Its hard to be an Indie iPhone Developer. WGE speak to Daniele Benegiamo at UnaGames.com to find out how hard.
One of the potential problems with making a game on the iPhone, is the sheer amount of title’s that are already on there. Isn’t there a risk that your game might get lost amongst the vast number of games already on the platform, regardless of its quality?
This is definitely the most critical issue in publishing to the App Store. To date, of the nearly 300,000 Apps available, the entries "Games" and "Entertainment" Apps count 70,000, and every month 2,500 new games are released, an average of 80 a day. Clearly only a tiny percentage have the opportunity to carve out spaces, and then be discovered by consumers. It must be added that major publishers are very active in the App Store and, unfortunately, the specialized review sites are few and, as far as they do efforts to help independent developers, it is normal that they focus their attention on games published by the best-known names. In addition, since Apple has removed the list of updated games, it has therefore removed another important channel for attracting attention. The risk of being anonymous is so concrete: many good games fail when published, simply because people do not know that they exist. I am sure that to create a solid business in the App Store, besides having a high quality product, it is essential to take care of marketing, accurately planning the communication to the outside, something that requires time and investment. In UNAgames, we undertook this since day one: our website is designed to act as a channel of communication both to the end users and to the community of independent developers; we have created spaces where users naturally stay, such as Facebook and Twitter; we are active in the main forums and web sites about iPhone video games; periodically we release curiosity about the games being worked on, such as screenshots of the first internal releases. Every opportunity is used to make communication: for example in the coming weeks we will start the beta testing of Tapsteroids, the game we're currently working on, and it will be another important opportunity to do PR.
The Conservative government in the UK recently went back on proposed tax breaks for the video game industry. It’s difficult for people who do not understand the videogame industry to understand just how important it is now to the country’s economy. Can you talk in greater detail regarding how this has stunted the growth of the videogame country in Italy?
Clearly tax breaks are a key element in our business, just look at the excellent results obtained from Canada: they have created many new jobs, even from abroad, in an innovative and high technological sector. Unfortunately in Italy there are no conditions to even suggest a tax reduction of this sector: Italy is traditionally a country linked to the old economy, there are no major IT companies and historically the video game industry has never grown up, because of conservative mentality and the impossibility to find capitals. In the past we've had major companies, such as Dynabyte, Simulmondo and Milestone, which produced hit titles; but unfortunately, except for Milestone, all closed their doors after few years. In Italy there are only tax reliefes for the purchase of equipment, but in the production of video games the main cost is human: when a company is forced to grow up to compete, having no support means inevitably a closure. The result of all this is that today, in Italy, the game development is almost exclusively in the hands of few small independent groups. Given this weakness, I believe that maintaining strong relationships with other local realities is important, in fact with UNAgames we are in continual contact with other small businesses to share information and pursue every opportunity for collaboration.
Do you think that the rise in Indie development will give budding developers in Italy, and other countries in similar situations a much greater chance of making it in this industry?
Definitely. In Italy there are ideas, but not the funds; typical characteristics of the indie scenes. I founded UNAgames because I believe that this type of market works: platforms with medium-low entry barriers, independence in the productions, possibility of adequate returns for a small business. But we must be careful not to make the mistake of regarding the indie scene as that of the 80s, where everyone with a garage could create a good game. Today the competition is high, the market is only international and to be noticed marketing is crucial. But if you have the right ideas and determination, this development model has created an important market, alternative to main-stream productions, where you can carve out your own space.
Angry birds was recently released on iPhone as a free download. Rolando developer ngmoco:) have offered their games free to download, but then monetized the data usage. They claim that this plan has proved very profitable. Is this something you can see happening more and more?
This is an important topic, because it directly affects the future of UNAgames. The “free to play” model has proven to be very interesting, and ngmoco:) is the best example since it was recently purchased for 400 million USD from DeNA. In the App Store there are three variants of “free to play” model: publishing a free Lite version of a purchasable game or with additional DLC, publishing a Free version monetizing the advertising, publishing a Free version monetizing the use of a virtual currency. But each variant can be used only with certain types of games, the wrong mix can be fatal. The use of the Lite version is the simplest and classic approach of selling, and lends itself well to promote almost any type of games; the monetization of advertising requires simple games, leading users to play several sessions and with a broad target market (a good example is Paper Toss by Blackflip Studios, their combined monthly revenues from advertising is around 500,000 USD); monetization of virtual currency - a strategy radically employed by ngmoco:) - is the most complicated, requiring immersive games, with medium-long duration and the frequent distribution of updates. While I'm sure we'll see an increasing use of the “free to play” model, I am also sure it is not the ideal solution for all games, for which we will continue to see a traditional marketing strategy. I believe a lot in the “free to play” model with virtual currency: it increases by orders of magnitude the customers base, monetizing only the most loyal users. Indeed, the next games by UNAgames will be designed specifically to fit this model.
How has XBLA and PSN affected the indie development scene?
They have been useful, particularly XBLA: they enabled small companies to create products for the major consoles, previously only available to big developers. The power of today’s consoles, combined with the ability to risk of independent studios, has produced hits like Shadow Complex, Limbo and Castle Crashers. The problem with these platforms, mainly used by hard-core gamers, is that to grow you have to go to AAA games, which is not simple for indie developers. In fact, many have brought their creations to mobile devices, such as Halfbrick with Blast Off.
Is there a major step up financially, from making an iPhone game, to making an XBLA or PSN title?
The necessary investments are only marginally higher: XBLA and PSN require the purchase of the development kits, and with Apple you must have every possible peripheral models, multiplied by the versions of iOS you want support; production, due to radical differences between iPhone and iPad, and the need to support models with different performance, is more complicated for Apple products. But the main differences are two: the target consumers and the ease of publication; while the App Store is relatively “open”, access to XBLA and PSN is much more restrictive. This poses both advantages and disadvantages on both sides. With UNAgames I decided to focus on the iPhone world for two reasons: the audience is made up of casual gamers with a high rate of expenditure, and the development community is very rich and active. In particular, I follow the open source scene, and UNAgames try to help by sharing know-how and experience.
What are the advantages of working on Apple’s hardware?
Apple has undoubtedly created a platform on which is extremely entertaining to develop: advanced development environments, low level programming, greater freedom to the creativity. Many people underestimate the expertise needed to program the iPhone, finally producing low-quality games. The best teams are made up of people of the “old school”, used to work directly on the hardware, with limitations in available physical resources. With Tapsteroids I immediately appreciated the advantages of working with Apple systems: ten days were enough to make the porting of the game engine that UNAgames used for PC and consoles, a complex system designed specifically for multi-core architectures. Apple is doing a great job with iOS, and releasing the latest versions for free solved the fragmentation that last year it was creating; the hardware evolutions, such as iPad before and the gyroscope after, are the joy of all game designers. The revolution that Apple has managed to do was to put in the hands of developers a powerful and homogeneous platform; the opposite of what had been done previously by all competitors in the mobile industry, and that it could happen again with Android and Windows Phone 7.
Is it difficult developing a game for a device with no actual specific control scheme?
A lot of care is needed: on the one hand, you can create very innovative games, but on the other hand you risk of making a negative user experience. I often read of players who complain about the bad game controls used, usually caused by an excessive desire for innovation that overshadows usability. For example, Tapsteroids has a gameplay that was only possible to conceive on a touch device, here the lack of a default controller was an opportunity. But our usage of the touch screen pointed out a major usability problem: as the iPhone screen is only 3.5", playing with both hands hid a good portion of the screen. So we have devoted much attention to study an appropriate user interface, and we have even changed the gameplay to deliver an excellent gaming experience, regardless of the user's playing style.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Daniele.
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