About five years ago, I published Rat Trap, my first ever completed game. It was a project that taught me a lot about game development. I had had a few attempts at making games in the past, but it never worked out. With Rat Trap, I finally made a complete game that I published on a real platform, the Google Play Store.
Rat Trap was well received, reaching more than 5000 downloads on Google Play (I consider this a success, given how many games get less than 10 total downloads), and averaging around a rating of 4.5 out of 5. I’m particularly proud of the fact that many of these reviews are from complete strangers, and they seemed to enjoy the game a lot. Even many of the friends with whom I shared the game seemed to get somewhat addicted to it, not to please me, but truly because of the gameplay.
Of course, the game had very questionable graphics (it was all done by myself, a programmer), no sound, and a general lack of production value. I invested quite some time in polishing parts of the experience, such as making the gameplay as intuitive as possible, and easing the player into the game. But it was clear that the game was lacking in some significant areas to be truly successful. However, the core gameplay seemed to stick quite well with most people, so I always thought that the game had potential, if I could make a much more polished and neat version.
Around three years ago, I met a long-term friend of mine for coffee. It was a general catch-up meeting, but somehow the discussion moved towards game development ideas. That friend was a freelance graphic designer, so he had a set of skills that was complementary to mine. We floated the idea that it would be cool if we were to work on a game together. By that time, I had self-published two small games, and I was exploring ideas for a next project.
At the end of this meeting, I was excited to work on that project. But at the time, I was quite busy with a number of other commitments. Besides, I had had a number of challenging experiences with side-projects in the past few years, so I thought that jumping into a new one based on a coffee chat might not be the best of ideas. So I thought, let’s sit on this for a while.
Additionally, waiting a bit was a good test to see if we were actually motivated by the project. Talking about how we are going to change the world is always a nice conversation topic, but when it comes to actually doing something, it’s a whole different story. It’s also fairly common to put in one or two days of work right after an interesting kick-off meeting, only for the motivation to die down eventually. By waiting some time and see if we still want to do this, and then starting to put in some work, I felt like we would have a more sustainable project.
As you might have guessed — otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this article — the motivation stayed and about one month later, we decided to meet again about the project and to start coming up with some concrete tasks. And just like that, Fish Escape was born.
One ground rule we decided on early on, which I think was essential, was to be very clear on the work expectations towards each other. And it might not be what you would expect. We agreed that none of us should expect any work done from the other, under any fixed timeline. We agreed that there might be entire months when we wouldn’t be doing anything, and we shouldn’t feel bad about it.
Fundamentally, this was a way to prevent the classic bitter feeling when you are putting in a lot of work and you’re not seing the other reciprocate. This is probably one of the number one way a side-project falls apart, and I’ve witnessed it first hand from both sides. Essentially, this was meant to be a fun project, and it was to remain fun until the end. It would be done when it would be done, and it would be done only if both of us wanted to work on it. I believe this principle might have helped us keep this project alive for the last three years.
Keep it Small, Stupid
Now it was clear, we were going to make that game. It was time to work on design and scoping. I had already released two games before starting this project, so I had some experience in shipping games. My friend had never worked on a game before though, so there would be some learning curve there. I was well aware of the feature-creep trap, so I tried to limit the scope as much as possible.
And it was necessary. We started out with the idea of making a polished and professional version of my very first mobile game. That seemed like a good plan, as the original game would serve as a prototype that we would heavily polish. That would ensure a limited scope and at the same time that would let me address many of the limitations of the game. We would also target Android, since that is what my original game targeted, and this is what I have the most familiarity with.
But, at the time, I had a few other exciting prototypes. One of them was a mobile platformer with some innovative controls, and we started exploring ideas for that game. However this was way more ambitious than the original plan, would require a lot more content, a lot more programming, and generally a lot more stuff. Eventually we agreed to table this exciting project for later, and to focus on a first, small, easy game that we can release in a reasonable window of time, in order to test if we can work together. If it would prove to be a fruitful collaboration, we could revisit these other ideas later and work on them.
Despite this heavy emphasis on keeping the scope small, the game still took more than three years to complete. There are various reasons for that, for one, it’s just what it takes; good products take time to craft. But there were other reasons the project took that long. For one, we worked purely part time, and even though we never gave up on the project, there were long periods of time with no progress whatsoever. Next, I insisted on using my own custom engine. I just genuinely enjoy programming, and I believe in learning by experience, so I have been developing each on my game with my own engine that I keep improving over time. But that means I have been spending a lot of time re-inventing the wheel. There’s also a more pragmatic reason for that decision, which is that I want to use Scala for writing my game, and there’s not that many engines out there. And a final reason is that our experience in game development is still limited. We have been figuring things out along the way, and that has added a lot of time to the development.
A Ground Up Redesign
You can try the original Rat Trap game for Android. If you played Fish Escape, it will feel familiar. To some people, their first reaction is that it’s the same game. It’s fine, I am not getting upset by this. I know it took several years of work, and I know what went into it. A good product is the collection of thousands of small details. Fish Escape has these thousands more polished details compared to Rat Trap, and I am convinced that the experience is vastly superior. But if you just look at the overall gameplay, it will seem roughly similar.
For reference, here is one of the last levels of Rat Trap:
And without further ado, one of the last levels in Fish Escape:
There are obvious differences, such as the change of theme (from trapping a rat to trapping a penguin). We spent many months brainstorming on the best way to visually represent each element of the gameplay and each action. I am very happy with how we were able to integrate the HUD into the background. By opposition, in Rat Trap it was simply slapped on top of the screen.
Another visual, but less obvious difference, is the layout of the hexagonal map. The game is designed for mobile, so our maps are at most 5x5, and we were trying to optimize the space on the screen. You can see on the Rat Trap screenshot that the map is pretty close to the edge on each side. Fish Escape has a more natural and spacious margin on both edges. it’s not random. It comes from the insight that phone screen are usually very tall, and that we have more vertical than horizontal space available. That led us to changing the layout of the map to align the tiles vertically instead of horizontally, which eventually saved half a tile on the width.
Then there were technical improvements. The most important, but not necessarly noticeable, is the penguin AI. The AI algorithm has been completely revamped, to make it much, much, smarter. In Rat Trap, the AI was based on a simple heuristics. It was a combination of a shortest path algorithm along with some bonuses to favor directions with several objectives. This worked well most of the time, until it did not. The annoying part is that some of the levels designed for Rat Trap had no solution, and only worked because of the particular heuristics used by the rat. The effect was that any improvement to the AI would force me to revisit and potentially redesign levels, or run the risk to make them infeasible.
In Fish Escape, I wanted to make the AI perfect. The goal was that if there was a winning strategy, it would take it and beat the player. I believed that would lead to a more satisfying experience for the player: they would be trying to solve a puzzle, not trick an algorithm. I have definitely heard feedback about how the rat made a mistake at X or Y move, and some players felt like they won because the AI made a mistake, not because they made the right choice. A better AI would fix this. And besides, a perfect AI would make sure that none of my level design would get obsolete. That said, making that perfect AI turned out to be a significant amount of work, and I had to make some compromise in order to make it work. But this is a story for another day.
Although this was a fun side project for both of us, we were very serious about making money. From the get-go, we had the objective to make an extremely polished game, with the potential to earn some hard cash. After all, if we were to just complete a concept game, we could have released it two years ago. But we spent two extra years fleshing out and polishing countless edges because we wanted to offer a high-quality experience.
Very early on, we discussed about the best way to monetize the game. There are three classic monetization options: ad-supported, in-app purchases (IAP), and premium. We were not very fond of adding ads in our game, not for any sort of moral reason, but because that would have a direct impact on the player’s experience. Additionally, our game was not meant to be replayed forever, it was a concise experience with about a hundred hand-crafted levels, and once they are completed, there are no reason to keep playing the game. We believed that this was the right design for this game and did not want to implement specific mecanisms to get people to play longer (so that they could watch more ads). For similar reasons, we dismissed IAP.
That left us with the option of making a premium game. This was a very appealing option and that’s the most common approach taken by indies. This is also the most respected option for real games, as the majority (but not all of them) of free-to-play games tend to be seen as an unethical and quick cash grab (not saying they are, but I believe that’s how players tend to see them). In contrast, most (but again, not all of them) premium games are usually associated with a respectful player experience, pay once, get good value out of the game. Having a premium game should also help us get some attention from journalists, while trying to get press for a free game would be pretty challenging.
Unfortunately, the mobile landscape for premium games is tough, very tough. There are a few noticeable exceptions (Ridiculous Fishing, Threes!, Monument Valley, among others, come to mind), but overall this is not a market for premium game. That did still feel like the best fit for our game, and the future will tell us if this was a good choice. We would like to believe that it’s still possible to be making a living as a game developer by simply publishing good games and selling them at a one-time price point.
Compromising with Early Access
And here we are, three years into the development, getting closer and closer to the end. Although we never gave up on that project, there have been a lot of slowdowns and extended breaks. And we can start to feel some project’s fatigue. What’s worse, we are starting to lose faith in the premium model. We have this feeling that we will release the game and it will just go unnoticed.
And this is something we are willing to accept. This is our first game, and part of the objective is to put our studio on the map. Even if only a few hundred people buy the game, as long as they have a good experience and remember us, that’s mission accomplished. Maybe these hundred players will be waiting for our next game, and they might be telling their friend about it. Over time, if we manage to publish quality game after quality game, and if we keep respecting our players, this could snow-ball into an actual business. And even if it doesn’t, I will keep making games because I enjoy the activity.
Nevertheless, we have been looking for ways to promote the game. Currently, we have serious concerns over the rate of conversion from getting to the store page to actually buying the game. Our graphics are nice, but they are not a selling point. We do not have a crazy, awe-inspiring, trailer that would convince people. And on top of that, we do have any serious marketing budget to reach a lot of players. But what we have is a strong core gameplay that sticks with players, and a very polished in-game experience. These are things that do not communicate well through our screenshots and videos, but that we think players will feel when they start playing.
So, as a way to exploit that, we have been strongly considering making a demo with a call to action at the end to buy the full game. That’s the old-school way of selling games, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s a totally fine way to go about it. However, it does not seem like a popular, let alone existing, approach today, especially on the app stores. The modern version of the demo is the in-game paywall in a free-to-play game, where you get the first N levels for free, and then have to pay a one-time fee to unlock the complete game.
In all honesty, that would be a decent model for Fish Escape. It gives the first levels away for free, let people try the game out, and if they like it, they can pay a one-off fee to unlock the whole game. Eventually, we didn’t go with that solution, and there are two reasons, none of them might be very good though. The first reason, is a technical limitation. As I mentioned before, the game is built on my own engine, and it does not support IAP. When I started looking into the Google Play API for this, it looked overly complicated and I lost motivation to implement it. One day I will, but this day is not today. The second, more sensible reason has to do with player’s expectation. When a player is faced with a paywall, there’s a tendency to get frustrated and lose trust against the game. How do I know, as a player, that this is not just the first of many paywalls, even though you’re telling it’s a one-time fee? People might also leave negative reviews because they were never planning to spend any money but then get access to only a few levels, thus they end up complaining about the lack of content. There are also players which hate IAP, and they are going to dismiss the game due to the mere fact that the store page displays that this game contains IAP. That’s a pity, because these are the players we hope to target, the players who are willing to spend a few bucks to get a proper game, without ads and IAP.
In order to address these concerns, we can look at the pre-IAP implementation of the paywall feature: using a Lite and a Pro version. That was a very widespread pattern, where an app would be split into a small lite version (the demo) and a paid version (the complete game). These days, it’s very rare and almost all apps are using the IAP paywall method. I’m not sure why. I can see some advantages, like that having a single app is better for consolidation and it’s easier to manage. But on the other hand you hit some of the problems I was discussing in the previous paragraph.
In the end, we’ve decided to go with the latter model. Technically, it was easier to put in place. And there was this strong need to have a clean version of the game, free of any ads or IAP, with an official, and final, displayed price. There would be no hidden fee, you buy the game, you get the full experience. The lite version would be there as a way to test the game before buying it. And it would play on the game’s strength which is that once you start playing, you get converted.
The last remaining question was about the scope of the lite version. Would this be a true old-school demo, or should we do something else? We considered several options, and decided to edge our bets. Essentially, we believe that there a large majority of players that are just never going to spend a single cent on mobile games. That’s a bit sad, but that’s probably true. These players might actually like our game, but there’s no point in giving them only 10 levels, and on top of that we run the risk that they would just leave bad reviews due to the lack of content. We can offer a bit more content, maybe half of the complete game, which would still be several hours of playtime, and monetize it with ads. That would make the lite version a game with a decent amount of content and supported by ads. For people that enjoys the game, they can go and buy the complete, ad-free version, as soon as they are convinced. For these who enjoy the game but do not want to spend money, they can enjoy a decent amount of content by accepting to see ads. Hopefully, in the end everyone get what they want.
As a closing note, there is one last factor that pushed us towards that model. I mentioned at the start of this section that we were starting to feel tired about the whole development process. At this point, it would just feel good to release something. Unfortunately, the game still needs a good amount of polishing to reach the standards that we set out for. But it turns out that a lot of that polishing is related to the latest levels of the game. This means that the lite version is fairly close to completion. And given that this is meant to be a lite and free version, we thought it was acceptable for it to not be as perfect as we want the final game to be. Bottom line is, we can, today, release the lite version. We can get it to the market, use it to gather feedback, while we work on finalizing the complete, premium version of the game. Hopefully we will get a boost of confidence by having released something, and we can start sharing it with more people.
In the short term, Fish Escape Lite is out and available for Android (2020 edit: and now for iOS), This is a major milestone for LimeTales — the indie studio we founded to publish this game. In the coming months, we will be polishing and finishing the premium version of Fish Escape and release it as an ad-free, IAP-free, paid premium game on Android.
In the longer term, we hope that this is only the first of many games for our young game studio. We doubt that Fish Escape will make enough money to sustain us full time on this enterprise. But assuming the game has a moderate success, we should be able to find the motivation to work on a new project following a similar part-time model.
Although next time, we hope it’s going to take less than three years…