Community Building with Your Local Library

Libary Indiecade talk

As a small, indie developer, we’ve definitely looked into different ways we can build up our community. Our main focus has been on building up our social media presence on Twitter and Facebook with a little Google+ experimentation in the mix. So far our reach hasn’t been huge, but we’re slowly building up our fan base as organically as possible. Still, it’s getting harder to really increase your reach organically. The standard advice is, “Put some money in advertising on these social sites.”The problem with this is need to keep pumping money into it in order to keep building your community and engagement. Maybe if we had the money we’d be doing just that, but as it happens we just don’t have the budget. Instead, we’ve been trying to find ways to connect with our local community. We’re attending local events hosted by Playcrafting and The Sheep’s Meow to show off our games. So far it’s been fairly successful as we’ve gained some fans and game development friends. And of course we’re attending larger events like Pax. Thanks to a lecture at IndieCade we realized we had been missing out on a huge local opportunity – the local library.

Libraries and games are not a new invention as speaker Scott Nicholson points out. In fact, the two have been connected since at least the 1800s when a library in California held casual chess games for the public. Today, the idea of games as we know them might seem out of place but 75 percent of libraries support gaming. Many librarians have turned to games and gaming, but the number one reason is to attract an underserved group of users as the slide illustrates below:

Why library circulate games

While libraries might support gaming events, many are looking for qualified volunteers to improve these programs and attract even more people. This is where game developers come in. As a game developer we can provide a level of expertise and knowledge that librarians and other volunteers cannot. After all, we understand there are many games available that attract different types of people. Not only that but you can even provide insight into the entire game making process. This kind of knowledge is invaluable but Nicholson points out we won’t get very far without knowing the lingo. In order to get librarians on our side we need to “speak Librarianese”:

Speak Librarianese - Library Indiecade

Once the partnership is set up, there are plenty of different ways to engage the public whether it’s gaming events, workshops or jams. The key is to understand what the local populace needs and how to integrate this with games and the goal of the library. As well, find ways to get different groups to interact with each other to really form a strong community bond. This could be something as simple as timing the game events after things like senior events. The more people get involved, the more they will spread the word about it and you. And, as has been noted time and again, there’s no stronger marketing than word-of-mouth.

To be honest, I  had never really thought of library partnerships as a viable strategy. After listening to Nicholson, it seems silly NOT to take advantage of it. I encourage other indie developers to look into the programs of the your local library and see if they don’t already host some gaming events. Even if they do, it’s possible that you could improve upon it. After all, they are always looking for eager volunteers who also have experience. One of the best ways to start this relationship with a local library is to get involved with the International Game Day. Every third Saturday in November the American Library Association encourages libraries nationwide to participate. Not only is this a great excuse to forge a relationship with the local library it should also give an idea on who attends these events.

You can learn more about running game events at a library in Scott Nicholson YouTube channel or you can purchase his book Everyone Plays at the Library.

Have any of you partnered with a library? If so, what has been your experience?




Mobile Monetization: All About the Whales

image via International Science Times (creative commons image)

*This post has been edited to include more recent information regarding lootboxes.

When you hear the word whale, what is the first thing that pops into your mind? For most people, it’s probably actual whales, as in the animals. If you speak to ad monetization and user acquisition networks though, the term whale means something else entirely. Recently, I attended a panel that had representatives from Tapinator, PCH, Playhaven and Puzzle Social discuss this very topic of freemium games and the best ways to monetize a mobile game. They made reference to “whales” and ways to attract, retain and basically generate revenue from these people. So what does this term mean? Essentially, these are a very small percentage of players that will end up spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars making in app purchases (IAP) in your game. In fact, 0.15% of mobile gamers make up 50% of all in-game revenue. In essence, if you can lure these big spenders to your game, you have already secured a fairly steady income stream for your company.

South Park covers the topic of freemium games and micro-transaction perfectly in the episode “Freemium Isn’t Free.” If you haven’t seen it you can watch the clip below:

Of course since only 3 percent of mobile gamers will ever make in-app purchases, you need to find other ways to generate revenue, mainly via ads. There are a plethora of options such as banner (AKA french fry) ads, interstitials and videos. The trick, of course, is to include ads without taking away from the gameplay. One of the best examples of this is Bitcoin Billionaire that would reward players with double currency or additional rewards for watching videos or allowing banners in the game for a minute.

During the panel, the discussion revolved around cost of user acquisition (UA), which is apparently ridiculously high and often not worth it in the long run. These IAPs and ads can help offset these costs but often it doesn’t, especially for smaller developers. It seems that the only hope for smaller developers in terms of distribution is to somehow get featured in the various app stores, spend money on social media and basically “pray to the kitten god for luck.”

And for those with premium apps, they pretty much say forget it. At the end of the day, all of the panelists firmly believed that F2P was the only viable option in the mobile world and premium apps would ultimately go the way of the Dodo. After all, as the panelist from Puzzle Social pointed out, why would anyone pay for a game if they don’t know how good it will be (you know except for all those PC and console gamers). As much as I want to disagree, the truth is freemium games are making the most money. Even well received games like Monument Valley “only” made $8 million total on a game that cost them $800,000 to produce. Compare that to that makes around $970,000 per day on Candy Crush alone and it seems like a cut and dry case.

Added as of 11/30/2017

This isn’t limited to mobile or freemium games. Even paid games are including IAPs. As of 2017, many large developers are buying into the microtransaction sector with the introduction of lootboxes. Some companies use lootboxes for purely cosmetic items like Blizzard with their popular Overwatch game. Others lock weapons and other upgrades behind lootboxes. The issue that has come up recently is the very random nature of these boxes equates to a form of gambling. While players can earn these boxes through playing the game, often it takes several hours to earn enough currency for one box. And, because you cannot see what is in the box, you aren’t guaranteed the skin or weapon you want. Naturally, you can also spend real money to purchase lootboxes, but again, you are not guaranteed the specific item you want. EA’s lootbox system with BattleFront II has brought this system to the forefront to the point where Belgium has denounced lootboxes as gambling.

While I don’t begrudge developers hard-earned money, the combination of developers racing to the bottom and forced paywalls/micro-transaction loop is getting to a point where it seems to really be turning a lot of people away from mobile games. Many consumers have dropped games immediately after the paywall and even many tech journalists are offering poor reviews to otherwise good apps due to the sneaky use of IAPs.

Sadly, the issue doesn’t lie only with developers. Consumers are also to blame as free apps account for a whopping 90% of all app downloads. Since no one is paying for apps anymore, developers have no choice but to follow the freemium route in order to pay for their staff, bills and other business expenses. Still, despite hearing from the experts that freemium is the only way to go nowadays, I can’t help but wonder how sustainable that model is. How long before mobile users get tired of being stuck behind a paywall to progress in the game or having to watch ads in order to earn in-game currency? How long before the well of these whales dry up? Do you have thoughts on this matter? Write them in the comments below.



5 Lessons I Learned From My First Game

We recently released our first game Once Upon a Runner (OUR) on Android back in September of 2014 and while the team was very excited about it, I’ll be honest and say that I was just relieved to finally be done with the project. Yes, of course it is still my baby and I’m still working on ways to improve it, but when we finally released on Android it was like a huge burden was lifted from my shoulders. You see, we had started working on OUR back in 2012. Yes, it took TWO YEARS to get a simple runner game out on Android. In those two years, I learned so much about project management that I wanted to share my experience with others. So I decided to take part in the lightning talks at the Boston Festival of Indie Games. Unfortunately, I only had seven minutes to go over the topic, which means I really had to gloss over a lot. You can watch the video below. Honestly, I felt like I wasn’t able to properly illustrate my point in such a short time so I decided to compile a helpful list of the common pitfalls we ran into and how you can avoid it. Hopefully you’ll find it useful!


Have a Plan

gameplay screen
Gameplay screen done in Paint

Whether you’re working as part of a team or by yourself, you should absolultely have a written document. You might not necessarily need a full blown game design bible or Wiki page, but it is so important to have all of the game features written down so you can refer back to it. You’ll always have a point of reference in case you forget why you designed your game a certain way and, most importantly, it will help you focus on the core features. Without a plan, it can be very tempting to simply go off on whatever idea pops into your mind at any given time and work on that. In the mean time, you’re ignoring the actual meat and potatoes of the game. The funny thing is you won’t realize it until you suddenly look at your work and realize, “Holy crap, we’re not even 10% completed with just the basic aspects!”

A lot of people seem to shy away from planning, thinking that it limits their creativity and flexibility to make changes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Good documentation allows for sudden changes as it shows you how it will work with the features you already have. From that you can decide whether it makes sense to implement and the easiest way to do so.


A team without someone taking the lead is doomed for failure. Sure, there might be someone that calls him/herself the lead, but watch them carefully. Are they actually effective? I have worked with several people that were in leadership positions who had trouble making the hard decisions. Instead of asking for revisions or speaking directly to certain problem employees about their work they would let things slide, unwilling to confront these issues head on. Instead they would hem and haw and complain about the issues to me. After many, many months of poor communication and unmotivated team members, eventually I had to step up to salvage what was left of the team and make the hard decisions. Eventually we moved on from the old programmers and found a new group that were motivated. I kept track of the team with weekly Skype meetings and daily check-ins via Facebook chat. I made myself available as often as possible so I could answer any questions or concerns. And if it seemed like someone wasn’t pulling their weight, I would have to make the hard decision to let them go.

Leading isn’t easy and it isn’t for everyone. You have to be willing to put your foot down, make the calls and shoulder the burden of those decisions. You have to be able to give and take criticism. Most of all, you need to work harder than everyone else in order to keep your team members motivated.

Be Social

Overhead shot of Pax South
Overhead shot of Pax South

If you’re developing games, that usually means you’re hoping to get people outside of your friends/family network to play them. The only way you’ll get the word out is to spread it yourself. Although social media sites are the popular outlets, the main problem is building your fanbase. Facebook has made it harder for you to organically reach an audience (even your own fans) and Twitter is so inundated with tweets that your’s will quickly get buried. Of course, it’s still possible to build up your audience, but you’ll need to actually converse with people on these channels and not just push your games. That means commenting on other people’s updates, providing helpful answers and comments and basically just starting a one-on-one relationship with potential followers. It’s a lot of work, but you’ll be rewarded by loyal fans.

Of course, if you want your social media strategy to be effective, you should couple it with real-life socialization. is a great service where you can meet people who share the same interests. There are also conferences you can attend like Pax, GDC, etc. The larger conferences can be quite costly, but there are plenty of smaller events you can attend. While there might not be as many people, the smaller crowd will give you the opportunity to strike up deeper connections. If you have the time and energy, game jams are also a great way to meet other developers and get your name out. And if your game is good people will definitely be looking out for more work from you.

Manage Effectively

Trello board
Trello board

One of the biggest issues I ran into when I took over as lead designer was project management. I tried out a lot of different types of project management software like Asana, but no one used them. Most people just viewed it as an inconvenience and found it too difficult to use. After trying out a couple, I found Trello, which has made project management a breeze. It’s incredibly simple to use and all people need to do is check off tasks they completed and move over cards to the finished column when they’re done. Besides the simplicity, I think the other big reason it has been effective is due to the visual and interactive aspect of it. You are physically moving over a task card to the done section and you can actually see how much progress you’ve made. It’s pretty invigorating and I think this aspect keeps people motivated. Even if you’re a solo team, I think it’s still a great way to keep track of your progress.

Besides this, I also keep track of progress throughout the week during weekly Skype meetings and run it a bit SCRUM. We all get a chance to speak and go over what we accomplished the previous week and what we plan to do in the upcoming week. I then follow-up in our chat group almost daily. The chats aren’t always about work, often there are some silly conversations on there, but it helps create relationships between team members. I think having something like that builds accountability as they become more than just team members.

Be Completely Honest

This is applicable to your audience and to your team as well. If something is not going right or there is an obvious issue, communicate. Don’t try to hide it or lie about it. People value transparency and the more open you are the more loyal people will be. Can’t afford upfront payment for an artist or programmer? Mention this fact to them before they join your team. Did you notice some issues with your game when you released it? Make note of it and let your audience know you are working on it. People want to feel valued and answering questions, acknowledging issues is a great way to do that. And, of course if you really screw up, an apology goes a long way.


Game Design Lessons from Greg Trefry

Image taken from Big Fish Games
Image taken from Big Fish Games

The other day I attended the Playcrafting NYC event hosted by Greg Trefry of Gigantic Mechanic. While it was mainly used as a teaser guide to his upcoming full game design classes, he still imparted plenty of wisdom on the crowd. He covered some great topics that illustrated how designers go from a fun idea or action to a more engaging game experience. If you’ve done research on your own about the theories behind game design, a lot of what he says is familiar and in truth he is just reiterating what others have said in the past. With that said, they are worth repeating because they are the key elements of a fun and engaging game regardless of the medium. During  his presentation Trefry went over several points that really stood out to me:


As a game designer, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of adding as many cool features as possible into a game. The thing is though, often we don’t need to have all of them to make a really good game. In fact, good design distills the game down to a few core features and then finds a way to implement them as easily as possible. As Trefry stated, if a cardboard box works perfectly fine, then go with a cardboard box.

Build a Prototype and Test Quickly

How many of us are guilty of just writing down cool ideas for a game mechanic but spend all of our time thinking about it and not actually testing it? The problem with this is that we’ll never actually know if the mechanic works in real-life without testing it out. Focus on one mechanic to test out at a time and then see which one works the best. If there are several features, go down the list and start with the most basic one and then test how the others work once you have figured out the basics. This will save you a lot of time in the long run and will help make your game that much better.

Be Intentional in Your Approach

Of all the points Trefry made, this one resounded the most with me. As game designers we need to always keep our target audience in mind while creating the game. Every step of the way we need to evaluate if these rules or mechanics make sense within the type of game itself and will actually resonate with the gamer. When building a game we need to always ask ourselves: What makes this game fun for the player? How does this play into the overall theme of the game? How will players react? What aspects can we add to increase the “fun” value and does it make sense within the world? What are the aesthetics of the game?

Learn from Each Game

After Trefry described each game he created he would always say, “And here’s what we learned…” Every game is a learning experience for a game designer and that’s true whether it’s your second or 100th game. So don’t be afraid to make mistakes or ask questions. The more you can learn from each game the better your future games will be! The best game designers can look back at their successful and not-so-successful games and understand what exactly worked and what didn’t. Don’t just focus on the negative aspects of failed games either. Look at parts that actually did work and try to understand why it didn’t come together as a whole. Maybe you can take some of the good ideas and implement it better in future games.

At the end we played a quick game that was basically a modified version of tag. The person who is “it” is a zombie. When s/he touches a person, they become a zombie and the goal is to be the last human standing. During gameplay, each faction would have different turns where they could move two spaces. It’s best to do this in a confined space as it will evoke a feeling of tension for the remaining humans towards the end of the game. After we played a round, we discussed some issues with the game and then broke up into groups to play test new features we came up with that would improve the gameplay experience. I urge you to do the same with a group of your friends! Keep the brainstorming session short and then play test all the different ideas you come up with. Let us know what ideas you formulated during your tests in the comments below!