Gentlemen! Or, how our most successful game is also our least profitable.
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Three weeks ago my little studio, Lucky Frame, released Gentlemen! for iPad and Android. If you aren’t aware of it, it's a 2-player head-to-head Victorian dueling game for tablets. Two players required, local multiplayer only.
We've also just released the desktop version for Mac and PC, which is still local multiplayer but is 2-4 players and has a bunch of new features.
Go buy it if you like, or there's a free demo of the desktop version.
So this seems like a good time to talk about our tablet release, how it went and why. Selling a tablet-only game that requires two players was always going to be a challenge, but there were definitely some surprising outcomes and it's always fun to try and analyze them. Let's go!
Without a doubt, Gentlemen! was one of the best-reviewed projects we have ever produced. We received a coveted 8/10 on Edge, 4.5 stars on Touch Arcade, and a 9/10 Gold Award on PocketGamer. This was totally brilliant, and we are so proud. It’s interesting to think about why we got such great reviews. Obviously it’s a game that we’re super proud of, and we think it’s amazing, but that’s not always enough to secure great critical acclaim.
At one point, during the development process, we were planning to make a single player mode in the game. We got as far as mocking up some concepts and even designing a few challenge levels before deciding that it wasn’t a good idea. Gentlemen! was designed from the very first prototype to be a local multiplayer game - the gravity flipping, the level layout, it was all created with two players in mind. Any single player mode would have been superfluous and probably not very fun.
I think the positive reviews were an unanticipated outcome from this decision. If Gentlemen! had a half-baked single player mode, then reviewers would probably have only played that and not enjoyed it very much. Instead, the reviewers had to find someone to play with, and play a game together for enough time to make an educated assessment. As it turns out, playing games with other people is super fun, and I think it’s harder to be negative or cynical about a game when you’re sitting across from someone who is having a blast throwing pigeons at you.
The downside, of course, is that not all reviewers were able to find someone to play with. Reviewing games tends to be a fairly solitary activity, and more than one reviewer really wanted to test the game but was unable to find people to play with. We are lucky to have really great support from a number of different media outlets, and several of them made the extra effort to review Gentlemen! - though our overall number of reviews was far lower than Bad Hotel or Wave Trip.
Another interesting result of our multiplayer design was that we have gotten some user reviews, almost exclusively on iTunes, saying that we should make a single player version, or network multiplayer. Partially this is my fault, because the marketing copy said “Two Players Required!” and many people didn't realize that meant “two players in the same place”. But there is also a funny logical thing going on, where many of the reviews say something like “Good game, could be so much better with online multiplayer or ai”. This is strange to me, because it admits that it is a good game, but then goes on to say that it should be different. My argument would be that the whole reason this is a good game is because you play it with a friend!
So! Great reviews? Check. How does this translate into sales? So far we have sold 1,114 copies on iPad, and 144 copies on Android. Whether this is a ‘good’ result is up for debate. Certainly, many many games are released every day that don’t sell anything close to these numbers. We knew very well that we were making a pretty esoteric game, in the sense that it is limited to iPads and tablets bigger than 7 inches and requires two players, so we didn’t exactly have high expectations. We also set the price relatively high - starting at $5, and currently on sale for $3.
So far the number of sales is a bit lower than we hoped - my personal target was to sell 2000 copies, but with a little luck we will get there! As a side note, amateur mathemagicians out there will realize that selling 2000 copies, even at our high price point, is not exactly good business for a 3-person studio working on a game for 5 months. Well, that’s because for this project we were really lucky to be supported by the Prototype Fund, a brilliant support grant run by the University of Abertay in Dundee. They give money to studios who want to make something great without the crushing weight of commercial expectations. We certainly couldn’t have made the game without them, and we are extremely privileged to live and work in a society where this exists.
One problem we definitely had was that just as we were releasing our game, a lovable little scamp named Psy happened to release a song named "Gentleman". The deep irony of all of this was that we had a really hard time naming our game, and for the longest time it had the terribly uncatchy title of “Martin vs. Monty”. We finally settled on “Gentlemen!” (other ideas: ‘Scoundrels’, ‘East Stabwich’, ‘The Panic of 1857’, ‘Crumpet Clash’, etc) and sent out all of the promo material accordingly, blissfully unaware of this pop song. You wouldn’t think a pop song would cause problems for an app, but we quickly learned about the seedy world of games and apps piggybacking on other entertainment media. What a strange time we live in. Also, how depressing that people spend their time making Jetpack Joyride ripoffs using graphics referencing pop songs. So unfortunately, discovery was and remains a major problem.
We also didn’t really get any featuring from Apple for this release, which was too bad, but then they have really supported our previous releases so we can’t complain!
Anyway, pricing a game is always an interesting question, and there were a few eyebrows raised at our initial $5 price. Part of our thinking was that a two-player game has a higher value than a single player game, because it is being shared with friends. Tablet games can sometimes command a higher price as well, I suppose just because the bigger screen size conveys greater value. But most importantly we believe that Gentlemen! gives you way more than $5 worth of fun. We’ve watched people play game after game, and we get feedback from users who say they play with their child/partner/parent for an hour or more at a time. It’s a bit of a tired argument, but the fact remains that this is pretty great value entertainment. Finally, there’s a bit of a trend in the indie game world for raising prices on games, and we’re in favor of that and wanted to fit into the cool kids club.
A few days after release, we started noticing some pretty strange statistics on the Android version. At the last minute we had included an analytics package into the game that told us how many unique users there were playing around the world. After two days we had sold a total of 8 copies on Google Play, but we were getting significantly more players. The numbers surprised us so much that we actually contacted the analytics company to confirm that we were interpreting them correctly. Once we had done that I posted on the Lucky Frame twitter feed, asking people to guess how many pirated copies were being played. Nobody got anywhere near:
If you’re interested, after three weeks those numbers are now 144 copies sold, 50,030 copies pirated. So, as you can tell the piracy rate has not really slowed down at all - if anything it has gotten even stronger!
Anyway, this tweet set off a firestorm of social media activity - basically, I spent the next three days responding to tweets and facebook messages (844 retweets!). It resulted in a definitely jump in Android sales (we sold about 25 the next day - woo marketing!) and generated some interesting discussion around the interwebs. This taught me several things...
People love hating on specific technology companies.
This experience was very similar (though much larger scale) to our whole experience with the unVerse rejection. Whilst that story provided fodder to Apple haters, releasing this data was a great example of confirmation bias. One narrative that kept appearing was “this is why you shouldn’t develop for Android”, or more bluntly “this is why Android sucks”. I find this attitude pretty silly. Let’s face it, all of these devices are just computers. Some of them have nice UI, some of them have nice product design, and they all certainly have downsides. It’s pretty sad when people associate electronics products with lifestyle choices, and judge others accordingly. These devices and companies are loaded with moral and ethical dilemmas, there is very little critical thought devoted to their place in the world, and the differences between them are negligible at best. Instead of saying “Product X is so much better than Product Y” or “Fans of Product X are blind/idiots/fanboys”, we should really be saying “How can we use this technology in a positive way?” On a more technical note, the idea that we “shouldn’t develop for Android” is kind of ridiculous. We made Gentlemen! in the Unity game engine, which makes building an Android version extremely easy. It probably took us an extra two or three days to make the android version (out of a 5 month develop cycle), so even if we only sell 200 copies total it’s still just about worth it.
We made an awesome game
Many people assumed that we were really upset about this statistic. In retrospect, talking about the piracy numbers on twitter probably implies that we were unhappy, but in reality the number of pirates just confirmed to us that we made a game that people love to play! The people who are pirating our game are also playing a surprising amount, with really great engagement - these are no casual pirates just downloading because they can. So this confirmed to us that our game design is solid, and that we’ve made a super fun game that people enjoy. To be honest, that is really great. It’s unlikely that any of these pirates would have bought the game anyway, so we’re just glad that people are playing. Android makes piracy very easy, and thanks to that Gentlemen! is being played by more people around the world than all of our previous games combined.
Devices are complicated
A lot of talk has been devoted to the insane amount of Android phones and tablets on the market, and how this poses a challenge to developers. We were very wary of this, and our strategy was to release only for devices that we were able to test on. This was a pretty limited number of mostly Google Nexus and Samsung devices. Our thinking was that we didn’t want anyone to buy the game and then have a negative experience with it. We got a fair amount of criticism for this, with people saying that the game wasn’t available for purchase on their specific device. We’re still undecided on how to approach this, because it is very scary to allow people to buy our game on a tablet or phone on which it won’t run well. We thought that releasing on the most popular devices would be fine, but it probably wasn't. On the other hand, I don’t think that this was responsible for our piracy rate. It seems unlikely to me that people tried to buy it on Google Play, found it wouldn’t run on their device, and then tracked down a torrent instead. It’s far more likely that the people who pirated the game have only one method of finding and installing apps, and that is through pirate sites.
One thing that helped me reach that conclusion was the location statistics for the pirated copies. About 95% of the pirated copies are being installed in Russia and China (and of those, mostly China). We didn’t even translate our Google Play store into Russian or Chinese, so it’s almost certain that the pirates just found our app on localized pirate sites. On the other hand, I’m glad our menu design is intuitive enough that you can play the game without speaking English!
We have a lot to learn
This was our first Android release. We probably could have done more to avoid the massive piracy of our game - or, even better, convert pirate users into paid users. I think that Android apps are definitely going to get pirated no matter what...I can only dimly imagine the level of piracy that a truly successful paid app has. However if we had anticipated this situation we probably would have included some sort of in app purchase, perhaps to unlock extra levels or game modes. At least then the pirates would have the opportunity to pay us a little something if they were enjoying it so much - the main problem is that most of these pirates probably exist in a commercial ecosystem where the Google Play store does not even exist, and it doesn’t occur to them to buy any games from there at all.
One small thing that really surprised us - Google Play users are far more likely to leave reviews in the store...and very positive ones at that! Nearly 10% of the people who bought the game on Google Play have left reviews, averaging 4.8 stars. On iTunes, it’s more like 0.01%, and we’re only averaging 3.3 stars. Awww! So there you go.
I don't have much of a conclusion here, I'm afraid. This has been a really interesting experience, and we've certainly learned a lot. I just thought it might be useful to get this all out in the open - let me know if you have any questions or comments!