Beringela's Blog

February 23, 2010

Post-Mortem for Horn Swaggle Islands

Filed under: Games — Tags: , — Pencel Games @ 4:46 pm

Horn Swaggle Islands was released in July 2009, and so has had a fair crack of the whip as regards selling time on the Xbox Marketplace.  As a game, HSI did pretty well in reviews; it’s a competent Tower Defence clone with some nice features.  It is fair to say also that sales have been very disappointing, in fact we still haven’t broken 200 sales as of the time of writing.  So why might this be so, and what can be learned from it?

Here is what I believe is a fair assessment of why HSI did so poorly commercially:

What Went Wrong

  • Wrong price.  At launch the game was way, way overpriced at 400 msp.  Unfortunately we got caught in the changeover from the old 800/400/200 prices to today’s 400/240/80 prices.  We went into peer review as a mid-priced game and came out of peer review as a premium priced game!  Of course, we could have pulled the game in mid-peer review in order to reprice, but we were too keen to get it released.  This was a mistake.
  • Small graphics.  We didn’t properly allow for users with small HD or SD TVs.  We got lots of feedback saying the graphics were just too small and there was no camera zoom feature.  Totally our own fault for not testing on smaller screen TVs.  We added a zoomable camera in a patch, but of course that is too late for reviews and the all-important time on the new releases list.
  • Overdesign.  We now know that “realistic” design does not mean fun.  We spent a lot of time coding “real” aspects of the game, where e.g. various weapon magic effects would overlap and combine in complex ways, and striving for perfect A* pathfinding at all times.  In reality these aspects are not always going to add to the fun factor, and mostly go unnoticed.  We should have taken a step back and asked ourselves were these features adding to the fun factor, or if some “good enough” shortcut would actually be just as effective to the player and be much quicker to get working.  When a feature is complex to code, it is also complex to test.
  • Long development period.  Spending almost exactly one year on development meant the market already had 4 or 5 tower defence games there, and some were not too bad.  We probably could have released 3 to 6 months earlier and would have had less competition.
  • No save game.  Each level can take upwards of 20 minutes to complete.  A save game feature was something we only realised we needed towards the end of development, and by then the game was so complex it would have been very, very hard to implement.  We should have designed with this in mind from the beginning.  It would have made testing quicker too.
  • Not understanding the market.  HSI is a big, hard, game, with easily 20 hours of gameplay if you replay on the tougher difficulties.  It also takes quite a while to “get into” and the 8 minute demo time I don’t think we used as well as we could have.  It is also a Tower Defence clone, albeit with some nice features.  In my opinion, most customers of Indie Games don’t want 20 hours of Xbox gameplay, even at 80 msp, as they can look to the Xbox Arcade for that.  Instead they look to Indie Games for an hour or two of real novelty that they cannot get anywhere else.

What Went Right:

  • Finding a proper artist.  We employed a proper artist, and that certainly helped the overall presentation and made marketing efforts easier.  Programmer art just does not cut it.
  • Plenty of polish.  There are some pretty nice visuals, animations, shader effects, transitions, that make the game feel pretty polished.
  • Fun levels.  We spent ages getting level balance and presentation correct, and the end result is some pretty fun to play tower defence levels (ok, I’m possibly a little biased here, but we did get some nice feedback).
  • Nice theme music.  We took an old traditional Scottish folk song and remixed it into a rather catchy, bouncy, sea-shanty type tune.
  • Unlockables.  We added an unlockable “nightmare” mode if all levels were completed, and got some nice emails saying how much some people enjoyed the game.  That was nice to get, even if sales were poor.


  1. […] wrote up some thoughts about the performance of Horn Swaggle Islands on the Xbox LIVE Indie Games channel. Writes Beringela: Horn Swaggle […]

    Pingback by Post Mortem: Horn Swaggle Islands « Sgt. Conker — February 23, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

  2. A nice simple and to the point post-mortem. Way to go and do the hard stuff, look at yourself in the mirror and point out all the flaws.

    ‘and mostly go unnoticed’ So much time can and is spent by developers (especially Indie) on stuff that can be whitewashed, or simplified in a big way. Thus saving time and testing and of course money. I try to teach all my new programmers that sub pixel accuracy is not usually required for a game. so write two lines of code and not 20. Working with other Indie coders has taught me that they make the same mistakes as interns, but when you are Indie, you are probably not being paid to learn this stuff. Which i think makes it more costly. I also believe that coding so much code ‘correctly’ can lead to extended dev times and that is a cause for concern.. and i continue with…

    ‘Long development period’ – This is a big one. It can mess with your choice of game to write in the first place, as you already wrote about. It can also effect your motivation. If the game is done quickly it is easy to have motivation and pound that thing out. But games that take more time are harder to stay focused on. You guys did a real bang up job on your title and i am sorry it has not done better. I have to ask the question at this point though..
    how would you have brought the development time down to half or less? What are your plans for your next title to shorten the dev time ?

    Best of luck

    Comment by Voodoochief — February 23, 2010 @ 6:10 pm

    • how would you have brought the development time down

      I think by being a bit more focused. The overdesign point I mentioned, combined with the fact that there was never any actual deadline to complete anything, meant that some small features took a long time to get implemented. Our thinking was “since we have no deadlines, let’s take all the time we need to get these ‘realistic’ features like magic combinations working, these will add depth and be cool”. It is a tricky call though, distinguishing between features that would make a gameplay difference and those that would not, and maybe that’s just something that comes with experience.

      Comment by indiegamedev — February 24, 2010 @ 10:27 am

  3. good assessment – I am actually shocked it never broke 200 sales though – the game was way better than that

    I agree that the audience tends to almost prefer a quick experience – 20 hours of gameplay sounds good in theory but it’s strangely a turn off when talking XBLIG – it almost feels like a commitment, not value

    Comment by Carl — February 23, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

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