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Inside The Game: The thrill and terror of High School Story's launch

Inside The Game: The thrill and terror of High School Story's launch

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.

On the evening of 31 July 2014, we launched High School Story worldwide on the iOS App Store. And our lives would never be the same.

If you've read the previous articles in this series, you'll know that we toiled on this labor of love for over a year before its release, and that the soft launch suggested that we were on the right track.

But we were still nervous as we hit that button to make the game go live worldwide. Then we had to wait and see if the players would come.

The first 48 hours

We all watched anxiously as reviews trickled in one at a time. So far, people seemed to be reviewing the game positively. There were a few complaints that made us cringe - people saying that they'd hit a block in the game and so they quit.

When you only have ten reviews in the App Store, even one bad review feels like a huge black mark.

I read all of the reviews that trickled in and answered every question we were sent.
Kara Loo

That first night, we had no dedicated customer support team. Honestly, we didn't even know if we'd need one yet. So I stayed up answering the handful of questions from players, hoping that every person I helped might be one less bad review on the App Store - or hopefully even one more player that stuck around or even gave us a five star review.

I read all of the reviews that trickled in and answered every question we were sent. This would become a nightly ritual for me.

The next morning, we were all excited and staggered to see that High School Story was already rocketing up the charts. Life became a blur of compulsively checking the App Store to see where we were in the rankings.

You learn a lot about the App Store's rankings - when they refresh, for instance, which was usually between fifteen to twenty minutes past the hour, every hour. Or the fact that the iTunes store on your computer will refresh before the App Store on your iPhone.

We also studied other apps in our vicinity - we tracked apps that were near us in the top grossing and top free charts, and we tracked apps that had released the same day as High School Story.

This graph tells the story of our thrilling launch. From obscurity to the top 10 free in just 3 days.

We tracked apps that were rising with us and apps that were falling as we were on our way up. And not only that, but when we'd checked everything on the US App Store, it was time to check our ranking across multiple countries.

In short, we were obsessed.

App Annie became everyone's most-visited website, along with App Figures which not only tracked daily ranking, but also hourly ranks. And our new favorite app (other than High School Story) quickly became a small Korean developer's amazing tool that was elegantly titled Rankings - App Ranking Analytics that lets you track the ranking of your app across multiple countries and displays its position on all ranking lists in an easy-to-read chart.

At first, we watched our spot in top free apps. Then, trailing slightly, our ranking in the top grossing began to climb as well. Now there were two things to check! Even better.

We had a celebration dinner on 1 August to mark the launch of the game. We were supposed to be socializing, but I've never seen so many people at a table with their phones out. We couldn't stop watching.

This is how you celebrate a successful game launch.

Hitting the ground running

Our game's model planned for weekly updates, so we couldn't just watch forever. We now had to race to get our first release of weekly content ready.

People were playing our game and positive reviews were flowing in.
Kara Loo

And after that, we had a challenging update plan scheduled for seasonal content that would require major updates for upcoming holidays, like Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, not to mention new and ongoing quests that would deepen and develop the characters in the game.

But even as we worked overtime to get these updates out, there was an electric excitement in the air. Before, we had been working fueled by faith that what we were doing would be a hit - now we had proof.

People were playing our game and positive reviews were flowing in. With every Twitter or Tumblr post, our excitement grew. And with every hour, there was a new update to our placement.

When we were in the office, people would call out what our ranking was. When we were at home, frequent emails sent to the office mailing list would circulate with screenshots of our latest jump up the charts.

The content race begins! A new drop of quests every single week.

A rollercoaster that only goes up

The climb from the top 500 to the top 100 is a rush - you're jumping by 10 or 20 games every time the App Store refreshes. Then around the top 50, the real slog sets in - and the fear.

Progress slows. Sometimes your app actually drops down a slot as another app leaps past it. For a while, it seemed like we'd hit our highest placement in the top 50, and we held our breath ... but then High School Story, started moving back up the charts again.

As we neared the top, the games we were trying to jump past were bigger and bigger. Could our game really pass the heavy hitters from big game developers? But again and again, High School Story did.

A glimpse at the charts with High School Story at #10. If you look closely, you can see that the app had jumped 185 spots.

We were far beyond our expectations for where we thought High School Story would make it in the rankings. In just three days, it had shot up the charts into the top 10 of free apps.

This was the point in the movie where the hero takes the victory lap, when the flowers and the trophies are handed out. It was at least the point when advertising companies start to send you gift baskets and bottles of champagne. All signs indicated that it was time to celebrate.

But Oliver [CEO Oliver Miao] frequently reminded us that, logically, we all knew our game would eventually peak, plateau, and fall. It was inevitable. The higher we climbed, the more that peak seemed like it was just on the horizon. We steeled ourselves against it, but with the hope that we'd be able to hold onto our high chart position for at least a few days, and that when we started our descent, we'd be able to ride out a gradual downward slope.

We had no idea how fast and far a fall it would be.

Next - Peaking in the charts

Kara Loo is the COO of 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

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