[When an iPhone project begins in 2008 and launches in 2010, that's a huge challenge -- and 100 Rogues developer Keith Burgun here describes the bumps in the road that the well-liked, high-quality game has hit on its long slow journey towards release and profitability.]
In December of 2008, my team and I began working on our iPhone game, 100 Rogues, which wouldn't get released until May of 2010. A widely reported iPhone gold rush combined with our desire to get a great game out to as many people as possible seemed like a great match, and so we charged into development full-force.
The Genesis of 100 Rogues
Strangely enough, the concept for our game, initially, was to "make a POWDER clone". For those who don't know, POWDER is a roguelike game that's been widely ported to a ton of platforms. For those who don't know what a roguelike game is, it's a genre of computer game that's been very active for 30 years (they're named "roguelikes" after the game that started it all back in 1980, titled Rogue.)
Imagine turn-based Diablo on Hardcore mode with high scores -- randomly-generated maps, turn based combat, and crushing difficulty usually are hallmarks of the genre.
Due to the fact that we chose our price point first, we ended up expanding out in a lot of ways that took us completely off the POWDER track. Probably the most striking difference is in presentation -- our game is pure fully-animated pixel art, with an original score, opening and closing cutscenes, and a detailed user interface.
Though we had originally planned for it to be un-animated and rough, like POWDER and many PC roguelikes, we eventually decided that the should look and feel like a Super Nintendo or PlayStation release.
Gameplay-wise, 100 Rogues has a skill tree (similar to Diablo II's) and is highly tactical -- most of the spells are not too helpful unless applied at just the right moment. I was also heavily inspired by the boiled-down simplicity of Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer and even games like Team Fortress 2, and I tried to make the items system be as simple as possible.
So, no two items do the same thing; each item has its own specific role and doesn't step on any others. This again stands in stark contrast, I think, to the design of POWDER, which is much more of a conventional roguelike game. Again, most these changes were largely sparked by the price-point -- which is very relevant to my overall point here.
Unlike so many commercial games of today, 100 Rogues is not about completion; it's about improving your skills at the game. It follows more closely with an old arcade game like Galaga or a competitive game like Chess than it does Final Fantasy. A huge concern of ours was to make sure this element of the game was exorbitantly clear to our players.
The Challenge of Visibility
Our approach to making this clear was to dispel the "hero" image of the player classes, and paint them as societal rejects -- losers who seem as destined to fail as they actually are. To our surprise, this seemed to have worked; the expected complaints about the game being "too hard" simply because people couldn't complete it never came.
The game was also very well received by all who formally reviewed it, getting at least four out of five stars from every publication we're aware of (to be fair, there were early complaints about the stability of the game, but this was addressed early on).
Though we started in 2008, we didn't really understand what the game would be until somewhere in late 2009 or early 2010. Furthermore, we lacked an overall gameplan for marketing the game, beyond simply being active on forums and word of mouth.
The experience of trying to guerrilla-market 100 Rogues was, and continues to be, frustrating. The story goes something like this. Sales are sucking. We work our asses off on a significant update and on promotional materials (be they a video, a contest, an illustration, or just a blog post).
The update goes live, sales increase ten-fold, and everything is great, until we notice that on Day 2 after the update, our sales have reduced by 50 percent or more. Same with the next day, and after two or three days, we're back to square one.
It feels like the only times we have good sales are when we are at the top of the "What's New" app store page, because of a patch. This speaks to the aforementioned top-heaviness of the App Store (by the way, it isn't possible to release patches any more frequently than our team does; Apple takes about two weeks to put one out, and we usually have another patch ready to go by the time they do). We only get any visibility when we're in the "What's New" section due to a patch.