Tiswaz's Kevin Dent on why App Store failure can actually be a case of falling upwards

A case study using ustwo's Whale Trail

Tiswaz's Kevin Dent on why App Store failure can actually be a case of falling upwards
| Tiswaz news

Kevin Dent is CEO of Tiswaz Entertainment, an advisory board member at PlayHaven and Chair of the IDGA Mobile SIG.

A number of months ago I struck up a friendship with Mills from UK studio ustwo (he's not a client).

At the time, people were telling me about its then yet-to-be-named title. I hear about new studios and new games several times a day, so I didn't really pay much attention.

I then started seeing Mills' name on twitter via retweets so gave up and started following him.

It turns out that he's quite a character and a funny guy to read. We started talking and since he was already on the Pocket Gamer Mobile Mavens distribution list, I pinged him an email and gave him crap in terms of managing expectations.

After all; the last couple of ustwo's applications were abject failures. Bombs. Flops. Turkeys. Whatever disparagement you could think of, it fits.

There was no sign this would be any different; indeed Mlls gloried in the prospects for its failure.

Whale of a time

Prior to release, Mills asked me if I wanted to be on the beta for the newly-named Whale Trail. Of course, I said yes; I'm a big fan of indie games, as that is where a lot of originality stems from in terms of game mechanics.

The mechanic of Whale Trail was obviously used before (Tiny Wings), but it actually felt incredibly fresh. In large part this was because the music in the game was great and original.

Though I fell in love with it from the get go, I knew it would not sell for a few reasons.

The biggest is that it launched as a single level game [this will change with the update] and people like to content-snack; they want their entertainment to fit into their lives as opposed to their lives fitting around the entertainment.

Personally, I would have created bite-sized levels with graded difficulty. Despite my misgivings, it hit the App Store and got pretty positive reviews.

Fail whale?

Here's the interesting bit. Mills is basically a showman (All through development, Mills was sporting a pink wig and fairy wings. I am not kidding) and he started to - gasp! - disclose his download numbers and ustwo's mirth at how proud it was to fail again, because the team were happy with the game itself.

This is EXACTLY the attitude one should have.

Game development is hard, it should not be easy; there ought to be a degree of difficulty in making a game and once you ship it, it is imperative that you are happy with what you have produced.


Yet, since that time and in line with his constructed persona, Mills has basically trumpeted Whale Trail as a failure. I disagree.

First off, the 99c game had a US chart peak of 27. That is nothing to be sneezed at and has garnered over 100,000 in downloads over a period of 25 days.

This leaves me to believe that it will generate about 400,000 downloads during its lifetime making it – according to ustwo's revealed numbers - break-even.

Now if we dissect this a little bit more and look at ustwo as a company, we actually see a different picture emerging.

ustwo is a 125 person company. That is a lot of mouths to feed no matter which way you look at it - larger in terms of manpower than ngmoco prior to its acquisition by DeNA. A single successful game isn't going to support that, unless it's Angry Birds.

Moreover, it's just about to open up a US studio in New York City. (In my opinion, this is stupid - the costs involved in setting up shop in New York City vs San Francisco puts it at a competitive disadvantage.) How can it afford this?

The real trail

The trick is that only a tiny fraction of its staff were actually working on the game; the rest were working on projects for paying customers.

Ustwo's bread and butter is making great user experiences for third party clients to use as branding experiences for their customers. The games are almost promotional work for this side of the business.

So the bigger win for ustwo has been going from a studio known in the UK to a studio that now has a global brand - without costing a single penny of marketing.

Furthermore, it gave the company great exposure in the US as it set about starting a new studio there - essentially drumming up business.

Right whale

In this way, Whale Trail has turned out to be a stroke of genius.

It's turned out to be a celebration of "not quite making it". It turned out to be failing upwards.