Finkly

So, where are we now, exactly?

I can’t believe it has been so long since I blogged! Last time I announced Fare City 2.0 and now – well, version 2.3 has been out for a month…

Anyway, what’s going on? What happened to the rush of releases? When will we support iPad? What about iPhone 4 Retina Display? Is there going to be a two-player version? What’s next in production?

All good questions, so let me try to give a big update in a short space.

First, the big splurge of updates from 2.0 to 2.3 was an effort to give FC a boost after languishing for so long. In many ways it did help by creating enthusiasm and buzz among our players. However, it did not really give much of a lift to sales. Fare City has never paid its way in terms of development time and I simply couldn’t keep up the pace of a feature release every two weeks. There are plenty of ideas and maps still on the drawing board and hopefully there will be a 2.4 before too long.

It seems like forever that we’ve been talking about an iPad version for Fare City. It is also the number one question we get asked. I think I first promised it in June, so where is it? Well, there have been a few road bumps along the way.

Our initial idea was to do a quick conversion by doubling up the resolution. But then we realized that the maps didn’t really work because you end up with borders because of the different aspect ratio. Also, many of the graphics were a careful mixture of image, vector and hand drawn so needed complete reworking.

So we thought it would be great to redo the maps from scratch using a different scale and make a bigger game for the iPad. But a funny thing – play-testing the early prototypes it turned out that having more roads on a bigger map made for a less interesting game. Somehow the balance was just wrong.

And then there was another problem: Fare City maps take time to put together. With the iPhone version we can put one out in a couple of days, but to figure out the dynamics of the bigger scale and screen space of the iPad we knew it would take much longer to balance the gameplay and refine the graphics. How were we going to put together enough maps to launch Fare City HD?

But while we sweated over the issues, Apple came to our salvation by announcing the iPhone 4. Now we had to do a double-resolution version of everything anyway! So finally we reverted to plan A – the iPad would use the same maps and graphics as the iPhone (once redone for Retina Display). We really like this plan now because it allows us to release a universal binary while still keeping an option of adding iPad-only, special maps down the road.

So, great; where is it, this universal binary awesomeness? Well, I’m saddened to say that our plans have been hit by a large slice of life. I won’t go into details here but at present the graphics work is on hold while more important things happen. We would love to get the work done and out, but it will have to wait.

Meanwhile, I do have another game project in development, in collaboration with another designer. This one has also been plagued with hitches through the summer (not least of which has been my taking a full-time contract to help pay bills) but I’m hoping to bring more news on this soon.

But for now, I hope you are enjoying the last of the summer (if you live in the Northern Hemisphere), still enjoy playing Fare City, and if you know anyone who is looking for a fun game on their iPhone, please pass the word.

P.S. I knew I forgot something! I have an important announcement regarding Fare City pricing…

As of Friday we will be returning Fare City to the 99c bargain-bin price. Having tried out the (we feel more appropriate) $1.99 price point for the last few weeks it is clear that it is not a popular price for people. So, if you know someone who was put off by the “big” price tag – tell them to go buy it this weekend. You know it makes sense.

Fare City 2.0 Submitted to Apple

This morning I submitted the latest update of Fare City to Apple for review. All being well it should be in the App Store within the week.

The headline feature is a new game mode called Crazy Cabs. By simplifying the game mechanics, Crazy Cabs offers a whole new experience in terms of game play which we think you will love. Instead of controlling a taxi fleet you have to deal with a continuous stream of cabs arriving already laden with passengers. Your job is “simply” to get each cab to its drop-off point and then have it leave without accident. Of course, the taxis arrive at an increasing rate so pressure builds until the game really starts to live up its name! Even if you are growing tired of Fare City you really should give Crazy Cabs a spin. It is like a whole new game for free.

Although Fare City is the type of game that many people can just pick up and play, we have noticed in play tests that some people really benefit from a few handy tips when starting out. So Fare City 2.0 includes a fully playable walkthrough tutorial. Even if you are an old hand at the game you should check it out – it looks gorgeous!

The other major changes have come in the UI. The game selection screen has been made (we hope) a little more intuitive, while the stats screen has had a complete overhaul so stats browsing is much easier.

New maps? Well, no, not in this release. Sorry. All I can say is, “soon, very soon…”

Oh, but I almost forgot – there is one more thing; not in Fare City itself, but in the free edition. Up until now it has been a try-before-you-buy, time restricted demo of the full game. Not any more! In 2.0 Fare City Free includes the full, original Classic game on the Downtown map. We’ve even thrown in Rookie mode, the tutorial and Open Feint leaderboards. Our hope is that people will find the free edition a much more satisfying experience (and want the whole experience of the full version :-)).

And while we are all here – yes, there is an iPad version under development…

Where did this come from?

It took a couple of days longer than I expected but Fare City returned to Finkly Interactive last Wednesday. To celebrate we started a three day giveaway, mainly to smooth the transition of Digital Chocolate customers and hopefully create a little buzz ahead of launching 2.0 at the start of June. We are now in the middle of day three of that sale, so how are things going?

Well. Yes, things are going well.

On day one we saw more downloads of the game than the total purchases since launch back in the September. That’s more copies in one day than eight months of sales. Not that Fare City sales have been huge (as you attentive readers of my blog will have figured) but, huh?

I mean, it’s not like Fare City had any visibility. The Digital Chocolate version was in zero charts; the Finkly Interactive version had been out of the App Store for four months. Sure, we tried to do a little market warm up before the switch and also attempted (through Open Feint and Twitter) to alert DC customers about the sale so they could “jump ship” for free, but it is hard to go from there to the many thousands who seem to have leapt at the chance of getting FC for free.

Of course, through the course of Thursday FC was becoming increasingly visible in the App Store as it rose steadily up the charts around the world. But chart visibility only fuels existing success – you still have to get there. How did that happen?

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that FC benefited from three catalysts:

  1. Owners of the previous FI version of the game got a pleasant surprise when they got an upgrade out of the blue, and they tried out the new maps, remembered how much they liked the game, noticed it was on sale (we put that in the release note) and told all their friends. If this was you, thanks!
  2. The App Store sales bots picked up on the sale and publicized it around the Internet. (I don’t profess to know how those bots work but I did make the play of releasing the new version to the App Store about two hours BEFORE dropping the price to free; and it seems to have worked.)
  3. Firemint coincidentally released an update to Flight Control on the same day. Just maybe this prompted a few of their millions of customers to think “I wonder if there are any other great games like this out there?” Who knows.

If day one was a surprise, day two was just unbelievable. Somehow momentum was sustained and Fare City continued to slowly climb most of the charts until it was knocking on the door of the USA Top #100. Actual download numbers were 50% higher than day one. Finally, at the start of day three it has broken into that coveted realm (if only to #94).

As a consequence of this unexpected turn of events we have decided to ride the wave and extend the sale for at least two more days. The hope is to create a large enough user base that it will become self-sustaining when the tap of free gets turned off. It’s a tough call so check back here later to find out if it was a good one or not.

Whatever the outcome it is still a fun ride.

And here we are, back where we started

Fare City is coming home!

The distribution agreement with Digital Chocolate is coming to an end. My time with a publisher has been interesting and educational but for various reasons it hasn’t really worked out. We are just waiting on Apple to review the new binaries so Fare City should be back on sale under the Finkly Interactive name early next week.

After the pain of the previous transition to Digital Chocolate I’m hopeful that this will be more of a good news story. For one thing, the new version of Fare City is actually an update to the old app I took off the App Store in January. This means that everyone who bought the original version will get it for free; hurrah!

Next, to help those who bought the DC version we are going to celebrate the return home by offering the full version of FC for FREE for at least three days! Of course this will only help if they know about the transition. So we are putting the word out this weekend to see if the grapevine will help carry the news to at least some while the sale is on.

Finally, we are planning to ship Fare City 2.0 in early June. I can’t say too much about it now because things are subject to change but something I’m quite excited about is a new game mode that should offer substantially different game play. More news to follow.

But that is the news for now. If you or someone you know has the Digital Chocolate be sure to listen out for news of the switch over so you can pick up your free copy of the FI version. In fact, just tell everyone so they can get their copy. You can’t argue with free!

It’s me or the machine

So, my new MacBook Pro arrived yesterday. Firing it up for the first time I see it has one of those newfangled multitouch trackpads – cool. Hmm, how do you do a mouse click? The manual says just tap – no, that’s what I’m doing. I suspect (correctly) that it hasn’t been configured in preferences but as the machine is kindly leading me through setup I figure I will just have to limp along using the keyboard. Eventually I get to user migration, am told it will take 10 hours (lots of files) and leave it for the night.

Coming back this morning I discover the migration stuck transferring timezone settings. Eventually I get bored and reboot. The MacBook starts going through setup from the beginning but now helpfully overlays a wifi signon dialog on top. It takes quite some fiddling but finally I work out how to select the dialog without a mouse and can get going again. By now I’m really ready to sort out the trackpad so skip migration.

OK, the system is up and I just nned to get to system preferences; except preferences doesn’t have a key shortcut. How can I select the menu without a mouse? I’m sure the answer is in the help – but you need to activate the menubar to access it! Nevermind, I’ll check it out on my iMac – Fn-control-F2, yes well that’s obvious. Right, system preferences is open.

Now, for those of you without a Mac, the system preferences interface is a lot of little icons, much like Windows control panel, but unlike Windows it is not just a Explorer window. It is a custom interface (at least as far as I can tell) and Apple doesn’t appear to have thought that you might need to navigate it without a mouse! I can see the icon I need but can’t click or select it in any way!

The astute amongst you are probably wondering why I don’t just plug in a mouse. Well, it is at the precise moment that I am wondering the same. So I do.

Sure enough, tap is not enabled. Nor are some other options that look quite useful so I start going through the list. One thing Apple has done really well is that each option includes a short video to show you the gesture. And as I am watching the clip for secondary clicks that I notice a curious thing. As the finger taps the bottom-right corner of the tackpad it appears to depress. I try it – yes, the bottom corners include microswitches. To click all you have to do it PUSH THE INVISIBLE BUTTON IN THE BOTTOM-LEFT CORNER OF THE TRACKPAD!!!!

I guess this is one of those discovery moments of which Apple is so proud.

Of a confusion of version numbers

Hello again. It has been quite a while, hasn’t it?

So, there is a new version of Fare City out. It has been some time in coming but I hope people will think it worth the wait. (I also hope some of the owners of the FI version will think it worth buying the DC version to get it!)

The most important additions are two new maps: The Maze and Harborside. We are particularly proud of the The Maze because it really brings a different feel to gameplay. The basic premise is that you have a reduced number of streets and intersections, in theory making life easier as there are few places to collide. However, in reality you have to think much more about taxi routes because many of them now have to rely on screen-wrapping. You need to think much more for each taxi and often suffer what I like to call “death by confusion”. Oh, and just to keep you on your toes there is a police car that comes by. As he ignores normal traffic rules try not to meet him in the one-way system…

Not quite as dramatic but still great fun is Harborside. It has a similar feel to Metrotown with parkland and angled roads, but rather than the moving collision of a train it has a ferry dock. Fortunately you don’t have to control the ferry, but it will dump a load of fares on you each visit so your taxis have to periodically converge on the dock to clear the backlog of impatient people.

The new maps also bring a new sound track. I hope you like it as much as the original. Before anyone asks, yes, in a future version we plan to allow you to choose between the sound tracks (and your iPod library) during play. We’re just not quite there yet.

What else is new? Open Feint has been updated to 2.4 which brings our very own fan club accessible from right within the game. There are also new achievements for the new maps.

The observant among you will also have noticed that the route lines look a bit cleaner. (Please say you did!) I finally got around to implementing a better line draw algorithm. (The iPhone does not support good line drawing in OpenGL, you have to roll your own.) Harborside also forced me to revisit fare positioning and selection (there ain’t much room by the dock for all those passengers!) and I hope people will appreciate the change. Not only are fares generally more evenly spaced along the street (even when they are on opposite sides) but I also fixed a long-standing bug in fare selection that means you can now (if you have a steady hand) pick out that expiring pick-up on a busy street.

I’ve also had another go at making the proximity warning more intelligent. Things should be rather quieter now as the warning filters out most situations where taxis are not likely to collide. I apologize in advance if there are occasions when it doesn’t sound until just before a collision…

I hope you enjoy the show.

But wait! What’s with the strange title? You haven’t said anything about numbers. Well, there is a story…

As you know, Fare City was first published directly by Finkly Interactive. Not surprisingly the very first version was 1.0, followed by two bug fix versions – 1.0.1 and 1.0.2. Finally we released a new feature version – 1.1. After that the game was republished by Digital Chocolate. The first DChoc version was identical to FI 1.1 but was numbered 1.0.1 (for reasons not entirely clear to me).

For this upgrade DChoc requested it be numbered 1.0.2. This was done and it was submitted to Apple last Monday. On Thursday it was rejected because its version number was “not greater than the existing version”, even though it clearly was. Rather than argue our case, we agreed to just renumber as 1.1 (which is more logical anyway as it is a feature release). Everything was redone and resubmitted but now iTunes Connect would not even accept the binary because … the version number was “not greater than the existing version”. After double-checking and triple-checking the builds we began to wonder if the problem might be some bizarre clash with the FI versions. Sure enough, when the game was rebuilt as 1.1.1 it all uploaded smoothly. Less than 20 hours later it was in the App Store.

But there is one final twist in this tale. If you check iTunes you will see that the new version number is 1.0.2! Although I haven’t checked I assume that the build is actually the last one submitted (1.1.1). If someone wants to check for me you can find the version number in the bottom right corner of the credits screen (which is now accessed from the help screens). If it is 1.1.1 then it will say “1.1”. What? Yes, I’m afraid so – there wasn’t time to update the credits screen when rebuilding for 1.1.1!

So, the new version is 1.0.2, or 1.1, or 1.1.1, depending on where you look.

Now there’s a spur to develop version 1.2…

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.

Is there method in this madness?

Fare City 1.1 is the fourth release I have done through the App Store and I thought I understood how things worked. I would submit the binary, wait a couple of weeks, receive the acceptance email one day at around 3-4pm, and the binary would be live in the App Store that evening (though eastern countries like Japan and Australia would get it almost as soon as the email arrived).

Yesterday I awoke to find that Apple had sent the acceptance email for 1.1 at 11pm local time, so most countries had been shipping the update for several hours before I knew.

Does this matter?

Well, I suppose not a great deal, but there is one of those many quirks of the App Store that makes it annoying. When you submit an application through iTunes Connect you have to supply a load of marketing material along with the application – the icon, screenshots, the product description, etc. (If you have localizations you need to provide descriptions and screenshots for each.) When you submit an update you will probably be changing a lot of this stuff. But for most of it you can’t! There is only one product description and one set of screenshots per application (per localization). So you have to wait until the update is actually in the App Store before you can update the materials.

So, for most of Friday if people looked at the App Store they would see that 1.1 was “coming soon”, even though iTunes showed that the app was version 1.1. Not exactly earth shattering, I admit, but hardly the slick marketing machine of Apple myth. I just can’t understand why Apple doesn’t include product description and screen images in the update – they already have to maintain a second copy of the app binary and icon anyway.

Well, time to climb off the soap box. The good news is that Fare City 1.1 is now in the App Store – enjoy.

It’s time to begin again

It is with acute embarrassment that I notice I haven’t blogged in over a month! I am not sure where the time has gone but such is how we live much of our lives.

For Fare City fans, the most exciting news is that version 1.1 was submitted to Apple a week ago. If recent performance is a guide then we may hope that it will appear in the App Store in a little over a week from now, just in time for you all to update ready for some holiday gaming.

I have already covered the change of leaderboard in a previous blog, and I’m going to do another entry on my experience of integrating Open Feint, so I won’t say much here. However, I will mention that the update attempts to post your existing high score to the appropriate Open Feint leaderboard. In doing so it uses the local cache of your leaderboard entry so it won’t work if you have reset your stats since posting your best score. I did experiment with scraping the online information but it needed just too much code payload. I apologize in advance for any high scores that are lost – you will just have to post a better score with the new version.

So what else is new? For what seems like ever we have been promising a new map for Fare City. Version 1.1 has Metrotown, a more suburban setting with a less regular grid, and a train you need to avoid. Here is a screenshot of the new map in action:

Screenshot-full11-1

Pretty nice, yes? One of the great things about this map is what you can’t see – the infrastructure that is now built into the game to support maps and their unique features. This means that future maps can be added much faster.

Something that keeps coming up is the difficulty of the game. Quite simply, the speed is just too much of a challenge for some players. Well, help is at hand in the form of Rookie mode. In it the game is still the same but everything is done at a more leisurely pace. The taxis are slightly slower and they arrive less frequently. And to give you a helping hand you start with two insurance stars – just like that. Of course, Rookie mode is not just for new players, anyone who wants a little more relaxing play will enjoy it.

At the other end of the scale is Time Trial mode. If you thought First Shift was frenetic, just wait until you’ve tried this! You compete against the clock, with a starting time of just 90 seconds. Each fare you deliver buys you a couple of seconds more, so you really have to keep motoring. Also, the taxis arrive much more quickly than in the classic game, so the last few seconds of the game can be pretty crazy. That is, if you can get there – normal insurance rules still apply.

Well, I hope that has whet your appetites. It has been a long time coming but I hope you will find Fare City 1.1 worth the wait…