Postmortem: Santa’s Present Run

Santa’s Present Run is a Christmas-themed casual action game, released in December 2014.  It is the debut release from Cloudy Heaven Games, available for Android and PC.  You can find the game page here.

You play as Santa, attempting to drop presents with patterned gift wrap to houses of matching pattern. On each level, you have a quota of presents that you must correctly deliver, and a limited supply of gifts with which to achieve your goal.  Along the way, you dodge birds that attempt to steal and intercept gifts, and there are bonus items you can collect to help.

Cloudy Heaven Games is a one-person studio.  I contracted out the art and sound, and did the game design, programming, and QA on my own, while working at a non-game-related full-time job, so it was time constraints and commitments were a factor.  The company was formally established in October 2014, so initial business operations were also done concurrently with game development.  Hopefully this postmortem will be helpful for aspiring developers in a similar situation, with major commitments outside of game development to navigate.

So, without further ado, let’s get to it.

What Went Right

1. Choosing a Simpler Game

I’m sure I’m not alone in making lofty plans for a first game.  A few years ago, it was going to be a Zelda-inspired adventure game, a grand production indeed.  Then I considered and started working on a sprawling platformer with innovative enemy-AI.  Were these worthy-ideas?  Sure, and I plan to revisit them in the future, but for someone working a full-time job, studying for professional certifications, and doing extra projects and education for aforementioned full-time job, and the scope of those games becomes unmanageable, and burnout soon lurks on the horizon.  Lesson learned for me, the hard way.

Finally, I decided I needed to focus on a simpler concept.  I revisited a prototype that I had done in a week in college, which ended becoming Santa’s Present Run.  I already had a code-base and a concept, so I saved myself a lot of work.  Mind you, I still had to take the game from a prototype to a final product, so I needed to choose what new features to add, polish up controls and user-interface, and update the code (the IDE/engine I used had changed a lot in five years), so it was still a lot of work.  But I know that dialing back on the scope helped ensure that I finally got a game released.

2. Using GameMaker Studio

I used GameMaker Studio because I was very familiar with the tool, it is simple and saves a lot of development time, it is cross-platform, and my prototype was already made in an earlier version anyway.  I have done some work with Unity, XNA, and native Android, I see their benefits and will definitely be using them for projects sometime in the future, but starting out, I wanted to reduce my complexity as much as possible.  With time constraints and uncertainty being significant factors, I wanted something familiar in my repertoire.

I recommend this approach for aspiring developers in the same position as me.  It doesn’t have to be GameMaker, it can be MonoGame, GameSalad, Construct, Unity, or whatever tool with which you feel comfortable, but the point is the same.  Make things easier on yourself where you can, pick and choose your challenges.

3. Contracting Out Art and Sound

First of all, I am emphatically not an artist or musician/sound engineer.  True, I have started doing pixel art tutorials, so maybe someday…but today is not that day.  Therefore, it would have been ill-advised for me to have tried to do the art and sound myself for this game.

I considered purchasing assets through a marketplace, but was not quite able to find what I needed.  I didn’t want to cobble together several different asset packs, because I wanted to make sure the assets were cohesive.

I ended up contracting out the art and music, and found some great talent to work with.  Art was done by Holly Jensen, and music and sounds were created by Felix Arifin.  They were both fun to work with, and I hope we can collaborate again in the future.

I would suggest making sure you have the budget to hire out certain tasks.  It might be more affordable to buy pre-made assets, it really depends on your project.

4. Getting Past Perfectionism to Actually Finish

If you’re a perfectionist like me, you can probably relate to this point.  There’s always the fear of “the game’s not good enough, it’s not fun, no one will want to play it.”  The game never looks right to you, that one button is a few pixels off (or is it?  Maybe it’s all the other buttons that are off!).  You just know that once you release it, you’ll be bombarded with hate comments and bad reviews.

Most likely, your game will NOT be perfect.  It might not even be that great, after all.  But it’s better to get feedback and learn, then to never release anything at all.

That was one of the biggest hurdles for me.  I’m a lifelong perfectionist, so much so that in school, I would actually erase my work on my math assignments, leaving just the answers.  I’m still not really sure what I thought that would accomplish, but showing my work really distressed me for some reason.  Don’t let compulsion keep you from actually completing a game.

I found this article at GameDev.Net that makes some good points, if you need something to help ease your perfectionist worries.  Finishing this game was a great milestone for me, and I hope you can have the same milestone as well.

5. Found Some Good Resources for Publicity

Even though I started working on publicity pretty late, I did find some good resources to help get a few more eyes on the game.  First off, I did a press release for the first time.  I submitted it to the following sites/services:

  • PRLog.org
  • CasualConnect.org
  • GamesPress.com

Within a few hours, I started seeing the press release on different sites, including GamaSutra!  Here’s the link, if you’d like to see how the press release looked: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/pressreleases/233095/Cloudy_Heaven_Games_Unveils_Debut_Game_for_Android_andPC.php

In addition, I paid for sponsored reviews at a few sites, including:

  • Appszoom.com
  • DailyAppShow.com
  • AndroidHeadlines.com

Your budget constrictions may vary, but these sights can increase visibility of your game through reviews and features on their sites and social media feeds.  They have a lot of followers, so they can be a good asset if you can afford it.

In addition, I set up a Twitter account, and quickly got retweets/favorites when announcing the game.  I still have a lot to learn about the best ways to use Twitter, but I know it will definitely be an important part of my marketing repertoire.

As far as putting together demo videos, I used Camtasia Studio 8 to record game footage, and I found a cool site called Shakr, which has templates for 30-second video ads.  You provide video clips, images, and text, and for a small price, you get a professional-quality promo video. This was a great find for me, because my video-editing skills are pretty minimal at this point, so it was worth it to get the extra help.

What Went Not-So Right

1. Not Doing Marketing Sooner

I didn’t really do much marketing until after the game was officially released.  I knew that it’s a better idea to do marketing early, to build a buzz, but I got so overwhelmed with the process of getting the actual business set up and completing the game, that I put it off.  I think part of the problem was also that I wasn’t sure how soon to draw attention to an unfinished product, because I was fearful of it not giving a good impression (there’s that perfectionism again!).

It is important to make sure you have a good product, but if no one knows about it, how can they buy it?  I wonder how sales would have been had I done more publicity sooner, especially with such a short window of time to market a holiday-themed game.

2. Controls for the Android Version Were Not as Smooth as I Had Hoped

I did get feedback that the controls on Android phone were a bit clumsy.  Honestly, this being my first mobile game, I was apprehensive, and I do think that maybe I also could have done a better job explaining the controls in the instructions.  I think some players were expecting to move Santa by finger-swiping, when in actuality, Santa moves to wherever the player holds down a finger on the screen.  That distinction makes a difference in how players interact with the game.

I know better for next time.  I will also be playing more mobile games myself, to get a better idea of what works and what doesn’t.  I’ve always been more of a console and PC player, so designing for those mediums is easier for me, but I am taking steps to improve with design on the mobile side.

3. Could Have Gotten Feedback/Playtesting Results Earlier

I think this is similar to the marketing faux pas, in that 1) I got so wrapped up in developing the game and doing my own testing, trying to actually get a product out on time, that I missed a lot of the feedback process, and 2) being reluctant to “show my work” in progress…which is kind of silly, because that’s the whole point of getting feedback, right?  It’s supposed to help you refine your work in progress into a more successful product!

I was concerned that the game was going to be too easy, and thus I adjusted the difficulty level based on my perception.  After the game was released, I had quite a few people say that even the easy level was pretty difficult!  I could have gotten a better idea of such issues had I gotten feedback during development.

Even if you’re pressed for time, it is important to get feedback when possible.  It pays off in the long run!

4. Limited Shelf Life Due to Holiday Theme

Seasonal games can be fun and lucrative, I’m sure, but for an unknown developer, creating a game with little buzz, trying to balance time constraints to release a game close to the holiday, there’s not a lot of shelf time to get sales.  There’s a very small window of opportunity.

I enjoyed developing this first game and learned a lot from it, I think it was a very valuable experience, but I think I might have been better off with a game not tied to a specific season.  I ended up imposing a very tight deadline to get the game out before Christmas, which impacted some of the areas I mentioned before, such as not allocating enough time to get feedback.

I have gotten some sales here and there since Christmas and even New Year’s, but still, are people really looking for a Christmas game at this time of year?

I think there’s also a lot of competition for holiday themed games.  So many games in the app stores with the name “Santa” in them….I probably could have figured out better ways to stand out, but it can be difficult when everyone wants to capitalize on the season.

5. Have Not Really Gotten Many Sales

Well, when it comes down to it, one of my goals here is to make enough money to live off game development, so sales are important.  So far, the game has produced about $30 in revenue…not really enough to buy that private island yet.

I attribute lack of sales to a couple of factors, mostly already mentioned.  I think the big three are:

  • Lack of marketing: Not many people knew about the game, amidst a sea of Santa/Christmas games.
  • Lack of feedback: I could have gotten more feedback to make the game more fun…marketing is important, but nothing beats a fun, interesting game.
  • Holiday theming: The lack of shelf-life, as mentioned before, really cut into sales potential.

So, next time, these are going to form the basis of my “keys to success” for my next game.  Which leads me to the next section…

What Will We Do Differently?

We’ve already gone over the lessons I learned from releasing my first game.  So, what concrete steps will I take for my next game, to improve my chances of success?

1. Release a demo early, to get feedback and build buzz

Feedback and buzz/publicity are really big factors I was missing last time.  Since I have more time, not being tied to a seasonal deadline, I’ll definitely make sure to do this step next time.

I’m considering maybe doing an HTML5 demo, so that it’s something easy to get to in a browser, rather than having to install anything.  If it’s easier to access, I’ll hopefully get more feedback and awareness.

2. Do publicity earlier, so people actually know about the game

This fits in with the demo, but I will also be doing things like more blog posts, dev logs, screenshot Saturday’s, etc.  In addition, perhaps I can submit the aforementioned demo to some preview sites.

3. Choose a name that better stands out

The keywords “Santa,” “Present” and “Run” really did not stand out in an app store filled with Christmas games.  Honestly, coming up with game titles (or titles for anything, really), has always been one of my weak points.  It might be a good idea for me to solicit some feedback on possible titles.  In addition, there’s got to be books or resources that give suggestions on how to do this, so I will be on the lookout.

4. Consider a free version, maybe with ads

Maybe more people would have been willing to download a free version of the game.  I had originally planned a free version supported by ads, but due to limited time, I decided not to include the ad functionality, which I’ve never actually used before.  It probably is pretty simple, but any additional functionality adds need for more testing, development time, and other possible issues.  I wanted to at least have a paid version to bring in some revenue.

Next time around, I will be including a free version, and there will also be some incentive (additional functionality, removal of ads, etc), to upgrade to a paid version.

5. Challenge myself to use marketplace assets, to avoid sinking money for assets into a non-profitable game

At least for now, I think it’s a good idea to cut back on expenses, until I can start turning a profit.  While I did have a good experience with contracting work out, I can’t really justify doing so for the next game.  This approach will also affect how I design the next game, but that can be good, because it can help with scope creep.  If I can’t shell out extra money to get any asset I want, I’ll have to make do with what’s available.

Conclusion

That wraps it up for my debut postmortem!  I definitely learned a lot, and hopefully some of the lessons can be of service to other developers out there.  If you have questions/comments, feel free to contact me at contact@cloudyheavengames.com, or in the comments below.

Good luck on your game development efforts!

 

 

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3 Responses to Postmortem: Santa’s Present Run

  1. Clarence says:

    Very interesting self-evaluation. Good luck in future development.

  2. Perfectionism is fascinating, isn’t it. Your distinction between perfectionism and excellence is well made.

  3. Lydia says:

    Loved it and the book Secrets to Rapid Game Development. Working on my own project atm, thanks for all the great information and direction

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