ironSource sat down with our mediation partner Ian Marsh, co-founder at NimbleBit, to learn how he and his team made it big as an indie game developer.
NimbleBit started developing games back in 2008, when the iPhone was just born, and since then has amassed millions of downloads across its portfolio - many even still play their games from 10+ years ago. Keep reading for a transcript of the conversation and more of Ian's insights on how to build a game that lasts.
How and why did you first get started in gaming?
My twin brother David and I were big fans of video games growing up, and in high school I started to learn how to program really basic stuff like, HTML and flash. Meanwhile, my brother started making levels for one of our favorite games at the time, Counter Strike, and some of their mods.
In 2008, David, with another friend of ours, started NimbleBit and their first game, which was a cart racing game on Steam - an ambitious first project that included multiplayer real-time physics.
2008! So you were really early to the space. What was it like to develop games back then?
At the time, I put out a game called Hanoi - a really simple puzzle game where you had to move different size disks across the screen on different sized pegs. It's a classic computer science thought experiment. I put it up on the App Store for free because I thought eventually my family members and friends might get iPhones and I could show them what I made.
Hanoi ended up reaching #1 on the App Store’s free download charts and getting millions of downloads.
That was the biggest thing I've ever made. It was the first software I even published myself, so I was kind of blown away. We then put up an extended version of the game for $0.99, which ended up generating more money than my day job. That’s when I quit and started publishing apps under my own name.
Being so early, how did you deal with the increase in market competition over the years?
To get a leg up, we decided to try something creative and start doing these “free weekends” where we would put our $0.99 or $2.00 games up for free for the weekend. They would get a ton of downloads and then we'd flip them back to paid. The word of mouth from all the free players would lead to more sales during the week. It was more money than the money we lost putting it free for the weekend.
We already had a sense that the free thing could be a big deal when Apple started rolling out the free-to-play functionality in iOS. Once they officially did that, we designed our first fully free-to play-game, Pocket Frogs. That ended up being the very first Editor's Choice on iOS.
What’s been the most exciting part of your gaming career so far?
Releasing Tiny Tower was the game-changer. It was Editor's Choice, and the game just blew up. It was kind of a phenomenon in 2011 when it came out, and even the New York Times and Wall Street Journal covered the game. Then we got a call from Apple, and found out that it was going to be chosen as the iPhone game of the year for that year's roundup!
We released a bunch of new games and a lot of them got Editor’s Choice again, but they never really reached the same level as Tiny Tower. In retrospect, we should have just doubled down on Tiny Tower and just rode that thing into the sunset. Though now we’re concentrating on adding some real big, exciting, new features to the game for our 10th anniversary update.
Some of our games have already hit 10 year anniversaries. Like Pocket Frogs. I talked to some people in the industry and they just can't believe that we have decade-old games that still have sizable active audiences that are still profitable 10 years later. We've been really lucky to grow the community of players we had over the years. I've found huge player-run discords for most of our games and join them and become parts of them.
What is your favorite part about developing games?
My favorite part has always been the enjoyment that our games bring to others, and the potential to find such large audiences, especially on mobile and especially with free-to-play now. If you're going to spend your time making games, why would you make a game for thousands of people when you can make one for millions of people?
It's also just really humbling. We get emails to our contact that say, “I've been playing this game since I was in middle school, and I’m a parent now, and it's got me through a lot of rough times” Or “my mother played Pocket Frogs through chemotherapy and it was the one thing that just kept her focused and relaxed.” We get some incredible stories and I know that they're far and few between in the real world, but they really help keep you motivated.
What do you think is the most challenging part about developing games?
I'd say the most challenging thing is really just keeping up to date with how the industry changes. It's gone through a lot of changes since I started 10 years ago, and advertising is becoming more important. Trying to navigate the market, especially when you don't have a lot of resources, you need to be really smart with who you partner with and really try to maximize the resources you have.
It’s also been difficult to figure out how we can profitably grow our games. The challenge is getting each game to the level where it's profitable enough to still grow with advertising, but doesn't turn away all the players who've come to expect a certain type of game from us.
You mentioned people are still playing your games 10 years later. What advice would you give to other indie developers trying to make a game that lasts?
Developers starting at this point in time definitely have a lot more challenges than we did 10 years ago. One of the best things you could do is to try to make sure you grow a community. People will try your game, but if you don't listen to what they have to say, you won't know what needs improvement or how to change it. Connecting with the players of your game and trying to really listen to what they have to say is incredibly valuable and can help you improve it into something that can appeal to an even wider audience.