20 February 2011

Simplicity Sells - The Surprising Success of Bocce Ball on the iPhone - by William Volk

      Posted 02/18/11 11:59:00 am  

With over 300,000 apps the chances of big success with a iPhone game is now on a par with crafting a hit record or best selling novel.  We launched Bocce-Ball for the iPhone at MacWorld on Jan. 26 and it has exceeded all our expectations.  In three days it became the most popular app in Italy.  In the USA it climbed to number six in the App Store for all apps.  By now, about 1 million players have the game.

It would be nice to say that I expected this, but that isn't true.  I saw Bocce-Ball as a fun, simple game, and our expectations were far more modest.  The surprise success of Bocce-Ball has changed my view of the iPhone game scene. This isn't the video game industry I worked in for thirty years.  This is something new and different.

Quick background.  I started in the video game industry, initially as a play-tester, then as an independent developer in the days of the Apple II and TRS-80 ... eventually ending up as the VP of Technology for Activision Studios in the early 1990's.  Did some educational software work for a time and ended up in mobile phone games in 2003, where I have been since.  We built the first web based games for the iPhone, starting the week it shipped ... and then published 20 titles in the iPhone AppStore when that launched in 2008. 

We have built critically acclaimed game titles, mostly due to the talents of our co-founder and CTO, Sherri Cuono.  It's a good team with a lot of depth.

Prior to Bocce-Ball we crafted some incredibly rich and deep games.  Four of our titles were selected by Apple to be featured in the App Store, not something that happens every day.  Match3D, a rich 3D puzzle game, got incredible reviews from the gaming press.  These games did ok.  Not huge hits, but well liked with moderate sales/download numbers.

The idea to do Bocce-Ball was bought to us by BocceNation.com, which sells a portable Bocce set that can be setup most anywhere.  They wanted to promote the game, so the goal was to build a simple game that did just that. 

Our inspiration was the very successful "Paper Toss" game, which is exactly what the title implies ... you are trying to 'flick' a crumpled up paper-ball into a trash can.  We just loved how "Paper Toss" felt and figured if we could get that simplicity into a Bocce-Ball game, it could be a reasonable success.  Like I said, modest goals. 

The difficult part was that in "Paper Toss" your 'flick' only controlled the distance. Bocce-Ball also required the player to control the throw's distance.  The technology team came up with the clever idea that the length of your flick would control the distance of the throw. Interestingly this was a 'polarizing' factor with players. 

As many people loved it, as others did not.  As it turns out, this was one of the lessons we would learn from Bocce-Ball.  It's OK to have a game that many people don't like, as long as you have a lot of people who love it.

So what are the lessons here?:

1. Don't write a game for the game website reviewers and hard core gamers.  Yes, it's great to be praised, but you need to focus on the iPhone users.  Better to have a game the reviewers ignore, but the iPhone users love.

2. Simple works.  This was the big lesson.  Make it really easy for people to play the game and yet, still have a challenging game.  Less options, simple automatic game save and resume.  All of this important.

3. iPhone users like games that are very iPhone-like.  The interface to the game, how you play it, matters.  If it feels like an iPhone game, that's good.  Using "Paper Toss" for inspiration was a good thing.  Focusing on making that throw work was a great thing.

4. If you focus on a fun, casual game ... not everyone will love it.  This is ok.  The important thing is to make it great for the people who want to play that sort of game.

5. Marketing matters.  Launching at MacWorld got us interest.  Some advertising helped as well.

6. This isn't the video game market.  An iPhone isn't a XBOX or Wii.  People are going to want a quick and casual experience.  Sure, there are exceptions, but the big winners are games that can be started in seconds, played for a minute or two and do a good job of allowing you to get back to where you last were in the game.

No doubt luck plays a role here ... but there were existing Bocce games on the iPhone. The focus on simplicity and the user interface is what made this Bocce-Ball game a million download success.

fdsjak fhds
20 Feb 2011 at 4:34 am PST

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