Back in 2010, two friends in Brisbane named Peter and Stephen had the idea to start making games together. Peter was an artist and Stephen was a programmer so it was a perfect fit. This might sound like a common story with games such as Super Meat Boy also being made by two people, however this article will show that Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes were the exception, not the rule.
Peter and Stephen decided to ply their trade under the name Roguebox with a focus on creating mobile games. Shortly thereafter they began work on a stealth game and multiple iterations later the first title from Roguebox was finally released earlier this year. It was for that reason the guys were promoting the then soon to be released game at RTX Australia, and I recently caught up with Stephen Berg, programmer and designer of Rogue Agent, to see how the last six months had gone for them.
After the obvious 'how have things been?' question it quickly became apparent that Rogue Agent was effectively dead in the water. It didn't help that the game was switched over to a free-to-play model after release, but it was a necessary move never-the-less.
"The decision to go free to play happened for a few reasons:
1) It is very hard to sell a premium game now.
2) Our piracy rate was insane. On launch our analytics for the iOS version showed we had 18,000 users on the first weekend but when sales data came in, we found that 96% of those did not pay for the game. We found that we got small spikes of sales with articles and media coverage but everything had died off after 2 weeks (because we fell completely out of any charts etc).
I have no idea the piracy rate on android (we added analytics later) but for iOS it was 96%. I am guessing Android would have been worse. Within days we found a lot of sites with our game APK and OBB files up for download. It was a little heartbreaking but felt it was good we made a game worth stealing.
To try and hotshot ourselves back into the rankings we dropped the price from $2.99 USD to $0.99 USD for 2 weeks (starting Feb 1st - less than 2 weeks after release). Our sales did spike back up but in less than a week we went right back down to 4-5 sales a day. We did get another spike when Touch Arcade did a review (awarding 4 stars).
For the next few months (until April) I would try and give away promo codes on Touch Arcade and generally we would get 2-3 sales for every promo code we gave out. We decided to try another flash sale at $1 on April 6th (for 48 hours) which again gave a very small spike of a mere 24 sales.
In desperation we thought we could generate some word of mouth by giving Rogue Agent away for free so on April 10th we made the game free for 24 hours and moved 23,000 units. Upon returning to paid we had zero sales (this was a big failure but was what made us think free to play may be a better option).
On April 30th we made Rogue Agent free with Ads (and we disabled ads for people with existing save games - ie: people that already purchased the game). Downloads started at 9000+ per day and fell down over the next week to rest at 80-100 per day. The numbers seem good but in money terms - the ad revenue at peak was $70 per day and now, in August, we generate < $5 per day with 80-100 users per day (with the occasional spike for 200 people)."
Being the first game to come out of the studio, especially considering the six year that had gone into it, that would have been a very bitter pill to swallow.
"We should have recognised our market and made a simpler game with procedural content that we could have shipped in 6 months. We also should have planned for free with ads and IAP straight away. The decision to switch hurt all the momentum we had. It is very hard to make money on mobile games and generally you need to get a few out before one achieves success. Sadly we sunk too much into Rogue Agent and we were never going to get back enough money that it was a successful game."
As you can see Stephen is quite up front about the whole thing, but there was a small silver lining to the situation. The feedback from critics and the general public has been positive for the most part.
"We have gotten very positive responses from critics (Touch Arcade, App Advice, Cult of Mac etc) and the public (RTX). We do feel we made a great game. We are proud of what we did even though it was financially unsuccessful."
In relation to RTX Australia specifically, which was also the studio's first convention, I asked Stephen what his opinion was of the event and whether a small indie team with a limited budget can benefit from exhibiting there.
"I think RTX was not really our target market. The main question we got was "When can I get this on Steam?". I wish we had launched on PC as well as mobile. I would be curious how many sales we got initially were from RTX attendees. As mentioned, being active on the touch arcade forums helped keep sales slightly alive. My best recommendation for people would be to try and be active on social media and online in general. That is free. We spent more money going to RTX and buying merchandise than Rogue Agent made in sales."
So where does that leave Roguebox now you ask?
"Sadly, we are probably done with Roguebox Studios. We will be keeping Rogue Agent up for download though and social media and the website are still alive. I (Stephen Berg) have gone to Spunge Games (as a Programmer) and am working on Faily Brakes now (I have been there for the last 3 months). Peter Anthony continues to develop games independently but won't be releasing them under Roguebox Studios."
Being an indie dev appears more and more to be fraught with danger. It's an interesting direction that the industry seems to be going in. The indie mega booth seems to be the holy mecca for small teams to get noticed, but as conventions try to squeeze more and more games onto the show floor is it still really worth it?
Just as fast as you have indie developers trying to get into conventions you have others trying to get out, such is the case with Devolver Digital and their annual shanty town that goers up at E3. It's a crazy time to be in game development because nobody knows what the future holds. Steam and the App Store have become flooded with the shear volume of games being produced now and getting noticed is arguably harder than ever.
What comes next?