The story of a decent game failing.

First, a little backstory.

I’ve been a professional game designer for 13 years. I have design credits on games in the EverQuest franchise, Ratchet & Clank Series, Resistance games, and Diablo 3. Here’s my full resume. I’m not listing the things I’ve worked on to brag, but to illustrate that I have a history as a designer on well received games. I’m comfortable saying that I am a good game designer. Having a successful game takes so much more than that.

Last year I decided that I was ready to go at it alone and form my own studio. I chose to not seek funding because I felt like the game scope was small enough that I could finish the game before I ran out of savings and I could make the game cleanly without worrying about loans or investors. Ideally, the sales would repay what I spent to make it. In a perfect world, it would be profitable. As it currently stands, neither of those look like a possibility.

Before we get started, I want to say that I am happy I did this. I learned more in this last year than the majority of my career. In addition to that, I feel incredibly accomplished having shipped a game practically by myself.

The Game Itself

The game itself requires some explanation. This, admittedly, is at least partially responsible for its downfall. The game is a satirical take on the overused tropes of the AppStore. The initial concept was formed over a bet with a friend that one could not create a good game by simply mashing together aspects of popular games. I decided that meant it must include zombies, match 3, and tower defense. At first this was a silly challenge. After quickly creating a prototype, I realized how fun it actually was. What I ended up with is something that plays like Plants vs. Zombies meets Candy Crush. I neglected to integrate the monetization of the latter, which is probably the one of the reasons I am not currently typing this blog on a gold plated keyboard. These are the origins of Zombie Match Defense.

The Reception

That Green Square

That green square was one of my proudest moments. Seeing a game that I conceived and implemented being held in such high regard had more of an impact on me than I anticipated. Sadly, as of this writing, the metacritic score has fallen a single percentage point and the square has shifted to yellow. Overall, folks have had nice things to say in their reviews. I expected the reviews to fall in the 70–80% range. For the most part, that estimate was spot on. There was one outlier who scored the game at 100% and one who scored it at 50%, so luckily that averaged out to the predicted 75%.

When the people are asked to vote, it fares a little better:

iTunes Reviews — User Rating Average: 5/5
Touch Arcade Forums — User Rating Average: 5/5
Jay is Games — User Rating Average: 4.6/5

It also won Pocket Gamer’s Big Indie Pitch:

First Place in Pocket Gamer’s Big Indie Pitch awards $5,000 of marketing credit, more on that later.

In summary, Zombie Match Defense is pretty decent. It’s not an earth-shattering, amazing experience that will change your mind about either of the genres that it’s aping, but it’s solid. In my (obviously biased) opinion, it’s definitely worth $1.99.

The Sales Numbers

This graph is pretty

This graph is pretty standard for game sales. They tend to open with a large spike and then quickly fall back down and level off near zero. The disappointing part is that in this case, the spike only hit a total of $676 on the first day of sale. With just over two weeks of sales, Zombie Match Defense has made a mere $1,979. That’s not nearly enough to make up for the almost year of development that it took to create.

In an attempt to create another spike, I put the game on sale for Halloween. Just a single day to see if it made much difference. In terms of monetary gain, it did not. The difference is more visible when showing the graph in terms of units.

The line in blue is the same graph as above, only this time it is displaying units sold instead of money earned. The second spike is higher in this graph because the game sold almost exactly twice as many units (at half the price) as the days before and after. The green line on this graph is how many AppStore views it received (note that scale for the green axis 200 times larger than the blue axis). The huge green spike is caused by the fact that it was featured in a curated collection of Zombie games on the front page of the AppStore during the second week of launch. This was another really exciting moment as it showed that the Apple editorial staff believed in the game and I knew that it had potential to make a big difference in the numbers.

This got a lot more eyes on the game, but sadly was much worse at converting organic views to sales.

This is the the same graph from above, except normalized to use the same scale for both views (green) and unit sales (blue). The second blue sales spike is barely even visible in this chart.

The Marketing

There were several attempts at marketing the game, some standard, some not. In addition to the steps listed here, there were e-mails and promo codes. Holy crap, so many e-mails and promo codes. I was also very active on Twitter and several mobile gaming forums. Let’s look at everything chronologically!

Before the launch window

Before the launch window I visited several trade shows: GDC, E3, and Pocket Gamer Connects. Each time, I reached out to as much press as I knew about and I tried to show off the game. I got coverage in several major sites, including TouchArcade, Cult of Mac, and Pocket Gamer. At Pocket Gamer Connects, I bought a table to show off the game and entered the Big Indie Pitch Competition. I ended up winning first prize in the competition, which I think gave the game a bit of legitimacy. I think the table was a waste of money, it mostly just introduced me to people trying to sell me products that weren’t applicable to my game.

Reddit AMAs

Reddit AMAs have the potential to get a lot of attention and spread from there. I’m lucky enough to have worked on a game that still has a passionate following and I attempted to capitalize on this. On launch day, I posted a thread, got some questions, and enjoyed interacting with the community. Unfortunately, I don’t think this made much of a dent in my sales.

Facebook Ads

Facebook Ads were the most often suggested route when asking folks where I should spend money on advertisements. I thought it best to just dip a toe in and see how effective they were. I targeted users between 23–40 who were currently on an iPhone and had previously “liked” Candy Crush or Plants Vs. Zombies. The ad was shown to 2,815 people and garnered zero installs. That ratio doesn’t surprise me, the fact that it took me $50 to reach that many people was disappointing. Spending over $50 to convert one user who has a lifetime value cap of $1.99 is just bad business. I did not buy any more Facebook ads.

This ad would pop up in your news feed.

The Pocket Gamer Takeover

The Pocket Gamer Takeover was essentially the prize for winning the Big Indie Pitch. In addition to the iPhone section takeover, there were also a few banner ads in other places. This went live the same day as the Zombies feature, so I’m not sure how much of a difference the exposure made. I can tell you that unless the tracker in iTunes Connect is faulty, nobody clicked any ads on Pocket Gamer. All the banner ads disappear when AdBlock is active, and even though the site skin remains visible, it is unclickable. Would this have made a difference if it was on the front page instead of buried in the iPhone section? Probably, but I doubt it would make enough difference to matter.

Photo Credit: Dylan Jones

Guerrilla Marketing

Guerrilla Marketing is so much fun. I had submitted the game to several festivals, including IndieCade. When it wasn’t selected, I had still planned on attending and trying to show it off. This is a pretty easy feat since mobile games are so portable, but I decided that I should attempt to get a little extra attention with a costume. I built an arcade cabinet costume and mounted an iPad with a fully playable build of the game to it. I got a lot of attention at the festival and even made it into a roundup on TouchArcade and an article on Chartboost.

Marketing Costs

Marketing costs add up quickly. After visiting multiple trade shows, printing out signage, shirts, stickers, flyers, business cards, submitting to festivals, and commissioning logos & trailers, I’ve calculated my costs to be about $4,800.00. Even completely ignoring cost of living and any other business expenses during development, you can see how the current sales trajectory is not profitable.

What Went Wrong?

The Name

The name is a huge turn off. I’ve now had several journalists tell me this, very bluntly, both in person and in print. My thinking in calling the game “Zombie Match Defense” was twofold:

  1. It does exactly what it says on the tin. You know what you’re getting into. It’s also on brand with the core concept, take the three things, own them.
  2. Help optimize SEO/ASO. If you’re into any of these aspects, you should have an easier time finding this game.

While the game was early in production I’d been calling it “28 Plays Later,” but regretted the fact that 28 didn’t have any significance and there was no followthrough on the implication that something happened after a delay. Much like “Plants Vs. Zombies” switched from their original punny title of “Lawn Of The Dead,” I too went for a more literal interpretation.

In practice, folks can’t seem to remember which order the last two words fall in. Additionally, Zombie Match Defense (as a title) lacks the quirkiness the game has. It doesn’t drive the curiosity one gets from imagining how a plant battles a zombie, for instance.

Is it too late to change the name? Would it actually make a difference? What kind of name would be better for this type of game? I’m not sure.

The monetization

The monetization was supposed to be a differentiating factor. The hope was that the game would set itself apart from the other troves of casual games by avoiding the predatory nature of most IAP. Apple had been promoting games without any IAP with their “Pay Once And Play” category. I incorrectly assumed that it was something the majority of players were interested in.

In reality, this is a very vocal minority. The vast majority of players feel like they can download hundreds of thousands of games for free, why would they spend money up front on something they’ve never heard of? In order to reach the numbers necessary to be sustainable with this model, you either need a lot more attention than money can buy (virality), or you need to adopt another business model. I’m currently weighing the options of making adjustments to the pricing structure for the Android release. If that is something that ends up happening, I can promise that it will be ethical and avoid the psychologically abusive nature of other Match-3 games’ timers/life-counters.

The Amount of Content

The amount of content necessary to be seen on par with other games in the genre is insane. Plants Vs. Zombies has over 5 years of post-launch content and additional game modes. It originally launched on iPad at $9.99 but is currently $0.99 and that’s what this game is being compared to. Match-3 games have near infinite amount of levels and get away with it because the few core mechanics they have feel different when changing the field layout, which is not an option with the current mechanics of ZMD (this is a regret that I have).

While I certainly agree that there could and should be more content, I do feel that the comparison between the previously mentioned titles and a game that has a total lifetime value of $1.99 isn’t a very just one. If ZMD does become sustainable, I have plans for more content and would like to continue to add to the base game with additional patches. I don’t think that the work necessary to create more content at this point is a wise investment given the current state of sales. If I had it to do over again, I would have tried to spend some time early on figuring out larger variations than just enemy and weapon types. Some field variation would have helped add some spice and cut down on the sameness of the levels.

What went right?

Friends

Friends came together to make this game. The art, animation, music, and sound were all done by friends. It was all done without any upfront cost, for promise of sharing any profits that were made (after the marketing debt is repaid). Thanks to the amazing skills of Dave Peixoto, Obadiah Brown-Beach, and Ben Kaplan, this game looks and sounds amazing. I regret that it may be some time before I’m able to express my thanks financially. In the mean time I have thanked, and will continue to thank them from the bottom of my heart.

I also made many new friends along the way. Some in person, some via Twitter. I also want to thank them for helping me. Sometimes it was just a conversation that I needed to hear. Other times it was bending over backwards to provide a favor that I didn’t know to ask for. The Indie community is wonderful and I highly suggest reaching out to it as early and often as possible.

The Knowledge

The knowledge I gained on this project is immeasurable, both professionally and personally. This is most noticeable to me in my programming ability. I have leveled up several times over and am very happy with my newfound skills. Finishing the project gave me confidence to tackle something that seems insurmountable at first. I’m now familiar with the work habits that I fall into when not bridled with someone else’s schedule, I know how to avoid my bad habits and build on the good ones. I’ve learned that I am not a solitary creature and I need human contact every so often. I must also apologize to my girlfriend, whose need for solitude to recharge was in opposition to my cravings for connection.

What’s Next?

I feel that there is still some outreach I can do. I don’t think I made enough connections to streamers and YouTubers. If you are or know someone who does Let’s Plays, please get in touch!

There are some bugs to fix. They’re mostly minor, but I want to ensure that folks who have bought the game aren’t having a crummy experience.

The Android version is coming!

If none of these make a difference in sales, I’ll then work on finding income some other way. I’m pretty good at washing dishes.

Thanks for reading.

I sincerely hope this has provided some insight. I’d love to converse about this or most things. Find me on Twitter. If you’re into charts and graphs of iOS game sales, I highly recommend checking out App Annie, here’s the data for Zombie Match Defense: https://appannie.com/apps/ios/app/952938642/rank-history/


Jake Sones, Founder/Designer, shovelware games

Zombie Match Defense is currently available on the AppStore