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[Appy Entertainment, the developer behind Trucks & Skulls and FaceFighter, recently launched its first free-to-play iOS game. Studio brand director Paul O'Connor picks apart the successes and failures in getting to grips with the casual and F2P space simultaneously.]
Appy Entertainment committed to developing SpellCraft in late 2010. Trucks & Skulls launched as a premium hit that November, enjoying Apple's top banner support on iTunes, but even during that period of record earnings we knew the iOS market had shifted. And we were right. After a strong run through the holidays, Trucks would drop out of the App Store Top 100. The market was speaking with its wallet -- it was freemium or bust. As of this writing, 70 percent of the U.S. App Store "Top Grossing" games are freemium titles, and there's little reason to believe that trend will reverse any time soon.
Short-term, we responded by pivoting both FaceFighter and Trucks & Skulls from premium to freemium monetization, but these games were like battleships hastily converted to aircraft carriers in World War II. Players rewarded our changeover with improved reviews and revenue, but neither game had the kind of data-driven, collecting-oriented gameplay that best takes advantage of the freemium format.
We needed a purpose-built social-mobile game -- something innovative, fun, and with plenty of room for expansion. We were fans of games like Zombie Farm and Pocket Frogs and had spent a lot of time on Facebook with Zynga games like FarmVille, but as a studio we had never built a social-mobile game from the ground up.
Our first concept was kind of like Dungeons & Dragons meets Ravenwood Fair, but we quickly realized the idea was too big and too ill-focused for our first foray into this new genre.
We simultaneously elected to reduce scope (by focusing just on wizards, rather than the "full" role playing experience) and broaden our market beyond D&D players by appealing to fans of the most potent fantasy property of our time and also embracing the farming mechanics of Zynga's top game.
Thus armed with the killer high concept of "Harry Potter meets FarmVille", we donned our wizard robes and repaired to our tower to brew spells and blow stuff up.
Appy is a young company with a small staff, and a major challenge in SpellCraft was to amplify our internal capacity by outsourcing production wherever possible. As was the case on Truck & Skulls, much of the engineering was done out-of-house by Quinn Dunki, but where SpellCraft broke new ground for us was in the extent to which we outsourced our art.
We'd first started searching for outsourcing assets while producing updates for a previous title (Trucks & Skulls), so we had a running start in putting together our list of candidates to work on SpellCraft. Production design remained in-house, as did game design, UI design, animation, sound, and some asset creation, but 65 percent of SpellCraft's in-game art was produced by outsourcing firms in India and China under our tight direction.
We vetted each firm with test art assignments before committing to them for SpellCraft, to make sure they could follow our direction and adopt our house style, and were pleased we could get such high quality results without having to embed anyone at the outsourcing studios. It was a significant step for Appy to increase our art bandwidth with external resources while maintaining the high quality of our previous (and mostly internally-produced) titles.
2. Canadian Soft Launch
An unusually fast approval by Apple (we got the green light on the Sunday of Thanksgiving Day weekend, hats off to the Cupertino guys for working the holiday weekend!) meant our game was available a full 10 days prior to our final launch date.
This let us do a "soft launch" for SpellCraft in limited territories -- in this case, Canada -- to test the game with real players before going worldwide. While we weren't always able to act on it, the data we got from actual player behavior was invaluable, and we've already determined that a longer and more wide-spread soft launch will be built into our future games.
3. W3i Partnership
One of the things we know at Appy is what we don't know, and we knew we had little expertise in launching and analyzing social/mobile games. We addressed this need through partnership with W3i, which invested in the game and consulted in SpellCraft's development.
W3i is a Minnesota-based software company with a deep background in monetizing desktop software which is moving into the mobile space in a big way, and we'd been in discussions for several months about how we might do business together. W3i specializes in app marketing and user acquisition -- two areas where we really appreciated their expertise. W3i was especially helpful in the run up to launch and our test market period, helping us sift through mountains of player data to make the game more fun and "sticky."
Post-launch, W3i provided guidance on how best to market the game with targeted ad buys putting the game in front of the right audiences to find new players. It is true of all iOS games that your job is only just getting started when you ship a game, but it is doubly true of social/mobile games, and we've been fortunate in picking good partners to navigate these waters in W3i.