Interview: Vlambeer on the iOS launch of Super Crate Box
When Super Crate Box came out for the Mac in 2010, I was astonished by it’s instant play- and replayability. Released for free and acting as a ‘business card’ for Vlambeer, it became clear that it would be worth to keep an eye on the dutch indie studio.
With Vlambeer being one of Promoter’s first customers, I was happy to see that they managed to organize a successful iOS launch of the game, not an easy task in today’s super competitive market. I asked Rami Ismail how they did it.
Super Crate Box has received coverage on major gaming and iOS sites such as TouchArcade, TUAW, Joystiq and PocketGamer within 48 hours after release. How many of these sites did you contact and how did you approach them?
We use a different approach for most games, but one thing we do is to get to know the people we’re requesting to write about us. It’s a common (and rather insulting) misunderstanding that the press are corporate, evil, money-sucking mindless drones. They’re almost without exception passionate and helpful people that care about the medium. In that sense, they’re not so different from developers like us, they just contribute in a different way than we do.
With that in mind, we always contact people we like working with first with what we call a focused mailing. These are personal e-mails to known fans and some people critical of Vlambeer in which we point out we’re releasing something and offering them a look. After that, we wait a few days and check Twitter, Google and Promoter to see who picks up on the story and reach out to them. After that second round has had their go at the story, we usually ‘shotgun’ the rest – we release a press release and send it to every outlet we can find.
The PC and Mac version of SCB was released for free in 2010. It was nominated for ’Excellence in Design’ at the IGF 2011 and selected as the ’Best Free-to-Play PC GAME’ on IGN. How did the popularity of the PC version help with the iOS launch?
It did definitely help to be able to mention the prizes and awards of the PC version in the e-mails. We don’t think it was crucial for the critical reception, as the iOS media is mostly unaware of the indie gaming scene and the other way around. We do usually mention that we’ve been nominated for the IGF and that we won some awards when reaching out to new people – that seems to work rather well.
How long has the original game been in development? How long did it take to port the game to iOS?
The original game was developed in about two days of hard work followed by eight months of polishing, the port took about two months of hard work and then four months of tweaking. Especially controls and getting all the details right took more time than we had anticipated, but in hindsight we are pretty happy we did invest that time into it. The controls, although controversial, definitely seem to do the job and we’re happy to see that the vast majority of people seem to like them. We’re trying to reach out to people complaining about the controls to see if we can help them out through Twitter or Facebook.
It can be difficult to port a keyboard based game to the touch controls of iOS. How did you test the usability of the new control scheme?
It was difficult! The one thing we felt really helped out was testing in the train to the offices. Asking random strangers to try the game was both incredibly interesting and motivating. People were extremely responsive to our requests and often brutally honest. Using the feedback, we tweaked, improved and tried again until we had a schedule that worked consistently without significant problems for a week of train testing.
If you’re able to estimate, what’s the conversation rate between free PC/Mac downloads and iOS sales?
At this point, for every 40-something PC downloads there is a single iOS purchase.
There are several ways to send out press copies, such as custom builds for specific UDIDs, TestFlight or Apple’s promocodes. What did you use for SCB? How long in advance did you send them out?
We used Testflight for some press we involved early in the process, but we extensively used promocodes in the week before launch. We feel the iOS market has a short memory span, although core iOS gamers (such as those on the TouchArcade forums) behave more like the traditional gaming crowd. We started by reaching out to those forums and waited until a week before release before really starting our ‘media push’ so that the peak of the coverage would coincide with the release.
When contacting journalists about your game, what’s the three worst mistakes one could make?
We have a few things we never do:
- Starting with a lengthy introduction. Get to the point. If you assume your first paragraph is the only one potential recipients will read, it has to be short, powerful and sweet. Press often has to read through hundreds of e-mails a day and if you start by telling about your hamster dying last week and how you’re so sorry that affects your writing, they’ll not make it to the second paragraph.
- Not being personal. We’re an indie and that means we do not have marketing budgets. This has an advantage to it, though – you’ll get to be a person or studio with a story to share. You can connect to the media personally, without a PR department between you and the people writing about your game and studio. Remember that they’re people and they like talking to people - that’s way more interesting than mailing with the secretary of the secondary junior PR manager who never spoke to people making the game anyway. Be personal and attentive.
- Sending anything but plain text and links. We’ve heard stories about people sending their press releases with 250MB of art and video assets. Funnily enough, it turns out, some people still don’t have mailboxes that handle that really well. Some will delete your email to make space in their inbox. We’ve also heard stories about press releases being sent as beautiful PSD and PDF documents. The press has limited time so make things easy on them. Send plain text, link to a press kit, pre-uploaded trailers or a few images they can download. In the optimal situation, they’ll read your first paragraph, be interested in what you offer and then be able to copy and paste parts of your mail directly from the mail into their story to get started on their article.
In mid-December you announced that SCB iOS would be released on Thursday, January 5th. Was the game already approved by Apple when you announced the date? How did you choose the release date?
Yeah, the game had been approved by that date. We had discussed this at length amongst ourselves: We had decided that christmas was the worst possible time to launch. We hoped that after christmas, there would be a gap in the supply of new games as every ‘big’ player would’ve launched to grab the top spots during the one week in which the App Store freezes. On top of that, we felt there was a pretty big chance people who got their iDevice for christmas would still be intently checking for new releases and thus stumble upon Super Crate Box.
You also announced at your blog that you’ll release an update with new game content once 5 million crates have been collected by players worldwide. When did you work on this update?
We worked on that from the release date until Sunday, which means we’ve barely slept for four days in a row. We functioned on ridiculous amounts of caffeine, but we feel we have to try our absolute best at keeping our promise to our fans and customers. The fans are the most important thing we have.
To be honest, we had never expected the crate counter to soar this fast and wrongly expected the rate to mimic the original Super Crate Box (two weeks) - we’re pretty overwhelmed. Lesson learned, we suppose - but we’re going to take a day long nap or so after this.
SCB is an universal app for both iPad and iPhone priced at 99 cents. What are the reasons for going universal and how did you decide on the price point?
Super Crate Box is a bit of an oddity in terms of distribution. We want it to reach as many people as possible, however, unlike the original Super Crate Box we couldn’t release this one for free with two teams working on it and having to pay the rent. So we decided to launch the game as cheap as possible and with as little obstacles as possible. For Ridiculous Fishing, we might go with a completely different approach. We like to think of such strategies as being seperate per game we make.
You support both Game Center and OpenFeint from day one. Why did you go with both systems?
Again, wanting to reach as many people as possible. We believe Super Crate Box is something that’s worth spreading and making things simple and including features such as those help. We’re working on more additions in that category for later updates, too.
If you’d have to describe in one sentence why the original SCB became ’the 2010 underground hit’, what would you say?
Hopefully because it shows that arcade games can still be original and new. Unlike many games nowadays, Super Crate Box allows you to play it, instead of letting the game ‘play you’ - all the responsibility for scoring high is with the player. We think in an age where many games guide the player through the game, that can be rather refreshing. We really hope that translated to the iOS version and we have faith in what we made. We’ve been having fun with it.