Wednesday, November 28, 2012

We're not dead! Project Number Two

Well the title says it mainly, we as a company are not dead. Yet.

Things were put on hold a bit as I was on holidays and Greg has been (and still is) busy finishing up his PhD. Lucky for me I don't need art to get started on things as I can always use awesome programmer art to fill in the gaps. Everyone loves programmer art.

So now that I'm somewhat settled in London I figured I should get my ass into gear and start working on the project I've been thinking about since Call Connect was released - noteworthy news being that Call Connect has had over 100,000 downloads to date!

As I've previously mentioned, the game we are going to try to make next is in the genre of SHMUPS. Even if you haven't heard the name SHMUP before you've probably encountered the game-type before. 1942, Raiden, Gradius, DoDonPachi, Radiant Silvergun. All of these games fall within the category of SHMUP with the defining characteristics being the player controlling a ship as enemies swarm towards them firing patterns of bullets.

Some games put more of an emphasis on these patterns than others and ours hopes to follow suit. The first step towards achieving this is to develop a robust bullet engine that allows us, the developer, the craft patterns and get them into the game with little fuss. One of the issues with Call Connect was that it was pretty much all hard-coded, which essentially meant that if any changes needed to be made then they needed to be done by me, the programmer, in the code. What we want to do is allow both of us to design bullet patterns and get them into the game with Greg being able to get things going without my help.

To do this I am trying to make a file structure that is essentially XML but using the native Xcode file format, plist. They are built the same essentially but doing it this way means I won't have to fiddle with any xml readers. If I find plists aren't up to scratch then I may have to look at other options.

So essentially now I am trying to build a structure that will allow for anyone to input various values which will then build into many different potential bullet patterns. As a base I am looking at Kenta Cho's BulletML which uses XML to build patterns for his games. The structure I am trying to implement is not quite as complex at the moment but it is a good reference point.

I'm going to be trying to keep a regular blog this time around on all parts of development and I'll be going into as much detail as I can. The next post will have some more details on the bullet pattern structure I'll hopefully be trying to implement in the game.

- Shaun.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Riding with Bullet Engines

As you probably may know, I'm currently riding my way across the USA with my friend Clinton. You can read about it here: Crazy Guy on a Bike Blog

So riding 6 or so hours a day gives me plenty of time to think about what needs to be done with our next project, the SHMUP. For those of you who don't know, SHMUPs are a classic genre that have been around for nearly as long as gaming itself. They generally involve a ship or character flying up or across the screen as enemies fly in and shoot at you. So essentially it started with games like Space Invaders and over the years the mechanics behind the games grew more complicated and the genre expanded to include titles such as DoDonPachi and the Radian series among many others.

It's a very niche genre but one with a strong and large group of followers who are rewarded every now and then by a new game or a rerelease of a classic, like the DoDonPachi games on the iPhone. We're both big fans of SHMUPs and have been wanting to make one for a while. There's quite a few already on the iPhone but I find that each one is generally quite flawed in at least one area whether that's controls or graphics or something else. There's a couple of really solid ones and we hope to join those ranks whilst standing out with some interesting (and hopefully fun) mechanics.

The cool thing about SHMUPs is that they have a tonne of feedback at all times. There's ships exploding and points displays and bullets and enemies flying about, it's all very cool. One of the issues with Call Connect is that it was very static so it was pretty hard to sell in screenshots and trailers. I don't think we'll have that problem with this game.

So what I've been thinking about at the moment, and what is undoubtably one of the most important aspects of the SHMUP game, is creating the bullet engine. The system that will handle all of the player bullets and enemies with their own bullets. I want to make a system that allows for complex bullet patterns that can fill the screen or just be simple with not many bullets. I also want it to be easy to create and define different patterns so I think it will be XML based, or at least that kind of file.

I have a good idea of how to do it and have tested Cocos2d for particles and it seems to be able to handle a lot. We'll just need to see how it goes with enemy AI and everything else going on. I'll be using the Action system to move the bullet particles so hopefully that comes through for me.

Now I just need to get cracking.

- Shaun

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Marketing is Weird, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Look to the Future. Part Two

After a delay I am finally back to complete the exciting conclusion of our marketing tale for Call Connect (CC).

When we left off in Part One we had just started on Update 2.0 which was around the end of 2011. The major part of the work being Greg going back and redoing all the graphics in CC from scratch. As we'd started development before the iPhone 4 announcement and its display resolution a lot of the original graphics were created in a way that meant they weren't easily up-scalable.

Whilst Greg got to work on giving CC a makeover and I started reworking the graphics code to handle the new resolution graphics we received an email from Appvent Calendar asking us if we wanted to be a part of their 2011 promotion. Essentially the idea was to mimic the chocolate calendars you get except instead of a little chocolate you get a free app every day. This inquiry is one of the many things that has come out of nowhere to us although we imagine it had something to do with our recent freebie promotion. It seems that people are watching.

We, of course, said yes to the promotion and were featured on the 9th of December. Although it was a promoted sale we didn't do as well as our own sale we'd completed not long before as you can see in the graph below.

The previous promotion moved over 20,000 units in its most successful day whereas this time the max was only slightly higher than 5,000

Although the app was only prominently featured for one day the organisers suggested we make the game free for a longer period which is what we did. The interesting thing that came out of this promotion was that unlike the first sale we did we actually got some sales after we returned CC back to the low-low price of 0.99c. The blue dot on the right of that graph is when the price returned and it shows 58 sales! I think that was the most sales we'd had in a day since our launch day.

The day after the 58 sales it dropped to 13 and then 8 and then 6 and then 3 and then 1. But from then until now we've constantly had at least 1 sale a day with only a random 0 every now and then. It's a peculiar thought actually, who are these individuals who are buying our game and how did they find about us? Why did the appvent calendar result in constant (albeit low) sales? These are some questions that I don't think we'll get to answer unfortunately but it's fun to ponder.

Another benefit from this sale and its increased movement of units of CC was that we began to be featured in the Australian iTunes store (A possible explanation for the trickle of sales). Unfortunately this featuring is not on the actual iPhone appstore - where most people make their impulse buys - but rather in the store in iTunes the program.

It may be hard to find (go to the AppStore then go to Games, then click Arcade in the list down the bottom right) but we're still there and next to some heavyweights like Espgaluda and Deathsmiles. The most interesting thing about it has been the fact that we've been constantly featured in that What's Hot section since then even though our sales are not impressive, to say the least. Nobody really knows how Apple makes their decisions for features but a lot of it points to being covered by websites and other media. That is why marketing is one of, if not the, biggest part of creating an iPhone app. Getting that coverage, especially initially, will lead to more coverage and then hopefully Apple will feature you in some way which equals easy sales which then push you into the top 10/25/50 sales charts where you then become millionaires, buy personal islands and never have to do anything for yourself ever again. Or so I've heard.

Unfortunately due to our slow sales and infrequent sales spikes we've only managed to climb the charts in the somewhat smaller AppStores a few times:
Big love to Uzbekistan
Those heights were mainly reached during our sales periods too so whilst it would have helped to move more free copies, once we went back to paid the rankings were moot and so did not result in more paid sales.

After the AppVent promotion we continued work on the Retina update. There's another potential blog post in the issues that were faced with bringing the highres graphics to the iPhone (iPhone 3 especially) but to keep it simple we managed to work through the bumps and released update 2.0 on the 9th of January.
Much celebration was had as we could both see that this new version was head and shoulders - visually - above what we had before. To avoid hyperbole, the game looked (and continues to look) spectacular. The detail Greg put into the retina graphics showed us what Call Connect should have looked like from the start and we were very excited to see what other people thought of the update. Especially for people playing on the iPad as the resolution of our graphics was nearly full iPad res. Well it was until the iPad 3 came out...

So what happened on the 9th of January?
Enough for a couple of pizzas or a really cheap slab
Every time you release an update your app gets pushed back into the new release list in the AppStore. The fact that we had 0 sales the two days before the update went out shows how much of an effect that new release list can have on boosting your sales. Unfortunately we went back to our regular broadcasting soon after that but it still made for an exciting day.

It was soon after this that one of our friends from the Edge forum asked us if we'd be willing to do an interview for his gaming blog. We, of course, said yes. One because we were doing a favour for a friend, and two because there is no reason you should ever say no to an interview; one of the rules that Edmund McMillen from Team Meat lives by. What resulted was a fun Skype chat about game development and us and I think is definitely worth the read. Which you can do here. We hope that all interviews in the future are as fun and entertaining as the one with Adrian was.

So once the retina update was out we were finally content with Call Connect. We had both difficulty modes, player options, all the major bugs squashed (as far as we know) and now finally the graphics were a proper representation of the game we had always wanted CC to be. We were ready to move on to future projects and figured any other marketing we tried would be too little too late.

And then the Eurogamer article appeared.

On the 18th of February we got word from Twitter that we'd been featured as the App of the Day on Eurogamer. It was not expected. Somehow, Christian Donlan from Eurogamer had come across our app, taken a liking to the icon, decided to give it a go and liked it enough to feature it on one of the biggest gaming websites in Europe.

So not only did we have a wonderfully written article on our little game but it also meant we were sitting there next to the likes of Mass Effect 3 and Tim Shafer on the front page of a major gaming website. Cross that one off the bucket list.

And here's what happens to your sales when you get featured on a big website:
Almost enough for two slabs
That was a good day, really good. Almost like we'd finally made it. We might not have had the money but we had some recognition.

We also realised that this might mean we have some leverage for other websites. They might not be willing to write something about an unknown developer and an unknown game but how about one with a fancy article on Eurogamer? We went back to our PR document and started sending out some emails. This time including a link to the Eurogamer article and a big mention to our fancy new graphics.

We didn't hear back from many websites but one of the ones we did hear from was Kotaku. Yes, that Kotaku. We sent them an email asking if we could be a part of their Show and Tell series and they said yes.

Basically it involved answering some interview style questions and not long after we were featured on their site. The show and tell article came out on March 1st. And here are the sales in units for around that time:

As you can see, it's not quite as much as when the Eurogamer article hit. Now this could be because the Eurogamer article was more like a review, or it could be because the Kotaku article came out during the week and the Eurogamer one was on a Saturday. The latter sounds more logical but I guess we'll never know. Either way, more sales yay!

Whilst the article shenanigans were going on we were also trying other avenues. I updated our forum thread on TouchArcade, which resulted in a few more players and some nice feedback, and Greg did our big Reddit post. A topic which he will do his own blog post on.

In terms of articles though, this is as far as we've gone (for now...) and although they never resulted in a boom of sales or continued success we feel that each has been extremely useful. We feel like we're building contacts. People who, when the time comes, we hope to be able to contact and say, "hey we've got this new game coming out" and they might actually listen. It's also about building a recognisable name for ourselves, we want people to be able to see the name Walk Through The Clock and recognise it as those guys who made Call Connect.

It's hard coming into indie game development with nothing but your new product. Big company developers who quit their jobs and form their own companies tend to be able to sell themselves fairly easily ("From the makers of that big game series you like") and experienced indies who have had at least one successful product will generally find success in the next. It's that starting from nothing that is the toughest.

If any advice is to come from this it would be that your marketing will be key if you want your first attempt to be a true success. We went into Call Connect not expecting it to boom and make us rich, it was to be a learning experience and learn we have. It's how a lot of indies start out, just look at Dolphin Hero from The Voxel Agents, or that space game from Halfbrick otherwise known as those games you've never played. You can test the water first before leaping with a small project or you can do as much research and work into making sure that first dip is just right.

If you want your first game to be a success then you'll need to market yourselves from day one. By the time your product is ready to go out you should have a bunch of contacts willing to post reviews, news, interviews, anything as the game goes out. As you can see from the graphs and so on in these blog posts each little bit counts towards extra sales, the only issue we had was that they were all separate. A little here a little there. If we'd managed to coordinate it so that everything that we did over these posts was done at the same time then maybe we would have garnered enough attention to push us into the top sales lists or maybe to a feature from Apple. It will take quite a bit of effort to do that but it will be worth it in the end.

Unfortunately we'll never truly know if that was a possibility for Call Connect but what we do know is what needs to be done for project number 2 and that in itself is rather exciting.


Friday, March 2, 2012

Marketing is Weird, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Look to the Future. Part One

As you've probably seen from all our social network blathering on the subject we've recently been featured on two major games websites in relation to Call Connect (CC). I figured I'd write a little (read: lot) about how we got to this point.

When we first started working on CC we'd already read a lot about the how's, who's and wherefore's of marketing your iPhone game and so as we were in the development stage we thought we had this whole thing under control. But, this being our first game we, of course, did not. The development of CC came to its completion and the only people that knew about our game was us and the people we knew who were willing to listen to us talk about that game we were making.

This resulted in us not having any coverage on Call Connect's launch and very little in the weeks afterwards. After we launched we sent out a bunch of emails to the various iDevice review websites (Which we collected in a big list here: The Big List*) and only really heard back from one: These guys were kind enough to not only say yes to reviewing us but also waiting for us to fix and submit a major bug fix before they did their actual review.
You can read the review here

This was the only coverage we had in the initial stages and as you can see in the graph below we did not have anything driving our sales after the initial release:
That first dot is the release date, the second dot is the fix we had to implement quickly to stop CC from crashing on iPads (Hot tip: Test on the iPad even if it's not the main release platform), and the third dot is when we did our 1.1 update.

So the only thing that was giving us sales was appearing on the "New Release" list when we did an update. Which on its own is a useful fact but it's not quite enough to make us millionaires or push us up into the top whatever lists that everyone aspires to get into.

So to counteract our waning sales we put our incredible marketing minds together aaaaaaaand did nothing. We've obviously got a bit to learn about this whole marketing schtick.

After about a month of doing nothing, we decided we should do something. From reading various other blogs and so we discerned that a valid marketing technique is to make your app free for a short period of time, everyone loves free stuff. There's a few ways you can tackle this free app thing, you can:
- Pay a big website like about $3000 to feature you for a week or so with ad banners and so on.
- Contact one of the smaller free app a day style sites and plead for them to feature you.
- Just make the app free and hope for the best.

So we chose door number three. We made Call Connect free on the 12th of November 2011, a Saturday, and tweeted and facebooked our little hearts out.
Here's the graph of units moved over the freebie period:
I don't mind putting the numbers of this one as we didn't get any money from it and it helps illustrate just how much of a leap we took.

We ended up "selling" about 60,000 units over the course of that long weekend. Which was mind-blowing. Seriously. We went from about 2 sales a day, if we were lucky, to that many. We said the promotion was because we'd had over 15,000 calls connected in CC (Seriously guys, implement Flurry to get metrics), by the end of the weekend we had over 1.7 million calls connected!

Now, as much as we'd like to claim this success was all our own it is not true. We had our first bit of luck when after the first day of our free promotion we got contacted by FreeAppReport - a website similar to FreeAppOfTheDay but different because they don't charge exorbitant prices - saying that they were featuring us in their app and website. Now, I don't know exactly how much this helped us but it certainly couldn't have hurt. The majority of the free units were moved in China and the US.

Unfortunately, as you can see in the graph, as soon as the promotion ended we went right back to selling the same amount as before. But hey, at least more people were playing our game. Our feedback email address was getting a lot more blank emails than it was getting before, which was nice as it was beginning to feel left out.

Even though sales were small we were still happy with our little game. It was our first effort and first efforts are always going to have it tough. We decided about then that we should give Call Connect some plastic surgery, a bit of a Retina face-lift. What would become our 2.0 update.

PART TWO of our marketing escapades coming soon.

* The list may be poorly formatted and with websites that no longer exist or aren't real review websites but there's some useful links in there. Feel free to use them yourselves. Big thanks to Simon Joslin of The Voxel Agents for giving me a start with this list.

- Shaun

Monday, February 20, 2012

New Beginnings Pt Deux, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Conceptual Stage

Cripes, here we are.

So Call Connect has been chugging along at less than incredible speed (although we did get featured on the front page of Eurogamer as App of The Day, yowza!) and for the moment, creatively if not sales-wise, lies dormant, like a sort of handheld Marie Celeste.  Adrift, at least until we decide to update it again with, um, something.  Level pack?  If you'd played it, you'd understand what a silly thing that is to say.  New weapon upgrades maybe...

Regardless of Call Connect's failings or great successes, the time has come to move on to pastures new and make a second game.

We're not concerned about suffering a cliché sophomore slump as for that to happen we'd need a stellar opening effort.  While we're very proud of Call Connect and what we achieved over the course of producing and refining it, it hasn't set the world alight, or even a part of it (maybe Uzbekistan).  What it did do was allow us, to prove to ourselves, that we could provide ourselves with the proof that we, ourselves, proved, eventually.  Ahem.  Point is, we realized that we could churn a decent game that was polished, a bit charming and worthy of some small critical acclaim. We also proved that were just as adept at failing to market this charming, polished critical success adequately.

We're reasonably assured of our ability to replicate the latter, and though the former is elusive we feel as though (this Royal We business is starting to wear thin.  I'm going to revert to me, Greg, now) I've learned enough to stack the odds in our favour this time.  Part of that process is what you are reading now; get out there, say something, apologize for apparently being deliberately offensive despite the quote being decontextualized, retreat from the tabloid glare, regather your strength and build a following.

Some aimless and not so aimless rambling there.  That's me all over; verbose, prone to wandering and terribly unfocused unless Stewart Lee or vanilla soy milk is involved.  I'm the artist though, I can do that.  Shaun is the voice of common sense, reason, logic and programming.  I'll be posting pretty pictures of things and occasionally being serious.

Like now.

The conceptual stage of any artistic endeavour is personally painful for several reasons; one, endless rejections and revisions of your various concepts is going to be the norm for the foreseeable future and two, at least in my case, I'm very rusty and apt to be frustrated.  So ensues a few weeks of finding the time over nights and weekends to sharpen my skills, just to get them to that stage where I can reliably produce acceptable designs.  Lots of self chastizing during this bit.  Technical difficulties abound.  Not being a full time artist I can go weeks or months without putting pencil to paper or pen to touch screen, so regaining one's touch is a frustrating experience.  That came across as a bit whingey, yes.  Still, beyond this stage I'm in THE ZONE (meaning my bedroom).

Once this figurative hurdle is cleared (and I'm not sure I've cleared it just yet), I can set about creating themes, mockups, designs and a general aesthetic 'feel' for our next title.  This is the Good Stuff.  At this point I'm thinking cute (but not too cute) mecha, as the chunky, colourful yet tactile feel of deformed mecha would serve me well on multiple fronts.  As ever my tendency toward dark and grungy barges its way to the front of the queue, stepping on toes and elbowing heads, so I'll let that out of my system gradually until clean, clear designs are the norm.  Dark and grungy is a wonderful means of loosening the art muscle though.  Just the tonic for writing a thesis.

So, there I am, is.  Here is the very first half-reasonable snippet of concept art that may or may not give an indication as to what we intend to produce.  Dark and grungy, yes.  Greg of WTTC: out.

The first of many.  It's like a mecha-avocado, bent on vengeance.

Note: listening to Nahvalr and going to see Richard D. James in person in a few weeks.  Bazinga!