Life as an independent mobile game developer can be a very trying business, especially if you're going it alone.
Just ask Rob Caporetto, a one-man app developer based in Melbourne, Australia. Having released Pocket Dogfights, a 1942-esque aerial shoot-'em-up for Android and iOS, and while still working on the retro-tinged Pivotus, he made an important decision.
Caporetto took to Twitter on New Year's Day to break the news: he would be giving up commercial indie development. Pocket Dogfights would become completely free, Pivotus would be developed more slowly, and he would be pursuing other full-time work.
First big decision of 2014: Moving away from commercial indie dev. Lot of reasons why (I may blog about that eventually)…— Rob Caporetto (@rob_caporetto) January 1, 2014
"My decision to wind back was the result of burn out," he tells us.
"Particularly from the closing months of 2013. I'd spent that period both getting Pivotus development off the ground, and looking for contract work - as I had been doing over the last few months. Doing both of these was a stressful process."
It's a story you'll hear time and time again, and Caporetto is under no illusions that this situation is unique to him. After all, his struggles are based on the classic, longstanding issues faced by the independent mobile developer - time and money.
"Attempting ‘open' development on a game whilst looking for contract work at the same time was slowly wearing my morale down", he says. "In an attempt to remove some of the stresses at the time, I decided that it wasn't really worth continuing my game development activities in their present form - at least for the moment."
Like most small-time developers, I funded the game's development from my day job.Rob Caporetto
He continues: "Do I believe that these experiences are common? I certainly do. I know of a few other developers here in Australia who have been through similar cases, and I also have seen plenty of other games which I've bought over the years suddenly disappear from iTunes - their developers simply couldn't justify the expenses of the development account."
Having witnessed these pitfalls first hand, it's clear why Caporetto was firmly realistic from the outset about his own chances of becoming an App Store success.
"Honestly, I never expected that sales of Pocket Dogfights would be able to cover all my bills," he admits. "In fact, my only real goal was wanting to be able to cover money for social events, as it's a rather simple game, and to expect anything else would be unrealistic."
"Like most small-time developers, I funded the game's development from my day job," he goes on, "but I was sadly let go just prior to submission. I was incredibly lucky to have had enough savings to be able to live for a while and to handle the launch, at least until I would be able to get some contract work to be able to cover the bills.
"That is why I put the time I put into it. As things slowed to a crawl sales-wise - it took six months to reach a payout amount in sales after the launch burst - and as my search for work didn't result in any stable leads, it became apparent that things weren't working out as I was hoping, which led to my decision to walk away. At least that way, I could focus on finding work full-time and not worry about the stresses involved in trying to develop and release a game."
Money on their minds
Mobile platforms have always been harsh to all but the best and luckiest indie developers, but it's slightly alarming to consider just how common these stories are. According to Caporetto, the biggest barrier to indie success on mobile is the perception of value among mobile gamers.
"Thanks to the shift towards free-to-play, I feel there's an unrealistic disconnect between how much money content costs for a developer to create, and it's end price to the consumer," he says. "At launch, it was disenchanting to see comments telling me that it was barely worth paying $1, regardless of my own feelings about the value of my work."
Indeed, there is evidence of an ingrained reluctance to pay up-front cash for a mobile game. Caporetto told me that he'd experienced a "very significant" amount of piracy on Android devices, with only "a rather minute portion of sales" on the platform. He reckons - and, indeed, the statistics agree - that Android has a bigger problem with the 'everything is free' mentality, since initial regulations restricting the publication of paid apps based on country of origin "led to Android owners getting used to free apps early on."
Unsurprisingly, then, he reported that Pocket Dogfights was "most successful by far on iOS, both in terms of paid downloads, and after going free."
But Android users aren't alone in shunning paid apps while hungrily pursuing free ones. Predictably, Caporetto reported "quite the spike" in downloads across all platforms after Pocket Dogfights became a free app.
This widespread piracy of Pocket Dogfights on Android, combined with the download spike across all platforms after it went free, prove Caporetto's point to a certain extent - there was no lack of demand for his game, but a skewed perception of value left would-be buyers unwilling to make the spend, no matter how low the amount. Be it illegal or above-board, it seems that mobile gamers love getting something for nothing - even at the expense of the developer.
Well, no surprises there, then. But if this is the reality of indie development on mobile, then what can be done? We asked Caporetto if he felt Google and Apple had a responsibility of sorts, to make their platforms more indie-friendly. Would that even be possible?
"In some way, I feel that they do have some responsibility," he details. "The fact that the App Store didn't really offer a solid way for allowing people to try before they buy is one of the factors which led to the race-to-the-bottom pricing in the first place, and I've already discussed the problems with paid apps on Android."
I found it incredibly tough to get people to submit a review, especially on iOS.Rob Caporetto
"As for things which could be done at this stage?", he muses. "I'd like to see some more useful grouping of games - it's be great if there were centrally managed collections, but which could have contributions from users. I'd also like to see better focus on reviews - I found it incredibly tough to get people to submit a review, especially on iOS, where ratings etc are cleared upon a new release."
We also made reference to the fact that, via Twitter, Caporetto had encouraged those who wished to give him some financial support to use his itch.io page, which offers a 'Pay What You Want' system for the PC version - like Bandcamp for indie games, if you will. Does he feel that the App Store and Google Play would benefit from putting a similar model in place for indie developers.
"In short, certainly," he says, seemingly enthused by the idea. "One of the things I feel experiences like mine show is that whilst there are mobile gamers who are begrudgingly paying the minimum, there are others who would be willing to go above and beyond, which is an experience I had with itch.io. This, I guess, becomes a form of patronage in the modern age, which is something I feel is incredibly important for indie development in the future."
"Right now, at least from my interpretation of Apple's guidelines, it's not possible to use the in-app purchase system in that way, but it'd certainly be something I'd take advantage of. That way, I could focus on providing a fun, fair and pure gameplay experience to my player base, and not need to worry about the complexities that freemium design offers. And then they, in turn, can contribute with a single, fair payment to me."
Perhaps there are hidden complexities which prevent Apple and Google from implementing such a system, but on a surface level it seems relatively simple. There's certainly a large number of indie developers who'd wish to welcome donations without locking off non-payers. And, if - as Caporetto's experiences suggest - there are some supporters willing to pay above the odds, then the platform-holder would still claim a tidy slice. A win-win scenario, you might think.
Back to the future
But the mobile gaming landscape wasn't always so complex, and until a few years ago the app marketplaces were often considered a refreshing return to a simpler era of gaming.
Knowing that Caporetto is a huge fan of retro games, and the Commodore 64 in particular, we asked him to what extent he saw the mobile market as a throwback to those days, with basic games by bedroom coders selling for a few dollars a pop in budget software ranges.
"Back in 2009-10, I certainly believed that the mobile market was the next generation of the budget labels," he tells us.
"Having a platform which was very easy to publish onto, and filled with smaller developers gave them the opportunity to really play around and innovate - both with new ideas, and with bringing widely-abandoned genres into view, e.g. shmups."
"More recently, however, I believe the rise of free-to-play, and larger publishers coming into the mobile space have raised the barriers to entry enough that this is no longer the case. Launching a free-to-play game requires a significant investment to get your initial users, so developers who don't have that kind of money to begin with, or are creating games which are smaller in scope, can't get the visibility which they could in years past."
Launching a free-to-play game requires the kind of significant investment that's beyond many developers.Rob Caporetto
So, with Caporetto's loving reverence for the simpler days of gaming - a good, honest price for a good, honest experience - it's somewhat predictable that his views on freemium aren't entirely favourable.
"I'm not a fan at all", he says, making his feelings immediately clear. "The games I enjoy making and playing don't work well with freemium constraints. When those 'gates' are raised for the purposes of monetisation, I find it breaks the flow, and I find it greatly reduces the challenge, and even starts making games unfair to play."
He also suggests that freemium design, and the nagging thought of sustainable monetisation, can be damaging to a developer's overall vision: "I certainly do believe that when not restricted by the need to pay the bills, they'll be able to play closer to their visions."
But paying the bills is, unfortunately, an unavoidable reality for Caporetto himself. So, with a rocky experience of developing a paid app and a negative view of freemium, what are his plans going forward?
"I certainly would like to be able to release something which I can charge for in the future", says Caporetto.
"However, the biggest concern I have with doing so is simply trying to work out the best, and fairest, way to do so. When I look at Pivotus and some of my other ideas, they're not the types of games which any of the existing schemes would work well for, so there's the ongoing case of working that out before I try anything else."