Category Archives: Game Business

The value of bad publicity

Yesterday morning during the Enhanced Wars stand up we realized something fishy was going on. It was 9am on the west coast and already we had 10x the normal amount of email sign-ups for early access to our game. I have been in charge of outreach efforts on Enhanced Wars as we have built up an early audience in preparation for our Kickstarter campaign, and we were already having one of our best days yet. And I had not done a thing.

Who was talking about Enhanced Wars? I had not put out any new media; I was too busy writing copy, fixing bugs and editing video in the mad dash to go live. I was on the lookout for a preview from a major media outlet after doing an interview almost two weeks earlier, but it was not live yet. Ten minutes of Google searching later and I found it: a hot article on Kotaku analyzing a talk I had given as part of the “Evil Game Design Challenge” at the recent Casual Connect.

Article headline from Kotaku
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I built my career on a QA job – a response to Nathan (RC) Peters

After two years I was forced to hand in my employee badge for Pandemic Studios, a broken man.

I was taking 4 vicodin a day to dull the pain of a herniated disc in my lower back. Wrist braces adorned both my arms to help control the repetitive stress injury induced by long days of playing Star Wars: Battlefront and typing. The herniated disc – acquired on a rare crunch time day off as I stood up from my couch at home – gave me a bit of a limp, and as I hobbled through the halls of Pandemic Studios you could hear the painkillers rattle in my pocket.

I was heartbroken. I was rejected. I could not fathom why I was let go from the team I had sacrificed so much for. In time, I would grow to understand the incredible gift I had been given in my two years of industry experience at Pandemic. But at the time I was too immature, too angry and too disillusioned to process my experiences clearly.
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Punch Quest – optimizing ui flow for in-game purchases

I’m a little late to the party, but I recently discovered the exceptional iOS game Punch Quest and was immediately hooked. This beautifully crafted mash up of Jetpack Joyride and Streets of Rage (or Final Fight if you were more SNES than Genesis) transfixed me immediately. I was addicted to the quick rounds of pick up and play simplicity, the explosions of Punchos upon completing a quest and the joy of punching a cyclops right in the eye.

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Punch Quest made headlines not only for it’s high Metacritic rating, but unfortunately for its failure with the freemium model and unorthodox switch from free to paid. I only discovered the game after it started charging $0.99 and felt that the purchase was completely justified. I enjoyed playing so much that I spent additional dollars on in-app purchases (IAP). Importantly, Punch Quest fulfilled one of the most important criteria for a successful freemium game: as a player, I had more fun as a result of spending money on IAP.
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The Simpsons Tapped Out: Why EA doesn’t need new ip

In last Tuesday’s quarterly earnings report, EA touted the success of the freemium Simpson’s Tapped Out for iOS as one of the stand out successes of the past few months. EA’s Frank Gibeau was quoted as saying “another breakout hit in the fiscal quarter was The Simpsons: Tapped Out, a free-to-play mobile title which launched in August and was the #1 grossing game on iOS for most of the last 4 weeks” (via Games Industry International). 

Just how successful was the title? Using the numbers for top grossing iOS titles I reverse engineered from Supercell’s recent success, I estimate Tapped Out has generated $29.6 million in sales for EA. $20.7 million after Apple takes its cut. This represents 6.6% of EA’s reported $314 million in digital revenue for the quarter.
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How much does the #1 grossing iOS app make in a day? $199k (I think)

Having a #1 grossing app on the iPhone or iPad is the dream of every game developer who ever downloaded a copy of xCode. Few games reach this lucrative goal and information on the top spot’s true value is a closely guarded secret. Even if you are lucky enough to achieve the #2 spot on the chart, there is no ceiling on what the #1 spot could possibly be worth.

My best guess? In the United States, an average day in the top grossing position for the iPhone means $199,245 in gross revenue. iPad $55,789. After Apple takes its cut, this is about $139.5k and $39.1k respectively.

How did I, who has never personally sold a game on the iOS store come to this conclusion? Follow me on an assumption laden journey as I show how I arrived at these figures.
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The math of money in freemium

Last month I was struck by Going broke with success, the story of financial disaster for indie devs Mikengreg, the developers behind well regarded iPad app Gasketball. As told by the Penny Arcade Report, it is a heartbreaking story of two passionate devs dedicating two years to a project only to get completely wiped out financially despite hitting the #2 position on the iOS free charts in the US and #1 in 6 countries. Two years, a fun, polished, unique multiplayer game with a great trailer and yet Mikengreg are homeless because Gasketball failed to convert enough players to payers.

I believe that Gasketball’s struggles can teach game developers considering freemium three important lessons:

  • Big funnels drive big profits
  • Don’t cap a player’s ability to spend
  • Control your scope

After spending so much time speaking publicly about free to play game design, I wanted to write about the math behind doing a freemium game. I wanted to highlight these three key lessons, shedding light on the 2% conversion rate the developers were counting on.
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