iPhone vs. the Basement Battalion

A few weeks ago, we took James Eberhardt’s Rich Media Institute class iPhone Application Development for Flash Developers, which we found very helpful. We’re trying to keep two balls in the air here at Untold Entertainment: the Client Services ball, and the Original Development ball. The customers interested in each ball are both very different beasts.

balls

ProTip: Avoid doing a Google Image Search for “balls”

The folks attracted by our Client Services ball are generally patient, eager, and willing to pay fair market value for excellent work. On the flip side, they’re not always game-savvy (which is why they come to us), but they do have very specific ideas about what they’d like us to build. Many of the client games on our site arose from client concepts. So this customer provides us with financial freedom, but not a lot of creative freedom.

The Original Development ball is being juggled for the benefit of game-players. This crowd is impatient, impulsive, and (in the casual games space) not generally willing to pay for our work. This customer needs to be encouraged, coerced, enticed, or downright hoodwinked into purchasing our product. i’m not a big fan of coercion or hoodwinking, so we’ll have to stick to enticement and encouragement. This group is very game-savvy, and has a fairly good idea of what will and won’t make for a great game experience. We have complete creative freedom with this customer. But there’s a very big problem with the financials.

Bargain Basement

Increasingly, we find ourselves competing with free. Literal armies of hobbyists, most often the proverbial teens in their moms’ basements, grab a cracked copy of Flash and go to town, creating games and cartoons and submitting them to portals like Kongregate and Newgrounds. They don’t get paid for their work, or are paid peanuts by “sponsors” who pony up between $25 and $2000. This kind of cash seems like a real steal to a 17-year-old, who can’t believe he’s getting paid for creating “Fart Boob Slayer 69: The Ass Fart Boobs Chronicles”. They don’t often do the simple math, dividing the money earned by the hours spent, to realize that a menial job at a carwash is more lucrative. Most of these creators don’t see a penny on their work, uploading stuff for free in the hopes of garnering high views and 5-star ratings from community members.

That’s all fine and good. But once your mom finally sells the house to vacation in Moosejaw and kicks you to the curb, you eventually realize that 5-star ratings from other 17-year-olds don’t put food on the table. Money does. And as long as you’re competing with free, ain’t no money.

rails

Sure, they’re riding the rails and living in tent towns NOW. But once upon a time, they were ranked #14 on NewGrounds.

When Fun is Not Fun

The other problem is that the demands of the average casual Flash game player on sites like Kongregate and Newgrounds is impossibly high. There’s an unwritten rule about how much lasting enjoyment a free game needs to provide, and if it falls short of that benchmark, the game is ignored. What’s more, the bar is raised periodically by creators who sink an inordinate amount of time into their games, offering hundreds of levels, multiplayer modes, user-creation tools, and other goodies, all for free. Any game falling short of the perceived benchmark is “not a good game”.

If a game provides two minutes of enjoyment, rather than the golden five-minute benchmark, it is poorly received.

If it has a fun mechanic, but lacks levels, it’s no good.

If it has levels, but not enough of them, it languishes in obscurity.

If it has enough levels, but no high scores, it’s dismissed as pointless.

And so on.

It takes a lot of trial, error, and experimentation to find the right game balance to meet this invisible benchmark, which is slowly creeping up all the time. And if your game doesn’t make the grade, you’ve wasted your effort: even in the land of Free, casual games are a hit-driven business.

It’s for all these reasons that iPhone development, for us, appears as a shimmering oasis in a desert of unprofitability.

iSalvation?

We’re brand new to the platform. We’ve never developed a mobile title, or a Mac app. We’re not even a Mac shop – we run Windows PCs exclusively. The barrier to entry for us goes like this:

  1. Buy a development Mac
  2. Buy a device (iPhone or iPod Touch)
  3. Sign up to be an Apple developer (free)
  4. Apply for special developer status ($99 non-renewable, with a hefty wait time of two months or more)
  5. Learn xcode, the development tool, and Objective-C, the programming language
  6. Build games
  7. Deploy games
  8. Market games
  9. Return to “Build games”, and repeat

This is a simplified flow, of course. Along the way are various snags, like the lack of community support (due to the newness of the platform), the approval process (there’s an outside chance that Apple will reject your game or app, after it’s completed and submitted), learning Objective-C (a difficult, weird language in my opinion), obtaining certificates to deploy to the iPod/iPhone (easily the most convoluted process i’ve seen in a lifetime of developing), and finally figuring out a way to stand out among the 10000 apps (and growing) that customers can buy.

Woodstock Music Festival 1969

Soon, finding our game in the App Store will be like finding a particular hippie at Woodstock

Bring it.

Despite these potential pitfalls, we’re up to the challenge. Software for the devices can be found and purchased in ONE PLACE, rather than all over Hell’s http half-acre. Apps can be self-published and self-priced, rather than adhering to a casual game publisher’s arbitrary $20 price point. And while some accuse Apple of devaluing games and apps just like they did with music at 99 cents a song (apparently the sweet spot for App Store offerings is also $.99 – read all about it in Trouble in the (99 cent) AppStore), we’d still be happy to make 70 cents on the dollar for a game with such a focussed demographic and great ditribution, as opposed to our as-yet failed adventures in online free game self publishing (see Pimp My Game).

The very best part in my mind is the barrier to entry. For a non-Mac shop terrified by the oddities in Objective-C, it’s a daunting prospect … but then i imagine how much more daunting it must be to the Basement Army of Flash teens, and i suddenly find myself sleeping a little easier, and walking with more of a spring in my step.

6 thoughts on “iPhone vs. the Basement Battalion

  1. Ryan

    Ah – no. We’ve got Flash coursing through our veins. We’ll definitely keep up with it on the client services side. But i’m at a loss as to how to adequately monetize an *original* game, so we’re looking at other options.

    We’re actually going to try something a bit novel with our iPhone game. My aim is to simultaneously release a crippled free trial version alongside the full version, which will be priced at a daring $5. Then we’ll release the full, unfettered version of the game in Flash on our site.

    The free crippled iPhone trial is for Mac-heads who never leave their phone. The Flash version is a goodwill gesture that will hopefully drive sales – the game we’re developing is great to play on the go, so we’re essentially asking our customers to pay $5 for the convenience of portability.

    i don’t know about you, but i know i’ve paid extra for portability. i’ve bought an RPG game called Disgaea twice – once on PS2, once on the Nintendo DS – so that i could play it on the go (ie on the toilet). Other folks have done the same thing with the Final Fantasy, Super Mario Bros. and Chrono Trigger franchises. Brand power helps these titles out a lot, sure, but there’s something very appealing about taking your games with you wherever you go.

    i’m also hoping to achieve a weird psychological effect with this free online Flash version. Currently, people aren’t buying Flash games for $0.99. They’re either paying $10-20 on BigFish, Miniclip, etc, or they’re playing (mostly) lower-quality titles for free. By offering a Flash version of our game, i am hoping to associate the more rational $10-20 price point for excellent online entertainment than this ridiculous $0.99 rut the App Store is facing, and which threatens iPhone development with the same issue that’s driving us out of original Flash game development.

    Reply
  2. Michael J Williams

    Ah, I see. Thanks for clarifying that.

    I take your point about paying extra for portability. I don’t own a handheld console (I fear I would never read a book again if I bought one) but I’m happy to pay £5/month for mobile Internet.

    I was a little surprised that you’d provide a free Flash version on your site, but I think this is just conditioning from years of shareware nag screens ending “…and much much more!”. Now that I think about it, it’s kind of nice to know exactly what I’m going to get for my money. Also, today I read on the Wolfire blog that their sales of Lugaru actually increased when they gave it away for free.

    Good luck! I hope you’ll keep us all updated on how this works out.

    Reply
  3. Ryan

    i’m a bit confused – did pricing Lugaru at free increases SALES, or did it increase DOWNLOADS? The one drawback i can see to these price drops and temporary promotions is that, as a consumer, i’m gun-shy about vuying *anything*, because for all i know it could be free tomorrow.

    i do see the distinct advantage of using your free product to promote your paid product. That’s pretty smart. ngmoco is doing that with its games – get Topple (the #1 free app in the store) for free, so they can tell you all about their $10 Rolando game. (Both games are lots of fun, FYI – and both worth your time and money).

    Thanks to their promo, ngmoco is now a trusted name on my radar. i know that the next time ngmoco releases a game, it will likely be a worthwhile purchase. That’s what i want to really strive for. i want people to believe in our *company*, if not our games. Branding is critical.

    Granted, i gather ngmoco is a great deal larger than we are …

    Thanks for the links, Mike!

    Reply
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