Why I just can’t give up on my Indie Game
The time ticks past 1am and my pregnant wife rolls the other way to avoid the bright light from my laptop screen. I frantically tap away at the keyboard in a frenzied blend of engineering and storytelling. I know I cannot stop until the release is done; that is both my blessing and my curse. I run a few final tests and upload the build. I then wait several more minutes for my final relief…
Your app (iOS) status is Waiting For Review
I close my laptop and lie down to go to sleep. I am exhausted but struggle to clear my mind of that other place where I have been for the last 6hrs.
In the morning I wake depleted and anxiously reach for my phone to check my metrics. Surprisingly and with great relief there is another 5 star review from the kind of player for whom the game was specifically designed. My face forms an involuntary smile as I realize that once again I have gained enough energy and inspiration to continue on.
My Indie game is Land of Livia and this is the story of why I just can’t give up on it.
For as long as I can remember I have had a deep love affair with games. I have always had a compelling desire to lose my mind in another world and escape reality, be it through a game, movie or novel. However, at a young age my passion for games and the mechanics that fuel them was funneled into a more practical skill — software development. In 1997 when I was 12 years old my parents bought me a university text book on C++. After reading it cover to cover it wasn’t long before I had built my own clone of the infamous Drugwars game.
My passion for games was actually a large motivator for choosing to study Software Engineering at university. The games industry at the time was notorious for being extremely competitive and difficult to enter. Despite this, I got lucky and landed my first job at Red Tribe and then went on to work for a time at Team Bondi. Both positions were incredibly challenging. I learnt a great deal from amazing engineers but I also learnt that great engineering does not always correlate with a successful game.
I left the games industry in 2008 when the strong Australian dollar was causing many of the companies to shrink and disintegrate. I found a growing sector of the tech industry that was the perfect fit for my love of blending hard engineering with creative thinking — startups.
For the next 6 years I worked at 4 different startups and, whilst I was able to be creative and even work on some interactive experiences, I still wanted more. In particular, I craved more creative expression even though I was also terrified of it. Throughout this time two important things happened in the industry that would later be key driving forces behind Land of Livia:
- The Indie game movement was gaining loads of momentum
- Apple decided to invent the most ubiquitous gaming device the world had ever seen
I was finding it increasingly hard to focus on enjoying games because I would disassemble, boil down, and analyze each one to discover what made them fun, engaging and successful. Aspects of many of these games would later provide me with the inspiration for Land of Livia.
I have played countless games over the years but the following are the ones that most heavily inspired me to create Land of Livia. When playing these “the itch” was always strongest.
World of Warcraft
In my opinion no game has built a world that is more engrossing or engaging than World of Warcraft. One does not simply “play” World of Warcraft: It becomes a critical part of your life for as long as you let it. The constant progression and reward loops provide next level psychological hooks into your brain.
Inspiration for: immersive world with its own history and depth, strong sense of constant progression and achievement, lots and lots of loot, teamwork
A story-driven game set across multiple planes of existence in which The Nameless One slowly recovers his memory. What an absolute masterpiece of a game and probably the best narrative of any game ever.
Inspiration for: deep and engaging narrative
The Secret World
This was not an overly successful MMO but it did have a lot of very interesting and unique game design. In particular it included Investigation Missions which were very challenging puzzle quests where the player was provided very little help or guidance.
Inspiration for: challenging puzzle based quests
Clash of Clans (and various midcore mobile games)
The iPhone and App Store caused an explosion of casual games, many of which were very addictive and generated a lot of revenue. Eventually these games evolved into deeper midcore games. I see Clash of Clans as the epitome of midcore mobile gaming and I learnt a great deal of game design from playing and analyzing it.
Inspiration for: midcore mobile game, constant rewards and progression
Throughout 2013 I became increasingly excited by the growing trend of Midcore games.
Midcore is a group of people who like games a lot but maybe don’t have enough time for them as they used to. It is a term that a lot of mobile developers use to indicate that they are making a “serious” game. It’s also the result of the rise of casual games for “casual gamers” as opposed to traditional console games for “hardcore gamers.” Developers have noticed that a lot of people, especially adults, come from hardcore-gaming backgrounds and they are looking for free-to-play experiences on mobile in their very limited free time. That’s the midcore audience.
The problem was that none of these games were quite satisfying me and none of them came close to the brilliance of the games above. What’s worse is that almost all of them followed the same intrusive Freemium trend that often included a Pay-to-Win mechanic.
Games that let you buy better gear or allow you to make better items then everyone else at a faster rate and then makes the game largely unbalanced even for people who have skill in the game without paying.
I began to see a gap in the market for a game that I wished existed and felt very strongly that the market was bigger than just me.
The premise for the game I wanted to create was very simple.
What if a game took all the core elements of the role playing and adventure games you love and distilled them into a mobile game you can play whenever and wherever?
The following were the guiding principles I created that supported this premise:
- A midcore adventure RPG iOS game for hardcore gamers with busy lives
- Absolutely no Pay-to-Win mechanics
- An immersive world and loot/stat depth just like in World of Warcraft
- An engaging and deep narrative just like in Planescape Torment
- Challenging puzzle quests just like in The Secret World
- A generous, free prelude chapter and the ability for players to purchase additional chapters
This was the beginning of a 3.5 year obsession (and counting). I just could not shake the fact that a game like this needed to exist. I wasn’t sure if anyone would play it but regardless I just couldn’t give up on it.
It was January 2014 and I had moved to New York City to be CTO of a startup. Unfortunately the company ran into some financial troubles and by April 2014 I found myself without a job. Furthermore my 13 year relationship with my now ex-wife had come to an end because we had grown apart and both wanted very different things in life.
I was living alone in the East Village and feeling pretty sorry for myself — I needed something to focus on. Rapid game development became my therapy and within 2 weeks the first beta of Land of Livia was born.
At all times I used the principles above to guide my development. From my startup experience I was also a huge advocate of the Lean Startup methodology. I found the game development process to be predominantly an exercise of leaving features out rather than adding them in. The beta included many of the same mechanics as the current game but it had extremely basic UI and graphics. It was all about iterating rapidly and proving my assertion that there was a market for this type of game. I knew how to make a game but I had no clue whether my idea would resonate with people.
I distributed the beta to my friends and family. They played. They continued to play. They finished it. They gave outstanding feedback. Even those that had critical feedback were still launching the game every day to progress a little further. Whilst I believed strongly in the guiding principles of the game I also would not have been surprised if nobody enjoyed it at all. If they hadn’t then I would have just moved on and abandoned my obsessive thoughts but as it panned out, the beta responses were encouraging enough that I just couldn’t give up.
My Initial Release
I moved back to Australia, got another job and started a new relationship, my life felt back in order but the itch remained. It wasn’t long before I was planning out what it would take to get to a v1 that I could release on the App Store and get feedback from a wider audience. It would need better UI, some graphics, enhanced gameplay, some more depth, and much more.
It was very tough to balance work and my game development but I continued to push forward. Once again I applied Lean Startup religiously to stay ever focussed on how I could launch faster. Only once I launched would I know for sure whether real people would enjoy the game. For other creators out there you will know what sets in at this point; the self-doubting inner monologue…
- This game is stupid
- You will never finish
- Your friends and family only played the beta because they know you
- No one will play a game without fancy graphics
- Your writing and story are stupid
- Give up, give up
- Seriously! Give up!
I think learning to defeat this inner demon is the only real challenge that you face as a creator. Even as I write this post I am constantly struggling not to give up. My advice for combatting the inner monologue is pretty simple…
Keep at it. Set goals. Achieve them. Never give up.
Progress was slow but I was getting there. Every month that went by, where a game like this didn’t exist, it only made me more determined to create it. That said, some games did get close. Lifeline and A Dark Room were released and were hugely successful. Incremental or Idle games also became a thing and all of a sudden the App Store was flooded with them. Though I knew how Land of Livia differed so those games only made me more determined.
In January 2016 I left Australia again for another job opportunity, this time in Brooklyn. Then it happened. I just seemed to have endless energy and inspiration. There is just something about NYC that breeds creativity and creation. It felt like almost every night I was making progress + every weekend. At my peak I think I would have been doing 20hrs+ a week on top of my day job. I also somehow managed to design and build everything for the game myself. The only help I solicited was from my good friend, Stu, who spent countless hours testing the game and helping me balance it.
In August 2016 version 1.0.0 of Land of Livia went live on the App Store. I did a bit of a push on social media to get some users but I wanted to keep it pretty small and organic so that I could gather feedback and further iterate.
In the first 2 months there were 700 downloads and an average of 80 daily active users. The game achieved a 5 star rating on the Australian and Canadian App Stores and many excellent reviews.
Very addicting game that is easy to play around your day to day activities. Storyline is entertaining and rewarding. Well done to the dev!
Great casual game that you can pick up and play when you have a spare 30 secs. Decent amount of challenge and the story is great.
A fun game, rich in detail and story. Great for the casual RPG gamer. Very limited graphics, but that isn’t what this is all about. Can’t buy your way forward, so you move ahead by working at it.
This game is well designed and has one of the most user friendly UIs I have ever seen. Developer needs a high five.
Cute, simple yet epic journey with a humorous narrative. Great little diversion when having some down time in day-to-day life :)
I was ecstatic! Not just because it is nice to get good reviews but that these reviews specifically called out the guiding principles that I had started off with 2 years prior. Also, they proved that my target players did not mind the UI and graphics which I was very concerned would turn people away.
Players were so enthusiastic that they did something I didn’t expect: they played so much that they started finishing the free Prelude very fast. In the spirit of Lean I had shipped the first version of the game with just the free Prelude and intended to release Chapter 1 as an in-app purchase (IAP) some time in the future. As I designed Chapter 1 I ran into some game balancing issues and also problems with how some of the game mechanics were panning out. I knew getting the game ready for version 2.0.0 and releasing Chapter 1 was going to be a lot of effort but now, more than ever, I knew I couldn’t give up.
This is the part of the story where, unfortunately, I lost momentum. Real life started to take precedence. My day job at Two Bulls was going extremely well and we were rapidly growing our New York office. I was also set to get married in December 2016 during a Christmas trip back to Australia. Months and months flew by but the itch remained and of course, slowly grew.
Once things quietened down a little the urge became too strong and, in February 2017, it was full steam ahead again.
I redesigned some core mechanics of the game to further support the guiding principles and adapted to feedback from the initial release. The biggest challenge, however, was writing Chapter 1. The feedback had been so great from the Prelude that the pressure to continue on was unbearable at times. I would stare at an empty JSON file with a paralyzing and persistent writer’s block. The itch was insane and I wanted so bad to take the game to the next level, but I had to find another way.
I am an Engineer and I was facing a problem — so, in true Engineer form, I designed and built a solution. Over the course of 2 months I implemented an AngularJS based CMS that I could use to more easily create content for the game. It even had some neat features that used algorithms to ensure I was building ‘good’ content. It was a big investment but the results were amazing. My writer’s block was cleared and I powered through Chapter 1. For those that play the game, they will find that Chapter 1 is a lot more intricate and carefully interwoven than the Prelude and this is all thanks to the CMS.
Testing and balancing a game of this type is very tricky. I once again enlisted the help of Stu but also I built tools to test and verify the game to ensure it would provide the desired length of enjoyment. Players had defeated the Prelude so fast that I needed to ensure that the length of Chapter 1 gave me enough time to create Chapter 2.
The final hurdle I had to jump was one that I am sure is very familiar to other iOS Indie devs: iTunes Connect. This was the first time I had implemented IAPs in my own account and so there was a lot of time-consuming paperwork. Normally, it would not be too difficult but because I am an Australian citizen temporarily residing in the United States it made things tricky + coupled with some iTunes Connect bugs == many weeks waiting for final approval.
Pro tip for other devs: start the paperwork and approval process for iTunes Connect as early as you can!
Finally, a full year after the initial release, version 2.0.0 went live on August 16th 2017. The last 45 days have been an absolute blur consisting of the following activities;
- Responding to player feedback
- Nurturing the in-game Campfires
- Making further balancing and feature tweaks
- Setting up and analyzing analytics and metrics
- Adding more tutorials and further streamlining the game
- Fixing bugs
- Updating to iOS11
Above all else I was hustling to get as many players into the game as possible to make my metrics more meaningful and gain feedback. TouchArcade and Facebook Ads (more on this later) were the two methods that I found most effective for gaining new players. TouchArcade also has a great community where you can even run a simple competition in order to gain those vital App Store reviews for your new game release.
Apart from taking a year to launch Chapter 1, the other major mistake I made was not having an effective way to stay in contact with my players from the initial release. It turned out my push notification implementation was broken and there was no other way that I could reach the players, many of whom had probably uninstalled the game anyway. I have now spent a lot of effort to have the ability for push notification campaigns using Facebook Analytics and also In App News for keeping players up to date. I also continue to encourage players to follow Land of Livia on Facebook and Twitter.
Of course I am sure by now you are dying to find out just how the game has fared in the last 45 days. Well here are the metrics…
From everything I have read and researched, these metrics are very healthy for a mobile game. For those that don’t know, ARPMAU stands for Average Revenue per Monthly Active Users and it is a useful metric for tracking the financial health of your game.
Despite the relatively small number of players, the game has received a large amount of extremely positive ratings and reviews. Currently it has an average rating of 4.9 stars in the US and Australian stores and 4.5 stars in the Canadian store.
In the weeks leading up to the Chapter 1 release I was scared that nobody would purchase it. I honestly thought that this would finally be the end of this 3.5 year journey and obsession but once again I have been flooded with positive feedback and metrics and now, more than ever, I just can’t give up.
My Insatiable Quest
It has been an amazing journey so far but it is really only just getting started. I believe so passionately in the premise and guiding principles of my game. I really think there is a untapped market and I keep getting metrics and feedback that supports this.
I’ve really enjoyed this game. It delivers on exactly what it sets out to do, boil down a genre to something someone with a busy schedule can enjoy. It’s very refreshing to find a game that’s not dominated by ads or “pay to win” tactics.
I’m always looking for games that I can make progress in by checking in very briefly throughout the day, and they definitely had people like me in mind with this game. It is not pay to play, you have to wait.
Wow! Finally a game comes a long that is not a clone of the other five apps that people are playing.
Even my Facebook Ads have been surprisingly effective. By targeting a specific audience I have achieved a very low cost per install (CPI).
So what’s next, well there is a bunch of different things on my roadmap but the predominant goal is to find a way to reach all the people that I believe will love this game and get them to download and play it. I will continue to try to find organic ways to reach potential players but, outside of that, my metrics are not far off allowing me to invest in a more extensive advertising campaign. Here are my next steps:
- Increase my ARPMAU - write and release Chapter 2 and Chapter 3
- Increase my retention - continue to refine the new player experience
- Advertise - invest in campaigns with a CPI that means I at least break even
If this is successful then I would absolutely love to fulfill my dream of further bringing the game to life with the help of artists. I also think this would allow me to reach an even broader market.
In the meantime I am going to continue to scratch my itch and stay focussed on the guiding principles of my game. One thing is for sure though, I will continue to fight the daily fear and self doubt because I just can’t give up on my Indie Game.