Six key lessons for game developers from the creator of Whale Trail

Mills (the crazy guy with pink hair in the video above) is the founder of a mobile developer called ustwo, which you may know from familiar iOS titles such as Paper Cut and Nursery Rhymes, although it gained most of its notoriety from a little smash hit known as Whale Trail. Released back in 2011, Whale Trail became Mills’ first attempt at creating and releasing a full length game for the iOS platform, and he and his team did one hell of a job. The game was extremely well received prior to and after its launch. It saw over 100,000 downloads in its first 25 days, and received thousands of shining reviews from its customers in the App Store.

However, this story has an all too familiar end for games that rocket up through the ranks of the Top 100: like a shooting star, its sudden brilliance is beautiful yet brief, and will fade into obscurity as quickly as it arrived. The game steadily slid back down the Top 100, and landed near the 180 mark in the UK App Store. As sad as this story might seem, Mills was able to recognize factors that may have contributed to both the brief success and the ultimate demise of the game. When Mills spoke with Keith Stuart from, he shared his experience and crafted a brief but thorough list of six key lessons for developers to remember while attempting to survive in the dog-eat-dog world that is the mobile game space.

Make it about more than the game. When you’re trying to gain some media coverage for the launch of your game, Mills says it’s important to find that hook — that little something extra — that will grab someone’s attention and hold onto it for awhile. Give the people reporting on your title something to go with beyond a press release and a few lazy screen shots:

When we launched Whale Trail, we released a single at the same time – that was a great story. Then we told everyone we needed to make £300,000 to break even – that was another hook! These days, with the size of the App Store, if all you have is a game, it’ll be hard to make a dent. It’s scary … But it’s exciting.

Identify your audience and who they listen to. Mills brings up an interesting point when he says that the majority of the people developers want to play their games aren’t reading posts from the industry media. It seems rather obvious when you put it that way, but it’s still important to note:

My wife doesn’t check the App Store, my wife gets told what to download by her mates – [so] how do I get to them? The right media does work. Mouth Off spiked thousands of sales when it was on the BBC; we had a Tech Crunch ‘best game of the year’ – massive spike. CNN, bang… With Paper Cut, we were in the Observer as one of the top 50 best iPad apps and we immediately had 200 sales in the UK alone of a £3.99 product.

“Don’t release a minimum viable product.” One of the major challenges in the mobile game industry is retention. It’s easy to say things like “just make your players want to come back for more!” Finding that element is the difficult part, but it’s one of the most crucial parts of creating and maintaining a successful title:

In two months we will be releasing what we should have released on October 20 2011. At that time, we released a product that was absolutely wonderful, but didn’t have the toffee. A game needs to be sticky and we created something that didn’t demand users come back for more. We created something that made them feel good, but they wanted more…much more… They needed a sense of pocket completion.

Communicate with your players. There’s certainly something to be said for all of the social networking that happens in this day and age. Putting a face to your brand is a fairly large responsibility, but it can really pay off. When a player has an issue or a concern, try your best to avoid canned responses. And this is true across many industries. When they feel like they’re speaking with a real living, breathing human being, they feel better about using your product:

We pushed out a feedback form, to ask people what they liked or disliked about Whale Trail. We got hundreds of responses and I personally replied to all of them – it’s amazing that connection; they don’t expect to hear back from you and when they do, and when you say that the ideas they’ve suggested are in your pipeline, they often become a real advocate of your work; they help to promote you.

It can’t just sound great on paper. Coming up with an original idea is only half of the battle, and a lot of developers fall victim to the ‘but this seemed like a really good idea in the boardroom’ scenario. If you’re creating an app or a game that you intend on pushing out to masses of different people, you’ve got to have some degree of awareness of what those people want.

Don’t just come up with an idea then release it. You have to ask, what do the users actually want? What are the business objectives? And you marry both of them together. With Nursery Rhymes we actually took it into schools, and we found things out here that we never would have guessed as adults. With Whale Trail, we’d invited 300 beta testers to be part of it, and did three iterations over three months – and everyone who was a part of that felt a real sense of belonging with the game – they fed back and we were able to show them that we’d changed the game for them…listening to users is absolutely crucial.

Create the game because you want to create it. While it’s important to keep the desires of your target audience in mind when you develop a game, it’s almost as important to keep in mind that you’re more likely to create a great title if it’s something that you want to do. Love what you do and the results will almost always reflect that:

It sounds clichéd but make something you want to make. We made Whale Trail to prove to ourselves that we had it in us to create a good experience. Whatever happens, we made a game – and I’ve always wanted to tell people that. When I go to parties and tell them I create user experiences, they say ‘what is that?’ I’m like, oh fuck here we go again…

What I’d like to add to this list is to just remind developers to not dive into developing a new title with the intention of creating the next Angry Birds. Perspective is important, and it’s easy to lose sight of your project when you start chasing someone else’s success. Create a game that you love, that you know others will love, and be original. No one can truly predict how consumers will react to a new game, but following Mills’ advice seems like a good, positive place to start.

Basically, know your shit before you dive in head first.


Elle is a writer from Ottawa, Canada. The time she doesn't spend writing is often spent photographing her cat.