How Head of State went from Passion Project to Top-10 Download
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
The Big Idea
I started working in the games industry at a small studio in Paris called Kobojo in 2011. We were making Facebook simulations that were moderately successful, but a far cry from the games that I enjoyed playing myself. Even so, I loved it. Finally hours of playing games from childhood onwards felt justified(!); the process of designing enjoyable experiences was itself hugely satisfying, and the sense of potential was intoxicating. Zynga was a tech industry darling, with Cityville breaking record after record, just as the portents began signalling an even bigger shift to mobile.
Politically though, the times were much less rosy: the far right was growing in popularity across Europe and the US, whilst in Greece Golden Dawn regularly made the headlines showing how fast the slide into neo-fascism could be. I found the politics confusing - I had grown up in the 90s and just about remembered the fall of the Berlin Wall. I thought this was meant to be the End of History and liberal democracy the natural order of things. It was fast becoming apparent that this wasn’t the case, that political entropy did not drag us inexorably towards peace and understanding.
So it was that I had the very first thoughts about the game that would become Head of State. I dreamed of a game that pushed the boundaries of games as a medium (of course!), whilst simultaneously addressing my pet fear of democratic collapse. The aspiration would be to contribute to the ongoing debate on democracy, just as Orwell and Huxley had with Nineteen Eighty Four and Brave New World.
Today we haven’t stopped reading novels, but we have started playing a lot more games, and some of those games have touched just as serious ground. BioShock is a personal favourite - I must have played it through 4 or 5 times. Far from impeding enjoyment of the game, its rich setting drawing on Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism was loved by critics and the game was a commercial success as well. I myself went on to read both the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged in between replays... whilst the success of TV shows like The West Wing and House of Cards further convinced me that politics was far from a niche interest. However, it was to be four years before the game was anything more than passing fantasy.
A Game is Born
Whilst I loved the concept of Head of State, I had no idea of how the game would actually play. Partly I had had no inspiration for mechanics that would work for the subject matter, and partly I wasn’t trying very hard as I didn’t see how the game might ever get made. It was clear that none of the companies I worked for would ever be interested in the idea. So the concept sat at the back of my mind gathering dust, and only occasionally embellished when I’d had a few drinks and gave an impromptu rant to friends about games or politics.
Then last year, following the encouragement of several friends and developers at Wooga, I started playing around with Unity and built a couple of playable prototypes for other ideas. They were the creative equivalents of a 3-year old’s macaroni collage, but I found coding addictive and my learning trajectory was steep. You Only Live Once was a (very) dark, text based version of the Sims, which I actually pushed to the App Store, just to see if I could. Hardly anyone played it, but it made me realise that publishing a game by myself was possible. At the same time I decided to leave Wooga, frustrated with a number of projects that had been cancelled before launch. With the games industry becoming increasingly tough I didn’t see better prospects anywhere else, so I jumped into e-commerce, but I decided that my swan song to the games industry would be publishing this political game I always dreamed of in some format.
As I said my goodbyes at Wooga and prepared for an extended break over Christmas and New Year I had a brainwave about how the game might look. I had realised from my growing coding experience that simple simulation games were within my powers, and in particular had spent a lot of time playing both Plague Inc. and A Dark Room. I initially envisaged the game as an incremental similar to A Dark Room where new options opened up to the player as their political influence expanded. One of the key themes I wanted to explore in the game was leading people down an increasingly dark path to more extreme policies and actions, even if they started from relatively pure intentions.
I cobbled something together in a few days, all ugly pastel buttons, stats and the occasional progress bar to look at. I was fairly happy with the results myself, even if it was incredibly simplistic, just because I had managed to match some mechanics to the theme. But when I showed it to my family, they hated it. No one wanted to play the bad guy, the evil dictator with a plan to subvert a nation. They all far too nice for that and wanted to rule the country as well as possible, eradicating poverty and ensuring proper governance. Unless I could make the game fun, it was clear that the audience would be limited at best.
Putting the Fun into Evil
Still, I wasn’t going to be put off too easily, so I reached out to a couple of friends from Wooga - Rebecca Harwick, an American writer, and Ewa Chrusciel, a Polish artist. I had worked with both and knew them to be exceptionally talented, but I also suspected given Trump’s rise in the US and the growing discomfort of liberals with the Law & Justice party in Poland, that they would be interested in the theme (one of the benefits of living in Berlin is that most people are very liberal and relatively politically active). I asked them not whether they liked the game as it was, but whether they could see the potential, and were interested in fulfilling as much of that potential as possible. They both signed up immediately and we began meeting regularly, with the aim of launching a free game as a passion project in around three months.
The design evolved rapidly with the experienced feedback from Rebecca and Ewa. At the same time, the addition of a writer and artist supercharged the project’s skillsets, vastly expanding the creative possibilities for the game. We quickly divided the tech tree into Policies to allow the game to cover revolutions of all colors and not just the descent into facism. We also built out Control factions to reflect the importance of other state institutions, oblivious that over the summer Turkey's coup would justify our decision to keep the Army and Police separate. The game also dragged towards the end, and I've never been a fan of fast forward options, so we added Momentum and the Revolution mechanic to bring things to a climax. Meanwhile, Ewa started working on more visual ways of showing the mechanics, whilst Rebecca worked on events and decisions that we wanted to include.
By March the game had come on leaps and bounds, and was unrecognisable from its initial incarnation. At the same time, we began to realise that we were only just getting started on the changes that we wanted to make, and had already used up the time we initially set aside. The process was fun though, and the team dynamics were working well, so we agreed to continue iterating on the design and push it further. We started play testing, and again got feedback that the game felt too dry, more political statement than game. We knew adding humour was the solution, but struggled to find a tone that was the right mix of enjoyable without being superficial.
After several discussions and exploring different styles we found an irreverent sarcasm that seemed to fit the bill, and we spread it generously all over the game. Meanwhile, as we dug deeper into the mechanics, I also picked up a renewed appreciation for why so many things in Plague Inc. are designed the way they are - we added a map and then pins for Influence, Events and Protests to give the player more to do.
Summer meant various holidays and other commitments for everyone, but the game was looking far better than I could have ever imagined. We decided to charge $1.99 for the game as we felt the quality would be high enough, and anyone interested in a political simulation game wasn’t likely to baulk at the price. Trump had already clinched the Republican nomination and then Brexit happened, and we were reinvigorated with the need to launch the game as soon as possible. July was a blur of polishing and testing, putting together marketing materials and grabbing lunches with anyone we knew in PR or App Store optimization. Finally, we set a launch date for August 7th and arranged a small BBQ for friends and family to celebrate all our hard work over the past months.
With the icons ready and App Store description written, I couldn’t wait to see the game go live. I called Tom Kinniburgh, a friend in the publishing industry excited to push the button, when he bluntly informed me that proper launch prep for any chance of featuring would take 5-6 weeks, rather than 10 days. It was a frustrating moment, and I considered pushing ahead regardless - we thought our chances of getting featured given the political theme were only 20% or so, and knew that the game wouldn’t capture the zeitgeist forever. Every day seemed to count and we had already been working on the game twice as long as we had initially expected.
Patience Pays Off
Fortunately Tom was quick to talk me out of rushing the launch, and we picked a new release date of September 8th. With development finished we focused on launch PR, reaching out to as many journalists as we could think of, calling in favours from anyone remotely involved in the media, and sending out a barrage of speculative tweets. We set up a thread in the TouchArcade forums and sent very polite yet enthusiastic emails to Apple and Google.
At last, launch day arrived. Nervously we checked and rechecked the App Store to see if we were lucky enough to get any featuring. We had not had art requests for banners, but hung out for a minor feature somewhere. Then finally, around 5pm, we noticed the UK store features had been updated, and Head of State was included in the “New Games We Love” section at position 14. A few hours later we realised we were also hidden in the simulation games features in the US. The next day we started climbing the charts, appearing first in top paid apps (UK) at 41, then climbing all the way to 5 in paid games, and number 1 in paid RPGs in the UK and number 9 in paid RPGs in the US.
Now, the game is less than week old, but by time of going to press (3 days of data) we’ve seen over 3.6k downloads and over $7.8k in revenue, with an average rating of about 4.5 stars in both the US and UK (we never localised the game). We’ll see where the figures go from here, but the journey has already been far more satisfying, and exhilarating, both in development and launch than I ever could have imagined. In today’s market, I’m not sure anyone can guarantee this level of success, but if there’s a game that you desperately want to make, there’s always the chance that you’ll be surprised by just how well it does...