Piracy is a problem in mobile that nobody likes to talk about. It's kind of embarrassing for the platform holders, and I think most developers feel it's in their best interest give the issue as little publicity as possible. But it is a bona fide issue, particularly for a game like Riptide GP that monetizes strictly off base game sales and not through in-app purchases.
We took Google's advice and implemented their Android Market license-checking. Ralf obscured the license code wherever possible, looking for ways to outmaneuver at least the automatic bots that strip licenses on new executables and post them automatically to warez sites. We knew that if the hacker community really wanted to they could find a workaround, but at least they'd have to work for it.
Well, they didn't have to work that hard. When the game first launched, we were elated to see posts in the warez forums indicating that the automatic license stripping wasn't working. But within 24 hours, a playable cracked version of Riptide GP showed up.
According to our analytics, as of this writing the ratio of pirated copies to legal copies out there in the world is about 9 to 1. Our assumption -- our hope at least -- is that the majority of pirates probably wouldn't have bought the game anyway, so the numbers don't precisely translate into lost sales.
The annoying thing, though, is that for the players who buy the game legally, Google's license check can be a little persnickety, particularly if the user has a spotty mobile internet connection. We don't get very many tech support emails -- I'm happy to say the game itself is pretty stable -- but the majority of emails we do get have to do with failed license checks. They can be answered and resolved with a simple form letter, but it's time consuming, and annoying, and it makes us wonder whether it was worth implementing the license check at all.
5. Where is the Love?
Coming off Hydro Thunder Hurricane on XBLA, we thought we had the whole press-promotion thing figured out: You send out some press releases with screen shots and video for preview coverage, send out review codes for reviews, and bam, you're done! Of course we were hugely helped by the fact that Hydro Thunder was a known franchise, but from what we could see, the same strategy more or less worked for original indie games on console as well.
Not so with mobile games -- it's particularly hard to get coverage for Android games, and even more challenging for Tegra-exclusive games. Few of the major gaming sites even offer dedicated mobile coverage, and those that do mostly just cover the biggest iPhone/iPad titles. As of this writing, you won't find a single Android game listed on Metacritic. And outside of the mainstream gaming press, the major tech outlets like CNet and Wired focus primarily on hardware and non-gaming apps.
For Riptide GP, we partnered with marketing group Flashman Agency to try and make the biggest splash we could. We worked with NVIDIA and carrier/hardware partners to showcase the game at press events and trade shows like MWC, GDC, and E3. We sent out press releases, trailers, screenshots and other assets to all the major gaming and tech outlets.
Despite this, most of our efforts announcing Riptide GP to the world were met with... crickets. Well, that's not entirely fair. Joystiq covered us, and we got a decent amount of traction and praise from many smaller to mid-sized Android and mobile gaming sites and blogs. But the major gaming and tech sites were simply not interested.
For those sites that did cover us, our challenge became one of infrastructure. The Android Market doesn't have any review code mechanism, so there is no easy way to send a copy of your game to the press to review. One additional challenge was that not a lot of sites even had Tegra hardware they could play the game on. We ended up getting a bunch of loaner phones and tablets that we preinstalled the game on and sent out to press ourselves.
I understand the lack of interest from major outlets is partly a question of platform market share. But I believe it's also due to prejudice on the part of the mainstream gaming press -- mobile games still have a reputation for being shallow, throw-away experiences, unlike "real games" developed for PC and console.
But the high-end mobile market is growing much faster than the console market, and there is a whole new generation of mobile games coming out which offer experiences every bit as compelling as what you can find on traditional gaming platforms. Consumers already know this. The question is: when will the gaming press catch up?
A shot from the final game. The new billboard foliage system allowed us to mix a few naturalistic tracks in with the gritty industrial ones.
Riptide GP launched in the Android Market on May 20. Sales have been pretty good, at least relative to other Tegra-exclusive games. Better still our user reviews and comments have been really encouraging -- the game is holding an average user score of about 4.8/5. An iOS version is in the works, and we're considering other platforms as well. In addition, there's always the possibility of downloadable content and other offshoots.
Most importantly, this experience has given us a taste of success in a huge new market. We've always wanted to keep our team small, and assumed that eventually that would mean shifting our focus from console to mobile -- we'd just thought that move might be a few years down the road.
This isn't to say we've given up on console development. We see it as part of the mix. Consoles still deliver superior technical punch, and the increased scope and budgets for funded titles offer greater stability. Also, console gamers still demand -- and allow us to explore -- a little more depth and sophistication in game mechanics than we might currently do on mobile.
Still, the mobile gaming market offers us a chance to experiment with smaller-scale projects, to put many small bets on the table as opposed to a few big ones. The games are fun to work on and easy to wrap your head around. Best of all, we actually might be able to self-fund a few and potentially reap the full reward of our work.
I hesitate to say we've got this small-studio thing figured out. But at least for the foreseeable future we have enough work to remain stable. And right now stability feels really good.
Title: Riptide GP
Released: May 20, 2011
Engine: Vector Engine
Team size: 2
Development time: 11 man-months
3rd Party Tools: FMOD Sound System, Bullet Physics (for collisions and ragdoll)
Development Tools: Maya 2008, Photoshop CS4, Microsoft Visual Studio 2010, Subversion
Android Market: https://market.android.com/details?id=com.vectorunit.blue