in Game Design, iOS

All It Needs Is Love

The App Store today is a different beast from the one in early 2009, when iShoot ruled the charts. Look at the top paid games on the App Store today. Actually, don’t worry, I did all the leg work for you. Here they are:

Top paid
What can we tell by looking at those games? I see two clear categories: Games with a strong, established IP (Street Fighter, Sonic), or independent games with a huge amount of polish and style.

It’s All About Polish

The love and care developers put into those games shows the moment you start them up. Look at the textures in Tiny Wings, the sound effects in Angry Birds, the feedback animations in Words With Friends, or all the little details in Cut The Rope. All the tiny particle effects, transitions, sounds, and general squish and responsiveness. Every single one of those games is oozing with its own style and contributes to a very enjoyable first (and repeat) experience.

And that is the main point of this post: To make a successful game on the App Store, the main thing you need is love. You can skimp on features, on content, on marketing, on a web site, or even on gameplay balance. All those are things that you can add or improve after shipping, but polish and style are responsible for that crucial first impression. Miss the chance to hit the player with all you’ve got the first time they play your game, and that might be a lost sale (and a lost advocate of your game since word of mouth is such a strong force on the App Store).

Not convinced about the difference polish and style makes?

This game is essentially Tiny Wings with just a little bit of polish (and it does have *some* polish).

And this is Tiny Wings.

I rest my case.

Ship As Soon As Possible?

Traditional game development (especially for consoles) usually goes along these lines: Plan everything, create a game with everything that you want/can fit, ship it once it’s done, and hope not to touch it again. On the other hand, in this day of web/Facebook/mobile development the favored approach is to release a product as soon as possible, and then iterate from there.

My preference in the last few years has been more along the shipping as soon as possible lines (even if I haven’t always been successful at it). But then I paused and really thought about why and what I would accomplish by shipping early. These are the main reasons I could think about:

  • Getting to market first. This is a big one in the web world (and maybe even in the hardware world). Even if your product is imperfect, or its UI is less than ideal, getting that initial critical mass of users could be what tips the balance in your favor.
  • Canceling the project early. Maybe it takes as long as the first version of a product to realize there isn’t demand for it. So it was better to have spent 6 months instead of 3 years before canceling the project.
  • Focussing your efforts. An impending ship date will make wonders to keep people on track and focused on what’s important to ship a game.
  • Become profitable as soon as possible. Even if you make the same amount of money and spend the same amount of time working on a project, if you start bringing in money at the 6 month mark rather than at the 3 year mark, you’ll be profitable earlier. And as any RTS fan will tell you, getting extra resources early in the game can put you at a huge advantage.
  • Changing the product based on early user feedback. Otherwise you might spend years working on a product that people don’t really want, or they would prefer something slightly different.

How do those reasons apply to iOS games?

  • As an iOS game, your biggest moment is launch. That’s when you can get most momentum and get the word of mouth ball rolling. First impressions matter a lot and a lot of people will make snap decisions about your game in the first few seconds. If it’s not looking its best, it doesn’t matter if it came earlier than another game. Besides, games, for the most part, aren’t providing as much of a service as they’re a form of entertainment. Barring brand new genres or whole new platforms, getting to market first doesn’t mean much. And even if you’re making a brand new genre, chances are it’s unique so the clones won’t start showing up until after you launch and becomes popular (unless you announce way in advance).
  • Stopping development on an unsuccessful game earlier rather than later is always a good thing.
  • Likewise, having a milestone around the corner does wonders for focussing your efforts. That was one of the big benefits we got from submitting Casey’s Contraptions to the IGF.
  • The last one is tricky. It might seem like a benefit for iOS games as well, but I’m going to argue it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I think that testing and user feedback is very valuable. But games ultimately are a form of art[1] and you are the creator. In the end, you need to decide what your game and your vision are like. Feedback will help with usability and balancing issues, but not with what the game is fundamentally. Stick to your vision.

My Approach

Looking at those lists, it makes it clear to me that iOS game development is not all about getting a product out of the door as soon as possible. There’s no need to create a finished product for your first release. Instead, save every feature and content you can for free updates or even future in-app purchases.

I’m convinced that polish and style are one of the most important things an iOS game can have. It’s not the first time I say that. So get the product out as soon as you can, but do not, under any circumstances, cut any polish from your game. Plan on spending a good month or longer after your game is “done” polishing it. That time will definitely be well spent and will increase the value of your game more than any other month you spent developing it.

What I’m suggesting here is actually quite different from what Chris Hecker talked about at last year’s GDC. Even though we’re both saying “take your time and do your game right”, he’s emphasizing the completeness of the game (in the sense of exploring all its potential), while I’m emphasizing the presentation. I think the main reason our messages are so different is the platform we’re developing for. On a platform like iOS, I really think you can explore the full potential of a game after it ships without any real drawbacks.

Right now we’re in the polish phase in Casey’s Contraptions. The game has been “done” for a while, in the sense that we have all the items, lots of levels, you can play through all the puzzles, make your own contraptions, etc. Even though it already has a lot of style and polish, it definitely needs that extra layer of shine to make it really stand out and bring it to the quality of those games in the top 10 list. We can only hope that Casey’s Contraptions joins them after we launch!


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[1] Feel free to substitute whatever word you want there that isn’t offensive to you: entertainment, interactive media, etc. Games are something *you* create from your imagination, so art seems like the best term to me.


    • @noel_llopis A worthwhile read. I’m going to have to finally attend a SD iOS get together and thank you in person for the great posts.

    • @noel_llopis Now to stick to that mantra for our 2nd game, hahaha

    • @noel_llopis Great Post Noel, couldn’t agree more. It’s safe to say that Casey’s Contraptions is already well up there in terms of polish.

    • @noel_llopis polish time spent should go up as a factor of games released / wisdom gained about when it is a good investment to do so.

    • @noel_llopis I fear for people spending resources polishing turds before they get good at recognizing the sparkle of a diamond in the rough.

      • @NimbleDave Also, that’s what early prototyping (and some limited user testing is): Cancel the turds before wasting more time.

      • @noel_llopis For sure, I think some devs are just blind to that and think they can make anything succeed if they just put more time into it

      • @noel_llopis @NimbleDave the game i’m working on now was prototyped + vetted in pyweek about 5 years ago.

    • @noel_llopis also I see many people who spend time polishing the complete wrong things because they have no eye for what matters to players

  1. amazing spot between tiny wings + wave spark, you got it spot on with your analysis of polish

    • but you chose the paid only market, there’s probably less polish if you took top grossing

      • Actually that top 8 is the paid apps (not top grossing). I’d say on the free charts, polish is less important (at this time–check again a year from now).

    • I can’t take credit for spotting Wave Spark as a precursor to Tiny Wings. I saw that when @MattRix mentioned it on Twitter.

  2. I can’t agree with this more. I think the amount of polish can make the difference between a good game and a great game. While it hasn’t exactly been a big seller I do feel that my first game, Tripolar, is pretty well polished and I’m proud of that. There’s already tons of stuff we’re adding in an update and I think that flexibility is really the advantage of the mobile platform.

  3. Great thoughts again. Thank you.
    My 2 cents.
    I don’t think extreme polish should be the rule on a ( iOS ) game. The time you will spend on the polish of a game depends on how much you believe in the massive success of this game. While you develop Casey’s contraptions, another developer can make 3 less polished games. If you consider there is also a lot of luck to reach the top 10, making 3 games instead of 1, is 3 times more chance to get into the top 10. We’ve seen also less polished games reach the top 10, not so far ago. Shipping a game that is not totally polished is a good way to test the market with less effort and you forgot to say that there is a second chance if you miss the launch : the free version that brings also a lot of visibility on the game (see Trainyard for example).
    To sum up my idea, I think that shipping semi polished games can be also a good strategy to monetize your games. Depends on the games.

  4. agreed about checking back on free charts in 1 year, it’s going to be so much more competitive quality will have to shine, my guess is there will be many more big guys up there, read EA, Gameloft etc

  5. I agree with most of what you say. But I disagree that you should focus primarily on the look and presentation of the game. Yes, looks are important. But if the controls and physics in Tiny Wings had not been finely tuned for maximum enjoyment there is no way it would be in the top 10 either.
    I don’t think a game has to be ‘complete’ when shipping in the sense that it has to have all the levels and features it will ever have. But the core game play and controls have to be rock solid when you ship.

    • Hendrik, I wasn’t very clear about it, but I didn’t mean to imply that you should focus primarely on the look and presentation of the game. Just that you shouldn’t skimp on those. Of course I’m assuming you need to have a good game first.

      So yes, the physics in Tiny Wings are finely tuned, but the difficulty curve is totally way off, with most players hitting a wall after about 10-15 minutes of playing. That’s an example of what I mean can be fixed afterwards. The finely tuned physics that make the moment-to-moment feedback and gameplay are extremely important, I agree.

  6. I don’t believe you mentioned this, but sonic and street fighter are both currently on sale and donating the money they make to a charity helping out with the mess in Japan atm. I think this is a huge factor in those two specific games being on the top game apps. I bought both of those games this week because of the sale/donation. I don’t think are at the top of the charts only because they are well know franchises. It is definitely a factor though.

  7. This is a real dilemma!

    There are things that game developers and reviewers care about that many users do not. I’ve intentionally (and somewhat necessarily) not polished a lot of things in Sticks ‘N Steel, in order to test this.

    For instance, when I point out all the little things that make a game look polished to my wife, she complains that it looks too busy and she can’t tell what’s going on. That’s just an anecdote, of course, but I’ve been consistently surprised by what non-game-creators care about and what they don’t even notice.

    So, instead, I’m taking the route of starting a conversation with users and doing frequent updates. One thing I’ll say is that it *has* made it more difficult to get noticed by reviewers. On the other hand, what I’m aiming for is the long-term “instant” success.

    Another variable is the depth of the game. Many of these uber-stylish super-polished games have very little depth. If you’re aiming for a market (presumably a smaller one) that cares more about depth, maybe the constraints are different.

    We’ll see. I could be completely wrong.

  8. Hecker’s presentation is about really taking time to develop and explore game design ideas. Not really a profit-driven talk, his aim is to encourage interesting new ideas. That’s probably the main reason his focus is different.

    I’ve criticized cloning in the past, but I’m really starting to see the value of it. You could save an immense amount of time just lifting your game mechanics from a game that’s fun to play, yet is unpolished and has a small following. All that extra time could be spent making sure the presentation is the highest you can get it, while still beating your competition to the release.

    Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that I’m going to rip off Phil Hassey’s game, Stealth Target. I think I’ll be changing the graphics to look exactly like Team Fortress 2, but maybe with a doodle style. Something bright and colorful, anyway. The race is on!

    • Unfortunately you’re right about cloning. It’s a potentially very profitable thing to do. It’s just also a shitty thing to do and it involves very little (if any) creativity. Every time a clone becomes successful, I feel a disturbance in the force as if a million indie voices died out.

      • I’ve been pretty cynical lately about the cloning thing. It really disappoints me that, given an open platform anyone can make a game on, tiny independent developers just rip off other independent developers. Examples: Desktop Dungeons vs League of Epic Heroes, QWOP vs that game that was a carbon copy of QWOP but with more cartoony graphics.

        I can’t help but feel that the “ideas don’t matter, presentation does” thing that’s been floating around so much lately somehow helps contribute to this. Not that your article isn’t completely true (some exceptions, like why didn’t Tilt to Live become the permanent #1). It’s just that it’s really easy for people to take the sentiment to its extreme, using it to justify making a complete clone that adds no real ideas.

        Guess there’s nothing you can really do about it except make good games, good presentation or not.

  9. The art direction is great. Perfect casual look with great consistency between the shell menus and the game. Love that you are taking time to polish.

  10. Preach!!

    Seriously though this was a great read. My little circle of friends wonder why I am so obsessive over little details in control and feel on my prototypes, only to freeze dry them or throw them away when it doesn’t feel right after a few iterations. A single polished marble is more valuable that multiple pebbles.

  11. I somewhat agree that style and polish are important, however…

    Style and polish, while perhaps earning some quick sales, isn’t going to carry over in the long term if there’s no originality or actual *gameplay* in the games being churned out.

    I can’t count the number of games my friends and I have checked out because they “looked” nice only to become disinterested in less than an hour because of a complete lack of substance, never looking back at the games again to see if there’s any actual content updates to them.

    • The long term doesn’t matter. Each time your friends buy a game and play it for 20 minutes before throwing it away, they’re pushing those games up the charts. In the end, it’s structured so only only quick sales matter.

      • I wouldn’t say the long term doesn’t matter, but it’s true that it’s not the most important thing on iOS games. Long term still gets you word of mouth which accounts for a fat tail instead of a thin one (or staying in the charts longer).

  12. Thanks for this excellent post. I really believe that mobile users have no mercy at all, so you need to do all the best you can to attract them and let them enjoy your game. I think the hard part is to find a good balance between well polished and time to market.

  13. I couldn’t agree with you more. I mean if you consider how people purchase pretty much every product out there…the first interaction with most products is how it looks: the packaging, the branding, the commercial, the screenshots etc. People by nature are attracted to and want to be associated with beautiful things.

    I’ve noticed when i search for new games on my iPhone/iPad I look at the icon first, and screenshots second to determine if i want to give it a try. (honestly I just use reviews to confirm my like or dislike for a particular game)

  14. Wise words. I submitted my game based on act fast, add later and it flopped. On the other hand, I submitted a financial app that had all the basic ingredients needed and added to it over time and people are using it.

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