up to players' platform-specific expectations. The difference between player expectations on desktop and mobile is particularly wide and deep. Desktop players want access to all of a game's technical settings: shaders, v-sync, resolution, sound (split into master, music, and sfx), key-bindings, etc. Mobile players want touch controls that don't make their fingers ache and don't make them miss what's happening on-screen. Both groups of players want intuitive UIs that understand the functional UX differences between keyboard, controller, and touchscreen inputs. Subsets of both desktop and mobile players expect to be able to use a controller, and they will tell you so, if you neglect to include it.

With Crashlands we met the player expectations and graceful control requirements on mobile, but admittedly came up short on desktop. We neglected to ship to desktop with fully native support for the platform - we didn't include controller support, access to deep setting customization, and didn't provide hotkey customization options. We didn't realize just how important it was to have those sorts of options in that market, given our own biases (we rarely use controllers while playing desktop games, infrequently mess with in-game settings and control schemes, and were perhaps too proud of the control scheme we came up with). This resulted in us being docked by reviewers, and ultimately players, for providing an incomplete "port" of an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable experience.

Making a successful game on any platform requires that the game is great. In cross-platform game dev the requirements stack a bit higher: a game must meet all platform-specific expectations, control gracefully on each platform, and rethink its UI and UX design to meet the demands of those controls. It's no small feat to achieve, but once done it paves the way for your game's entry into entirely new and distinct markets. Entering multiple markets lets you effectively roll the Dice of Fate several times, perhaps saving you from a single-platform failed launch.

Speaking of financials...

Price Differentials (or: CANNIBALS AHHH!)

Markets as distinct as desktop and mobile have starkly different economics. Indie games have sat at a solid $10-$30 on Steam for the past few years, while the mobile market's premium pricing structure has a dramatically smaller range of $1-$5.

So how do you choose your game's price when straddling markets with such disparate economics? By treating them independently in each!

We genuinely believed that Crashlands, with its 40+ hours of gameplay, humorous narrative arc, and innovations to the crafting genre, was a top-notch indie title. After examining the general pricing trends in both the desktop and mobile markets, we chose to price the game at $5 on mobile, making it a high-end premium title, and $15 on Steam, competitively priced with other crafting and indie games of similar caliber and scope. The added advantage of these two prices, we believed, was that the total cost for getting the game on both platforms remained a reasonable $20.

"...you must pick prices appropriate to each market you're in, and you must not be scared of people on the internet who will be angry about it."

There is an expected response to a 300% price differential in the gaming world: outrage and cannibalization!

Our economically rational approach to pricing the game did not protect us from player backlash. At launch there were a number of desktop players who were quite vocal about their disagreement with the pricing differential. We left forum notes explaining our thought process behind the pricing models and that seemed, for some, to be enough. Others, crying foul, vowed to only purchase it on mobile, if at all. Without a doubt this resulted in some degree of "sales cannibalization," in which players preferably purchase the game on the cheaper of two platforms.

But, upon digging into our statistics, we found that 22% of Steam players using our in-game cloud service, BscotchID, also own the game on their Android device, which is a surprisingly high conversion. So while we can't say anything about the effects of cannibalization (because it's impossible to measure), we can say that offering the game on multiple platforms, and having a way to move a player's saves between them, caused occasional extra purchases. Further, the bad will generated from the pricing differential appears to be limited to a very small subset of the player population - suggesting that the markets of PC and mobile are, indeed, very separate.

The TL;DR of picking a price for a cross-platform game is that you must pick prices appropriate to each market you're in, and you must not be scared of people on the internet who will be angry about it. People on the internet are angry about everything. If you also include a method by which players can continue playing the same save between their devices, you may be able to combat the theoretical cannibalization of sales resulting from your price differential.

Simultaneous Launch (or: FIRE ALL THE MISSILES)

You've designed a great game that controls beautifully across everything, meets player expectations with a firm handshake, and has prices that recognize the reality of the markets it'll be available in. Now it's time to launch, but do you launch on every platform at once, or one at a time?

The industry standard, we've been told, is to stagger your launch. This has many theoretical benefits: it allows you to dodge the price differential problem by releasing the cheaper version of your game further into the game's lifecycle; it lets you net yourself as many launches as you have platforms, potentially whipping up a good deal of media each time; and it lets you spread the revenue of your game out over a longer period of time.

Simultaneous launches, by contrast, give you the potential of hitting a cultural tipping point when, if only for a moment, your game is everywhere. Such launches also reduce PR/marketing overhead, since you must launch the game only once instead of multiple times. And, further, a simultaneous launch will tell you pretty quickly if your game is a financial flop and that you need to put your eggs in a different basket.

"We wanted to make the biggest splash possible such that if someone opened the game storefront on their phone, tablet, or desktop during launch week they'd see Crashlands."

For us the decision was one of necessity. We're an indie studio. At the time of Crashlands' launch we were just three people, and we also didn't have any money to market our game. We decided to launch simultaneously in order to provide some cover for our lack of marketing exposure. We wanted to make the biggest splash possible such that if someone opened the game storefront on their phone, tablet, or desktop during launch week they'd see Crashlands. Ideally, they'd see the game everywhere they looked, wonder what the hell was going on, and give it a gander. Further, a simultaneous launch would allow us to build up a humongous wave of initial players that, hopefully, could create that cultural tipping point during launch week to spread the word about the game and build on its success. There's one more reason we decided on the simultaneous launch: our vision as a company is to become the definitive cross-platform game studio.

This all meant we were relying on the storefronts to publicize the game on our behalf, and all on a single launch weekend. This was a risky proposition, but one we'd tried to counter by keeping our platform contacts informed of the game's pre-launch popularity as we led up to January 21.

Waiting for the storefronts to turn over was perhaps the most stressful day in that two-year dev cycle. As they did, one by one, we found ourselves with prime placement in each storefront. By the end of launch week, we were indeed visible everywhere and had already recouped much more than our development costs. While we cannot say that this success was due to our simultaneous launch, we can say that simultaneous launch let us reach all of our goals and could be a viable path for other studios looking to avoid the drawn out process of a staggered launch.

Context is Key (or: TRUST NO ONE!)

Designing a game for cross-platform compatibility can be hugely beneficial to your studio. It helps mitigate risk, boost visibility, and will please your players by letting them take your game damn near everywhere they go.

It is not a riskless endeavor, however. It requires that you make your game feel native on every platform it's played on, choose prices that work with the market forces on each storefront despite fears of backlash, design the game for great gameplay no matter the session length, and pick a launch strategy that covers your weaknesses while furthering your grand vision as a studio.

"When the prevailing wisdom didn't fit our goals, we reasoned through and created a path that did."

The reality of doing business in the games industry is much more nuanced than prevailing industry opinions would suggest, namely because those opinions lack appropriate context. For example, we can now unabashedly say that premium games are not dead on mobile. But. It would be irresponsible to spread that idea around without providing the relevant context: premium games are not dead on mobile if you make a great game, are a smaller studio, have no advertising budget, and don't need to make $10 million to declare financial success.

We know that it's completely possible that the amount of revenue Crashlands brought in could have been doubled, tripled, or even infini-tupled by doing things differently. Unfortunately, we can't A/B test the universe to suss this one out. The important point here, though, is that the game was wildly successful for us, both financially and strategically, using an approach that defied convention in numerous ways.

When the prevailing wisdom didn't fit our goals, we reasoned through and created a path that did. Which is exactly what you, reading this piece of industry wisdom (if we can stretch and call it that), should do.

Now go make some cross-platform games!

Sam Coster is co-founder and creative director at Butterscotch Shenanigans, a St. Louis, MO based indie studio he founded with brothers Seth and Adam in 2012.

Latest comments (7)

Love this game and I see their experience was not a million miles from our own too. When 99% of the voices out there are telling you one thing, time to think different.
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Nick Ferguson Sr. Business Development Manager, AmazonA year ago
Great article, thanks for sharing your experience!
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Jaakko Maaniemi PR Coordinator, 10tons Ltd.A year ago
Congratulations! A great and completely earned success for sure, and a great, inspiring story.

Here comes the BUT. The two quotes I'd pull, and I feel basically *everyone* should pull are these
The important point here, though, is that the game was wildly successful for us
and
Crashlands received Editor's Choice on the App Store in all the top tier countries, got a pop-up Steam feature over launch weekend, and minor featuring on Google Play.
Starting from the latter one, 99,99% of games won't get those features. It's a widely known fact storefront features drive downloads and purchases like nothing else. People *will* play what's shown to them, and everyone sees the storefronts. Getting good storefront features pretty much guarantees good financial success for an indie game, in fact it'd be very interesting to hear if there are examples of good storefront features NOT making an indie game a success. In short, storefronts are kingmakers.

The first quote circles back to the second one. Keeping production budget in check is key, but "luckily" it's achieved half automatically by most indies since there just never is a significant chunk of money to invest in the first place. Anyway, reasonable production costs coupled with incredible storefront features will work pretty much every time, regardless of business model. Again the trouble is for 99,99% of games that they just don't get the other half of the equation, the storefront features. Without the features, even keeping production costs ashtonishingly low may not help make a game profitable, at least profitable enough to fund another production.

You guys did very well by firstly making an incredibly good game and marketing it very well, indie style (=piggybacking on platform holders, engaging really well with the relevant press and community). And doing it multiplatform! It's definitely pretty much the only widely doable thing to mitigate risk and multiply success I'm aware of.

The bottom line: This is another great indie success story. It can be done. Premium is not dead on mobile. Yes, all of this. In theory. However, 99,99% of indiegames aren't as good as Crashlands. 99,99% of indie games won't get similar storefront support, or media support. These are probably very much intertwined. Still, I feel like 99,99% of indie games industry is a significant portion, since, well, basically everyone falls within that group. With so much focus going into the top 00,01% of the wildest successes, I feel like the survivor bias is pretty much as extreme as it can get. Sure, for the 00,01% of indies premium mobile isn't dead. There's no indieapocalypse either. And one can make a decent living, turn a profit, fund another game and so forth. All IF you're in that 00,01%. But for almost everyone reading this article or comments, this is just not the reality. It'd be great if there was some focus on the vast majority of indie game industry, where after all most developers work and most titles are released. Or at least widen the scope to the top 1%, or maybe top 10%. Sure the reality in that scene (my scene!) is much more mundane and not half as exciting to... ehm, anyone, quite possibly, but at least the overall picture would be far less skewed. At least it might do a lot of good to young people making career choices, and maybe over time sound, repeatable strategies for a wider part of the industry could be found.
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I certainly take what you're saying on board but your conclusions seem to (I could be wrong) proceed from the idea that games is not a hit driven business, that the other 99.9% of the games out there deserve to make money, ergo the fact that they don't means the system is borked. Whereas intuitively we all know 99% of all releases on all platforms fail to make the charts, and of the seeming trillions of games on mobile that fail, a fat majority were never going to succeed. They simply are not chart material in any universe and their death is not mysterious or requiring of explanation.

And while the number of apps released on the stores spirals ever upwards into millions, the top ten can still only fit ten titles. We can't usurp this fact and we need to keep it at the back of our minds when discussing the 'amount of failure' on any platform.

Regarding feature spot on stores, that certainly is huge and in 2012 it was key to the success our studio had with The Room. But we've learned the feature spot is not what people think it is. The guaranteed numbers it gives you is real but it's uncomfortably lower than our industry imagines. Many devs are overjoyed with their week in the sun with Apple and Google but many other devs go on to be surprised that it didn't add up to more income. To answer your question, I do personally know devs who got major featuring yet couldn't manage to break even after it. We need to remember a feature position is, after all, a banner ad, fancy yes and with the fabulous backing of Apple, Google & Amazon whom customers trust. It's the best banner ad in the world for sure, but it remains a banner ad and the wildly varying experience developers have of featuring proves it. Like any flashy advert, players still have to personally like what's on offer and their response very much dictates your fate on your feature week. It can only be a recommendation at the end of the day.

The Indiepocalypse/death of paid/whatever we're calling it this week is real in the sense that so many companies are struggling on mobile. But the amount of those doing well is not falling and indeed the premium sector has continued to grow in dollar value every year since 2010. Growth has slowed over the last three years as attrition sets in but that's to be expected as smartphone sales roundly flatline.

So many times when we discuss market issues these basic economic realities are left out of the discussion. In fact to read the UK games press we might assume everybody who's game is unprofitable belongs in the charts - that 50,000 non-charting games is the same as thousands of missed classics - a disaster, a massacre, we need to get upset about this. But when we parse what they are saying, what they are pointing out is mundane: that 100,000 devs are mysteriously not in the top ten, and that the premium sector continues to make far less money than free to play.

While I can accept that people who revolve around the F2P sector are basically permanently underwhelmed with premium (and why not, they have been impatiently stitching its death shawl it's since 2010), small or Indie developers who accept this reality can at least try to find a living there, and without any of the total ball-ache that making F2P games requires of poor start-ups.

Constantly comparing mobile premium to what it is not, you'll find nothing but misery. But see it for what it is and it is not only manageable but can be a lifeline for small devs who otherwise would catch no break at all.
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Jaakko Maaniemi PR Coordinator, 10tons Ltd.A year ago
Oh, definitely, a lot of games and developers just aren't good enough to survive. I'm sure most everyone agrees on that. They might not be exactly so bad that they're worthless and deserve to die off, it's just the massive amount of competition guarantees that the top 0,1% or whatever tiny number you pick is so much better. And the better stuff just will trample the weaker stuff.

My point is that it's pretty worrisome the percentage of successes is so extremely low. I don't know if it's 0,1%, 1%, 5% or what, but it seems to be a single digit percentage anyway. To me it seems like it's bad for the industry as a whole. It means that nearly everyone who tries to get in fails pretty quickly. It also means whatever these people invest is just lost. I, for one, would much rather see the industry be such that a good, comfortable double digit percentage of developers (let's choose 20%) were able to make a barely decent living for several years and have a realistic chance of improving their craft and maybe even get a minor hit one day. The current reality is just very far away from that.

As for indieapocalypse, it's going on in Steam and consoles too. All of the major gaming markets start to look a lot like each other. We should know, as we're active in everything but Nintendo (and making due by the way, 15 years in business is closing in fast).

And yes, feature slots don't always guarantee success, but they are as close to a guarantee as it gets. Certainly for us we've never seen anything that would clearly affect sales/downloads other than a storefront feature. On any platform, mobile, console or Steam. Or, actually, there was one instance years and years ago: Our familly friendly logic puzzle Joining Hands was covered on USA Today. That resulted in a clear sales spike on iOS. But no other review, no matter how glowing or on how significant site, has ever registered (granted, on consoles and Steam the reviews often overlap with the launch spike, so it's all but impossible to pick apart what did what). But I digress. Games are a hit driven business. But isn't it too extreme these days?
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation LtdA year ago
Really great article Sam, thanks.

"Getting good storefront features pretty much guarantees good financial success for an indie game, in fact it'd be very interesting to hear if there are examples of good storefront features NOT making an indie game a success."

I've seen premium games that have secured the highest level of marketing support from the app stores but still failed to capitalise this in a number of ways. Inappropriate pricing (many developers would do well to heed the lesson above about price discrimination), a confusing or unappealing proposition, or sometimes just putting so much emphasis on fantastic production values or tech that it's not clear to the passing shopper what the gameplay involves.
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Jaakko Maaniemi PR Coordinator, 10tons Ltd.A year ago
Yeah, what I said about the power of storefront features came off a bit wrong. What I meant that provided a developer does a decent job with the game, marketing, pricing, and keeping production costs at bay (ie. not make a glaring mistake, which is possible as a lot of good information is out there for those who seek it), a storefront feature is pretty much a guarantee of success. Far more than anything. And in contrast, doing the exactly same things or even doing said things really well and not getting the storefront features most likely dooms the product. And yes, sometimes games flop even when everything's done well and some sort of feature materializes. There's always high and low ends to statistics.

That goes to the point. Doing everything really pretty darn nicely doesn't go even halfway towards success. And the games that get featured are a tiny, tiny sliver of all the games coming out. Surely success is not impossible, as the very best developers prove regularly, but the competition is just so extreme and the quality bar for high probability of success is so sky high that it might as well be impossible, for most.

Oh and mind you that while I do worry about many a company's and creator's financial wellbeing, I'm absolutely terrified for young people making career choices. Game education is probably still being ramped up all over the world and many students are going for an indie developer career, and currently it looks like the money just won't be there for most of them. Certainly not as reliably as if you'd study dentistry, carpentry or pretty much anything else.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jaakko Maaniemi on 2nd September 2016 12:35pm

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