Tiny Invaders-maker Hogrocket weighs in on the console-to-mobile transition

These days, its pretty commonplace to hear about teams of console developers announcing they have formed an independent studio to go into mobile development.

One of the many triple A-turned-mobile studios that has formed in the past year is U.K.-based Hogrocket, a three-man team that emerged from the ashes of Bizarre Creations after Activision decided to close the studio at the end of 2010.

Known for creating the Xbox Live Arcade hit Geometry Wars and the Project Gotham Racing franchise, Bizarre’s senior level designer Pete Collier, community manager Ben Ward and Geometry Wars creator Stephen Cakebread set out on their own in March 2011, forming a bootstrapped studio to take advantage of the opportunities in mobile development. The studio’s first (and so far only) game, Tiny Invaders has been a decent hit, and recently spawned a free-to-play spinoff.

Inside Mobile Apps recently had an in-depth discussion with Hogrocket co-founder Pete Collier to check in on the studio’s progress and ask him what the transition from console to mobile development has been like.

Inside Mobile Apps: How is Tiny Invaders doing? Are you happy with how its performing?

Pete Collier, co-founder, Hogrocket (pictured right): It’s doing very well. It’s hard to judge because you don’t really get that many download figures from other developers. It hasn’t been an out-and-out Angry Birds-type success or anything like that, so we’re not millionaires yet. I think its done very well considering its our first game. We launched Sep. 1 and we’ve always been featured in some capacity by Apple in that time. Over Christmas we were featured as a benchmark game so we’ve had a nice steady set of download figures since launch. Having come from the console space means we’re quite happy with that.

IMA: Tiny Invaders started out as a paid app, but at the end of January you put out a free app with an in-app upgrade. Why the change in tactics?

Collier: In November we had a really exciting event happen — we were featured in the Apple iPhone 4S announcement keynote, on the big screen while they were demonstrating some of the 4S features. But the thing was that it didn’t have the name Tiny Invaders scrawled over it, it was just a screenshot and we needed to capitalize on it and tell people that it was our game. To do that, we made the game free for three days following the keynote. In those three days we got just under a hundred thousand downloads. It was obvious to us at that point there were a lot of people interested in the game and lot of awareness around the game, but the premium price point and the fact that we were an unknown developer and not a known brand might have been putting people off.

IMA: How much did going free increase your downloads? Did you see the 10-fold increase other developers have seen, where a free app is downloaded about 10 times as often as a paid app?

Collier: It’s hard to tell without having prior comparisons, but I think our experience certainly seems to follow that. That promotion was on making our premium app free for three days, so that wasn’t a fair test, but we decided to make a free version of Tiny Invaders because of those three days. We are actually seeing about 10 times more downloads for the free version, which is good, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into people converting through in-app purchases. We’ve seen about three percent conversion, which is generally the accepted stat that you’ll hear from other developers.

IMA: Are you looking at taking Tiny Invaders to Android?

Collier: Yeah, we’re looking at it, but we’re really basing the decision on how well Tiny Invaders Free does on iOS because that will be what we release on Android if we are going to release anything. Premium doesn’t really work in that space.

IMA: So if you were to take it to Android you’d go free with an in-app purchase and hope for the best?

Collier: I think so. That’s really why we’ve been a little hesitant up to this point. Obviously it takes us time and therefore money to port it ourselves, so it’s one of those things that I think a lot of other developers do as well — they test the market with iOS and put it out, and if its successful enough they can then take it Android without as much risk. If you achieve a certain level of success on iOS it makes sense to bring it to Android. Tiny Invaders has seen a lot of success and a lot of exposure so we think it will work on Android, hopefully.

IMA: How has iOS development been for you, monetization wise? Are you feeling good about the decision to move from console development to mobile?

Collier: We’re certainly learning a lot about the mobile space. Looking forward to our next game we’ll certainly be looking more at the freemium business model as opposed to premium. I think if we’d known what we know now, we’d have been freemium from the start and perhaps designed the game so it supported that business model more. Premium has certainly been tougher than what we expected in terms of what we get back monetization wise. We launched [the game] at tier 3, which I think is the five dollar mark which is very, very high. We very quickly moved it down to 69p ($0.99).

IMA: Did you find sales increased significantly when you went to the tier one price point?

Collier: Definitely. It hugely leapt up once we went to 69p. We still debate about this internally but I think you have to be at 69p. It’s an interesting issue because I think it comes down to a trust issue with gamers in the marketplace. If you’re a known quality and a known brand, then you can afford to be premium because gamers know what they’re getting. If you’re an unknown quantity like Hogrocket and it’s a new IP that people don’t recognize, its quite a big leap for people to hand over any money at all, even 69p. I think free is certainly the answer going forward. Get people in and give them a chance to taste your game and then ask them if they’d be willing to hand some money over for extra content.

IMA: If you’re designing your next game as free-to-play, are you worried abut designing around monetization rather than gameplay?

Collier: I think developers will need to be really careful about where they draw that line. You can end up being quite cynical with it and that will detract from the gaming experience. To be honest I think gamers will speak with their feet and with their wallets. At the end of the day you’ve still got to develop a fantastic and fun experience. The way that you use the monetization part of it can’t become a barrier to entry. It’s different from the demo model we’re using now. I think that model only works when you’re trying to retrofit free-to-play. If you’re designing something from the ground up then you’ve got to make sure that the in-app purchase and the monetization is an enhancement to the game, not a block to getting anything out of the experience.

IMA: Which version of Tiny Invaders is more profitable for you right now? The free version or the premium version? 

Collier: That’s an interesting question. To be up front, the premium version is still making much more money than the free version, but I don’t think its a fair test to look at it as a model for the rest of the market. I think if we’d launched Tiny Invaders right from the start as the free version is now, then I think that would have been the best possible thing for the app. The premium version is still being featured by Apple, but the only exposure the free version gets is when people click on the premium version.

IMA: Has it been an adjustment to move from console development to mobile development? You’ve talked a few times about “what you know now.”

Collier: I think it was an adjustment for us. Perhaps we underestimated the marketplace in the terms of the trust issues and being a known quantity. We were a known quantity coming from the console space and coming from Bizarre, and we thought a lot people would know that, and therefore know about Hogrocket and be happy to pay a premium price. The reality of the mobile space is the marketplace is so vast and so great that the majority of market doesn’t read game industry stuff or gaming websites. The marketplace is substantially more varied.

IMA: Have you found people are willing to pay more for a console game and digitally distributed console games than a mobile game?

Collier: Yes, because it’s a completely different situation and platform. People that have consoles have bought them specifically to game and because they bought a console they’re much more inclined to spend money on the games for that console. On mobile the way people game on their device is different. It’s more about distraction and very brief sessions of distraction.That distraction can come in many different forms, not just gaming — talking, messaging, regular apps and gaming apps. It’s not a dedicated gaming device so I don’t think people are as willing to spend money on it because they’re not specifically gamers. That’s why the price points are a lot lower.

IMA: Why did you choose not to return to AAA console development? 

Collier:  AAA has stagnated a little bit for me. Creatively it wasn’t doing if for me. Mobile presented quite a fresh new challenge on the design side. You have to think about it completely differently because the device and how people interact with it is completely different. What’s really interesting is that the business of the company and the way you make money is completely integrated with how you design the games, especially with freemium. The way you design a game and monetize it is your business, whereas in the console space it’s a completely different proposition. You’re often separated from the business side of it and you’re part of a big team with a smaller sense of ownership.

IMA: Is that sense of ownership what’s driving former console developers like yourself to mobile? 

Collier:  I think that’s it. In the industry a lot has changed and people are able to do that now. It’s almost harking back to the 80s again in terms of game development. You can, as a small team, make a game. The barriers to entry are really, really light – it’s $100 for an Apple developers license. It’s really attractive to any creative to really, fully put your stamp on something.