Sunday, August 29, 2010

Castle Conflict, a bumpy road

This current release of Castle Conflict has been something of a frustrating one.

To be quite frank, when we released Castle Conflict for the first time last year, it was as if something magical happened. We came up with a game idea based off of a game that we had both played before in the past. In a week, we polished it off - like it was nothing - despite the fact that I had never developed anything for the iPhone prior to that point. It just, worked. And it seems that the world knew it - it was featured by Apple and made nearly $20k before sales petered out to about $5 a day, tops.

It took us six months to release an update. It was a surprisingly long time, due to friction in the interim and the idea that we could make another 1-week game in between while our brains sifted through ideas on what to do with Castle Conflict next. That 1-week game took 3 months to make and, to date, has earned us approximately $200. Josiah got a full time job, making it difficult for us to find a period of time to develop the app. But at the end of November, we found the time, and at the beginning of December we submitted something that was closer to our vision of what Castle Conflict could be - the game with campaign mode.

Sales bumped up to about $20 a day, and when Christmas hit, they bumped up to near $50 a day. We still couldn't quit our day jobs (although technically, I had). We had agreed to take some time off from the project before the next update. I spent December doing client work so that I had some money in the bank.

January rolled around and we went for the second most requested feature of Castle Conflict, multiplayer, with a planned second campaign to be released right after. Multiplayer took a long time to develop, and came mostly on my end. It is a largely unused feature in the game compared to campaign and we could have released a campaign map or two in the time it took me to make it, had we known how little use it would get. People still complain that they can never find people online to play with them, despite the fact that it is local-only multiplayer, meaning you can only challenge people via bluetooth or on the same wifi network as you.

As soon as the dust had cleared and that update was submitted, we geared it up a notch, making our Egypt campaign. This was expected to take a week, due to the fact that we had our campaign code all written in November, but it ended up taking two. During these two weeks, I literally got up at 8 or 9 every day and worked from then until I went to bed at 11 or 12. The addition of new units and new unit skins basically broke the game and I learned more about memory fixing it than I ever expected to know. Since then, however, I have been much smarter with understanding memory on the iPhone and how it works.

Simultaneously to this very stressful, yet creatively charged two week period, I was putting the full financial force of Broken Kings behind the project, believing that with the new campaigns and multiplayer, the game was poised to take off the way it had when featured by Apple the year before. That we had found a game that could be a sustainable business and could continue to develop for in the future. A week or two a month could yield a new update every month, our fan base would grow, the game would allow us to develop games full time.

I spent over $7k on an advertising campaign. By this point, this was almost all that was left in the Broken Kings bank account. But so sure were we of the game that we did it anyways.

February 22nd, our ad campaign went live, on all the large websites for iPhone games and large websites for iPhone apps we could find and afford. We had paid for ads from a well known artist, knowing that Josiah's pixel-art style wouldn't draw in as many customers and that we didn't know advertising that well, so having a pro help us out couldn't help.

It boosted our sales by about $15 a day the day it went live. We can't even be sure how much of that was the ad campaign because our sales tended to fluctuate within at $20 range on a per-day basis. A few days later, Apple featured us, but only in the "What We're Playing" section. This free publicity boosted our sales by $30 a day. We never cracked the top 200. We were emotionally, physically, creatively, and financially exhausted when I was approached by Free App A Day and given the chance to put Castle Conflict up for a discounted price. I agreed, and this worked - we made about $3000 in the next two months after the app went free. This went to paying 2009's taxes.

Agreeing to take a break from the project for a while, Josiah continued working and got involved in some musical projects. I started taking on consulting work, working on various projects including an iPad port of a game by a local company (The funds from that also went to taxes), an iPhone app that has yet to be released and I have yet to be paid for, then some consulting for a UK-based company that took up the end of April, all of May, and first few weeks of June. It put money in the bank, but I had made a commitment to a game studio in town that I would make a game for them this summer, for money and a small percentage. So as soon as the UK app was finished, I has to immediately put time into this new project (which is still ongoing).

Josiah and I did plan and start the new update in April, however, with the intention of working on it on a weekly basis. That didn't last through the UK app, due to the client having a very intense deadline that we worked like mad to reach. Various other dramas and events in my personal life made it difficult for me to want to work on code after work hours. But the original plan (which has since been reshaped) was that the game I was working on locally would be complete July 31st. I even paid my roommate (who made Shiftmaze last year) to help me out that month. For a variety of reasons, the app has not yet been released and is still in development, partially due to my own over-ambition, partially due to some differences in the way that the company I am working for operates versus the way I operate on Castle Conflict. Josiah is only available full time for two days every other week, due to commitments both to his full-time job and his band. So we've never quite found the magical, creatively-charged week or two week period that we had in the previous updates. A lot of the work, we don't even do at the same time. I work when he's at work and he works on weekends.

Yet pressure continued to mount, with reviews coming in every day from fans wanting the update, which escalated eventually to fans demanding an update, so we have been putting this update together every chance we get. But it has been nearly 4 months that we have been working on it on and off now, when before we were able to work on it for two weeks and be good. And we've ended up cutting out a fair amount of what we planned in order to get this update out faster - our original plan involved having about 50 new levels and 23 new unit types this update, but we've cut it down to a typical campaign of 20 levels and 10 new unit types, simply to get it out on time, and because we're finding it hard to find the time we'd need to put in in order to pull off a lot of the wizardry we were hoping to pull off.

Yet, despite all this work in the past year, Castle Conflict has only made about another $9K. Of that $9K, $8K went towards advertising and about $2K went towards paying Josiah. In short, despite the bulk of the game having been created since Apple featured us hardcore last year, we haven't been able to capitalise on the promise of our initial launch. As much as we both would love this game to make us enough money that we could put more time into it, would love to release a new update on a monthly or bi-monthly basis, the need to eat makes this tricky.

I have a decent amount of money in the bank account, enough for me to live for a few months, although that lessens if I try to pay an artist full time. Nonetheless, after this release and the release of the game I'm making for the local company, I will be looking into a plan for how to develop better in the future. Because I truly believe that communication with our audience, and a stream of new content, can lead to a successful iPhone app business. I have ideas I've talked with a few people that we want to get out there in the app store, and I'd love to bring the audience along, be able to bring these ideas to fruition faster and be more open with the audience. The past few months, I have failed on this front due to the stress related to money and client work - whereas, earlier this year I was able to put a lot into it. (Look at the Multiplayer update of Castle Conflict - it added the "next update" preview feature and the survey, and I was constantly posting youtube videos about the current progress of the app). I'd like to get back there.

This update, we still believe will be good, if not everything we hoped it to be. But I'm going to look at it as a launching point. Besides, we already have ideas for the next update.