Ship a mobile game in 3 weeks. Go!
GeoTap is a free-to-play casual game where you color the sides of low poly geometric shapes. It was our very first game release and an exercise in shipping… anything. We built the first version of the game in our spare time over three weeks. It has since been nominated for the 2018 Indie Prize at Casual Connect and featured on the Google Play store where it became the #1 trending casual game that weekend.
Here’s the TL;DR for the people who are busy making their own games (and should probably be shipping them rather than reading this 🙃) :
- The shipping experience is critical in the lifecycle of game development and something we avoided for far too long
- If you are a game creator without any products on the market, get something out the door as soon as possible
- It probably won’t be your Mona Lisa, and it probably shouldn’t be
- A mobile game is a great first project because the scope is naturally smaller than a desktop or console release
- It’s not set in stone; we’ve updated GeoTap six times since launching, and only did so after getting a great reception and loads of player feedback
- Find some X-factor; something that makes your game stand out visually or conceptually
- Get your game in front of people: Submit to Apple, Google, and Amazon stores for featuring. Post the game on popular forums like Touch Arcade. Submit to review sites and festivals. We submitted with no expectations and got featured by Google a month later!
- Know when to stop. If your game goes live and you are diligent about getting exposure, but it still gets panned, take what you’ve learned about shipping and marketing and apply your insights to the next project. Also, think to yourself, “Why didn’t my game turn any heads?”
For years, we have passionately worked on creating games that continuously led us down a road of disappointment and frustration. A road that every game creator has been down; making games is hard, the hardest… I mean… it’s incredibly hard. Our past ideas were great; we worked passionately on them, believed in them, but they ultimately fell into typical pitfalls (over-scoped, technical hurdles, loss of interest, late to market… you name it).
Having never released a game to market, but happily knocking out several game jam projects, we decided to focus on a new game with singular requirement: ship the damn thing. We would stop being precious about what goes into making a game and simply prove to ourselves that we can get one out the door. We gave ourselves three weeks.
To ship something in that quickly, we leveraged our game jam process: ideate quickly, keep it simple, and play to our strengths. We had to exercise a high level of restraint in game concept and execution. Everything had to be stripped down to its simplest form, while ultimately producing something we were proud to publish.
We are very much aesthetically driven, so we asked ourselves, “what are the rawest materials needed to begin to create emotion?” Form, color, and sound.
Then we moved on to interaction design and development concepts and asked ourselves “what is the simplest mobile interaction?” A single tap. No swiping, no multi-touch, no virtual controls.
Form, color, sound, and a single tap interaction. The last question now was “what is the emotion we are trying to convey?” Internally, we call this the X-factor. Some people call it the angle. It sits above the game platform, mechanics, or technical decisions, and informs conceptual, stylistic, and emotional choices that hopefully make the game stand apart from the crowd.
We are naturally drawn to games that are beautiful, expressive, and relaxing.
For us, it’s not necessarily about creating an intensely gamified experience, but more so creating an expressive and beautiful emotional experience. Due to the simplicity of the game, GeoTap’s X-Factor became its minimalism. This came through in the UI design, the color palettes, and the shallow learning curve of the mechanics.
GeoTap morphed from a dark, techie style, to a relaxing atmospheric game that anyone could pick up and enjoy, with soothing sounds, bold colors, and satisfying geometry.
Escapism, calmness and mindfulness quickly became our emotional targets.
We took these emotions back to our foundational elements (simple color, shape, sound and a single tap) and began to evolve the original concept into an experience that had feeling.
We had created a small world consisting of an array of beautiful atmospheric environments, a sense of weightlessness, a positive soundscape, a hint of chance, and a hint of surprise.
The game, after 3 weeks
Looking back, GeoTap 1.0 was very simple. Here’s the entire feature list.
- 3 Game modes, each with a subtle twist on the basic game mechanic
- 10 unique shapes
- 20 color palettes
- Leaderboards for each game mode
- Advertising placements for monetization
- A single In App Purchase (IAP) to remove ads
That’s it. Nothing fancy, nothing mind blowing. But we created a product that was live and we created something that represented our collective style. We quickly tested with family and friends, made a handful of adjustments, and soft-launched on iOS and later on Android.
The real work begins after launch
Designing and making games is fun, but that work only represents about 25–50% of the effort put into a game’s life cycle. Here are shipping tasks that we grossly underestimated. Much of the following work happened after we launched version 1.0.
- Store listing assets: the game’s description, listing and promotional images, trailer, and icon all have an effect on who will find your game and if they’ll consider downloading it. That consideration happens before they even play your game.
- Community management: reviews, bug fixes, and feature requests began trickling in and we responded to every one of them. Be discerning when deciding which feature requests to act on, and always be gracious, even for bad reviews. We’ve turned a many 1-stars into 5s simply by thanking the player for giving GeoTap a try.
- Marketing: Most indie devs are aware of this, but we can’t stress it enough. Getting your game into people’s hands is hard work, especially when you don’t have name recognition or a fan base. Submit your game to Google Play, Apple’s App Store, and the Amazon Appstore. Submit your game to every indie game festival and event you can find. Submit your game to every review site that covers your platform (mobile, console, PC). This is all free to do, it just takes time.
- Translations: Google required full support for Japanese and Korean in the store listing and in-game UI to be featured. Of course, our first build didn’t include support for translating the UI, and of course our awkward Google Translate copy wasn’t good enough to get their approval. We hustled to get native translations just in time, but going forward, all of our games will have translation features right out of the gate. Russian and Spanish will be next, because those languages represent the majority of our player base.
- Platform support: we rolled in Google Play Games Services and Apple Game Center support early on for our leaderboards and IAPs, but there are other gotchas that show up. For instance, Apple requires a Restore Transaction button for users who bought the game or IAP and want to restore that purchase after reinstalling the game. We learned this on day four of our submission review, and of course we had to get back into the code to support it when the build was rejected by Apple.
- Monetization strategy: If your game is ad-supported, like GeoTap is, monetization should be hard-wired into the game design. We definitely ignored that and after our first launch, we got a ton of feedback that there are too many ads and they don’t positively reinforce player engagement. We’ve since tweaked our ad placement and timing considerably.
- Cultivation / Analytics: Stats! Once the numbers started rolling in, we got hard data to work with. As JRPG fans, the numbers became a meta game that we played while watching installs, uninstalls, ad revenue, review averages, and custom events. There’s so much to learn from this information, so stay on those dashboards and watch the charts.
So we had this thing out in the wild and it became pretty clear that players appreciated the design and game experience but there wasn’t enough content to keep them playing. At this point we made a decision to add new features. If the feedback was more negative, we probably would have stopped there and moved on to another project.
Here are the features we’ve added since the 1.0 launch, and why we chose to incorporate them:
- Virtual currency system: We wanted to reward players for their gameplay. Originally, the high score for a game mode was the only way to track progress.
- Unlockable shapes: We designed 30 shapes that users could unlock with their coins. These shapes added more complexity and variety to the game and gave completionists something to work toward. More are coming for the final release.
- Revive mechanic: Players felt that a single fail was too harsh, so we added a revive screen where the player can spend coins or view an ad to revive, giving them some alternative to failure that they have agency over.
- Settings panel: We added a setting panel with a global mute option, platform sign in/ sign out buttons, and some merchandising for Lucre Games social accounts. Many players wanted to play GeoTap while listening to their own music. We will also link to our other games in this section in the future.
- Game mode help menu: Players were unsure how each game mode worked, so we built a help menu that displays on the first play of any game mode, and can be opened any time during play.
- Coin multiplier bonus: Sometimes players would get very high scores, so we added a reward video button that would give them double their coins. This lets the player choose when to watch a video, so they can ignore the button or use it when they have a high score for extra impact.
- Daily reward: Player drop off became evident, so we added a quick hit of coins every 24 hours, to keep players coming back.
- Achievements: Some people like to complete challenges, so we gave them more ways to engage with the game
- 3 new game modes (coming soon): Pushing our basic mechanic just a little further got us 3 new ways to experience the game. These modes will be part of the final 3.0 release
- Extra juice: We added little touches to make the game more satisfying, like coins that explode out from the center of the game over screen and the shape exploding on fail and rebuilding on revive.
- Ad mediation: We originally used a single ad platform and found the fill rates to be too low. We’ve since rolled in a mediation platform that serves up ads from dozens of networks, each with their own regional strengths.
- Remote settings: Unity has a great feature that lets a developer tweak variables in real time and the game will update without having to ship a new build. Now we can A/B test against specific tweaks without jumping into the code.
The 3.0 release in March will be the final GeoTap release. We’ve pushed a simple game concept about as far as it should go, and only because we kept getting positive feedback along the way. Now we’re moving on to the next game, taking everything we’ve learned along the way to be faster and smarter about shipping.
The results of our efforts
Getting GeoTap into the wild was our only goal, and because we shipped the game, we consider it a success. There have also been unexpected rewards that have made it so much more satisfying to our team.
GeoTap was also recently a “Featured App” in the Google Play store and gained the #1 Trending app in the Casual games category with over 150,000 installs during the featured week with over 1,000 reviews and an average score of 4.2 stars.
Google has been a great partner so far. They nominated GeoTap for their Indie Corner and we got a nice feature through the entire month of March.
We proudly respond uniquely to each and every single review as quickly as possible with “tony the alien”- Happy GeoTapping! 🔹🔸🔺✌️👽✌️🔺🔸🔹.