025 APPetite App Marketing podcast – Howard Tsao, CEO of Muse Games, interview

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The 25th episode of the APPetite App Marketing podcast features an interview with Howard Tsao, CEO of Muse Games. Muse Games is a New York-based indie studio that uses the Unity game engine. Muse Games’ games include CreaVures (iOS and browser) and Guns of Icarus.

Full interview transcript below.

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Do you have an interesting app marketing story or special insight into app-specific marketing? We’d love to interview you. Email us.

If you haven’t listened to the APPetite PR App Marketing podcast before, check out these earlier interviews:

Interview with Aron Aharonoff of GreatApps.com.

Interview with Molecube about their app marketing experiment.

Interview with Jeff Hughes, author of Android Apps Marketing, Secrets To Selling Your Android App.

Interview with Glenn Kiladis, GM of Free My Apps at Fiksu

Interview with Mark Grossnickle, CEO of Kihon Games

Interview with Nick Foster of Adrenaline Punch

Interview with Jacob Stevens, co-developer of Pizza Vs. Skeletons

Interview transcript:

Jeff Rutherford: Welcome to the 25th episode of the APPetite App Marketing podcast. Stay tuned for my interview with Howard Tsao, CEO of Muse Games. [music]

Jeff: Welcome back to the APPetite App Marketing podcast. My guest today is Howard Tsao, CEO of Muse Games, the creators of many games, including the “Guns of Icarus” and “CreaVures.” Howard, welcome to the podcast.

Howard Tsao: How’s it going?

Jeff: Good. First, can you tell me about yourself? How did you get into the game industry and what led to the creation of Muse Games?

Howard: It’s a good question. I love games. I think that’s really what it comes down to. Earlier on, we were in…Me and a few other guys on the team were doing this other venture. That is, really trying to fuse virtual worlds with web content. It was pretty interesting. It was new at the time. We spent a lot of time, and that was really earlier on in the Unity. That’s like Unity 1.5 days, I think.
We were really trying to make that work. I thought we created some pretty cool visualizations, but it really wasn’t going anywhere, and there was no business model around it. We were passionate gamers. With Unity, with everything that we learned with Unity, we decided to focus on games, and that’s really when we started Muse.

Jeff: Do you code yourself?

Howard: I don’t.

Jeff: You don’t, but you love playing games, you said.

Howard: Yeah. [laughs]

Jeff: I know many of your games are available for Mac and PC, but CreaVures, your game was one of the first games of yours that was released on the iOS, and I know that Chillingo published the game. What has been the experience so far with CreaVures and releasing the game for iOS?

Howard: That’s a good question. We decided to work with Chillingo at the time where we really didn’t know what the iOS market was about. We didn’t really have any experience, really, in game with the iOS. We got to talk to Chillingo, we thought the opportunity was pretty cool. Working with Chillingo is great in that they will assign you a producer and the producer will give you a lot of really valuable feedback. I think they have experience publishing games on the iOS for, obviously, a long time now, with a lot of success. Taking feedback on them, do it on a development process, was pretty cool. Obviously, we need to, and a lot of times, when people give you feedback, you just kind of go, “Oh.”

On the other hand, we take, we’re going to take feedback from our player base, regardless anyway, players are our biggest supporter, but also our harshest critic. In that sense, we’ll be taking feedback from just about anybody and what not, Chillingo who has experience publishing the game.

I think, from that standpoint, the relationship was great. I think in terms of publishing, they obviously have a relationship with media and so on that we didn’t really have access to. I think, in a sense, they helped, as well.

Jeff: What has it been like, in terms of downloads and players? I’m not asking you to tell me exactly the number of downloads. But are you seeing enough to say, “We’re definitely going to release on iOS in the future,” in addition to PC and Mac?

Howard: That’s a good question. Our downloads… We’ve done fairly well. Part of it was being fortunate to have some featuring by Apple. In addition to, even though we’re in the US, we also were game of the week in Europe and had a big banner, which is really fortunate. That helped propel the game in the first couple weeks, in getting a lot of people checking out the game. Obviously, some of the write ups also helped. But from that standpoint, it really helps. With a lot of iOS, because the market is really competitive now, it’s getting the featuring and getting some awareness at launch. We were pretty fortunate to have that. As far as whether we want to release another game, yeah, definitely. In terms of iOS, we also learned a lot with CreaVures, throughout the process.

Really what players in iOS are looking for. We have a much better understanding after CreaVures. So, in the next game that we’re working for iOS, we’ll definitely make the game more conducive. With coming from a PC game… Granted, with CreaVures, we built it with iOS in mind. We just made it a hard port and decided to make the port on a whim.

But to be able to make the game conducive, especially with a platformer that is timing sensitive, there were a lot of challenges. And I think that we learned along the way. With the next game, we’ll definitely take some of the lessons we learned and apply it.

Jeff: From your perspective, do you think that the industry will continue with the native app download process for smart phones and tablets? Or do you think, at some point, that we’ll move more towards browser based apps, versus the downloading native app model?

Howard: Yeah. I think downloading mobile is actually growing and I think it will continue to grow. If anything, I might actually think that will move away from browser and have more…

Jeff: Native?

Howard: Exactly. More mobile present. Being a dev, though, right now we’re in a privileged position, especially when we use an engine like Unity, where we can actually look across platforms and hopefully support as many distributions, or as many platforms, as we can. Granted, as long as the game fits. So that was the idea behind CreaVures, anyway. Being a dev, at least for us, we wouldn’t be pigeon holing ourselves into one method of distribution.

Jeff: What has Muse done to market CreaVures or is the arrangement with Chillingo… Do they handle, primarily, a lot of the marketing, since they have such experience?

Howard: Yeah. With CreaVures on iOS, we’ve been doing marketing primarily through Chillingo. On the PC and Mac front, we basically just do as much as we can to, at least when they are at launch, try to get the word out through media or journalists and through some giveaways that we did. But largely, it was also Steam. Steam doing an awesome job of featuring it in new games. For better or worse, we were more dependent on publishing, such as Chillingo, and platform, such as Steam. As a result, we were pretty complacent in doing that and not doing as much as we can to build up a community of our own, through social media. That’s a hard lesson to learn, as well.

Jeff: [laughs] With that in mind, are you trying to build up your social media now?
Howard: Absolutely. With Guns of Icarus Online, we have definitely done a much better job of interacting with our community and trying to get the word out. We just have more interesting, more relevant and more current stuff that we’re constantly posting on our Facebook and Twitter, for example, in keeping fans engaged. We definitely do a lot. I think that’s hugely important. Early on, we were just like, “OK. We can get our game on Steam. That’s super awesome.” That was that. In reality, looking back, that was actually kind of dumb.

Jeff: [laughs] I’m curious. Outside of being featured on Steam and independent of what you’ve done, in terms of CreaVures, with Chillingo, with any of your earlier games where they were on Steam, did you do any kind of paid advertising, in addition to just getting the word out via social media? Have you ever done any paid ads? Whether it’s Google or even a more mobile specific, like Tap Joy or Fixu?
Howard: That’s a good question. We’ve never done paid advertising. With Guns of Icarus Online, which is basically a PC title, we are also on Steam. We’re exploring that, now. But up until this point, we’d never done any paid advertising.

Jeff: Given your experience to date, both on iOS via Creavures and the other games that you’ve done via Steam, if you were having a beer with a young developer or a small app development team that’s just finished their game, what kind of basic advice would you give them on things that they should think about, in terms of marketing?

Howard: Great question. With the original Guns of Icarus, for example, on Steam, we were trying to bite into too much, I would say. And not really spending the time polishing as much as we should have, or implementing as much as we should have on the core of the game. That sounds like crazy. Like really obvious. But in terms of release, especially when we were a small team with not a lot of resources or money, you can definitely get into a trap of wanting to release the game. Maybe before it’s really ready. Getting players playing the game as early as you can will be immensely helpful. Earlier on, we were just sitting in our room, closing our doors and working on the game. And really have more blinders on, and just work on the game until we feel like it’s at a state where we’re ready to show people. But, usually, from a development standpoint, that’s too late.

Having players check out the game, try the game. Even in prototype stage or early alpha or whatever. Checking out the game. It’s really important. Through people playing, we end up revising a lot of mechanics, as well. That will be the biggest lesson.

Jeff: To get that feedback early and at the same time, also in addition to getting feedback, you’re also building buzz?

Howard: Exactly. Especially for e dev. I feel like there’s no greater way to build a community than just to talk about the game yourself, really interact with the players for better or worse. Players can have really bitter complaints about your game. But those feedback are worth listening to, especially if those player pre order. Because for people who pre order the game, they really… It’s their hard earned money. They really have the right to give you feedback or criticism.

Jeff: Have you done a Kickstarter for one of your games?

Howard: Yeah. Actually, we’ve done a Kickstarters for both CreaVures and Guns of Icarus Online.

Jeff: Oh, you did?

Howard: Kickstarter campaigns.

Jeff: How was that process like for you?

Howard: It’s been amazing. I first learned about Kickstarter through a friend of mine who is doing this fitness thing, actually. It’s completely not game related. I want to say that’s almost two years ago, so when Kickstarter was in it’s I wouldn’t say infancy early days. We gave CreaVures a try. Initially, we were like, “What’s this thing? Kickstarter?” Don’t really know what it’s about. But once we’d done a campaign for CreaVures, we fell in love with it and realized how powerful it was at the time. With Guns of Icarus Online, the same way. We did our campaign late last year. It was September. So we finished by January, last year. Kind of unfortunate, in a way. It was before the double fine phenomenon.

Jeff: What were the rewards? If you could just mention one or two, if you can remember, from the campaign.

Howard: A bunch. A combination of digital and physical rewards. I guess we were brave enough to do the physical rewards. It’s hugely rewarding and it’s fun to design for them. For Guns of Icarus Online, we had a bullet USB, for example, or our book that we put together. Or a captain’s log book that we sketch in. They were really rewarding and, for the players, it gives that sense of collector’s mentality. It’s something permanent and a piece of memorabilia almost. We’re really proud of it and people who got it were really happy. But it’s hugely time intensive.

Jeff: What do you feel like you learned from your Kickstarter campaigns that you may do differently next time? Or if you spoke to someone you would say, “Keep this in mind?”

Howard: Good question. In terms of getting the word out, we did a lot. We put in a lot of effort on our own, trying to spread the word. Once you have some momentum going, Kickstarter do a really good job of featuring the different indie projects. We were fortunate enough to get featured. At the time, when we did it, what was viewed upon as good video is probably different from what is viewed upon as a good video now. With today’s level of polish for video, or what people do for video, looking back at our campaign, people would be like, “That’s actually kind of crude.” Video is pretty important, I would say. In terms of structuring your gifts, just be conscious of the costs and go through some estimating and hopefully get, ideally for free, from vendors. Make sure the quality’s good before you commit to the physical gifts.

Also, budget a lot of time for it if you’re doing it on your own. Cost wise, we did a good job of making sure that we budgeted the cost of the physical gifts right. But it was still more time consuming than we thought. I must have made like four separate trips to the post office, each time with 100, 200 items. So by the third or the fourth time, the post office lady just wanted me out.

As soon as they saw me…

Jeff: [laughs] That’s funny. What apps or games have you downloaded and played in the last six to eight months that really impressed you?

Howard: On iOS?

Jeff: IOS or even on Steam?

Howard: I finally played through Limbo. I checked it out. Obviously, during IGF. But since they didn’t really have a Mac build, I actually just played through it recently. I thought the build was phenomenal, as the whole world already knew. On iOS, I would say recently I’m playing some of my indie dev friends’ games like” Jack Lumber,” “Hubrix” or “One Tap Hero.” Each one brings something really unique to the market.

Jeff: That’s all the questions I have. Did you have anything that you wanted to mention that we didn’t discuss?

Howard: I don’t know if I can give a plug for Guns of Icarus Online. [laughs]

Jeff: Yeah, of course.

Howard: Guns of Icarus Online is available for pre order on Steam. Right now, if you pre order you can get 25 percent off and there’s a four pack where each copy gets a costume and the soundtrack. It’s a pretty awesome deal.

Jeff: I’ll have the link to that in the show notes as well.

Howard: Thanks.

Jeff: Again, I’ve been speaking with Howard Tsao, CEO of Muse Games, the creators of many games including the Guns of Icarus and CreaVures. Howard, thanks for doing the interview.

Howard: Yeah, no problem.

Transcription by CastingWords

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