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The first episode of the APPetite PR App Marketing podcast features an interview with Jacob Stevens, co-developer of the popular iPhone/iPad game Pizza Vs. Skeletons. See below for a transcript of the interview.
Here are links to various sites and apps mentioned in the podcast.
Welcome to the first episode of the Appetite PR App Marketing Podcast. I’m your host Jeff Rutherford.
Stay tuned for my interview with Jacob Stevens. Jacob is the Co-developer and Co-designer of the very popular and unique new iPhone and iPad app Pizza vs. Skeletons.
Jacob, Welcome to the podcast.
JS: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
JR: Riverman media’s latest game, which has been receiving a lot of attention in the App review press and, if I’m not mistaken, was chosen as an App of the week by Apple. The name of the game is called Pizza vs. Skeletons. Yes, you heard that right. Pizza vs. Skeletons. From personal experience, my sons are 8 and 4 years old and my 4 year old is in love with this new game Pizza vs. Skeletons.
First why don’t you describe the game for listeners who haven’t played it yet. I would encourage anyone who is listening to go and download the game and give it a try.
JS: Sure. The basic premise is exactly like the title sounds. You’re a pizza and you’re fighting skeletons. But in this case, you’re a gigantic pizza. You’re 20 feet tall. You’re basically the height of the entire screen and you’re smashing skeletons in all sorts of different scenarios. Sometimes it’s just a gladiator style level where you’re smashing them over flat terrain. In one level, you’re sort of a wrecking ball and you’re smashing skeletons that are in buildings or sky scrapers. You ski. You do all sorts of things. You’re a huge pizza smashing skeletons in a lot of different ways.
JR: That’s a great description. Before we talk more about Pizza vs. Skeletons, and we definitely will, I wanted to find out a little bit more about your personal story. Things like when did you first start programming games? I wondered if you could remember a specific memory when you coded or made your first game and realized “Oh wow, I can not only play video games but I can make my own games?” Can you give us a little bit of background about yourself and how you got into game design and coding?
JS: Sure. I’ve always loved drawing and I’ve always loved music. One Christmas my grandfather got us a Nintendo Entertainment System. I’d never really played games before but I got really in to the classic titles like Mario, Duck Hunt and stuff like that. At that point I knew that I wanted to make games but obviously I was pretty young and I had no idea how. I would draw a lot of ideas and stuff like that but obviously I wasn’t really making games. My first experience coding was in my fourth grade class. My teacher, Mrs. Larsen, had kind of identified that I was probably a bright kid but wasn’t trying my absolute hardest. She would encourage me to do extra things if I finished assignments early or something like that.
In her class we had two chances to take every spelling test. If you got everything right on the first try, then you could have free time on the second try. She would set me up on her old Apple 2 computer. At first I would just play Oregon Trail or whatever during that free time. I started programming in BASIC after the spelling tests. I realized that I could make simple games with that. Do you want to go north or south? Yes? No? Things like that. Obviously what I made was very simple but at the time it made me realize that I could probably do this for a living. That’s my first experience coding.
Later in life, around high school, I learned about Digipen which is a school that’s either sponsored by or affiliated with Nintendo. Vancouver had a summer program for high school students and I went there and continued to learn to program games at an amateur level. I met up with some friends late in high school. They were in college and they were into games. I learned a lot from them about programming and I actually mostly did art.
I would say my first real professional experience was as an intern for a company called Way Forward. Their most prevalent title is probably Contra F, which they did for the DS; which I also worked on. All through college I would do art for them as opposed to coding; for whatever reason. That’s just what they happened to need.
After that, I sort of got scared, I guess you could say. I got concerned that game things were not a stable enough career. I had graduated college and I needed money. I took a job down in Tucson and it was a great job. I enjoyed it but immediately I started missing the idea of making games. Coincidentally, my brother had just moved down to Tucson to go to the University of Arizona. He’s about 4 years younger than me. I said we should make a game because he was learning computer science as well. That was when we made our first game, Cash Cow. I guess it was about 7 years ago. He was still a freshman. He barely knew any programming. That was our first game and we’ve just taken it one game at a time from there.
JR: Just to back up a minute; when you were doing the summer program? Where did you grow up? You said you moved to Tucson. Did you grow up in Canada?
JS: No. I grew up in Flagstaff which is a small town about 4 hours north of Tucson in Arizona.
JR: When you did that summer program with DigiPen, did you go to Vancouver for the summer?
JS: Yes I did. I happened to have a cousin who was getting married so I just spent an extra two weeks up there for the summer program.
JR: Gotcha. What kind of platform were you programming on at that point? Was it PC?
JS: It was actually Visual Basic on PC’s; even though the degrees you get from DigiPen, I think they work a lot with Nintendo platforms. For the summer students, I think that would have been too much so we just did PC stuff.
JR: So you said that your brother moved down with you and you made Cash Cow and you started going from there. Are you still working at IBM now or is this full time for you?
JS: I actually left IBM employment about a year and a half ago. I had slowly been transitioning out. After Cash Cow did decently well, I went to part time at IBM- 3 days a week. Then as our other games, some of them didn’t do well, so I was glad I stayed on. Some did start doing really well so I transitioned out. But they have recently convinced me to do a little bit of consulting for them as a user interface designer.
JR: What kind of work were you doing at IBM? Were you doing just coding or art or UI?
JS: I started off as a coder because that’s what my degree is in but within about 2 weeks I was identifying what I thought were usability issues with their web-based user interfaces. I had a group of people that were hired around the same time as me, and they had a sense of what a good user interface versus a bad one was. We actually were sort of this mercenary team that would go around and overhaul user interfaces. IBM is great at making the guts of something but at the time they hadn’t yet really figured out how to make great user interfaces. We would go around and overhaul the front ends of these products. It was very similar to making games. It was more serious, obviously, but you’re thinking the same things; trying to guess what the user will do; what they will think when they see a screen and trying to make it look nice.
JR: That’s great. I’m glad to get that background. I want to talk about Pizza vs. Skeletons. Can you take us through the development of the game? How did you come up with the idea and did it start out as Pizza vs. Skeletons? I’m just curious about how it may have changed during the development process and then finally if you can talk a little bit about the programming tools you used in designing the game.
JS: I’ll give you some background that very few people actually know. We released our first iPhone game which happened to be a part of our first game Cash Cow. We made Cash Cow the absolutely best iPhone game that we could and it came out and didn’t really pay for its development. It did well compared to most other titles but we were realizing that the app store was so incredibly competitive that even the best games didn’t necessarily have a guaranteed chance of success. So Paul and I were thinking “What can we do to get the juices flowing and make sure we’re earning money?” We started a fake company that we didn’t want anyone to know who it was. We didn’t want it to be associated with us in any way. The point of that company was to make games in a month and publish them and see how they would do relative to Cash Cow which had taken a year. The games that came out of that; which we have now made public as ours; are the game Space Frak, Deathfall, IKAROS, and Fat Roll Santa. Those are all very small fast projects for us.
JR: Did you meet your goal of doing it in a month?
JS: Yes. We actually did and they made more money relative to the time they took than Cash Cow did which was very encouraging to us. The funny thing was the 4th or 5th game idea was something I had blurted out and made a sketch of called Pizza vs. Skeletons. It was intended to be this really small kind of throw away gimmicky game where you’re throwing pizza and smashing skeletons. But we realized that to do the concept justice, we couldn’t make it one of these one-month games. We realized that we had so many ideas for it that we couldn’t compress it in to the development cycle for this fake company.
So we put it on the back burner. We did some other things. We did some contract work for Disney; a game called Blackout. When that was done, we kept coming back to this idea which was really funny to us. Whenever we told our friends about it, they would laugh. Whenever I showed the pictures to anyone; the little sketches I had made; people thought it was great. We said, you know, we know we can make money with these short games. Let’s try again with a big project.
So we embarked on Pizza vs. Skeletons which took about 9 months.
JR: What was the deciding factor or was there one when you decided to pull the trigger and say okay, we’re going to do Pizza vs. Skeletons?
JS: I think, honestly, it was both of us had this gut feeling that with such an unusual name and sort of an unusual layout with the screen, with the character that’s the size of the screen, and it’s kind of a funny character, we just thought this might be the one that really pushes us over the top as far as a big project. Luckily, that ended up being true; with just a gut feeling to go on.
JR: That’s great. What are some of the programming tools that you’ve used when you’re designing Pizza vs. Skeletons or that you did use?
JS: I’m not the programmer but my brother is. He handles everything from scratch; mostly in C+ and just in ObjectivecC where he needs to. We don’t use any external engines like Unity or Coco’s2D. The only thing we do use; which we love; is Box2D for the physics.
JR: Has Pizza vs. Skeletons been your most popular thus far in terms of downloads?
JS: In terms of downloads, Cash Cow is still beating it. A lot of those downloads were free. In fact, I would say 99% were free because we signed a lot of deals early on that allowed it. We shouldn’t have signed but we didn’t know better. It allowed it to be given away as promotional game or something like that. Also, the way the casual game market worked, games are free to download and then you pay 20 bucks if you want to play more than an hour. We’ve had millions of downloads of Cash Cow but in terms of sales Pizza vs. Skeletons surpassed it within a couple of weeks.
JR: Gotcha. Since you’ve developed and published multiple games for IOS, what did you do specifically to market your earlier games and what have you done thus far to market Pizza vs. Skeletons?
JS: Paul and I are really bad marketers and we’re also purists so we are kind of known amongst our friends for doing a terrible job of marketing and almost doing no marketing whatsoever. Our core business philosophy is very simple. If we’re making the best 2D games in the world, then they will sell enough without us marketing them. That’s not to say that a great marketer wouldn’t be able to make them sell more but we feel that we should be focusing our energy on the game itself. That’s probably a bad business decision.
For Pizza, what we did was very simple. We posted screen shots on a couple of message boards. Tigsource which is an Indie game site and Touch Arcade which is an IOS site. It really snowballed from there. Someone from Touch Arcade saw the post and contacted us. The only sneaky thing that we did was we knew a guy from a company called Sunken Media who happened to have some contacts at Apple. We gave them an early copy of the game. You never know. I think that might have helped it become game of the week. They might have just liked it anyway. I really don’t know how their internal process works. That was really the biggest marketing move we made and we actually didn’t reach out to any sites for reviews. We didn’t do anything except those two things.
JR: Interesting. Have you ever spoken to anyone or has anyone at Apple contacted you directly about the game of the week?
JS: No. They contacted us through that friend I mentioned in California who had given them the early copy. I had never spoken to anyone at Apple about it.
JR: Have you ever done; I think probably the answer is no but I want to ask anyway; have you ever done any kind of paid advertising like Pay Per Click for downloads?
JS: No. We never have.
JR: How were the free deals that you’d mentioned for Cash Cow? How did that come about? You were talking about the casual game market.
JS: A lot of sites on the iPhone; there are several apps. Free app a day.com, I think, that will promote your game if you make it free for a few days. During the course of that time, you get maybe 50 to 100 times more downloads of your game. It’s really great for exposure. I will say that it doesn’t always actually translate into sales once you’ve made your game not free. Let me make a big caveat to that statement which is I think games that have in app purchase probably benefit enormously from it. None of our games have in app purchase so it’s not something I think that works quite as well for us.
JR: Pizza vs. Skeleton is priced at $2.99. Was there any kind of great thought put in to that price point or did you look at a specific game at that price point that made you think $2.99? What was the decision process behind that?
JS: We watched the app store very closely. Have you heard of a site called App Annie?
JS: It’s a site that aggregates pretty much every piece of public data about the app store. Some things we were noticing were that if you’re inside the top 25 charts, you’re selling maybe 5,000 units a day; if you’re 25 in games. 5,000 units a day is pretty good but at .99 it’s maybe only $3,500 or whatever. We also noticed that games that played around with their price point, if you’re infinity blade and you go from 7$ to 1$- it makes a huge difference. But we also noticed that games that played with their price point going from 3$ to 1$. It didn’t always make a difference. Nor, when they raised the price, after sale, did it have quite as big of an impact. So that plus a little bit of insider knowledge from our friend in California who happened to know that between 1 and 3 dollars doesn’t seem to make a huge difference in terms of units. We realized we could be making 3 times more revenue at the 3$ price point. I’m very glad we did that. There were people who said you should have dropped it while you were game of the week and soared up the charts. The thing is, when we did our calculation, even though we topped out at 27 in the charts, we were actually making as much revenue as the top 10 games because we were at $2.99. That was a calculation we made and I don’t know what would have happened at .99 or 5$ or whatever but I’m very happy with the price we did settle on.
JR: I’m curious, given what you were talking about on watching all of the publicly available app data and stats around the app store, is there anything that frustrates you about the app store or the app discovery process that if you had a wish list and Apple was listening you would say you really should do this, this or that?
JS: I wish I could say that I had specific recommendations for Apple but there’s absolutely a frustration that I had. It’s pretty simple. I think Paul and I have really got a handle on how to get your app noticed during the first two weeks that it’s out. We’ve gone from basic featuring through Apple to as good of featuring as you can get. To Apples’ credit, I will say that it is the quality of the game that makes your launch. That’s really fantastic because that’s really not true on every platform. We’ve always managed to have that great first two weeks. The problem is once you’re out of Apple’s specialized feature area; the sales almost immediately for all of our games go down literally to about 1% of what they used to be. I would love to know how to change that; whether through action that we can take or through the actions that Apple can take to extend those sales so that the game you worked a year on maybe might be selling copies for a year. I think that would be fantastic. There might must be way too many games for that to be a reality but I think it would tremendously help developers that put time and effort into their games so they could derive a steady source of income from them beyond the two weeks that the game is launched in.
JR: Something like some way of spotlighting; for the lack of a better word; the long tale of games that are out there that are quality games that for the reasons that you’ve just touched on are not on top of the charts because they’ve been out for six months.
JS: Exactly. I think there are a couple of issues. Number one; there is just a huge number of games coming out. Number two is the only real visibility that you have is when you’re on those charts and basically in the top 50. If you’re not one of those 50 games and you’re not in the launch window or Apples feature, there’s basically no way for anyone to find your game. It’s sort of lost in the cloud; literally and figuratively.
JR: Okay. That makes sense and it certainly echoes things that I’ve heard from other developers; both games and other types of apps.
JS: There are games that some have defied those odds. Obviously a game like Tiny Wings is from a small developer and it’s hung on a long time. I would say the vast majority, you better sell a lot of copies in your first two weeks or you’re not going to make any money.
JR: Interesting. Right now Pizza vs. Skeleton is available for IOS. Any plans for an Android version?
JS: Actually, we’re in talks with Amazon and some Android developers to see what we could do there. I have no familiarity with the Android market at all. I’ve heard it’s even tougher than IOS but I want as many people to be able to play this as possible so we’re looking in to it.
JR: So what’s next for Pizza vs. Skeletons? Do you have plans for a major update? What’s your thinking along those lines?
JS: We’re making a small update right now that just addresses some minor issues; people want a mute button so they can listen to podcasts or translate any of it into French, Italian, German and Spanish. That’ll be the most immediate update. We are planning a number of level pecks depending on what the demand of the game is over its’ lifetime. We’ve already got sort of a new game play variation in the works and 10 more levels. We have plans, loose plans, for up to 50 more levels.
JR: Great! Obviously Pizza vs. Skeletons has had a lot of success as we’ve talked about. Have you and your brother started thinking about other games that you would hope to work on in the future?
JS: We have started thinking about it. To be honest with you, my creativity has run so dry from putting everything I can into Pizza. This is the first time in recent memory I can recall having really no ideas for a game but I’m sure that’s going to change in a week or two. We haven’t started anything serious but we’re definitely always looking ahead.
JR: That’s great. I think that’s all the questions I had. Any last thoughts on your part?
JS: No. I really appreciate doing this podcast and thanks to all of the players out there for the tremendously positive response. We really appreciate it and we hope you’re enjoying the game.
JR: Again, people can download the game in the iTunes apps store. That’s Pizza vs. Skeletons. It’s a whole lot of fun. I definitely recommend downloading it and checking it out. Jacob thanks for taking the time to do the interview.
JS: Thank you very much.
Thanks for listening to the first episode of the Appetite PR App Marketing Podcast. If you’re interested in what Appetite PR offers App developers, you can check it out at appetitepr.com. Stay tuned for more episodes of the App Marketing Podcast. We hope to be talking to many app developers about their app marketing experiences; what they’ve done that’s worked; what hasn’t worked and their thoughts about app marketing.