In dire straits after the release of its mid-core adventure game Age of Enigma, the French studio Casual Box reveals its experiences, revenue, and strategy to survive and thrive in an ever-changing marketplace.
About the author of this article
My name is David Mekersa and I manage the French studio Casual Box.
I started creating my first games on Amstrad CPC, then on the Amiga…
I am a veteran in the world of new technologies with over 20 years of experience. At times developer, creator, designer, technical director, and head of international projects, I have explored all the intricacies of IT. In 2006, I created the sitewww.casualgames.fr†and in 2009 I launched Casual Box, the French video game studio.
-†††††† 2006: Creation of www.casualgames.fr , community site for casual gamers
-†††††† 2009: Creation of the studio in the south of France
-†††††† 2009: Release of Geisha The Secret Garden, a puzzle game, through download portals
-†††††† 2011: Release of Age of Enigma following 16 months of work, distributed amongst others by THQ, Avanquest, and Big Fish Games
Geisha The Secret Garden, the abandoned 1st success
Initially a SF puzzle game developed on my own time (at that time, I was the PMO of Access Company), the game migrated rapidly to a more casual, more feminine gaming universe and became Geisha The Secret Garden. The mechanics are loosely based on the Panel de Pon.
As I am not a fan of gas plants, I develop the game using a basic language. To that end, I used BlitzMax, a basic language dedicated to videogames suitable for PCs and Mac deployment. This reminds me of my first steps on Amstrad in 1985!
The studio is founded in March 2009 and game development switches into high gear. The game is marketed in December through the major download portals. All in all, the development took six months.
Pleasant surprise: the game finds its niche audience and revenue ensues: over $ 3,000 per month on average during the first year! Since then, the game generates several hundred dollars every month without flinching ... a "long tail" as they say in the industry.
However, this success is considered feeble by our partners. Indeed, how can we consider a few thousand dollars as a success when other hidden-objects and adventure games make their authors hundreds of thousands of dollars?
That's where Casual Box takes a gamble: to develop a "real game" with a big budget, and enter the big league. Come to think of it, isn't Geisha a "real game" too?
An error which could have worked in our favor but that almost bankrupted the company.
Age of Enigma: the bet
Age of Enigma is the big bet of Casual Box. †An adventure game sitting between casual and core gaming (mid-core) with multiple universes in a fantasy world coming straight out of my imagination.
We lack experience but the team's motivation is unbeatable. Our goal: the million!
The schedule and the budget are unclear and we are unknowingly getting into a 16-month marathon of intensive work fraught with obstacles and quicksand...
The team grows by the month as needs mount and diversify: visual effects, 3D animation for cinematics, development of 25 mini games, and the creation of hundreds of graphics. We glaringly ignore the cost side because we aim for success and the game is beautiful and exciting. We’re going for the million!
We take all recommendations of our partner Big Fish Games -our initial distributor- at face value. This may have been another error: the game ended up looking like them ... and we multiplied the delays to meet the beta testers’ expectations, who found the game too hard and slow.
The game, developed in C++, is expensive (about $ 150,000) and released too late, in a market crowded with "spooky" games. Despite very favorable comments, the novelty effect quickly fades. It makes $ 25,000 of revenue in its first month - we were hoping for 5 times that amount!
Some players consider it the best casual-adventure game they've ever played, others happily trash our work ... and sales remain modest. Just $ 80,000 of revenue in its first year.
2012, time to take stock?
Despite the proliferation of distribution channels and translations, the game fails to generate enough revenue to cover its cost within a reasonable time. We get bogged down without being able to start a new project; cash is tight and in early 2012 the studio is nearing its demise. Age of Enigma 2 is abandoned until further notice.
We have never been so experienced, our network is established, we have numerous partners ... but we lack the funding to keep going!
The conclusion: All in all, Geisha proved the most profitable game.
The bounce-back strategy and three key questions
After weeks of uncertainty, discouragement and discussions with my partner, I decided to bounce back and I ask myself three questions: Where is the market going? Where do my strengths lie? How can I best leverage such strengths in the market?
1) Where is the market going?
The market is moving towards mobile apps (iPhone / Android)
Decision: focus our projects on iOS and Android. Especially since this platform is a prime target for a cash-strapped studio!
2) Where do my strengths lie?
I am a fast programmer and designer as long as I have a suitable tool. And I have some talent to create mechanics and fine tune them to ensure their complete playability (indeed, that was one of Geisha’s strong points).
Decision: Abandon C ++ for an ultra fast and intuitive development tool. The choice is Corona SDK.
3) How can I best leverage such strengths in the market?
Aim for modest but recurring revenue by producing more titles with shorter development cycles.
Decision: The game development cycle shall not exceed three months from conception to commercialization. The goal is to market at least three new games by the end of 2012 and six more in 2013!
Our projects announced for late 2012
Although the bounce-back strategy proves correct, funds are not forthcoming. Therefore, we have to play it smart and nimble to start the process:
-†††††† To validate the Corona SDK technology, I personally develop an action game in under two months. Indeed, Chicken Deep for the iPhone is released on June 22 in English, with the Android and international versions coming soon. The game is free and monetized via an internal purchasing (In App Purchase).
-†††††† We obtained a grant of € 30K from the Languedoc Roussillon region to develop an innovative, semi-synchronous multiplayer technology we intend to integrate in our future projects.
-†††††† We adapt Geisha The Secret Garden for iPhone, iPad and Android, fine tuning it so that it caters to the mobile audience. Budget: Under $ 10,000.
-†††††† We rewrite Age of Enigma for the iPhone as 6 mini episodes priced $ 0.99 each. Budget: Under $ 10,000 per episode. The advantage: we already have the images, text, music ... but we remove the elements that made it too casual!
-†††††† We launch our own download portal: Solidar Games
Our boxes are full of projects, including the mobile adaptation of retro gaming mechanics, and we hope this will be a good bet...
Personal blog of David Mekersa: www.casuallife.fr †
Official website in English: www.casualboxgames.com
Official site of Chicken Deep: http://app.net/chickendeep †
Solidar Games: www.solidargames.com