The Business of “Steambirds: Survival”

Today we launched Steambirds: Survival (SB:S), the first true sequel to the original Steambirds. It’s essentially “Steambirds meets ‘Horde Mode’ from Gears of War” — your goal is to fight off ever-growing waves of enemies for as long as you can manage. Aside from this central conceit, the key differences between SB:S and the original SB are:

  • In SB:S, you can choose from 24 planes, all of which need to be unlocked, and nearly all of which have very distinct characteristics which heavily impact your play style.
  • In SB:S, when enemies are shot down, they leave a collectible powerup where they crash. Judiciously deciding when to collect these (and how to use them) is key to your survival.
  • In SB:S, there are microtransactions. Seven of the twenty-four planes in the game can only be unlocked with cash. One of the twenty-four planes is unlocked for free, if you create an account and sign up for our newsletter.

Monetization headaches

Adding microtransactions to SB:S proved to be non-trivial. To understand why, you need to understand our distribution strategy. We’re excited about Flash because it opens up such a huge audience to our games. Part of that huge audience comes from the hundreds of Flash gaming portals who will happily host and promote your game for free, without any negotiation or formal arrangement needed, in exchange for the opportunity to monetize the game via their own site’s advertising system. Normally, all you get in return (aside from exposure) is a prominent link (or links) in the game to other websites of your choosing. But we wanted more than that – we wanted to monetize content inside the game, no matter where it was hosted. That turned out to be a huge pain in the butt.

If you’re a relatively small company like Spry Fox, there’s no way you’re going to implement your own secure billing solution for microtransaction-based games. You’re going to use a 3rd party solution like Mochi, Social Gold, Facebook Credits, etc. Unfortunately, none of these solutions support a virally-distributed game (Social Gold has been promising support for ages, but they haven’t delivered on those promises and it isn’t clear when they will, if ever.) After wasting quite a lot of time trying to identify a solution that would work, we finally settled on Gamersafe, which is run by the same people who run FlashGameLicense (FGL) , a well-established auction site for flash games. Chris Hughes, one of the co-founders of FGL, worked directly with us to implement Gamersafe in SB:S and has been a huge help, in general.

Many flash game portals will happily host Gamersafe-enabled games (especially since Gamersafe pays them a small percentage of all microtransaction revenue generated by the game.) However, some of the very largest flash game portals will not accept a Gamersafe-enabled game, sometimes because they have their own microtransaction system they want you to use, and sometimes because they simply don’t want a third party API for currency or achievements to be active within their portal, which is not too surprising. In such cases, we’ve decided to either integrate the portal’s own currency system if that is an option, or to insist on a very prominent link back to Steambirds.com (the link appears instead of the cash-only planes in the game.)

A prominent out-link may seem like a trivial thing, but it is not. Large portals don’t like it when the games they host feature prominent out-links, and will often insist that such links be removed. But as a Flash game developer, you have to ask yourself: why are you creating games? To eke out a modest income cranking out disposable content? To be perpetually firewalled from your fans? That’s just not a sustainable business model.

Encouraging conversion

Because we just launched SB:S today, I have no idea what our conversion rate (free user to paying user) will look like, but I promise to post something about this in the future. What I can tell you is that we’re not expecting much – 0.5% would be a real win in my book. The reason for my “low” expectations is this: SB:S is a completely single player game, so we’re missing many of the social hooks one would typically employ to encourage purchase. Additionally, while I think SB:S is an incredibly fun and extremely replayable game, it isn’t particularly “deep,” and that’s going to impact our retention, which will ultimately impact our conversion rate.

That said, there are still things we could theoretically do to nudge the conversion rate upwards, and we’ve done them. Here are some examples:

  • Instead of having eight awesome cash-only planes, we have seven awesome cash-only planes and one awesome plane that you get for free if you simply register a Gamersafe account and our newsletter. This removes one of the major barriers to purchase: the annoying task of giving us your username, password and email address. It’s all totally optional, of course.
  • Some of the coolest planes in the game must be earned with a very large amount of unpaid currency (aka “copper.”) But you can earn those cool planes more quickly if you fly other planes with a high “copper bonus”, which is simply a multiplier that is applied to all the copper you earn during a mission. There are free planes with a high copper bonus — you just need to work your way up to them, and then you can use those planes to unlock the more expensive ones. But if you’re in a hurry, you can purchase a plane with a really high copper bonus straightaways. Or, if you don’t mind spending a bit more cash, you can pay to unlock every plane in one fell swoop.
    • It’s important to note that because this a single player game, and because every plane has its own leaderboard, unlocking planes for cash confers absolutely no competitive advantage on paying players – it simply enables them to progress through the game faster and/or experience more gameplay variety sooner.

I hope this insight into the business thinking behind SB:S has been useful to you. If so, you can return the favor by checking out the game and better still, tweeting about it, posting an update to Facebook, etc. 🙂

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