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... and then it rained – a bitter-sweet success story
by Daniel Helbig on 06/04/14 10:02:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

May 1st we released our first game “... and then it rained” for iOS. Knowing that most indie game productions fail from a commercial point of view – even very good ones – and that for every success there are probably a few hundred games, which never make it to the top, we were already prepared to share that fate. Lucky us we made our peace with that long before we actually started to work on the game.

Megagon Industries consists of a bunch of game industry freelancers who all have their own business and customers, and – being burned by a few previously released games in different constellations – we never actually planned to make a living from the games we make. This independence allows us to make very unique games for a very small audience (mainly ourselves) and also take as much time as we need to polish them till it hurts.

“... and then it rained” was therefor never aimed to be a commercial success. It is the first game I have ever programmed and in the beginning it was primarily meant to be a learning experience. But as the positive feedback for the game became more and more enthusiastic it somehow evolved into an eight month long serious production.

(Our short launch trailer)
 

Having the luxury to not rely on App Store incomings also allowed us to stay completely ignorant to the current app market business situation and so we decided to make a premium app (tier 2) with no InApp purchases or ads. Just pay and play.

We managed to keep our expectations and stress level fairly low during the whole production until a few weeks before release when we got the chance to show the game directly to Apple and got very positive feedback. An App Store feature was now suddenly within the range of possibility but being grumpy Germans (the glass is always half empty… and dirty… and probably filled with poison… ) we were still very skeptical about a possible commercial success.

One of the main reasons for our skepticism was that we absolutely lacked press contacts. We knew not a single person from the hundred people on our press list, which received a promo code the day before release and we knew that neither of them had ever heard of Megagon Industries before.

So when May 1st finally arrived we were prepared for the worst.

We sold nearly 16.000 copies the first week!

(1. Week Sales)

 

We got a small Apple feature in the new & noteworthy category and a small banner and not only did the game sell well, we also got amazing reviews from a lot of big blogs and magazines. People who had obviously deleted our release mail suddenly asked us for promo codes. The German indie community was also an amazing support and the first week we were all over Twitter and Facebook. It really felt like we hit the indie game jackpot.

We knew that most mobile games make 90% of their sales during the first week but when Apple added us to the “Our Favorite Games” section in the beginning of the second week and sales were still strong at around 1000 units per day, we really thought that we might be the exception from the rule. No matter how experienced and hardened you are, the dream of making a living through your own games is always lurking in the dark shadows of every indie game developer’s mind and we slowly started to believe in that dream again. We started to hope that the game might continue to sell well enough for a longer time to provide some kind of financial baseline for us.

(2. Week Sales)

 

We couldn’t be more wrong! Four weeks after release IndieCade announced us as part of their E3 Showcases. We sold 27 units that day…

And this was only the latest disappointment in a series of “this is absolutely amazing but doesn’t make you sell one more unit” events. Here is a short list of all the fantastic things happening to us over the last month:

  1. A lot of awesome reviews (Cult of Mac, PC Mag, AppAdvice, 148 Apps, Indie Game Mag, TUAW)
  2. “Favorite Game” and “Exclusive on the App Store” features
  3. We got recommended by Apple through the official Twitter Channel
  4. Guy Cocker recommended the game on Sky News
  5. We made some visual postmortems, which were received very positively (1. Week, 2. Week)
  6. IndieCade E3 Showcase

(Our infographics/visual postmortems)

 

Each one of these events was absolutely fantastic and really boosted our developers pride but to our astonishment they didn’t affect our sales at all.

(1 Month Sales)

 

This leads us to some disappointing insights:

  1. A hit is not necessarily a hit! Although we made a seemingly very good and unique game with good reviews and all the support one can wish for, we only managed to sell 24 thousand units. On the one hand this is totally awesome for us because we never calculated with any money at all from the game, on the other hand this means that if we would want to make a living from our games it would not work. But why feel sad about this? I mean we already knew that and in a way, it even proves us right not to have founded a classic studio but to stay freelancers. I guess somehow we still had the hope that with every game we make there is always the slight chance to have a hit game and to be suddenly so financially independent that we can devote all our time (and not only a small part which mainly consists of evenings and weekends) to make our own games. Now we have learned that even a small surprise hit won’t provide that kind of independence.
  2. Press only works the first week. We can’t tell how press articles transformed into sales during the first week as so many things happened together but all the press we got the following weeks didn’t result in any visible sales spikes at all. Of course one could argue that we might have dropped even more without it but my personal assumption is that as an indie developer you will find the largest part of your core audience during the first week.
  3. Maybe not doing marketing is a stupid idea. I always though that good press articles would do much better sales wise than any advertising ever could and I also believed that good press is everything when it comes to successful indie games. Now I wonder if this might be naive. Maybe, when we entered the top 25, we should have taken the opportunity and reinvested the incoming money into ads to push us even further up the mountain. Maybe we might have then reached all the people, who never actually read the Apple, mobile or indie game magazines and blogs. The real problem is: We don’t actually know if it would have helped or not…
  4. It’s your fellow indie developers who give you your start push. It was an amazing experience to see how the German indie community rallied their troops and supported us during the first release week and pushed us into the German top charts even before any big press reviews came out but it also demonstrated to us how strongly we neglected the international community during the last year. Being part of a strong community is probably even more important than having good press reviews.
  5. You can’t rely on one platform. We really like to develop for iOS. The technical fragmentation is manageable and the games we want to make go very well with the overall feeling of the platform. It’s also probably the only place where there is at least a slight chance to sell some units with a premium app and the people at Apple gave us the best, deepest and most critical feedback yet. But the last four weeks also demonstrated the limits of the paid app market on iOS and of being featured by Apple. If we would seriously try to make a living as an indie developer we would need to look into other platforms and think about bringing our games to PC/Mac or even a stationary console. 
  6. Good is just not good enough. We knew that “… and then it rained” is not the perfect game. You need to be into minimalist arty hipster apps to really appreciate its’ style and atmosphere and it is probably too hard for a lot of people. It also crashed way too often before the last update. But because it can be picked up and played within seconds and people all over the globe seemed to really have a strong positive resonance with the sound and atmosphere of the game, we started to think that it might appeal to a much broader audience than we initially thought. In the end this doesn’t seem to be case. Maybe the game is just not special enough. Although it’s unique it’s neither provocative, nor does it has any memorable moments forcing you to desperately talk about it with your colleagues over lunch. It might just not be sticky enough in times where hundreds of games get released every week.
  7. Success changes you. If the game had sold 20 units per day from the very beginning it would have been completely okay for us. But although we never did the game for commercial reasons, at some point during the last four weeks the measure for success shifted away from quality and good reviews to the number of sold units per day (not the actual profit by the way) and now only selling 20 units per day feels disappointing, which is utterly stupid.

We focused this postmortem mainly on the negative sides of the success because we feel that these are the areas where we learned most (especially about ourselves) and can share the most valuable insight but that doesn’t mean that the game isn’t a large personal success for us. In times it even felt like a personal  “Indie Game: The Movie” experience.

We got so many support mails by gamers and especially by fellow developers that it really overwhelmed us. Because of the game and thanks to IndieCade we now also have the special opportunity to exhibit the game at the E3, which is something we would never thought possible a few weeks ago.

The success during the last month also strongly motivates us to keep working on the game and on ourselves: We began to look into porting the game to other platforms and this article and the upcoming E3 are our humble start to reach out to the international community. We will also keep updating the game to make it even better over the next year and we started to have a closer look into the whole ASO thing as we never really cared about that before. We are also working on the next game based on an idea, which might be stickier than “… and then it rained”.

But we are now also aware of the limits of what we can achieve as a studio at this very moment and that we will have to continue to make games the way we did before. This means working half our time as freelancers and only using the remaining free time to develop our own games.

And as much as we want to we also can’t shake off this lingering bitter taste because for a moment it seemed like this whole indie thing could work but then the dream crawled back into the shadows.  

- Daniel (@DannyHellfish)


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Comments


Pete Devlin
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Hi Daniel

Thanks for taking the time to put this together. It takes honesty to say that something that you wanted at the most basic gut instinct to fly beyond expectations to not do that. Your results are still wonderful-24,000 people playing a thing you made is mind boggling no matter the financial aspect.

The big message I get is finding the right audience an community - anyone else have examples if this?

Pete Devlin

Kee-Won Hong
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Daniel - thanks for sharing! Your insights are honest and helpful for other indies. Question - do you feel that you could replicate the success you had with 'and then it Rained' with your next title? And do you think that whatever you learned developing the title would let you publish your next title in a shorter amount of time?

Daniel Helbig
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Hey, very glad that the article is of interest to you! To be honest I don't know if we can replicate the success. And the main reason for that is that we probably won't replicate the game, so there is no recipe to follow. Theoretically our next game should run better than ... and then it rained (at least during the first week) as we had no press contacts before and now we got some. But as our next title will be a very different game, in the end it will only come down to its quality and level of polish. To be even more honest it will only boil down to one question: Will Apple like the game? If Apple would have not featured us I'm pretty sure that we would have been lucky to sell anything at all. This also is our answer to the question of production time. We invest as much time into polishing till we think Apple will like it. This sounds stupid but at the end of the day this is our current business model (besides the fact that our actual business model is working as freelancers most of the time).

Mark Nelson
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Have you thought of reskining the game so that it's less abstract? Some folks might just need more representational imagery in order to purchase...

Daniel Helbig
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No, not really. Mainly because none of us can draw so we are stuck to that minimalist art style :) No, the real reason is that I completely believe that there is no sense for an indie game studio to make games the way bigger studios do. This is a battle we can only lose. Studios like Wooga, King, etc. will always be better when it comes to making "real" casual games. So we try to make our games so personal and unique that these studios would never make them that way because their marketing department cannot justify it with focus groups and competitors numbers. I love rain and storms since I'm a child and the game is all about that feeling and although I played it now for like a thousand times I still like the sound and atmosphere. To sum it up: We won't change the games we make so they sell better, instead we will try to find better ways to sell the games we want to make...

Zack Wood
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I think the trailer is beautiful. Great work and awesome story. Thanks for sharing!

Daniel Helbig
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Thanks! The trailer was done by Ruben Silberling by the way. http://rubensilberling.de/

Zack Wood
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Dang, that's luxurious not to do the trailer yourselves! (I struggled for hours with ours, lol). Maybe that's why it's much more professional. ;)

Daniel Helbig
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We are lucky that Ruben is a close friend. So the trailer only cost us a bottle of wine :)

Chris Book
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Honestly it sounds like you had a decent showing considering everything. You made a game that isn't exactly mass-market, published on the most congested platform available, and charged money up front which a lot people say is a death sentence for a mobile game. Still, you made a game that a lot of people obviously enjoyed. Don't let one "failure" (I wouldn't even call it that IMO) convince you that going indie full-time is impossible.

Daniel Helbig
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Hey Chris, don't get us wrong. We don't see the game as a failure. Not at all. It's just that for a short moment it looked like it could really change things for us and allow us to work on our games full-time but this dream was then shattered pretty fast. This doesn't change the fact that we are very happy with the way things turned out. The problem is that the first week was so successful that it really spoiled us.

Chris Book
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It's understandable. If I saw numbers like that I would probably feel the same way too. At least you weren't counting on the game to keep everyone in business though. Just don't let it discourage you.

TC Weidner
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very interesting postmortem, thanks for sharing.

John Maurer
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Maybe port it to Droid. I'm not a fanboy, own an iPhone myself, but their user base is huge

Daniel Helbig
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Maybe we will but everyone tells me that the premium market for android is dead and buried... But on the other hand, people also told us that about the iOS market... So maybe we will give it a shot.

Wes Jurica
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http://imgur.com/pArJkqK

I agree that it is a crap shoot as to what becomes successful but our $1.99 racing game has 40,000 sales on Google Play. It has been in the top 10 paid racing games since release with no media coverage and a small social media (Facebook posts) campaign during the release week.

It wouldn't hurt to try if your port process is pretty simple.

Wes Jurica
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I also thought I should mention Amazon. If you already have a Android port, releasing on Amazon is super easy. We're getting 1/3 as many Amazon sales as we do on Android and 1/2 as many Amazon sales as we do on iOS, but it was definitely worth the time.

Also, on the tail end of distributing your game, you could try out Amazon's Free App of the Day "promotion". We are in the process of doing that now.

John Maurer
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Seems the best next step to take in my opinion. You've already got a product in market, you could try to recycle the existing market presence into raising product awareness on a Droid port. Would also give you and your team a chance to work on something familiar with a faster turn around for profits while you divide some time out to collaborate on something new.

Ken Love
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Very nice input, fellas. "I commend you for it."

I truly believe that for the most part, this is the story for most indie mobile development studios.

When our stuff goes live, I TRULY am not expecting to turn-on any sort of money faucet at all. Instead, what I'm hoping for, is just a constant drip over a long while.

The bigs publishers can make money at it, simply because they throw buckets of marketing dollars on the problem. That's always sort of been their way to do things. Project outlook / sales isn's so good.. "Thros $hite loads of marketing dollars at it."

Us little guys can't do that, nor.. really would I want to. I'd rather stick that money into another potential project.

- Me

tony oakden
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How I wish I'd made $20,000 from my mobile games. Or even a $1,000 :( Most developers don't come even close to this sort of figure. Well done :)

Jack Everitt
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Thanks for sharing this. Much appreciated.

Boris Sanchez
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Thanks for sharing. I think you did quite well considering the investment you did and that you placed the price on tier two. The problem with games is the same as with other media, they need massive exposure to get an angry birds or a fruit ninja that you can exploit for years.

I do not believe you could have done better if you have expended the money on advertising, you get less than you expend and it does not create much traction. You could have potentially lost all you had earned. It is definitively better to use social networks, though this is a very tricky matter, everybody talks about it but no one knows how to really do it. Most of the times is just luck.

It is obvious that after having such good reviews and success you start thinking that you are going to get a lot of money. So when you went back to having just 20 downloads per day your expectations just burst. It has happened to many, you can read other stories here in gamasutra. This inflated expectations are also part of the viral advertising that apple, google and others do to attract more developers (flappy bird for example). The number of apps that are published daily are just ludicrous.

It is clear that you cannot live on indie development, good for you that this is not your main activity.

Benjamin Robert
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"Maybe not doing marketing is a stupid idea. " - it is. Marketing is a necessary evil. For example, I live in France, never heard of your game but it's seems like a great game, type of games I'd like to buy and tell my friends / co-worker to play. You don't have to do agressive marketing but you've worked a lot to do a game that looks amazing, it's a shame if people don't know it.

Also I'd love to play it on my Android phone. The market isn't dead, Monument Valley is selling pretty well on Android, another game Out There is also selling well, you can do it !

Daniel Helbig
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Thanks Benjamin. That's very motivating to hear! I think we will look into porting the game when we're back from LA.

David Canela
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Just read today that there's already a reskin on google play. Don't let that bring you down, it tends to be a (albeit twisted) form of flattery. I wish you lots of success taking that and turning it into a marketing story to your advantage (c.f. Vlambeer, Threes etc.)!

Daniel Helbig
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I wouldn't even call it a reskin. It's exactly the game without polishing or atmosphere. They should have called it: ... and then we cloned. But yeah, having one's own clone is probably an indie game development achievement :)

Matt Diamond
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Yeah, no one ever bothered to clone mine, so... Congratulations?

Is it too late to do a Lite or F2P version, do you think?

peter lacalamita
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Thanks for sharing. Very insightful post mortem.
Magnetic Studio

Pallav Nawani
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Daniel, do you know the story of 'A Dark Room' for the iOS? Here is the blog of the creator: http://amirrajan.net/a-dark-room/ It is a longish blog, but the most important takeaway for you (and me and all other indies) is how important marketing is, and how marketing is often not about brilliant trailers and catchy headlines, and is often about plugging away continously.

I suggest you keep soliciting reviews and keep pushing your game on twitter.


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