Dreaming of Voxel Goats
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
One year ago I could not have imagined that I would be making a new game that was specifically designed for the mobile market – let alone be ecstatic about it! As such, I thought it might be a good idea to write about how I got here, how it feels, and where this might take me.
What About Nintendo!?
For many years I have been 100% dedicated to developing games for Nintendo handhelds. Sure, some of our games have also been ported to other platforms. But, they were all originally made for Nintendo platforms. Part of the reason for this when we started Renegade Kid was that it was a logistically sensible thing to do, considering my experience with the SNES and N64 prior to the release of the Nintendo DS. The other portion of my reasoning was my love for Nintendo, and my love for Nintendo handhelds. I love them, you see!
What has changed? Well, my love for Nintendo hasn’t changed. But, the market isn’t quite as healthy as it once was for us. I think it began with the launch of Moon Chronicles for the 3DS in May 2014, and was cemented with the release of Xeodrifter for the 3DS in December 2014. Naturally, everyone has their own opinion regarding creative works, so I accept that not everyone will agree with mine. From my perspective, Moon Chronicles and Xeodrifter are both great quality games that were released into a healthy market – a combination for success, right?
Neither game has sold very well, unfortunately. This is not based on my perception of what I think is a good number of units to sell. It is based on the revenue needed to fund a team of four with reasonable salaries and no office space overhead – basic return on investment (ROI). Sure, there are 100 reasons why these games may have not sold more, but the inescapable reality is that the tremendous effort required to create those games versus the reward did not add up in the end. It wasn’t for lack of trying on our part. It wasn’t for lack of support from Nintendo, either. It just didn’t work out.
What's Happening on the App Store?
On occasion I visit the App Store on my iPhone 5 to see what’s new and looks interesting. I was swept into the Crossy Road malarkey, and am still enjoying the occasional romp across the streets. I was impressed by the fact that an honest freemium game can be received well both critically and financially. At a time when I felt the mobile space was a wasteland of money gauging, Crossy Road showed that there is still room for more than just clones of Clash of Clan and Candy Crush.
This led me to start thinking about the mobile market. The beauty of the mobile market is that you can create a great game that is very simple, without the need of many people or much time, such as Crossy Road, Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies, Temple Run, Subway Surfers, Two Dots, Alphabear, and all of Half Brick’s awesome games – to name but a few!
How Does it Feel?
OK, so that’s how I got here – now onto how it feels now that I am here! It feels great. Haha, simple as that. Even though I am still working on finishing up Mutant Mudds Super Challenge and Dementium Remastered, as well as finally delving into Treasurenauts, I can’t help but feel excited by the prospect of completing a tiny project. The sense of excitement I get from the concept phase of any game I have worked on is wonderful and magical. Development naturally evolves into production at some point, which is still a lot of fun, but as production moves forward the energy from the concept phase is replaced with the required discipline to keep marching forward, and only when the end of the tunnel is in sight do you start to get new energy from the excitement to see the finished game.
With a simple game, the concept excitement doesn’t have a chance to wear off before you’re already seeing the light at the end of the tunnel – double excitement!
Some Development Details
I have teamed up with Gordon K. Larson, who I have worked with before, to make a new mobile game on the side in a hobby capacity while I continue to work on Renegade Kid titles. Gordon also has a fulltime gig elsewhere, so we dedicate weekends to the mobile game to balance out our efforts. We officially started the development of Atooi’s debut game on July 1, 2015. I was also lucky enough to enlist the code wizard himself, Matthew Gambrell, to help out post-launch with gameplay refinement and updates.
As you probably already know by now, our first game is Totes the Goat. Here’s a little write-up I did for it:
Totes the Goat is the debut game from newly formed mobile studio, Atooi – led by industry veteran Jools Watsham. A charming arcade experience with vibrant voxel art and easy-to-use swipe controls, Totes the Goat will have you happily hopping down a cliff like a kid. Leap from platform to platform – bringing each one back to life – while avoiding hazardous Wily Wolves, Cranky Crows, and Bully Bears – oh my! Once a cliff tier is fully rejuvenated, hop down the cliff to the next tier for an endless journey of jumps! How low can you leap? How totes is your goat?
That is a really fancy way of saying it is an endless Q*Bert with a Crossy Roads wrapper – but, some people don’t like to hear that sort of cheap talk - unless it can be quoted from someone else! :)
What Was the Design Approach?
I approached this project very analytically from the start. I visited the App Store and looked at what were the top grossing free games, and I looked down the list. The majority of the games were games very similar to Clash of Clans and Candy Crush, as well as a wealth of Casino games and license properties that utilized a proven monetized formula – typically resulting in another clone of Clash of Clans or Candy Crush.
The first “original” game that stood out was a pool game, at #15, and then Criminal Case at #24, Racing Rivals at #26, Cooking Fever at #29, Tap Sports Baseball 2015 at #33, Trivia Crack at #45, my beloved Crossy Road at #48, and so on. If you are squarely focused on aiming for the #1 top slot, the current chart suggests you either create a “Candy Clan” clone, a casino game, a licensed game, or do something completely different and hope for the best.
I am not squarely focused on reaching the top slot. I just want to make a game that generates a little revenue. That is no small achievement in the mobile market. I wanted to learn what may have made Crossy Road so popular and see if I could tap into that “formula” somehow.
Looking at Crossy Road's Guts
My breakdown of Crossy Road: classic arcade gameplay + relevant art style + charm/humor + soft-sell monetization. In a nutshell, Crossy Road is a free endless Frogger executed in a colorful voxel art style with a cast of varied and interesting characters that bring more than just themselves to the game – they often alter the look of the world too. And, there is no forced advertising - only what the player chooses to view. That's what I refer to as a soft-sell.
One of the most clever aspects of Crossy Road is the gameplay loop and how the game over menu is presented to the player. Everything is geared around the player scrounging together 100 coins to unlock a new character. After your very first play session, you are immediately offered a free gift, which happens to be 100 coins! How fortunate!! Oh, and hey, what’s this? A new menu item appears telling me how I could spend the 100 coins: unlock a new character!
Coins can be collected in the game. They can be earned by watching videos. You can receive free gifts in the form of coins. You can even buy a piggy bank character that increases the values of coins in the game. Once you find yourself in that loop of coin desire, you may soon realize that you could just drop $0.99 to buy a certain character of your choosing – but that is your choice. No hard sell.
Sounds Good to Me!
Needless to say, I am trying to incorporate all of this loveliness into Totes the Goat. It is an excellent model for a simple “endless” game. Naturally, I am not the first to attempt this. But, that is also helpful for my analytical eye. How well have these other games incorporated this approach, and what did they do differently? Did it work better or worse? The main thing that is missing from the vast majority of games that seem inspired by Crossy Road’s example is the menu loop and how the many important elements of the system are presented to the player, which surprises me. This seems to be instrumental in the whole system working.
In games that have failed to communicate and/or support this properly there is a loss of variety in the overall experience due to the fact that most endless games are somewhat repetitious, and therefore rely on something to offer variety. In Crossy Road’s case, the variety comes from the characters and any effects they may have on the world.
If the player is not reminded of the rewards offered by the game (the characters) and the means in which the player can get their hands on them (coins), then the player will ignore any subtle small signs that attempt to suggest these or they’ll be utterly confused by the mixed messaging and quit.
Another vital element that is missing from many of the Crossy Road wannabes is with their rewards. The cast of characters, or more to the point: how do the characters affect the world? Just getting a different looking character is cool, but after you have one you like, you may lose the desire to get another. No rewards = no reason to get coins or spend cash.
The difficult thing is that all of this nonsense doesn’t even cover the gameplay experience inside the game. So, to create a good game AND an effective monetized system that is understandable and appealing is a tall order indeed. But, that’s what makes game development fun, right?
What About the Actual Game!?
OK, so with the idea that I wanted to create a game with classic arcade gameplay I went searching for ideas. What were some of the most popular arcade games in the old days? Which ones could be adapted to a simple touch control interface? Which ones haven’t already been done to death in the market? I was leaning towards a certain idea until a friend of mine suggested Q*Bert. It was such a perfect suggestion because I was already married to the idea of creating voxel art for the game, and not many games are suited as perfectly to voxels and an isometric view than Q*Bert.
I immediately ran with the idea. Now, just because the concept of Q*Bert had been established didn’t mean determining the gameplay would be easy. It is easy to make a terrible game based on Q*Bert. It is much harder to make a good one. And, do I make it endless or level-based? What are the controls? What is the theme? The world? The main character? The name of the game? All of these things were very important, and needed careful consideration.
I quickly decided that it needed to be endless. The vibe of an endless game is very different than a level-based experience where you are rewarded with three stars at the end, etc. Endless felt right. Once I had determined that the player would leap from one platform to another; I needed to figure out what you play as and where you play. I started to think about what might act like this in nature. I started writing down thoughts, and quickly a goat came to mind. Some live on cliffs and leap around. Perfect! And then the idea of leaping from one completed level down to the next made sense for a goat. It started to all come together very naturally. I love it when that happens. It doesn’t happen as often as I would like.
What's in a Name?
Almost immediately, Totes the Goat became the name of the game. I often use the saying totes ma goats, because I’m a dork, so a play on that saying felt suitably silly and fun. Totes the Goat was born… as soon as I secured the dotcom!
Speed Bump Ahead!
About a week or two into the development, my heart sank when I saw a new game in the App Store that looked very similar to Totes. I couldn’t believe it. Similar voxel style. Similar cliff/mountain concept. I felt sick. It was such a strange coincidence. I downloaded the game to get a feel for it and to find out if it was worth continuing development of Totes.
Thankfully, the gameplay was considerably different than Totes. It did adopt the Crossy Road approach with the swing of things, but all in all it was not a deal breaker for me. Phew. A scary experience, but one I thought we’d be OK with. The mobile market is so big that there seems to be enough room for similar games. Sometimes that can be helpful, and sometimes it can hurt. We’ll see.
Would you believe it, the same thing happened again the following week! Another isometric game, and this time it even had an actual goat as the main character. On a mountain! At least their goat was focused on only climbing up. The visual presentation was very different too. But, come on! Really!? Two very similar games releasing now, when there was nothing really like it before? Oh well. This is one of those times when you need to go with your gut. You either cut your losses and start again, or you stay the course. I stayed the course because I have faith in the core concept of Totes the Goat and that it offers something those other games do not.
Don't Forget About Me!
Another aspect that I researched was how games on the App Store are frequently updated. The way I look at mobile games is that they are more of an on-going service for the player, constantly providing updates both large and small. This is a great thing for many reasons. It is great for the player – receiving fixed/new content on a regular basis. It is great for the developer too – there’s a chance the game will be highlighted in the App Store as an updated title, plus it shows up on player’s device as an available update, which helps remind players that the game exists and may result in a new play session.
Updates are nothing new in the mobile market, but it is a unique aspect of that market when compared to most other gaming platforms.
My hope is to continue making updates for Totes, both big and small, to keep the game going in terms of new content and awareness in the market. In fact, we have already submitted an update for the game post-release and are hoping it is approved and released on Dec. 17. Fingers crossed for a featured spot on the App Store, but as it is one of the busiest times of year there is a lot of competition.
But, How Did the Game Get Featured on the App Store?
One of the most important and most challenging (and nerve-racking) aspects is trying to get your game featured on the App Store. This is what everyone wants as it can lead to more downloads and the potential of more sales. Sure, but how does that happen?
I don't think there is a guaranteed way to get your game featured on the App Store. Maybe if you're a huge publisher and/or have a highly anticipated game your chances increase dramatically. But, for the rest of us we need to do everything we can to increase our chances of being featured.
One of the first things I did, even before starting development of the game, is try to talk to someone at Apple about what things they look for when considering games for feature. I was fortunate enough to get a hold of someone who was willing to provide information in this regard. Good things to consider, include:
- Game Center Support.
- Metal (Unity) Support (or any relevant OS enhancement features).
- App Size: Under 100MB (enables downloads to happen anywhere, and not require wi-fi).
- Replay Kit.
- Video Preview on App Store game page.
The list of features that may be attractive for being featured on the App Store will likely change a lot over time, so it is important to do as much research as you can by talking with other developers and the folks at the App Store if possible.
It is also important to think about your release plan as well as future updates. Something that is referred to as a "roadmap" at Apple. This is helpful for you as a developer to nail down your launch goal and also what you hope to add to the game in the future, and when you hope to release it. As with most digital stores, the more information you can provide to the team the better.
I did not know if the game was going to be featured or not until the day of release. I was insanely excited and truly grateful when I saw the little Totes icon on the App Store front page. To secure a spot on there as a first-time indie team, as Atooi, is a huge accomplishment and one I do not view lightly. I was prepared for it not to be featured, and amazed when it was!
How's it Doing?
In less than one week, Totes the Goat has been installed over 170,000 times and there are over 105,000 entries on the Game Center leader board (as of Dec. 10, 2015). It has a 4.5 star rating from 104 reviews on the App Store. To me, these numbers are great. A ton of people have played it, and they like it! That is half the battle.
So, all in all, not a ton of cash has been made from video ads / in-app purchases yet, but it is off to a good start for a small game that did not cost a lot to develop. It is all great information for me to digest and try to learn from and hopefully improve upon in the future. If there were annoying banner ads, and full screen pop-up ads after each death, and a forced video ad after 3 or 5 deaths, would it have made more money? Probably. But, what would that do to the long term user enjoyment and engagement?
Paying a dollar to remove annoyances is a practice many games employ on the App Store. I would prefer to avoid that kind of tactic, and that is why I chose a different route for Totes the Goat. Only time will tell if this will pay off. Because, in the end I need to make money from making games in order to make more games. It is a natural cycle. Fingers crossed the soft-sell approach of Totes will pay off.
I am very excited and energized about the mobile market. It is an interesting and challenging place to try and make any kind of impact. I will be continuing to develop games with Renegade Kid as my full-time gig, and am equally as exicted to finish up Mutant Mudds Super Challenge, Dementium II Remastered, and Treasurenauts.
If you like the game, please rate it on the App Store and share your enjoyment with a friend. :) If you REALLY like the game, please consider watching an insane amount of video ads or buying one of the characters. :D Thank you! The new update will feature some new characters, like this one...
How totes is your goat?