Going broke with success: how an app with 200,000 downloads led to developer homelessness
Michael Boxleiter and Greg Wohlwend are the two men behind Mikengreg, an Iowa-based studio that spent two years working on the iPad title Gasketball. Their inspired take on H.O.R.S.E. features a system that allows you to set up trick shots and share them with your friends, and the asynchronous multiplayer has already helped to make the game a hit: It has been downloaded around 200,000 times, and for a time enjoyed a choice spot near the top of the iTunes games charts. This may seem like one of the happy success stories on the iOS platform, but the reality of the situation is more grim than it may at first appear. Gasketball was released for free, with a one-time in-app purchase that unlocks the rest of the game offered for $2.99. The conversion rate to the paid version of the game sits at 0.67%.
Death by success
Wohlwend defended the idea of the in-app purchase when I asked about simply selling the game for a set price. “Something like 20 of the top 25 grossing games on iOS are free with IAPs. And for the most part, those IAPs are all pretty gross in a kind of predatory way,” he said. “The #1 grossing app right now is called DragonVale. I just downloaded it last night. It makes me sick to my stomach as it so transparently preys on the weaknesses like addiction and compulsion.” This is the situation they wanted to avoid, a grind where you had to pay to continue to play. “In [Dragonvale], you simply buy things, build them, and then buy more things that buy more things to build more things that then need more things bought in order to build more. Yep. Zero gameplay. I shouldn't be surprised, this kind of thing has been around for awhile, but I actually think it's more disgusting that any cigarette manufacturer. Maybe at some point we'll find out that this kind of game causes depression and they'll have to put warnings on the game everywhere.”So they knew two things from looking at the successes on the iOS market: Releasing a free game with in-app purchases can lead to monetary success, but they wanted to do it the right way, with much content unlocked from the beginning and a single purchase unlocking the entire game. “We wanted the game to be free but also we want to make a living off of it since we've spent 2 years on it. So we felt being honest and up front that this game has content, you unlock it once and you have it all forever was The Right Thing To Do. So far, humanity is proving to us that we can't have it both ways.” Boxleiter was likewise pessimistic about the early sales of the game. “At the moment it's pretty bad, we're trying to go with 'good' IAP that you just buy once and unlock, but conversion rate is currently at 0.67% and we're not even in the top 200 grossing chart. Which is kind of a nightmare for the launch week,” he said. “We've got an update in the pipe that we hope will help out the conversions and simplify the IAP to just one unlock option, but we're worried we'll fall out of our chart position before that makes much difference.”
Thinking like businessmen
The financials of indie development are complicated, since working on a game full-time means there is little energy left for contract work. Developers who work for a major studio may have projects canceled, but they’re paid their salary for the time spent working on the game. When you’re developing and ultimately releasing your own product, you’re making little to nothing during the development cycle, with the hopes of a big payday upon release to make the time worthwhile. Boxleiter and Wohlwend lived off the profits from their first game, Solipskier, during the development of Gasketball. “We didn't get anywhere close to rich from it, but we did make enough to live on in Iowa, about $20-25,000 a year each for two years,” Boxleiter explained. “Greg has had a little more income than me by finding other developers to collaborate with, like Asher Vollmer on Puzzlejuice. He's shared his earnings with me so we wouldn't have to stop development and take contract work, which always kills momentum.” That money has since dried up, and Boxleiter was forced to take out a loan from his parents due to the lack of revenue coming from the success of Gasketball. Both men are now homeless, floating around and sleeping on the couches of friends until their financial situations improve. You can have a wonderful game with a large number of satisfied players and still lose money, and that’s a hard lesson to learn in indie game development when it’s your own capital and time invested in the game. A few design decisions and faulty assumptions may have led to the lack of paying customers, and that’s something the two men are trying to fix. Quickly. “A common complaint on the release build of Gasketball was that even our friends couldn't find out how to buy the game. Obviously that's a huge problem and we've remedied that in this patch update that we just released,” Wohlwend said. “Furthermore, we might need to add advertisements to supplement income, or dream up something completely different. We really want to stick to the 'free and pay 2.99 to unlock' model, but if only .5% of users buy our game, we're going to have to figure something else out. It's very malleable at this point. Perhaps we're giving too much away for free, it's really hard to say until we see more data.” This was fascinating to me. I had downloaded the game based on the positive word of mouth, and had already enjoyed what felt like a wide amount of content without paying anything. I wasn't even aware there was anything to pay for to unlock, and when I learned I could buy the game to support the developer I went looking for that option in the game's menus. It took me a few minutes to figure out how to pay for the game, and I was specifically looking for the menu. There's nothing shocking about the low amount of paid sales; the value proposition is never made explicit. There was an update available for the game, and after applying it, an “unlock the full game” message was added under the main logo. The game continues to benefit from the strong word of mouth and viral success, and it's surprising to hear how few people need to pay for the unlock to make the game a success. “As of this now we have 200K downloads, probably more,” Wohlwend said. “I have no idea how many downloads we'll get but if we get 5 million over the game's lifetime, which might be conservative, then we'd want to see at least 2% of people buying our game in order to continue with Mikengreg as planned.” This is part of the independent game experience that's rarely talked about. You can work, create a good game, and a few issues with your monetization strategy can hinder your ability to make money from your hit game. “Indies give up a lot to do what they do. At the height of my career/affluence with Solipskier being the hit that it was, I made around $4.50 per hour,” Wohlwend said. “That's 100 hours a week at a 24K per year salary without vacation or weekends. That takes a hit. It's easy to get severely depressed pouring everything into it.” For now, the challenge is looking at the data, adjusting the app, and finding a way to get to that mythical 2% conversion rate to begin earning revenue for the years of work the duo have invested. “Sounds crazy right?” Wohlwend said. “98% of people won't buy our game, and we'd be able to continue.”