Author’s Note: I should mention that Michael Nielsen was with me on Jones On Fire from the very beginning – he did the music for it during Blaze Jam, and stayed on from there. Nathan Madsen was brought on shortly after, to round out the music and handle sound effects. Folmer was brought on toward the end, to handle promotional art, icons, that kind of thing. So, when you see a “we”, that’s the “we” I’m referring to.
Also, this is my first #AltDevBlog – it seemed appropriate that my first act should be to sum up how I got to where I am.
I hate writing endings.
Writing this effectively means putting an end to Jones On Fire, which remains something of a bummer. It was meant to be a strong launching pad for our studio, the game on which we’d make our name. Ironically, it managed to become just that despite. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
I write this now because our next game, Hot Tin Roof, is doing fantastically on Kickstarter: – thanks!)
… you looked? Excellent! Yes, kitties in fedoras, no joke. Noir metroidvania. It’ll be awesome!
In any case, now seems to be the right time to write an ending to Jones On Fire. The Hot Tin Roof Kickstarter is ending, but that ending is itself a beginning, and one can’t start a new thing without ending the old thing first, so, here we go.
The Life And Times Of Jones On Fire, Act 1: “What About A Runner?”
It’s spring in Colorado, April 2012, and I have a problem. It’s been 6 months since I was laid off after LEGO Universe’s cancellation (on which I was the senior graphics programmer), and I do not have a game with which to save my fledgling indie studio. We have under our belts a too-ambitious metriodvania prototype, a promising but failed Kickstarter for a racer called Gravitaz, and a try at a casual Facebook game that didn’t congeal. What’s more, I just had to let my artist partner go for lack of anything left with which to pay him, meaning it’s now, more or less, just me: a programmer with no ability to create art on her own.
Panic? Psyah, of course I didn’t panic. I was far too terrified to be panicked.
But then, a vision. “Well, mobile seems like a great place for indies these days,” I thought to myself, and so I did some research. “I’d like to do a platformer of some kind, but that would be too big, too risky, and I couldn’t monetize it as F2P… so what about a runner!,” I decided, “It’s like a platformer, but faster to make, and one would probably do pretty well! They’re popular!”
Little did I know it was at that precise moment when Jones On Fire failed, at least in financial terms. But more on that later.
The Life And Times Of Jones On Fire, Act 2: “I Swear This Will Only Take 6 Months”
It did not take 6 months. It took 8. I didn’t even know what game I was making until about 3 months in.
Colorado was having one of the worst wildfire seasons on record, so Dave Calabrese of Cerulean Games threw together a charity game jam to try and help out. Called “Blaze Jam,” it was to materially benefit those affected by the wildfires. I kicked in my support, we had some fun, and we raised around $2k. Not bad. In the process, I met Marc Wilhelm, Dave Calabrese, and a bunch of other people that turned out to be really good people to know.
More importantly, I drew a cat. I had a 3 month developed runner codebase by that point, so I figured I’d make some kind of runner, and I started by drawing a firefighter on the whiteboard. I used a boxy LEGO-inspired style I’d wanted to experiment with, and it worked, even via my stupid hands. I followed that up with a cat in the same style, and it worked too, so I ran with it. I was also out of time, and needed to finish the game, so instead of a broad range of animals to rescue, I ended up just making cats.
The second I added meow effects that played when kitties were rescued, I knew I had something special.
I kept toying with it after the jam. I got it running on an iPhone (Unity 3D is amazing), and I heard from my testers that their kids would abscond with their mobile devices and never give them back. Jones had legs, it seemed. I finished the game out in that style, never substantially changing it from the base game I’d created in the jam, and I fleshed the world out the only way I know how – with quirky, sardonic writing and characters.
It bears mentioning at this point that my mother is both a technical editor and a novelist. Similarly, my grandmother was a grant writer and general badass of the written word, and some of my earliest memories are of Wordperfect on her old 80186. So yes, I’m a writer too, with a quirky and sardonic sense of humor, so wouldn’t you know it, that’s what I write. But anyways, firefighters.
The Life And Times Of Jones On Fire, Act 3: “Of Cratering Harder Than The Moon”
Jones On Fire released in the same week as Sonic Dash, Temple Run OZ, and Outland Games – all runners, all with higher production values a/o attached to bigger IPs than I could ever compete with in a billion years. Also released that week was Block Fortress, an indie mobile take on mixing Minecraft with tower defense, that went on to deservedly get the single best feature slot there is on the App Store.
Needless to say, Jones On Fire did not get a good featuring. It did get featured, but since Apple had just done their overhaul of how many featuring slots there are, the featuring we got is what you’d call a “weak” featuring. It was way down the list, and under the fold for iPhones (which means you had to scroll to the end, click a button, and THEN you saw it). For most mobile gamers, this means it was as good as invisible.
Still, we had a featuring, so I was excited, and I thought we had a chance… except that we had another problem. The game was monetizing terribly. I was getting an order of magnitude less players than it would take to support a F2P game, even during the first day, which is the strongest day you’ll ever see really see. I think I made $200 that day, and it dropped to something like $20 the next day, and kept dropping. Which basically meant all my friends came in, bought some stuff, and then regular gamers were barely buying anything. I’m good with numbers and had done a ton of research, and I could see how it would play out from there – the metrics showed it was a F2P failure, day one.
At this point, I had two choices. I could have kept it as F2P, limping along for months, as I improved the monetization. I could have spent ages analyzing my Flurry data, optimizing funnels, and generally wanting to drive an icepick through my skull as I tried to squeeze blood from a stone. If I’d had a decent body of players, I could have done something with it, but again, we’re talking about download numbers an order of magnitude under what it would take to float F2P. Certainly way below what it would take to pay myself during all of those months of optimization.
My other choice was to flip it to Premium, $1.99, to try and take advantage of my remaining featuring. It was risky, but then I could at least walk away if it kept sinking, instead of getting dragged under with it.
It was a long weekend, and I didn’t sleep much. Eventually, I chose option 2. I stripped all the IAP and flipped to $1.99 so fast that I didn’t have a chance to telegraph the change to any of the press that had come out in support of the game on Monday, which left a few understandably confused. I did my best to message out the why’s of the change and try and make sure no one was too upset, and I imagine some still had ruffled feathers… but what could I do? I had to make a choice, so, I made it.
The Life And Times Of Jones On Fire, Act 4: “Wherein The Programmer Learns To Drink”
Matters didn’t improve from there.
Make no mistake, we were a strong critical success. We were on Kotaku (three times no less), we had a glowing review on Touch Arcade, and we got a much-coveted 5/5 review on iFanzine – it was fantastic. Every single one of them gave us high marks for charm, polish and general style.
Two things held us back. The first is that mobile gamers, on a whole, simply don’t care about reviews. The gamer gamers do, but it turns out that mobile successes are instead driven by the masses, which means store placement is the Alpha and Omega, and we just didn’t gel with those audiences.
The second and most important thing, and much of the why of why we didn’t gel with the casual audience, was that choice, that terrible choice, made 8 months prior. Do you remember? It was simply this: “let’s make a runner, it’s less risky.”
Every single review dinged us for being a derivative runner. We released against 3 other runners, all more polished, all from huge studios. Multiple runners had released every single week prior, and more were released every single week after. We were a quirky, strange game in a genre dominated by polish and big budgets / big IPs. It’d be like releasing an indie FPS and expecting it to compete with Halo. We got flattened. We cratered so hard, the moon felt bad for us.
The same story replayed with every new platform we added. We expanded to GooglePlay, to Amazon, and to a spattering of smaller Android storefronts. We got, literally, every single featuring that matters – we were the Amazon Free App of the Day, we were featured strongly by GooglePlay, and we partnered with a iOS/Android Free App of the Day program (multiple times!). The game even showed at E3, thanks to the Samsung “100% Indie” promotion.
It slowly became clear that the poor sales I’d initially blamed on poor placement in the App Store were simply because I’d made the wrong game. We made a runner long after the runner genre was targetable by anything shy of a $100k+ budget. If we’d made something more original, if we hadn’t played it as safe, maybe we would have done better… though not necessarily. While we were failing miserably with Jones On Fire, I believe Hackeycat was suffering a similar fate, and derivative it most definitely was not. So let’s say it was the lack of risk taking mixed with pure, dumb luck.
All told, we drove over 200,000 installs, mostly through FAAD promotions, which made us about $7k. The game, in terms of “the cost of a roof and rice and beans for the development months” + cash expenses, cost about $20k to make.
So clearly, it was a financial failure, though not as big a one as it looked initially. What was a gut-wrenching $700 on the AppStore in the first month quickly became $4,000 thanks to that strong GooglePlay featuring (Ko Kim, you are amazing, thank you so much for helping get us featured). That then grew, over time, to about $7,000, and it continues to drip up thanks to a mixture of mostly GooglePlay sales and Admob-driven income. Nothing really worth mentioning, but it is still making money, which is kind of cool.
But it was not a failure. Not even remotely. It was a roaring success.
The Life And Times Of Jones On Fire, Act 5: “The Silver Lining”
Finances aren’t everything. Yes, I blew my savings on a game that ultimately didn’t make its money back. Yes, it kind of soured me on mobile in general, and left me bitter for a few months. It did not, however, kill my studio.
After Jones On Fire, I had visibility. I had quite a few people press-side who knew who we were, and respected the style we put into our games. I also had a decent following on Twitter, around 1100 by that point, and it continued to tick up. Most importantly, everyone really wanted to know what we’d make next – they viewed Jones On Fire as a flawed but charming game, and a strong opening act for a studio. People have paid $100k+ for that kind of awareness, and all I paid was $20k, mostly in sweat equity.
I also had that minor but existent income back from it. Don’t think about the lost $20k, that’s sunk costs, just think about the $7k gained. Between that, and the remainder of my savings, I had about 4 months of dev time and some budget for contracting et al. Not enough to make a full game, but enough to take a solid stab at one. That meant Kickstarter, and this time, I knew better than to play it safe, especially there.
So, I did the logical thing. I doubled down on kitties.
I took everything that worked in Jones On Fire, the characters and style basically, and threw away the rest. Then I went into a cave and bluesky’ed up a prototype of a physical, interactive revolver – no real reason, it just seemed cool at the time, and I’d been inspired by a game called Receiver (which featured a fully interactive automatic pistol). From that came detectives, noir. Mix back in the bits of Jones On Fire, let bake for 1 month, and out comes the next entry in the Emma Jones saga. I knew it demanded more than programmer art, so I sat down with Folmer to come up with an appropriate evolution of our style, and then I emailed some old coworkers to see if they were game to make something big. They were – largely because the critical success of Jones On Fire showed them I was for real. Thus was begat Hot Tin Roof: something quirky, something fun, something unique.
Most importantly, Hot Tin Roof was something I could be proud of. I knew I didn’t want to blow what might have been my last 4 months as an indie working on something safe. So I went all out, and figured if nothing else, when I looked back on what I’d done, I could think “damn, I really went out swinging!”. As it happens, that swing connected, and now here I am, sitting on a successful Kickstarter to the tune of $21,781 and rising. Hot Tin Roof: The Cat That Wore A Fedora will happen, we’ll survive through to next year, and we’re doing well enough on Greenlight that we should easily hit Steam too. All told, we have an extremely good chance of a successful launch next year, and if you’re on Steam, that means real, business-sustaining levels of income.
And that’s how you build an indie studio on a foundation of quirk, blocks and kitties.