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Combat Monsters: A post-mortem
by Paul Johnson on 01/11/14 07:14:00 am   Expert Blogs   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.

 

If you you’ve not seen it yet, which is highly likely, Combat Monsters is our latest game and has been out now on PC, Android and iOS for about three months. (There are links at the bottom if you want to try it). Combat Monsters is a very deep game, but a one sentence description of it is:

“Magic: The Gathering, with 3D monsters and proper rpg-style fighting on a game board.”

I think that sounds pretty compelling to be honest. If you don’t, you’ll probably stop reading about now, but for fans of card battlers like myself, the idea of the combat stage of Magic playing more like Final Fantasy might sound enticing.

When we first had this basic idea for a game back in the Summer of 2012, it caused so much excitement around our little office that it was hard to sit down and thrash out the detail – we just wanted to dive in and start coding right away. Now, three months after shipping, we still feel that excited about the game - and that’s pretty much unheard of in game development, despite what developers might tell you when toeing the company line.

To sum that up, we had quite a long break over Christmas and I spent most of my free time adding new cards for the next update. Not because our players want it, not because it might make us more money, but because it’s still bloody good fun to play with new cards - long past the point I should’ve become jaded to the game. (At time of writing, 2.5 million monster battles have been fought and it feels like I was in half of them.)

I’ve been in commercial games development for getting on thirty years now, and I can honestly say that no project I’ve ever worked on has held my attention like this one. It’s just ace. And of course I’m not biased when I say that, ooooh no!

But despite all this ebullience, this article is mostly a sorry tale about over-expectation and under-performance. We got some things right, we got some things wrong, and some things just went wrong all by themselves…

What went right

1. Design and Features

I can’t know for certain, but if the premise for Combat Monsters wasn’t new at the time, it was certainly invented independently. The deck-building part is of course fairly standard, but there are some new mechanics here which are not.

For instance, you have a hero character on the board and the objective is to keep yours alive whilst killing the opponent’s. You spawn monsters around your hero only though, so you must tread a fine line between aggression and defence. Get too close and next turn you might get hacked to death, stay too far away and your opponent(s) can pick off your monsters before they threaten.

This provides for a lot of nip and tuck tension throughout the combat and we think we got this exactly right. That’s not a given when you design a fighting game around a new way of fighting, so it was a great relief when this panned out.

It was also questionable why lots of companies, all with more experience than us in this genre, never trod the “3D monster rpg fighting“ road. (I wrote a piece about this long before we shipped the game, which you can read on Gamasutra here.)

It would’ve been easy to assume they’d all thought about this and found some fatal flaw and binned the idea, but I’m glad we didn’t get scared off and stuck to our guns as it really works.

2. Graphics Pipeline

We don’t get too many negative comments, but one of the most common is that the graphics aren’t exactly next gen, and this is certainly true for people used to playing PC and console games. We have spent some time prettying it all up, but this really isn’t a game to show off your new $1,000 graphics card with.

And in any case it’s this or nothing, which is why something negative sounding made it into the “what went right” section. Our art department comprises exactly one person, take a bow David Moss.

At time of writing, there are 144 different 3D monsters in the game, spread across 12 different races, all of which need to look different, act different, and animate in many ways. (7,000+ animation frames). On top of that there are tons of equipable armour, shields, weapons and special effects for the 50+ special abilities the monsters share. That’s a lot of art for a small team and for one man it’s ridiculous!

We clearly had to make some compromises here, finding good ways to reuse stuff without it looking too obvious, etc. The monster races share just one core model per class. All elf archers share the same body model with different textures. Orc warriors share a different body model with texture swaps, etc. ALL monsters share the same animation rig, which is why they’re all roughly humanoid in shape.

You get the picture. Designing the details to make all this artwork achievable by one man was no small task, but I think it works in the final product. We made a game with an epic amount of varied content in it with just one artist, and that is something we’re all proud of, especially David.

Given the above, we could not afford to make a custom build for the PC version, much as we would have liked. In a long six player battle, you can get an awful lot of monsters and equipment on the screen – hundreds – so we had to make most stuff quite a low polygon count to keep the frame rate up on mobile. This does let down the PC version a little though, and we’re making higher resolution art for this in a future update – it’s an on-going job.

But I don’t think it looks too shabby, at least there’s a lot going on. Here’s a recent screenshot:

3. Expandability

We set ourselves an epic challenge when we sat down and specced out this game. We wanted to ship with a lot of cards, we wanted lots and lots of options for players to make different deck styles, we wanted all formats to play together and we wanted it to be easy to test and tweak during development. We also intended right from day one to bill this as an active project with new content and features coming out all the time, so had to make room for that to happen.

We had a number of false starts and live patches shortly after release, but that’s all settled down now and things work as required. As testament to this we’ve already released one major content update and are currently working on another that has seriously tons more cards and features in it.

All players on all formats can upgrade to the new system at their leisure and it all just works, so this is a big win now that we can rely on it for the future.

The main reason it went smoothly is days and days of design work for how the server and client apps talk to each other. And this isn’t the fun kind of design where you get to make new spells and weapons. I’m talking here about the ultimate in boredom – data structure design, communications pathways, flowcharts, etc. This is the sort of unjoyous aspect of development that nobody ever wants to do, but we thank ourselves daily now that we sat through it and got it all mostly right.

Grunt work always pays off, but it does require discipline to do it properly so you get the benefit. The worst thing you can do is pay lip service to grunt work, have a crap week doing it half-heartedly, and then get nothing back from it later either.

4. Player Happiness

It’s one thing to enjoy your own game. It’s a poor developer indeed that doesn’t, let’s be honest. If you get to call the shots and come up with something you think is poor yourself, then perhaps you’re in the wrong job.

But it’s quite another thing to unleash your creation on the world and see what they think of it. I imagine this is always a moment of trepidation for any developer with any project, but for us the tension was palpable. Combat Monsters is a massive development for us, having over twice the amount of work put into version one than our previous title - Great Big War Game - which was no match three game itself. We bet the farm on this one and it simply had to fly.

And it did! (Sort of)

You’ll see later in this article that the gaming press couldn’t care less, but Combat Monsters is so far a big hit with our players, and they are ultimately the only people who matter. We have a long list of five and four star reviews on both app stores, and our forum has filled up with people who clearly love the game to bits, even to the point of spending money on it.

Another thing I think we got right here is to engage with those players as much as possible. We listen to our people and if we see a consensus building up then we roll in the required change/addition with the next update.

Although we have lots of ideas of our own for what content to put in for next time, rolling in stuff that players directly ask for has made Combat Monsters a much better game than we could’ve managed by ourselves, so this is a win-win.

If any developers out there are reading this and thinking they can’t afford the time or trouble to do this, then you’re missing out. Apart from goodwill going begging, your game is suffering because of a lack of player input. Those guys know more about your game than you do and they can make it better, better than you can.

What went wrong

1. Income – Myth Busted: “It’s easy to make money with F2P”

Earnings from this game have been tragically disappointing so far. The core team comprises six people, all veteran developers doing this as their full time and only job.

(We suffered our first ever resignation before Christmas. Our most junior member, having been with us for seven years, went to work at Rockstar Games. He should be starting about now actually, so we all wish you well Mick. Make sure to pop plenty o’ caps in those asses.)

With freelancers and other part time help, the team size actually peaked at twelve, and income from Combat Monsters is simply not sufficient to pay those people for their time - not even close. We’re in the fortunate position where income from previous games allows us to meet the wage bill, but if it wasn’t for that we’d be sunk – there’s just no way to pretty that up.

And even this is only possible because our guys are happy to receive fairly mediocre wages in return for the benefits of working at an indie firm on something they care about. I and my biz partner owe them an awful lot, and it would be nice to get those guys earning what they’re truly worth at some point soon – we all thought Combat Monsters was going to do it too.

Here’s our income to date from the iOS version. Android is similar, whilst the PC version earns us practically nothing. We’ve so far taken in a touch over $50K in three months across all formats.

The big bulge at the beginning was feature assisted, so to make an accurate forecast for the year, I’m just going to take that last month and multiply it by 12. With the other versions included, that’s about $110K for the year, assuming it doesn’t tail off more.

About $20K of that went on one-off payments for various things during development, so our team of six would have to share $90K between them. And this is skipping over inconvenient details like paying tax, insurance, rent, utility bills, server costs and etc., bringing the useable total nearer $50K.

2. Free to Play – Myth Busted: “It’s easy to get downloads”

We thought we were on to a winner here. Free to play has a lot of vocal detractors, but the quiet majority seem to love this pay model. I did a much more in-depth piece about the merits of free to play (or F2P) which you can read on Gamasutra here.

From our perspective, the most important aspect of F2P is removing the barrier to entry – i.e. the cover price. There are some (actually a lot) of freeloaders out there that will happily breeze from one game to another without paying a dime for any of them, but these people are neither ours nor anybody else’s target audience.

For everyone else, they know that free to play isn’t really going to be free, but nor do they mind spending some money on their hobby. No, the main reason F2P has become popular in my thinking is that players can find out if they like the game or not without risking any money up front. And whilst they’re about it, the more ethically written games like ours will show them the expected costs, so the player can know exactly if it’s the right game at the right price before they dive in.

This is all fine, but not charging even a nominal amount up front means we only get paid by people that actually do love the game. For a fairly niche game like ours, that means we need to get a ton of so-called “drive by” downloaders to see the game somehow, hoping that there are sufficient numbers of people amongst them who will eventually go on to pay something.

Because of that, we need truckloads more people downloading Combat Monsters than we do a prepaid game such as Great Big War Game, and therein lies a serious problem - visibility is even more important, and harder to do right, for F2P than other sales models.

Visibility (its lack thereof) is already a known major issue for prepaid game developers, so you can imagine what a problem it is in the free charts, wallowing not just amongst all those other decent games, but also amongst endless petabytes of utter crap. That infinite monkey theorem is definitely being stress-tested in the free app charts, I can assure you.

I’d not even thought about all this during development, so it has come as quite a shock to have the reality of this slammed in my face. My over-confident attitude was probably a common mistake remade: “If you build it, they will come - especially if it’s free.”

Also, to make matters even worse, this is where all the apps like Twitter and Facebook live too, along with every chain store’s shop app, tv and music apps, etc. etc.  You have no chance whatsoever of getting anywhere near the top of the “all” charts – not even in the top 1,000 - without a big advertising budget (millions) or a lot of word of mouth (millions).

Sadly, we don’t have much of either. We had hoped to do well in the word of mouth stakes, and maybe we even are, but it’s clearly not enough to get the download numbers we really need. The scary part is that we don’t know what to do to fix this, or if it’s even fixable. We have excellent user review scores on the respective stores, and we’re permanently trying to expand and improve the game still more, but we can’t force people to tell their friends about it.

3. Free to Play – Myth Busted: “Generosity brings goodwill”

We designed Combat Monsters to support essentially three tiers of paying players, so I’ll describe how each went separately.

Tier 1: Evaluators and Freeloaders

This is the “no cost” option that makes it a free to play game. Everyone is going to start in this tier, but the hope is to promote them to a higher one later on down the road. With that in mind, we made all gameplay features freely available to everyone. There are no pay walls, no limits to the amount of games played in a day, no begging for play tokens, no cool down timers, none of that stuff. In short, Combat Monsters has NONE of the things that people tend to complain about with other F2P games.

We were hoping this would earn us goodwill if nothing else, but not across the board apparently. We pick up a depressing amount of complaints (i.e. more than zero) that our free game just isn’t free enough, because the free content that took over ten man years to make just doesn’t get doled out quickly enough. I have no intention of fixing that. This is one of the most generous, content-packed F2P titles around, and if you like the game enough to want to play it even more, then put your hand in your pocket - we’re not a charity.  (ooh, that’s not very PC PR, ed.)

The bottom line here is that I’m sure we have a large number of freeloading players who might well have paid something, were we not giving them so much for nothing. That’s a big fail, and a kick in the teeth for trying to be generous and popular over calculating and tight.

It’s become clear to me now that there is a reason that more experienced F2P developers put these nasty paywall type things in place, even when knowing that players don’t like it. And that’s because they have staff to pay.

Whilst not having all these pay enforcement tricks makes us look better, it doesn’t do the same thing to our bank account. And clearly the goodwill from all this freeness doesn’t extend to “I’ll pay them something anyway to say thanks” either.

From most people who eat at Chez Rubicon for free, we don’t even get tips!

Tier 2: The Tripler

For a one-off three dollars, players can buy the tripler which, as the name suggests, permanently triples the in-game currency rewards they get from winning battles and making progress. We tailored the game so that players in this tier could ramp up to enjoy unfettered everything over a period of time, at the speed they might be expected to learn the subtleties of the game and use all this new stuff.

Basically, this tier makes Combat Monsters pretty much a prepaid title that costs three dollars. Given the sheer bulk of content, we assumed this would fly but it apparently doesn’t - we don’t sell anywhere near the number of triplers that we expected to in relation to our download numbers. In other words, our basic monetisation strategy failed and it doesn’t come more serious than that for any business.

At launch, Touch Arcade’s Jared Nelson pulled out Combat Monsters for his game of the week award, where he drew particular attention to this new twist on F2P pricing, and he liked it a lot. We took that as a really encouraging sign, but now with hindsight it appears that few agreed with him.

Tier 3: Whales

I really do hate that term as it’s slightly derogatory to my ear and you don’t want to offend your top payers. It’s kind of stuck now though, so I may as well continue the tradition with apologies.

We provide ways, via iap’s, for more generous players to bypass waiting for the tripler to deliver and just buy armloads of game currency right the hell now. We always knew we’d get a few of these, as after all yours truly could once have been considered a whale when applied to m:tg. But we even got this wrong – we got far more whales than expected!

This tier doesn’t really belong in the “what went wrong” section at all, as it’s where most of our money comes from, but we even failed to capitalise on these guys fully. We have a surprising number of light-hearted complaints from people eager to spend more money, but they’ve run out of stuff to spend it on. This, if I’m being mercenary about it, indicates that we sell all the in game cards and items too cheaply. Being more charitable, it means we dropped the ball with our content management.

I know that sounds awfully unappreciative, but I’m just trying to be objective for the post-mortem’s benefit – we love our whales to pieces and more content is coming guys…

4. Press Buzz / Reviews

Our marketing results for Combat Monsters rates as an epic fail. Easily our most under the radar game release ever - and a prior title actually got picked for an “under the radar” piece from SlideToPlay once. In fact, under the radar doesn’t really cover it for Combat Monsters. What we actually have here is “bury the radar, and then get under it”. I am hereby asserting copyright on the word “tunneldar”.

When speaking with other indies, it seems to be the common theme among us that our biggest problem is marketing. Small studios just can’t afford the cost of an in-house expert to advise and do, so that just leaves nerdy programmers trying to talk to journalists – rarely a pretty sight. Sadly we fall into this extremely non-exclusive club ourselves and it’s our biggest on-going general issue as a company.

There is a large volume of banal “marketing for dummies” pieces on the internet and they all do little more than state the obvious. Make a Twitter account, make a Facebook page, mail journalists often with news, release silly videos, etc. I say banal because if even this level of marketing activity is beyond you, then you deserve to fail. It’s obvious stuff, even for beginners.

That leads on to a fundamental problem never addressed by these “wisdom” pieces - what happens when journalists don’t read your emails, nobody comes to your Facebook page and you don’t get any Twitter followers? Reach out more? How exactly, when journalists don’t read your emails, nobody comes to your Facebook page and you don’t get any Twitter followers?!

This is a closed loop and I had no idea how we could break out of it ourselves. To that end, we hired a professional to do it for us – the old adage about throwing money at a problem.  If nothing else, he would come complete with a little black book full of more contacts than we could ever find, some personal relationships with movers and shakers already established, and hopefully some good general advice. 

He tried his damnedest, but it didn’t make much difference in practice, few people wanted to know. We got a small number of “next game from Rubicon is out” type news pieces on some of the bigger sites, for which we’re grateful, but almost none of those followed up with a review.

What we’re trying next is to spend the fees we were paying him instead on in-app advertising, just for a month or so to see if that works. You may have seen elsewhere on Gamasutra how that’s going, but it’s that or nothing so I think we’re screwed.

In summary, our performance with…

  • Major site mentions: Poor, some news items but hardly a PR explosion.
  • Major YouTubers: Epic fail, completely none.
  • Major site reviews: Major fail, almost none.

On a personal note, and I know this is a bit arrogant, but I’m just not used to being ignored so completely as this when it comes to reviews. I’ve suffered a few poor ones over the years, but there is something far worse than a bad review and it’s called no review. Only now can I see what a bleak and depressing place that really is, and I can’t say I feel any the richer for this new experience.

There is one nugget of positive news in all of this, so I hope I’m not reading it wrong. And that is that with such a total lack of media interest, a good deal of our existing customers must have come to us via word of mouth somehow, either from playing a previous title or a referral from someone else playing this one. As I mentioned above, we don’t get enough of that to live on (yet), but we do clearly get some and for that I’m deeply grateful.

5. The tutorial sucks

Yes, it really does and we’ll be fixing this as a priority for a future update. We’ve probably driven away a lot of potential customers by just how long-winded and clunky the first part of the game comes across.

And whilst it obsesses over some minor details that could be skipped, other more important stuff doesn’t get a mention, often leaving the player with a “wtf?” moment once the game proper starts.

No excuses here, we rushed it and dropped the ball. Version 2 will be better.

6. Listening to my heart

Given all those tales of woe above, together in one place at the same time, the sane thing to do would be to take the hint, shelve the game, lick our wounds and then go make Greater Even Biggerer War Game instead.

That would alienate our existing players as we’re always making big noises about on-going development, new content and feature updates, etc. This is mitigated to an extent by the fact that if the company outright fails then the game is dead anyway, but I doubt our player base would see things that way, and who could blame them.

Right now I wish I was some merciless suit and not a programmer who cares about his game and his players, because we really should be canning this and moving on. We’re not going to do that though, so that decision marks my final entry in the mistakes section.

What we’re going to do instead is blindly soldier on, adding new features and content until either we run out of money, or enough people notice that Combat Monsters is bigger than Scrolls, bigger than Hearthstone, more fun than Magic: The Gathering and much cheaper than all of them.

In Conclusion

This is a good game goddammit, and I’m not going to give up on it. Go play it!

PS. For what it's worth, we have a Steam Greenlight halfway cooked. I'd very much appreciate an upvote if you'd like to play via that, thanks: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=167759410

 

Developer & Publisher: Rubicon Development
Release Date: October 18th, 2013
Platforms: iOS, Android, PC
Length of Development: 10 man years over 18 months
Number of Developers: Six full time, many contributors
Budget: Too painful to work out. If we subbed the project, over half a million.


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Comments


Howard Tomlinson
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Great article - brutally and devastatingly honest. Thanks for writing and sharing!
It's hard to know what you really could have done better - perhaps launching with less initial content (lowering your cost/time), and with the ability to adjust your monetisation model rapidly. Sometimes though the genre just doesn't work - especially 'crossovers' which don't add two audiences together, but instead you get just the intersection. It's a beautiful looking (and playing) game, like so many available, and deserves to have done better than it has. The sad reality of a crowded market!

Domorat Bakaga
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It's truly curious how there's so little interest for a new product from people who worked on Great Little/Big War Games, two titles that -I'm sure you agree- have really generated a lot of buzz and received many accolades from both the critics and consumers alike.

I hope you'll have more luck in 2014. Oh, and just in case you missed it: CM has been featured in our "Top 10 Best Free Mobile Games in 2013" article (http://portablegamingregion.com/features/top-10-best-free-mobile-
games-2013-android-ios-windows-phone/).

Paul Johnson
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Thanks for that and yes, definitely agree. We did much better with our previous outings so that's where at least some of my expectations for this one came from.

I did catch your top 10, thanks Domorat, much appreciated. (I mailed to thank Dominik about it).

John Trauger
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is there any cross-promotion possible? Can you use these past games to promote Combat Monsters?

Paul Johnson
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Already doing that. :(

Celso Riva
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Hey Paul (Jack Norton from indiegamer here).
Sorry to see that the game did bad. For what is worth, the idea and the screenshot seems really interesting, but personally now when I see that a game is F2P, I DON'T even download it.
OK I'm no a typical gamer ! that's sure. I barely have time to play my own games to test now X_X
However, talking with other people, it seems that many are now actively avoiding the F2P, especially in the non-casual market segment, because they fear of spending too much money.
Not sure if that's the case, and sometimes a game fails and you don't even know exactly why, but just thought to let you know about this "mindset" that some people have.

Anyway, good luck for future games! :)

Paul Johnson
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Hi Jack, long time no speak.

Yeah, we're aware of that. Can't please everyone and a lot of people have gotten burned by oppressive F2P games. Thankfully a large volume of people prefer them as they can at least check it out without risk. Beats downloading yet another shit game for 3 bucks. :)

Eric Hambright
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I was actually interested in trying the game until I read the part about F2P. I've tried a couple and after seeing the never ending money drain that developers try to get from players I'm done.

I'm no expert but this may be your problem with marketing. There are so many mediocre or money grubbing F2P games out there that getting people to try a new F2P game or getting reviewers interested in one is difficult.

I also think you might overestimate the draw of this type of game (collectable card game with strategy RPG elements) and I think your title is very generic. I checked it out on the Play store and nothing about it stood out from the icon to the name.

My advice (probably worth what you paid for it) is remove the F2P parts, put up a free demo and a paid version (maybe have the ability to unlock the full game from the demo) for a reasonable price (no more than 10 bucks) with a new more unique name and icon, and work on remarketing after those changes are made.

Paul Johnson
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"There are so many mediocre or money grubbing F2P games out there that getting people to try a new F2P game or getting reviewers interested in one is difficult."

This is true enough, but it's an easy branch to reach for as a general explanation. I've wasted a shit ton of money on rubbish $1 to $3 apps over the years to know that prepaid is just as bad, only that flavour of badness costs me money, whereas F2P just doesn't.

Arseniy Shved
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hi there. It's a really depressing story, and I wish you best of luck!
Maybe you could sonehow make an emphasis that your game isn't just f2p, but also fair to the customer and has tons of free stuff, if you have not done it.

I'm not into the genre, however having read this post I have recommended Combat Monsters to a couple of my friends who could appreciate it. =)

Paul Johnson
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Thanks Arseniy, that's much appreciated. :)

Igor Galochkin
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Hi, I've found your post here thru your comment to this article: http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2014-01-10-2014-year-of-the
-indie.
I'm a indie dev myself and a fan of TBS games (Civ series, XCom etc), surely I've seen your Big Little War Game. Here I just wanted to say why I wouldn't want to download Combat Monsters (even for free). Not sure I'm your target audience but still:
1. the icon! It's an angry face, it's repulsive, it says "go away" instead of inviting to download.
2. the description on the store (oh, you already changed it since yesterday). Well, nvm, even the new description doesn't get me interested. As soon as I see "CCG" I think "oh, it's about collectible cards, that's not for me". Still, I see a hex field on your screenshot and I know that you also made the "... War Game", so your game should still be a wargame, right? Why then turn off potential players like me with the CCG mentioning? Btw the Battle Forge game by Phenomic failed due to similar reason: they made an excellent RTS game but mixed in CCG elements and marketed the game as a mix of CCG and RTS which turned off many RTS players (like myself).
3. screenshots on Google Play: they all look worse than the one you have in this article. Actually, the one in this article is amazing, why don't you just put it as the first screenshot in your store listing? The screenshots you have on the store at the moment have this dull red background which looks quite low budget. Also, since you rotate the real screeshot a bit there I can't see much of the game there. The models of the monsters which you put in front are detailed but don't look really attractive. I'm not even sure you need them there.
4. the overall setting. It's way too casual! I hate casual games, and here I see casual monsters on a hex field. My first thought is "who is this game for?" Casual gamers will be scared away by the hex field and hardcores like me by the looks of the casual monsters. I can't imagine myself playing this kiddie stuff for a long time.
Btw, with GLWG, I did like the demo but I didn't buy the full version for the same reason: the game looks and feels too casual. All this humor, it's fun at first but I can't see myself playing a strategy game with small funny soldiers. It's just 2 things which don't mix well (at least for me). But you did sell that game pretty well, so I'm not sure what your real target audience thinks.
oh, and 5. It's F2P! As soon as I see a game which is free, is NOT a demo (no "Lite" word or anything similar in the title) then I think: ok, these guys will be pushing crap at me in the game. It's either going to be that you have to pay for time, for coins or for something else, but they won't leave you in peace. Moreover, they'll keep pushing Facebook in my face (I hate Facebook as much as F2P and only use it professionally, not for sharing achievements in games, for God's sake). I have read now that you are very gracious with your F2P in your game though, but most other hardcores don't know this upfront.

Still, given all the critique of the game itself, I liked your article very much! Thanks for sharing, really!

I still wonder what your target audience is.

Keilan Irvine
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"1. the icon! It's an angry face, it's repulsive, it says "go away" instead of inviting to download."

How is this a valid point? You need to look no further than the Clash of Clans icon. It's an angry face, yet it's one of the most popular F2P games out there right now.

Igor Galochkin
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The icon of Clash of Clans isn't that repulsive. There the character is not looking directly at the spectator, so he is a warrior, sure, but he isn't aggressive towards the player. But here the aggression is directed right at myself. It says: "go away, I hate you, don't download this game"

Igor Galochkin
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Just one more thought on the icon. The current icon shows a guy who is "posing" - it's e.g. when an animal defends its territory. It doesn't want to kill the invader, it just wants the invader to leave. That why the angry face - but the sword is behind! It's a staged aggressive posture and it clearly says "BACK OFF!" It shocks, it's totally inappropriate, it makes the player angry, it scares - and the natural reaction is to.. back off - that is just scroll further and avoid the discomforting icon because the player is usually not in an angry mood so as to fight back at what - a drawn character... In Clash of Clans, it's totally different. There you see a crazy warrior whose gaze isn't even focused. He is probably drunk, his saliva sprays out of his open mouth. He is not even really angry, it's more like a drunk dance - and it's funny. Observing that guy is like watching a comic war movie or a funny cartoon about medieval or fantasy warriors where the spectator sits comfortably on a sofa. My guess is that the unfortunate icon for Combat Monsters alone has decreased the downloads of the game by maybe 30-50% of what the game could have.

Emerick Aussignac
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Regarding the comments here, maybe it could be worth selling a "premium" version of the game, with basically your Tripler otion unlocked from the beggining. That way you'll be free from the "f2p is crap" effect on your title.

Paul Johnson
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Thanks, we're actually trying to figure a way to do something like that. Anything's worth a shot atm!

Henry Shilling
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It appears to me that when you attempt to appease the internet whiners and screamers who complain loudly about F2P, you lose. Basically listening to this tiny loud base kills everyone, movies, games, anything. 90% or more of your customers will never post or complain or bitch about your game. Probably 80% will never read some board or reddit posts abut your game. It seems to me a losing proposition to listen to these boobs who's only interests are their own. They want everything free.

When I read about someone who is being ethical, or at least has a sense of ethics toward the community and then read about these game "skinners" who insert revenue builders at every possible point in their crappy SEO based games it makes me sad for the future.

Thanks for fighting the good fight and sorry you didn't win this one.

Paolo Gambardella
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just downloaded the game and gave my first 15 mins session. I like it, the artstyle has its issues, but now that I'm reading the team composition I understand why. The only point I want to suggest to you is: check the time slice for the match. I find it too large for a casual game.
Anyway you were too much good with monetisation! I would be a little bit more aggressive, maybe. :D
Compliments, hope that cow will give some fresh new milk soon! :)

Ian Richard
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I have to agree about the time slice. The game is very rules-lite, casual looking and mobile... all reason that the game should be fast. But since downloading it, I can't convince myself to sit down with it when I can play a five minute game of something else when I'm out... or a full AAA game when I'm at home.

I'd highly recommend you either drop the health ratings to make matches shorter or add in some "Game Speed" options. Most console TRPGs even have the "Skip Animation" option that will greatly reduce their playtime.

I haven't played enough to accurately judge the paid aspects, but the time issue was a major concern for me.

Paul Johnson
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Thanks guys, I'll give this some thought.

Rasmus Rasmussen
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To me, this post cemented that I am not going to pursue the F2P model for any of my own titles. Like others, I now avoid anything that is free to play, simply because I've been scarred by too many not-so-ethical-developers.

That said, this is a scary read. I wish anyone success with a game they are so passionate about, have poured so many hours and money into, while still remaining all ethical and stuff. You deserve a lot more attention and love! Thank you for sharing, scaring and caring. :)

Baptiste Villain
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Hey,
I've been playing Combat Monster quite a lot during Christmas break. I completed all the solo campaigns and purchased the trippler as it's awesome. I played like 10 or so online games. But then I stopped, uninstalled CM, and went to other games for survey and pleasure.

I'm sorry to hear your revenues are so low, and I can only give you some suggestions from my kind of "mid-core player" experience to help improve your game (which is really great great great, apart my remarks below):

1 - change the graphics or hide them. I had to read several news about CM before finally taking the decision to download it, because everytime I saw it pop on an RSS I instantly thought : "Wow this is some strange 3D. Give me regular 2D, I don't need anything else.". I have played a lot of card battlers (my favorite is still Rise of Myhtos / Kings and Legends) and I've never seen a game that looks so childish. This might really be driving off installs right now. In my opinion, you should rethink the screenshots on the stores and stop advertising with your 3D models. They look like toys and you're not targetting a very young audience if I'm not wrong.

2 - there is a violent wall at the end of the solo experience. I've eaten it in the face, and it made me stop: multiplayer is a lot slower (I never found someone for a real time battle, but maybe it's me), frustrating (because you lose a lot facing people with incredible decks when you only own 1 virus or 2 legendary swords...) and not rewarding for IG currency. Content is always about giving players new cards or maps, I think you should give us more things to do, not more things to get. Ex : some daily quests that give a decent currency reward but involves a lot (like re-doing some precise solo maps with some hero class or winning 3 online battles in a row or whatever). Again, Rise of Myhtos does it perfectly with like 15 daily quests very basic but offering a decent soft currency reward.

3 - offer more products. Once I got the tripler, I felt like I had nothing else to buy. In Game currency? No way, the tripler should cover my needs or the balance is broken. + I hate spending on soft currency. I have no idea where you're going to, but I'm pretty sure you can find tons of features to monetize more (a daily deal reset? a paid solo campaign? premium heroes (they might need to be unlockable for balance) or hero skins? etc.).

Anyway, thanks for creating this game. I really downloaded it with very low expectations, just to make sure I didn't miss an interesant game mecanism I could use on my own games, but in the end the experience was really refreshing. I might even reset my account to replay the solo campaign some day.

Paul Johnson
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Thanks for the feedback, all useful stuff.

Just to address point 2, realtime is a pretty empty place lately as everyone is now playing async. We practically turned off the matchmaking for realtime to help which is why you might run into long term experts.

3) We're on it. :)

Ian Griffiths
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Without going into much detail, this is what happens when people who don't understand free-to-play do free-to-play.

I think you've picked a niche audience within the mobile market but the first thing I saw when I looked at the screenshot was 'whoa!' - there is simply too much going on and the graphics look a bit dated.

You're clearly a very passionate guy and have an enhtusiastic team, it's a shame that so far it has proved to be a bit of a flop. Fortunately it's not quite the end of the road - you can re-balance both progression and pricing. You may need some additional monetization based features though.

It would be good to take these learnings forward with your next game as you are doing some original stuff.

Mark Johnson
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Interesting article, thanks for sharing.

Re getting to the top of the charts. We've gotten to the top free overall several times over the years with little to no budget in a lot of countries including US. It is possible with the right app, name, icon, and game. (It took us years though to turn chart success into profit.) Its all about good positioning of your game using name, icon, screenshots. What kind of Apple promotion did you get at launch? Looking at your chart history you really should be able to chart higher in your category. That fact that you didn't means that the initial impression a player gets when they see your game isn't fitting well with the good experience that actual players and reviewers have gotten. Getting downloads _is_ easy if when just seeing the icon, name, and first screen shot people have a feeling of 'I understand what that game is and I might enjoy it'. Nothing does that like familiarity - a sport they know, a movie license, a genre they recognize.

I'd go back and read all the good reviews from press and players, and try to figure out how they see the game now that they have played it, and then figure out from that how to re-position your game so that it best appeals to potential fans from the get go. Eg what words do they use to describe the game, does your icon and app name evoke those words? What genre is the game really, are you positioned for that genre, is strategy they best category for the game?

"It appears to me that when you attempt to appease the internet whiners and screamers who complain loudly about F2P, you lose." Yes, you gotta go all in FTP or all in paid (meaning 99c is too cheap). We have the same problem of not having enough to spend on in our game & getting pricing wrong. If you position your game as a card battle game with better graphics and cheaper IAP you are already in trouble. As soon as a gamer hears 'card battle game' they either switch off because 'we all know' card battle games cost lots of IAP.

Also your iOS screen shots... agree with other commenter the screen shot in this article looks detailed (ooo - must be lots to do in this game) and beautiful, but the screen shots in iOS app store are weak and the first one (most important) is especially week. There's a lot of developers with mediocre apps who obsfucate that weakness with screen shots that are clearly more photoshop than screenshot. Your screen shots are 'suspicious' in that regard.

What does 'post-mortem' mean? After death. Thats old boxed games thinking. On the app store your game is only just born when you release it. You can keep updating it, you can relaunch it, you can re-position it, you can tweak it.

best of luck.

Andy Satterthwaite
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Honestly I loved the game ... completed it up to the end of the single player campaign (spent about $15 on currency for card packs etc.; and watched a shed-load of ads to boost my meager $$)

BUT - then the single campaign ran out, and I have no desire to play multi-player. This is because the way I played the game was in 2-3 minute bursts. Often a whole battle could take me a day (4-5 sessions separated by several hours). This is not possible in your multi-player structure (as it's synchronous and the other player will drop out).

I still have a heap of cards to get, and a desire to keep playing - but no incentive to do so (replaying existing single player levels doesn't give me reward; and the random levels are unlearnable).

If I could make some suggestions:
1) I want at least one card every day ... either give me a card for winning a battle, or for daily return, or be more generous with in-game currency. I'd suggest having a "single card" pack - which is one random card. Make this something like 100 rubicoins, and then make sure I earn enough in a day (1-2 battles only).
This is basic "drug-dealing" keep giving me a taste, and I'm going to pony-up for the big hits

2) Give me rubicoins whenever I complete a game, even if it's a mission I've done before (you can make it half-value, but I've still given you 5-10 minutes of my time, reward me)

3) Procedurally generate more single player campaigns ... you can just reuse the maps but change the opponent ... you could get heaps [I know you have single random missions in the game, but these change each time you lose, so you can't learn your opponent and change your strategy over several games until you beat him, which is disappointing)

4) Your "boosting coins by sharing codes" is a great idea, but limiting it to one time per friend is counter-productive. I had one friend who was also playing the game ... between us we both purchased (and benefited) but as we then couldn't do it again, it made the coins seem heaps more expensive. If I could have used his code a second time, I would have bought another coin pack for sure.

5) and, random aside, make the background graphics change with the opponent, not with the player ... I only realised that there were different backgrounds when I bought a second avatar in a daily-deal ... this was very nearly the end of my playtime. You presumably have a lot of different backgrounds, yet as a player who played long enough to complete the entire single player campaign I've only seen 2.

Anyway - sorry it hasn't monetised so well for you. It is a great game and I've evangelised it a lot.
Give me more single-player (with rewards, structure, and ideally a little story) and I'll play more for sure.

Andy
(design director @ PikPok)

Paul Johnson
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These are all excellent points, thank you. All of these are now in tomorrow's discussion notes, along with other points made in the comments.

You know what, point 5) is a bug that not a single person noticed. It's meant to work like that! LOL

btw, since you first played you'll probably find there are two new long and hard campaigns added, next timr you need your fix. :)

Eric Mickols
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I think I remember seeing a sponsored post about combat monsters on my feed. I remember seeing the name "Combat Monsters" and thinking it was a pokemon-like game. This was during a time when I was also getting spam about emulators providing fraudulent pokemon roms, so I discarded the game in my mind as so much spam. It sounds like a great game now that I hear more about it, but I wasnt hooked "at a glance".

I know the time for a rename has far since passed, but a rework to the cover art, and the initial description to be more recognizable for what it is would help you.

Paul Johnson
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Yep, agreed. We're on that shortly with our next update.

Eric Mickols
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Oh, and one thing about the cover art in particular: (I rather like the cartoony art style)
The game is called Combat Monsters, but the headliner image isnt a monster. This made me immediately question the thematic unity of the game, before I had any further information.

Maybe switch it to your most popular hero avatar that is actually a monster? Is there a crowd favorite that gets fan art made?

Richard Urich
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So, the good news is this is a game that looks like it would appeal to me. I would normally find it on my own eventually. The bad news is you launched close enough to the holidays that I just haven't looked for new games beyond Steam/gog sales and such. I'm not saying the launch time was a poor choice though, just that's how it works for this one specific person.

I haven't played the game yet, so I'll give you initial impressions from the Google Play store front.
The good:
- "Ooh, cards and TBS. Sign me up." (I love when games merge genres I like)
- "Single-player, so it will work with my schedule"
- "F2P, so why not check it out?"
- "Looks polished, so it might even be good." (this could work against you if my first experiences in the game are unpolished since I'll recognize I was wrong and immediately dismiss the game)

The bad:
- "I'll try like hell to avoid giving you a single nickel" (CCG and F2P both mean more expensive than I think, so I'm going to try twice as hard to avoid taking that dangerous first step of spending money. This article mentions the $3 option which is a pretty clear line in the sand, so it makes me more willing to pony up $3. But without the article, I'd assume that once I spent the $3 I'd be told about the next $3 I need to spend.)
- "This looks super casual, so it's not going to keep my interest for long." (if you had the picture from this article on the store page, I'd be super excited to try it out. You show the playing area is big enough, and there is enough stuff going on that it might have depth.)

My overall consensus is definitely job well done. This article alleviates concerns I would have just looking at your Google Play page, so if you can figure out how to work that stuff into the store pages it would be great. Normally those concerns get taken care of by reviews, but you said you haven't gotten good traction there.

Paul Johnson
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Loving this bit of feedback also, as it's all fixable. Thanks! :)

Richard Urich
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I've now played the tutorial and the first level after that.

I do love the core mechanics and abilities. You've got a great foundation, and that is probably the hardest part in a game. Please don't let my criticisms undercut this point.

Your store page feels too casual. There are no screenshots with a crazy legendary card of awesomeness with a really cool ability for me to get excited about. From your screenshots, I didn't even know there was anything beyond power, toughness, armor, and casting cost. The abilities are a very attractive part of your game to players like me, so show them off.

The game looks like a horribly painful grind right now. I'm stuck with the mage (easy) that I picked before I knew I wanted the game to be harder. It looks like I have to play through 19 painfully easy levels to unlock 22 mildly less painful medium levels before I finally get to hard levels that I can hope might finally start getting interesting.

I've never been forced to open a pack, nor have I ever felt the desire to buy packs. For the single-player side, you're missing that element of wanting to buy packs to get more powerful cards to build more powerful decks to beat more powerful enemies. The powerful enemies are all locked up, so I don't need a better deck, I don't need better cards, I don't need to buy packs, and I don't even need your in-game currency.

Enough beating up on you though. Like I said, you've got great core mechanics and abilities. It's a very solid game with tons of potential, and from your responses it sounds like you're genuinely good at recognizing and fixing real problems. A year from now, you'll be writing an article about the amazing turnaround story of Combat Monsters.

Good luck, and many thanks for sharing your story.

Anthony Chen
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I'm creating an account here for the first time just for this article. It pains me to hear this story but thank you for sharing it. Please allow me to share my thought process when I found out about Combat Monsters. I am not offering any advice to do this or that, as I am in no way qualified to make those judgment calls.

As someone who bought your previous two war games on android and was a huge fan of M:TG, this was obviously right up my alley. After watching the gameplay video, I immediately knew this was something I would enjoy. But when I saw the price tag, my excitement actually turned to disappointment. This is not because I immediately thought that because it is a free game that the quality must be sub-par. Quite the opposite. I was troubled because a “free” price tag means just means “you will find out the price later”.

Perhaps I’m too anal about my time. But there are plenty of free-to-play games out there that very deceptive about their money sink. Some are not even designed with fun in mind at all but with the sole purposes of syphoning money. There are no good ways for me, from a consumer perspective, to know which kind of free-to-play this game is until I sink some unknown amount of time into it. I loathe the feeling of getting deep into a game and then wishing it wasn’t designed as free-to-play but as a complete whole package.

This could just be my personality type, but I don’t enjoy making financial decisions in the middle of enjoying a game when I am most vulnerable. Eventually, after spending an unknown amount of time with the game, I would be faced with a decision to either to:
1) stop playing, or
2) proceed with some kind of handicap, or
3) pay some unknown price.

And it’s #3 that bothers me the most. Unlike traditional pay-to-play games, there was no way for me to figure out how much I should expect to pay to get a reasonably complete game. After reading your article, now I know that amount is probably three dollars. Which is totally fair!

I love paid apps. Free-to-play, to me at the moment, carries more negative baggage than a pay-to-play games with no in-app purchases. Ironically, prior to reading this article, I was considering releasing my first game as a free-to-play as well. Now… I just don’t freaking know. Only thing I know now is that I need to go download Combat Monsters and give it a fair shake.

David Paris
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You sound exactly like me on this stuff. F2P is generally the kiss of death when I consider new games, because I know perfectly well that what it really translate to is "time intensive and containing an unmeasurable hidden cost that will try to bushwhack me later". I love games, so I want to play them by default, but the situation above is lethal. I play a few F2P, but only those that have been carefully researched to determine their true cost, contain immensely strong gameplay, and even then I generally spend less on them than I would on a normal game because I'm always making sure to guard myself against being soaked and swindled. Truthfully, Zynga has damaged us all.

Jesse Kurlancheek
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I'm going to stay away from your other points and call out the biggest and scariest: Your tutorial. Were I running the game, I'd be waving the reddest of flags about the tutorial and making that priority #1. No new cards, no new content, just all hands on deck to fix the tutorial and make it great.

It's arguably the most important part once you've gotten a player to download, install, and launch a F2P game and it affects EVERYTHING after it. Every single one of your numbers suffers as a result of it. Have only 70% of your players finishing the tutorial? Well, that's only 70% of your players who have even have a chance to give you money or tell their friends about the game. It means you're paying more for installs that do nothing for you.

I could talk to your other F2P points until I run out of breath and pass out, but if you take anything from posting this, start by fixing your tutorial and all of the rest of your numbers will rise along with it.

Paul Johnson
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That's why I called it out by iself, you're absolutely right.

And it's already finished awaiting an update. Much better now imo, largely because it's a third as long and has some actual gameplay in it! :)

bukan iJam
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Great article. I'm thoroughly surprised reading it.

scott stevens
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It sounds like you guys had trouble with your monetization strategy. It's not about making the whole game free, it's about providing true value to payers and being transparent about it. The Tripler is a great idea - but it sounds like there's not enough other things for players to purchase. More cards/monsters doesn't seem to be fulfilling your needs.
Consider consumables. You can get/earn them through game play at a "slow drip", or purchase them at your leisure with premium currency. Combined with the Tripler, this could be very effective because you are earning 3x premium for matches, and now you have a real benefit to purchase with that premium currency.
It sounds like matchmaking will also be helpful - it's no fun as a noob to go up against a veteran player right after the tutorial. Find a metric that measures player power and matchmake vs that metric. Engagement will go up, players who are more evenly matched will have more fun.
Consider A/B testing new features to see how metrics are affected. Some tests may yield more revenue, some will yield better "player delight" scores (hard to measure, but you can do it via a survey that asks questions like "on a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your enjoyment of the following features:"), some tests will yield both - those are the keepers, ones that players enjoy *and* are willing to pay for.
Check out the article on ethical F2P game design here: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/207779/ethical_freetoplay_g
ame_design_.php - it is awesome.

Paul Johnson
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Yeah we're working on this angle. That's one we knew about ourselves but figured we could live quite nicely just on tripler's alone when we shipped. We're not about being the next king.com, we just want to get paid! :)

There is matchmaking btw, just not in the realtime game so they start quick. Although that's not even true now, as 95% of online games are now from the async. (which does have it)

scott stevens
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On the art pipeline - consider bolstering your one-man art team with college students and recent grads. My old company did this and it was a great experience all around. We used to outsource the bulk of our art, but when I realized that we could spend the same amount on a couple college students we made the switch. It provides great real-world experience for the students, and gives you a temporary relief at a cost that you can afford.
We paid the students a fair wage, gave them contracts that ranged from two weeks to 3 months, and they got to have a shipped title on their resume. I was even invited to come to the college to speak for some classes about what we were doing. It really is a win-win-win. Strongly recommended.

Paul Johnson
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It's a nice idea in principle, but if you saw where we're based...

Back end of nowhere doesn't come close.

Jim Thompson
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Scott, what you're talking about is unethical.

Pay people for their work, regardless of their credentials.

Christian Nutt
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@Jim Thompson, the original comment says: "We paid the students a fair wage." Assuming you read through that rather than just assumed it's a big lie?

Phil Maxey
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I just downloaded and had a quick look at your game, so this is just a first impression.

The feeling I get from it is that tutorial takes too long. I can see how you have designed it to be straightforward and that's good, but the options are pretty simple and I wanted to jump into something a bit more challenging sooner.

The graphics are ok, but especially compared to other games on mobile (talking mostly iOS) they look a bit dated. Personally I'm fine with them but I think a lot of players on iOS will look and think it looks like an outdated game. In a weird way 2D would actually work better for you I think for this particular genre of game.

Also the camera angle is a bit odd, as was suggested above I think just making it side on would work better.

Regarding your monetization in general. All the things you mentioned are very noble and I totally get where your coming from but unfortunately they are not going to make you much money on mobile, this is just the reality of the situation. The game seems to be caught between different genre's. It's a hardcore game genre which is presented in a very casual way, so instead of appealing to both audiences it's probably putting them both off, the casual players will look at it and think "ugh 3D strategy, CCG too much to get into on my phone!" and the hardcore might have a look and think "Hmm seems a bit casual for my liking, not enough details and obvious options"

If I were you I would go in one of 2 directions. If you want to appeal to the casual audience then put in more pay walls, put in incentives for players to spread the game on FB/Twitter, put in more ads (removed by purchase of IAP like you have done), basically if you want to go down the casual route, go down the casual route :)

Or, do the opposite just make it simple, you buy packs of monsters/cards, no currencies, no grind, (still with ads though)

Generally about F2P I was saying to developers early last year that they better take advantage of actually being a F2P game as soon as possible because before long F2P won't be a gimmick but the standard and you won't get any mileage out of just being free.

I'm currently working on a F2P fantasy/strategy/MP/Asynchronous game on iOS (www.clankingdom.com) and there's one thing I'm sure of from observing/researching the App store for the past 2 years is that just having a really good game isn't enough anymore, I actually think being different is probably more important right now then being "great", although obviously the higher quality your game is the more chance you have of doing well, but having aspects of your game which players have not experienced before is really important. CK will be F2P but I'm going to be implementing it in a way I haven't seen before, which will hopefully remove some of the issues inherent with F2P.

Also did you build a play testing community for your game before launch? I think that's really important and something I plan to do for Clan Kingdom.

Nice game though I hope it starts to do better for you!

Paul Johnson
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Your (and other's) comments about "casual" is coming as a general surprise tbh. I personally wouldn't have described this as even slightly casual - a word I generally associate with match 3 games and that ilk.

Is this based on the style of screenshots? (I'm not taking offence here btw, just surprised and curious)

Yes we did have a pretty good Beta and I would recommend it. The feedback we got was invaluable, but I guess I was just concentrating on the core game, not the wider experience.

Phil Maxey
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That's based on my short time playing it. To me hardcore strategy/fantasy/sci-fi on iOS would be something more like Summoners war, or Infinite black.

This is more in the vein of Hero Academy (which I play daily), but the 3D and slow play seems to get in the way much more so than the 2D/instant play of H.A.

I think what have created is great, but it would of been better if you had totally gone in one direction or another.

From the amount of assets you have in that game, why not create spin offs? why not create Combat Monsters: Defence that way you can iterate with the same assets and create Combat Monsters as a brand.

Paul Johnson
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Ideally we'd like to do some other games to extend this to a franchise, and you'd be able to share your card pool between all of them.

Kinda back-burnering this for a bit though, given the circumstances.

Jim Thompson
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Another great, honest post-mortem...thanks for taking the time!

Btw, I thought it was funny that when I went to the download page via the link provided it didn't say anything at all about it being f2p...

Paul Johnson
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We've always tried to promote it as "pay what you want" as it's more honest and also more accurate.

However what we say and what other people hear aren't usually the same thing so I've given up trying. Anyone with a hard on for F2P games isn't going to be convinced by my biased attempts.

Kyle Redd
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One small suggestion I can offer: If your game is on Steam Greenlight, make sure you plug that at every possible opportunity, including post-mortems on Gamasutra (http://tinyurl.com/kkznl3v).

And then a request: I hope if your game does get on Steam, you decide to drop F2P in favor of a pay-upfront model and re-balance the gameplay to match it.

Personally, my dislike of F2P games is that there's no way to know how much the game is eventually going to cost me until I've already put in 5, 10, 20 hours of play time. It's happened too many times where I've put several hours into a game right before running into a very expensive pay wall that stops my progress dead. So now I don't bother with F2P games anymore.

Paul Johnson
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Actually you're right. I started doing that but kinda ran out of Steam a bit. (See what I did there, lol).

Thanks, gonna go make an edit...

Matt Mirrorfish
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Great, brutally honest article. I also have a pretty strong anti f2p reflex now fwiw. The mechanics sound appealing though so I'll check it out. It's worth noting that I don't think I've ever bought iap though, it feels weirdly like an insult to my skills as a gamer. I feel like I should just try to progress by playing. I'm much happier with the demo/paywall approach or a lite version. Or just straight pay up front, especially if it's a few bucks.

Agree with another poster about a good tutorial. I'm a teacher and am very sensitive to how things are introduced. Honestly I'd rather see no overt tutorial and just have a series of simple tasks that ramp up and layer in the actual game engine. For all the scorn heaped on it WoW did this well.

Thanks for giving back to the community and sharing potentially unflattering data. I hope you're able to iterate and turn this into something that works for you and your team. If you haven't read it read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. I think it'll resonate.

Ron Alpert
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great article. It's been ages since I've put out a game myself and eyeballing F2P as I have this is another nail in the coffin of "oh, it's a terrible, terrible idea!" Yeah, but still!
As for your game, I'll be brutal (that's what we all need at this point) - title sounds generic and dull, icon is ho-hum, all the graphics I have seen from the game make me not want to play it even for free, I don't care how proud you are of your pipeline & one-man army. At this point we all know the value of video in video games (honestly, the style and aesthetic) and if your screenshots, taken out of context, don't inspire at all then you are already at a huge disadvantage. If you were to somehow repeat this development process I'd say putting a much bigger emphasis on your game's presentation (and forking over some money to make that happen) should have been much higher priority. This is not 2009 anymore.

Game does sound fun and I will check it out however. Good luck and keep at it, interested to see what you guys make next!

Eric Long
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"all the graphics I have seen from the game make me not want to play it even for free"

You mean like Roblox?

Although I respect your opinion, this game's issues have nothing to do with visual quality.

Wes Jurica
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Thanks for writing such an honest PM. This reminds me (yet again) that I need to write a postmortem. Granted we only have one data point to go by, but it seems there is still room out there for niche, premium games that target a specific audience.

How many games are you going up against that, at least for the casual person perusing the stores, look very similar to your game? Was this something that your studio looked at before making this game?

Paul Johnson
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Several hundred to several million depending on how narrow you want to be in the cull. That's the same for every game on mobile though so not much to be done there.

John Lee
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Sorry to hear your game isn't performing well. I think your post mortem captures a few things worth addressing, but I'm not sure your team fully understands the implications of a F2P business model.

If you took a step back, you can look at it from this point of view. A F2P game suggests the majority of players won't pay. Which means the few that do, you need to focus on generating revenue from and keeping them engaged. Which by your account, and from your players, it seems enough of these players "finish" the game and never come back, and for those that pay, they actually don't have enough to buy.

Trust me, even the best mobile game developers don't get this right out the gate. That's why they look at metrics early on and try to solve the places where they are seeing the biggest drop off in engagement, revenue, etc. It's good you recognize your tutorial needs work, but that is based on gut feeling, and not some metrics that shows people leaving during the tutorial, then you could be fixing the wrong thing. Many mobile game developers even launch in one specific market just so they can test these metrics and fix things before going wide. It's about constantly improving your game to increase both engagement and revenue. The optimal point will benefit you and the gamer. Once you are at least profitable, you can decide on how generous you want to be with giving stuff away:)

I actually think you can still make this work especially since you said your game is fun. Trying to fix fun is a lot hard in IMO!

Good luck! Rootin for you all!

Henrik Strandberg
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Thanks for sharing your experiences Paul, and thanks to all the commenters for great advice and suggestions! Combined, I think it's an excellent case study for anyone working with mobile games, whether F2P or not.

One thing I didn't see anyone point out (yet) is the mismatch between business model and acquisition strategy.

A F2P business model - where you know only a small percentage of your players will convert to paying - requires massive numbers of players. This is almost impossible to achieve without paid user acquisition (UA); which you had no plans/budget for.

Rather, a large portion of your players will install CM based on recommendations or editorial content (reviews, top ten lists, etc.); likely, they already have a purchase interest when they land in the app store, and most likely, they will even have gone through the effort to type in the name of your app just in order to get there... They are "qualified prospects", and a $1.99-$3.99 price tag is not going to be as much of a friction point as for an "unqualified prospect" that landed there without really knowing why. (Okay so you'll lose the folks who were actually searching for "Moshi Monsters" and mistyped and landed on your game instead... those are however highly unlikely to ever convert to paying in a F2P model anyway, so you're not really losing anything.)

So general advice: if you know you won't have much of a UA budget, you're probably better off with a premium model. This in turn requires you to drive awareness and purchase interest via "traditional" channels (editorial, social media, advertising in your other apps, etc.). The volume of your business is effectively capped at how big an audience you can reach through those channels, and the quality of your game affects what % of that volume you can reach. (This is as opposed to in F2P, where the volume of your business is capped by your UA budget, and the quality of your game affects the ROI on that spend.)

My advice specifically for you Paul (aside from all the great advice in other comments above): once you have a more optimized product, try a premium price point with a free Lite app side by side, and make it super-easy for a user to migrate from Lite to premium (you can look at Herocraft's and EasyTech's strategy games for inspiration).

The good news you are now live so you can start collecting user data and feedback to drive priorities for optimization - good luck!

Eric Hauchecorne
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Sorry if I'm will sound harsh but here are some critics I'd like to make about the game.

First about the game itself, I love Magic The Gathering and a game mixing cards mechanics to a TBS is very appealing to me.
Now I don't think I would have try the game without reading this article, the name is quite dull and the icon on top of looking very casual and looking like many other F2P it's not even coherent with the name as it's picturing a knight and not a monster.
Then like you admitted the tutorial is quite flawed, I would have rather have one longer session than so many boring sessions in a raw, plus the order is not coherent you get a runes enhancement before getting the runes.

Then about the F2P, you present your game as a fair ethical F2P that failed to be profitable giving the impression that a less ethical model is the only way to be profitable, I care to disagree that your model is so ethical :
-It's a P2W as you can buy cards right away, and this make not paying player feel like other are cheating and worse it make paying players feel like they are cheating.
-It have gambling mechanics, great way to exploit whales but far from ethical.
-It have adds by default, break the immersion and give an overall cheap feeling that to game try go a little money from any corner.
-It promote facebook spamming, might be a good way to get viral but it reduce by a lot the sympathy I would give it.
-The only P2W mechanic that I find fair is the multiplier since it still force player to play the game, but I think it's not by hazard that most game have 2X and not 3X as 3X makes the gap too large making it feel too easy when you're paying and too hard when you're not.

As you pointed out you avoided the pay to play between sessions but that is not enough to make it an ethical model.

I thinking all those explain why "Generosity brings goodwill”, word to mouth and support from press specialized in indie were lower to your expectation.
And given your average F2P model why a real gameplay your game could on the other hand have to better with a marketing campaign.

Now what I call an ethical F2P model through 2 examples : Path of Exile and League of legends, that are successful critically (from players and press) and commercially.

-No P2W at all, POE avoid it entirely, LOL have only the multiplier but it's 2X and the runes that improve the stats can be only bought with earn currency.
-Purely aesthetical customization, it might seem superficial but players love it and the more engaging the multiplayer gameplay is the more they will love it.
-Gameplay variations, LOL heroes are all balanced but you can buy more heroes to change your experience, in POE you can increase the size of your chest not necessary with one character but more useful with many as you share the chest between them and more character slots.

I think that even the F2P Magic the Gathering 2014 game could be a good example as it is closer to your game. You do pay to unlock the cards of your deck but it is 2$ once and your deck is as you as any other and then you can pay to buy other balanced decks to change you type of gameplay. (Also no adds, no facebook spam).

nick ATpainttehDOTcom
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some people say that without decent marketing budget the odds for getting 'real' money are very low.
you know what they say "spend money to make money".
I'm afraid is sad but true

Emmanuel Henne
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Nice marketing trick, this postmortem ;)

Paul Johnson
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Do you have a handle on who killed JFK? :)

This isn't a marketing "trick", it's marketing 1.01

Eric Long
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Based solely on this article, and not from playing the game (I will be checking this out) I think you just need to work on your Customer Acquisition strategy and improving the F2P model you are using.

The revenue numbers don't really tell the whole story, checking your KPI against benchmarks would help you identify the areas that need improving.

In order of priority: Registration Rate, Installation Conversion Rate, Retention Rate, Ave games played per player, Percentage of players that are paying and ARPPU.

The revenue you list may be low but compared to your game's population it could actually be good.

Veerdhawal Khanvilkar
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Lately, lots of articles that are been posted on Gamasutra related to mobile games make it feel as if the mobile market is no longer a viable market for indie developers. This is driving my team more towards PC game development.

About the game:
1. I had played the game sometime in December and the first thing i noticed was the tutorial being too long. Also it was a little boring since the battle ground was not too small for me. Maybe making the player do some awesome gameplay during the initial rounds might help in increasing the interest.

2. I like the core mechanics of the game and think the game is fun to play. I do think the art although is not outdated for me, it does feel a little off putting when it comes to mobile games. I prefer more vibrant colors in the mobile games. I like the color palette of Epic Arena game which is much more vibrant. Ofcourse you cannot change the entire art of the game now.


P.S. I have voted it on steam greenlight and looking forward to playing it on PC with my steam friends :)

Paul Johnson
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Thanks for the upvote. Check the latest screenies coming out soon and I think you'll like the colours a bit more. I certainly do. :)

David Williams
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Hey,

Like someone above I have been a Gamasutra reader for a while but never had an account. I am not a developer I am a "gamer". So I read and its interesting to read what is going on in the industry. I had not heard of this game before and I am your target audience. How you would have gotten to me before today I cannot say. I depend on word of mouth and what Apple decides to randomly put in my face in the app store to guide my hand. Here is something to think on as I may not be the only person this happened to.

After reading your really insightful story I wanted to try the game out. I shy away from free to play (notice a trend at least from people who read and post here) for the reasons already stated but my plan was to get the game get the Tripler and give it a shot. To my dismay I was not able to get the tripler. Try as I might I could not complete the purchase. I wont bore you with details but the issue was of course on Apples end. I was determined to give you some of my hard earned christmas itunes gift card money so for the last 3 days I battled with Apples really useless support to resolve the issue. that said, I normally would have chalked it up to a bad day deleted the game and moved on with my life never to play again.

I look forward to the next update and I would gladly have paid a few bucks for the game out the gate. anything 1.99 or under is an impulse buy for me and a vast majority of the people I know.

Paul Johnson
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Thanks for the support and hope you become a big fan.

re iTunes, it's not without problems at times, but at least it's not google - they're still throwing away about 10% of all developer earnings through "internal market error". Too busy making new doodles I guess.

Michael Scandizzo
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Maybe it's just me, but I think too much attention is being paid to monetization scheme and whether the title is Free To Play.

A few years back, Inert Soap had great success with "Fingerzilla", and it continues to pay our bills today. A large number of our customers were obtained through a "Free App A Day" campaign. The original artwork was mediocre (it has since been upgraded) and it is super-casual.

Most recently, we released "Man At Arms TD" for iPad, with the iPhone port submitted but not approved yet. We made it a paid app, comparable to others in the field, with inexpensive in-app purchases not unlike Fingerzilla. Despite a PR campaign and YouTube video promotion, we have had no site reviews, merely reprints of our PR release. We posted on Reddit and Facebook to no avail. We've tried iAds and other ads as well.

We were somewhat dismayed to find "Super Sanctum TD", a game with no reviews that was just released at the same price as our game, was featured on the list of "Best New Games" and reached number 49 on US strategy. Look at our artwork and feature list, compare it to theirs, and I would be surprised to find anyone who believes their game deserves such higher accolades. My point is not to malign their game, but to refute the premise that "you get on the featured list by producing a good game" and that Apple's arbitrary Featured list skews the rankings any less than any outside system.

I say this because my company found "paid downloads" were at least a way we could successfully advertise and reach users. While money might have boosted rankings of undeserving games, I don't find Apple's editors and their cherry-picking to be any better for consumers looking for quality.

Despite our receiving 4 and 5s on reviews for our products, consistently, we will likely have to close our business due to our inability to gain visibility or to find successful advertising or marketing avenues. This is despite our game NOT being FTP, and with high definition artwork that should at least put us above many of the "retro" games as far as showing off the visual clarity of the iPad.

Paul Johnson
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Equally depressing and I feel your pain.

Are you using ChartBoost at all? With our next update, we will hopefully get above the threshold required for sharing adverts with other developers.

Several people have mailed me in response to this piece and/or my rant about advertising costs, and they sing with one voice. Share impressions and it gets cheap enough to actually work.

I'm game to swap with anyone at this point, it's not like we'll be losing the "income" from stopping displaying the paid adverts! paul@rubicondev.com if interested.

Frankie Grey
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Great Article and great insights, thanks!

I was wondering if the problem was more about budgeting the full product (something I experienced before as a product manager), maybe limiting the features and having less people work on the game, would have made it more profitable.

Paul Johnson
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Not in this case, as we all had separate roles. You need a server guy, a gameplay guy, someone doing the AI etc. If we kept it small I doubt it would ever have gotten finished.

Curtiss Murphy
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Still looking for feedback? Great Big War Game was one of my all-time favorite iOS experiences. And yet, I did not even finish the tutorial for Combat Monsters. If you are still investing in the game, and looking for advice, here is my feedback:

- Fix the icon. Compare icons for Great Big War Game and Combat Monsters, side by side - any child could tell you which would have more downloads. Igor explained it perfectly above, and yet, I feel the message didn't sink in. So, please forgive the all caps - I HATE THE ICON.

- Rewrite the tutorial - it is fundamentally flawed. The awful, dark red background, getting rune skills before they were relevant, and then being taunted about it afterwards. It was not fun and should never have shipped. You might consider playing the Hearthstone tutorial, again, and again, and again ... and then 4 more times. Blizzard nailed this - 100%.

- F2P - Free 2 play is hard, and phrases like 'generous' and 'hope you will support us' and '... genuine psychology...' (from your earlier article) belies a tentative, toe-in approach. You might consider embracing F2P deep with in your soul, or ... for Steam, just charging a straight up front cost.

- Gameplay - a CCG + RPG + turn based strategy + off-line asynchronous play, is an awfully heavy committment for a casual mobile game. I opened Monsters looking for the same engaging, single player experience, I had in GB War Game. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

- Embrace your customer base - As a fledgling Startup, you might consider building upon your earlier successes. Give your fans more of what they already love. Whether you're excited about it or not, a Great Big War Game 3, is smart business.

- Try, Fail, Improve - is how you become awesome, and I can see lots of learning happening from this failure. I hope Rubicon survives the process.

Good luck Paul.
Gigi


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