TumbleBall has made a grand total of $0. There is some money floating out around there, ad revenue and game sales, but all amounts are under the minimum payout threshold for the respective companies. Given the costs of making the game, securing music rights, and owning a server, the game is in the hole to the tune of over a thousand dollars.
One of the things I learned getting a theatre degree is that you learn more from watching a bad production than you do from a good one. With that in mind, I’m providing this post mortem (which is typical of successful indie games) to TumbleBall, for myself and for the community at large.
Cutting Apart the Business Model
The business model for TumbleBall was simple. I didn’t believe in micro-transactions as adding value to the game, as a means of unlocking content or level editor options. Instead, I offered the entire level editor and access to community created content as the primary reason to give us $10. It would permanently unlock everything, add many more hours of content, and encourage more link sharing, hopefully.
The problems with that model – the model that made Fantastic Contraption over six figures a few years ago – is that it’s terribly out of date. The research is in, and it spells doom for TumbleBall.
There are essentially four areas of monetization for free-to-play games, in order of their profitability: Weapons and Power-ups, Wearables, Virtual Gifts, and dead last Maps / Levels. TumbleBall failed to offer anything but the least successful method of monetization, more levels – essentially I was selling additional content as opposed to augmenting existing content, which on the totem pole for games of my sort is the worst business decision I could have made.
Cutting apart the Community
Ppeople will pay money for game enhancements for the following reasons:
- To fit in (everyone else is doing it)
- To stand out (no one else is doing it)
- To fit in and stand out (I’m unique but part of an identifiable group)
- To build friendships and flirt
- To become more competitive
Note that TumbleBall offered none of that, not because the content didn’t encourage it, but because the community didn’t encourage it. The level editor could be used for all four of those things (that might be a stretch), but TumbleBall had no interactive community to speak of. No avatars, no in-game chats, no in-game forums, no comments, no method of communicating inside the game with other players – at all. The game’s community relied entirely on link sharing, and it failed at providing a community itself.
What that really means is that every microtransaction model was doomed to fail. Without being able to show off their status, there was no reason to buy status enhancements. With no active community to compete with (outside of a static score board), there was no incentive to buy any competitive items. And with no community to build an identity in, there was no reason to build an identity with in game items.
Cutting Apart the Game’s Release Arc
You can check out the public stats here. As of this writing, people play for about 14 minutes average (which is amazing for a Flash game), and have played about 340,000 levels in about 60,000 sessions. 60,000 is an awful distribution for a flash game, which means that there were significant problems interesting players. The numbers back it up – people that left before the first minute can be counted on to give a game a bad rating, and they made up 15% of my users. I’m a little sad that the 55% of users who stuck around past five minutes couldn’t promote our game more, but I can’t really blame them.
There was also the fact that I released without a sponsor. That meant never being on the front page of a major portal (aside from Newgrounds), and lacking that viral distribution that comes with that honour.
Impatience to release did a tremendous amount of damage. One of the major metrics I should have picked up on immediately upon pre-releasing on Newgrounds was how awfully hard it was getting users to create an account. We made major changes to that after we had already widened our distribution, and lost a lot of account sign-ups as a result, which is our gateway into more plays and more buys. We needed more playtesting and more new users, and instead released confident and cocky.
Cutting Apart the Development
The game was too big. It took the better part of a year. Ideas should have been culled and left for a sequel. We should have released a smaller game and tested the waters before going all gung-ho. I can’t repeat that enough.
I also made the decision to not optimize the game for facebook or phone deployment. That was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made, and I regret it. In fact, if I were to start over, I would not release on the portals at all, and leave it entirely with facebook. I don’t like them – but they’re the biggest most important game network in the world. Refusing that piece of the pie is idiotic. Not only that, but since there’s no gatekeeper to updates, you can deploy a new global version in seconds. Hugely important for a game that runs on metrics. (We couldn’t release on phones practically – the game requires too much horsepower).
So the learning points for me, and for you, are as follows:
- Building a community is your first priority
- Without a community that can communicate with each other, no one has any means of showing off their content, and therefore no reason to buy
- Sell in microtransactions, prioritizing Weapons, Power-Ups, and Wearables
- Virtual Gifts and Additional Content are profitable, but not enough to make it a focus
- Playtest, playtest, playtest.
- Make your game complete, but leave those other ideas for the sequel
- Facebook deployment is critically important for browser based games
- Phone deployment is critically important for games period
If you have 45 minutes, I highly, highly, highly suggest this video series about the future of media and how to make money from a free-to-play model: http://www.gamesbrief.com/2010/09/the-future-of-media-in-45-minutes/
And if you have patience, check out the poorly named “157 Mobile App Stats You Should Know” (it’s a five minute read with a terrible title, is all): http://www.slideshare.net/stuartdredge/157-mobile-app-stats-you-should-know-about
EDIT: November 27th, 2010:
A few good points were made, so I thought I’d address them here quickly.
I am the first to admint that the game design itself has holes in it that negatively influenced the business model, the community, the release, and more. I chose not to write about that because that’s a highly opinionated subject and I could never complete an analysis of it without missing / exaggerating something. There’s a ton of research that went into this post, mainly in looking at successful business models in the industry right now, and how TumbleBall fell short. Comparing the game design is an exercise in futility, other than a broad statement that “it’s not as good as game X”.
I also left out a rather long list of game design lessons that I learned in making this game. I’ll sum them all up here:
- Get plenty of feedback on the simplest version of the game possible
- Keep your development agile and respond to user feedback as best you can
- Users can have a hard time articulating what’s wrong with your game – use in-game metrics to discover what they’re actually trying to say.