Rubicon's Ramblings

Random thoughts from an overworked dev

Can anyone help us become successful developers?

What is success anyway?

We’ve been talking here about why we’re still looking with trepidation each month at our earnings statements, hoping that we’ll be able to pay all the bills again. In fairness that’s only once or twice been a fail, but most months we only just seem to limp over the line. It’s bloody stressful to be a couple of bad months away from closing the doors – especially when you can’t really do anything else for a living.

Whilst everyone would like more of it, we’re not even particularly focused on money. All we really want to do is get paid a reasonable sum each month so we can continue making great games and having a blast. Anyone with a crummy job won’t be feeling too sorry for us at this point, but game development is meant to be more than worrying about the bills else why do it.

No, what we want is to get enough traction with our games that we can actually plan for the long term future, do everything right instead of quickly, and just concentrate on making our stuff all it can be. We don’t want to be millionaires, just stable.

Success for us means knowing we’ll keep the lights on for a year so we can spend that year doing another game. Six guys getting proper workable wages, that is all. It’s not too much, is it?

What can we do?

The thing is, as arrogant as this is, we have a fantasic team here at Rubicon. There are 4 employees and two semi-permanent freelancers making up the usual suspects. We’ve all been in the games industry since forever with 140 years of experience right at the sharp end. We know our shit.

We’re good at game development. Really good.

What can’t we do?

The easy answer is that we can’t turn all of that potential into anything like a winning strategy.

This is mainly coming from our past small successes (Great Little War Game range), our utter fails (Combat Monsters) and our other smaller titles that apart from Yachty Deluxe don’t even rate on the failure chart.

Basically, everything we touch turns to shit. Every gamble fails. Every new release is a fresh disappointment. It’s bloody tragic, and I’m not far from throwing in the towel with a hissy fit that Phil Fish would be proud of. At least he made some money before he imploded, so he can at least go try something else.

We cannot market for toffee. We cannot reach our customers no matter how hard we try. We cannot generate any buzz. Basically, we cannot sell our games. Even the one with the bloody BAFTA nomination. It’s a strategy game and it’s not in the top 100 strategy games on iTunes. With a BAFTA nomination. For someone more media savvy, I’m sure that would be a meal ticket.

Just to put some numbers on that:

Great Big War game. Has a BAFTA nomination, several 100% review scores and a couple of game of the year awards. It was IGN’s strategy game of the year. Yesterday on iTunes it earned us £27

Great Little War Game. As many accolades, including 2nd placed “Best APP EVER” in a readers poll. (http://bestappever.com/awards/2011/winner/stgm). Yesterday on iTunes it earned us £11

Why is that?

Because we’re game developers. All we know how to do is make solid games. That’s quite a difficult job to do well and requires 100% commitment. So how on Earth are we meant to learn how to be publishers as well, that’s also a difficult job. Marketeers? Pass.  PR? Pass.

How do other developers get this so right? What are we missing?

Why now?

Because our latest game deserves to be meteoric. Not that I’m at all biased of course!

After several iterations, we’ve taken Great Big War Game to new heights with features and fun. It’s not even that far along yet and it already feels just ace. Our guys are hacking the multiplayer together as fast as possible just so we can play each other at work, and most of the new features aren’t even in yet.

But it won’t make us any real money, just like it’s progenitors. I’m sure it’ll do well enough in release week, but we can’t get staying power for the duration on any of our titles. And these days, doing well just at release won’t keep the lights on for long.

Even writing this is mainly for cathartic purposes. We have practically no subscribers here to read it, few followers on twitter, not many at our facebook pages, not many in our forum. Yes we do have all those social media things, we just can’t find enough people who care.

And the kicker is, we finally got something right a while back. I can’t talk about it yet but we have a massive licensing deal lined up for next year. And I mean really “how the hell did they get that” epic big. This one really does have “millionaires” stamped all over it. But that won’t happen for one reason only – it’s us.

And with that, this pointless bit of venting comes to a conclusion.

 

33 Responses to “Can anyone help us become successful developers?”

  • erika says:

    Have you tried reaching out to twitch streamers? They’re often very indie friendly and in fact, I discovered ultratron because MANvsGAME played it. I would stay away from the exports caster’s and look at caster’s like MANVSGAME, Dansgaming, cobaltstreak, crumps2 etc. These are variety casters with great communities

  • kalirion says:

    Well, as far as Greenlight, a lot of games got greenlit by participating in Bundles and the morally darker-than-gray full on “vote of us and get a key” schemes. But Valve may have cracked down on the latter one at least. At the very least they’re greenlighting games one at a time behind the scenes now instead of the huge batches we’ve become accustomed to over the past year.

    And in addition to Twitchers, don’t forget the youtubers!

    • Rubicon says:

      I think we’ve tried to contact every youtuber on the internet at some point tbh. I’m sure they get a ton of emails from random developers they’ve never heard of, but we do keep trying.

  • Sam says:

    I’ve just recently started following you, I have a personal interest in playing and developing turn based strategy games. It seems like you have a really solid core to work with, it looks pretty and is smooth and streamlined. One thing I noticed was that Little Big War is quite hardcore. Have you thought about an easy mode? It would be more fun for a lot of people. Not sure if you have analytics that show how many levels a player plays. I suspect it’s probably pretty low.

    • Rubicon says:

      Thanks Sam.

      Great Little War Game 2 was our attempt at making a less hardcore, more casual version of the game. We think we pulled that off, but the game got a mixed response from our existing fans for being too cut down. I think we didn’t make it obvious enough that this was deliberate, inciting some angry internet men to mention greed, knocked out, cynical etc. in the reviews *sigh*

      UWG will therefore be as hardcore as possible, whilst keep the light-hearted humour and cartoony feel. The only thing that went softer is we’re not doing fog of war again. The feedback verdict was 50/50 on this being a good feature, so it being a resource hog wins the day and has been removed.

      • Sam says:

        Makes sense. You have to listen to your fans! Even going 100% hardcore, I’d still consider some less hardcore options or difficulties so that it’s open to a wider audience. Like XCOM – who recommends that people play on Classic, but there are easier Normal and Easy modes below it.

        • Rubicon says:

          Yeah absolutely. “Hardcore” is a pretty broad term really and we do want to please as many people as possible.

          I guess what I meant though is that even on easy you’ll need to think about things a little to prevail. Not interested in making a tap to win game. :)

  • Nomous says:

    I think your games need a far better art style. Screenshots and gameplay videos should make people sit up and think “wow!”.

    You can try to go for the hardcore people, in which case your screenshots need to communicate “Real Complexity Here!” and the theme of the game might need to be more realistic, or you can go for more casually interested players (Casuals, and core players that only sometimes dabble in strategy games), in which case you need an attractive art style like for example Clash of Clans. Making it a F2P game and partnering with a mobile publisher who manages/helps you with all the advertisement, metrics, monetizing design, etc. is a possibility.

    I’m just repeating stuff I read elsewhere, though. I’m no expert.

    • Rubicon says:

      I appreciate the suggestion but disagree tbh.

      This is just my opinion, but every game in every genre seems to be on a quest for photo-realism these days, and all that’s really happened with that is that now all games look the same and conversations are had not about the complexity of level 3, but about who has the best skin tone shader.

      If you see someone playing a modern RTS on a train you will have no clue what the game is. If you see someone playing Great Big War Game, you instantly know. (Or if not seen the brand before will hopefully at least see something different and possibly interesting.)

      • Nomous says:

        I did not speak about photorealistic graphics.

        Examples of games with good art styles in my opinion are Chaos Reborn and Advance Wars (the pixel style is fitting for the GBA platform; less so for Steam customers).

        I agree that Great Big war Game has a style / brand of its own, but I think it’s not on the same level as those examples.

  • Tim Trent says:

    I think you need to concentrate on what works, the War Games. Expand on those with more map packs. I know I have been addicted to both Great Little War Game and then Great Big War Game ever since it came out. But having completed the campaigns like 100 times, I am left needing something more…and I’d be glad to pay for it. It seems you guys are focusing on more games like Combat Monsters at the cost of abandoning the tried and true uber-successful War Games series. Come out with a new map pack for Great Big War games…charge 10 bucks for it. You will make money. I’d buy it just to see new maps and levels. I wish you luck!

    • Rubicon says:

      Agreed. Please see other posts about Ultimate War Game. :)

      We do have some other pending news about the PC version of GBWG too and I daresay that will get some bonus features added for a relaunch.

  • Tim Trent says:

    Oh and don’t forget the people that play on PC’s. I still do not own an iPad, so unless it’s available on PC or Playbook, I’m not a buyer.

    • Rubicon says:

      Steam is the answer there for us. Selling stuff from our own website isn’t really feasible in comparison because there’s no drive by browsers. We should be relaunching GBWG on Steam asap and UWG stands a decent chance of approval on greenlight too. We’ll be kicking that off in a few weeks.

      • Tim Trent says:

        One thing you can do….be real. When you tell someone they are at the top of the beta list, mean what you say. Don’t just say what you think they want to hear. You have been telling me for years that I would be first in line to beta test ELWG, but it was just blather. Really changed the way I feel about Rubicon, TBH.

  • James Sorenson says:

    Long time player of LBWG and GBWG. I’m 40, but my teenage nephews have played your games as well. My observations:

    The hook appears to be the unlockables. Personally, I hate having to “earn” the full game, but the younger players seem to love being able to discover and unlock new treats and upgrades. However, it’s difficult to apply this to a multiplayer strategy game (which is probably why there are so few in the App store that make any headway).

    In GBWG, you had unlockables you could pay for, but that doesn’t give you the sense of pride of earning it. You may want to consider a scheme where a player unlocks units and vehicles in the campaign mode, which then unlocks additional maps in the multiplayer mode. This keeps things even per map and gives the player the ability to unlock things through skills.

    You had a pretty cool star-upgrade system in GBWG. However, my nephews complained that they were unusable in multiplayer. Nowadays, it makes for some neat dynamics if you’ve upgraded your units differently than your opponents. Since you already have a rank-matching system, I think it would equal out just fine, and make things more interesting.

    (That said, I’m keenly aware that this has the potential for hack-cheats. Tread carefully.)

    In summary, my nephews get hooked into games where there is always another treasure/upgrade/unlockable that they can show off or use against their friends.

    And speaking of twitch: I’d explore the possibility of being able to store and replay a completed mission or skirmish. Seeing the game play out the turns in immediate succession while the gamer provides comments will be far more fun to watch.

    And while we’re at it: may I suggest Google Play integration?

    In any case, I agree this is a tough nut to crack. Success in casual games is mostly luck, and making money in hardcore games is always tight.

    I wouldn’t rule out free-to-play with limited maps followed by IAP to get the rest of them. I personally don’t like aggressive IAP, but a properly-done freemium title gets you onto a lot more devices and tends to reduce piracy. My personal favorite are the freemium titles that show an ad before every level (or round) , but then gives you the option to pay to remove ads. I get to try the game for free. Every time I play, you get a nickel. If I play it enough that the ads are getting tiring, I drop some real money to clean up the experience. It’s a system that seems to work well.

    In any case, good luck, guys! I’m looking forward to your ultimate sequel!
    - Jim (macr0t0r)

    • Rubicon says:

      Thanks James, there’s some great suggestions in there.

      We were going to add action replay for multiplayer games as we did in Combat Monsters, but storing ALL games for twitch or just for kicks is a great feature. On it! :)

    • Rubicon says:

      Just to pull this out:

      “My personal favorite are the freemium titles that show an ad before every level (or round) , but then gives you the option to pay to remove ads. I get to try the game for free. Every time I play, you get a nickel. If I play it enough that the ads are getting tiring, I drop some real money to clean up the experience. It’s a system that seems to work well.”

      This is dying rapidly, we’ve done a build of most of our games as free with ads (adware) to test these waters and it’s stone cold.

      Every time you play we don’t get a nickel, we get “nickel and dimed” by the ad providers. That nickel you mention is actually a fifth of a cent in practice and to make that work we need more players than mojang. If that were true I wouldn’t be in here whingeing. :)

      (You don’t get paid for showing an ad. These days you don’t even get paid for someone clicking one. The user has to go on and install something based on the ad click for us to get anything at all. I’d love to see the NYTimes accept that.)

  • James Sorenson says:

    Crimony, I didn’t realize the ad-metrics had fallen that low. It’s admittedly disheartening to hear that you have to reach such critical mass in order to be profitable in the gaming field.

    Okay…plan B, You could go the “FieldRunners” route and charge for powerups. Enable Hail Marys in single-player mode for a price. It will allow the casual, yet spendy, gamers get through a level more easily. I believe this technique is also used in Cut the Rope and Angry Birds. The devoted (and more quick to complain) gamers will almost never need to buy power-ups, so they are less likely to complain in the end.

    I still don’t understand how your games aren’t more popular. They are of the very few that stays on my phone after 6 months. I wish all the best for you guys!

    - Jim

    • Rubicon says:

      Thanks James.

      I do like the idea of optional iap’s, but our history with that isn’t great either. In hindsight I think we offered the wrong things though, yours is a good suggestion.

  • Your great little/big war games are amongst the few that I keep on my phone. It dismays me they haven’t led you to greater success as I enjoyed them so much. In fact I liked the first one so much years ago I believe I even applied to work with you myself as I loved what you did with it. Also when I worked for a reasonably large video game publisher at one point they took some time to analyse it’s market performance.

    Combat Monsters I had never even heard of before today though – and in my own opinion I suspect the mass market wouldn’t visually find it too appealing to be honest. But the gameplay seems fine to me.

    I must say as part of a small Independent developer myself that mostly provides contract artwork for other peoples projects to make ends meet it is hard for everyone not just you guys. So please take some consolation in that fact that others share similar pain! At least you have gotten your own games out there and that’s quite some achievement.

    Don’t let a world full of fluke successes and sometimes seemingly impenetrable marketing and business BS stand in your way!

    • Rubicon says:

      Thanks for that. Your name feels familiar.

      Yep, lot of people struggling at the moment. It’s pretty damned hard to get any visibility whatsoever on either the store or in the media these days, so not sure how this is all going to end.

      • Yes it seems my name can be a difficult one to find a doppelganger for.

        I think you do stand a good chance though. The gameplay in GL/GB-WG is rock solid, and really you have added a lot features that represent great value comparatively to a lot of other games that could be mentioned – other developers would almost say you added too much I am sure!.

        I am surrounded here by lots of developers basically turning out crap for the Asian F2P market and unfortunately I suspect they are faring much better than you. It’s upsetting to witness really and I am hoping the market is gradually wising up as there do seem to be some signs of that happening.

        If you ever need help with 3d art or animations consider getting touch as I would love to help with your WG series – but I suspect you have all you need in house these days.

        Anyway please do continue filling that Advance-Wars/Dad’s-Army/Sensible-Software-Feel market niche on iOS as it works for me :-)

  • J-F Mitchell says:

    Hey,

    It is very uncommon to see someone as honest when talking about their project / business..! I have started several businesses/projects and have always been an entrepreneur. Trust me I can understand how hard it is to always have to worry about the next rent, payday, etc…

    I also understand you simply want to developed games and not worry about the other aspect of the business but unfortunately this is a little utopic. Marketing, PR and branding is a key part of success. We even tend to look at project from a market perspective first and then if we think there is some potential we are going to ask us “is this something we can do?”.

    It sound like you could also used someone in your business that could be more focused on PR/Marketing and branding. It could change everything.

    I have discovered you because you ran a free promo this week-end, did it worked great?

    Good luck buddy! and maybe try to be more positive about your next big licensed project! :p You can’t screw it!!!

    • Rubicon says:

      Thanks JF. We do have someone helping us now and this giveaway was partly their idea. Seems to have gone well but time will tell when we turn the switch back on. :)

  • wellen1981 says:

    Hi, just thought i would offer my thought on this old post of yours in case you still didn’t have a good grasp on how to get yourselves and your games out there…

    What you want is someone who isn’t coding for you but is like a social/community staff member eg someone who keeps the homefire burning while the rest of you code away…

    You want not just twitch streamers playing your games to their masses of viewers but you also want to be directly getting your work out there – consider making a twitch channel of your own either as an individual or better yet, as rubicon collectively – you could run events on it, stream dev gameplay q and a sessions and also you could do a coding stream day where you actually broadcast one of the team coding away and play testing their changes in real time (i have seen this done by another huge indie dev team and it works very well, can be funny when a viewer comments ‘wow, you have to code the bullets moving?’) also the tiwtch thing works well as people love free stuff and you can giveaway steam key (if you have games on steam that is)

    reddit is a very powerful outlet and you could even do AMA (ask me anything) on reddit for new and aspiring game devs etc – another chance to promote yourselves.

    Also be sure to give clear ability to youtubers to put your game footage etc up and allow them to monetise their videos so that you get free marketing and they can earn for the efforts making youtube vids – something like a paragraph stating that they have permission to make vids of your games works well and can be found on other game dev forums eg bohemia interactive have a paragraph for arma 2 youtube fan made vids.

    It helps to really get a feel for community in gaming and harness a gamers desire to compete and play alongside fellow gamers (and devs for that matter) bottom line – get involved with gamers by playing your games with them! You could even take it as far as creating leagues/leaderboards etc for gamers and twitch stream them live etc.

    I ended up here due to some very intelligent thoughtful comments you left on the gameindustry.biz site and wanted to know more about the work the person who made the comments had done – you see, its all about the connections and making them ;o) hope all this helps.

    I will check out the games you have on steam and just know that your comments on that other site have probably converted into a sale of the war game on steam for me.

    Good luck – you will work out the mystery that is getting more well known, you just need to take a pause from coding and look at things from a gamers perspective more.

    • Rubicon says:

      Thanks for that, it means a lot you went to such lengths and there’s some good ideas to take on board.

      Regarding out own twitch cast, it’s a great idea in principle, but I do fear that we’d have the same visibility issues with that as we do generally. There’s a lot of catch-22 in this stuff. Definitely agree an expert in the subject would make a worthy staff member!

      • wellen1981 says:

        Well I don’t profess to be an expert in the matter but I do have many years as a gamer and have kept in touch with the various machanisms in place which facilitate promotion of games but moreso from the gamers perspective – I do actually have coding experience and regarding the social aspect of gaming I can’t stress enough how more value needs to be placed by devs on the social apsect of gaming.

        Honestly all the above I typed initially is pretty much the corner stone of utilising what is already out there to get you and your titles more well known.

        Also, regarding your last comment about staff members – to have a hire as a social media rep to do all this stuff could work really well and many people would find it a desirable role due to the subject matter (everybody games right?!) also the role would allow for work from home easily and may even suit people who are home based for various reasons eg health.

        A question for you… what exactly have you done or tried to do to get yourselfs ‘out there’ more?

        All the best.

  • Eric says:

    I know this is an old post by now, but I was actually doing some research on your GBWG and GLWG2 titles for use on my sons tablets (Android) when I came across this post. I am disheartened to hear of your troubles, and thought I would offer my thoughts.

    First, let me say that they have gotten many hours of enjoyment out of your GLWG title. I think I first came across it during one of the Google promotional sales a coupe years ago. I thought it was neat, but I don’t play too many games on a tablet/phone that I can’t put down at a moments notice or that take more than a few minutes to finish. I tend to still think of my phone/tablet as less of a gaming device than a tool I suppose. Maybe that will change this year.

    With respect to the only platform I use that you currently support:

    I may not be your “typical” user, but I find I am willing to pay a premium price ($0.99 – $4.99 is my typical purchase range for a mobile game) for fewer app permissions and less invasive metrics gathering practices than almost any single other aspect (usefuleless of the app/interest in the game aside). Where there is a free version listed next to a paid version, I almost always expect a reduction of permisions requested by way of compensation. I dislike the freemium model, and hate it when an app is listed as “free” but is loaded with IAPs. I am also uncertain how i feel about a paid app that includes IAPs, but there are a couple of developers that I have tolerated this practice from because they were either not critical to completing the game, or were largely cosmetic. An example I could see for one of your games would be a custom map builder IAP. It wouldn’t change the campaigns, but would give a more dynamic aspect to multiplayer games for a fee. Then again, maybe adding an additional campaign every 3-6 months as an IAP could work out too. I am certainly not an expert when it comes to walking the line between “I need more $$” and giving the customer value for their purchase. I, personally, prefer to pay once for a game that I can play forever… but that model is slowly dying it seems.

    This may or may not make a bit of difference to most of your user base, but taking a few lines of the the details section of your Play Store entry to outline what each of the apps permissions are for goes a LONG way in building trust. Even if I’ve never met you, it tells me that you are putting your reputation on the line and saying that you are not doing nefarious stuff with things like the “full internet” permission that almost every app claims it “needs” these days. The best thing about this is it doesn’t require you to change any code, give anything away, etc. Maybe, and this is where I can hope a little, you find a permission or two that is actually unnecessary and it gets removed in the next update. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an ex-coder, and a server/network admin. This probably isn’t on most gamers minds, but I can’t shut that part of mine off.

    Another idea that would probably take much more time/effort to implement:

    You have a great pair of games that have significant brand recognition, especially on mobile, target Android TV (that is recently rebranded and looking for early-ish adopters).

    In the slightly out-there category:

    I am uncertain how difficult the port would be, but I’ve seen several internet-based games ported to the Nintendo DS platform. I’m likewise not certain how difficult it would be to port to Sony’s portable platform.

    I think the lesson to learn from Rovio (Angry Birds) is not to run a good thing into the ground, but I think you still have a lot of mileage left in the solid games you’ve built that you should focus on a little more to give you some breathing room to try some new things.

    Just my $0.02.

    FYI… I’m still slightly uncomfortable with the permissions on your apps, but I’m buying the two follow-ons in about 5 minutes based on what I’ve read here on your site. It may not keep your lights on for a month, but it should keep the coffee flowing for another morning or two.

    Good Luck in the new year!

    • Rubicon says:

      Thanks for that. Good point about the permissions, I’ll go make an ammendment.

      Rest assured we’re not “up to anything” here. Almost all of those are required for the app to talk to our server, or for the adverts provided by the free coins button.

  • Neil says:

    Firstly, let me sympathise !! Most people think it’s a breeze development. Come up with an idea, make a game, sell it and then retire rich. If only eh ? Anyway i’ll cut to chase …. I’ve been in dev on and off (more off recently) since mid 90′s. Got bit despondent like you guys sound, and done other similar things to pay the bills (family to support and all that). I’m an overner, been here a year or so now (wife teaches here now in west wight). Be good to meet with like minded peeps and chat, and I have some ideas/comments about your predicament if your interested – you can choose to ignore or whatever, I’m pretty thick skinned really. You’ve got my mail from this comment, so if fancy a lunch meet up one day let me know. You can see what I’ve done previously on moby, and get my name from my mail address. Cheers.

    • Rubicon says:

      Thanks Neil. Definitely be fun to meet up, we’re over in Whitwell – all Overners as well so can even speak English :)

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