The numbers of free-to-play: behind the success of Spaceteam
The gaming industry has been littered with stories of good games played by many people that nevertheless failed financially due to inexpertly implemented free-to-play systems. When in-app purchases are hard to find, or unclear, the results can be devastating to developers even if the game itself seems to be a success. Spaceteam is a game we loved, everyone in the industry seems to be playing it, and it has enjoyed many reviews and write-ups in large publications. I caught up with the game’s creator, Henry Smith, to ask how it was doing financially. Smith was happy to share the numbers behind the game’s sales, and help explain what it all meant.
An experiment in the app store
“My goal from the beginning with Spaceteam was to learn the iOS development/app store process, and to get my name out there,” Smith said about the project. “I never intended or expected it to make much money, if any. So by that measure, it's already a spectacular success! I never imagined it would spread so fast and so far.” The game was downloaded 20,251 times in its first 13 days of availability, with 910 purchases in the game’s store. The challenge pack, which actually changes how you interact with the game, has been purchased 444 times, while the ship and outfit packs have been purchased 279 and 187 times, respectively. “So the conversion rate is probably around 2-3 percent. I think that might be pretty standard? But I have no idea,” Smith explained. “This is the relative popularity I expected for each pack. The Challenge pack actually offers different game play, whereas the other two are cosmetic. And the outfits are pretty inconsequential, just a fun reward for people who want to support me.” Smith is in a good position for an indie developer. He saved enough money to live for a year and half before he left his job at BioWare, and Spaceteam was designed to be a learning experience that helped to get his name known in the iOS arena. He added the for-pay options late in development with Spaceteam, when he began to realize that people may like the game he would be releasing. Even though Spaceteam was meant to be a learning process, the goal is to create games in a sustainable manner. To that end there will be some experimentation with in-app purchases as he continues to add content to the game.“Since [Spaceteam] was meant to be a practice project before the ‘big’ game, which I will probably charge for, I don't want to spend too much time and energy on it,” he said. “But I'm planning to add a few more upgrades; I have three more in the works, in addition to the Symbol Pack.” He’d like to release an Android version, and a split-screen version so two people can play on the same tablet. The question is whether that sort of thing is worth the time versus the amount of revenue each addition would be bring in. “This is already causing a bit of tension because people keep asking me for an Android version and I have to say ‘probably not.’ But who knows what will happen? It's only been a couple of weeks!” he said. The game took three months to create, and his living expenses for that time were $3,000 a month, so by his estimate the game would need to bring in around $10,000 for the game to break even. He’s doubtful that’s going to happen. “I don't think it will get anywhere near that, but its real value will come when promoting my next game, so it's hard to measure,” Smith told the Penny Arcade Report. There is much wisdom in this approach. Smith’s career won’t live or die due to Spaceteam, but he has a popular product he can use to experiment with different in-app purchase to see what people like and why. The game has led to good publicity, and many other developers have been playing it and enjoying themselves. The next update will include new anomalies, a few new wrinkles in the game play, and a ship’s cat. There will be a donate button added to the game's credits, and a “very timid” nag screen added that will pop up if you play for an extended period of time without paying for an upgrade. “One other thing I added is that, randomly interspersed with commands like 'Deactivate Symmetric Scrubber!' and 'Mop Floors!' the game will instruct you to 'Consider Purchasing Upgrades', which you then naturally have to shout to your teammates,” Smith said, smiling. “I'm pretty proud of that one.” Smith won’t just be a developer who left BioWare by the time his larger, more ambitious game is released, he’ll be “the developer of Spaceteam,” and that will help him get coverage for his later projects. The revenue is certainly nice, but Smith is playing a longer game, and by his metrics Spaceteam is already a success.