Like all game developers, I think my game is awesome and that if only more people knew about it, they would download it, play it, and love it.
This has been somewhat of a struggle with Card Crusade. It’s been reasonably successful (~$10,000 revenue in 6 months, more info on that in a future post) but we are nowhere near reaching everyone who would like the game. Out of the millions upon millions of people who play games on their phones, only a tiny slice of a percent of those people have bought Card Crusade. So I keep trying to think of ways to expand that slice.
One way that I tried recently is Facebook ads. Fellow devs were largely skeptical that ads would work out for premium games, and their suspicions seem mostly correct. We did not make a profit or break even on this particular advertising campaign, but that doesn’t mean that no premium game could ever run a successful ad campaign. I am open but not eager to doing another one of these in the future.
The likes and one “love” reaction came a couple days into the campaign. I hope whoever reacted to the post bought the game, but it is impossible to know without chasing them down and asking them individually. (This is actually a feasible strategy at our scale, and I may attempt it at some point.)
Here is our targeting information:
Ad placement was exclusively in the “Mobile New Feed”.
Money spent: $37.70
After the store cut and taxes, we profit roughly ~$2.50 for every copy of Card Crusade that someone buys (the game is $4, the store cut is $1.20, I rounded down). Therefore in order to break even, we needed to spend less than or equal to $2.50 for each successful click-through and purchase. For this amount of money, that means 15 copies.
One reason this experiment was inconclusive is how little money we spent. If we do this again in the future, I would spend $50 or more in a single day to see how the spike looked.
Link clicks: 139 / Cost per link click: $0.27
$0.27 is a roughly average CPC (cost per click). To sell 15 copies, that means one in every ~9 people who visit the store page actually buys the game. I hoped that was a reasonable assumption, but it turns out it was not. Either due to people only clicking the ad on accident, click farming, an unattractive store page, the lack of a free demo, or people already hitting their monthly premium game budget (would an ad campaign for a paid game be more successful at the beginning of the month?), our link click to purchase ratio was closer to 1 in 50.
Downloads: maybe 3?
We sold 23 copies on iOS from 5/17 to 5/22, the duration of the ad campaign. The previous three 6-day periods sold 23, 19, and 36 (you can look at the in-depth sales data yourself). So it really looks like we sold no more than usual, which is why I quit the campaign after spending less than $40. I give the number 3 above because 3 people liked the ad, and because I’m being optimistic. Who knows, maybe we would have sold 15 that week without the ad!
It will be an eternal source of frustration to me that I do not know why our sales numbers seem so incredibly random. Apple has a complete monopoly on selling iPhone apps, so no one else can build a better store that has better data on how people get to a store page. Android actually has a ton of different app stores besides Google Play, . Maybe we should try listing our game on the Amazon app store?
There are clear spikes when a big, important marketing event happens, like being featured on Touch Arcade or somewhere on the App Store. But the day to day is just so hard to predict.
The campaign could likely have been more successful…
I’m glad I did it! Learned a lot, didn’t waste much money, ran a fun experiment.
It’s been a couple months since Card Crusade left early access in March. Thanks to our players, testers, and reviewers for reporting bugs and giving tons of feedback! We take notes on every suggestion and report that comes in and carefully consider each one. Without further ado, here’s everything new and improved in the latest version of Card Crusade, available for download on TestFlight today!
Card Crusade is a good game with some great moments. Not every moment is great — walking around the dungeon is a little bit boring, some encounters feel stale, some cards aren’t worth picking up, and even some characters are sort of uninteresting. (I’m looking at you, Bishop.) But there are some moments that I’m truly proud of. Like this person trimming the Nomad’s starting deck to four cards and stun-locking every character. Like another player who did a Mitosis/Hoodlum/Dictionary run and got his deck up to 350 cards. Like the players early on who used Metallicize so many times that the amount of block overflowed into a negative integer. Those moments make me love what we created.
The thing is, it takes an open mind and a bit of an investment into the game to see those great moments.
Now that we’ve accomplished our original goal of just putting something out there, I want to work on something different. I don’t want to make another game that’s the same as Card Crusade in its basic skeleton: You move your character around a dungeon, you collect weapons, you fight monsters, and you gradually level up your abilities. Any variation on that theme would feel a little bit stale to me, like I’m not really pushing myself forward as a game creator.
For the next game, the type of game that it is — its basic DNA — matters much more than its existence.
Speaking of pushing myself forward, what do I want to push myself towards? My moonshot end goal is to create games for a living, in a way that’s financially viable for me and my family. This means that I have to make than a “good game.” There are a lot of people who make good games, but a good game is not going to be good enough. I need to learn how to create great games, exceptional games, amazing games, games that make people turn their heads, games that people want to tell all of their friends about. And to learn that will probably require some experimenting.
So the next serious game I make needs to have these properties:
We should also focus on our strengths as a studio, rather than trying to over compensate for our weaknesses. Here’s what I think our strengths are:
For all of the brainstorming and design talks that Jan and I had, Card Crusade was still designed around a fun little mechanic that we came up with. Watch this video that shows our earliest progress in the game — the first week was literally just, there’s four cards at the bottom of the screen that you can drag around, a card in the middle that changes its picture, and some stats at the top.
We lost some of that initial enthusiasm by focusing on making Card Crusade look like a “normal” game, the kind of game that we were used to playing. Hence the walking around a dungeon, the combat centrism, the merchant. What if we had focused instead on just making more toys, more fun mechanics, more interesting ideas? Some of that was regained later on in the development cycle when we started adding more interesting cards, monsters, and altars, but I wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t tried so hard to make something normal.
We made a good game, and I’m proud of it. It’s cliche to say but I did learn a lot: how to engage your players, how to do marketing and PR, how to finish something, how to know when it call it quits.
That being said, I don’t think there are many things more dangerous that we could do to the future of our little studio than make another good game. Let’s do something untraditional, weird, surprising, nonconforming, innovative, something new. Just not something “good”.
This update brings in several exciting new elements, and marks us officially leaving early access. We will continue to fix bugs and make improvements as they come up!
First, let’s talk balance and other minor changes:
On to the big changes! There are new cards and a new game mechanic. Let’s talk about the new cards first! All of the following cards are now available in chests throughout the dungeon and in the shop. We’re excited to see how you surprise us with new combos!
The other big change is the addition of altars! Floors 2, 5 and 8 now contain an “altar room” which has a special token on the floor that you can interact with. These altars let you make tradeoffs that can either end your run quickly, or supercharge your deck, depending on how prepared you are. We’ve created the following 12 altars that you can expect to see:
I’ve had a handful of people ask about what assets we used in Card Crusade. Here’s the list!
All told we spent about $100 on all the assets. It would have been a lot more money if we had hired freelancers for art and music, but the quality would have been higher as well, so that’s a trade off we might do differently in future games.
Hit me up on Discord if you have any questions! The server link is on this website’s home page.
As I was reading through Twitter, I came across a few 2018 retrospective blog posts from game devs that I admire (TiNYTOUCHTALES, Facepunch) and thought it would be worthwhile to write one for Pollywog as well.
2018 was a really good year for us — in fact, it was our best year ever! Though it has not yet been a hugely profitable venture, starting an indie games studio has been a lot of fun and has the potential to be a sustainable business in the future. We are quite happy with our regular lives and day jobs and don’t have any plans to quit anytime soon, but of course, anything can happen. Now that the legwork of starting the business and figuring out how we want to do things is out of the way, 2019 can be a year focused on making and releasing great games!
It turns out making games in your spare time is not as difficult as we thought it would be. Once you’ve developed some skill in Unity (or whatever game making software or framework you use), you can be quite productive with just a few spare hours each week. The way we see it, it’s a good hobby that might turn into a “real” business if we get lucky, but if not, we still had fun making games that we’re proud of.
The big news of the year is that we released our first game ever! An early access build of Card Crusade came to the Android and iOS app stores in early December. The game took pretty much the whole year to develop; Jan and I started talking about making a game around January, decided on an idea in February, built a prototype in March, started play testing in May, and updated the game every 1-2 months until a release in December.
It’s an immensely satisfying feeling to release something you’ve created. The day it released, we did a promotion on /r/AndroidGaming and got ~$400 of revenue. While the number in actuality was smaller than we were hoping for, it felt so much bigger than I expected. And the comments we received were almost exclusively positive — out of literally hundreds of commenters, only one person said something even remotely negative.
We have plans to continue updating Card Crusade and to take it out of early access hopefully in January or February of 2019. At that point we’ll start some more aggressive marketing campaigns, including (hopefully) getting featured on the app stores, which would be a HUGE boost to sales. There will be more cards, more monsters, and a few brand new things that we’re still polishing up!
A special thank you goes to the family and friends who helped us play-test for almost six months while we built the game. Without everyone’s encouragement, we certainly would have never finished the game and Card Crusade would have gone to the dust bin of history. We’re also especially grateful to anyone who’s bought the game, emailed us about it, and participated in our Discord server, which is steadily growing by the day!
If you follow us on Twitter or spend any time in our Discord, you’ll see that we have a few ideas in the works for 2019! There’s two that are worth mentioning here.
Since Card Crusade was designed as basically a mashup of Slay the Spire, Pixel Dungeon, and Dream Quest, it seemed only natural to design a new project the same way. Jan had the idea to combine TiNYTOUCHTALE’s game ENYO with a classic metroidvania adventure game (inspired by countless hours sunk into Hollow Knight) and started some prototypes to that end. What we have now resembles neither ENYO nor a metroidvania in any meaningful way, but the name has stuck as sort of a working title for the project.
— JanPaul Bergeson (@residentJan) November 23, 2018
We’ve gone back and forth on a few designs, but the plan for now is to make a sci-fi roguelike featuring lots and lots of items (mostly guns). Sort of a turn-based Enter the Gungeon, probably. Stay tuned for updates on this one!
Jan and I have another brother named David who has worked on a hex-based strategy game called Portunica for the last few years. The idea has gone through several iterations over the years, but we are reviving it as a simpler game based more on chess than on Warcraft. Oryx Design Labs has been nothing but good to us, so we’re going to keep using their sprites for a while!
— JanPaul Bergeson (@residentJan) December 18, 2018
We’re excited to be working with David for this game and look forward to what the future holds! There are no concrete dates or plans but we certainly hope to have both games out the door sometime in 2019. At the very least, we are planning on beta releases and play-testing with both these new titles, just like we did with Card Crusade.
This year has been great for Pollywog Games, and 2019 looks like it’s going to be even better, with Card Crusade coming out of early access and a few new games being released. We have followed a mostly “open production” model of making games by having most of our design discussions on our public Discord server, showing prototypes on Twitter, and play-testing as soon as we have a workable build. I hope we keep doing that as it goes a long way towards maintaining our motivation and getting us great feedback from the community. Let’s keep making fun games and growing our little community!
A week or two ago we released the first version of our first game to the App Store and Google Play! Card Crusade: Early Access is now available for $2.99 USD for both major mobile platforms.
Here are a few relevant links:
For our own records, and for anyone else who is interested in following along, here are some social media links:
Most of our traction so far (~200 sales and ~$600 in the first 3 weeks) has come from social media, primarily Reddit. We built up a list of play testers by posting and messaging individual commenters who seemed interested. Other than that, it’s been mostly friends and family, as well as some word of mouth.
Previous Reddit posts are catalogued here as well, in reverse chronological order:
Anyway, enjoy the game!
I’m a software developer by day and games programmer by night, making Card Crusade with my brother. In this post, I analyze what makes a breakout success. Interested in chatting about game design, marketing, or anything else? Join our Discord!
The first few sections of this post are mostly historical. A bullet-point summary of key takeaways is provided at the bottom of the article.
At the moment, Voodoo is the undisputed king of mobile game publishers.
You may have heard that they’re the reigning champions these days, the bad guys who make millions ripping off indies (see the Hole.io controversy). But you might not have known that just a few years ago, they were a regular indie game studio, just like everyone else, trying to make it in an increasingly saturated market.
Whether Hole.io is more than a blatant clone is a question for another article. What’s more interesting to me is, why was Voodoo successful where Ben Esposito wasn’t? (Or hasn’t been yet; Donut County may prove to be a big hit whenever it finally comes out.)
In 2013, Alex Yazdi and Laurent Ritter started their company in Paris, France. For the first three years, they didn’t do anything particularly remarkable — they studied the market, they developed a strategy, and they made some games (Bool, Quiz Run). They had good success; Bool reportedly got 200,000 downloads in the first week. Business was good, but they weren’t making millions.
Then in November 2016, they released the infamous Paper.io. It captured the .io craze of the time, chasing the tails of hit games Agar.io and Slither.io. In this game, like other .io games, you control a small character in a massively multiplayer two dimensional world, competing with others to become the largest. But Voodoo’s game had a catch: it wasn’t multiplayer.
This was an equally smart and controversial decision. Developing a massively multiplayer online game is one of the hardest things a small studio can attempt. Gaining traction is difficult, as is scaling the backend — but you don’t need either of those things if you just make a single player game.
As you can imagine, most players were disappointed when they found this out. In fact, Voodoo did such a good job of faking it that most players didn’t even know it was a single player game. Some accused them of shady tactics; in reality, they were just trying to make a hit.
Now here’s where things get interesting. What do you do if you just made a hit game that raked in a bunch of ad money? Would you use what you’d learned to make another one? Would you keep pushing it to get more and more downloads?
Not Voodoo. Immediately after their first big success, they left the game development industry completely.
I’m not close enough to any Voodoo employees to know why they made the switch — maybe they weren’t making enough money, or maybe making their own games was too stressful. Either way, they quickly pivoted from self-funded indie studio to VC-fueled publishing giant.
The change was nearly instant. From an interview with GameAnalytics, we learned how they found their first game to publish:
We created a script that scraped the Google Play store, where you could find the studios’ emails at the time (you couldn’t find them on the iOS app store). That gave us about 36,000 emails in less than a day. We ran A/B tests on different emails, different subject lines mainly. Then we emailed everyone with the best working headlines. After that we got about 500 responses and from that we got one game.
This is starting to sound like the Voodoo we recognize: something ineffective, done at massive scale, becomes massively effective.
And so arose Fight List, a casual word game that felt like an action game. After that came Flappy Dunk, a clever riff on the infamous Flappy Bird; Snake VS Block, a spin on Ketchapp’s block-breaker game Ballz; Rolly Vortex, a dumbed-down Super Hexagon; and many other twists on simple, casual games.
Unlike most game studios (I’m looking at you, Halfbrick) who struggle to recreate past successes, Voodoo used their hit game Paper.io as a launching pad. As of this writing, they have raised upwards of $200 million in venture funding; and 11 of their 29 iOS games launched in 2017 have hit the top 10 overall in Apple’s App Store.
So how did they do it? How did a small game studio become one of a small handful of companies that make millions of dollars on mobile games?
The nature of the mobile games market encourages a winner-take-all outcome, more so than desktop and console platforms. A handful of one-man indie game studios (Zach Gage, TiNYTOUCHTALES, Slothwerks, Phillip Stollenmayer) have carved out a piece of the pie, usually with premium titles. However, these small studios are the exception and not the rule; the majority of studios thrive on a small percentage of players making thousands of dollars of in-app purchases, and/or obsessively spamming players with ads.
Voodoo made some very smart, strategic decisions that no one else has made:
Most importantly, in the immortal words of Ron Swanson, they didn’t half-ass two things; they whole-assed one thing. They learned from their failures — they could tell they weren’t going to be the next Blizzard, so they pivoted to publishing, with a special focus on their strengths, user acquisition and monetization. And they didn’t respond to failure by fragmenting or worse, giving up entirely; they just switched their focus to something else.
Who in their right mind cold-emails 36,000 publishers to get one game? A few cool-headed developers who are now millionaires, that’s who.
Thanks for reading! Leave a comment below or send me a message on Twitter. Special thanks to JanPaul for helping revise an earlier version.
League of Legends and Dota 2 players are constantly talking trash about each other’s game. They did, after all, come from the same game. The generally held consensus is that League of Legends is a simplified version of Dota, but few players can actually name real differences between the two games. But how many Dota or League players can actually name real gameplay differences between the two?
After doing research for this post, I’m convinced that Dota 2 is a deeper game than LoL. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better game than LoL. While I personally enjoy LoL more since I play it casually and it’s less punishing than Dota for casual players, I’m not here to give a recommendation one way or the other, just to inform and entertain!
The main reason Dota 2 and LoL are so similar is that, as most people are aware, League of Legends was originally based on Dota — not Dota 2, but the original Dota 1.
Dota 1 is actually a mod of Warcraft 3, a real-time strategy game similar to Starcraft (and from the same publisher, Blizzard) where you build a base and give orders to a whole army in addition to controlling individual heroes. The mod basically stripped out the base-building and army-commanding aspects of the game, making those auto-controlled by the computer, and allowed the players to focus on the most fun part, controlling individual heroes.
(Little-known fact: an earlier Dota-like mod was created for Starcraft! It was called Aeon of Strife. There were 8 heroes in the game and none of them had any particular special abilities. So if Dota is the “father” of LoL, Aeon of Strife must be the grandfather.)
League of Legends was created as an entirely new game from Dota, with all-new champions, art, lore, and abilities. The main focus of Riot Games when making League was to make it accessible, and this is reflected in its relative simplicity. In comparison, everything in Dota 2 was designed with the pros in mind. Questions the developers had when making the game were decided by “whatever will make the game deeper,” that is, more strategic.
In any MOBA, most of the depth and strategy of the game comes from the variety of abilities the characters have. At first glance, LoL seems deeper because its champions each have 5 abilities (4 plus a passive), while in Dota each hero only has 4.
But that fails to take into account item abilities, or “item actives” as they are officially known. In LoL, most item effects are passive — go a little faster, do a little more damage, be a little tankier — you get the idea. There are a couple game changing item actives like Zhonya’s or Guardian Angel, but those are the exception, not the rule.
By contrast, in Dota almost every single item has a significant active. Because of this, items define the game almost as much as individual heroes do. One example of a common game-changing item in Dota 2 is the Town Portal scroll or TP scroll. This item allows any hero to teleport anywhere on the map after a 3 second channel.
This item is very cheap (50 gold — the same as a health potion in LoL) and is bought many times every game by every player. It allows all heroes to jump around the map constantly to defend towers, assist with ganks, or catch an enemy by surprise. By contrast, the most similar spell in LoL is the Teleport “summoner spell” (a spell that can be taken on any LoL champion) — it has essentially the same functionality, but a longer channel time (4s rather than 3s) and a much longer cooldown (5min instead of 80s).
There’s a similar relationship between Flash in LoL and the Blink Dagger item in Dota — the LoL version has a shorter blink distance and a much longer cooldown, and must be chosen as one of your champion’s summoner spells, while the Dota version has a very short cooldown (15 seconds) and is available to all heroes with the item purchase.
This also brings me to my next point, which is that:
The general design philosophy of Dota 2 is to nerf only game-breaking power, and buff everything else til it sees play. The designers keep things balanced by spreading a lot of power around to many different heroes and items. By contrast, the general design philosophy of LoL is to nerf anything that is frustrating to play against, buff only the things that are severely underperforming, and keep everything more or less in the middle.
For example, take the ultimate ability Thrill of the Hunt on Rengar, an assassin champion in LoL.
This ability allows Rengar to become invisible for around 15 seconds, run around the map, and pounce on an enemy for some extra damage. There has been a crazy amount of controversy around this ability, around “fun” for Rengar players and the players that are getting pounced on. Riot has nerfed and reworked this ability several times, and has added several mechanics to make it more fair, such as the enemy closest to Rengar being warned when Rengar is still pretty far away.
By contrast, the hero Mirana in Dota has an ultimate ability that turns her entire team invisible for 18 seconds.
This ability is just insanely more powerful than anything in League. But Dota 2 designers can add abilities like this to the game, since there are other heroes that have ultimates that are just as powerful, like Enigma’s ultimate that, if played right, can render the entire enemy team useless for 4 seconds — an absurdly long time in a MOBA. Dota 2 even has a cheap consumable item, Smoke of Deceit, that allows any hero to become invisible for 35 seconds.
As stated before, Dota 2 is in general a deeper game, and this is reflected in the rules governing these miscellaneous mechanics.
In Dota 2, you have the ability to “deny” last hits on minions and towers from your enemies by attacking them yourself. In my opinion, denying minions doesn’t actually have a big impact on the game, but denying towers does. As explained by Decency:
In Dota 2, if an enemy tower is below 10% HP it is capable of being denied and thus your team is on the verge of losing a lot of potential gold. If your team does not press the issue to force a conflict at the tower, you will lose out on that bonus. In League of Legends, you can just walk away if the other team wants to defend their tower. It’s not going anywhere and you have nothing to lose by leaving. If the fight doesn’t seem to be in your favor, there’s no reason for it to happen.
Other Gold Mechanics
Terrain & Vision
Roguelite deck-building games are at an exciting point in gaming history. The subgenre is small enough to be fully documented, but mature enough to be genuinely interesting.
Since Pollywog Games (a.k.a. my brother and I) are developing one ourselves, I have compiled a brief history of every roguelike deck-building game of which I am aware. If there are any missing, please let me know in a comment, and I will add it to the list.
To be respectful of the reader’s time, I have included simply a featured image, a sentence describing why it is in its place on the list, and the Steam (or App Store) description for each of the six games.
While not the first game on this list chronologically, Dream Quest was an extremely influential game, listed by many of the designers of the following games as a major inspiration. It practically invented the subgenre.
Play cards! Kill monsters! Level Up! Dream Quest is a roguelike deckbuilding game inspired by the likes of Ascension, Magic: the Gathering, and Shandalar. Explore randomly generated levels as one of 13 classes in short, 30 minute, sessions.
2. Slay the Spire, MegaCrit Games (November 2017)
If Dream Quest invented the subgenre, then Slay the Spire popularized it. Without a doubt, this is the most widely known and commercially successful game on the list.
We fused card games and roguelikes together to make the best single player deckbuilder we could. Craft a unique deck, encounter bizarre creatures, discover relics of immense power, and Slay the Spire!
3. Meteorfall, Slothwerks (January 2018)
Not as popular as Slay the Spire, and not as influential as Dream Quest, Meteorfall still provides a clever and unique twist on the basic concept (Tinder-style swiping a la Reigns). It has a pretty bland description, but I promise its a great game.
Meteorfall is a deck-building roguelike. You’ll choose your class from one of four unique adventurers, and then set out with a deck consisting of some basic attack cards. During the course of your adventure, you’ll be presented with the opportunity to add powerful new cards to your deck.
4. Monster Slayers, Nerdock Productions (March 2017)
This game is basically Dream Quest but with a much, much better production polish, and some interesting new content.
Monster Slayers is a rogue-like deck-building RPG adventure. Create a hero and choose your path through the perilous Northern Valley as you battle to become a true Monster Slayer.
5. Card Quest, WinterSpring Games (November 2017)
I haven’t played this game, but it looks pretty cool. Not sure what sets it apart from the others, but it has good ratings!
Card Quest is a dungeon crawling adventure game with unique card combat. Play with a variety of unique character classes, and customize decks to fit your playstyle. Explore the strategic depth of tactical roguelike gameplay, and crush the undead plague.
6. Coin Crypt, Dumb and Fat Games (November 2013)
This one is bizarre — it was released first chronologically, but it was the last one to come up in my research. Somehow it’s flown pretty much completely under the radar.
A roguelite deckbuilding adventure game about magical coins. You play as a lootmancer, who can unlock the hidden power inside of coins and use them in magical duels. The loots you take from chests and enemies also become your next moves, so plan carefully!