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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.

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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.

" 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.

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