This piece is brought to you by Maddie, whose hair puts mine to shame.
Paul! We are friends, in real life, and I have gotten to see you develop your game Fat Cat In A Top Hat IN REAL TIME, as if we were on an episode of Silicon Valley. Can you tell me a little bit about how you first came up with the idea for it?
Mallory! I came up with the idea for the game in the fall of 2011 when my parents were starting the process of moving someplace more affordable. I wanted to help them financially with the move, so I figured what better way to make some quick money than by designing a game for the iPhone. The initial idea came to me pretty much fully formed: there’s this giant fat cat in a top hat destroying the houses in a caul-de-sac neighborhood, and the player frantically pokes the cat to slow him down but there’s no way to truly stop him. That happens to be oddly representative of my state of mind back then. I hadn’t coded or done much computer art before I started this, so in the process of learning how to make that first idea I ended up with this other viable game, Fat Cat in a Top Hat, which I polished up enough to release.
Silicon Valley, really? It’d be more like a show of you, Maddie, and me drinking tea and watching Adventure Time. Actually that sounds like a great show.
Okay, this is great because it brings me to my biggest question: How do you monetize a game like this? You would think, as someone who started a business (that I believe makes money) I would have a more ROBUST SENSE OF THE MARKETPLACE, but I am made of whimsy and teakettles. How much money/labor would you estimate went into building the product? Did you have a goal of how much money you were hoping to raise? Can you tell me how you’ve measured sales/success?
At this point, it’s more of a hobby with a product than a business. I didn’t have a business strategy or expectations going into it – I figured if the game blew up, that’d be great, and if it didn’t, I could at least use it as resume experience. My only goals were to get it done quickly, release, and see what happens. Without a business strategy, though, I also didn’t have a rigid timetable to guide my labor, which meant that when work picked up or life events happened I let the project sink into doldrums. I completely missed the mark of getting it done before my parents moved, but I kept up with it because I wanted to learn how to do this and see it through to the end. My girlfriend is really the reason Fat Cat got released when it did. She works in tech and pushed me using her project management skills, and I love her for it. So far sales have been slow because I’ve been relying on word of mouth for marketing, but it’s still great to have my product finished and available.
For monetization, I designed Fat Cat with the 99c price point model in mind (keeping a low bar for customer acquisition while still seeing some profit from each download), but I’m actually in the process of updating to make it freeware with in-app purchases. I really disliked in-app purchases until I saw how Nimblebit did them for their game Nimble Quest: game features are upgraded through currency you collect as you play, and if you want, you can pay to unlock higher-denomination currency so you can upgrade faster. Otherwise, the game is completely playable and enjoyable for free. That way players aren’t penalized for not spending money, and spending money doesn’t take the place of gameplay, which I think are both good ways to treat a customer. I also like the free+ model because it lets customers try out the game first and give the developer a kickback after to show appreciation.
As a misandrist, I am deeply interested in hearing a bit more about how your girlfriend is the true cause of your success.
I’m also curious in talking a bit about how you develop a project when it’s not your day job and all the deadlines are self-imposed. I find it really difficult to make myself set and actually achieve goals when it’s all up to me, because a part of me realizes it’s all fairly arbitrary. What strategies worked for you?
Maddie is very organized and very goal oriented. When she worked for a start-up, she was that grab-bag non-engineer person who made sure that EVERYTHING got handled, from office upkeep to executive schedules to HR paperwork for the entire company. They referred to her job as being a Maddie. She knows how to get shit done and she doesn’t stop until she does.
I am not that way. I’d like to think of myself as being that way, but I’d be lying if I did. I am the kind of person who can get caught up in tweaking pictures of clouds for two hours. I lose sight of the big picture because I have a lot of fun in the details and I want to make sure they’re perfect. I don’t know if I do that because I’m a man. Feel free to say that it is.
Maddie didn’t constantly encourage me, since as I’ve made clear, she doesn’t waste time, [Ed. note – GOD I LOVE MADDIE] but she did give me really helpful needling when I was getting too much into detail work. She would ask me if the overall success of the product depended on what I was doing right then. She would remind me to think about what was necessary to get to the next step of a prototype. She snapped me out of funks when I didn’t know what to do. And above all, she would remind me that what I was doing would only matter once I actually shipped the product. “Ship at all costs” was the mantra that finally got Fat Cat out the door.
Developing the ideas happened pretty easily in my spare time. Doing the work happened in bursts, like spending two weeks coding over my lunch break, but I wasn’t good at scheduling those out. I’d switch between spending weeks coding and spending weeks doing the artwork, kind of flip-flopping when I got frustrated with one or the other. In the future I think having a schedule would be helpful for the work flow.
The two best progress strategies I used were making a task list and giving myself set increments of time in which to get those tasks done. Like, a Saturday morning where I’d need to finish figuring out how the encouragement text works before noon. If I didn’t make it, I’d put a hard stop on myself anyway to keep from building bad work habits. Then once I had a few items done off the list, or two weeks had gone by, I’d revise the list to prioritize or change items. Or sometimes I’d revise the list instead of doing other work. Having a malleable list was helpful for staying out of the details, and metering time gave my work a sense of urgency.
Working outside of my apartment is also proving to be a good way to achieve goals. My time feels more precious when I’m not sitting on the couch, so I want to make sure I spend it on important tasks. Noon turns into sunset without too much care when I’m at home.
Oh God, now I’m panicked thinking about how close we are to sunset right now. It’s not enough time!
That’s the idea.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.