Lessons from StarTrail

It has now been one year and four months since StarTrail went live on the App Store. In this post, I will deconstruct my process of releasing a game and trying to make some money from it.

1. Marketing a game (with no marketing budget) is Ridiculous Hard.

m-man_with_empty_pockets I had absolutely no idea where to start marketing my game. One good move I made was to make a trailer– this took me weeks. I used Adobe Premiere, which I had last used four years ago in VFS and had all but forgotten- I needed to reconstructed it about a dozen times until I was happy with the result. I created a Facebook page, which has 103 likes after almost a year and a half- most of the likes are from my friends and family. I launched the game at $0.99, with no clue as to how it would go. My original choice was freemium with IAPs, but there was nobody on the team who could code that. My marketing budget was $0.00, so I had to write a gazillion emails, ALL of which went unheeded, to dozens of review sites. I posted in every form I could find on the internet, but the best one turned out to be Touch Arcade. I got 7,000 to 8,000 views on that one side alone. My advice to anyone wanting to market a game without money would be- post on forums! It’s free and you get some good feedback on the game. I got into a bit of trouble because I bumped my thread a fair amount-your thread drops into nothingness unless people keep commenting! A month after launch, StarTrail got it’s first and only review on 148 Apps.  I was pleasantly surprised at the 3.5/5 rating and some kind words that came my way. The review called out the game on its weakness, namely lack of depth, but I was still pretty happy.

 2. Feedback and updates are super important

I was happy whenever anyone gave me feedback on the game, positive or negative. The most illuminating one was on the Touch Arcade Forum, where the principal weakness of the game was exposed- but more on that later. On the basis of this and a lot of other feedback, I started to work on updating the game. New art assets were paid for and created, and StarTrail 1.2 was 50% ready when the programmer informed me that he would no longer be available to work on the game as he had other new projects. It was fair enough, but it put paid to any plans of making the game better. I was bitter at myself, more than anything, for my lack of programming abilities.

3. Once your Free, there’s no going back

To boost sales a week or ten days after release, I decided to make the game free for the Thanksgiving weekend. Downloads saw a huge spike that day, but then once I made the game paid again…Zero. Non. Nada. I had no choice but to make it free again- a well-learned lesson on the economics of the App Store. sales

4. The same design mistakes again

I always make games too hard. It was the case with Count Pengula’s Castle, where the first level was harder than it should have been, and it was the same here. The comment on the Touch Arcade Forum was: “I like the game, the concept (matching game disguised as an endless runner) works well and the controls are responsive. But it’s so frustratingly difficult, I keep losing over and over, often before even getting enough points for a single credit. Please consider making the start easier or adding difficulty levels.” During early Beta testing, I could tell that the game had a very sharp learning curve. One wrong pickup and the spaceship exploded quite spectacularly and loudly in the player’s face, and this could happen five seconds into the game. You had to be something of a Masochist to continue, but the fact that more than a hundred people (as seen on the leaderboard) actually continued told me that the gameplay was solid.

My instinct as a designer told me that this was the case early on, but changing things was going to be expensive time-wise and I thought that I couldn’t afford it. It was a fatal mistake for this particular platform and audience.

Another factor that may have worked against the game was the theme. Space is not a very bright and colorful place, and the visuals of the game were perhaps too dark to attract a younger audience.

5. Number of updates: Zero

The game needed to be updated, fast. I decided to add a difficulty mode where you could choose the level of difficulty. In the easier mode, the objects would be spawned at longer intervals and the boost could be activated much faster, with lesser number of energy spheres.

As the game was now free, I also needed to integrate ads into it so I could at least make some money from it.

I even paid the artist to complete the artwork for the new feature, and at the last moment: The Programmer Left.

So nothing. No updates, No ad integration.

Conclusion

It has been two years and StarTrail has close to 2000 downloads. I successfully released a quality game on the App Store and engaged with the universe of video games. People played, some(most) Rage Quit but a few stayed and enjoyed it. I began to understand how mobile games are marketed, I gained lots of self-confidence and some degree of recognition and respect from my peers.

Largely on the basis of this project, I engaged with schools and managed to obtain contracts to conduct short courses on game development. That in turn led me to start a Creative Software club in other schools.

So, even though I earned $12.84 on the App Store, I gained a lot more.

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