by Kristen C. Stewart and Soo Jin Kai for Red Rocket Games
Since its global launch on November 27th, our Greek mythology-themed tower defense OMG: TD! has been downloaded nearly 1.5 million times, been featured in Apple App Stores across the world, and hit #1 in action and strategy games in the US as well as #5 in top free iPhone apps. What those numbers don't tell you are all the missteps we made along the way: over 10 different prototypes in varying genres, challenges with IAP pricing, and mistakes in energy mechanics and localization. This postmortem will focus on the key lessons we learned that other game devs might find interesting, especially in this global era of game publishing.
Who Are You Again?
We're Red Rocket Games, an independent game studio based in the constantly evolving cityscape of Shanghai, China. We’re a diverse band of developers, artists and designers, with over 15 years of game industry experience at companies like EA, Activision, Sega, Disney and Gameloft. While developing OMG: TD!, we worked closely with Chinese publisher Yodo1 to ensure that it would be as globally successful as possible.
OMG: TD! Scorecard: Wins & Losses
Here's a rundown of the things that went well during development, followed by the hard lessons we learned for next time:
Win #1: A Unified, International Team of Ongoing Collaborators
The fact that we've worked together on a number of previous, not-very-successful projects has turned into one of our key advantages. We have 13 developers from China, the US, Malaysia, Korea, Israel and Australia. Apart from our latest hire, all of us have worked and gamed together for years, which helps us past any lingering language barriers. We aren't all fully bilingual in English and Chinese, but we're united in our love for games, goofy humor, and endless patience for bug-squashing.
Win #2: Using Analytics and Leveraging the Player Community to Make a Better Game
We decided from the very beginning to adopt Kontagent, a deep analytics package that lets you track specific actions taken by your players. We set it up so we'd have an idea of where players were failing levels, where they were buying items, and where they were losing interest -- and it's helped us immeasurably. Prior to OMG: TD!, we made most of our game design decisions based on our gut feeling of what was right for the player. This was our first real attempt at using analytics to track how players were behaving, and it's now essential to our process, especially when we're marketing to millions of players from different cultural backgrounds.
For instance, we used analytics to try and figure out what prompted players to uninstall our game. Of course, it's impossible to get an EXACT answer to that, so our workaround was to look at all the OMG: TD! players who haven't re-opened the game since last December. What was the last action they took in the game?
It turned out that the biggest stumbling block was at the end of Level 3, which is when our onramp tutorial first goes off-the-rails. The player isn't prompted to enter Level 4 here, but they are prompted to collect their daily bonus, while also getting prompted to tap on Santa Daedalus for their new quest, while ALSO getting a "rate me!" popup. These were all interactions that we'd slowly added over time, without noticing how they came together to form an overwhelming barrage of notifications. Needless to say, we've since taken steps to simplify this. In our next update, we cut the second daily bonus prompt and pushed the "rate me!" prompt to Level 4, when we'll get more informed opinions about the game anyway.
Win #3: Recognizing and Leveraging Cultural Differences
Greek gods such as Zeus, Poseidon and Hades are well known in Western countries, thanks to the prevalence of media such as God of War, Clash of the Titans, Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Disney's Hercules, etc. (Minor gods like Hephaestus and Hestia might not trigger any recognition, but would generally be accepted alongside their more popular fellows.)
But what about countries like China, where our studio is located? We quickly learned that many Chinese people were familiar only with Athena, the Greek goddess of warfare -- and only because she's a lead character in Masami Kurumada's popular Saint Seiya manga series. Most of the Greek gods featured in our game do have Chinese names, but they’re transcribed by sound only, which can get pretty bulky.
Given that many Chinese players aren't familiar with these gods in the first place, we decided to be very literal with our own translations: Zeus became 雷神 ("thunder god"), Artemis became 箭神 ("arrow god"), Hephaestus became 焰神 ("flame god"), and so forth. Our goal was to make sure this aspect of Western culture felt accessible to our non-Western players, whether or not they knew much about Greek mythology.
We've also applied this attitude when incorporating Chinese culture into OMG: TD! To celebrate Chinese New Year, which starts at the end of January, we added a big App Store update that includes a new hero named Cai Shen, the Chinese God of Prosperity.
Chinese players around the world know that Cai Shen’s birthday is celebrated during the holidays, but we also wanted to make sure his presence in the game was easy to understand and appealing to all our players. Consequently, Cai Shen has three special abilities that give players extra gold rewards: Spare Change, Mr. Moneybags, and Angry Gold. He also comes with a brand new quest, which upon completion gives players a hat that increases gold drop from defeated monsters.
Takeaway #1: Energy Mechanics Can Alienate Your Player Base
We designed OMG: TD! from the ground up to be a F2P game. In-app purchases include heroes, in-game currency (souls) and consumable power-ups.
At the beginning, we also wanted to add some sort of energy limiter a la Candy Crush's hearts, both as a monetization mechanic, and as a way to ensure that our players didn't blaze through our content too quickly. In OMG: TD!, you start with 5 energy. Playing a level requires 1 energy, and winning a level gains you 1 energy. Out of energy? You can wait until it refills, buy an energy pack, or upgrade your energy capacity.
We tried to make this system less restrictive by applying it ONLY to your hero (i.e. you can still play levels with 0 energy, but you can't bring in your soul-collecting hero). Unfortunately, this only confused and irritated players.
Not many people were buying energy packs, and we were actively annoying our players. On December 18th, version 1.0.2, we phased out energy mechanics and gave equivalent goodies to players who had purchased the energy items. It's difficult to measure the exact impact on our user base, but we ended up simplifying things for ourselves and later received more than a few messages from players thanking us for removing energy. We'd call that an overall win.
Takeaway #2: Over-Prototyping Can Slow Down Development
Before settling down and committing to what was then known as Orion's Belt, we made over 10 prototypes in varying genres: match-3, brawler, slots-based RPG, evolving pets, 3D racer, coin pusher, "draw your own fighter," etc. We started working full-time on OMG: TD! in February 2013, but we can find e-mails about prototypes dating as far back as April 2012. That's a lot of time spent in pre-production!
We want to emphasize that this isn't inherently a misstep, especially when you consider that we were often simultaneously working on prototypes as well as doing outsourcing work to keep the lights on. But the fact that we spent so much time on prototyping contributed to one of our other problems:
Takeaway #3: Limited Resources & Timing Can Lead to Less Content
We launched OMG: TD! with 20 levels. Our data from Kontagent tells us that players take only 10 days to complete all that content (not including the special "challenge mode" included with each level). Players were blazing through our game, then setting it down and forgetting about it.
The main contributing factors to our limited content were timing and resources. The App Store is flooded with apps during the holiday season, and we didn't want to get lost in the rush. We also had limited resources, and we needed to bring in money. We made the business decision to launch with what we had so we could gain some revenue and continue building out the world.
Fortunately, it’s worked out well so far. We’ve added new content with every update (new modes, new heroes, new bonus levels, etc.), and we’re hard at work on brand new worlds and monsters.
Takeaway #4: Design Your UI For Different Languages And Resolutions
This might seem like a no-brainer, but it managed to escape our attention. We decided early on that OMG: TD! would be optimized for iPad, not iPhone. Unfortunately, this led us to initially design the UI for iPad, instead of starting with the screen with the LEAST amount of real estate (iPhone 4).
In terms of localization, our English text was all written and edited to fit within the UI. But the translations we received were not. This wasn't a problem for Chinese, Korean or Japanese, or even French and Spanish, but German and Russian were really hard to fit into the text boxes. The night before the deadline for our first global build, we ended up frantically scrambling to resize the UI, double and triple checking across the game to make sure all the names and god skill descriptions fit on the screen.
Ultimately, this lack of foresight resulted in a great deal of sloppiness that we're still correcting. It's nothing game-threatening, but it definitely resulted in a less polished experience than we wanted.
So, lesson learned: If you want to globalize at launch, plan for a longer localization cycle.
Fundamentally, we're very proud of OMG: TD! There have been a few hiccups along the way, but overall development was smooth, and it's been a great success for us so far. Tracking and analyzing player behavior has allowed us to make specific design decisions based on hard data instead of instinct, and using analytics and direct player feedback has helped us continuously refine our game and prioritize what's important to our players. We've been updating the game regularly, and we're already hard at work designing new worlds and community-requested features.
Let us know in the comments if you have any questions!
Developer: Red Rocket Games
Global Release Date: November 2013
Length of Development: 9 months of full-time development
Platform: iOS, and Android's coming soon!