1 Year and 1 Million Downloads Later… [Part 1]

I’m going to be honest, I’ve never really liked Life Simulator. It’s a game that is mechanically flawed, broken and just not the game that I wanted it to be.

I guess people liked the concept – and that’s why they downloaded it, but I have never been sure exactly why the game grew popular, I just assume it to be a stroke of luck – something that we all wish for in this industry.

A little background, before I get into this post-mortem/analysis. I’m Brandon Sidebottom, I’m a 17 year old “game developer” currently attending the UK’s version of College to study Animation and Games Design – I made a game that grew extremely popular. I also ruined that game. In this post I will be analysing what I did, explaining why I did it and hopefully finding out what not to do next time.


My initial plan Life Simulator was to release the app and update it over time, slowly adding more and more features. I wanted the game to grow and I wanted it’s player base to grow side by side with it.

This is what I had after two days – and I thought it was brilliant! Such a simple yet fun game, with room for depth.

I worked with this for a short while – taking in user feedback, improving the game with more jobs – features and mechanics. It was working.

A few things to note about this stage of development. My UI was quite cluttered – I had attempted to keep things clean, compact – and with the folks over at /r/AndroidGaming I optimised this interface further – but I still didn’t have enough room for everything that I wanted for this game.

Here are a few demonstrations of the changes that I made to better the UI – in the order that I made those changes.

 

You probably skipped through most of those – and if you didn’t I applaud you.

As you can probably see, the screen slowly became more and more cramped. This general theme wasn’t really working out, which brings me to lesson one:

Don’t be scared to Innovate.

I know that making a game can be tough, and you can easily grow fond of your creations, but if something isn’t working – don’t try to make it work. This was one of the traps that I fell into, to me I couldn’t imagine changing this theme because my brain had locked onto it – I knew it couldn’t work but I didn’t care I wanted to try and force it, which led to some… interesting results.

I found that asking for an outsiders view really helped me out. I was able to get another opinion on the UI and find out how to improve it. Having the game public through it’s whole development really helped with this – because people were actually helping and participating, which was amazing and if any of you players are reading this now, thanks for everything because I probably wouldn’t have made it without you!

Let’s call this stage one, that way it’ll be easier to reference this “era” of development once we get to the analytics!


The next stage of development was my first big “overhaul”. I wanted to maximise the amount of information on screen whilst not letting it get too cramped. I also wanted to add some visual appeal to the screen to bring in more players – I figured that would be the best thing to do, so we could grow faster!

6 days of hard work on the UI and I had created this. I honestly loved this theme – but it still had it’s flaws.

I had managed to free up a lot of screen space by making the navigation a swipe-to-reveal list, which worked well but wasn’t totally obvious to the users.

Everything was a lot cleaner at this point too – I particularly liked the Job List, the layout just made me tingle, I loved it.

Now, my main gripe with this interface was the way that it forced the users to play the game. It wasn’t very interactive and it didn’t feel personal – which is often something I like to do with my games, make them feel personal to the user – and with this, I just couldn’t accomplish that…

It felt like an endless game of lists, lists which meant nothing. Not to me anyway, however I’ve heard of players that preferred this version – and I did debate creating a standalone version with an interface like this but decided not to in the end.

I spoke with my team about the project, and began questioning the possibility of making something greater – something MUCH bigger than what this already was. Which brings me to lesson two.

Make the BIG decisions early.

At this point, I was just over a month into development, I was attached to my project – but not so far through that things couldn’t drastically change – which they did, thank God. If I had continued to develop the game this way, I probably would’ve burned myself out and got bored of it, which is often the case with my projects, and I know it’s the case for many of you fellow Indie devs out there. So don’t be afraid, not early on – just make sure that you think logically and choose the option that makes the most sense.


1170755_orig

The big decision of course, was to convert the game from a text based game to a 2D side scroller.

My main idea here was to not only attract more players, but to create a much more immersive and in-depth world. Within a few weeks we had a basic prototype with a starting home set up – and the game was starting to take shape.

I’d like to say this portion of development went smoothly, but it didn’t. As I was 15 at the time – with next to no money, I was unable to pay for exceptional artists of any kind so getting actual art into the game was bothersome and often met with late deliveries and people not meeting deadlines. I think this in particular really slowed us down and lowered the potential for the game that we had, as it drained me personally as a developer – as I grew bored of working on the project…

However that didn’t last too long – soon I found myself just getting at it and developing without art, creating scenes out of just square sprites and colours so that I had a base to work with. This worked really well as I was suddenly sucked into making big new features and mechanics.

After a few short months of working like this, we released the update and it was extremely…

 

 

anticlimactic.

Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 05.52.27

 

For around a month after the release, we sat at the download numbers we already had – we figured the game would grow by itself, suddenly with these great new graphics we had and how “fun” the core mechanics of the game were – we expected the world to just go “Hey, check out this game – this looks cool” and they didn’t.

Which brings me on to lesson 3.

Don’t expect the world.

Now this one is probably stupid, and I know a lot of you are probably thinking that’s obvious – but I was 15, I was hopeful – I didn’t expect the mobile market to be so damn harsh, but it is – and that’s the truth, I know that now and you should to. We as Indie Developers have to fight for our place in the market, otherwise the developers screaming louder, who have probably worked harder, will win.


I knew I had done something wrong – something was missing, and it was extremely obvious.

I brainstormed and together with my team we came up with ways to get more users.

Advertising? Nah, too expensive.

A publisher? I honestly don’t think the game is good enough to catch a publishers eye.

Social Media? I don’t really have many Facebook friends that will be interested in a game like this…

But wait.

What if other people who did have Facebook friends that would like this kind of game shared our game?

Which brings me to lesson 4.

Social Media is your best tool.

Within a few days I was able to add leaderboards, Facebook friend invites, twitter posts (“Hey look this is my high score, come and beat it!”) and I have to say, it took a week or two to kick in, but it worked.

Don’t be afraid to share the game with your friends, family or even those people that you have as friends but they’re not really friends, but they are. That little kick start can be all it takes. So use social media and think about how your app can use social media to grow.

Another thing to note with this, if you don’t have something “good” to show to these people coming from social media, or you don’t have that competitiveness that draws people in, you’re probably not going to get that far – look for ways to adapt your game to include these competitive leaderboards, or Facebook share rewards – they really, really do work – word of mouth is one of the best ways of advertising, and it’s mostly free!

I have spent around $40 on the development of Life Simulator at this point, and I have made nearly 5,000x more than that back in profit – so don’t jump to advertising straight away, it works, but so does this.

Screen Shot 2017-07-21 at 05.54.16

Here’s a snippet of our best download period, our best month being October of 2016. Over 750,000 downloads occurred within that one month, which was honestly crazy as hell. I have no idea what caused this – I have to assume I found a niche for a short while and failed to maintain it. I do admit that I slacked during this period, I filled to update the game as I needed to and I know that’s the reason I lost a lot of my player base.

I honestly hate the game, I am extremely interested in it – but I hate it in it’s current state, all I see is the flaws, which is hard – this is an envisionment of my dream game, but it’s not what I want it to be. Which brings me to lesson 5.

If you don’t like it, don’t stop just because others do.

I have to be honest, losing players has affected me – I feel like the game isn’t what it used to be, but that doesn’t bother me. I love the game that I have in my head. I created this game for me, not to make money – and not to be successful, sure that would be nice, but it’s not necessary.

At the end of a day, if you’re making your own game, there’s no reason it shouldn’t actually be your own. You are the one in charge, don’t fall into the mindset of trying to suit your player’s needs, suit your own first, and if those needs don’t align then explain that to them and hope that they understand – if they don’t, then that’s okay, you don’t have to make your game for them, make it for you.

Seriously. That’s where I went wrong – and that’s why I currently sit at 22,000 current installs – I currently have only 1.72% of my total downloads, but I don’t mind – because I’m making the game that I want to make, and you should to – because in the bulk of things, that’s all that matters.


That’s the end of part one of this, I’ll be doing 2-3 more of these posts, one to go over the business side (profits, expenses etc…), another to go over the other analytics (downloads, acquisition etc…) and then a final summary.

Let me know if you have any suggestion on how I can improve this blog, I’d appreciate it – if you’ve made it this far I applaud you, and thanks for reading.

Peace!

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8 thoughts on “1 Year and 1 Million Downloads Later… [Part 1]

  1. Excellent article, thank you for writing this. I currently have a game on the app store that I’m not sure what to do with, I haven’t tried social network marketing or online achievements / high scores yet though, I’ll make that my next goal.

    Like

    1. Social features are amazing – they’re easy to implement and they grow your game naturally if done right.

      Glad you liked the article!

      Like

      1. Thanks for replying. I have a game on Google play which has had 300k downloads but now is slowing, I’ve not added any social media features at all, but am getting some one to help add them. My dream is buy a tesla with my app money.

        Like

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