Pixel Fighters: A Post-Mortem April 20, 2012

Allow me to get straight to the sales juice of this post, the rest can come from there. This project cost me a total of $5000 for the original game and $2000 in my second major update.  As you can calculate from the numbers, I’ve made only about $2250 in the past year and a quarter.

(Click for a larger image)
I imagine that this data might be shock to some, either that I spent so much on art to build my game or that I would announce a $5000 net-loss almost proudly. Well that’s because this game has singlehandedly changed my career landscape and paid for itself many times over.  In less than 3 years since I left my job in market research as a project manager with only the programming knowledge of a light hobbyist, I’ve increased my annual income by 75%. I actually hate talking about my income but at the risk of coming off as a pompous ass, I need to make a point. This app has meant so much more to me than the code that it’s comprised of or the money it’s earned. The wealth of experience, the people I’ve met, the blogging, and seeing a project through from start to finish – these are the elements that have helped build who I am today; Pixel Fighters was just a catalyst.

Goals/ Accomplishments

I’ve written several previous entries on my experience along the way, so I will skip the “story of” and discuss only end results and reflections. Entering the market in January of 2011, I set a personal goal that I felt was reasonable based on what I thought market conditions were at the time.  I just wanted to sell 30,000 copies and pocket enough after taxes to pay my rent over the year. Before the second update, Pixel Frenzy and lite version, I blogged a goal of 9000 more copies on my ~3000 so far. My second goal was to hit the developer job market with my new “resume maker”. While I did not come even close to my first goal, and that has been hard to accept at times, I think I knocked goal #2 out of the park.

Developing an app in your own name is a well respected accomplishment. It provided an interesting topic of conversation during my search for a job that also demonstrated my capabilities in a number of important fields. Between the iOS app, the promotional website, the designer/musician I hired and managed, the personal market experience and the blogging, I had a number of strong talking points. Following the release of my app in January 2011, I’ve been occasionally contacted by recruiters and HR reps; One of these actually led to my current position with TC Media.

The iOS community and personal growth

In addition to the positive impact on my career, I’ve also enjoyed the benefits of just being a part of the iOS development community. Entering the market, I don’t think I had a profound enough appreciation for just how full of brilliant people this marketplace is; I am empowered by the entrepreneurial energy. I’ve been humbled time and time again and I’m sure I will continue to be. In particular, I had one experience early in my #idevblogaday days when I wrote an entry about not releasing your first app. While my blog isn’t visited nearly enough to say this was “widely panned”, it was panned enough. I listened those who scorned me, asked some to help me understand why they disagreed and absorbed as much as I could from the experience. Reflecting now, I do reject my original hypothesis completely and I’m happy to have had Pixel Fighters to blog about so that people could help slap the silly out of me. My experiences with Pixel Fighters helped shape the way I look at software development, there’s nothing to regret or be ashamed of.

Do’s and Don’ts

DO spend something on art; art matters. I think that many of the sales I do have been thanks to the quality of the art. I also learned a lot from the experience of hiring and working with a designer.

DON’T spend so damn much on art though, especially on your first app!  My original budget was $2600 for all my art, which was pretty high, and I let myself totally blow that, overconfident that I could at least break even in-market. That said, I invested in art to motivate myself, take my project seriously, see it through to the end and sell it for $0.99. You can probably get that kind of motivation for under $500 though. Learn to be strategic with art if you’re operating with a tight budget. Can you make this yourself? Does that really need a new graphic animation? Is there another way to animate or draw this programmatically?

DO have a plan. Plan and plan and plan. Then plan some more. The original 9 months of my development were just crazy. I was building the game on the fly, incorporating what I wanted when I wanted. Planning is quite difficult, particularly on your first app, when you lack the experience to outline the ’how’ and the ‘why’ - but do your best to roadmap your intended improvements. Also, try and build in testable cycles, so you don’t leave a massive mess of issues until 2 weeks before submitting to Apple. (I did)

DO think about all the extra value you get from building your app. Look for ways other than the obvious that your app can help you. For me, it was about moving into a development career. As an independent, it’s for the portfolio. People are going to be impressed by the fact that you’ve personally built anything for iPhone – Use that to your advantage.

DON’T get discouraged. This past year it has not always been easy accepting my app’s results. I tried several different ideas. I invested in an update, released a separate themed mini-game and I finally created a lite version. While originally I had thought any one of these things might give me a massive boost, the reality is that none have. Still, I have to say I’m not discouraged and just glad to have tried and learned. At this point, I just need to accept the results and focus my time and energy on new and exciting opportunities. So much has been learned in the last few years, and I really look forward to taking this experience to my next personal game project.

DO blog. Blogging is a wonderful way to grow. When you blog you share with your community, you learn from your peers and you demonstrate professionalism/expertise. I’m so glad I started blogging and participating in the #idevblogaday community because it’s another skill I’ve picked up thanks to this experience that I don’t plan to stop.

Conclusions/The Horizon

I didn’t want to overload this blog with information or story but please ask me anything in the comments. Nothing is too personal and I want this information to be as whole and useful as possible.

This year I’ll be working as an iOS Developer for TC Media in Toronto, making apps mostly, maybe a game if I’m lucky and probably a couple web projects. On my weekends and after hours I have a few things planned, some of which I will discuss at a later date.

TOJam – The next game(er… prototype?)

I’m really excited to register for TOJam this year (when registration opens soon). I’ve assembled a team of 5 including myself, my musician and artist from Pixel Fighters as well as 2 other developers from work. We are going to be making a mini-RPG (surprised?). I’m really looking forward to making a new RPG based on my past experiences and working on it with a team – it’s going to be a great experience. I also look forward to meeting face to face with the game development community in Toronto. I’ll post on how it went in a month’s time.

  • http://twitter.com/granoff Mark H. Granoff

    Nicely done. I’d add one more “DO” to your list: Do contribute to the open source community, e.g. through Github. There are lots of great contributions out there already, and your own contribution to the community goes along with being a “published” app developer. Good luck to you in your new career!

    • Anonymous

      Hey Mark, thanks very much. That’s actually a really important one I completely forgot to highlight. I’d be nowhere without FOSS community and it is incredibly important to give back.

      With that said, we actually intend for the upcoming TOJam project to be shared on GitHub after the fact, so that will be my first step.


  • Yebogogo warren

    Congratulations Kyle. You did an outstanding job with pixel fighters. I would have played it more but you know, I’m a battlefield 3 guy. That being said, I always have some zany ideas. Maybe we can do a partnership and get rich. Lol

  • Hendrik

    Nice post and great attitude!

  • http://www.smugbit.com/ Lorenzo

    Nice post-mortem. What are your thoughts on marketing?

    Do you think you could have sold more if you spent less on art and more on promoting your games? How about social media sharing (posting high scores to your Facebook wall, for example)?

    • Anonymous

      Hey Lorenzo,

      Great questions. As far as marketing goes, I’m pretty confident I gave it more than a fair shot. Part of my marketing WAS my art quality really; I understood the importance of first impressions and the meaning of art to the RPG community. So to spend less on art could have directly affected the effectiveness of my marketing.

      That said, IMO I was superfluous in my art spending. I introduced some story art which cost me upwards of $700, and I probably should have found another way for some things through sprite sequences.

      So let’s assume I could have shaved $100 or so for additional marketing without affecting the game art. I can’t tell you what effective vehicle would cost me $1000 or less. Maybe $20 for a PRMac send out, but the remaining $980 would go to waste on anything such as, paid reviews, banner ads on game sites, google ads, etc..

      The only marketing tactic I have not executed is going free for a day. I could do it alone and see perhaps similar results to my chart above (maybe 500-1000 free sales is my guess for Pixel Fighters if I didn’t pay anything to market it) or pay in the realm of $2000 -$7000 more to use a service like Free App A Day with WAY more downloads but 0% guaranteed sales results.

      re: Social Media Sharing – unlikely. Personally, I’ve never been interested because it is not relevant or interesting to me as a user (just seen as spam). Also, anecdotally through the iOS community I’ve heard smaller indies report absolutely 0 scores reported on twitter (hard to tell on FB).


      • Lorenzo

        I would really recommend going free for a day – and forget about paying anyone to promote it. There are plenty of sites that actively monitor app prices and will send off a flurry of tweets and news articles when they see a paid-to-free change. You don’t need to do a thing. I was actually surprised how quickly people pounced on RPGenie.

        I’m fairly certain you will see more than 500-1000 free downloads. I saw 4k downloads with my stupid little app alone. I also saw a ripple effect after going back to paid – with the free downloaders tweeting/sharing photos and whatnot causing others to go and pay for it. It’s a good way to breathe some life back into an otherwise dead app.

        I think I’m planning to go free one day a month from here on out – changing which day of the week to see if there’s any “optimal” time.

        Your game is crazy good for a first effort. Really appreciate your openness, too. I’ve always been curious how much contracting out art actually costs. I figured it was more expensive than I wanted invest up-front, which is why I chose to go minimalistic and do it all myself just to see how profitable these apps really are.

        As for sharing on social sites – I’m still torn. I figure adding the functionality doesn’t hurt. I’m just puzzled how some of these games manage to take off without massive word of mouth.

        • Anonymous

          Sorry for the slow reply, my ISP at home has been having issues. You are right, I’m probably being quite pessimistic about my expectation downloads on a free day, but I base it on my experience dropping an Arcade game to free as well as releasing a Lite. Neither of these is the same as dropping a paid full RPG to free though.

          Either way, I’m not in a major hurry and I guess I take some satisfaction in picking my price and never playing with it. By the end of the year I expect I will have gone free.

          That aside, your RPG Photo app is pretty awesome and deserves kudos. I lol’ed the first time I saw it’s store page.

    • Anonymous

      Further to my previous response, I think the bottom line is that I don’t think any particular reallocation of money would have made for more success. At the end of the day, the game’s length/quality held it back from being more successful. After all, I did get decent attention at the beginning and I did get a multi-month feature in the European App Store so it’s not like Pixel Fighters got no opportunity. From there it wasn’t exactly wowing anyone or driving much word of mouth.

      For a first app, I think the spend just needs to be low in general and reasonable expectations have to be set.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ian.hawley.96 Ian Hawley

      I’m also interested to know what your marketing was, I cannot see where you’ve mentioned who you contacted. Launch is everything, you need people to know about, be expecting even, your title to launch so that you have an audience likely to buy your app or game on day one and help keep your product easy to find.

      You don’t need to spend money to do this, but obviously if you have a significant budget that helps.

      • Anonymous

        This is very true. When I first launched I did little awareness marketing prior to my release other than a trailer that barely anyone saw. I definitely made a critical mistake of being too secretive before launch and I didn’t know any influencial reviewers. I did a lot of PR sendouts to review websites on the day of launch but only 148apps wrote about it. To be frank as well, my game just wasn’t that mind blowing either. The graphics were impressive, people gave it a shot, but were ultimately not moved by it. When I released my second update I got a few more reviews but the theme was always kind of ‘neat idea, so-so execution’ . That’s definitely not compelling enough to drives sales.

        I can certainly say that my next app will get a lot more awareness attention before its even launched. I would definitely try and buddy up with writers on twitter and at least try to get above their clutter noise. The guys at Buffer wrote a great blog entry on grass roots marketing like this that’d I’d recommend. I’d link it but I’m writing from my mobile.


        • http://www.facebook.com/ian.hawley.96 Ian Hawley

          I’d appreciate if you could dig that link out! GL with your next title.

          • Anonymous

            I recently did the search in order to help someone else but was quite baffled when I couldn’t find it for the life of me after scouring their archives.

            In any case, I paraphrased the advice provided in an email recently so I’ll paste the meat of the insights I gathered and reiterated in that email below:

            If your plan is to use services like PRWeb, don’t be surprised that they alone won’t give you traction because tons of PR releases go out every day and you’re just part of the clutter. The best advice I’ve personally heard, which I intend to do more of in future, is start sucking up to journalists/reviewers right now, on places like Twitter and maybe their existing articles too.

            That doesn’t mean that right out of the gate you need to start tweeting them about how you want something from them, in fact, that’s a REALLY bad idea. Rather, make a list of everyone who’s important who’s attention you want, follow them all, and be conversational about whatever they are talking about. Don’t be discouraged if they never reply to you either, as I’m sure some of them get many replies to each of their tweets, but that doesn’t mean you’re failing at all. They might still see your face, your name, and read your reply to their topic of conversation and that’s still a win. The more you know them and they more they think you know them and their writing style personally, the better.

            The idea is that eventually, you might tweet at them and say something along the lines of “Hey, I’m about to send a press release for a new game my team has been working on, just a heads up, and thanks in advance for your time”. This is a way better means of breaking through a cluttered journalist’s mailbox because they might have a vague familiarity with you and you’ve been polite and patient already. It immediately looks better than the mindless cluttered spam-fest most people are doing.

            That still doesn’t mean you’re going to bat 100%, probably not even 20%, especially among the biggest writers. Rather than picking the big names, maybe looks for new editors to some of the news sites/blogs too – you’ve got better odds of getting their attention.

          • http://www.facebook.com/ian.hawley.96 Ian Hawley

            Thanks for the reply, I’ve heard almost identical advice in a story from game journos, so this somewhat re-affirms that idea – make contact, make sure your first contact isn’t ‘Hey please review my game’ and then once you’ve developed at least some contact/relationship, then politely inform them something might be coming their way.

            Thanks again.

  • Anonymous

    Hey Kyle, congrats on sales! How did you make time to finish your project? Were you working full time on this project or was it on the side?

    I’ve been working on my side project for more than a year now. Unfortunately I spend waaay to much time on the tech. I built a custom engine for it and everything. Whenever I see someone else say that I think “Wow dumb move if you’re main goal is just to release a game.” Yet I rationalize it to myself that it’s okay for me to do because I enjoy the tech… Yes double standard, and I’m trying to hold myself to actually shipping a product!

    Your art certainly looks good, it has a professional vibe and gets past my initial “that looks too unpolished because of the art” filter. =)

    The game looks pretty polished from a gameplay video I looked at. Your reviews are good. Is it just too small of an audience? Is there a major part of your potential audience who doesn’t know about it? Is it too hard to get into for casual players? Just wondering out loud. =)

    Free for a day seems worth a shot as Lorenzo mentions.

    Great job on shipping your product!

    • Anonymous

      Hey, thanks for your comments and kind words on my game. I definitely spent on art to move above that crap level. It’s something I knew was important, although costly :S In the end, I do think there is an audience but without shelf space you get nothing. Secondly, my game is far from amazing and still buggy so that never helps adoption. I think the game is appreciated quite well as a concept, but its not a full/meaty enough game.

      I was working part time during this project with a company doing PHP related development and web management. It took me approximately 9 months to complete although my original goal was 6 months.

      Yeah, building your own engine from scratch is certainly a labour of love more than a necessity. Coming from a less traditional background I’m very pro-framework and rapid development. That said, I’m still amazed by how semi-technical some people are who make games using tools like Unity and Flash; I kind of envy their ability to see above the nitty gritty sometimes.

      All the best!

  • Florian

    Hey Kyle,
    I stumbled upon your post while reading several dozens iPhone App Post Mortems. Your App was one of few which didn’t take off even though it had good graphics. Also the screenshots instantly showed what your game is about. That’s good, considering that most low-selling Apps I’ve read about already lost due to their icon and bad graphics shown in the screenshots. In those instances the reason for failure is clear to me – not so with your App.

    So I bought Pixel Fighters to see if you really should have taken off or if you were missing something crucial. After playing the first chapter I have to admit that I’m pressed that you even made 2000$ – your game crashes waaaaay too often (6-7 times through chapter 1). That’s really annoying and most people would quit and forget about your game after 1-2 crashes. I would say this is the most crucial fault you made.

    Another fault is your tutorial. The first 30-60 seconds using your App are the most important and I think you are missing out. Showing some explanatory screens before sending someone in the wild isn’t enough – especially since the user hast to learn about the AP resource system, too. Showing hints *while playing* would have been way better, e.g. click here to open action menu, click here to choose attack etc. If I weren’t checking out your App to learn about Do’s & Dont’s I probably would have quit right there and then.

    However, I’m not here to complain. I just wanted to give you back some objective feedback. I think your sales figures show that graphics go a looooong way to get the first customers, but that you need to deliver a frictionless tutorial and crash-free gameplay to thrive. So: Thanks a lot for sharing your numbers and insight, I learned a lot.

    PS: I have written an App myself, together with two friends, and we made no money. But I weren’t expecting one, due to our focus (our App “Estimates” helps freelancers to get better at estimating how long their client work will take – this helps to write accurate quotes and to avoid overtime). Yet, we are thinking about writing a game next and this time we want to make some money. ^^

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your feedback. FYI, the crashing is a more recent problem introduced with the second chapter after I did a major revamp. It did not crash nearly as much to begin with otherwise I would agree that the sales I got would have been astounding for such a buggy app. Re: your other points, i wholeheartedly agree. You live and you learn, right? :)

      I want to switch this app to free at some point, but my awareness of these crashes is really holding me back from wanting to promote it at all. I hope that in the near future I can go back, fix many of the issues and release a more stable copy.

      All the best with your upcoming app.