A Look Back At Rocket 5 In 2010

Rocket 5 IconIt’s the beginning of a new year and what better way to start 2011 than to reflect on 2010.  For myself as a developer and for Rocket 5 as a studio, 2010 can be defined with a single word: exploration.  I dove head-first into iOS development because I wanted to see what the App Store was all about and to see what I could accomplish there.  Before going indie, I spent 13 years doing game and level design for small to mid-sized game studios.  Every game I worked on during that time took at least 2 years to develop and a few times I worked on projects for a year or more that were canceled before ever seeing the light of day.  I was seriously jonesing for some instant gratification – it got to the point where making a sandwich was a satisfying development experience because the sandwich could be planned, assembled and consumed within a matter of minutes.

With Rocket 5, I didn’t set out to develop huge drawn out projects that would take years to make, instead I chose to focus on projects with very small scope that could be planned, assembled and consumed in a short timespan – not unlike a sandwich.  But of course the quality had to be high as well – it’s not my intention to dump crappy software on the market just so that I have product on the shelves.  Everything we do here is carefully hand crafted and even though we aim for short development cycles, we don’t ship a product until it’s polished, bug free and most importantly fun.

Even with my industry background, I’m surprised by how much I didn’t know and how much I’m still learning about making it as a indie game developer.  The biggest difference between working with a team in a studio and working independently is that you have to become a jack of all trades, or put another way “…you need to have an ocean of knowledge 2 inches deep”.   I used to be able to focus all of my energy on Design (level design, systems design, story & character development), but now I also take on the rolls of producer, programmer, artist, interface designer, sound designer, web designer, animator and marketing team. The upside to all of this extra work is total creative freedom which is one of my main motivators for going indie in the first place.

One of the downsides of being an indie who works from home is that there isn’t a group of people in the office that I can talk to about game design ideas.  This was compounded for me as I moved to Toronto from San Francisco with my wife (a Toronto native) in the summer of 2009.  Working from home means that I haven’t had the opportunity to meet many other game developers.  Fortunately I managed to hook up with Kevin Feraday, an amazing comic book artist and documentary film maker, over the summer.  I’ve also discovered that Twitter is a good way to meet local devs (virtually at least) and a good way to keep up with info on IGDA meetings, Gamercamp, Hand Eye Society and various other local events.  My wife is also a major inspiration and my go-to when I need help working out design ideas – she’s a veteran film and video game animator who works as hard as I do to keep the Rocket 5 dream alive.

For now iOS is still our main target platform, but lately I’ve been looking more closely at different platforms including Android, Windows Phone 7, XNA Indie, web portals and Facebook as avenues for game deployment.  All of these come with additional investments in hardware, software, market research and education so it remains to be seen which of those (if any) we’ll target in the future.

We shipped 4 apps on iOS in 2010 – 2 games, 1 entertainment app and 2 photo/entertainment apps.  The entertainment and photo apps were experiments (remember 2010 was all about exploration) which have had mixed levels of success – the main thing I learned from doing those apps, is that going forward I want to focus all of my efforts on making games, not apps.  I was hoping to have a breakout hit in 2010, and while we had some very good success with Giant Moto and Alien Booth, we’re not quite making the big bucks yet.  But as my wife is quick to point out, success isn’t measured by how much money we make but rather on more important things like pride in the products we produce and the joy of knowing that people like playing our games.  Indeed.  All of our games and apps have been well received by the community and 4 out of 5 of them have been featured by Apple on the App Store. Here’s a look back at Rocket 5 in 2010.

Holeshot Drag Racing

Holeshot Drag Racing
Even though Holeshot was released in 2009, it preformed well in 2010 so I want to talk about it a bit here.  When I started planning Holeshot, there still weren’t any great drag racing games on the iPhone – there were a few crappy reaction time testers but that was about it.

Building a drag racing game was an easy decision for me – I’ve had a passion for cars going back as long as I can remember and I’ve owned a few hot rods over the years including a 1972 Chevelle that I had in High School, a 1969 Chevelle, a 1970 Chevelle SS 454 (which was a project that I never actually got to drive) and a 1968 Firebird 400.  I even did a bit of drag racing back in the day at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma California (now known as Infineon Raceway).

I believe that the success of Holeshot (and Giant Moto – more on that later) is due to it being based on recognizable and popular keywords.  As we all know by now, it’s pretty hard to be seen on the App Store, and so it turns out that keyword searches are a pretty good way to get good store visibility.  People who are looking for a drag racing game are naturally going to type “drag racing” into the search field – type that into the App Store today, and Holeshot comes up in the top 5 results.

Giant Moto

Giant Moto
Giant Moto is by far our most successful game to date with about 1.2 Million downloads.  However most of those downloads came during a 7 day promotion where I had the game on sale for FREE.  So even tho we didn’t get a financial windfall from all of those downloads, it’s still nice to know that over a million people have played a game that I made.

When I started planning Giant Moto, there wasn’t anything quite like the classic Nintendo game Excitebike on the store, so I saw this as a good opportunity to put an update of a classic on the iPhone.  Besides appealing to retro gaming fans, this type of game also benefits from being easily found with common keyword searches like “motocross” or “motorcycle”.

The initial release of Giant Moto took me just 6 weeks to make.  Not long after the release, I updated it to v1.1 with the addition of 4 new tracks and a couple months after that I released v1.2 which included a brand new front end interface and Openfeint leaderboards and achievements.  Each of the updates took about 1 week of development time, so the whole game as it exists on the store now took about 2 months total to make.

Shortly after Giant Moto was released on April 13th, Apple featured it under “New and Noteworthy” in the Games category which is about the best you can hope for when releasing a game on the app store.  This gave it a pretty awesome initial sales boost, making it to #5 in racing games and #53 overall Top Paid Games in the US.  On July 2nd, Apple featured it again in Best Racing Games which gave it another nice sales boost.  In October, I set the game to FREE for 7 days, during that time it was downloaded just under 1 million times and made it to #3 Top Free Apps on the App Store (that’s out of ALL free apps).  The game currently has 2,886 App Store ratings and 131 written reviews with an average of 3/5 stars.

Based on the success of Giant Moto while it was free, I decided to make a separate free ad-supported version, Giant Moto Zero.  GMZ is the full version of Giant Moto with the addition of a Mobclix & iAds banner at the top of the screen during races.  I was initially resistant to the idea of putting ads in my games as it feels a bit corporate.  But Rocket 5 is a business after all and so I need to be open to all potential revenue sources.

Small Space

Small Space
After completing Giant Moto, I was anxious to get started on a new game.  Small Space is based on a simple concept of risk vs. reward – as you collect objects, your ship gets bigger.  The bigger your ship, the harder it is to avoid the bad guys but the more points you’ll receive when you deliver the collected cargo to the space station.  It’s a really fun game and I’ve received a lot of great feedback from people who like it – turns out that young kids really like the game.  But unfortunately it got hardly any attention from the press and made just about enough money to pay for my iPad.

Unlike Holeshot and Giant Moto which people might stumble upon while doing keyword searches, Small Space is a game that’s hard to describe and difficult to define into common keywords.  Sure it contains keywords like “space” and “alien” and “fun”, but thousands of other games use those same keywords so Small Space is rarely ever found by accident or otherwise.  Even when the game is free (normally it’s $0.99), it doesn’t get many downloads.  A few months after it hit the App Store, I ported Small Space XL to the web, you can play it here for free.

Small Space marked our first entry into the (then brand new) iPad market.  I made 2 separate versions of the app – Small Space for iPhone and Small Space XL for the iPad.  The main reason I didn’t try to make the app universal is that I wanted to keep the app size small enough that it could be downloaded over 3G.  Also I still wasn’t sure if the whole universal app model was the way to go – it seems like the app world is still split on this.  Shortly after its release on June 3rd, Apple featured Small Space XL (iPad) under New and Noteworthy Games.

iSpoof Walken

iSpoof Walken
Ok this is a weird one – it’s not really a game so I tend to refer to it as an entertainment app.  The basic idea is that it’s a scene like you’d find in a classic adventure game where you can click on different objects in the room to hear funny and/or interesting stories about them.  Our good friend Kris Johnson does an amazing Christopher Walken impersonation (among others) and initially we were thinking of doing a straight up sound-board app similar to the iSamJackson iPhone app where you just click buttons to trigger funny lines.  But I wanted to do something more interesting with the whole sound-board genre (if you can call it that) so we came up with the idea to create an illustrated and animated scene depicting what it might be like inside Walken’s personal study.  The result is a hilarious app with over 150 original dialog lines (written by Kris Johnson and Kevin Feraday) and over 25 interactive objects in the scene.

This is the first Rocket 5 app to have additional people working on it – Kevin Feraday did all of the art and voice recording, Kris Johnson did the voice work and co-wrote all of the dialog with Kevin.  We decided to make Waken a universal app for iPhone and iPad – if you play the app on an iPad you get high res graphics that fit the iPads 1024 x 768 screen resolution.  Since the app was already going to be well over 20MB due to all of the sound files, it made sense to just make it as a single universal app since the addition high-res art wasn’t going to affect the file size all that much.

Unfortunately Walken is a hard app to market and it’s another one of those apps that’s just difficult for the average person to find on the app store.  I think basically we were relying on people finding it by doing searches for Christopher Walken – and maybe that’s how most people find it today – but we overestimated the number of people who might be looking for an app like this on the store.  Still it was a lot of fun to make – and we did the whole app in just a couple of weeks.  Apple featured iSpoof Walken as a New and Noteworthy iPad app shortly after its release on July 23rd.

Gaga Eyes

Gaga Eyes
Gaga Eyes is a photography/entertainment app that came from an idea that Kevin had which was admittedly to cash in on this weird phenomenon where girls were trying to replicate, in real life, the crazy-huge anime eyes that Lady Gaga had in her Bad Romance video.   We brought in my friend Darren Ensley to do the coding on this one.  Apple featured Gaga Eyes under New and Noteworthy Entertainment apps shortly after it was released on September 26th, but unfortunately the sales weren’t quite as high as we expected.

Still it does fairly well and it’s a fun app that has received some good feedback from users.  Part of the reason the app sells well I think is due to the Twitter and Facebook integration – people can easily post pictures to Twitter and Facebook from within the app which basically makes the app promote itself out on the internets.

Alien Booth

Alien Booth
Alien Booth was born from the work we did on Gaga Eyes but with a much cooler interface and a much more satisfying image editing experience.  Alien Booth is another photography/entertainment app, but this one allows you to alter pictures of people to look like aliens.

Before Alien Booth, I hadn’t spent any real money advertising any of my games/apps (part of trying to keep a low cost overhead).  But we felt like this app deserved to get some mainstream attention so I created a press release through PRWeb as that seamed like a good way to get a lot of mainstream visibility at an affordable price.  It’s hard to say if the press release had any affect on sales, the press release was spread by PRWeb across the internet, but being visible doesn’t necessary mean being seen.  Marketing is a skill, it takes time and effort far beyond simply making a game and putting it up on the App Store (but that’s a topic for another blog post).  Like Gaga Eyes, Alien Booth has Twitter and Facebook integration so it gets a bit of free word of mouth advertising from people using the app.

Other Games

Besides the games that did ship, there were a dozen or more games that never made it past the prototype stages.  Some of them I still tinker with from time to time and may eventually see the light of day either on the App Store or on the web.  Kevin and I also took a few days to participate in the Game Prototype Challenge in December where we made a small web game prototype in 4 days called Snowball Jones and the Last Crusade.

Website

The Rocket 5 Studios website is our main marketing outlet with information and blog posts about all of our apps.  The site received 20,983 hits in 2010 with an average of 57 hits per day.  The most hits we had in 1 day was 1,117 on November 13th and the most hits we had in 1 month was 8,072 in November.  I recently started a tutorial series on making 2D games with Unity3D which has received a good amount of interest so far.  I plan to write even more tutorial/information posts as a way to “give back” to the indie game development community which has given me so much over the last year and a half.

Thanks!

Thanks so much for your support in 2010 and for taking the time to read this post.  We have a lot of cool new game ideas in the works so be sure to keep and eye on us in 2011.  We’re always looking to make new friends here at Rocket 5 so please feel free leave a comment and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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