Syd Sym. As such, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on what went wrong, and why I’m glad I did it anyway.
Syd Sym is a real time single player “arcade” style puzzle/action game, in the spirit of Tetris, inspired by a turn based 2 player board game called “Entropy”. I started work on it early 2010, after getting an iPhone.
Given that I’m letting my developer account expire, you may have already concluded that the game was not a run away smash hit, and you’d be right. The paid version is bought, on average, just under once per week, and the free version (with iAds) is downloaded around 100 times per week. The iAds earn me around $6 a month. After developer fees and incidental costs, the game made me a grand total of £58.78 gross profit last year.
But the App Store is supposed to be a gold mine! Free money for developers! What went wrong? Why aren’t I writing this on a sold-gold laptop and wearing a money hat?
- I was too slow. I missed the gold-rush. The development itself wasn’t particularly drawn out, but I really didn’t even start until the iOS game scene was already well established. At the time I released Syd Sym, I am told, there were literally hundreds of new apps released every single day.
- I massively underestimated the effort required to market a game on iOS. As a behind the scenes game programmer I had no industry press contacts to lean on (and still don’t really). Getting reviews was excruciating. I sent out hundreds of emails, and was largely ignored, an experience I found almost monumentally frustrating. I doubt most of my press releases, review requests, tweets, forums posts, and begging emails were even read. I do of course understand why, 100s of new games a week, most of them rubbish. Why expect mine to be any different? I actually still don’t really know what I could or should have done differently to get any attention, but there you go.
- The first review had a damning headline, and stayed at the top of the google search for the game for a long time. I’m not sure that really was something I did wrong (Because I released too soon? Bad press-releations? Poor SEO skills?) but it still sucked.
- The game was, in all honesty, a poor fit for the way people play iPhone games. It simply takes too long to finish “one game”. It may be crude, but if you can’t play one “round” of an iOS game in the time it takes to poop, then you won’t be a hit.
- What the game was was too open, and thus confusing for many players. I had done my best to make the game “easy to play, hard to master”, but since a play through of the game takes a long time relative to what’s expected on iOS, I think a lot of people only saw the “easy to play” bit (passing levels), and missed the deeper strategies required to master the high score tables.
- The collect’em’up replay value aspect of the game was too subtle, and since early versions of the game only told you how many combos you had collected, with no way to see which ones you’d got already, this aspect of the game was overlooked.
- The tutorial was too hard. Many players could not get past the last level of the tutorial, and thus failed to unlock the full game. Even after realising this, I failed to settle on a solution I liked, so the problem was never fixed.
- I localised too soon, leaning on friends around the world to translate the game text left me in an awkward situation with putting out updates that added too or modified in game text, which discouraged me from iterating on in game messages, help text and tutorials, and left me locked in to design and UI choices I had made early on for fear of having to remove a localisation.
- I bought Facebook Ads. At first it seemed like a hilarious free win, since you pay for clicks not page views, and I got thousands of page views for almost nothing. But actually, in retrospect, I’m fairly sure that it was a stupid waste of money, and didn’t result in a single additional sale.
- I made two versions, a paid download and a free version. In retrospect I probably should have made it free, with in-app-purchises (or maybe just accepted it as loss-making hobby project, and kept it 100% free).
An utter disaster, right? Not really, in all honesty, I am glad I did it, and may make another iOS game in the future. So what went right? This list is, I must admit, more “why I’m glad I made it” than “the things I did right in making it”, but I hope it’s useful or interesting anyway:
- I kept my costs absolutely rock bottom, and didn’t quit the day job. Even with the lacklustre reception, I avoided losing my shirt by keeping it a hobby project.
- I had fun, it was interesting, and entertaining, and the time spent developing Syd Sym pretty much weened me off of my WoW habit.
- I got interviewed by Joystiq.
- The game got more positive reviews than negative reviews.
- I made something that someone really liked. I know this, because the top high score on game centre requires frankly surprising level of dedication to achieve.