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The End of the Journey: One Indie Studio's Tale

November 6, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 5 Next
 

Change of Course: Mighty Fin

And then we had a self-imposed reality check. Money simply wasn't going to last: we could try and rush out the next Scarlett game, but it would be truncated and compromised, and we'd still be left penniless by the time of its release.

I still remember the day we met up in a café to discuss what to do. It was really tense! We basically had to decide whether we wanted to continue doing the thing we love in the face of likely extinction -- or shelve that ideal for now and try to pump out a smaller game that would hopefully get us back on track.

Whether you're talking about making games that aren't close to your heart, or doing contract work for other people's IP, it's easy to justify when you're looking to stabilize your business and put some money away for the glorious day when you can get back to your dream projects.

But as many people have found, it's extraordinarily hard to pull free from the kind of projects that only allow you to limp towards the next project. We had certainly seen it before, and were simultaneously hugely wary and strongly idealistic: two traits that made this a hard conversation.

Eventually, though, our goal became to spin the roulette wheel and get a 99c game as far up the charts as possible.

This time, we were determined to do things properly. We entered into a two-week concept phase with the goal of generating a series of prototypes, from which we could pick the best one and develop it further.

One idea soon emerged as the leading candidate: a one-touch endless runner -- well, swimmer -- starring a fish travelling through some very hazardous seas. Very early on, we nailed the concept of buoyancy, and the (not entirely true-to-nature) idea that the deeper you dived, the higher you jumped. That core proved to be a winner with everyone we showed it to, and it became the basis for Mighty Fin.

There followed an eight-week development period. I wouldn't recommend it. The good part: it was fantastic working alongside Tim and James, extremely focused and now experienced enough to give this a good shot. Our roles were set: Tim on programming and music, James on the art, and me on design, level creation and... asset wrangling? This was probably the peak for us working as a tight little unit, and while it was stressful, I also enjoyed it immensely.

The bad part: eight weeks for a game we wanted to get to number one? Against the likes of Angry Birds and Tiny Wings? Crazy! The tight deadline meant we had little room to make mistakes in: Mighty Fin had to be great from day one.

We knew by this stage that marketing was going to be a tough sell. Who would care about yet another casual-looking endless runner? So I doubled down and focused everything on the one thing we knew about: a feature spot on the App Store. I managed to find more contacts at Apple, and tried to put our best foot forward when it came to the release.

Relying on this was an awful feeling: it's like relying on the lottery. But it was hard to know what other route to take: we knew what website coverage we did get wouldn't translate to many sales, and the kind of people who would be most receptive to buying Mighty Fin wouldn't be reading those sites.


The first prototype. We always wanted to put that red triangle in the final game as a costume.

In the end, we got a fairly good "New & Noteworthy" spot on the U.S. App Store. It propelled the game up to 39 in the overall US charts in the first 24 hours, and shifted 29,000 copies in the first couple of weeks. Again, though, it quickly spiked and sank, despite doing whatever we could think of for marketing the game.

It was enough money, however, to continue supporting Mighty Fin, and we felt there was still a lot we could bring to the game. One and a half months after release, we unleashed a huge update that doubled the number of levels, added unique music for each level type, made a new game mode, and doubled the number of collectible costumes. It made the game significantly better, and user (and critic) reviews reflected this.

And thanks to being named "Game of the Week" on the Australian App Store, the update sold better than the original release. In fact, it topped the charts in Australia, briefly outselling Angry Birds in the region -- our biggest claim to fame, financially speaking.

To date, Mighty Fin has sold 81,948 copies, and sits with a 4.5 star rating around the world. It remains our best-selling title, but as you can appreciate, it still wasn't enough money to survive for very long. We had to size up our options: what else could we do in a short timeframe? Should we even be continuing at all?


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