Archive for the ‘Game Development’ Category

A brief history of casual download games

Friday, July 27th, 2018

In this blog post I’ll talk about what casual download games are, how they were/are sold and about the decline of the market.

What are “Casual Download Games”?

These days if I say “casual game” people immediately think I mean a mobile game such as Candy Crush. Many people don’t seem to realise that all those type of games used to be $20 downloadable games sold via “casual portals” like Big Fish Games etc. So I often use the term “casual download game for desktop” to clarify now.

Some people also used to call Flash games “casual” because you could play them online in short bursts and often with just a mouse. However, many of those games were action-oriented and not the sort of traditional casual game genre like match-3, hidden object game, time management game (e.g. Diner Dash), card game, word game etc.

When did the casual download portals appear?

Back before Steam indies sold their games from their own websites and from sites like download.com and other shareware sites.

It was very tough to make a living from that and so when some larger sites started to collate and sell decent quality games to larger audiences in the early 2000s, many devs rushed to get their games on those sites even though the developer rev share was often AWFUL (see below).

What are the main casual portals?

Here are some of the main ones:

- Big Fish Games (the biggest)
- Game House (was originally called Real Arcade)
- Zylom (they are owned by Game House and has localised versions of games)
- iWin (they bought Oberon Media and Pogo and more sites in the past I believe)
- Shockwave
- WildTangent Games
- GameFools
- Exent
- Alawar (Russian)
- Intenium/Gamigo (German)
- Boonty/Nexway (French)

Some of those sites also have/had Flash and Java games for people to play online, but most of their business is via downloadable casual games.

It’s also possible to sell casual games via Amazon, and the Apple App Store (for Mac), and other smaller sites. I’ve tried out a lot of sites over the years but many of them just weren’t worth it. Also some sites that were once good have become unreliable over time.

Developer Revenue Share

The best revshare I knew of was 40% (TO THE DEVS) for an “exclusive” deal, but 30%-35% was common and I have even seen less than 25%! Though in recent years I managed to snag a 50% deal for an exclusive which was pretty good. Remember that Steam, Apple, Google, Amazon offer 70%(ish) to developers, and some like Humble and itch.io offer even more!

However, due to the sheer volume of sales on the bigger casual sites it was once possible to make ok to good money from a casual download game when the market was booming, but only if you made the right type of game (more on this in a moment) and controlled the budget carefully.

What type of games do casual portals sell?

Early on you could often find arcade games on the casual portals as well as casual games. Reflexive (bought by Amazon in 2008) used to have platform games, brick beakers, and shoot ‘em ups on it for example. It was a really cool time in which I don’t recall casual games as being looked down on, but perhaps I have rose-tinted spectacles.

However, devs soon realised that the type of games that made the most money weren’t arcade games, but were match-3 games (e.g. Bejewelled), bubble poppers (e.g. Zuma), time management games, card games and so on. I realised this around 2005 and ditched a kung fu platform game I was working on and started making match-3 games instead! And the rest, as they say, is history…

Some genres didn’t exist in the early days, such as the Hidden Object Game (HOG) genre which was basically invented/made popular by Big Fish Games (I know the developer of the first big Hidden Object game, Mystery Case Files). Eventually HOGs evolved into Hidden Object Puzzle Adventures (HOPAs), and some of these are really good. In fact many casual games are excellent but most modern press and gamers totally ignore them, which is a shame.

Big Fish Games hired me as a contractor in 2007 to work with a designer who worked there called John Cutter on a game called Fairway Solitaire. That game was super-popular and ended up spawning many clones and variations over the years.

Other games like Build-a-lot started a new genre, and also My Kingdom for the Princess, and no doubt others did too. Farming games (in the Time Management genre) were pretty popular at one point before Farmville became huge on Facebook.

The holy grail back then was to spawn a new popular genre because you’d be leading the pack and people would measure new games in the genre against yours. Though it was incredibly difficult to do because the audience often viewed new experimental mechanics with suspicion and they almost always flopped.

What is good about the casual portals?

- They are curated stores and only take games in certain genres of a certain quality and only launch one a day max. Some launch less frequently. This means devs get front page coverage and a newsletter mention and even advertising paid for by the bigger sites!
- They set up a page for your game with screenshots and text, and some sites even make a video trailer for you. So it’s not much work for devs.
- Some do free localisation in exchange for a timed exclusive. Localised games can make decent money; at least I’ve always found it to be worth doing.
- Some others even did retail deals though I expect these have dried up now.
- Discounted sales used to be rare and were not deeply discounted (max 50% off iirc). They might be more common now but I haven’t checked for a while.
- The bigger site have dedicated customer support teams (and forums) so you don’t need to deal with support issues.
- The bigget sites QA games and make sure they adhere to minimum tech and usability standards.
- Some sites have a “launcher” for customers to keep track of all their games with, like the Steam app.
- Games seems to have a long tail on the casual portals. My 10 year old games still make money every month.
- Every developer has a developer relations rep, which is very handy for many things!

So basically they do a lot for their monstrous rev share.

What is bad about the casual portals?

- Because they are curated stores and they only take certain viable genres of games, you can’t just put any old game on there. Many indies wouldn’t want to be constrained by the type of games you have to make to sell on the casual portals, but I didn’t mind that in my early years because a) I enjoyed making and playing those games and b) they earned me money for my family.
- They choose your release date and sometimes it can take months for them to launch.
- You can’t update your game very easily. You have to have a decent reason for an update (like a major bug fix) in order to get it processed and online, and that might take months.
- The rev share sucks, but we already covered that.
- You cannot have any external links in your game such as to your site or your newsletter.
- You have to put THEIR splash screen in YOUR game :-o
- They own the customer details/emails etc. This is no different from Steam, Apple, Amazon to be fair.
- They often have a high minimum payment theshold of $500. This sucks if your game doesn’t make much money on there as you may never get paid!
- There is no real-time reporting. Mostly you have to wait months for a royalty report. Sometimes those reports have errors on them!
- They are mostly slower to pay than Steam and other indie game distributors.
- They might give away your game for free to customers! I found out that site gave away thousands of copies of Regency Solitaire as part of a customer loyalty scheme but I couldn’t do anything about it because it would have meant removing my game which was making decent money there.
- In recent years as the market, and sites, have continued their decline I have found some sites to be unreliable with a) royalty reports, b) payments, and c) getting replies to emails.

There are probably more things that aren’t great but that’s a pretty good list for starters.

Ultimately, despite the downsides, I have done pretty well from making and selling casual games over the years. None of them have made me rich because it’s not that sort of market where hits make millions, like Steam, but done right a decent career could be forged.

Demo versus subscription model

A bit like the old Shareware model, most casual download games can be downloaded for free but only run for an hour before they get shut down by special DRM and the player is encouraged to buy the full version. Essentially it’s a “pay wall”. Their saves are kept intact.

Back in the day it was said that a conversion rate of 100 downloads to 1 sale (1%) was good, but actually some of the best games could get double digit conversion rates if they were constructed well and left the player addicted and wanting more. One of mine once converted at 18% during launch month!

Some of the casual portals started a subscription style service where players could play whatever game they wanted for a fixed fee each month and developers would get a share depending on how long their game was played for. This actually worked out pretty well for my games because some of them have median play times of 5-10 hours (based on Steam stats), and that results in a lot of minutes played. One of my games had over 4 million minutes of play in the first month on a site.

However, my main concern with the subscription style model is that it ultimately devalues games imho and discourages people from purchasing them instead, which is what I’d prefer as an old-skool dev.

Pricing

Believe it or not, casual games used to sell for $19.99 on all the distribution sites! It was glorious. Games were valued decently.

Then after Amazon bought Reflexive they dropped game prices to $9.99 and all the casual portals followed suit. [EDIT: It's possible that Big Fish Games dropped their price to $9.99 first and Amazon and the rest quickly copied but it's hard to verify.]

Then some sites introduced discounts for “club members” who paid some kind of regular fee via credit card. This meant games could be bought for only $6.99.

To be fair, Big Fish Games later tried to address the low price of games by introducing “Collector’s Editions” which are $20 games with a bit more content than “Standard Editions”, though there were cheaper for club members of course.

So when you see indie games for $9.99, basically that price point came from a price war between the casual portals! It was their fault. Without them trying to capture market share, maybe indie games would be $20 still, or maybe mobile and F2P games would still have driven down the price anyway.

Market decline

It’s hard to say when the casual game market was booming but I’d say from like 2006-2013ish. Since then it’s been on a long slow decline. I say this based on talking to other casual devs about how their recent game launches have gone.

Why did it decline? Well I think that many players went over to Facebook when Farmville was big and eventually migrated to mobile and F2P games. Some hardcore casual gamers still use the casual portals and download games, but not in the same numbers as before.

Also another issue is that basically the quality bar kept rising, and as we’ve discussed, the price went down, and many players left for other platforms. This made it really hard for developers to make a profit due to the costs of making higher quality games and lower revenues. I know of multiple casual studios that closed down in recent years. The result is that, in my opinion, there’s less innovation and fewer really good quality casual games launched on those sites now, and maybe the customers have also become apathetic.

Steam and casual gamers

I enjoy shipping games on Steam due the tools (and being able to update easily), the decent revenue share, the real time reporting and so on. And so my hope is that casual gamers will eventually migrate from the casual portals to Steam.

However, Steam isn’t very appealing to casual gamers with it’s dark “gamer” theme and the inability to easily view old-fashioned casual game categories like match-3, HOG, card game etc. on a single landing page. If you browse “casual” on Steam, you’ll get a huge variety of games including “naughty” visual novels.

If Steam fixed that and basically made a really nice CURATED casual game landing page I think could poach a huge amount of sales from the casual portals. Remember that Big Fish Games sold TWICE for nearly $1B. That’s how big the market is, though admittedly a lot of that valuation has to do with recent mobile gambling games.

Anyway, I guess that’s it for now. I could have waffled about this stuff for considerably longer, but I’ve got some games to make.

Also, just to remind y’all, please go and buy my casual games here direct from us so that no third party gets a giant cut. Thanks!

Shadowhand postmortem – Top ten takeaways

Monday, July 16th, 2018

We recently did a detailed postmortem of our RPG card game, Shadowhand. Going over every aspect of the project honestly and in depth generated 23 pages of notes about what we got right, and, importantly, what we got wrong and how we could improve next time.

We have distilled our findings into a checklist of ten points, which we can use for future projects. We are sharing it so that you can avoid making the same mistakes with your indie game project (or, hopefully, reassure yourself that you are on track.)

1 Pitching
Pitch your project to more than one publisher and/or funding body.

Listen to their feedback and think about it carefully. You are entering a long-term business relationship with them. As well as securing funding, your pitch and design document (yes we had one!) are part of the process of clarifying to yourself what you are offering and why players should care.

2 Budget
Pay yourselves and your contractors properly.

Ensure that you genuinely have a big enough budget to do this for the duration of the project. When it comes to contractors, you get what you pay for. But conversely, don’t be tempted to pay more than you need to, or can afford, for assets or services. Be realistic about the scale of your project, and how likely the extra spend is to make a difference to sales in the long run because you could just be wasting money (and time) on unneeded content.

3 Schedule
Make a realistic schedule and try to stick to it.

In our case our schedule was unrealistic and with hindsight, revealed that our project really needed an art director (or a different scope, see below).

We should have built in a lot more contingency time for predicable things, such as attending shows and conferences; and for random curveballs and disasters, such as a runaway moth infestation and a very sick child.

4 Scope
Have you got the scope right?

How long do players expect your game to be for the price? How much content does it really need? Does your team have the skills and capacity to deliver this or do you need to pay contractors who can help? How big is the market for your game?

Speaking as a tiny team who delivered an incredibly rich and complex game that we are extremely proud of, but which is probably twice as long as it needed to be, we suggest you think very carefully about this. Your reasons for making a game, financial and emotional resources, and potential market will vary.

5 Publisher
Find the right publisher for your project.

Try to find a publisher who gives you a fair deal in terms of advance and recoup, and is great at marketing support. It is also worth considering the other products in their portfolio. Are they a good match for your game and therefore likely to drive their existing customers to you?

It also goes without saying that you need a solid contract that covers all eventualities.

6 Testing
Test when ready and allow time to process the results. In-house testing can also be a powerful development tool.

Taking your game to a show early in development and having the public play it is a great way to get feedback and test that the core loop is fun.

Taking the time to code a dedicated testing system may also be worthwhile. In our case, a rapid simulation of thousands of duels proved invaluable for balancing the RPG elements of our game.

Consider the timing of testing carefully. Don’t rush to pay for testing – wait until your game is at the correct stage to make the most of the results and feedback you will get. Conversely, towards the end of the project, make sure you leave enough time after getting results from your beta testers to make full use of them before you ship!

7 PR & Marketing
Know your strengths and plan ahead

If you plan to attend shows, think about timing, and whether the spend is worth it. In our case, a show early on in the development cycle was actually very useful in proving that our concept and core gameplay were fun and marketable. However, we attended too many shows at an early stage, and they were all UK-based. Exhibiting at shows closer to launch or across different continents may have been a better use of that budget.

Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses in PR and marketing, and be prepared to ask for assistance. Our PR reach is good for an indie microstudio and our publisher has considerable expertise in marketing. But there were still things we could have improved upon, such as connecting with streamers and the American press.

8 Launch
Plan this in as much detail as possible.

Launching will probably be a stressful time so keeping a cool head and having good checklists is a must.

Don’t make changes to the build hours or minutes before launch…(yeah, we did this and it screwed up.)

9 Sustaining post-launch momentum
Make yourself available

Remember that if your PR efforts have been successful, you can expect to spend the next few weeks helping various media professionals to discuss your game via podcasts, streams, written interviews and so on. Also you’ll be fending off a huge volume of fake Steam key requests.

Despite the huge effort of getting the game finished and the understandable desire to take a break, this is when sustained promotion and making yourself available pays off.

10 Customer support
Be responsive but also selective

Scheduling time post-launch to keep up with discussions, forums and reviews is important. We have made a number of updates to the game post-launch to fix various minor issues or add things to the game based on player feedback. Go for the changes that give the “biggest bang for your buck” though. The amount of time you invest in this should be proportional to the number of players who will benefit, and the likely effect on future Steam review scores.

A final note on decision-making
Our project took over two years and involved a great deal of decision-making, both at the meta/business level and at the micro/game design level. As we were taking these decisions throughout the project, the majority of them seemed to be logical, sensible business decisions backed up by numbers and facts.

In hindsight, it is much clearer to us how many of those decisions were in fact based on emotions – both positive and negative – that largely fall into two categories: being very excited for our project and putting too much into it; and trying to avoid tasks or situations that we found difficult.

Going forward, we will come up with a stronger logical framework for approaching our decisions, and simultaneously acknowledge that emotion plays a large part in the choices we make and so reframe our discussions accordingly.

A big takeaway for us is to make time to understand the emotions that drive or hinder a project. We hope this will make us a better and more productive team in future.

What key takeaways did you have after completing your last project? Let us know in the comments.

Helen Carmichael @bchezza &
Jake Birkett @greyalien

The Business of Indie Games conference

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

Grey Alien Games’ Jake Birkett has been interviewed for an upcoming online conference called The Business of Indie Games. You can sign up for free and watch the videos as they are broadcast from 24th-27th July, or pay for instant access.

The event features over 30 indie devs, indie publishers, investors and agents. It will cover all kinds of valuable topics, including spotting and making a hit game, pitching for finance, community building and marketing.

Jake will be speaking on “How to make money from small indie games: you don’t need a hit.” His segment will show you how to:
• Understand how to make the most of a back catalogue of games and continue to make games
• Calculate time spent versus income and breakdown by the hour
• Understand the basics behind running a small indie games business

You can find out more here.