Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Gratuitous Ad Campaign

People tend to keep this stuff to themselves, but I’m not really sure why, unless you are WPP or Saatchi and Saatchi, worried about the competition…

Anyway, I’ve been running a few ads since the launch of GTB. The game is on big name portals such as steam, which is where it gets a lot of visibility, but I don’t think there is any harm in promoting the games website direct, my company, and the idea of direct sales.

My ad campaign has been fairly low key so far. I have exclusively used google adwords as my ad provider in this case (I’ve used other companies for other campaigns, but adwords seems to be a good ROI).

The ads have been running for 4 days so far and the stats are:

446,851 impressions
901 clicks
Average cost per click: £0.15.
Traffic bounce rate: 71%
Ave visit duration: 25 seconds. (vs 1 min 09 for all traffic)

Interestingly that makes for a cost per thousand impressions (CPM) of £0.30.

Even given MUCH better quality traffic, that’s why I laugh at the CPM prices quoted by many big name sites.

I can’t help thinking that the scale of my ad campaign is laughably small so far (I might double it right now…) and that the average visit duration is really low. Roughly 10% of my adword-sourced visitors spend >60 seconds on my site, which I consider to be a fairly good quality visitor. That means £1.50 to get a good visitor that way, which seems pretty poor, if you consider they still might not buy the game (although they may still mention it to others, or buy it later).

However, comparing it with 2 other recent ad campaigns shows me that adwords certainly beats them, in terms of price-for-quality-visitor.

I’m definitely going to go double my daily ad spend…

Gratuitous Tank Battles Release Day! (please tweet!)

Yes it’s that day at last! Hurrah! Grab your tommy gun and climb out of that trench because it’s time to take the battle to the enemy and go grab yourself a copy of Gratuitous Tank Battles.

You can buy GTB direct from the developer (me!) here, or from…




If you buy direct, you will find details on how to grab your free steam code in the purchase email. If you pre-ordered and thus already have your copy, I’ll be emailing you details about grabbing your steam code. If you know a friend who wants the game, you can get a second copy direct at 50% off.

Even though the game is now officially released, there will be updates, patches and improvements. I’m already working my way through tests of the first post-release patch, which concentrates on mod support for the game. I want the mod support to be ‘at least’ as good as the Gratuitous Space Battles modding, which was incredibly popular.

If you took part in the beta, you will notice today marks the release of the 1.008 patch, which is the first full release build of the game. The game can take up to 24 hours to trigger an update check and grab the latest version, but the differences between 1.007 and 1.008 are not huge.

To any hugely influential games journalists who have been holding off on covering the game until release date, please contact me at

And anyone who can find space in their hearts to tweet, blog or facebook like or other trendy social things, to ensure a few more people out there know about the game, it is all very much appreciated. Thankyou!


Free or not free? The debate

Over the course of a loooong time, me and Nicholas Lovell from gamesbrief, argued about whether or not free to play games are the bright new future of gaming. I am traditionally against the current implementation of F2P gaming (although I’ve softened on this a bit). Nicholas is traditionally very pro. See who you found most persuasive in our little debate…



FreeToPlay is not the future of games, or at least I hope it isn’t. The entire business model is built upon cynicism, mainly the idea that players will think they can play game A for free, as opposed to game B which costs $30. We both know that someone, somewhere has to pay for the game’s development, and for that idea to work out, you either need to hook some ‘whales’ who pay out a fortune and subsidise everyone else, or you have to constantly nag all of the players to pay for in-game items.

Either way, the business model will lead to design compromises that do not exist in any other artistic medium. A writer or movie director can compose a piece of entertainment safe in the knowledge that the customer has bought into the idea of the entire work. Imagine the impact if the audience were asked every chapter or scene to pay a few pennies to access the next part of the story.

We wouldn’t tolerate free-plus-microtransactions in other media, why should we tolerate it in gaming? Free to play is nothing more than the new version of a very old idea, the free demo. The difference is that with a free demo, the understanding is you then make an honest pitch for the player to purchase the game at the end of the demo. The F2P model seems to rely on interrupting the player mid-game to constantly pester them for a few pennies.

How is this a better business model?

Cliff Harris, Positech Games

* * *


You start by making the mistake of thinking that all users love your work equally.

The idea that all users should pay the same price for a piece of entertainment, however little or much they enjoy it, is a bizarre concept born out of the limitations of physical media. In the old days, when there were no bits and distribution was exclusively by atoms, content creators had
no choice but to fix the price. It was the only way to sell an entertainment product via retail stores. The consequence was that a superfan who loved that game would get hours of incredibly cheap value. A user who found after a few hours of play that it wasn’t for them was, in effect, subsidising the heavy players.

Free to play changes all of that. It lowers barriers to entry, which means people can play and enjoy the game while they work out if they want to spend money on it. It enables people to play the game for ever, for free. As long as the player is playing, the creator has the chance to say “hey, you’re
enjoying my game. Here are ways that you could enjoy it for more, by spending some money with me.”

It’s more honest (because it allows players spend according to their level of engagement with the game), it is cheaper (because you build a title for continued play, you don’t have to spend all of the development and marketing budget prior to launch) and it is more profitable (because you let those who don’t want to pay play for free, while allowing those who love the title to spend much more than the initial price).

What’s not to like?


Nicholas Lovell,

* * *

I accept people are prepared to pay different prices for games, but this is why we have collectors editions and DLC. I don’t accept that we are just being shackled by the physical properties of the medium, because that also applies to books and movies. They capture the whole audience by having
hardback or signed copies, and DVD specials with extras.

This is all fine. I have no problem with extra content being made available after a product is complete. The difference is that you are advocating designing the game around such a business model from the start, which I think makes for an inferior product. Books may come as hardback/paperback, but you don’t have to pay extra to get all the characters, that would be mad, yet it’s how F2P games are being designed.

The other problem is that the game is no longer a shared experience or level playing field. I can now be shot by someone with a gun I didn’t buy, or outrun by a car with engines I haven’t bought. Games are about fantasy and adventure and getting away from the rat-race and treadmill of real life. Is
it not bad enough that MMOs feel like a second job, without importing all the envy and unfair competition from the real world too? Real world games would never allow this. Football teams don’t get more players if their team has more money, we accept that when it comes to games, it should be about skill, not bank balances. And as for barriers to entry, there are already none when the game has a free demo

Cliff Harris, Positech Games.

* * *

Dear Cliff

I think that we are coming at this issue from two different directions. I care about players, but I also care about the businesses that make games. After all, if it is hard or impossible to make a living from making games, fewer talented people will make fewer great games.

So I start from the premise that if the market is being changed by digital distribution and the immutable economic law that if the costs of making another copy of something trends towards zero, so does the amount that people will pay for that copy. In that environment, I think it will be very hard to keep the price that an end user will pay for a gamer at anything above very low (meaning iOS style prices). It is very hard to make a living at a price point of £0.69 for all but the very lucky. Even Rovio, often shown as the posterchild of iOS development, needed commitment and luck: Angry Birds was their 52nd game.

You’ve argued that you need to gross £100,000 (I think) to make a living. That means selling 145,000 copies of the game if the price is £0.69. You would need to sell 20,000 copies at £4.99.

There is another way. What if you can find a business model that allows people who love your game to spend more? If you design the game to allow those people who love what you do to spend a day’s wages over the course of a year of playing? In the UK, a day’s wages is £100. That would mean you
would only need to have 1,000 players who loved what you do to make enough money to live on.

Isn’t that easier and more attractive than trying to appeal to everyone in the same way.

How would that business model work? You make the game entirely available for free, so that people can play, explore and experiment in your world. You offer a way for people to spend £1. They may be able to buy aesthetic changes like personalised outfits, new skins or new buildings that don’t
affect gameplay. They may be able to level up faster, unlock items earlier than someone who plays the standard mode. They may even buy additional content (although in my mind, it is better to sell personalisation than content).

Then you need to make it *possible* to spend £100 per month. Not because people will (although some might), but because you want your biggest fans to have choice – about the personalisation, the status, the progress, whatever it is that excites them – and if they are *able* to spend £100 a month,
maybe they’ll spend £10.

A thousand true fans, out of perhaps 100,000 playing your free game, and you have an exciting business that is all about making cool new stuff that your biggest fans will love – and want to pay for.

That seems to me to be the best of all possible worlds.


Nicholas Lovell,

* * *

Cliff says:

“Ah but here is the fundamental contradiction. You suggest that because stuff can be copied, it’s natural price is zero, but then you also talk extensively about ways to get money from people for games by other means.

Ultimately, it’s just a shuffling of payment from all gamers equally to a few wealthy ones, but the same amount of money is being generated. The ‘free to play’ games are clearly nothing of the sort, they are more like ‘patronage’ games, where some wealthy people who suffer from gaming addiction subsidise everyone else’s leisure time. An interesting way to do it, but not something that is being done in the interests of making games better. If your business strategy relies on milking a core group of hardcore wealthy addicts, then it means games get designed effectively for a small hardcore subset.

Besides, the popular ‘thousand true fans’ model doesn’t require micro-transactions and free-to-play, they are unrelated. You can have your thousand true fans who buy the game, without requiring them to be a subset of 100,000 casual players who value their playing time at zero.

 I could just about get by with a thousand true fans by selling them $30 games, and many people do exactly this, like spiderweb software and the guys making hex-based WW2 strategy games. There are many people out there happy to pay $20-40 for a game that they really like. It’s a myth that gamers will only pay $0.99 for a game, it’s just that those gamers are a very loud, shouty minority.

You can have your thousand true fans who buy the game, without requiring them to be a subset of 100,000 casual players who value their playing time at zero.”

Cliff Harris, Positech Games

* * *

Dear Cliff,

Of course you can get by with 1,000 true fans paying $30 for your games. The difficulty is in finding them.

Free-to-play games suffer from this discoverability problem too: they need to spend to acquire customers in the same way that traditional games companies have to market their games. The difference is that, because their games are free, they can get many more people into the game to discover if they enjoy it. They can play the game for longer – often forever – before the paywall comes slamming down. They can get their friends playing without having to persuade them to shell out $30. And when they find a true fan, they can make a lot more than $30, while offering things that the true fan values.

There will still be companies making money from games that are single upfront payments for quite some time. Most of them will have established reputations, while new businesses are more likely to start by assuming the free is the optimum price point for consumers AND for the company.

The important thing is that a wider variety of good games will have a chance to get developed than ever got developed before. I think that is something that we can both agree is a very good thing.

Nicholas Lovell,


So who won? TELL US NOW!!!

Advertising (and a bad back)

I hurt my back chopping wood, how tragic. This means I am a) in agony and b) not able to talk about gamecamp in London, because I couldn’t go :(

Instead, I shall waffle on about advertising!

I’m one of the few indie devs that actually believes in advertising. Everyone else seems to think it does not work on a small scale, as in <$500,000. It does. Even spending $1 on ads will make a difference, the problem is, that it’s a difference too tiny to measure. Measuring ad results is a minefield I’ve blogged about a lot in the past.

One thing I like about ads is that it’s truly remote and spontaneous spreading of news about your game. Most indies don’t get spontaneous website coverage unless they actively find a reviewer, send him a copy and pester him/her for a review. By definition, that narrows the circle of publicity about your game. Who knows how many Ukrainian gaming blogs have readers who are oblivious to Gratuitous Tank Battles, because I don’t know those blogs exist?

I rely heavily on hard evidence and stats to pick the best advert designs, but here are some GTB ads. Let me know what is good / bad about them, or if you have any cool ideas for them. I tend to use static, not animated ads, as I find animated ones have little real difference to CTR, and frankly, I don’t like being associated with cheesy flashing things.

I’m planning on using these on google adwords, but maybe project wonderful and game-advertising online. I like the way google lets me target certain countries and restrict it to PC’s rather than macs/phones, but I hate the complexity and approval delays for their campaigns. I wish many more gaming sites would investigate using project wonderful instead. They are really good.

Back on the IPAD -> Gratuitous Pad Battles!

Ok, so after hurriedly yanking a slightly buggy version of GSB from the apple app-store, the IPAD version of GSB is back on sale and you can all go rush out and throw money at it right now. Hurrah! Here it is:

(The expansion packs in the PC version will end up being added at some stage. The campaign add-on won’t make it to ipad, it’s just insanely big and complex and involved and not pad-friendly)

Here are a few lessons learned from the ipad experience thus far:

1) The ipad has hardly any memory. Developing on PC, then squeezing it onto ipad is seriously hard!

2) A game where you zoom in and out and drag stuff around is really cool to play on the ipad. It feels very l33t.

3) There seems to be basically no way to get any attention on the app store unless apple chooses you. Admit it, you all only found GSB by searching.  Even the category search function seems broken on my ipad 2. It’s a trainwreck, compared to other portals.

4) Everyone who insists that nobody buys ipad games > $0.99 is just wrong. They do.

If you are a high-powered famous and influential mac-blog-owner or reviewer with a bazillion readers, and you have NOT got a press-review copy of GSB on ipad, just email me, and I will see what I can do.

In other news…. very close to setting the GTB release date now. It will also be on GamersGate, Impulse and Steam. Yay!