Hyperspace Pinball Development: The Almost-Sunset Story
Development began in early 2011. I had no design document, no vague idea of how the game would progress, or even any kind of storyline. The important thing to do was to prototype the game play to make sure it was what I had expected it to be. By March 2011, I had a primitive prototype that consisted of a square playfield and a few different aliens. In April, I commissioned my Dominoze game artist Jeff Gordon to make a simple playfield for me. For the background art, I went to http://www.turbosquid.com and grabbed a couple random space backgrounds. When I put it all together, it was what I had hoped it would be.
Major development which evolved the prototype into a full-on game started in late April 2011. I decided to make it a "button masher" instead of a traditional "skill and aim" pinball game. I kept the playfield static, and made several different aliens that had unique behaviors. For example, some had walls that deflected the ball, and others were repelled away from the ball. I also wanted unlockable bonuses and features such as being able to "power up" the ball to go through enemies, multi-ball, camera controls, and even bosses every 5 waves to keep things interesting. At the end of the game would be a mega-boss. The story became the boiler plate "Save the galaxy from aliens." I continued to get art assets from TurboSquid; and as for the music, I turned to 3-Peak Audio to develop custom tracks and sound effects for me.
Development was entirely in my spare time; about 5-15 hours/week (I didn't quit my day job). I also wrote the design document; it was a text file consisting of random notes. Nonetheless, it still defined boundaries and development goals as it should. As with Tiltz, I didn't care a whim for marketing until things were almost done...but I did at least set up a site in IndieDB and posted news every couple of weeks. About 2/3 of the way through development, I relied on iBetaTest.com for game testing. It was, and still is a valuable tool in my mobile development arsenal to this day.
A fair bit of time was invested in a battle between Unity physics and myself. The ball flew through the flippers and other static objects frequently, and I couldn't figure out why. I also didn't find much help in the way of searching Unity's forums. I started a thread that contained a link to a forked version of Hyperspace Pinball with just the physics assets at http://forum.unity3d.com/threads/95135-Unity3d-Pinball-Sample-Project . By the time the thread died, I had found the answers to my issues, and other developers were able to take advantage of the updated sample project so they could learn how to make their own pinball games.
When development wrapped up in the middle of July, I turned my focus to the marketing side. I Googled all over the Internet for places that would review or post news about my app, as well as blogs on advice on releasing a game. From all my searching I built an extensive spreadsheet of links and e-mail addresses to submit news to. You can see some of them in my blogs at http://www.indiedb.com/members/gamieon/blogs My marketing plan was simply:
- Post news and review requests to all the sites on my spreadsheet and IndieDB two weeks before the release to generate buzz.
- Post news to all the news sites on release day.
On August 25th, 2011; I released Hyperspace Pinball 1.0 on iOS for 99 cents. There was no free version. It wasn't a hit, but it exceeded my expectations: 182 downloads in the first week and a 5 star rating with 11 reviews! The rate of downloads sloped down to 1-3/day in the following weeks. I decided it was time to develop the feature-limited free version.
By November, after more development and iBetaTesting, I was ready to release Hyperspace Pinball Lite with 5 levels and HeyZap social networking integration for free. With HeyZap, my goal was to have the game go viral through word of mouth. I coordinated the release date with HeyZap's press team to coincide with the day we expected the App Store to have finished reviewing the game by, which was December 6th. I adjusted the release date on the App Store portal accordingly. On the 6th day, still no word from Apple; so HeyZap and I decided to postpone the release by a week. I then go to the App Store portal and postpone the release date by a week (the status was clearly still "Waiting for Review" at the time). Mere moments later, I get e-mail notifications that Apple reviewed AND approved it...and I discover they also released the app AND put it on the New Releases Page! And because of our combined brilliant timings, my action resulted in Hyperspace Pinball Lite getting pulled off the coveted New Releases page an hour after it was put on! This story reads like a work of fiction...but I'm just telling you what I saw. I nervously thought "ok I'll just wait a week like HeyZap and I agreed on, and everything will be fine." But it wasn't fine; the app was released the following week, but never appeared on the New Releases page again. Despite pleading with Apple, I couldn't get it back up. So, I did what I had to do...pulled it off the store forever, and did it all over again with Hyperspace Pinball Free. That was released on December 13, and got 1,000 downloads in the first week. That same week, Hyperspace Pinball full got only 8 downloads. During this time, I had also posted some bug fixes to the full version. With each update; and with each giveaway on AppGiveAway.com, I got maybe another 10-15 sales in a day which then trickled back down to 0-3. I don't know how to measure HeyZap's effectiveness, but I didn't get fifty thousand downloads like I had hoped in any case
Though I had spent much more money than I had earned back, I was still willing to go the next level: Unity Android development! What would the monetization model be? A 99 cent button that unlocked all the features so you wouldn't have to earn them.
The first four months of 2012 were spent on porting Hyperspace Pinball to Android. I thought it would all be a walk in the park. It's Unity, it's cross-platform, should take a week or two, right? Wrong. The initial port was plagued with performance issues...the game was running under 10 fps, and even some of the visual effects flat out weren't working. I won't bore you with how I fixed everything here; you can read my IndieDB blog for details. I turned to Zubhium.com for beta testing, and got some good feedback from the testers there. Long story short, I got everything working. Marketing was nowhere near my radar over this time period.
After beating the "how to develop for the Google Play" learning curve, I released the Android version on February 25, 2012 without doing -any- marketing. Why? Because I wanted to see how the first few weeks would go with respect to feedback and bug reports. In the first week I got 200 downloads and a 3 star rating. Nobody unlocked the features for 99 cents, either. I was shocked because it was in the 4.5+ rating range on the App Store still! Why the disparity? The answers were revealed in reading the user reviews: some dissatisfaction with the game play (needed to be more skill-oriented), and Android-specific bugs and performance issues. I fixed the bugs (but did not change the game play), and pushed updates often. In April 2012 when I was satisfied the Android version was solid, I was ready for the real deal.
I took the same basic marketing steps I took with Hyperspace Pinball iOS, and did one thing further: By this point in time, both the iOS and Android versions were designed to submit high scores to Gamieon's web server. I created a webpage at http://www.hyperspacepinball.com that reported the grand total high scores from both platforms. The goal was to pit players on one platform against another, and encourage downloads in the spirit of competition. After that page was set up, I formally announced the Android release. By that time, I already had about 800 Android downloads (and one 99 cent unlock). Android downloads spiked in the first two days, then plateaued...but unlike Hyperspace Pinball Full on iOS, the number of total installs steadily increased ever since.
Buying the license needed to develop the Android version was expensive, so I had hoped to recover costs and finish the project by pushing things to the final level: the PC and Mac.
Porting the game to the PC and Mac in its existing form was less work than the Android port was. I had already built PC versions for my prototypes and to give people to try out, Mac builds required no changes at all, and the kind folks at Desura were gracious enough to let me put it on their distribution service. On April 26, 2012, I put up a free beta version on Desura for the purpose of having the Desura audience check it out and give me feedback on how to improve it. It only got a few downloads; not much interest at all. I then went to various Internet forums to get some constructive feedback; the most helpful of those being TigSource, and I got great feedback. I decided that before the big PC release, I wanted to do a big update with new features; including a bigger focus on skill shots, obstacles, a new soundtrack, and a new system with accumulated bonuses and power-ups. From April through September, I developed the changes for all platforms while posting milestone updates on IndieDB every 4-6 weeks that garnered little or no feedback.
As October 2012 approached, I started using Reddit's gamedev channel to exchange ideas and feedback with other developers. I even searched for a team who would have it in their Indie bundle, but nobody seemed interested. After using the same "build-a-list-of-marketing-links" tactic as before, I got everything lined up for the release to take place on October 19th. I would sell the game for $3.99.
Finally, October 19th came and went; and I got only 5 PC/Mac sales in the first week. A week later, I posted the 2.0 updates to the full iOS and Android versions as well. I pulled Hyperspace Pinball Free from the market since it was too much work for too little financial benefit to update, and the Android monetization model remained the same. As expected, downloads on all platforms spiked for a day, then rolled back downhill...and I did get a few more 99 cent unlocks, too.
I terminated development on the project following that; it was time to move on to new games.
Now this is the part where the "almost" sunset comes into play: After the PC/Mac release, I was contacted by the team at http://playbrassmonkey.com , and asked to have it ported to their platform as well. It's basically a PC build where you use your smartphone as a game controller. I made an exception to my "no development" attitude and developed a prototype. I plan to have it finished in time for GDC 2013...and from there, who knows?
Hyperspace Pinball Full: Aug 25, 2011 - Jan 9, 2013: 880 downloads @ 99 cents ea. 4 1/2 stars.
Hyperspace Pinball Free: Dec 13, 2011 - Jan 9, 2013: 9,863 downloads before being taken down in October 2012.
Android: Feb 25, 2012 - Jan 9, 2013: 10,014 total user installs. Now a 4 star rating with 11 in-app 99 cent unlocks.
Hyperspace Pinball PC + Mac: Oct 19, 2012 - Jan 9, 2013: 10 sales @ $3.99 ea. Rating 7.5/10
Number of developers dedicated to project: 1
Hours spent: Not sure; somewhere around 5-20/week from Jan 2011-Oct 2012.
Total development costs: ~$5,000.
Expenses (in order): Art and sound assets, Unity licenses, general business and web hosting costs, and press release creation.
I think poor marketing was the biggest point of failure. I've seen better marketing from games that haven't even been released yet because they generated buzz through weekly or daily dev blogs with lots of interesting things. They enjoyed writing every sentence, and couldn't wait to tell the world about not just the game, but all the little milestones they conquered over development! The readers of those blogs got excited, went off and told other people about them, and they got excited too! Word of mouth works! On the other hand, I enjoyed quietly tinkering away on my computer, and had no such interests except for a post every couple weeks.
I think coming in a close second was the game itself. I think Hyperspace Pinball is a good game, but trying something different is always risky; especially if you don't consider your target audience. It didn't have the skill focus that drew so many players to pinball. It also doesn't have the charisma, cuteness, cleverness, immersiveness, trendyness, or overall rewarding play experience like most great games do.
While the project finished at a financial loss, I'm proud to have developed a game that runs on four platforms (iOS, Android, PC, Mac). Learning was part of the reason I made Hyperspace Pinball, and that I definitely accomplished.
Lessons Learned and Affirmed (in no particular order)
- If you're really excited about your project, share it with people! Your marketing should begin when you have something to show everyone, even if it's concept art.
- If you take an existing concept (like pinball) and put a spin on it, look carefully at what makes that concept so great and try not to deviate from it.
- You may have seen the phrase "Your should come up with an original idea for your game," and I want to add something to it: "Just because your game is original doesn't mean people will download it or even look into it.
- Ultimately, your idea may be better on more than one platform. Consider that in your early planning phase.
- If you get tired of testing your own game, that's a red flag. Share it with other people and see if they're inspired. Either you're just tired and you'll be back to normal after taking a week or two off; or your inner gamer is trying to tell you to let it go. Of course if you're only two weeks away from a release, then finish what you started!
- Persistence has its rewards; they may just not be what you expect.
Game and iOS/Android/PC/Mac downloads: http://hyperspacepinball.com/