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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Buy a development Mac
- Buy a device (iPhone or iPod Touch)
- Sign up to be an Apple developer (free)
- Apply for special developer status ($99 non-renewable, with a hefty wait time of two months or more)
- Learn xcode, the development tool, and Objective-C, the programming language
- Build games
- Deploy games
- Market games
- 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.
Soon, finding our game in the App Store will be like finding a particular hippie at Woodstock
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.