After the smoke clears: A post-mortem on Great Big War Game

No battle plan survives contact with the app store

After the smoke clears: A post-mortem on Great Big War Game
| Great Big War Game
Paul Johnson is co-founder and managing director of UK studio Rubicon Development

Some time ago, I authored a post-mortem about our first self-published title Great Little War Game.

That game gained some critical acclaim, and - despite our best efforts - even a modicum of financial success. But nobody can rest on their laurels for long and we were soon asking ourselves What's Next?

That wasn't a long conversation. There were a lot of minor features cut from the original game and one major one - multiplayer.

It seemed only right and proper that we should address this, and given we were also starting to pick up a fan base, it was a no-brainer to go for a full sequel.

We didn't want to just add those missing features and shove it out, though. We had an opportunity to make a truly great game, and the luxury of time (aka money from Great Little War Game) to give it our best shot.

1. What went right: Launch process

We'd learned a lot since our first title shipped. The number one thing is you need to get the press on your side as early as possible if you want to get your game selling.

We had been dabbling a bit at 'programmer PR', but we wanted to make sure that this time around our game actually launched, so we employed a PR firm who specialises in mobile titles, and therefore knew all the right movers and shakers.

This seemed to work. We put our App Store release date on hold so we could get final builds out to journalists pre-release. Several major sites were good enough to do pieces timed for when the game appeared on the store, and better yet they all loved the game and were quite gushing in their praise.

Our smiles got a little wider that week and we couldn't wait to see how the public at large were going to react.

2. App Store spotlights

If you're a mobile developer struggling for visibility (and have already read my previous piece on Great Little War Game), you'll have to forgive me here, but we did it all again!

Now that our cross-platform technology was proven, we were able to launch Great Big War Game on iOS and Android simultaneously, and we hit both stores running with a featured spot right out of the gate.

Just to add to the synchronicity, Google hit another milestone shortly after our launch - 25 billion downloads, and they picked out Great Big War Game for inclusion in their promotion again, but for 25 cents a pop this time. Now THAT was a good day!

I'm not going to dwell on this more because I'm fully aware of how fortunate we are to have had this level of attention, and don't want to rub it in for those that haven't.

3. Big content

We made a massive amount of content for Great Big War Game. The single player campaign can't be completed by a mere mortal in less than 40 hours - that's more gameplay than you'll find in most games these days, mobile or otherwise.

We also added a lot of variety to the mission objectives and removed one type that previous players said they didn't like very much. On top of this, we added several new units including some fixed base defence turrets which went down well.

There is now an upgrade system in place too. You earn battle points through gameplay and can spend those on permanent stat upgrades for your troops. You can't earn anywhere near enough to max them all out, so the game plays differently for everybody based on their choices - and you can start the game again from scratch and go a different route if 40 hours isn't enough single player action.

There's even a 'Hail Mary' mode where you get a bonus reward for making a really decisive turn. It's not that big an effect, but when you can see it building up it adds tension and excitement.

We made all the buildings destructible, which in hindsight should have been in the first game. You now have to blow up the enemy HQ to win, whilst avoiding that fate happening to your own. Much more satisfying!

There's a ton of other minor stuff too, like the troops singing cadences when you click on them the first time, but I'm trying to not turn this piece into an advert. Suffice to say that unlike the first game, we went from cutting corners to adding new ones.

4. Multiplayer joy

We went large for the multiplayer, having denied it to our fan base previously. We wanted as many people playing each other as possible, so this meant we couldn't use Apple's otherwise excellent GameCenter service on iOS for example. We have to make it all ourselves and get it working across all formats seamlessly.

It would have been far easier to make the multiplayer option real-time as there is already an interface for handling internet traffic built into all phones and tablets. That's not great on mobile though, as data signals get dropped all the time for various reasons, including incoming calls in most cases. So we went with asynchronous, which means basically 'play by mail'.

Each player takes their turn and sends it in to our server, which then sends it to the next guy. That next guy can ask for it at any time, so there is no pressure to maintain a constant signal. Better yet, friends separated by time zones can still play at their own convenience.

We're essentially talking about the modern day equivalent of play-by-mail chess.

We had to write our own server technology for this, and that went without a hitch. Having been permanently scared of the scary black box that is server development for most of my career, when I finally opened the lid and peeked inside, it got really easy really quickly.

(I would urge anyone scared of server coding to just get a book on PHP and MySql and just give it a go. It won't be optimal, but it will work and work quickly enough for most usage cases.)

There are currently 3,000-4,000 asynchronous games of Great Big War Game in play at any one point, and that's not bad at all for a mobile game. It took a fair effort to get this working well, but it seems like it was worth it. And no more gaping holes in the feature set!

5. Drinking in the accolades

We got a BAFTA nomination in the Best Strategy Game category. That's a pretty big deal no matter what, but our proudest moment was yet to come...

I'd been speaking with the organizers of the award, back from when we were first nominated to be nominated and they needed some videos etc. Whilst it was never specifically mentioned, I had a default assumption that our game would be in some sort of mobile or indie category. But apparently not! Great Big War Game was put out in the wild with all the massive triple-A games such as XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the never-in-doubt eventual winner.

We scooped another prestigious award from IGN, this time winning in the Best Mobile Strategy Game category. That was a proud moment for us against some pretty stiff opposition.

Rounding out our trio of accolades comes a Best Mobile Game scoop from Game Dynamo.

I'd like to thank all the people involved in these nominations and of course everyone that voted our game up. It's deeply appreciated, thanks. (Don't you wish all Academy Award thank you speeches were this short?)

Great Big War Game's press love didn't stop with those though. We got 100% review scores from several well respected mobile gaming sites, and those that didn't give us top marks usually came by with 95% or 90%. Great Big War Game currently has a Metacritic score of 86 (down from a 92 peak courtesy of a single really grumpy review.) There are some console games that can't boast that, so we're very proud of it.

Our favourite review quote, though, was from IGN - "Just buy it, plain and simple".

1. So What Went Wrong: Show me the money - please!

No graphs this time, but Great Big War Game has earned a remarkably similar amount to its parent - about $450,000.

However, the reason the money bit is in the What Went Wrong section this time is more about disappointment than anything else. While it still turned an eventual profit, Great Big War Game cost more to make, has a per month server expense, and so far has earned less - that's all moving in the wrong direction.

It's true that the game hasn't been on sale as long, but it has been out over a year now and well into the long tail, so will take a very long time to overtake Great Little War Game for absolute numbers. On Android, the original game is still outselling it, just. That's something we really can't figure out.

I hope this doesn't come across as too self-entitled or greedy, but we were hoping to make a shedload more money out of this title than the previous one. It's a far better game technically; it's way more fun; it's far better publicised; it reviewed particularly well; it won awards; the multiplayer is there now; we had an installed fan base; the brand is not unknown; we're less unknown as developers now, etc.

The list of advantages Great Big War Game has over its predecessor just goes on and on. But not the earnings potential it seems.

(On a personal note, this relative lack of stellar performance was particularly disappointing for me, as Great Big War Game is the best game I'd ever written. (And there have been a lot of games over the past thirty years.)

2. Great imponderables

We run a business, and all businesses must keep a tight rein on their finances. To do that, we sat down near the start of development to try and forecast how much money Great Big War Game might earn us over its first year.

We could then use this figure to monitor spend during development and make sure everything stayed on course. We'd already dug more than our fair share of holes for ourselves in the past and were not going to make that mistake again.

There were some things on our list of advantages that were known from the start. We intended to make a better game, we had a fan base, we were going to try much harder with the press and publicity to reach new customers. We were adding the multiplayer etc.

Our projection, given all these facts, was that we should easily make double the income of the first game, and this looked like a pretty healthy number.

As preparation for writing this post-mortem, I went through that budget meeting again, applying all the known facts that were not in evidence at the time. The truly excellent review scores, the awards we scooped, all that stuff. And in light of that I would have to review upwards that initial forecast from double to triple and possibly more. Good press makes that big a difference. Or at least it's meant to...

But that's not what happened in practice. Not even a little bit. Far from it, in fact, and here's what I think went wrong. Note that these are just thoughts; it's hard to make any solid statements here.

3. Bulk buy

We got a lot of players for Great Little War Game. In fact it looks like a runaway success as we have a few million installs - that's a lot of players by any definition.

Almost all of those were from when the game was either free for a week as part of a campaign, or just 10 cents during that Google 10 Billion promotion. In other words, we didn't make much money out of them.

But we still got them and, from the user reviews, almost everyone seemed to like the game. But I think this actually worked against us in the long run.

Despite doing much better in the press and publicity stakes with Great Big War Game, there's a high likelihood that the players we reached directly this time had already looked at Great Little War Game in the past, and probably played it, so this extra visibility didn't actually help all that much - we were preaching to the choir.

4. Sequelitis

But a few million is still a good place to start, right? Well, clearly not. Most of those customers were doubtless the type of person that just surfs the free games lists and is quite happy to just play something for a day or two and move on, never in danger of getting their credit card out.

We had hoped that the free campaign would generate good will and possibly some purchases of our next game (this one) but in the end it was just a charity drive.

Of those who did pay for the original, we can think of any number of reasons why they wouldn't be receptive to a sequel, even if it's a better game:

  • Some just didn't like Great Little War Game after all
  • Some did like it but feel like playing something different
  • There is way more competition
  • We put some off with our buggy launch of Great Little War Game
5. Crush of competition

There's no avoiding it. In the period since launching Great Little War Game, the market has exploded.

There has always been a lot of dross being released, but it's easily avoided as nobody ever reviews it or even talks about it on forums. But these days there's a ton of good stuff coming out on a daily basis. It's a bit ridiculous really - the market isn't just crowded, it's overly stuffed and bursting at the seams. How many of you will be shocked to hear that there are almost a thousand apps A DAY being release on the App Store?

So it's not just us struggling to earn; these days practically all decent games just don't do as well for their developers as they once might have, and I'm predicting bleak times ahead for pretty much everybody. We speak regularly with other developers and they all share the same basic outlook. This is definitely why the stampede to freemium has become 'a thing', but I don't think that this is a magic bullet for anybody either.

From a developers' point of view, the sad fact is that whatever the payment model, the number of new games coming out is far outstripping the number of available customers arriving. It doesn't matter how studios monetise them, that equation is going to yield ever decreasing income for most of us.

6. Fog of the fog of war

Putting fog of war in was a big mistake. A lot of our more hardcore strategy fans love it, especially in multiplayer, and this is why we didn't take it out. But to appease everyone else we did push out an update with a way to play with it disabled in single player.

It was so misunderstood by many that we had bug reports come in about there only being a small amount of visible terrain that "followed your units around".

We didn't see that one coming at all!

7. Free-to-play flops

There are some in-app purchases in Great Big War Game. Nothing 'freemium-y' though. They're all one-off purchases for expansion stuff like more multiplayer maps. We noticed that the take-up was particularly high for these - 25 percent of our customers bought everything and nearly 50 percent bought something.

We did some math on this and quickly deduced that if we dropped the price to free and could get ten times the players, then that level of in-app purchasing would yield a net win for us, even without the cover price. So we tried it. And failed dismally!

Not only did we not get ten times the players, those extra we did get (I'd guess three times) didn't want to pay anything at all. Not even out of a sense of fair play given they got a big game for free.

So after a couple of weeks we binned that idea completely and put the price back up. Had we spent some money on advertising and pushing the freeness harder, we might well have managed a ten-folding of our audience, but looking at what we made from three-folding it, this would still have been a net loss.

8. Strain of trade shows

As a bit of a cynic at heart, I've always had a bad opinion about trade shows, and I'm still convinced they do more harm than good generally, being predominantly an excuse for producers and execs to have a jolly good time on expenses.

There seems to be a ton of them these days and it's become quite a challenge to email somebody and not get an auto-responder that 'the recipient can't do business this week because he's out of the country doing business. Please lose two days and pay £1,000 costs for a meeting or mail back next week'.

As a developer, however, for the bigger events it's always felt like we should be showing something to the public. The cost of doing so is what usually prevents us. Not just the cost of renting a stand, which is often considerable, but the time lost from the keyboard doing development, the hotel and travel bills and everything else - it's not a minor undertaking for a small company.

This is doubly so if you're based in the UK, when most of the big shows are a long haul flight away.

As we were approaching release date, we were given a golden opportunity to have a small stand, totally free, at Develop in Brighton - about 100 miles from our office. This seemed like a good chance to put my cynicism aside and go find out, so we took the whole team and went to show our new creation to the world at large.

There are basically three types of people you might want to meet as an exhibitor - the press, the public, and publishers.

A. Pressing the flesh

We had quite a number of journalists come visit us and introduce themselves - it was actually very encouraging. They seemed genuinely impressed with our game and our story, and we were sure we'd get some good column inches out of it after the event.

Sadly though, that was a false hope. After careful monitoring we concluded that not a single mention was made about either our game or ourselves, outside of stuff like general listings of exhibitors. This one was a complete wash out.

B. Come-sees

We were deluged with random passers-by stopping in and wanting to see more. It was quite gratifying to see a crowd of people stood round the game and it massaged our egos tremendously. It also spoke to the future interest we might expect when the game went live.

Their value as a business opportunity there-and-then however wasn't high (sorry if that sounds a bit miserable). There just weren't enough people to start something viral, and they didn't have much actionable feedback for us. The general comment was "Yeah, cool." Again this was nice to hear, but not of much use to direct the final development push.

It was good to see people applauding the game, but I'm speaking here strictly in terms of "Is exhibiting at a tradeshow worth the cost?" And sadly that's another no.

C. Fat of the land

We were not looking for a publisher, but this was a good thing as not one of them came over and asked to see something. And there were lots of them attending the show, both working their own stands and wanderers milling about. If some of them noticed us, they just kept walking.

If we were looking for a publisher of course, we could've used that opportunity to approach them, but that doesn't need a (usually) expensive stand. We could've just attended cheaply as visitors, with an iPad tucked under our arm, and got the same out of it. So for meeting publishers, I'm afraid that's another thumbs down.

In conclusion

Mobile development is a tough place to be right now, and it's getting tougher all the time. I predict maximum carnage in the coming months and when it blows, it's going to blow big.

And since then...

In the year since we shipped Great Big War Game, we haven't stopped. Apart from the odd feature update here and there, we started working on our next magnum opus Combat Monsters pretty much straight away.

Combat Monsters is a card combat game that takes the standard gameplay of games like Magic: The Gathering and adds a whole new tactical layer.

Instead of just playing your cards out onto a table, we bring a proper game board. Your cards spawn 3D monsters and weapons/power-ups into a small arena and you then ruck with up to five opponents in classic tactical RPG-style combat.

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It's our biggest project to date, and we've almost doubled our staff to get it done (the total team size, with our usual remote workers, now weighs in at 9). That should indicate how thoroughly we believe in the game - something genuinely new and the most fun we've ever had at work.

At launch - around the end of September 2013 - we'll hit all major platforms; iOS, Android, PC, Mac and even BlackBerry 10.

Combat Monsters is currently in open beta on PC. Find out more here.

Data Box:
Developer/Publisher: Rubicon Development
Release date: 11 July 2012
Platforms: iOS, Android, BB10, PC (Steam, Windows 8)
Number of developers: 5
Budget: £150,000 ($225,000)
Length of development: ~12 months
Website: RubiconDev.com About the author:
Paul Johnson is the managing director and co-founder of Rubicon Development, and was also the project and programming lead for
Great Big War Game. Since his games industry debut in the 1980s, Paul has spent the intervening years mostly going grey.