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Being a successful failure on iOS with Crabitron
by John Millard on 07/23/13 11:15:00 am   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.


How it all started.

I spent the better part of the last 2 years working on Crabitron in my spare time along with my friend and business partner Simeon Saëns. It was a great experience, a challenge and both a success and a failure. The game has gotten recognition as a wonderfully fun experience and a salient example of a truly unique type of gameplay. To my knowledge there isn’t anything quite like it on any platform and people really enjoy the concept. 

The idea of the game came about in early 2010 when the iPad was announced by Apple and the preview SDK became available. The other two members of Two Lives Left and I started to brainstorm ideas for iPad games. My approach was to ask a simple thought experiment:

What sort of game can you make that would only work on an iPad?

An interesting question since iOS games typically make little use what the screen can actually do, which is multitouch. My initial musings were of some kind of physics based game where you use different gestures to manipulate your surroundings, like dragging, slicing and hitting objects. I thought about ways to combine these different gestures and eventually settled on the idea of using pinching gestures to manipulate objects. With two fingers on each hand you get 8 degrees of freedom, which seemed pretty amazing to me given that most games never give you more than 4 (a twin stick shooter for example). So with a single pinch you can move, rotate and squeeze objects with a surprising amount of dexterity. With two you can snap things in half, play catch or slam things together. I built a basic prototype soon after and I knew instantly that I wanted to make a game. 

For me the idea evolved in a fairly predictable way. You have two claws. What has claws? A crab. What is a fun setting for a crab? I was already thinking of Space as a good setting so why not. A crab in space should be huge right? Giant Space Crab. Fast forward two years and the game is released. 

Critical Success and Sales do not always Correlate.

I can argue that Crabitron is a very successful game from a Critical standpoint. It has an average of 4.5 stars on the US App Store. It has received very favourable reviews from Wired, Touch Arcade, Eurogamer, Pocket Gamer, Slide to Play, and the list goes on. We recently showed the game at PAX Australia and it was universally loved by more than a thousand members of the public over a 3 day period. If you goto you can see exactly how many sales we’ve made and what our current revenue is. We used this as part of our marketing story and it was also well received by the media being featured on Wired, The Verge and The Guardian UK among many other publications. As of writing this article the game has made roughly 17k in revenue since release. For some this might seem like a good amount of money, especially given how saturated the iOS market is. It is and it isn’t. As the game’s revenue tends asymptotically towards zero you get little chance to recoup dev costs even after years. 17k is nothing to sneeze at, but at the same time I believe there is a huge audience that the game has yet to reach. 

Doomed from the beginning?

The reason for the game to exist is also one of its biggest flaws. When we started working on the game, not every game was universal, but by the time we finished, almost everything was. Selling an iPad only game is sort of like selling a car without air-conditioning. People expect it and without it, you are not providing an essential feature that makes people more comfortable with their purchase. What do we do about it? The game was essentially designed NOT to work on iPhone. We are looking into universal and making great progress but it is a difficult issue to overcome. 

Discovery is HARD.

So when you release a game you need to promote it, and the best way on iOS is to get Apple to feature you. The best way to get Apple to feature you is to make a great game, or to have a reputation for making great games or some kind of special relationship with Apple. We just have a great game (in my opinion at least). We do have a reputation for good games in the past, but none of those were a hit so they don’t really count as much towards lending exposure to future games. Still, Apple were kind enough to feature Crabitron quite prominently in the US App Store New and Noteworthy Games section. This had a profound impact on sales, however we made a huge mistake - Premium pricing. 

Just being unique isn’t enough to justify a premium price.

We thought the game was so unique that people would be compelled to pay a higher price than usual so we launched at $4.99. The New and Noteworthy feature ensured that people willing to pay for it would know about it and we did have healthy sales initially, however it was still a huge barrier for the majority of iOS customers, used to seeing iPad and universal apps at $2.99 or less. The ranks started slipping even before the promotion was over, and by the time it ended, the rankings were in freefall. To help combat this we reduced the price to $2.99 but we had already missed out on our biggest opportunity. 

Later we received some helpful advice that the App Store economy is largely elastic. This means that when you get a spike in sales, you want to reduce your app’s price because you’ll make up for the difference in volume, and end up with more users. More uses means more people playing and talking about your game, helping people discover your game organically.

Release date is important but hard to get right.

We released our game right as Apple was promoting Mr. Crab as Editor’s Choice. This probably hurt our chances of being featured as Apple probably doesn’t want to feature too many Crustaceans in a row. We also ended up setting our release date the day after Fish out of Water and shortly before Robot Unicorn Attack 2. Both games were heavily featured by Apple and there wasn’t a snow ball’s chance in hell of us getting promoted at the same time despite receiving a request for promotional artwork. Hindsight is 20/20 but remember that there is a major app store release every single week. A small indie developer like us will always have to contend with apps that will steal the spotlight until we gain enough notoriety to stand apart or release something that is simply too good to ignore. 

Crabitron demands a lot from players for an iPad game.

I was talking to Alexander Bruce at PAX recently and he noted that Crabitron demands a lot from players as an iPad game. It made me think about how most games on iPad have very simple or at least conventional control schemes. Things like single touch controls or virtual sticks and buttons. These control schemes vastly simplify the experience for the player, they make the game work on any form factor and have almost no limitations in play style. Crabitron demands the player use two hands, four fingers and they play while seated. These limitations are inherent in the game’s design but rewarding for the player who can master the controls. This makes the game less mass market because it requires the player to invest time and effort into learning the controls and becoming good at them to experience the rewarding content. At the same time my experience is that almost every player understands the controls within a short period of time, but there is a small initial barrier where before it clicks with them. 

Children Love Crabitron.

I heard that my when my Girlfriend’s nephew started playing Crabitron he used to sneak out of his bed late at night and play the game. From my experience at showing the game at PAX and previous conventions, children love Crabitron. The love the art style, they love the tactile and direct controls, and they love the character and his silly antics. Crabitron is like a puppet and it lets children use their imagination and play with it like a toy. You can hear them shout “Yum I ate a spaceship”, “Omnomnomnom!” and “Haha I ate my own eyeball!” and you can see them get visibly distressed when their parents have to take them away to see the rest of the convention. Maybe it’s better as a toy rather than a game? Something to think about.

What next?

At the end of the day I'm incredibly happy with the critical success of Crabitron but I don't know exactly what it will take to make it a financial success. I'm working on a new universal update to see how it impacts discovery. I'm also contacting more review sites and Youtube channels to help spread the word. I know there's much more I can do and I'm not giving up.

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Muir Freeland
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"Apple probably doesn’t want to feature too many Crustaceans in a row" is the most insightful and terrifying appraisal of the App Store that I've ever heard. (I'm completely serious.)

Thibaud de Souza
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Would you... care to elaborate?
Or where you actually joking...

Thibaud de Souza
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'were'. Not 'where'. Where's the edit button. nvm.

Pallav Nawani
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Nice :)

Juan Belon Perez
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I am really excited to see more of you guys, with Codea you have made a new way of coding and sharing, our community is a great place to share not only knowledge but also thoughts,ideas and the magic of game making.
Maybe the big crab is not a success in money but it is a BIG success if children like it, and I love it from the begining as a beta tester :)

Zack Wood
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Good luck Crabitron! Thanks for the advice and sharing all your experiences (I'm the Cafe Murder guy from earlier emails)

Mark Nelson
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Love Codea.

Crabitron is awesome - really like the mechanics!

Re-skin and keep putting out variations until some theme sticks?

Marvin Papin
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"Selling an iPad only game is sort of like selling a car without air-conditioning."
It's more like selling a GPS only on Nissan cars.

Personnaly, i never heard spoken about your game and i do not have an Ipad.
I wanted to say that your game looks like more a toy than a game (see, other discussions about that) and even if it's seems to have cool controls, when you've crushed dozens of objects and you're bored... what else ?

Finally, i you count only on apple certif (no matter the way) to sell you're game, mainly only on Ipad, you should expect that kind of "half-failure".

So, yeah that's cool, i like that game ;), nut i dont have an ipad and i do not see myself playing that game for more than 5min.

John Millard
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Yes, sometimes it feels more like a toy than a game but don't let that fool you the game is far more than just crushing a few spaceships. A developer from Halfbrick commented on how the game has a surprising amount of depth in the sheer combination of different actions, which include a lot more things than just crushing. I agree that it's not for everyone, but to be honest you should at least give it a go before passing judgement (book by it's cover, no?).

I said that being promoted by Apple is the best way to reach a large audience, not the only way. If you ask any iOS developer they will tell you the same. If you have a freemium game and a lot of cash you can purchase users at roughly $2 each. Buying ads or site skins has been shown to be largely useless for iOS. So your best bet is to have a viral marketing campaign (which we did, see Crabstarter) but there's no way to guarantee success.

The next avenue I want to try is promoting through Youtube channels because it looks like a viable way to reach a large game-hungry audience.


Marvin Papin
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I dont know i ill have the possibility to test it. But 'til there that's what i see from you com'. The only little depth i saw in you trailer is the ship break and unfortunately, i dont think it's much appealing for potential customers.

Yes, it could be much more interesting to show your game different ways, youtube, larger scale press (like here, and here people have relationships) and flooding the web correctly with a trailer. But it's still just what i think, but i advice you to show more depth.


john bonachon
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For me, it is the first time that i hear about Crabitron, may be because i am mainly an Android user ;-)

Anyways, checking the picture, my main complain is : is ugly. The crab is ugly.

John Millard
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Maybe but he has a great personality!

TC Weidner
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Looks like a lot of fun.

Its kind of sad that somehow 4.99 got to be "a lot of money" for a game, when in reality its the price of a one time crappy coffee or sandwich. I'm not sure how we got here, but as an industry we really need to change the value perception of our products.

I mean think about it, I have kids selling lemonade on the street for 50 cents to 1 for large cup and people arent thinking twice about it. What's a buck they think. But yet all of a sudden you ask 99 cents for an actual mobile game, that takes a lot of time and talent to create, and people suddenly hesitate, hem, haul and actual think about it. Its quite remarkable the corner we painted ourselves into.

Kujel s
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This price issue reminds me of something my wife and I were talking about last night, I said women are less willing to spend as much on games as men, she said women are cheap, I countered by saying they are frugile.

Ulitmately women don't like spending very much money on anything and they make up a huge percentage of apple users and I think that is a big factor in why prices dropped so much on the app store. Now I'm not forgetting that touch screen only controls are very limiting nor am I forgetting discoverability has been a challenge on any self published platform.

John Millard
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One factor is that people are generally more price sensitive when it comes to apps. It comes down to the fact that it feels more risky to buy an app even at a low price because it's an unknown quantity. A kid with lemonade is pretty safe, lemonade is lemonade, it might be too sweet or sour but thats about it. With apps the customer is spoiled for choice and outliers that cost more than the average are going to be seen as riskier because of the perception that they could buy something better for less (unless it's free). If you have a well known and highly desirable IP, such as Minecraft then you can sell at a premium and still be successful because the risk evaporates.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Jeremy Reaban
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Back in the '80s, you could buy games in magazines for a couple dollars. You'd have to type them in, but by and large, the quality of the game in those magazines is not far off from the average mobile game.

TC Weidner
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@kujel, not sure I can agree with the part of that says women dont like to spend. If they spent on apps what they do on shoes we would all be rich.

@John I understand the feeling of risk part, but at a buck, it doesnt make sense to feel risk. In the normal world, I'll give a person on a street a buck if they simply ask nice. A buck or two in normal thinking, is really not much for those of us with smart phones/cable/ etc paying 200 bucks a month just on access, but yet, all of a sudden asking a few bucks for a mobile app becomes some big risky investment? Its that problem of value/risk perception we have to somehow overcome.

Alexey Badalov
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> Its kind of sad that somehow 4.99 got to be "a lot of money" for a game, when
> in reality its the price of a one time crappy coffee or sandwich. I'm not
> sure how we got here, but as an industry we really need to change the value
> perception of our products.

Maybe it is not a problem of perception, and developers are just spending too much effort making something of equal enjoyment to a good cup of coffee.

Tucson Bagley
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Oh, this wasn't an article I expected to see from you guys! What a terrible thing to hear, I played it over at PAX AUS and had a great time with it.
The problem of course being, I do not own an iPad and do not have any other reason to purchase one. Sorry about that. If I come across any friends who do I'll be sure to make it an addition to their library, though unfortunately that won't help at a larger scale!
Good luck with future endeavors, can't wait too see what else you do.

John Millard
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I see it as more of a learning experience and while it can feel disappointing at times, there are still plenty of directions to go from here.

Mauro Masserini
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Personally I wasn't aware of the existence of this game, maybe because I am an Android user, as someone else mentioned in another comment. I watched a trailer and really liked the game, it seems very well designed, and the only thing I saw that could be better was the input response time, although I haven't actually played the game, and I realize it might be a difficult aspect to improve.
I think that porting the game to Android would be a way to increase the game's notoriety, although you have to be aware that Android users are not usually willing to purchase applications in the same conditions as Apple users.
Your game also has potential in other new interesting platforms, such as Airspace (Leap Motion). So I think that you shouldn't put constraints in the game in order to make it work in a smartphone (for example), but rather make it available in platforms that can take advantage of its unique gameplay. And try to put users before money, put trust in the quality of your game :D. Good luck!

John Millard
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In terms of porting to Android, I'm considering this very seriously. Unfortunately the game is not very portable (A large proportion of the code is Objective-C) but it's still entirely feasible given enough time.

The input lag comes from a combination of touch lag on the device (there's about 100ms from moving your fingers to getting the event) and the physics, which uses critically dampened springs to move stuff around. I've tweaked and tuned it quite a bit to give the optimal balance between stability and responsiveness but it's still quite laggy. I find this isn't much of a problem when playing though.


Henry Kuo
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The interaction of grabbing things by pinching is incredibly unique and awesome. I think one easy way that could have simplified the interaction similar to the other games you mentioned was to design the game/character (perhaps not a crab) so that it only required one hand to do the pinching/grabbing, while the other hand could be free to hold the ipad. That would make it playable in more common situations, such as sitting back on a couch, laying in bed or in a standing position. I can't really think of an ipad game that required the use of both hands, and I think it may be more of a hindrance than you might believe. It also might be a reason why kids have taken quicker to it, because it is far more common for a kid to have an ipad laying on a floor and use it with both hands, simply because an ipad is too unwieldy for them to hold with one hand.

Kurtis Buckmaster
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First, the game looks great. I got a kick out of the screen cleaning :)

I'm with Henry about the 2 handed aspect being a bigger issue than you are anticipating. If you google image search "using an ipad" even when people have it sitting on their lap they are bracing it with 1 hand, navigating/playing with the other. The game is definitely asking them to break their typical usage pattern. Also, given the expense (and the ipad's inherent desire to want to escape your grasp), there is likely a control/comfort zone issue in letting go of the device. Would it work with a 1h mode?

Otherwise, I think this is a brilliant game for kids and teaching them dexterity with both hands and/or with them controlling one pincher and the parent controlling the other in co-op mode. I'd definitely play the "apps for kids" angle up with this game.

Best of luck.

John Flush
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I like the article, you definitely hit on the reasons I haven't bought it. The reasons I don't have it yet are as follows:

Didn't even know the game existed. Honestly I think that is the biggest problem with a lot of these games. How do you get any brand recognition to get going? I'm going to give it a shot after watching and reading up on the game. Maybe that is why free-to-play works. if there is no entry point, people with too much time on their hands download it just because... then word of mouth spreads to the rest.

As far as design goes I'm worried about is the upgrades and coins. It already looks like the standard Mobile 'free-to-play' drivel where you have to grind forever to level up or drop a lot of real money to skip all that by purchasing coins. If you are comparable to all those games, and they start at 'Free', there is strike 2 because you didn't.

The race to the bottom on pricing is the only reason everyone has to do free-to-play. If I can get that free, and it actually is an okay game, why ever pay money again?

David ODonoghue
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John, try adding a $10 & $1 IAP, go free.

You might be surprised.