Have you ever gotten to the end of a Pictionary game and wanted to keep playing, but you were too tired or drunk to play by the rules? For us, it usually devolves into people taking turns drawing and everyone else shouting out answers. We realized that this style of Pictionary is a lot of fun, so we decided to bring it to the iPhone.
The Goal: Concentrated Pictionary Goodness
In Depict, we wanted only the concentrated essence of Pictionary. No board, no lengthy games or commitment, and most of all, NO TYPING. What we came up with was a multiple choice guessing game where players are rewarded based on how many people guess their drawing and how fast they can differentiate a drawing from a group of similar words. Don’t have much time? No problem, a game only last about 5 minutes. Didn’t get enough? Stay as long as you like!
Aside from a few diehard Pictionary fundies, player response to this adaptation of the drawing-and-guessing formula was overwhelmingly positive. People continually email and leave reviews telling us they are addicted or that Depict is their favorite game on their device.
Another thing players love are the simple, yet surprisingly engaging social interactions through avatars and ratings. Even without the custom avatars add-on, players love to express their emotions using the iconic faces in the game.
For some games, creating an account is unavoidable. However, we wanted to avoid it if at all possible. Players simply login to the game with their OpenFeint account. Or, if they don’t have one, they can play as a guest for as long as they want.
Knowing that things are bound to go wrong, we planned ahead so we would have a variety of ways to communicate with players in-app without having to push an update. This has worked out very well, and it’s something we expanded on in Depict HD. Now we have a specially-formatted web page on the main menu we can use for whatever content we desire.
The Depict game server runs on Smartfox, a multiplayer server platform written originally for Flash. Smartfox has proved to be easy to integrate with and very reliable. It has great tools and is very flexible. We were able to write a very efficient game plug-in for the server that consumes very little CPU, memory, and bandwidth per player. Having an efficient server has allowed us to keep our hosting costs down. The only downside is that Smartfox is a little pricey for indies and their support and sales team are a little slow at answering emails.
Failures, Misjudgments, and Other Shortcomings
Pixel Art is a Turn-off
It’s sad, but it seems like fewer people “get” pixel art every day. Despite a seemingly healthy retro revival in the game space, we’ve had a lot of complaints and misunderstandings about the pixel style. Initially, I’ll admit that we got a little carried away, and there wasn’t enough detail in the drawings. Despite fixing this, we still get complaints about it. Just how detailed do people think they can draw with their fat fingers anyway? We’ve also gotten a lot of reviews phrased, “At first I passed it up because of the bad graphics, but then a friend recommended it and now I love it!”. If we were to start over, would skip the pixel art style all together.
Launch Woes and Monetization
Apparently, we weren’t the only ones who saw a need for a better Pictionary style game in the App Store. Charadium and Draw! both launched within days of us, stealing a lot of our launch thunder. Charadium saw immediate success as a $0.99 app, while Depict quickly fell into obscurity. There are a couple key differences between the games to which we attribute this outcome:
- - Charadium was created by an ngmoco employee and got more press and cross promotion as a result.
- - Charadium’s icon isn’t pixel-art (see pixel-art fail above)
- - Depict received no coverage from bloggers or Apple
Since a multiplayer game is no fun without someone to play with, we soon decided to make Depict a free app. Once free, Depict had no problem attracting players and maintaining high concurrent player levels. However, every time we tried to switch back to $0.99, Depict fell hard. After a few failed attempts, we decided to make it free forever with in-app purchases.
Free is a bad place to be. Players love Depict, but the problem is, they don’t realize it until they play it. So far, the only way to get them to try it has been to offer the core game for free. This is something we are struggling with to this day. Here’s why free with in-app has been a disaster for Depict:
- - It takes far too many downloads to produce enough conversions to make money. We were recently featured in the UK and saw downloads in the 10-20k per day range. However, on each of these days, we made less than $200 (about 2% conversion rate).
- - Free players have no equity in the game and are detrimental to the game’s community. Once we went free, a tidal wave a penis drawers infiltrated the game and we immediately had to change the way our moderation tools work. We are still working to find a good way of dealing with rude players.
- - For the same equity reason, free players tend to rate apps lower. People who didn’t pay anything for the game are more likely to quickly dismiss it, leading to the dreaded delete and rate.
Not Ready for a Lot of Players
The first time we were featured in the US, we had to switch back to $0.99 to prevent server overload. When we were featured in the UK, we wanted to ride the wave as high on the free charts as we could so we stuck with free. We quickly found ourselves paying for Smartfox license upgrades until we had upgraded all the way to the highest license (about $2700 in the end). Another issue we had was with hosting. Originally we were hosted on Media Temple on a $50/month virtual dedicated server. The problem is that while we never came close to using our resource limits, they impose a limit on the number of simultaneous socket connections you can have at a time. We would have had to upgrade to their full-dedicated for over $700/month to get the number of socket connections we needed, even though were only using 10% of all other server resources allocated to us. We tried calling them to work out a custom deal, but they refused.
Due to Media Temple’s failure to provide what we needed, we had to quickly find a new host in the middle of the night before the Depict hungry citizens of the UK woke up. Dedicated servers were not an option because those take at least 24 hours to setup. We quickly narrowed it down to Go Daddy which was running a deal that seemed too good to be true. After talking to one of their techs and explaining what we wanted to use their dedicated virtual hosting for, he assured us it could handle it. I was still very skeptical, but we didn’t have much choice. This turned out to be one of the best hosting moves we’ve ever made and we’re huge Go Daddy advocates now. We now pay less than $40/month to host Depict on Go Daddy’s virtual dedicated Windows hosting.
While Depict hasn’t been profitable for us yet, we’ve manage to break even. We’re excited about the iPad version and some of the new features we’ll be rolling over the next month. Some of our goals for the future are to improve the moderation tools and provide more ways for players to participate in the Depict community.
Would we do another multiplayer game after finding out how much work it is to maintain? Armed with the knowledge and technology we have now, it would be a waste not to!