On the end of 2011, I was taking iOS development classes at college. I remember being amazed by how easy it was for me to have a prototype running on the iOS simulator, how little money I thought I would need to invest to have it up on the App Store and how everybody was talking about the nice opportunities indie game developers were having on the mobile market. I wanted that for me. I also remember being unhappy with my job at a web agency, with no perspective on the horizon. So, I partnered up with Eduardo Ribas, another unhappy co-worker and we set out to make an iOS game.
After working on the project on my spare time for quite a while, I realized it would take forever to finish it and I didn’t want to lose the momentum. So, on the beginning of 2012, I quit my job and started coding full time. We also started talking to people that understand how taxes here in Brazil work and they told us we needed a company to share profits and those sorts of things. So, I wrote a simple business plan and we started filling out paperwork to have our own indie company. We named it Luckyfingers Interactive. It was around that time that Eduardo also quit and joined me on the ranks of full time indie development.
It took a while, but we finally released our game, Little Red Running Hood. It happened on July 31st, almost three months ago. On October 31st Luckyfingers Interactive will be one year old.
This is a personal reflection on how we were unable to keep our company alive longer than that. It’s a warning to aspiring game developers out there to not be as naive as I was and to not fall for survivorship bias as I have.
What We Did Right
This list of topics is short. This may be because I’m extremely critical over the things I do, but I tried really hard to find more aspects that were positive during the development of the game.
1. The quality of our game
Considering that Little Red Running Hood was made by two guys with no previous experience on making games, I believe we did really well. We took our time and ended up building a game that has great graphics, great music (by Eirik Suhrke) and is well executed. Most, people who played our game liked it.
We even got some awards at SBGames (Brazilian Symposium on Computer Games and Digital Entertainment). We got Best Visuals, Best Sound/Music, second place on Best Game and third on Best Game Design. All of those on the Mobile category.
2. Quit our jobs
It was only after both of us had quit our jobs that we were able to pour the amount of energy needed to complete a project with the size of Little Red Running Hood.
What We Did Wrong
1. Starting with a pseudo-simple game
I like to believe that our game idea was indeed simple at first. It was an iOS runner, like any other. As we started working on it, we changed, tweaked and experimented. We realized we needed something to differ our game from the usual runner, so we came up with having the scenery’s luminosity change as the player progressed through the level. I worked a long time on the code and when we finally were glueing code and art together, the hardware on our iPhones could not handle the amount of transparency and textures. It took us a while to fix it.
After that, we decided the game needed something more, but didn’t know exactly what. So we put some random things in. An elevator, a mine car, chains to jump on, giant boulders chasing Reddie. I realize now, that all this things diluted the core mechanics of the game.
To me, it seems we tried too hard to make Little Red Running Hood something it was not. We transformed it into a pseudo-simple game.
2. No prototype
We never took the time to sit and say “Okay, let’s prototype this thing and see if the gameplay is fun and can stand on its own!”. Both of us jumped right into building a game for iOS, with no clear view on the end goal and even less clue on what the core of the game was.
We should have gathered a lot of feedback before even thinking of building a “full” game.
3. Lack of a Game Design Document
Some of the problems described above could be avoided if we made a clear GDD focused on the mechanics and what we expected the game to be. Sure, working without one gives you the liberty to do what you want with the game, but that’s what prototypes are for. If your goal is to make a commercial game, something that people would spend their money on, I believe everybody on the team should be on the same page and understand clearly how the end product should turn out.
Having a design document doesn’t mean you have to discard ideas or refuse trying something different for the game if you realize it is not working halfway through development, but it makes it better to navigate uncharted waters during the long lifetime of the project. It also makes it easier to say no to those ideas that come late at night and don’t exactly fit.
4. Opening a company
Ok… so, some people who understand about taxes here in Brazil told us we needed to open a company. There were two main reasons for that. First, if I had published the game on the App Store under my name, Eduardo wouldn’t be able to prove his income to the governement. Second, taxes over revenue are slightly smaller for companies than they are for individuals.
The other side to it was that we would have a monthly cost to keep the company up and running. That was acceptable, we did the math, decided to pay for one year, made a business plan and signed some papers. Luckyfingers was born with an expiration date.
I know now, that opening a company in an enviroment so unfriendly (specially to tech), with no fan base, no finished product and no idea of the market and all its possibilities was dumb.
Brazil is so unprepared for small game companies that, to open an account on the bank, the young manager asked us for a list of clients we would be offering our services. And another of companies that would supply raw materials to us.
5. Starting on the mobile market
This one I blame on naivety and survivorship bias. Back when we started working on the project I was flooded with numbers about people buying iPhones and developers who were excited to be on that market. This overconfidence and optimism clearly influenced other decisions that were responsible for our financial failure.
Not being able to get our game noticed was the key point to really low sales numbers. This is something most of the developers have to face on the App Store. For every developer that can get their app on a feature list there are numerous others that see their work fall into the limbo of the Store.
6. Lack of clear roles specifications
Following this one is tough for young teams to do, specially if you’re dealing with friends. Who is going to produce? Who is going to be the game designer? The sound guy? Marketing?
There are a lot of pieces to glue together during the development of a game. If you don’t have those roles clearly set from the start, chances of chaos taking over are increased.
7. Weak Planning
It was only on the final months of development that I tried to set deadlines and be somewhat of a game producer. I failed to do this because of the problem I described on the item above.
Planning is a crucial part on the early life of a large project. It helps you see the end line and focus only on the task at hand, because you know you have time to worry about the other things later on.
Don’t forget to include marketing strategies on the first planning of the game. We didn’t include. Lesson learned.
8. Leaving testing for the last stages and doing it only among friends
I still don’t know how we built a game with almost no player feedback. There was also a rare crashing bug that lead to a player complaining on a TouchArcade forum. If we had tested the game with a wider audience, it could have been solved before the App Store launch.
9. Losing sight of the biggest goal
When we decided to open our company, we agreed to invest money to keep it up and running for one year. Our business plan set a goal to make at least two small games on that time. Personally, I would only be satisfied with three. We had one year to make Luckyfingers sustainable. But we failed epically.
The reason that happened was: often times during the game’s development we obcessed over minor details. We didn’t respect deadlines enough. We didn’t cut enough things out. In fact, we kept adding things to the game to try to make it better. Meanwhile, time kept going and we remained oblivious to the fact that there was something bigger at stake other than the game itself.
If you have a company, someone needs to make sure everything is following the plan to keep it alive.
In the end, we got caught up on our own creative struggles, overconfidence and optimism. I ended up learning more about what not to do while trying to dent a corner in the game industry. The best thing we can do is spread our story so that other developers don’t fall on the same pitfalls we did.
Developer: Luckyfingers Interactive
Release Date: July 31st, 2013
Platform: iOS (iPhone app)
Size of the Team: 2
Length of Development: 6 months as part time project, then other 12 working full time.