Mobile and the Market03 November 2016
I had some thoughts prompted by an article on Stately Play, a new game news website set up by some ex-Pocket Tactics folks. It's about the release of Elexi, but that's not why it's interesting. First, go read it — the key bit is the next-to-last paragraph (i.e., the last paragraph before the update). Go ahead. I'll wait.
On Market Struggles
So, first off... That's a really interesting paragraph to read on a site that maybe at first glance you might think is just another news site about games (i.e., the sort of site that highlights new releases and posts reviews and such). But if you read the site's charter or mission statement or whatever you want to call it, you'd quickly realize there's already a bit more to the site. Stately Play is looking to cultivate a bit more personality, and that paragraph in that article rather aptly illustrates the point.
There's a lot to chew on with regards to how journalistic voice contributes to the success of modern news sites of all types. I'm not really interested in talking about that today, though. What I do want to talk about is what that paragraph gets at, i.e., the idea of how the economics of the app store affect indy developers. Because there's something there that's just bang on — although not about Elexi per se, but it's definitely something that's true more generally.
First, an aside, regarding Elexi specifically: Elexi to me isn't really a great example. EM16, sure, and TSC? Oh yeah. But not Elexi as much. It really was only meant to be a quick project to see if I wanted to commit to Unity for larger projects, i.e. to make sure I wasn't prematurely committing to using something I couldn't stand working with. I really did envision it as a weekend project, i.e., do something quick ➸ learn you some Unity for great good ➸ ??? ➸ profit. But then a weekend became a week, then a month, and finally ended up taking two (okay fine, three) months in all. It's safe to say it's not much like the game I originally envisioned (which was really my wife's idea anyway, now mutated beyond all recognition). But it took that long because once I started on it, I had some ideas, then I had to finish it, and not just finish it, finish it up to standard — I'm just not going to put anything out there unless I'm satisfied that it's ready. I suppose I could have dropped it and not released anything and moved on instead, but I liked the idea and I wanted to play it, so I stuck to the plan and finish it I did.
But... Ultimately I don't have particularly strong feelings about the game or the game's success. I really do have zip in the way of sales expectations. Because it's on mobile where discovery is a thing, and it's almost certainly not cost-effective to put a whole lot of effort into marketing it. So I don't expect much. And, as long as it makes back the cost of making it (localization costs money, assuming you're not natively fluent in eight languages)... I don't really care that much. I mean, if it was wildly successful that'd be super keen, but the key point here is that it's not really the sort of thing I want to keep doing. TSC and EM16 are.
So back to the main topic... Talking about the market and app store economics, yeah, there's a lot to talk about there. Realistically, the app store is not something I want to pour a lot into, because I don't expect to get much back, not even as much as I put in. Sure, there's also that strong reluctance I have to really put myself out there (marketing is super, super hard for me). I hate dealing with people, I'm really uncomfortable talking myself up, and there's probably even a bit of imposter syndrome there too for good measure. (And if you're reading this and this seems familiar, well, that's pretty much normal, even if we don't tend to talk about it very much.) So there's that too.
Put everything together and... Well. The app store doesn't plausibly seem like the future. And that's really, really not news to any indy developers who have dealt with it.
The Real World
So let's put some concrete numbers on this.
Before Elexi, Lensflare Games had released two apps (Tactical Space Command, Election Manager 2016) in five flavors (iOS and Mac OS for each, plus a free iOS version of TSC).
Here's a graph of TSC and EM16 sales. TSC has sold about 2200 units since release (I'm not counting TSC Lite which only matters insofar as it drives TSC sales, but that's about another 3500 units). EM16 has approximately tripled that, selling almost 6000. Of that, about 85-90% of sales have been on mobile (which means that the Mac App Store is basically a waste of effort unless the marginal effort to release there is minimal. I seriously doubt that's much of a surprise to anyone, though).
Those... Aren't good numbers if you look at developing games as a business. TSC in particular wasn't exactly a financial success. Maybe it would have been okay from a hobbyist standpoint (which, to be fair, I was at the time that I wrote it and I've remained one until recently), but not really worth the effort otherwise. EM16 was a bit better, and unlike TSC it's still selling. Why was it more successful? Probably two reasons, if I had to guess: (1) it's available on both phone and tablet form factors (TSC is iPad-only), and (2) it's less niche and/or more topical. Certainly marketing isn't the difference, because EM16 got zero post-launch coverage (all of the coverage on Pocket Tactics was pre-release. Nobody else noticed at all).
Those curves are pretty interesting, though. TSC has what I understand is a pretty typical sales curve (the second peak is when the scenario editor was announced, and also mostly happened before an announced price increase went into effect). EM16 is something else, though. EM16 sales have been (relatively speaking) steady — it had a few peaks but it never exactly took fire. Maybe that's because it got zero coverage and all of the sales are organic. And the peaks aren't quite what I expected: the first peak was during the primaries (that much makes sense). The second was during the party conventions but (unexpectedly to me) was much smaller. There seems to barely be a peak at all for the election itself and I really didn't expect that — I expected the strongest sales would be right now, but they're not. Maybe because this election is awful and everyone who cares about elections is sad. I do expect sales will trail off after this month, but probably slowly (judging by the rest of the sales curve). I've been terrible at sales predictions so far, though.
So, Now What?
So what does this all mean? Well, here's the section that will make the fans of my games on mobile sad. All three of them.
It means... Mobile is bad market for me. I'm not sure it's a good market for anyone... But for me it's just terrible. I could afford to not care about that when the games I made were experiments and writing games was a hobby, but now that I've gone full-time developing games, I can't afford to spend a lot of effort targeting mobile anymore. Not when I'm making the games I want to make (things like TSC or EM16 or other very broadly similar projects I have queued up). Strategy on mobile just isn't a thing that sells. Or, more specifically, it isn't a thing I can sell.
So here's a thing: mobile is actually an immense market. Strategy on mobile is... Maybe a significant market? It's hard to tell. Potentially? But the reality is, it's apparently nothing but potential. You can't live on potential.
If TSC and EM16 had sold ten times more copies on mobile, that number of sales would still be a tiny, tiny, infinitesimal fraction of overall sales on the platforms. And it might be a significant fraction of the strategy games that sell on the platform. Or it might be a small fraction. It's much harder to tell there. (How big is that market, anyway? It's just so hard to say.) But let's just imagine that it's huge: I still don't have any practical or effective way to reach it. With a big enough sales budget I don't doubt it would be possible increase sales by that factor of ten, but I don't have a big sales budget, and I also suspect very strongly that it would ultimately be a net loss. TSC had good coverage (as these things go), but (to exaggerate slightly) good coverage was: one site of any significance noticed it, because that's pretty much it for outlets that cover stuff like this. And coverage really did drive sales... But only about one tenth of what sales needed to be for this to be worthwhile in a business sense, because only a tiny fraction of the market actually reads any coverage about mobile games in the first place.
In short, there just doesn't seem to be a path to sustainability here.
Am I bitter about it? Maybe sometimes, I guess, but mostly not really. It is what it is. Am I negative about it? Well, yeah, but I think justifiably so. Does it make me reluctant to get excited about how anything will sell on mobile or talk things up on the platform? Hell yes. Because yes, the performance of my games so far is disappointing. On the other hand — TSC and EM16 were experiments when the price of failure was low, and the results were between failure and mixed, and that's okay. I suppose I can't even particularly claim to be surprised, because I don't actually like playing more than the rare game on mobile — I'm really a PC gamer in my true heart, the sort that wants a 30" monitor so he can rack up literally thousands and thousands of hours playing Paradox games. Or establishing his system-wide communications and logistics network in Kerbal Space Program. Or optimizing circuit production and a rail network in Factorio.
But the bottom line is that I can't really afford to experiment anymore, not if I actually want to keep making games. That means TSC2 will be released first on PC and maybe on mobile if it's not too hard to adapt. This time I'll be making a desktop game, and it frankly also means TSC2 will be a better game because it won't be held back by the many limitations that mobile puts on games (even if mobile has a couple of advantages to compensate). Not even counting any improvements TSC2 will have from the lessons learned writing TSC the first time. And even if and when it does get ported to mobile, the translation will probably lose something in the process. Dealing with the limitations of mobile was an interesting challenge for TSC — and EM16 — but they're still limitations.
And that's the way it is. But again — I'm not sure I really belonged on mobile in the first place.
Discovery on Steam might be its own shitshow, though. So maybe I'll be back looking for a "real" job soon enough. We'll see.
Thinking about doing a more specific postmortem on Elexi, maybe next week. Haven't decided yet, though.
 meaning either the App Store itself or Google Play and the like.
 I may not have many fans, but on the bright side they invariably have impeccable taste.
These are Doug's bloggish thoughts on game development, specifically on the games he's writing for Lensflare, or on Lensflare-related topics more generally. Or whatever he wants to write here, really, but those are the sorts of things to expect. Doug has strong opinions (loosely held) about many things — he could claim that he doesn't speak for Lensflare Games, but that'd be silly considering that (for all practical purposes) he is Lensflare Games. Still (for what little it matters) he's not always wearing that hat here. And yes, this is an actual picture of Doug (okay, not really, but the story behind it is too long to go into right now).
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