Thursday, July 29, 2010

Big Mountain Snowboarding history and sales

This post is so horribly out of date and yet it keeps getting linked as some kind of cautionary tale.  It is no where near representative of the past few years.

Founding the company:

Around 1998 I started working on a Quake 3 mod called Bid For Power. In 2000 I joined Blue Fang games where I worked on Zoo Tycoon 1 and 2, the expansion packs, and World of Zoo. During this time I saved heavily, developed my skills, and kept working on new iterations of a hobby game engine.

Around summer of 2008 I decided to port the engine to iPhone, and then started working on a snowboarding game as a hobby. There wasn't anything like it on the app store at the time and I had a pretty well-developed terrain engine going, so it seemed like a good idea. Things got hectic at my job in the fall and I put the snowboarding game aside.

In the spring I decided to pick it up again and named the game Big Mountain Snowboarding. I joined forces with another Blue Fang programmer and begged for some free time from an artist friend of mine. In August Blue Fang let me and half the company go.

This seemed like the perfect time to make a real go at making my own games. I figured it would only take a month or two to finish off the first one.


It took until Dec 2009 to get something releasable (mistake #1). Between the time we started full-time on it and released, several other snowboarding games came out including Shawn White.

We released with no hype at all (mistake #2) and sent out a bunch of mails to iPhone sites with zero response from any of them. We also made a bad youtube video. The only exposure we got at all was a touch arcade post with a few friendly user responses and a lot of "lol another snowboarding game". We set the price to $1.99 and let it go.

Sales slowly climbed over the next couple weeks with a few positive user reviews, peaking at about $50/day briefly before dropping off. We had worked a lot on this game and it didn't look like it was going to support us, so I decided to take some time off (mistake #3).

We did have one thing going for us that sets us apart from the other snowboarding games. We're the only game out there that tried a somewhat realistic approach to the controls and graphics, while the other games are all focused on the tricks. This is a positive and a negative, but at least it gave us a little niche to fill.

Bad itunes reviews:

We had a very small number good reviews on itunes. After about a month of not updating we got hit with several 1 star reviews all at once. This is the one that killed it:

"...these devs seem to have forgotten this game, haven't offered update news or responded to comments or concerns posted for almost two weeks…Should be criminal DO NOT BUY."

This review is still present for version 1.0 on iTunes. It makes me chuckle now after patching the game for another 6 months. Within a day our sales dropped down to $10/day from about $30/day. We lowered the price to 99 cents (mistake #4?) which gave us a small rebound for about a week before dropping even lower.

Early patches:

After a couple months I decided the game had failed commercially, but there were a few things about the game itself that I wasn't happy about. I started patching it just to appease myself while trying to work on some new projects that we ended up dropping. A few of the bad reviews decided to change their text. One guy went from 1 star to 4 stars after I fixed a specific issue he mentioned.

Lite version and being featured:

In March we released a free demo version of the game. Sales were so low that I figured it couldn't hurt. The new version was getting about 3000 downloads per day, which caught Apple's attention. The full version was featured the next week under new and noteworthy, but over on the right where you have to scroll to see it.

Sales shot up to $80/day for that week. We left the price at 99 cents (mistake #5). As soon as the feature ended we were back where we started, in the $10/day range.


Because we have an engine that we plan on making several games on, it makes sense to add support for any new tech that comes around. I made the minimum changes to be out on launch day and then picked up an iPad close to launch.

We decided to make a universal binary (most definitely mistake #6). This kept us out of consideration for being featured, made our iPhone version much larger, and has caused us a lot of problems in the charting of both iPad and iPhone. We have absolutely zero visibility on the device itself. I won't be doing this again, the iPhone and the iPad are separate markets.

Even so, iPad support gave us more visibility in iTunes, distinguished us from the other snowboarding games, and let us raise the price up to 1.99. Soon after the iPad launch we were making $20/day again.

Our game, which ran beautifully on the 3gs, ran at about 10fps on the much beefier iPad. I tracked down the issue to the fog settings and submitted a patch. I then spent a couple very boring weeks re-exporting all of our maps with higher texture settings, and tweaked the graphics to really push the hardware. After three patches and about 3 weeks of full-time work, here is the response from iTunes:

"Not for iPad (1 star): They just took an iPod game and made it bigger obviously no work involved at all, I don't see how this was even approved. I would not buy this unless you want a terrible game."

Fortunately this was countered by a friendly user who wrote:

"The accelerometer controls are much more user-friendly than other iPad apps, which really add to overall gameplay. Get. This. App."

Overall adding iPad support seems to have been a very good idea. About 1 in 4 of our free version downloads are from the iPad. It's hard to pin anything related to app store sales down to one thing, but a combination of lots of patches, having a game that most people think is decent, and iPad support have given us a couple months of more than $30/day in iOS sales after dropping to almost nothing.

iPhone 4:

We added support for the higher resolution display. So far it doesn't seem to have helped us at all but I imagine games that don't update will start to look older and older, and users will probably start reacting badly to them. It only took a couple days to update, after about a week of making the game compile with the new sdk.


Our free version is still getting about 1000 downloads a day. We decided to ad iAd support which took about a week of work. iAds are now making us about $4/day but it's free money. Here's the catch:

Requests: 44,918. Impressions: 946.

iAds are only available in the USA. For whatever reason a lot of our users are in Japan. We just had an update approved with AdMob included with our free iPhone app. This also took about a week to get working. It seems to be worth another $4/day so far. After 150,000 downloads of our lite version I think we left a lot of money on the table by not having ads much earlier (mistake #7).


We were fortunate enough to pick up some free Droids at GDC this year. We spent about a month of part time work porting Big Mountain Snowboarding over to Android. We were ready to release, but how do we get the word out? I still don't know. There's no central place like TouchArcade for Android.

The Android port was painful. I don't think we could have done it without going to several talks by Google about how to port iPhone games while at GDC. The hardware fragmentation is very hard to deal with, and the debugging tools for the NDK are simply horrid. We still have problems running on some devices, but there's no way I can afford to pay for enough phones to have a decent testing suite. I just put in the description that it was designed for Droid and might not work on all phones.

We released at 2.99 to start (mistake #8). We were soon lost in the shuffle by dozens of apps which show Japanese girls in bikinis. Really. I'm not making that up. I think a better choice on Android is to start the price low with the hopes of making it into the charts before visibility disappears. This probably applies to iPhone too, but it's hard to say.

We've actually had a slow climb out of obscurity on Android due to being the only game on the search results for "snowboarding". We have 15 positive reviews over there, and sales are bad but they are no longer totally ignorable. The android version is currently bringing in about $4-6/day with 500 copies sold and 250 of those returned.

We have a free version ready to go for Android with adMob included. Hopefully the ads will perform as well as they do on iPhone and maybe jumpstart our paid version.

Future plans:

We're working on a new project called OverPowered that I'm very excited about. Unlike Big Mountain Snowboarding it's a unique idea, and we won't have to compete with a dozen other similar games. We'll be doing an announcement and try to get the word out in a few weeks, and are aiming for a September release if possible.

The new game will have separate iPad and iPhone versions. We'll try harder to get word out earlier. Hopefully some of the press will take us more seriously as it's the second game, but we can't count on that. We will patch it heavily during the time immediately after release and respond to any user comments that we can. There will be an Android version but I still don't know how to correctly handle that market. If there's a free version it will have ads in it, and the game won't be sold for 99 cents, at least not after the initial couple weeks.