How ClutchPlay Cracked ?Skullduggery!? With Playtesting and Marketing
October 11, 2014
We recently sat down with Amy Dallas, a Chartboost University (CBU) spring 2014 alum and the co-founder and producer of ClutchPlay Games. Amy and her studio just released their second game Skullduggery! on iOS yesterday, which was also selected as this week?s Editors' Choice on the Apple App Store.
?Howdy, Amy! Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us. Could you give the Chartboost community a little refresher about ClutchPlay Games?Amy Dallas: ClutchPlay Games is a small, scrappy indie studio in Portland, Oregon. The four of us initially worked together for several years at the Portland, Oregon satellite office of a large mobile game company based in San Francisco. In early 2012, we walked into our office one day to learn that we had been downsized out of existence.While it wasn?t a great time for any of us, we all realized that this was one of those ?now or never moments.? We had the right team at the right time and each of us had saved enough money to live without a paycheck for almost a year. So that?s what we did.We launched our first game, Little Chomp, in October 2012. Now we just launched our second game Skullduggery! on iOS yesterday.
Congratulations on launching Skullduggery!, and for being recognized as an Editors? Choice in the Apple App Store. Could you describe the development journey for the game?AD: I seriously can?t believe we?re finally here! ClutchPlay has been in business almost three years now and this past year working on Skullduggery! has been the wildest ride that any of us have ever been on. While our first game was critically well received, it suffered from the poor job we did marketing it.One of the great things to come out of Little Chomp, though, was that it gave us a clear blueprint of what to do better the second time around. The first review we ever got was from Justin Davis at IGN, who took pity on us after I sent him the most pathetic email he?d possibly ever received, in which I practically begged him to look at our almost entirely unknown game. We actually went back to that review several times to keep ourselves on track with Skullduggery!.To be honest, we also spent a lot of time second guessing our chances on this project. I don?t think it was until Skullduggery! got selected for this year?s PAX 10 at PAX Prime that we finally started feeling like maybe we might actually have a shot at reaching a wider audience. The jury is still out, of course, but we?re hopeful.
?What new challenges did you face developing Skullduggery! compared to developing Little Chomp? How did you tackle them differently?AD: Great question! The short answer can be summed up by two words: playtesting and marketing.Truthfully, we really didn?t know what we were doing when launched our first game and poor Little Chomp paid the price for that. When we started ClutchPlay, we fell facedown into the classic indie pitfall which I?ve come to think of as ?Field of Dreams? syndrome (aka ?If you build it?and it doesn?t suck?they will come.?). And like a lot of new indies who lack experience marketing their own products, we mistook this optimistic philosophy for a marketing strategy.So we built it?and it didn?t suck?and then we launched it thinking that the hard part of our job was done. And...they didn?t come. Even with the great press attention we got when Little Chomp was selected for the Pax East Indie Showcase in 2013, that still didn?t really translate into any kind of meaningful sales or revenue. So Little Chomp sort of turned out to be the game equivalent of our starter pancake (i.e. that first sad, wonky pancake that get?s thrown out because it?s too pathetic to eat.) Don?t get me wrong. We're incredibly proud of Little Chomp. We just aren?t proud of the fact that we didn?t know enough about marketing to do justice by it.This time, straight out of the gate, we decided to do everything differently. On our first game we were very quiet. We kept our work to ourselves almost until the very end, showing it mostly to friends and family who typically told us more what we wanted to hear than what we needed to hear. This time we needed to put it in front of people who would really challenge it as early and as often as possible.At the beginning of the year, we committed to go to a tradeshow in San Francisco to show off our new game. At the time we made that commitment we had almost nothing to show. Not sure I?d recommend that approach to everyone but it turned out to be a great (if not hugely stressful) decision for us.
?We managed to come to that trade show armed with three early prototype levels of Skullduggery! and a few very simple, but important, goals. We wanted to: one, watch strangers play the game, two, get a real sense of whether or not players seemed to connect with it, and three, come home with a clear idea of what we needed to do better. At the end of the conference, our mission was accomplished. Players seemed to get the game, we?d learned a tremendous amount by watching them play, and we knew exactly what we needed to do next to improve the experience.A few weeks later, we were back in San Francisco for CBU and then GDC. While sitting in the Chartboost office, we implemented two test levels for what turned out to be our local multiplayer mode. We tested those with some of the Chartboost staff as well as some of our fellow CBU students and took what we learned and channeled that into our development process. From there we ended up demoing those new multiplayer levels at The Big Indie Pitch at GDC.We also went out of our comfort zone and courted the press as early and often as possible. Opportunities like The Big Indie Pitch put on by Pocket Gamer make that a whole lot easier. If you?re an indie and don?t know what it is, go to Pocket Gamer and find out more about it. That was, without a doubt, the single most important press event we did all year.When we made Little Chomp, we were timid, while at the same time perhaps a little over-confident. On the other hand, in making Skullduggery!, we were brave, yet pretty humble, and willing to learn from every single person who played the game. Having been on both sides of that equation, I definitely believe that being brave and humble is the way to go.Was there a game (or games)--mobile or non-mobile--that you drew inspiration from when developing Skullduggery!?AD: If you took Super Mario Bros. and Angry Birds and threw them into a demented blender, you?d have Skullduggery!. In a way, our game is kind of a crazy love letter to those two classic games.
Yes, some people might get snotty about calling Angry Birds a classic, but just like Mario, it absolutely is. Angry Birds was one of the first games on mobile that perfectly illustrated the potential of the touchscreen medium, as Mario did for the NES when it first came out. We hope that people will feel the same way about Skullduggery!. It can be really tough to mimic that old school platformer feel on a mobile device principally because the most obvious way to do that is to implement the virtual joystick as your primary control scheme. We really wanted to challenge ourselves to see if we could create a platformer that actually felt really satisfying on a touchscreen. We got a lot of great feedback from the players at PAX this year so we?re feeling pretty good about how it turned out.The most important element of making a game is creating fun. At what moment did everything click and you found the fun for Skullduggery!?AD: Really good question. This was actually a bit of a struggle for us in our early prototypes. Everyone who?s worked in game development knows that it?s inherently different from every other kind of software development in one critical aspect. In standard software development, your success is judged on three things. Did it get done on time? Was it to spec? Did you stick to your budget? In games, we have one other huge wild card. Is it fun?!Our first Skullduggery! prototype began as a more traditional platformer in which you played a skeleton that could fling his own skull. After several failed efforts we realized what was really fun was the flinging mechanic that we used in Little Chomp, but we also knew that we needed to push it further, and that?s when things really started to come together.We dropped the skeleton, cracked the skull in half, and attached it with elastic brain material to provide the mechanism by which you rubber band around the world without need of a body. Then we added the ability to touch and hold on the screen which adds a Matrix-esque ?bullet time? slow down to assist with aiming in midair. This ridiculous premise was a surprising hit when we showed it to people at that first conference. That?s when we knew we?d found the fun factor.How did you hear about CBU, and why did you decide to apply?AD: We?d actually first heard about CBU in early 2013 through the Chartboost newsletter and wanted to apply then, but it overlapped with PAX East that year so the timing wasn?t right. When a second class was announced in the fall of that same year, I got really excited until I realized that it coincided with the launch date of a pretty big contract gig we were wrapping up at the time. So when early 2014 rolled around, I started hitting the Chartboost Blog once a week looking for info on the next CBU. This time around, I was pretty determined that we were going to apply. And man, I am so glad we did!
Being an indie is really hard. When you?re a developer in a studio system, your job is pretty straightforward, and that?s to make a great game within an established timeline and budget. As indies, we need to be good at everything, from planning and budgeting, to design and art, to engineering and QA, and finally, marketing and PR. You really have to acquire an insane number of skills to survive and since we knew we were lacking in some of those skills, one of our major goals as a company was to humbly accept opportunities to learn whenever and wherever we could find them.I hadn?t seen a program out there quite like CBU so we jumped at the chance as soon as we could. I?m actually really glad that things worked out as they did, as I truly loved the other indies in our class and if we?d gone earlier we wouldn?t have met that great group of people.What was the single most important thing you learned in your time at CBU and why?AD: We learned a lot of amazing things at CBU, but the single most important experience we had there was the press workshop. Prior to arriving at CBU, we were asked to write up an email pitch for our game. We then got to sit down with a pretty prominent member of the gaming press while he critiqued every part of our pitch, from the subject line to the content to the promo video. That alone was probably one of the single most important learning experiences I?ve had to date as an indie developer.Press are constantly deluged with emails from developers begging them to pay attention to their games. Having one of those journalists pick apart a sample pitch to tell you what is and isn?t working is invaluable. We wrote that pitch several months prior when the game was still very much in early development, so our approach has definitely evolved quite a bit from the one we worked on in the Chartboost office. Still, that experience gave us a whole new level of confidence that we didn?t have before.I?ve certainly been to a number of industry talks about how to engage with the press but I?m not sure I know of any other opportunity where you can actually sit down with member of the press and have them tell you whether or not you?ve created a compelling pitch. That?s one of the many reasons why CBU is pretty special. The entire program was really thoughtfully put together. Chartboost really took into consideration what our pain points as indies were and found mentors who helped us to address those pain points.What information from CBU did you apply toward the development of Skullduggery!?AD: Chelsea Howe from EA gave a really great talk about the importance of approaching a game?s design rhythm, short-term, medium-term, and long-term, as well as hinting at the promise of possibilities to come within your game. We talked about that quite a lot during several key points in our development.
Allen Ma from Merigo did an incredible workshop on different strategies for successfully implementing free-to-play models that I think we?ll refer back to as we head into our Android development. We were also really inspired by Arash Keshmirian from Limbic Software who talked about the important balancing act between the big picture and the fine details that make a game really pleasing.We also got some really useful advice from the GameChangersSF team, which I referred back to when writing our app store copy and keywords.Have you kept in touch with any fellow CBU classmates, CBU mentors or Boosters? And have you learned more from them after your time at CBU?AD: Absolutely! We?ve become really good friends with several of the other teams and stay in touch with many of them on a pretty regular basis. They?ve been cheering us on the entire way through the Skullduggery! development process as we have with each of their games. I can?t wait to see them again at GDC next year! When you go through an experience like CBU, one in which you?re thrown together with a bunch of people who have the same struggles that you do, it definitely creates a ?we?re all in this together? feeling.We?ve also had some of the mentors reach out to us throughout the year to ask how the game has been coming. That?s been really nice. And, of course, Chartboost has continued to be really supportive of us. I got a chance to hang out at the new Chartboost office when I was last down in San Francisco. The new space is so cool! If you haven?t been there, it has a giant T. rex hanging out in the middle of the main floor. I kept tripping over its tail when I was there so if you ever go to the Chartboost office, beware of the dinosaur tail! Not a sentence I thought I?d ever actually use but there you go.So, Skullduggery! is now in the wild. What are you cooking up next?AD: Next stop is the Android version of Skullduggery!, which is due to launch in early 2015. After that, we're not entirely sure. To be completely honest, that all depends on how successful we are with Skullduggery!.The weird and sad reality of being an indie developer is that you can't always count on the fact that you're going to even recoup all your development expenses when you launch your game. If we do well, we?ll definitely plow whatever we make back into the company so we can keep making original titles. If we don?t do as well as we hope, we?ll likely resort to a tactic a lot of struggling indies use, which is to take on some contract work to build up our resources before we work on our next title. Hopefully that won?t be necessary but you have to be prepared for anything in this industry!We have a few interesting ideas that have been percolating for our next game but we haven't started prototyping anything yet. As soon as we do, I?m sure we?ll start hitting the conference circuit trying to get feedback so we?ll keep you posted!
How would you describe your experience at CBU to your friends in the development community?AD: CBU was a really important experience for us and I feel so lucky that we got to participate. As an indie dev, you spend a lot of time working alone out of your house, so having the ability to sit in a room for a week with indie developers from all over the world was incredible. Just having access to mentors who genuinely want to help you succeed is huge.Seriously, if you?re thinking about applying for the 2015 class, don?t even hesitate. Just do it. You will not be sorry.Where can the Chartboost community find your games?AD: Our first game Little Chomp is still available on the Apple App Store, Google Play and the Amazon Appstore. Skullduggery! is now available worldwide on the Apple App Store, and will come to Google Play and Amazon in 2015.You can get all the latest at our website, or follow us on Twitter!Thanks, everyone!