PocketGamer.biz has partnered up with US developer Pixelberry Studios to highlight its candid stories on the trials and triumphs of a startup game studio whose debut title High School Story stayed in the top grossing top 100 chart for a year.
This bi-weekly series of articles will provide a mix of drama, detailed learnings, and actual numbers from their experience launching and supporting a top game.
Topics covered will include design, analytics, marketing, support, and making a difference.
A game's soft launch is an amazing opportunity for a developer to stress-test what they've built and get a sneak peek at their game's future performance.
Ideally, for a soft launch, a developer has an app that is completely finalized, an analytics platform that's comprehensive, and a dedicated operations team to study what's happening, respond to issues, and run A/B tests to perfect the app before its global release.
On July 1st, 2013, we soft-launched High School Story in Australia and Canada. And we had none of those things.
Due to focusing on refining the tutorial, a number of important features got cut for soft launch, including the critical ability to prevent time cheating. Our analytics platform had sizable holes, and we barely knew how to use it.
We had limited resources to run A/B tests, and our customer service team consisted of two enthusiastic 17-year-old interns, both of whom were mostly trained in assembling office furniture.
We knew that we had nowhere near the resources that our competitors deployed at their soft launches, and we were all too aware that our studio's fate hinged on this game.
We were all too aware that our studio's fate hinged on this game.
And we knew that if the launch failed, we'd be in dire trouble, given how badly we needed to get the game out globally. We braced for disaster...
But disaster never came.
High School Story soft launched without any major issues, and even better, quickly shot up the Free and Top Grossing charts. Some of that came from our hard work: our developers had succeeded in creating reliable, scalable servers, and our QA testers had ensured stable, bug-free product.
Some of that came from luck, from hitting the right audience at the right time.
The challenges of a tutorial
In many ways, though, one of the most successful elements of our soft launch was the one that had set us the furthest behind schedule: the tutorial.
No other feature had proved as resistant to our planning or as difficult to nail down. The concept was simple, of course: walk players through the core loops of the game using guided prompts while getting them engaged in our story. Easy enough, right?
Not at all. We had wanted to guide our players step-by-step through the game's mechanics, while still providing enough freedom for them to feel like they were meaningfully playing; for example, they had to recruit a new Classmate, but they could choose that Classmate's type, gender, and appearance.
Unfortunately, allowing these measures of freedom also allowed our players to frequently go off-rails. We found ourselves playing the world's least fun game of 'edge case' whack-a-mole. Every problem we solved caused two more to spring up.
When we were finally sure the tutorial was good, we brought in high schoolers to focus test it. Naturally, they found a dozen holes we'd missed, and despite our best efforts, they were still not grasping key mechanics.
We learned that you can explain how something works in the clearest language imaginable, but unless you walk players through it multiple times, it just won't stick.
Engaging with story
Even harder was getting the narrative engagement right. For a sim game, High School Story has a shocking amount of, well, story. We knew that if we were going to get our players to stick around, we had to make them genuinely care about this school, its students, and their problems.
Getting emotional connection in a tutorial proved a real challenge.
But getting that sort of emotional connection in a tutorial, which has to also be extremely snappy, fast-paced, and accessible, proved a real challenge.
Our writers mercilessly worked and reworked the same 200 lines of dialogue again and again, refining every single word. It wasn't enough just to set up gameplay or justify the universe; they had to make players care, to amuse and delight them.
One memorable example of this happened towards the very end of the tutorial's refinement. At a key moment in the story, the player's character is menaced by a pair of local bullies.
We knew early on that we wanted to give the player a choice here of how to resolve the situation, and the options at first were to either fight the bullies or insult them.
Then one writer, in a burst of late-night caffeine-fueled inspiration, suggested we also let the player choose to flirt with them.
It was the best kind of unexpected option, one that defied the typical choices players get in games, provided some salacious fun, and let the players have an unexpected comedic scene where the baffled bullies have no idea how to react to their would-be victim making moves on them.
We've watched more Let's Plays of High School Story than we'd like to admit, and this moment has never once failed to bring a smile and a laugh to even the most skeptical of players.
Time to launch
While we were in the storm of tutorial refinement, it seemed like it would never end. But once the game was out at soft-launch, we could finally see our efforts pay off.
High School Story had a tutorial completion rate of 90%! Our players weren't just downloading the app; they were sticking around, learning the mechanics, and best of all, getting genuinely engaged.
Thanks to the combined efforts of the team, our soft launch was a success.
High School Story had a tutorial completion rate of 90%.
On the first day, we cracked #262 in Free Role Playing in Australia. On the second day, the game broke into Free Games at #311. On the third day the game grew to #110 in Free Games. And on the seventh day, we hit #9 in Top Free.
When we announced this in an all studio meeting, someone asked just how much of the $20,000 budget we had allocated for soft launch User Acquisition we had spent. To their surprise, the answer was none.
Now we had to deal with releasing our game worldwide. Would our soft launch success carry over, especially to the notoriously difficult US market? Could our servers support a global load of users? Would we end up wasting our planned $100,000 of marketing money?
Only the global launch next month would tell.
Next - The thrill and terror of launch.
Andrew Shvarts is a designer at Pixelberry Studios.
Through partnerships with non-profits, Pixelberry's hit game High School Story has taught millions of players about tough teen issues, like cyberbullying and eating disorders.
You can find out more at pixelberrystudios.com