Lessons learned, and the future of Snake360

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Lessons learned, and the future of Snake360

Postby yyr » Mon Jan 26, 2009 7:02 pm

Over the course of the last two to three months, I learned some lessons regarding the market for hobbyist-developed games, the sorts of games that succeed in this market, and the amount of effort required to create them. At the risk of sounding like I'm whining, I'm going to share them with you.

I submitted a very early version of Snake360 to the Xbox LIVE Arcade team late in 2007, along with details of the massive list of features that the game would include. 300 levels within five distinct difficulties, co-op and battle modes, survival... basically everything that made it into the released game, plus things that didn't, like online play, leaderboards, achievements and a level editor plus online level sharing.

There were some lapses in communication somewhere along the way so the process took much longer than it should have, but in the end I was rejected. The reasoning they gave me was something along the lines of "there is limited space on XBLA for casual action games, so we believe this is not a good fit."

I was, of course, disappointed by their decision and reasoning, knowing in my mind that Snake360 was going to become a deep, challenging, and fun arcade game with excellent multiplayer features as a bonus. About eight months after I was rejected from XBLA, after lots of hard work, level creation, testing and balancing, I released Snake360 to Community Games. I was completely confident that I delivered a deep, challenging, and fun arcade game with excellent multiplayer features, just as I had intended...one that would represent the best value for money anywhere on Xbox LIVE.

Unfortunately, reception of the game was not what I'd hoped for. By and large, the XBLA folks may have been right all along.

There is a small group of people who have bought the game, discovered its playability, and have gotten way more than their $5 worth, even telling me that because of Snake360, their recently-purchased retail games were still sitting in shrinkwrap. They participated in Internet Ranking and got well into the 300 provided levels. They discovered techniques to break all kinds of score barriers in Survival Mode, and had a blast in the two Battle modes. They discussed it on the Snake360 forums and had a great time, and I really enjoyed seeing them having fun with it.

I'm quite happy that this group had a great time playing the game. What disappoints me is the general public's opinion of the game. It can pretty much be summed up in Jim Sterling's Destructoid review, where he essentially speaks for the public and says:

"it's Snake."

Yes, on a very basic level, it is Snake, the very same Snake that people can play for free on their cell phones. But when Pac-Man Championship Edition released a few years ago, you didn't see reviews saying "it's Pac-Man," did you? You saw "it's Pac-Man, but it plays totally differently, feels fresh and is worth $10."

Snake360's main game mode DOES play completely differently from the classic survival-style gameplay of traditional Snake. If you don't believe me, watch a video of Expert or Master gameplay. The old versions folks are used to also don't contain co-op or battle modes, nor do they have Internet Ranking, nor do they have 300 unique levels. There certainly are no 4-player Suffocation Battles in those old or free versions. And guess what? Everyone I've shown the game to personally has enjoyed it.

But first impressions last, and everyone's first impression seems to be "it's Snake."

This reminds me of something: the American public's general feeling about shoot-em-ups today. I'm not talking about Halo and Call of Duty; those are FPSes. I'm talking about REAL shmups, the kind where you move a ship or character around the screen and blast everything that moves (or doesn't). American reviewers seem to call them "space shooters" these days.

The same reviewers also seem to say the same things any time they're reviewing one. "It plays similarly to every game like this that you've played before," they say. "It's too short," they say. "It's forgettable," "this genre is dead," etc. Sound familiar?

The shmup, sadly, is a sort of game that most Americans just don't seem to "get" any more. They don't see the subtle details and minute additions that great developers like Cave have introduced. They don't understand the fact that these games are played with skill and played for score, and that they don't exist simply to be beaten by credit-feeding and button mashing. They don't see that it takes many hours to figure out and exploit complex chaining methods, game mechanics or scoring systems, even as the game's levels can be played through in half an hour or less. I am almost certain that Espgaluda--one of my absolute favorite video games, ever, and an absolute masterpiece of a game--would be poorly reviewed and received if it ever came out over here (which is why it never will. If you can play Japanese PS2 games and enjoy shmups, it's a must-buy).

I think that many arcade-style games, like shmups, have fallen out of the public eye to the point where most typical American gamers don't see the point of playing them any more. Why are shmups reviewed in the way that they are, whereas FPSes are seen much differently? This, I think, is the root cause of the negative general first impressions of Snake360. It was designed to be a hardcore arcade game for hardcore arcade gamers, and I'm just not sure that type of gamer is very common any more.

That is one lesson that I learned. Here's another: the mainstream game press Web sites, by and large, don't care about Community Games unless you're an established developer or you've delivered something completely outrageous. The completely outrageous things often get exposure and sell copies, regardless of quality or the amount of effort put into them. Case in point: Fireplace, which came with the same asking price as Snake360, none of the gameplay, and yet was featured prominently on several major gaming sites. Perhaps consequently, it was the #1 seller on Community Games around Christmas time.

During the last two months, I've also seen many games that don't have Snake360's content or complexity outsell it. Some were on Community Games but many were on iPhone. Many of the top sellers had a thing in common: they were really simple, several of them being amusements more than they were games. This basically leads me to believe that the amount of content in a game doesn't matter, and that I would have sold just as many copies of Snake360 if I'd shipped with only 50 levels instead of 300. So the lesson seems to be: deliver an original, fun but simple game with a small amount of content. If a simple game is popular and sells well, more content can THEN be delivered in the form of sequels. Community Games is apparently not the place to put games with 5-10 hours of content, like Snake360.

Another lesson: I initially felt that Community Games would be a much more lucrative market because it was in its infancy and competition would be light, but now I realize that the iPhone App Store may be a better market after all because of the size of its actual--and not potential--user base. Most iPhone owners (and there are a lot of them) seem to be interested in the App Store. On the other hand, most Xbox LIVE subscribers are not interested in Community Games, and unless Microsoft does something that may change the situation, it looks likely that it'll remain that way.

So now, I'm in the planning stages of a project that takes just about all of this under consideration (except for the iPhone bit). I am going to attempt to deliver something that is simple, fun, short and quite outrageous. It may not come out this year, because I'm going to work on a couple of other things before it sees the light of day, but you never know.

As for the future of Snake360: I am currently working on a version update (1.1). This is basically a thank-you to everyone who purchased and enjoyed the game. It contains several features that were asked for (like USB keyboard support), as well as a bug fix or two, a code to instantly unlock all 12 of the game's unlockable items, and two new modes: a practice mode for 1 player, and a special competition mode for 2 players that takes place on the game's courses. The update is free of course, but you will need to re-download the game to receive it.

I will also release a version in the near future called "Snake360 Lite." This version will attempt to sell the game to a specific group of people: folks who may be interested in this sort of game, but didn't want to pay 400 points for it. The Lite version will only cost 200 points. It will have most of the full version's game modes, but will contain only the initially unlocked content--3 courses, 3 difficulties, 6 levels for Survival and Battle mode--and no goals or unlocks will be available. This will mean a total of 90 levels out of the 300, and the loss of Marathon mode, as well as Turbo and Extreme speeds. Furthermore, the music player, co-op, practice and competition modes will not be included. Half of the graphics and music will be cut from the game (those associated with courses 4-6). Internet Ranking will still be available. To me, it seems like this will be just enough game for the intended casual audience, who will not likely miss what isn't there. At the same time, I believe that the folks who already purchased the game will feel that their purchase was the better value...hopefully they won't feel burned.

These will be the final planned updates for Snake360, and at this time, I am not planning the development of a sequel. I would have liked to implement everything that I originally envisioned, like the level editor, level sharing and online play, and expand the gameplay in a sequel...but it seems like the pool of interested people is just too small. If--over the course of about 6 weeks--I couldn't get even two people to submit a Battle Mode video, or one single person to clear 90% of the game for a prize worth $100, or one major game Web site to give the contest some exposure--how many folks are really looking forward to further updates? What would be the point of adding new levels when I have all but confirmed that I'm the only one who's seen the levels currently available?

Despite the fact that I will stop working on it, I would still like for new players to discover and enjoy Snake360. If you enjoyed the game and would like to help me get the word out, please consider writing a review of it on www.gamefaqs.com or other popular gaming sites. For me to review my own game would be a bit inappropriate.

Thanks to everyone who read this far, to everyone who's enjoyed playing Snake360, and to everyone who's supported me in my efforts. Please watch for my next game release! I will attempt to learn from my mistakes and the market trends, and deliver a quality game with broad enough appeal that it will be recognized by a wide audience.
Aaron Teplitsky
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Re: Lessons learned, and the future of Snake360

Postby U-B » Tue Jan 27, 2009 1:18 pm

yyr wrote:On the other hand, most Xbox LIVE subscribers are not interested in Community Games, and unless Microsoft does something that may change the situation, it looks likely that it'll remain that way.

In my opinion, the problem is that there is WAY too much dross in Community Games. The only one that I've bought so far is Snake360; a couple of others have tempted me, but the majority I wouldn't play even if they were free. It seems to me that there is one very obvious feature missing from Community Games, which is user ratings. Yes, they have the "most popular" list, but that is sales based rather than quality based (typical MS), and therefore really isn't the same thing at all. Take the Apple application store for example; there are, of course, many other factors, but I don't think it's a coincidence that it has ratings and also seems to be far more successful.

yyr wrote:If--over the course of about 6 weeks--I couldn't get even two people to submit a Battle Mode video, or one single person to clear 90% of the game for a prize worth $100, or one major game Web site to give the contest some exposure--how many folks are really looking forward to further updates? What would be the point of adding new levels when I have all but confirmed that I'm the only one who's seen the levels currently available?

Well, this doesn't change the sales figures, but don't forget that a decent percentage of the potential market were ineligible for the competitions because they were outside of the US. Personally, I've seen almost all of the levels now, and if I'd been eligible for the competition, then I probably would have pushed through the last few.


Anyway, I really enjoyed the game, and I feel that I got way more than my money's worth out of it. So, I'm sad to hear that it hasn't sold well, and I wish you better fortune with your future projects.
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Re: Lessons learned, and the future of Snake360

Postby slowbro » Tue Jan 27, 2009 5:06 pm

I'm sorry, and Snake360 is an amazing game that would appeal to tons of hardcore gamers if they gave it a chance.

I sure hope you keep at it! You are a skilled and dedicated game creator, and I hope somehow your games find the broad audience they deserve.
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Re: Lessons learned, and the future of Snake360

Postby yyr » Tue Jan 27, 2009 6:18 pm

U-B wrote:It seems to me that there is one very obvious feature missing from Community Games, which is user ratings.


This feature has been asked for over on the XNA community forums as well. I think that the XNA team knows that it should be there, and it may be coming in the future. But will it come too late?

One strange thing: I don't actually know the sales numbers yet. I'm making an educated guess, based on the limited feedback I've received both on the forum and in the Web site traffic statistics. I will be absolutely shocked if the game actually sold much better than I expected, and 99.9% of the players never came to the Web site (which has been receiving a pretty small amount of traffic). Who knows? We'll have sales data by the end of March, they say.

Thanks once again for the positive feedback. If you're curious: the next thing (other than the 1.1 update or Snake360 Lite) that you'll see from me on Community Games will be a port of this. It's nothing special but I'll improve the audiovisual presentation, and give a better value for money than any other card game on the service (plus an arcadey feel, which will be in all of my projects). (This is NOT the unannounced project I refer to above. I'd like to release this over late spring or early summer.)
Aaron Teplitsky
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Re: Lessons learned, and the future of Snake360

Postby slowbro » Thu Feb 12, 2009 11:06 pm

I'm sorry, GameFAQs requires reviews to be 400+ words, and it is hard for me to write that much about this game. I'd have to describe in-depth features that I've never used. But I will try again.
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Re: Lessons learned, and the future of Snake360

Postby yyr » Mon Feb 16, 2009 11:48 am

If you'd like an example of a complete full review, or just want to take a look at some of my reviews:

http://www.gamefaqs.com/features/recognition/9921.html?type=4

I think I'm naturally more verbose than most people so that helps =) My most recent review, on Time Crisis 4 for PS3, won their Review of the Month contest for the month I wrote it.

I appreciate your efforts!
Aaron Teplitsky
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Re: Lessons learned, and the future of Snake360

Postby Mr. Domino » Sat Mar 14, 2009 12:57 am

It's great to see you supporting the game after the initial release, and the game is definitely one of the better available titles on Community Games. Unfortunately, the market for a snake game is small, and anyone going in and playing a minute or less will just see it as a barebones 3-D looking Snake variant like that Destructoid idiot. The multiplayer features aren't quickly accessible and the lack of Live support hurt them and the game severely I think. Plus, those modes are more or less Surround, not Snake, which may be of interest to others but not apparent from the game's title. Ratings may have helped (and are desperately needed on CG), but I'm sure you'd be crushed if your game got buried as well from similar Destructoid-minded players. :/
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Re: Lessons learned, and the future of Snake360

Postby yyr » Mon Mar 16, 2009 12:58 pm

Thanks for the positive feedback =)

Yeah, first impressions seem to drag this game down a great deal, and I can't stand that...so the best I can do is try to get the word out a little more, and over the coming weeks I'm going to try to do that.
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