January has been quite productive around here, I started the month by implementing my saving system, which would also come in handy because now that I have all the chapters in the game I wanted to do some testing with an entire playthrough.
This is not the final UI, but is probably close to the final version. There will be 3 different slots for now, but given the amount of different paths I’m considering adding more, as well as a way to edit the name of the saved data.
Another big thing I’ve been working on is the Flashbacks. If you played the Blackout demo you probably encountered a flashback, they are basically a scene where the character recollects a piece of memory connected to what caused him to blackout.
In the demo this flashbacks were basically represented by a scrollable text on a different background, but I wanted to do something more special because they are core to the story. So what I ended up coming up with is something that makes it look more like a comic book, and also more interactable.
Here’s a piece of one flashback, but please keep in mind that the assets are all placeholders and things are not properly animated yet.
The dialog moves along as the player clicks, and there are also sound effects and ambiance, which really makes a ton of difference in some of the scenes.
Let me know what you think, and if you have any suggestions!
it has been a while since the last post, mostly because I’ve been busy with Blackout’s development, had to spend a lot of time with marketing stuff, like creating this landing page, which implied in me having to update and translate the whole site, (something I was meaning to do for almost 2 years now).
Anyway, development has been moving well, as of now I have 9 out of the 10 chapters playable, which means soon I’ll be able to have a test build in which a whole playthrough will be possible. But after I finish this there is still A LOT to be done, need to start testing the systems, balance attribute changes, make sure every path/choice is reachable, add remaining SFX and then finally polish and confetti.
I just wanted to share the chapter workflow, since I mentioned previously that the choices can change the order of the chapters (reference names have been omitted).
July was a bit of a short month for me in terms of gamedev. I took a 9 day vacation since my brother was visiting me, it was very hot and we went to some nice places around Greece. Also spending 9 days away from my computer did wonders for my tendinitis =)
So in the end I managed to dedicate only about 10 hours to Blackout (half the time I usually work on it in a month). I’ve been trying to increase this time but my life has been a bit chaotic, and also sometimes is very hard to find the strength to work extra hours when you already have a 8h/day programming job. And what did I do with these 10 hours? I almost finished the text revision! In fact, as of writing this, I already did, so I decided (right now as I write this) to change the focus of the post and talk about the revision instead of the CYOA framework I’m using, like I promised on the previous post. I want to do a detailed post about the framework, that’s gonna take some time, and the text revision is fresh on my mind since I finished this weekend.
It took me almost 50 hours to go through the whole text (around 65k words), making changes in almost every single one of the 600+ passages and also writing a bunch of new ones. I also “translated” the text to twine, as I mentioned in the previous post, separating every chapter as a single twine story, in order to be easier to visualize it.
The so called “chapters” is another point I’d like to talk about. After handwriting the first draft of the story, years ago, I first put it into google docs, and as it still felt convoluted (with things like big numbers “Go to passage 534” or similar passages with weird numeration “Go to passage 41.2”), I decided to divide the story in Chapters. Well it seemed very easy and straightforward to do that, since the story spreads across several different locations I could simply make every location a different chapter: Alley, Taxi, Hospital…
But what about the names of the chapters? I had kept the location itself as the name at first, but as we approached the preview version release, I tried to come up with better names. It proved to be a very hard task, first because what the character does in each chapter can vary a lot. If you played the preview (The Alley), you probably know you can have an encounter with cops (which can go many different ways); you can find some weird stuff in the alley; you can also see none of that and just leave.
The second thing is I can’t do numbered chapters either, because the order of the chapter changes depending on your choices, so it would be kind of weird if one person’s chapter 2 was the hospital, and other’s was the taxi.
So when we released the preview version, this is what the “chapter select” screen looked like.
The idea of this chapter select screen was more to entice the player on what was to come, I was not 100% clear on what the functionality of it for the full game would be. But it raised another problem with the chapter names: spoilers. We got some feedback of people saying they would rather not know the name of the places the character would go beforehand. I was aware that might happen, that’s why I did not put all the chapter names in the preview, some of them are extremely spoilery.
So, how to solve this? I’ve come to realize that most of the times in game development, we’re the ones who create the problems, specially when it’s something related to the design of the game.
What is the problem? Chapters.
Who said we need to have chapters? Well, I did.
And what if we just… get rid of them? But… Ahm… Actually, that might work!
As simple as that. I created the chapters to organize the text, but the game itself does not benefit from it. The game is designed to be played in a single sitting, it does not need long break points. Also, we have a map inside the game, that will take care of conveying the transition of the character through the locations (and also show the stats for how many passages the player visited in that determined location)
Of course the decision might not be as easy in every game, but I’ve come to this realization recently while working on another game with a friend (still in early design state), most of the problems we tended to dwell on were arbitrary rules that were either created by ourselves or by other games of the genre, once we learned to break our own rules the design work started to flow and the game became much more interesting.
That’s it for today! I’ll be taking 2 weeks of vacations this month to go to Brazil, so next month’s post will probably be mostly about the blackout framework.
Between E32018 and the World Cup, June has been a month full of distractions, specially since I make my makes on my free time.
Despite that, I still managed to get a good amount done, and a very important part of Blackout, even though it might not be the most exciting: text revision. It has been a long time since I wrote it, and some of the later chapters have never undergone a true revision.
In order to make this task easier I decided to change the tool I was using to keep the text, which wasn’t really a IF tool, it was just google docs, which is better than what I used when I originally wrote the story: two small notebooks.
So I decided to move the story from google docs to Twine, even though I’m not using twine for the game implementation itself (I’m using my own framework, which I’ll go into more detail on next month’s post) making it easier to have a good overview of the flow of each chapter, easier to find a passage and also easier to test.
This is a chapter from Blackout, you can see how chaotic and non-linear it looks, even though in this specific chapter most paths end time leading to the same exit (wide boxes are the end point, and each of them leads to a different chapter). Even though a direct path through the chapter might be short, there are several different ways of approaching every situation.
This chapter has almost 8k words, if you’re the type that is interested in numbers, this is the average for most chapters, some are bigger and some are smaller. If you played through the preview that is up on itch.io, you saw that the writing style is very simple and direct, I want the player to move fast through the story, and do this several times over, so it can’t be some Tolkienesque thing where I describe every small rock on the way.
On other news, I also took some time on a weekend to participate in the Godot Community Jam. I tried Godot for the first time earlier this year in another game jam and liked it a lot, so I wanted to get more practice, and I thought game jams are probably the best way to achieve that right now, given the small amount of free time I have.
I ended up making a very simple game, in roughly 8 hours. The theme of the jam was Temperature. You can check all entries here.
That’s it for June, I decided to start making this monthly report because one of my goals for 2018 was posting in the blog more often. For the next post I’ll try to go a bit into the framework I’ve built (and am still building) for Blackout.
In this article I will be sharing my experience using the Pay What you Want model in a mobile game. The game I tested on is called Sheep Dreams Are Made of This, a story driven platformer/runner with unusual mechanics and a weird vibe. A user review on the store described it as “a mix of Catherine and Cannabalt”, and I like to think it’s on point, Catherine was actually an influence since I was playing it while working on the initial concepts for this game and it made me realize the whole dream/nightmare thing would fit the mechanics I had in mind really well. Plus, I’m a huge fan of Neil Gaiman and H.P. Lovecraft, so the theme really interests me.
Sheep Dreams was a project I sat on my drawer for more than a year, we (me and one friend) began working on it with the idea of it being a “one weekend” project, but we worked on it for one day and never touched it again. Got busy, contract work came up, that sort of things.
It was supposed to be a small game from the start so we actually did a lot of the work on that one day: animations, background, level design and most of the mechanics.
I really liked the idea of the game so one year later I decided I would finish it and release it. The artist was busy at the time so I took upon myself the stupid idea task to do everything else that was missing, including the art.
What is this game?
The elevator pitch goes something like this: Sheep Dreams Are Made of This is a looping platformer about recurring nightmares, you control a man that wakes up in the same nightmare, every night, for the past 16 years. As you navigate the labyrinth levels you collect memory fragments that help the character remember things about his past, and your goal is to collect them all to uncover what has been causing the recurring nightmares, but you have to do it before he wakes up.
When I sat down to start this game, my initial goal was simply to try and make a game with no death and no enemies. An endless runner seemed like a good option, and later on turned out to work really well with the recurring nightmare theme.
As I was finishing the game I decided it needed something to make it more compelling. I was dabbling with the idea of a time based mechanic from the beginning, so I thought it would be interesting if the game had a time limit of 8 hours, representing a full night of sleep. This would be 8 hours of real time, so it would count even with the game closed. Not only it made a lot of sense given the concept of the game, but it also would make players stick with the game a little longer and present more of a challenge. Of course some people did not like the idea (I’ll get into details later on) but they were far fewer than I expected.
The Initial Launch
Finishing the game ended up taking a little more time than I expected (as it always does), but I was satisfied with the result. It wasn’t looking as cool graphically as I initially hoped, but I was happy with the camera tricks, and the very happy with how the story turned out.
Here’s how the game looked upon launch.
The original trailer is still up if you want to check it.
If you look close you will notice what elements I drew (platforms, doors, cubes…) because they don’t look as good as the sheep and the background. I thought it was good enough since the main thing about the game was the concept and story, and I was really curious to see if the mobile audience would like something like this.
Why not release on Android and iOS as well? I was still very unsure about this project, specially on mobile where players are more casual, I thought everyone would hate a game that was trying to tell a more deep and serious story. So this way I would able to test it first.
But I still had a big problem: monetization.
How the hell do you monetize a story driven endless runner? There are no power ups, no coins, no costumes. I only want the player to experience the story with no hurdles. Ideally this would be a $0.99 game, but I was sure that would flop, releaseing a paid mobile game without being known is tough. I bet Simogo would be able to get away with it, for instance (they are my favorite mobile dev btw).
So as I was getting to know itch.io better I saw the “suggested donation” thing, and I really liked that, that could work. But how would I do that on mobile? Would App Purchase work?
After a bit of research I found out that you are not allowed to get donations inside an app, if you are selling an IAP you have to give something to the player, otherwise your app will be refused. So I went back to the model I didn’t really want: ads with IAP to remove it, but instead of charging a flat $0.99 I gave the option of paying $0.99, $1.99 and $2.99.
I also tried to make the ads not very intrusive, I did not want banner ads, so I chose to show full screen ads every once in a while, after the player goes through a door and a story bit appears, since the game is paused on that moment. So I published the game and started the usual facebook/twitter/email marketing.
What Went Right
I really did not expect the mobile audience to be on board for the story, but I was really excited reading the reviews because people were really into it! I also got a lot of 1 star reviews saying the game was depressive or “don’t play this game if you’re feeling down”. I really don’t mind that people give it a bad rating, knowing that the story had such a string impact is more important for me, even if it made the person stop playing the game.
To my surprise, not only people did not complain about the graphics, but it got a lot of compliments! (Later on we updated the graphics a bit, we’ll get there)
Touch Arcade later used the headline “Sheep Dreams Are Made of This has a clever pun and a crazy gimmick”. It was the first time I got the attention of a big iOS website, and I think the name played a big part in getting their attention. My previous game had a very generic name that probably did not help at all (Tap Master Mondrian), e the following game I released also had this problem (Snap Quiz Challenge). They were also targeted to more casual players, but I think a better name would have helped them. I lost count of how many people made jokes quoting the Marilyn Mason song, and many people complained on the reviews that they wanted the song to be in the game.
I tried using the “exclusive to windows phone” tagline when I release Sheep Dreams, since my previous game did much better on windows phone than iOS and Android. And this worked really well with the community, they loved to have a game that could not be found on the other systems, and it also work with the mobile sites focused on windows phone, most of the major ones did a piece on the new weird game exclusive to windows phone. The game also got some small features on the windows phone store. Too bad windows phone did not have a ton of users, and by this point the ad revenue decreased by half if compared to when I launched Tap Master.
What Went Wrong
As I said before, this initial launch (maybe you could call it a soft launch) was more of a test, here’s what went wrong :
Music (lack of)
This one was also a big experiment. I thought I’d make this a “silent game”, since it’s very common to have dreams where you can’t hear anything. There was even a point in the game where the characters points it out in one of the sentences that appear when the character enters a door.
Of course it also made it a lot easier to make the game because I did not have anyone to make the music and sound effects, as I mentioned before, I was making this completely alone at this point.
What happened is I got a lot of 1 star reviews because people thought it was a bug! Later on I added music and sound effects, and of course it made the game much better. Still got some 1 star reviews complaining the music is repetitive. Oh well.
Menu (and very low IAP conversion)
I had this “great” idea of making the menu playable, so the character would have jump on the specific platform if he wanted to rate the game, see credits or buy the IAP.
That’s terrible. You really don’t want to make it hard for people to buy your damn game, or rate it.
So I immediately made a quick update and added a button inside the pause menu that would rate the game, and another one to buy the IAP, except that this one was defaulted to the lowest priced one ($0.99), so it poisoned the stats that I will show later on, at least for windows phone, because I fixed it before launching on android and iOS by adding a separate screen with the 3 prices (which you saw the screenshot earlier when I was talking about monetization)
The Language Barrier
Looking at the average review score after one week or so I realized the game was rated considerably lower in countries where Spanish is the native language, compared to English and Portuguese speaking ones.
The game launched in English and Portuguese, and since the main element of the game is the narrative, it makes sense that people that don’t understand the language won’t like the game. Other places like Germany, Russia and China had also a good rating average, probably because most of the population understands English. On a later update I added Spanish localization, and sure enough the average rating for those countries went from 2.5 – 3 to above 4!
The Time Limit
The 8 hour time limit was not made very clear inside the game, specially when the time ended, it would just go back to the menu and reset the game, so once again people thought it was a bug that was making them lose all their progress, and there came a lot of 1 star ratings.
Sheep Dreams 2.0
After seeing how the game was received, specially how people resonated with the story, the original artist was excited about the game and decided to work on the art elements that were missing (the ones I had do draw) so we could make the game more presentable for release on iOS and Android.
Here’s the new art and the new trailer
(If you open the trailer on Youtube, read the comment by Mustafa Sarkisla, it’s probably the first one. This is the kind of comment that makes game development worth it for me, I was having shivers when I read it. A lot of people send me emails with similar comments, or posted on the store reviews sharing their own story, and this made me really happy)
It was a very short post, but even so it made me stop and think, because it was the first time they posted about one of the games I’ve worked on.
At this point I really considered making the iOS version paid, since I would get a bit of visibility from TouchArcade at launch (and looking back I wish I did, more on that later).
I posted on r/gamedev to ask for advice: “How do I monetize a story driven endless runner without enemies and upgrades?”
People suggested I should find a way to include a power up of some kind, something to help the user, make the game a bit easier. Took me a while, but I ended up finding a good solution.
The Alarm Clock and the Sleeping Pills
So the game has this 8 hour time limit, the “gimmick” touch arcade mentioned. I thought it was an interesting experiment to have the game “last” for 8 hours, I wanted to see how the people would react.
Of course not everyone liked this, and some people didn’t even understand (to be honest in the first version it was only explained well in the game description, and who reads that?). So I came up with the Alarm Clock.
When your time was up, an alarm would ring and the screen above would appear. The player would have the options to “snooze”, limited to 3 times, where the player gets to play 10 more minutes, or to get some sleeping pills . The sleeping pills being an IAP that would remove the time limit (the character would keep sleeping indefinitely). I thought it was clever, of course some people complained it was a ripoff, that the time limit was there just to force them to buy the IAP. But some people really liked that they could finally play on their own pace and finish the game, it ended up being the most popular IAP in the game, because that was the thing about the game, people got really curious about the weird story and they really wanted to know that happened: what the hell did this guy do? Where is this going?
The Launch 2.0
In some ways the launch went better than I expected, at least on iOS. It had almost 5k downloads on the first few days, which was much more than my previous game. But on Android it was a rough start, since almost no website had something about the game.
At some point (more than 1 year later) the game was featured on China for iOS, it was a very small feature, but the numbers are interesting, I wrote a post about it sharing the numbers. There were no sales of IAP though.
We also updated the windows phone version with the new graphics, of course.
Android Strikes Back
Very slowly android numbers kept growing, but it wasn’t until december 2016 that they really kicked in, and I still have no idea what happened. The app had around 3k total downloads at this point. It jumped from around 200 downloads a month in november to 1.200 in december, almost 6k in january and 13k in march, which was the best month. As you can see on the acquisition report below, most of the downloads were coming from organic views, and from Brazil (my home country). I couldn’t find any features, so I really don’t know what happened.
Through 2017 and until February 2018 the game averaged 3-5k downloads per month, which I thought was very good. Then, as quickly as they came, they went away. Coincidentally, as the game reached 100k lifetime downloads, the average daily download came down from 100 to 10. I guess maybe when the app changed to a new tier of download (in this case 100k-500k) it affects the app position and visibility on the store, but I thought it would affect for the best.
Here’s the total game downloads by platform as of April 2018
Ok, so what about the “Pay What You Want” numbers I came here for?
I had 3 tiers of price, $0.99, $1.99 and $2.99. Looking back now, I could have made the difference a bit bigger.
What happened is very few people bought the middle tier. People either paid the minimum to just remove the ads or they really liked the game and paid the highest. That’s why I said maybe I could have made the tiers further apart, people who liked the game were really into it and wanted to show their support. Something like 0.99/2.99/4.99 could have worked better.
Here’s the breakdown of tier % by platform
And Here’s the revenue comparison from Remove Ads and Sleeping Pills (the “cheating” IAP)
So, in the end, would I recommend “Pay what you want”? For most cases, yes. In my case, this increased the revenue in37%, compared to if I had just charged the regular $0.99. Of course this will be different for every game, if I had tried this on the Quiz game I released later on, I’m sure this % would have been lower, because it’s very casual and has no story, so it’s harder for the player to be attached.
If you ever tried anything similar, please let me know how it went! If you have any other questions about number or stats that I did not include, get in touch on twitter @robsonsiebel or leave a comment below!
You can find the links to download Sheep Dreams are Made of This below: