Post Mortem: BlastOff!

I thought I’d kick off with a brief post mortem for BlastOff!, my first (and, at the time of writing, only!) iOS release.


BlastOff! was released at the back end of 2010 as something of a toe-dipping exercise and I think it’s fair to say that the water has proven pretty cold thus far, which is definitely something I want to reflect on here. As an arcade “puzzler” in the mould of Columns and Cleopatra Fortune, I had modest hopes that the game might generate some (much needed) beer money whereas it has consistently struggled to keep me in the 20p coffees that I burn through at my regular day job [Cheery aside: The coffee at work recently became free following a relocation — I am now 90% caffine]. Clearly some analysis is required:

What Went Right

Design/Control
One interesting aspect of touch-oriented control schemes is that they don’t really lend themselves to Tetris all that well, hence there was definitely a space to fill on iOS that would traditionally have been dominated by Pajitnov’s giant, and this was one of the considerations that informed my choice of genre when deciding what to create. BlastOff!‘s control scheme was designed with the touch-screen in mind, the core gameplay crafted to complement single taps so as to be as accessible as possible — it’s not a d-pad-oriented game mangled into half-working (as is the fate of so many titles with virtual sticks) and I’m still very proud of that.

Insularity
BlastOff! doesn’t have Game Center support or use OpenFeint or try to link into the user’s social activities in any way. Personally, on mobile devices in which play sessions are typically brief and the gameplay casually light, I’m not convinced I see the utility of an equivalent to Xbox LIVE and I find having to dismiss such features annoying when I fire up stuff on my iPod. That BlastOff! delivers near-instantaneous action without any nagging or extraneous crap is entirely deliberate and I would weep into my free coffee if I thought that the typical user gave a rat’s ass about comparing their iOS games’ scores with those of their friends.

Localization
I’m fortunate in that my day job brings me into contact with lovely people from all over the globe, many of whom can be bribed into translating in-game text with alcohol. In truth, even so-funded, BlastOff!s multi-lingual support has not managed to pay for itself but I’d argue that it has at least widened the potential long-term sales (provided it can be capitalised upon with sufficient marketing at some point). I doubt I’d make localization a launch priority in the foreseeable future, but I do think there is intrinsic value in valuing your audience’s native tongue(s).

Art
Another big factor in deciding which genre to attack was, quite simply, what am I capable of drawing?! Given that I’m no artist a “falling blocks” game was a bit of a no-brainer. The starry backdrops were generated with the (free!) Sky Panorama and I wound up securing some funding to cover the character art so, while it would’ve been lovely to have been able to outsource everything, I think I struck a fairly pragmatic balance given very limited resources.

What Went Wrong

Design/Control
The thing with BlastOff!‘s control scheme is that people naturally attempt to swipe the rows from side to side rather than tap to the left or right of the screen! Now I’d be perfectly happy to accommodate this except that, once the game speeds up, it becomes impractical to swipe rather than tap, hence it’s pretty clear that the game should do more to train people how to play. Also, while it’s great how quickly players can simply get started, developing more of the meta-game would probably have helped draw folk in and keep them engaged for longer. There’s certainly scope for a puzzle mode that deserved exploring, at least, but time constraints and an inflexible code-base (I was learning Objective-C and Cocos2D as I went!) put paid to that .

Insularity
Ignoring that maybe I should weep into my free coffee, if your game isn’t blithering out messages to Facebook or Twitter or whatever then you are missing opportunities to get noticed — that’s the cost of omitting social features. It’s also one less bullet-point for your promotional material, although I am tempted to add “No OpenFeint” as a plus point on the game’s press releases ;P

Localization
With the translation work done by generous acquaintances, essentially for free, there was a wild variation in the amount of time it took for each language to be completed with some localizations not even making it in. What seems to be the case is that, the better you know someone, the longer they are likely to take completing any gratis work and the less likely they are to finish at all! It’s impossible to be bitter because I got some great localization work for next to nothing and, at the very least, it’s very sweet that people want to help (even if they don’t deliver), but I would definitely recommend that fellow developers do not attempt to source any mission-critical material in such a fashion. Especially when you consider…

Art
Before out-sourcing the character art to a professional it spent yonks in limbo as a (really rather good) artist I know had offered to help us out with it gratis but, despite the best of intentions, couldn’t quite find the time to pull it all together. This ended up delaying the game’s release by months, because unassigning someone you know, who is really only trying to help you out, is something you’ll do everything to avoid. In the end, securing funding and hiring a pro’ was far quicker and less stressful (and it’s also beneficial, I think, to source art from a territory that has a statutory conception of “work for hire”). Some things simply have to be done in a businesslike fashion and, I have to say, the legal groundwork required by formulating contracts and whatnot is not only very interesting and rewarding in and of itself, but also puts you in a far more productive state of mind.

In Conclusion…

You’ll notice that the things that “went right” are the exact same things that “went wrong”, and while that’s partly a neat rhetorical device on my part, it’s also representative of the complexity of both developing an indie game and trying to analyse one’s own performance. I think two things ring through clearest: First, you really have to be realistic about the genre you can afford to develop — arcade puzzlers require minimal assets yet getting to the finish-line was still way harder than anticipated. If I’d been a sliver less realistic I’d have been sunk! Secondly, getting folk to help you out as a favour can be anything from beneficial to disastrous and should be avoided for any element that absolutely has to be in place for launch.

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