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Jonathan Trendel

'Making Games'

Making Games with Model and Improve

By | Game Business Blog | 5 Comments

What’s the secret to making games? How did some of the mega apps like Angry Birds, Clash of Clans, Candy Crush and Minecraft climb their way to the top? Was it through raw innovation or blind luck?

The answer might be surprising. They did what every major company from Hollywood movie studios to Ford Motor Company has done, they modeled and improved.

How to Model & Improve

The concept behind model and improve is very simple. A company first does research and identifies a very successful previous product in a related market. After studying the product, they figure out what they can improve and bring this new innovative product to market.

For example, did you know that amazon.com was not the first book store on the internet? The first online book store was actually named Book Stacks Unlimited and owned the domain books.com. In the early days of the internet they had 500,000 books for sale and were delivering to hundreds of thousands to people around the globe each month. They were first successful e-commerce website ever launched.

Amazon came along and decided now that the e-commerce was a proven market, they could beat Book Stacks Unlimited by modeling and improving. Not only did they offer a larger variety of books by brokering with publishers (Book Stacks was stocking every book sold where Amazon was not), they also implemented many never before seen innovations including suggestions feature based on purchases, one click checkout options and faster delivery service.

Even more interesting, Jeff Bezos’ goal from the beginning was to create a store that sold everything “from a to z”, but he knew the path to success was to model what was already working and first conquer a small niche before branching out. Their growth was astounding and within 2 years they became the largest e-commerce site on the planet and today they generate more revenue than Google.

If you dig deep, you’ll start seeing this trend in nearly every successful company ever built:

  • Walmart wasn’t the first big box store, Meijer pioneered the superstore concept more than 20 years before Walmart opened their first super-center.
  • The Graphical User Interface (GUI) concept, made famous by Microsoft Windows was originally created by Xerox.
  • Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile, band-aids didn’t create the first band-aid, and Kleenex didn’t invent the tissue paper.

You would be hard pressed to find a popular product that didn’t supersede something less successful, but it should be noted, there is a huge difference between modeling and cloning. We do not endorse or encourage cloning of other people’s products in any way. With modeling and improving, you always want to try and improve what has already proven to be successful. Whether you’re launching a new product or making games, this method works. Using the model and improve technique when you’re making games will give you an advantage over other apps. This method is exactly what all four of the most well-known games on the app store did.

'making games that are popular'

Angry Birds

Angry Birds sparked a global phenomenon and is often credited with kicking off the true forward movement of the app store. While it’s debatable if it was truly the game itself or just the timing, the significance of this game is so huge it’s hard to comprehend.

Not only did Angry Birds lead apps into being the largest media category in the world (overtaking all of Hollywood in 2015), it also single-handedly created the video game merchandising space. Before Angry Birds there were no huge merchandising runs for games except for retro games to marginal niche markets.

With all of these accolades, they had to invent the whole gameplay idea by themselves right? Actually no, they didn’t. They modeled — in some opinions too closely — a very popular flash game called Crush The Castle. While it is a similar game, they definitely did improve the original with better graphics, smoother gameplay and a much wider theme that would appeal to all ages.

Crush The Castle predates Angry Birds by 6 months and was one of the most played flash games of all time. At the time of this writing they rank #4 on Armor Games with 25,699,831 plays.

How similar is it? Take a look for yourself:

'Crush the Castle and Angry Birds Making Games' 

Clash of Clans

Now we know that Angry Birds closely modeled Crush the Castle, but what about the legendary app store ruler of grossing charts, Clash of Clans?

As you might expect, they also closely modeled a game, but their story is a little different. Clash of Clans is created by Supercell. On their old website, you’ll notice 4 of the 6 founders were from a previous game company called Digital Chocolate.

The founders all left Digital Chocolate to pursue their own game, Clash of Clans, and little did they know they were about to create one of the most valuable companies ever. Supercell grew from zero to a $3 billion valuation in just 3 years.

That’s great, but where did they get the initial idea?

The company they left, Digital Chocolate, happen to make a successful game called Galaxy Life. Not only does Galaxy Life look like Clash of Clans, it plays like Clash of Clans. The premise is exactly the same, you hold down your fort and attack the enemy’s fort. However it goes beyond that. It’s so similar the original Clash of Clans tutorial was nearly a scene for scene remake.

So did they rip it off?

No, they added in a lot of unique features including multiple villages, better multiplayer support and most importantly a better theme. As we’ll soon discuss, theme is extremely important to your game. Fantasy is one of the most popular themes ever in gaming and bugs are notoriously difficult to sell.

They modeled and improved. They took a game they thought was good and made it even better. This is the key to making games.

Candy Crush

Possibly the best example in these games is Candy Crush. Candy Crush is based on the time tested and proven gameplay style called Match 3, but did they invent Match 3? Not even close.

Match 3 games evolved from the more broader tile match gameplay type seen in everything from Tetris to Mahjong. So how long has tile matching games, and more specifically match 3, been around?

Believe it or not, Match 3 style games are believed to have been around since the Roman times. It’s one of the oldest game design principles of humankind. It dates back to the creation of checkers, chess and backgammon.

The first video game version of Match 3 was made in 1974 in Japan. It was called Doku-Go.

Doku-Go

Why did Candy Crush become so successful?

It’s no secret wildly successful games such as Super Puzzle Fighter, Puzzle Quest, Bejeweled and countless others made popular games with the match 3 style years ago. And while they were all hit games, none of them came close to the global phenomenon of Candy Crush.

Similar to Clash of Clans before them, Candy Crush came out with a new game based on a proven gameplay type and put an insane amount of focus on the theme. Candy, similar to Birds as we’ll soon discuss, is the ultimate theme. Everyone loves Candy including boys, girls, adults and children. It’s possibly the widest demographic known to mankind.

Of course, they also created a very solid game with mountains of levels and carefully crafted gameplay mechanics. They definitely modeled what worked, but they spent years consistently improving until they reached perfection.

Minecraft

Now, Minecraft made its beloved owner a billionaire and has completely taken over the lives of millions of kids across the universe. It was also heavily based on another popular game before it.

'Minecraft image'

The picture above is not of an alpha version of Minecraft. It’s from an open source game created by Zachary Barth called Infiniminer.

Minecraft creator, Markus Persson, has directly stated this is where his inspiration came from and that after playing Infiniminer he “decided it was the game he wanted to do”.

You’re probably wondering how Barth feels about Minecraft becoming bigger than Infiniminer. He’s stated in interviews it’s complicated, but when talking with Paper, Rock Shotgun he said, ”The act of borrowing ideas is integral to the creative process. There are games that came before Infiniminer, and there are games that will come after Minecraft. That’s how it works.”

Ready to Start Making Games …

Always remember when you’re making games to take time to really think of a great idea. Study other similar games and look for ways to model and improve. Picasso once said “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. Borrowing ideas from successful games should be mandatory when deciding your game idea. Try to respect the original creators and never copy, clone or reskin. Add something special to it. To do it correctly really breakdown the gameplay elements and then think of ways to improve each aspect.  You’ll have an entirely new game that’s much better than before. Not only will it keep you out of hot water, it will also vastly increase your chances of success.

This technique is the secret ingredient that all of the most successful game developers and entrepreneurs use. If making games is your goal, using the model and improve method is important.

Marketing Your Mobile App

Marketing Your Mobile App

By | Game Business Blog | 3 Comments

Every game developer should have a mobile marketing strategy in place for their app. Creating a solid plan, using app promotion techniques, and having the right pricing structure are all essential for success.

The amount of revenue that your game earns is completely tied to app marketing. It’s a determining factor in the amount of downloads you will get and how well the game will monetize.

So, how much revenue can you expect to make on a game?

As you probably would imagine, this question has many answers. It’s as varied as the very nature of games themselves. Often it’s not uncommon for a top indie game to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars during the first few months in the app store. It’s also not uncommon for a great game to completely flop and generate next to nothing.

In the end, it’s completely related to the visibility your game will get, the viral nature it will withhold and how it will generate revenue.  To really succeed in your mobile marketing efforts you need a solid plan with all of these key points.

Let’s tackle these points individually, starting with revenue.

Game Pricing

It’s important to select the pricing of your game, before diving into monetization. Whether or not your game is going to be paid or free will have a major impact on your mobile marketing approach.

I’ve personally tested this internally many times over the years, and free games generate more revenue (and obviously downloads) every single time. This doesn’t mean you don’t need to make a paid version at all, but if you’re going to decide between the two then always go freemium.

So what exactly is freemium? This simply means a free game that monetizes with in-app purchases somehow in the game.

Freemium games do not have to incorporate complex economies or currency systems, but I do recommend at bare minimum to include a remove ads in-app purchase. Not only can this be a decent source of revenue, it will also provide a better experience for your most hard core users who choose to remove ads so they can enjoy your game more.

Regardless of your in-app purchase options, you will most likely generate a much larger share of revenue on ads. The only exception to this is if you create a massive social game like Candy Crush or Clash of Clans.

Just how much will be made in ads instead of in-app purchases? As always, it’s best to look at real numbers to gather a true perspective of the industry.

Luckily, I was able to get a hold of some valuable mobile marketing data to share, courtesy of Buildbox CEO, Trey Smith. Not only did he agree to share his recorded data for the hit game Phases, but he also provided me with some deeper insights on pricing analysis.

phasesPhases:  Pricing Analysis

“First off, we decided to initially test a paid version of the game before releasing the free version. Strangely, this was not by choice,” said Smith.

“The real reason we initially launched Phases as a paid game was because it was created with an alpha version of our game creation software, Buildbox.”

“At the time of release we didn’t have ad networks setup in Buildbox, so we decided to test out the waters with the paid version to verify the paid store still wasn’t as effective as the free.”

Due to contract obligations, Smith was not at liberty to discuss the financial monetary numbers of Phases, but he was able to further discuss the breakdown percentages of the various monetization paths that he discovered worked the best.

After testing both pricing options, he realized the free version of the game performed the best download wise.

“The paid version bombed and at this point we changed to free for 4 days (even though we had no monetization in the game) and then removed it from the store because Ketchapp wanted to publish it under their umbrella. However, Phases did really well on its own once we moved it to free. We got over 25,000 downloads in those first 4 days before we pulled it down,” stated Smith.

app marketing data

“After pulling the game from the app store, we had to get it ready for Ketchapp. This meant more than just tweaking gameplay and adding in the changes they requested, it also required us to add in true monetization paths. Luckily, by this time we were gearing up for the release of Buildbox and had many options at our disposal.”

Here’s what he decided to include for monetization:

  1. Interstitial ads (AdMob)
  2. Banner Ads (Admob & iAds)
  3. Remove Ads In-App Purchase ($1.99)
  4. Skip Level In-App Purchase ($.99)

“There are a few odd things here, starting with the $1.99 price point for remove ads. We typically go with .99 and to be honest, this was an initial mistake on our part, but it ended up monetizing decently so we left it as is.

The second odd part of this setup was displaying the full screen (i.e. interstitial) ad on the Game Over every 7 times. Originally we had this display every 5 times which would be more standard in a game like this. The problem is in Phases you die fairly often, so we decided to change it,” said Smith.

Now let’s see each of these monetization steps broken down:

Ad data and mobile marketing stats

As you can see, AdMob had the lion share of the revenue. That’s because AdMob is where he served the full screen interstitial ads. They typically by far make the most money.

AdMob also shared a majority of the banner placement, though iAds converted very well and brought in an extra 8% revenue.  iAds is no longer an available option, but Admob is still a very popular choice that serves banner ads.

Another hidden benefit of AdMob is the vast reach they hold in smaller countries. With AdMob you rarely have to worry about inventory because they have such a large network. You might find iAds won’t show up in Turkey because they currently don’t have any advertisers in that area, where AdMob is extremely consistent.

According to the data, remove ads was a lowly 3%, even though it was at the $1.99 price point, but this is actually fine.  The goal of remove ads is not to generate revenue, it’s to please your hardcore players who really like your game.

It’s quite surprising, that skip level was responsible for more than 20% of all revenue from Phases.

“This was a shocker, and what’s even better was we threw it in at the last minute. We literally decided to add this option in 2 nights with the night before submitting the final build. We were shocked, but probably shouldn’t have been. The psychology behind it makes sense. People prefer to spend money on things that advance their gameplay,” said Smith.

“We did not include banners on the game field of Phases. This was a design choice because we felt it detracted too much from the game. We did put banners on the game field of Bounce and it increased the revenue by a larger percentage. If monetization is your main goal, then you might want to keep this in mind from the beginning,” added Smith.

Your Monetization Plan & Mobile Marketing

Now that we’ve examined some excellent data analyzing ad techniques and pricing, it’s time to develop a plan. When it comes to mobile marketing and app promotion having a plan is key. I recommend following what Smith did in Phases. Try using an interstitial on the game over screen in conjunction with a banner.

Remember to design your game around a game field banner. If this is something you want to incorporate, and in some cases (like Phases) it definitely does make sense to leave it out.

Think about your game’s design and interface. Consider the gameplay type as well when you’re deciding which ads and tactics to use.

It’s a great idea to add an in-app purchase to remove ads. Think about what in- app purchases you can add that will increase the gameplay experience. Some popular examples are special power-ups, continue playing options on the game over screen and skipping levels.

Have a strategy in place and know what you want to integrate. Write everything down and test it out as you go. Following these steps will lead you in the right direction for mobile marketing success.

outsourcing hiring first employee

How to Hire Your First Employee

By | Game Business Blog | 2 Comments

Outsourcing is one of the most popular ways to hire an artist, coder or both. Using the right strategy, you can hire talented people from outsource sites to create games for you and jump start your business. There are multiple outsourcing websites available online that you can use. When you’re hiring your first employee, outsourcing is a cost effective method. Personally, I’ve used nearly every outsource site available during the beginning stages of my game business.

The following sites have great support and a fairly large database of programmers, artists and designers:

Outsourcing 101: Writing the Ad

Once you’ve selected the outsource site that you want to use, you’ll need to create an ad. Here are some tips to help you craft ads that will attract the right type of employee:

  1. Write ads quickly – You’re about to see a very common thread in all of this: Don’t get bogged down and move quickly.  This starts with the ad.  Keep your ads short and sweet. Avoid discussing in-depth project details. Instead focus on the fact that the project is unique and discuss the core details.  Try to write your ad in one pass. Take about 5-6 minutes to do this. Review and edit if needed.
  2. Don’t search for people, wait for them to come to you – This reason is simple… people that respond to your ad are hungry for work and interested in what you are doing.  Random people you contact probably are not.
  3. Post multiple ads – Post on multiple sites and post multiple times.  Sometimes you’ll need to post 10 ads before hiring someone. Most of the time when someone is having problems with hiring, they’ve only posted just a few ads.  Think about it this way. If every time you hire someone you go through 200 applicants and someone else goes through 20, who do you think will end up with the best guy?
  4. Always go with your gut – If someone doesn’t reply quick enough, gives a strange answer or just doesn’t make you feel comfortable, then don’t hire them. If you automatically just “click” with someone, then you might want to give them a shot. Your gut is extremely important in the hiring decision.
  5. Move quickly though applicants – It’s better to scan 200 people quickly than review 20 people slowly. Don’t get bogged down on each one. One tip is to ask a few questions, if all questions aren’t answered then skip immediately. If they don’t take the time to apply correctly, they most likely will not benefit your business.

hiring via outsourcing writing your adYou’ll want to post these ads in as many relevant categories as possible. If there is an option to post in game development and mobile development, then post in both. Your main goal here is to cast a wide net so you’ll have many applicants to sift through at a fast pace.

By the time you’re done with this task, you’ll be able to take a closer look at a handful of perfect candidates.

Interview Tips and Techniques

Before you interview an applicant, you should have a few things in place:

  1. Your basic design document describing the various sections of your game
  2. An idea on what your budget is for this game (expect to pay $2,000 for a simple game and up to $5,000 for a more complex game).
  3. A list of questions which you will discuss
  4. Bonus: Have a screen recording of a PowerPoint presentation describing your game idea. This isn’t required, but can be helpful and make the interview process smoother. Jing is a great free screen recording platform you can use.

I prefer to interview applicants using Skype, but you can use any chat based software that is publicly available. It’s completely up to you.

Another quick interview technique that I recommend is sticking with text chat instead of voice chat, as voice chat can be awkward for both parties, especially if the native language is different.

Here’s a few tips to use during the interview process:

Interview Tips for Skype

  1. If they don’t respond quickly during an interview, close the interview immediately – This happens more often than you would think. Don’t wait around longer than 3 minutes for each response.  If you notice that it is taking longer than normal for them to respond during the chat, simply tell them it’s not working out and move on. Remember, this interview is the first impression you’ll see of their communication style. Communication is extremely important when working via Skype.
  2. If they are sarcastic, close the interview immediately – This one is rather baffling, but does happen.  Sometimes, more often than you might think, we have situations where the coder has a poor attitude and is sarcastic or demeaning. This advice is very important for the people who might not be technical. It is 100% OK if you are not overly technical. Just like most people in a leadership position, you’re job is to hire someone smarter than you in certain areas and for them to explain things to you when needed. You’re job is to manage them, not to know more than them.
  3. Dive deep into their answers – This is a very important one to follow when you’re outsourcing. The premise is simple, once you ask them a question you dive deep into the answer. If you ask them “What was your best project to date?” then don’t answer with “Ok great”. Instead answer with “That’s interesting, how long did it take?” When they tell you how long it took, dive deeper into that answer as well with something like “Interesting, what took the longest? Did you feel it could have been shorter?” Like the movie Inception, you keep going deeper into their answers until you’ve hit the bottom and there is no where else to go. Then move on to your next question. You’ll not only learn more about the skill of the candidates, you’ll learn more about them as a person. You’ll suddenly start understanding how they work and find out if you’re truly compatible.
  4. Play their previous games – Extremely important, very simple, yet often overlooked. Before you interview someone, test out their previous games. If you’re hiring a programmer or coder, don’t worry about the art. Focus on how buggy the game is. See if it moves quickly or feels sluggish. If the game is not good, then cancel the interview.
  5. Only hire people that you bond with – There is more to a successful working relationship than skill, especially with games. Games are art and for you to create something amazing you have to be on the same page as your programmer. If you don’t feel like this is someone you would want to spend an enormous amount of time with, then don’t hire them.
  6. If you are unsure of either the price or their ability, offer a small portion of the project – This is for the time that you’re on the fence and don’t have any strong gut feelings about the applicant… and you haven’t found anyone else. When this combination of events happens, then you might want to offer a small portion of your game for a very cheap price to see how well you work together. Maybe just have them create the basic user interface structure and go from there.

Hiring your first employee is a major step in any business, especially in a business where you’re making games. You can find a large number of books not only on outsourcing, but also team creation and hiring. Following these tips will give you a solid strategy to find the right employee to help you build your game.