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.