Dealing with the pain of transition

It’s one week on from the switch of Fare City to Digital Chocolate and the dust is settling a little. Several people have passed comment or asked questions about the impact of the change so I thought it would be good to attempt some further clarity through another blog entry.

Here we go.

Firstly, the removal of the Finkly Interactive version of Fare City was unavoidable. There is no mechanism to allow Digital Chocolate to take over the Fare City application. To enable them to sell the game I had to create a new application bundle using their provisioning profile and they had to submit it to Apple as new. From there, there would be a clear conflict of interest if I were to keep the FI version on sale – and there is (not surprisingly) no mechanism for end-of-life, upgrade-only applications in the App Store.

So, to republish is, inevitably, to leave existing customers out in the cold. On the face of it this may seem pretty harsh, but let’s dig into the details a little.

In the four months since launch, Fare City has managed to sell around X thousand units (I won’t give the actual number but it is about average for paid apps – certainly not a number to make me rich) with most of those sales occurring in the first two months. Of course, only a subset of those copies are still being used, and without analytics we need some detective work to guess at more useful numbers.

Version 1.1 shipped about six weeks ago and by my calculations less than 1,000 copies were NOT updated. This suggests that practically all copies still on device did get updated (though as Frog laments there are exceptions). However, as many people keep stuff lying around after they’ve stopped using it, it would be a mistake to assume most people were still playing.

How about some hard numbers? The 1.0 leaderboard system included just over 5,000 entries when 1.1 launched. At 1.1 we switched to Open Feint for the leaderboard and as part of the upgrade the game submits the previous high score to the new leaderboard. So, as long as the player signed up to Open Feint they would automatically get a leaderboard entry on the Classic/Downtown leaderboard. At switch over last week that leaderboard stood at around 2,000 entries.

So, of all the copies of FC that were sold we know that at least 2,000 were run at least once in the last six weeks. This figure excludes those who play the game but choose not to use Open Feint but includes those playing pirated copies. Based on previous experience watching sales v. leaderboard numbers I am going to guess that piracy accounted for about 50% of entries on the 1.0 leaderboard but less for 1.1, and that people were more willing to sign up for the simpler 1.0 leaderboard. So my guess is that since 1.1 shipped around 2,000 – 3,000 customers have played the game.

Therefore, at this point we have perhaps 3,000 (4,000 if we are generous) people who would like to continue playing Fare City. Of these, probably less than 200 did not upgrade to 1.1 in time.

Hmm, that still sounds like a lot of people. However, at the risk of sounding harsh I want to dissect things a little further.

First, there are those who didn’t upgrade and are “stuck” with 1.0. When people bought 1.0 they paid 99c for a small, fun game that provided hours of entertainment. That doesn’t sound too bad. But, there was the promise of extra content coming in 1.1 and some bought with that expectation; fair enough. And yet, if that was a purchasing decision then presumably they would have picked up the update as soon as it appeared. Version 1.1 was in the App Store for six weeks – it is hard to imagine that many who were looking forward to it missed the chance to pick it up.

For the broader group of active players of 1.1, their problem is theoretical at this point. They are playing the same game that is available for sale; they are using the same Open Feint leaderboards and achievements. Version 1.1 has shown every sign of being stable and robust – the bug list is too short to justify any maintenance update at this time. So concerns here relate to the assumed future appearance of more content.

So the question is, how many of the 3,000 are still interested in playing Fare City when that content update ships? Not sure I am in a position to answer that one but let’s guess at 50% – 1,500.

Finally, how long have these 1,500 been playing? The sales pattern for Fare City was the skewed bell curve common to most applications, so most owners bought the game in the first third of the four months. Allowing for player attrition over time, we may assume that those 1,500 are evenly distributed through the four months – giving an average play time of two months per player before the switch over. Let’s also suppose that the hypothetical content update is out in another month. (And that is NOT a commitment!) This means the average player has had three months play time for their initial 99c outlay, one month in the worst case. And then, they can carry on playing indefinitely or pay another 99c for the extra content. Is that so bad?

In writing all this I am aware that every person’s experience is different and I am not attempting to belittle any genuine grievance. I suppose I am trying to show that considerable thought and heart-searching went into the decision to change. In the end we all want to be understood.

Thanks for listening.

A small matter of publishing

Well it feels like an eternity but finally I can announce that Fare City is now being published by Digital Chocolate Inc. I have just withdrawn the Finkly Interactive versions of the game as the rebranded versions propagate across the App Stores. This brings to a close the game’s first phase, just under four months since launch.

This news raises a whole raft of questions and I will do my best to give answers to at least some of them here.

Why fall in with a publisher?

The days of the App Store operating as the Wild West of the computing world are gone. With over 100,000 apps in the store it is almost impossible for an independent developer to get much visibility. Viral marketing only works up to a point. Firstly, it still takes a lot of time and effort – time that could be used to develop new updates and new applications. Secondly, there is so much noise around the iPhone space as everybody is trying to market virally it is hard to create any momentum. Basically, to be successful you must first be successful – you need an existing customer base to reach your customers.

When Fare City launched it got a huge break in being featured by Apple. However, that didn’t last long enough to make a breakthrough in the charts. As many people have found, once you fall off the front of the App Store sales dry up. (Review sites help very little – partly because many have little traffic themselves, but mainly because most users don’t read reviews.) Actually, Fare City sales have not gone entirely, for the past two months numbers have been steady, but with a 99c price tag the volumes just do not generate any sensible level of return.

So, the first purpose in moving to a publisher is to gain exposure for the game. From reviews and user feedback we know it’s a great game. If we can get it in front of more eyeballs it just might start paying some bills.

The second purpose is to remove the burden of marketing from our shoulders to free up more time to do interesting stuff.

How will it affect the game?

Today the answer is – it won’t. That is, the Digital Chocolate version is all but identical to the current version. The game play, maps, modes, leaderboards, etc. are unchanged. New customers will see a new splash screen and credits, but that is about all.

(Actually, I need to nuance that answer. The lite version (now named Fare City FREE) has a reduced game time – it seems that 3.5 minutes was too good and people just didn’t bother to upgrade.)

Longer term the hope is that increased sales will permit us to continue to add new maps and game modes (plus other features like two-player). There are plenty of ideas on the table, but with the need to put food on it as well it has been hard to give them priority.

What about existing customers?

This was the hardest question for us when considering the change. The Digital Chocolate versions are effectively new applications in the App Store with no links to the Finkly versions. Therefore, we have no method to provide future updates to owners of those versions. In this our hands are completely tied by the limitations of the App Store.

Of course, anyone with the Finkly versions will be able to continue to play them as before. The OpenFeint leaderboards and achievements are the same and should integrate seamlessly between the old and new. Version 1.1 (which according to our stats has propagated to almost all owners) has proven itself very robust since launch back at the beginning of December – so much so that the Digital Chocolate version contains only one small bug fix from 1.1.

But what about the updates? Well, it is true that future updates to the game will not be available to existing customers unless they buy the Digital Chocolate version and no doubt this will annoy some folk. However, I hope people will consider that Fare City has delivered incredible game time for 99c, and there is no need (at this time) to buy again. If and when new content is released the game price will probably still be 99c, and then you will only need to buy if you want the extra content. It seems to me that won’t be too much of hardship really.

Anyway, there it is. The die is cast and a new day dawns over this Fare City. Let us see what it brings.