The SESM Method: Why we charge $2.99 for an incomplete game

In a word of indie mobile game development, we often struggle to get an early feel for a project we’re working on, to be able to tell if we can build upon the core idea and if it eventually grows wings and becomes something of its own. If we work on something for two long, we can end up missing the target completely, and the polish and finesse of a badly designed game become a beautifully crafted tombstone for a dead on arrival product.

iOS App Store gives us, however, a different option: we can develop a game, get it approved and available, then start growing a community of players and fans as we grow the game.

SESM Indie game development: typical lifespan

Phase 1 – Small community. Friends, family and acquaintances

Phase 2 – Early adopters, forum enthusiasts, journalists, reviewers, trendsetters

Phase 3 – Selective buyers, Niche fans

Phase 4 – Mainstream

So based on this list, it’s easy to figure out why, for example, phase 1 doesn’t need to be perfect: that’s because your friends and family will (hopefully) support and be positive regardless. From phase 1, however, we can learn important lessons about general first impressions, usability and general appeal (for example, your non-gamer friends may not have a lot of patience for games, if they do spend time playing it, it’s a good sign).

So that’s how it works: we create and prototype an idea, then add the majority of the core gameplay, without the full spectrum of secondary elements we so easily attach to game design without even thinking. For example, in Burning Things, I could easily get too early into building secondary mechanisms on top of the core gameplay, such as power-ups, bonuses, and the ultimate killer app – in app purchases.

However, I chose a different method. The emphasis was on getting the basic idea, in this case driving around a fire truck, splashing water and saving victims on the way, to work as simply as possible, clean it up a little bit, create graphics and animations, and get the game up and running.

This way, we could have an assessment whether the main idea works, while investing about 50% of the time generally required for a similar project to be completed.

Quickly enough after going live came the first update, which solved a couple of bugs that made it to the original release. And that was fun – I was always scared of updates, of waiting for review again, of being rejected – but the cool thing is that while you are waiting for approval, you can already work on the next version.

Version 1.2 can therefore become a more substantial update, with introduction of new gameplay elements. At this point the game is looking pretty solid, and I had some time to rework the opening screen. The stress in the week of the original release seems by now like a far and forgotten experience.

Slowly, players start responding and commenting on forums (e.g. TouchArcade’s), giving important feedback. One, for example, advised that the game isn’t suitable for kids younger than 5, while I claim the game is for ages 3-7. That may sound like painful criticism to some, but at this point there is no issue for our little game. I can listen to the criticism, revisit the game’s mechanisms and tweak things around. No reason to panic.

So how is the game going to be picked up for New and Noteworthy this way?

Thinking that my game will be featured by Apple before it reaches some level of maturity (at least phase 3) is just naive. I believe in second and third chances. I think there’s actually a better chance this way, and although it’s always easier to jump ship to a new project, once dealing with the urge to start something from scratch, it’s a lot of fun to grow with your game this way.