By admin Oct.14.2012
In: Design, Marketing
1 comment

Designing a Casual Game that Sells

So my first App was a great experience. I lost money making it but it did fairly well for an App that no one asked for (an alarm clock App in a flooded market of alarm clock Apps). That proved to me that if I create a polished App that people are actually intrigued to use, I might have a shot of doing well.

So, as a life-long “gamer”, I decided my next App would be a game because it fulfilled my childhood dreams of making one and also the game market has the most potential for large scale success. Potential if you can possibly compete with the big name studios like Disney, Rovio, Gameloft, Halfbrick, etc. So my thinking is, I can make a game that’s just as fun, polished, and easily accessible for mass markets as anything else out there, so why am I making alarm clocks? I’m going to write a whole lot about my thought process on this in future posts but want to focus here on designing that “hit” and how I came to decide on the final design itself. I’ll talk marketing and how to best approach finding a partner to help you in a later post but for now, let’s dive in and look closely at what it is that makes a hit mobile game and how I intend to create one myself.

The first research I did was… I played a lot of iPhone games. Basically all of them. At .99 cents, it’s pretty acceptable market research. I still download anything that is even a mild hit, because you need to know what’s out there and start to judge for yourself why it’s successful over other similar Apps. So in the beginning I started to dissect what game genres or models were popular so that I could start focusing in on my plan of attack. At the time, there were really 3 game models that really stood out for me that were both games I’d want to work on and games I thought other people would want to buy. These models were Endless Play, Action Puzzles, and pure Puzzle style games.

Now there’s tons of other game models such as Tower Defense games which I absolutely love but have no interest in creating myself. Sentinel 3, Plants vs. Zombies, and now Fieldrunners 2 have left really no room for tower defense games in my opinion so I’m not going to jump into a flooded market. Even if I made a better game than Fieldrunners 2, customers already have enough tower defense games, they’re not gonna care about me and my smaller marketing efforts; it ain’t gonna work. I find myself playing those 3 game models I mentioned above a whole lot, and I think other people do too, but I know there’s more room for creativity and there’s ideas yet to be fully explored. Basically, what I’m imagining is I create a game that’s similar to what’s out there because then players immediately understand how to play it but not so similar that they feel like they already have played it. It’s a new experience wrapped in a familiar game model. For example, Cut the Rope, Amazing Alex, & Where’s My Water are all Action Puzzle games. You see they are about collecting 3 stars/ducks/things to complete the level. But they are different games (except for Where’s My Perry…) with different styles of play. Not gonna beat a dead horse but there’s more room for creativity in this game model as you can tell by the success of these games in the App charts. Pure Puzzle games (Tetris, Bejeweled, Drop7) are a little more rigid in how their game model works, and I’d like to eventually make one as I have a game play idea that’s never been done for this, but decided against that being my very first game. Pure Puzzle games are a little less popular in the App Store and felt like it would be a little less rewarding to design. Endless Play games (Canabalt, Temple Run, Fruit Ninja) also intrigue me but I don’t have that killer new idea for this model yet. So, and totally still just my opinion for what will work for me, I chose to make an Action Puzzle game.

The next step: choosing an unique play mechanic that works. Essentially, Action Puzzle games are about connecting A to B. So before I even decided on what A or B actually was, I wanted to decide on what core game play element would connect the two. I actually stumbled upon the idea fairly quickly. Being a gamer I just started looking at classic games I’ve played and that have influenced me. It needed to work well with a touch screen and also take a bit of timing and skill to complete. I wanted it to feel like you could lose at any moment and give the player a lot of close calls. Angry Birds really pulls this off well where you never really know if you’ve won until you do, holding your breath as your bird flies towards it’s target. A good game gives that player that same feeling of suspense where the suspense in the action is more important than winning itself. This translates to a free throw, home run, or hail mary; that actual feeling of suspense is where the real moments of a game live.

To check how it might work, I created some rudimentary Flash animations as visual demos for myself as well as to show programmers I knew, hoping to get them intrigued and involved in the project. Because I didn’t want to spend the next 4 weeks trying to code it in Flash (I’m a terrible Actionscripter), the animations served as enough proof to me that the idea had merit and that there could be enough variation in level design to be an interesting game. So I was on to something. I had a game. Correction: I had a game concept.

Now, the fun part begins. What the hell was this game going to look like? I had actually pitched the animation to a programmer who was interested but still no idea what the goal for the game would be. But I did know that what I wanted to do was create something that people would look at and think quality. Something that was familiar to what was popular and fun looking with my own spin on it. The App Store is so competitive that if you can’t grab the user from the moment they look at it, you’re done. So to appeal to the broadest possible audience, I decided I wanted to have a “star” character. I needed to design a character that was immediately appealing so as to want to spend time with him and his environment/world. Easier said than done.

Now, after many iterations of character designs (a pirate penguin turned into an underwater key and keyhole which turned into a space chimp traveling through wormholes…) I still wasn’t 100% happy with the results. I still do love this little monkey guy seen above but after showing this to a bunch of people, and really deciding this myself, I just recreated a monkey from the game Super Monkey Ball by Sega. On top of worrying people are going to look at the character as some sort of clone, I didn’t really have a good A to B mechanic for how the game should play. Did the chimp move with aliens pulling him with telekinetic powers to his spaceship. Was it a spaceship or a wormhole? Were they space magnets? What the hell is a space magnet and why is this monkey messin’ around with them to get to his… Forget it. The idea was close, but I just wasn’t into it after a while. Neither was the programmer that I had been initially showing the ideas. So on to the 3rd and final idea.

After realizing that the monkey character’s probably biggest flaw is that it was already done (Donkey Kong, Super Monkey Ball), I needed to start looking at all the popular game characters and themes to try tand find one that wasn’t super popular, or at least people wouldn’t look at what I’m doing and (god forbid) relate the art to some other game. I needed something more original looking, without it being abstract or foreign feeling. So I started sketching all the different ideas I’d come up with while bored at work (basically the entire working day for a few weeks).

After playing around with dozens of animal and bug characters, I came up with the idea of a robot in a test facility. “What if it’s a robot trapped at work, hating his job, and you have to pull the key around the lab to the keyhole to get him out.” Somehow that jumbled sentence repeated through my head. Mainly because there wasn’t really any hugely famous robot video game character. Admittedly, influenced by the Wall-E, in both the original design and concept of giving a robot a soul, I came up with the B-Bot character.

Well I came up with the first version of the robot character. Which, honestly, was a little too dopey looking after I stepped back and gave it a fresh look a week or so later. So I redid him as this newer version seen here below.

So, I think B-Bot is a pretty good character. Once again, just my opinion. Feel free to troll-it-up in the comments (every designer is at least a little insecure of their work). But what I’m hoping to achieve here is fairly simple and back to the title of this post & my long winded point: I’m creating a good looking game that’s addicting and fun to play. So my recipe to large scale success in 3 parts is… (808 drum roll…)

1. Make something that’s quality and make it addicting.

I wanted to be sure that when you first interact with this App, it immediately looks like a top developer designed it. Something that would be sold by any one of the major App developers and not just an indie project that people will forgive certain short comings. Professional in graphic design, sound, music, and game play. It’s ridiculous how little people will forgive short comings and give out 1 star ratings when they only pay 99 cents for the product.

2. Make it appeal to the broadest possible audience.

Give it a look and feel that the largest pool of people are most likely to get behind. Something that is familiar and easy to understand but feels new and refreshing. This is easier said than done, as you can see by my many iterations of designs. People don’t need another clone of anything simply because the App store is flooded. Really spend the time to find that fun and new idea. It’s not an option, you have to do this. And remember for large scale success, you’re making it friendly and appealing for kids, hipsters, parents, slackers, “gamers,” PETA, Scientologists, your jealous ex-girlfriend, etc. etc. So good luck with finding that perfect combination. I can only hope I’ve pulled this off myself.

3. Get it seen by as many people as it takes for people to buy it in numbers great enough to sell in numbers large enough to reach the top charts in the App Store. / Marketing

Basic Marketing 101. The more people know about it, the more likely to convert people with knowledge of the product into customers.

Step 3 is my next step (partially why I’m writing this) and it takes almost equal effort as it does to create the App in the first place. In a future post I’ll discuss what steps I’m taking and what I will be doing to get this game seen by a massive audience. If you can’t get it in front of a huge audience, don’t even try to make a game and expect it to sell. The competition is way too competitive to, for a second, think you’re going to make even a little money off your App. It’s the brutal truth, but there it is. Cover steps 1 and 2 and then be sure you’re following through to step 3 because if you don’t, you better seriously consider why you’re going to spend all your free time as an indie dev doing this at all. There’s a lot of reasons to make an App, sure, but if you’re doing it for money, start figuring out your marketing strategy now and make sure it’s tight. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time (period). Take this advice from someone that made the mistake on their first App, and possibly their 2nd as well.

So how do I end the longest post I’ve ever written but to explain: I don’t have any idea what I’m doing. All I have is an idea for what works and a faint, nearly dying dream to make a living off games. Hopefully, one day people will read this as some sort of gaming bible’s gospel. Now, back to work.