Gunpowder: How We Brought a High Quality Premium Game to iPad and Steam
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
(Or: Even if it seems nuts, just ask nicely -- sometimes you’ll get what you ask for!)
Gunpowder is a one of a kind physics-based puzzle game featuring colorful cartoon style artwork, a charming backstory and what we think is pretty clever game design that we aimed to have appeal to gamers of all ages. Gunpowder is easy to pick up, but offers ever-increasing challenges through thought-provoking brainteasers, constantly evolving physics-based gameplay elements and numerous environmental objects that offer new surprises. With it out on iPad and Windows 8, and enjoying fantastic critical reviews, I wanted to reflect briefly on how the game got to where it is now, as it’s a bit of an unusual story that may provide some helpful perspective.
People commonly ask a question similar to “How do you come up with new game ideas?” I imagine that this is just as relevant a question to developers as to random interested parties. It’s at least a much more interesting question than “Wow so you get to play games all day long for work?!” Sigh.
Every team designs games differently, and with different goals in mind. It’s a bit silly to think one teams’ method is going to work for many others, but many times it’s having just the right spark of inspiration that kicks everything off. Here’s what happened with us.
When we first started Rogue Rocket in 2011, Nick Bruty and I sat down and started brainstorming on what kinds of games would really work on mobile. We were working on pitching Infected, but we knew we also wanted to create more pure, simpler experiences. So we got out a pen and paper, made some stupid jokes, and just started coming up with ideas. Neither of us had experience building games for the mobile market, but we knew instinctively that the best mobile games are those that can be played with just one finger (easy to control) but still had a ton of gameplay depth (not easy to master). Well... that or something with porn in it, but we decided that would be too easy and preferred the challenge of making a legitimately original and fun game.
Thus came about a pile of ideas; most of them were utter garbage. Things like Oh No, ROADKILL! and Recess Riot, which would probably never see the light of day. But a few gold nuggets bubbled their way up. The best of those were ones both Nick and I immediately grabbed onto -- ones that would cause us to easily spitball more ideas that we could laugh at. One of those seemingly silly ideas became our first game, Sushichop.
“As a warm up, what if we tried to improve on Fruit Ninja, except instead of fruit, they were fish? And when you chopped them, perfectly formed pieces of sashimi would shoot out in a ridiculous splash of gratuitous blood?!”
We laughed at the absurdity of it. Who would make or want that? And then we made it, just to see if we could. We did it in a month. With two people. Well, two and a half; our now long time cohort Loren joined us part way through its rapid development. Among many other things, he contributed what to this day I feel like is an amazingly solid app icon. But I digress.
During this time, Nick also came up with this neat idea that involved laying down lines of gunpowder with your finger and solving puzzles by igniting them. Drawing branches of trails would make the lines burn outwards in different directions, just like you'd see in cartoons, and then there would be a gratifying explosion of powder kegs, complete with ridiculous chain reactions.
“OMG, YES!”, I remember squealing, shifting uncomfortably in my seat from excitement, and trying not to be too annoying in the back area of an entirely unrelated company we were renting some desks from at the time. “That sounds effing awesome! But ... it sounds like too much for our first outing, let’s pick something we can finish before Infected gets started.” So we shelved it and went back to making fish explode.
Getting a game signed based on two pieces of paper with pretty pictures.
Fast forward to 2012: We had a meeting with Microsoft at GDC. We showed them some new game concepts that we had cooked up, thinking we knew what kinds of stuff they’d like to see. Concepts with really nice 3D art, explosions, etc. We were met with a resounding “meh”.
“Got anything a bit more, oh, I dunno, casual?”, they asked.
Nick and I glanced at each other. In that moment, I telepathically asked Nick through uncomfortably direct eye contact, “Gunpowder?” And I swear I saw in his eyes, “Yeah.. do it”.
Turns out, he was just thinking, “Oh well. Lunch?” Luckily, I misread him and went for it anyways, bringing up a dusty old write up of Gunpowder on my laptop. Immediately, our Microsoft contact lit up and asked us to write up some more details for her team to review.
Long story short, Microsoft green lit the thing based on two sheets of paper with a nice write up and some pretty pictures made by Nick, ultimately starting out life as a Windows 8 store exclusive shortly after its launch.
I suspect many battle-hardened game devs will read this part and get a bit incredulous. But really, this is what happened, I swear.
We signed a relatively large game deal with no demo or prototype. To this day, I myself am a bit surprised we managed to achieve this. Based on feedback from industry peers, by all accounts this almost never happens. However, being prepared and having something extra in your back pocket never hurts.
Even our own experiences suggest you shouldn’t go around planning to pull this off routinely. So I’ll take a moment to dissect this and identify a few observations about what I think helped us make it happen despite the odds.
Have the Right Pitch at the Right Time.
This is by far the biggest contributor to successfully getting the game signed and going. Microsoft was ramping up to launch Windows 8 and their Windows 8 app store. They knew they were up against the giant monster stores of Apple iOS and Google Play.
When introducing the world to Windows 8 tablets and desktops, they wanted competitive quality content to be in the pipe or, better yet, already complete. So in this context, it makes a lot of sense. If you examine what had worked on iPad for example, very well in the last year, you come up with a list like: Cut the Rope, Angry Birds, and Where’s My Water? They already had Cut the Rope signed up as a free game there, but Microsoft historically always had a First Party strategy for their platforms. And our pitch for Gunpowder was so clear in its spirit and goals that it slotted right in with what they wanted at just the right time. There’s probably a way for you to plan to do this, but it means you are likely way smarter than me when it comes to reading the market and you probably have one of those “top grossing games” and I hate you. Just kidding, I love you -- would you like to fund our next awesome game idea? =)
Always Keep an Eye Out for Opportunities
Partnered with the last item, a huge part of this was just having some ideas we really loved in the back of our minds. Just because an idea isn’t right, right now doesn’t mean it won’t be right at a later time. Of course having ideas in the first place is a good thing, but that’s table stakes in this case and doesn’t warrant its own section. The important part is understanding why an idea is good so you have a sense of when to bring that bad boy out and dazzle somebody with it.
Convey Your Awesome Idea Simply and Clearly. Make Compelling Images
The beauty of this particular concept is that all you have to do is say like two or three sentences so people get it right away. While this seems obvious, it can sometimes be challenging to simply and succinctly sum up what makes a game concept great, so make sure you spend some time on it. In this case it was a lot easier to do because the concept itself was clean and simple. Sometimes if trying to make your pitch clear is making you want to shoot yourself, it may be a good sign your idea itself needs to be simplified! Don’t be afraid to pare it down.
The effect of this clarity became especially potent when combined with Nick’s lovely pitch images. Some people will tell you that the meat is the important part and you can get by with rough images. They are Jedis with mind tricks, if that’s true. You need both. MmmRRmmm. A Jedi I am not. (p.s. that was supposed to be in a Yoda voice.)
Street Cred Helps
It’s hard to say for sure how much of our success in getting our original games signed comes down to this, but if I had to bet, I’d bet it was a good part of what makes people believe in us.
Nick in particular has quite a shiny past (ha ha, get it? If not, find out more about my esteemed CoFounder, Nick Bruty) that we sometimes parade around. Giants: Citizen Kabuto, MDK, Earthworm Jim… the list goes on. And my past at LucasArts has warranted me a wealth of friendly contacts all over the industry, which I’m eternally grateful for. (That probably explains the ridiculous Yoda reference a moment ago.)
Show Your Passion for Your Idea
This is bonkers cliched for game dev write ups so I won’t waste your time on it. But, guess what? It’s pretty important. Surprise! Note that being passionate is not enough. You must exude it. Publisher dudette/dude is not telepathic, you must show them.
Show Your Honesty and Humility
This has paid off for me throughout my career, so while I can’t say for sure it helped us this time, I’m putting it down anyways. Largely because I wish people operated this way more often. So I’m going to do my part to try to convince you to be this way.
We always explain why we’re the right people for the job, and why this idea is a great one. But we are also open about who we are, and open about risks we see and unanswered questions, and always, always open to being asked questions directly.
Here’s a simple (somewhat exaggerated) way to put it. If you’re confident enough to tell somebody what you suck at, that person is probably much more likely to believe you when you tell them you’re awesome at something. Depressingly, this is a concept oft used by ridiculous pickup artists. Use your powers for good, people! Or, at the very least, try not to add to the stench!
A British Accent *
Nick is British. He has a lovely British accent. I can’t even imagine how awesome my bachelor years would have been if I had a British accent, especially as a Chinese dude. I’d be like a frickin’ unicorn.
In seriousness, the real nugget here is probably to not assume anything when it comes to dealing with different people. Everybody you talk to is going to be different and will respond to various things differently. It’s very helpful that Nick and I communicate differently. Often we let whoever naturally has the best rapport with the other party take over in most conversations. Pay attention to the cues and let it flow naturally. In the end, it’s always a combo that works best for us. If you’re a lone wolf, I’m not actually sure how to help you, as we’ve rolled up as a team every time. Sorry.
* Your mileage may vary.
Building the Game
I’m not going to spend a lot of time here as it’s not the focus of this post, but there was a lot to be learned, so I’ll just write a few notes.
Firstly, we were building the game for Windows 8 before it was ready, and with Unity3D, which wasn’t done with its Windows 8 support just yet. So this is super early adopter development time. It’s not our first rodeo with this sort of thing, though, so it didn’t really freak us out. It did cost more development time, but we knew that ahead of time - so it’s all cherries and was built into the budget.
One thing I will say is that Microsoft continues to have the best dev tools, hands down. Everything is just so easy and integrated. If you have never had the opportunity to build things with Visual Studio, man you don’t even know. If you can’t use it regularly, I almost recommend you don’t try it, because your current tools will feel like garbage afterwards. Sorry, it’s just true. I feel like I’m about to get flamed for this one, but I’m sticking to my guns on it!
We had decided the right way to do this was to build twice as many levels in Gunpowder as we intended to ship with, and pick out only the best ones in a brutal Darwinistic battle of level design. This worked really well. We also had everybody on the team try to make some levels to see what they could come up with, and use whatever great ideas bubbled to the top. This also worked really well. If you have the resources and time to do things this way, I highly recommend it. It’s fun, great for the team, and produces great results.
Focus test as much as you can. Get people in the office you don’t know. It’s actually not hard to get people to try out a new game just around town. Well, assuming you’re somewhere with lots of people around. We are located in San Francisco, so there’s lots of people just around. You have the entire spectrum of personalities and facial hair configurations to select from, too, should you want to see what happens. It’s always surprising how, without fail, you’re generally totally wrong about what you think players will get right away and what they’ll have trouble with. But use that feedback to improve your game!
You may notice that Gunpowder starts off very mellow and easy. That was by design, as more casual users uniformly couldn’t figure out how to do the basics. It was surprising how consistent this was. It was definitely challenging to balance not killing the noobs versus not letting it get too easy and dull for too long. If we were to go back and rebalance some levels, we would probably skew it a bit more towards more challenging earlier in the game.
In the end, we had a fantastic publishing team at Microsoft, and we’re still friendly with every one of them now. I would count myself lucky to work with them again, at Microsoft or otherwise.
The Premium Mobile Game Jungle (Spoiler Alert: It’s Brutal!)
You may ask, why did we go Microsoft exclusive? Aren’t you limiting your audience? Well, yes, of course, but let’s look at why this was a perfectly reasonable bet back in 2012.
Microsoft is a top tier partner. It doesn’t matter what your personal opinions about them may be, or if previous examples may not have gone well. The truth is, if you’ve shipped something with Microsoft, that’s a good thing for your street cred and your brand(s)
Apple’s iOS App Store/Google Play were at the time already turning into a bit of a blood bath, and F2P was clearly taking over. User Acquisition costs were clearly taking off like a rocket ship, and new games were piling into the store at insane rates, like those infected things piling into Jerusalem in World War Z (the Brad Pitt movie, not the book). Sure many of them aren’t very good, but many are quite brilliant, and a large number of them made by people willing to do it for a hot dog and a hug. We’re older, stupid enough to live in the Bay Area, and have kids, so we need the money. (Plus hugs have lost their appeal now that they’re sticky, wet, and often accompanied by whining. See aforementioned kids).
If you were going to bet on somebody being able to pull off a new marketplace at that time, Microsoft seemed like the best bet you could make. Being a first mover in a new market is a great hedge against the above, if you believe in it.
Microsoft chooses to build products with healthy budgets. They do not, like some other partners, try to squeeze it into a slim budget.
Unfortunately, the premium app marketplace on Windows 8 didn’t materialize as we had collectively hoped. Eventually, Gunpowder was pulled by Microsoft along with several other quite good first party published games, despite never dropping out of the top 100 apps.
Through a very strong business relationship with Microsoft and their support, we were granted the ability to bring Gunpowder to other platforms. This constitutes the second time I was very pleasantly surprised. Thus, I suggest to you to not be afraid to ask, even if you think the answer is going to be no. I chalk this up to making an honest effort to being a great partner, not just a great game developer. Work with your partner to make the best product possible. Make it easy on the support teams involved. Biz dev, legal… these are all people that will be your allies if you work with them and make all of your lives collectively easier.
Thus Gunpowder gained new life in the form of an iOS version, which is now available. We are super excited that we can share this game with a fresh audience, and we’re not going to stop there. Soon (or maybe already depending on when you finally found and read this), we will be bringing it to Steam and other platforms.
Let’s talk about iOS for a moment, though, now that we’ve had that live for a bit.
We’re very honored that our players love Gunpowder. Based on the feedback we’ve received and from TouchArcade, our players legitimately love it. But the game started out as iPad only. And premium. This is a very, very hard way to go.
The market has shifted away from this. There are some very engaged people looking for experiences like this, but it’s hard to reach them. There is no mature channel to reliably market to and acquire players. All of the channels belong to F2P. And the iPad/tablet market you may have seen in the news has been losing ground regularly to the Phablet generation.
As I write this, we’re testing to see if players would be happy playing a universal version on iPhones, but at this very moment, it’s still probably true that 99% of the time Apple is going to decide your fate. If you get featured, you have a shot. If you don’t, it’s going to be bingo night at the Alamo. I don’t say this with bitterness, it’s just the truth of it. Apple recommends that you don’t make Apple featuring a part of your business plan and criteria for success, and they are right to do so. But just know what you’re walking into.
You really need to build awareness well ahead of launch, get Apple’s attention and try to convince them to be with you every step of the way. Even then there’s never a promise, but if you want to go after this kind of thing, you need to do it. Do it. We didn’t do this. We got them involved too late, largely due to the history of the game. I wish somebody had told me to do this. Oops.
Also be mindful that press attention is amazing and rewarding (assuming they like it, which in Gunpowder’s case they do), but actually is unlikely to translate into a meaningfully large number of sales on mobile. TouchArcade thinks it’s worth a 4.5/5. And so do lots of other great channels like 148Apps. So there. And Technology Tell called it, “the hallmark of a well made puzzle game.” I mean, that’s some high praise! Yahoo and MacLife called it out as “best new” game. Even despite literally millions of eyeballs that could have potentially seen these favorable reviews of Gunpowder, it still hasn’t translated into stellar sales.
By the way, don’t underestimate the amount work it takes beyond “just” making the game. Player discovery is super duper hard right now in mobile, even if it’s not a premium game. If you don’t have somebody in house that can efficiently reach people, you need to accept that and find some help. There’s no way we could have received the huge piles of press coverage we enjoy without help. In our case, we worked with Mario at Uberstrategist, but there’s a lot of resources out there for you to look into. Ask around, somebody in your network probably has some recommendations. But seriously, embrace what you suck at and find ways to solve it. In general, I would guess most game developers naturally suck at self promotion, and the ones amazing at it are rare. We are still working on it ourselves!
But, no matter what happens in sales, this is great for the Rogue Rocket brand, and we proudly share that with huge gratefulness. How important this is to you I can’t tell you, you must decide for yourself.
At the time of this post, we just launched our Steam Greenlight campaign to make Gunpowder our first foray onto Steam. It will be exciting to bring it to more players on different devices. The game plays just as well (if not better) when clicking and dragging a mouse, so we hope our new players will enjoy it just as much!
UPDATE [7/8/2015]: Today we launched the game on Steam! The process of familiarizing ourselves with Steam Store's tools and processes was all new and fascinating. Having somebody there to ask questions was helpful, though most of the information you need is in a FAQ somewhere in their developer portal, it's just a matter of finding it! We're very excited to see how things go for the game on it's new PC/Mac/Linux home!
So what did we learn together here? The big things are: if you have a great idea, everything else goes down easier. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, as long as you’re being honest and aren’t being greedy. Sometimes even if you don’t think it can happen, life can surprise you. And making a game successful is really hard. Your work isn’t done when you’re done making it. Even now the jury is out on what the final story is going to be for Gunpowder.
We crafted this game lovingly and with great care and passion, so please, if you see anything about the game or this story that seems cool or fun to you, share the link with your friends and family. We’re super proud of this game, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed making it.
You can connect with us over the game on Facebook here:
on Twitter @Rogue_Rocket
on just the plain ol’ web http://www.roguerocketgames.com
Richard Sun / CoFounder
Rogue Rocket Games