Outwitters: A Post Mortem

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“Post mortem” is a game industry thing, reflecting on a project for our own benefit (to learn from our mistakes and successes), and for anyone that might try to follow in our footsteps. Production for Outwitters has been suspended, but servers and season support will continue for as long as there are players to spend the wits. The forums will always be around to find active teammates and opponents.

This is being written by Adam, the artist half of OML, and doesn’t necessarily reflect Alex’s experiences making Outwitters. I’m responsible for artwork, and we collaborate on the business and game design decisions.

What Went Right

As the first prototypes for Outwitters were being assembled, we had never balanced a competitive multiplayer game. I had never done real character animation for games before. I hadn’t done digital painting since high school, and I didn’t have much in the way of level design experience.

In the roughly 1 year and 10 months we worked on this game I tried all of these things, scrapped the work, and redid it until it felt right (or we ran out of time). Looking at the project in terms of what I was capable of when we started versus what I can do now, Outwitters was an amazing learning experience. We really challenged ourselves and got outside of our comfort zone, and I think that paid off.

The stated goal of the project was to create a turn-based strategy game for everyone. It started as sort of a reaction to strategy games I thought were too complex to get into. I think Outwitters is easy enough to pick up, and we’ve had a fantastic fan community that’s really taken to it. But there is one caveat:

What Went Wrong

When you set out to make a “strategy game for everyone”, that includes people who don’t like strategy games. While working with some of our testers, we learned that these people don’t like them on a molecular level. They do not want to play your turn-based strategy game, no matter how cute your bears are. So catering game design decisions to them, like keeping teams the same except for one unit, was probably misguided.

A bigger problem, financially, was that Outwitters took a really long time to make.

After release, I remember Alex wondering at what point we would break even. How do we even calculate that? We wrote it off at first; we’re a small company with no office, so our games must only cost sound effects money and the occasional equipment purchase. Then it occurred to us that if we need this much in salary to feed our faces and X to run the company each month then, gasp, our time has value! It sounds crazy, but only now do we know what a month of game production costs us. And Outwitters cost many months to make.

The rationale behind our business model was something like “it’s multiplayer, so we need lots of people playing” and “freemium seems to be working well for other companies.” There was definitely a dash of “we can do it without getting all shady with ads and timers.” Not much thought was put into pricing, conversion rates, or how many users we’d need to break even; because that had never really been a problem for us before. We didn’t understand what made the freemium business model work. I’m glad that we learned something about the business side of game development, and we’re still very much alive, but it was an expensive lesson.

Categories: News, Outwitters

49 Responses to “Outwitters: A Post Mortem”

  1. The Cozyhut says:

    Bravo! Bravo! :D

  2. The Cozyhut says:

    Also, you had better but these new business skills to use with TtL2. I don’t want you guys taking any chances, ‘ya hear? :P

  3. Avenged110 says:

    I hope this means Tilt to Live 2 will be back to good old upfront price gets you the whole game. I don’t like freemium.

  4. blckace says:

    Thanks for writing this Adam
    OML FOREVER!

  5. norahsul says:

    good job!!!
    I will still be very supportive! Thanks for the great game and hope the financial will work out :)

  6. GoHeat 3 says:

    What blckace said.:)

  7. Daniel says:

    Days of wonder just raised $200,000 by doing a clever kickstarter campaign for their game small world. Maybe that would be a way you could raise some money and introduce a new race or more maps at a profit?

    Love the game, thanks for developing it!

  8. Beau says:

    I said it before and I’ll say it again, free friendlies and monthly subscription fees for league based play. $1 a month per league player. How much would that get you guys?

  9. The Cozyhut says:

    Gadzooks! Just popped on the forum to discover that a mortem is an ode you write to/about someone after their death.

    *sigh*

  10. Texasholden says:

    My friend just informed me that Tilt to Live HD is now free. That can’t be helping either, since he paid 6 bucks for it. I don’t really like the subscription fee, but what if you just charged some money after their placement matches are over, every season. So kind of like a subscription, except every season. Like a dollar for every person would seriously make you guys some money, or 2 bucks for finishing the first 5 placement matches after downloading it. That would help a lot.

  11. AweWyld says:

    I hope Adam, you and Alex find a business model that works. You guys are awesome. Outwitters is amazing! I hope to see additional development on it, and an Outwitters 2. Also a new IP turned-based strategy game from OML. Now that that you’ve had all that learning experience :-)

    Lots of business info from other independent devs out there. For instance, Michael Jurewitz, formerly of Apple’s developer outreach team and now with Black Pixel, has a nice site: http://jury.me . From what I’ve seen, other devs are very supportive of each other.

    Best of luck, keep following your dream and keep making great experiences!

  12. AweWyld says:

    Oops. Looks like Michael Jurewitz is back with Apple (1 Month): http://www.linkedin.com/in/michaeljurewitz

    Sorry for this 2nd post. Didn’t see a comment editing feature and just wanted to correct a minor piece of misinformation. Cheers!

  13. treyvos says:

    Excellent postmortem!
    Personally, I would like to ask you about the server, beacause there was people who dindn´t buy the game.

    Never surrender, you 2 are becoming an inspiration for many! :D

  14. greatbero says:

    Thanks for the experience. It’s always interesting to read about any aspect of creative process, and it was a joy playing Outwitters.

    As a game reviewer I see a lot of games and can say with some weight that you really nailed the hard issue of balancing a turn-based multiplayer game, as well making it not too serious and not too childish with a very individual graphic style. All of this is an experience you should leverage on in the future.

    Also, freemium is a good monetization strategy for this type of game, if done right. You gave too much away too early. But this is also a good experience as balancing a freemium monetization strategy is a special skill – it’s very easy to discourage players if you require too much money for low value. You had a high quality content and should have taken the risk of higher pricing.

    I would say the game could still be a revenue generator with some changes – but probably this would mean investment of more time into it, and if you already started new projects, the decision to abandon Outwitters is understandable. Good luck!

  15. Keith Burgun says:

    >> So catering game design decisions to them, like keeping teams the same except for one unit, was probably misguided.

    No! This is not true. What you have achieved here is an ELEGANT DESIGN, which is of value not just to “non-strategy” soft-core gamers, but to everyone.

    Seriously, Outwitters is the best videogame I’ve ever played. So, I can accept your claim that “it wasn’t profitable”, but I cannot accept your claim that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with your game design.

  16. freerodo says:

    I have to agree with Keith Burgun’s comment.

    What is so different and refreshing about Outwitters are precisely the special units (the “one unit” that differs). Having similar units means someone is not at a total disadvantage when learning or trying out a new team.

    PLUS, each team can be played in different ways to take advantage of their special unit, or completely opposite to surprise your enemy (they expect you to play a certain way with a certain team, so you surprise them).

    And the maps! Don’t get me started on the maps! I hate some, love some, but enjoy playing them all.

    Other games already do “completely different teams” and boring maps (I’ve stopped playing them). I have yet to find another Outwitters.

    THANK YOU FOR A GREAT GAME!!!

    P.S.
    For the record, I would also be willing to pay $1 to $2 in a monthly subscription.

  17. Beau says:

    Great game! Thanks for the clarification Adam.

  18. The Cozyhut says:

    That new paragraph was a pleasant read. :)

  19. Johehan says:

    Completely agree with Keith, the design is not flawed in any way! The deceptive simplicity is what makes the game great, and balancing one special per team is hard enough, if there were more differences I think it would be pretty much impossible. I also actually think its hard core players that appreciate simplicity and balance more than casual players, so I really think you catered to the right audience.

    Heck, I know of this little game called chess that has only ONE map and no difference at all between the armies and lots of people seem to like that anyway, and I don’t think chess players counts as casual :)

    Finally I also think there still are ways to make money from outwitters. I still think it would be very interesting to see what would happen if you added the possibility to donate money to the game ad much as you want and get some kind om donation level so you could show off how much you support the game. A little late now perhaps, since it would be nice to know that the money would go to new content.

    THANKS FOR MAKING THE BEST GAME EVER! Please make Outwitters 2 at some point! Pretty please. Pretty please with shugar on top! :)

  20. AweWyld says:

    ” It started as sort of a reaction to strategy games I thought were too complex to get into.”

    Exactly! A lot of strategy games are daunting to get into because of their complexity and time commitment required to learn and gain proficiency. Massive rule books to navigate, multiple menus to trudge through, mind-numbing statistics to sift, technology trees to research, and a vast array of resources to micromanage. Sounds more like work than play!

    Outwitters conversely is very easy to get into, deceptively simple, yet offers surprising depth and subtlety. OML have taken out all the annoying parts and left in all the attractive ones. The elegance of this is that a player can quickly jump into the game without initially considering the depth.

    But depth there is in abundance. Unit attack strength and range, health and damage counts, unit repair, action point budget, specialized abilities, and an economy are all present and accounted for. Intact are all the abstract elements that make strategy games both challenging and fun: space, time, position, force, harmony, etc.

    Distilled, but undiluted, are all the tactical, strategic, and gameplay considerations such as symmetry, the fog of war, resource management, co-ordinated attack, defence grouping, gambits, probing, consolidation, counter-play, deflection, threats, exchanges, decoys, spawn squatting, etc. which players employ to gain an advantage.

    Eventually players are required to hone their situational awareness and decision-making if they hope to survive, let alone prevail. Meanwhile, OML is operating behind the scenes with statistical analysis to pull and knead the game into balance. A good player-matching algorithm mitigates frustration.

    All this in an appealing presentation with an obvious and effortless user interface. I think Outwitters is brilliant!

  21. Marutan Ray says:

    Great game. I look forward to the next version.
    I paid $1 for some package – maybe i should have paid more to keep the game alive! Now that i know about the quality of OML i am happy to open my pocket up to $5 :-)
    The idea of subscription $1 per quarter makes sense as well.

  22. Xai says:

    I love this game. The problem was that you gave away too much for free! It should have been capped at 3 ongoing games at a time until the user bought something, like Letter Press. The teams should have been .99 or 1.99 each like Hero Academy, no uber pack. Then you can release new teams every now and then. But the way I enjoyed the identical teams with a different super un

  23. Concept of Glory says:

    Never played TtL, but I bought it anyway because I like Outwitters so much and you guys sound like you need the money. I’d pay for new Outwitters content (not avatars or skins), but a new race for sure.

    Thanks for an amazing game!

  24. Kirk says:

    I hate the subscription-based model–too much like bills in my mailbox, and taxes. I’d rather be upfront, and pay the whole amount at once!

  25. Casey says:

    Often on the internet you will come across comments on games such as “BST GMAE EVA” and “Awesomestnessest!!!!”. I don’t see these in the comments above. Those extolling the virtues of this are intelligent and well educated and love this game for the many reasons already posted. It is as someone points out akin to chess in its simplistic makeup and complex strategy.
    This is the first game I have bought skins for because I wanted to help the devs. I would be very happy to pay to be in the leagues.
    Good Luck with the future of OML and don’t be afraid to continue to KISS

  26. Riptor says:

    Sorry, i’m not good in english but if i understand..
    Outwitters is finished ? No more teams, no more maps ?? :s

  27. Jw says:

    Riptor: not finished, you can still play. But yes no new stuff.

    I want to support Keith Burgun’s comment with another voice, and also say please consider changing the payment model before taking anything offline (if such a time comes).

    It’s a brilliant game. The design, artwork are outstanding, and even the average game length is perfect (50 turns with 1-2 per day is a bore).

    Cheers, please make more.

  28. Riptor says:

    So i don’t understand, why present three possible new teams for say after that : “we stop”..
    It’s cruel ! :’(

  29. Adam says:

    @Riptor: Sorry for the tease. I spent all that time designing them, so I thought I’d at least show them off.

  30. Flexoman79 says:

    Thanks for a brilliant game, I think AweWyld explains the positive elements of the game very well. I will continue to play the game as long as the servers are running, or until you make a even better game such as Outwitters 2 or similar.

  31. Ultradude says:

    On a serious note outwitters is probably the best ipad game I’ve played. How about you get a commitment from say 1000 people that if you released the new teams they each buy them for £2.50? (I’m in the Uk). I’m sure the extra £25000 would make it worthwhile, let alone the extra revenue from additional purchases alongside the 1000 who have already promised. It’s got to be worth it….

  32. Dan says:

    Also sad to hear this news. Outwitters is the best game out there on iOS.

    Understand the profitability issue, but there are some great suggestions in these comments for changing that. There have been comments about the uber pack option affecting profitability and disincentivising you to make new races (since presumably many or most of us would get them for free). While you can’t change that for those who’ve already paid for the right, Outwitters is still a young game and the potential for new subscribers huge. A suggestion, therefore, would be to remove the uber pack option for future users only, adopting a more profitable model (perhaps 1 free race, and then an individual cost for any additional race). Or people could trial all races for a week for $1 to decide which they’d like to buy.

    You could always keep the three new race concepts exclusively for Outwitters 2 – presumably development costs would be less than OW1, and you would be free to test out alternative purchase models.

    Anyway, this game rocks.

  33. LalaMolly says:

    How disappointing the developers don’t want to keep with something they have created so well. Although, what else is there to create? Sometimes an achievement can no longer be improved upon. As long as these guys will facilitate the continuation of the game and fix the bugs, I’ve nothing to complain about.
    Altho, all the time allocated to develop teams never to be deployed was really their own mismanagement of their own selves as resources.

    I *actually* paid for the uber-pack.
    I’ve never done that before, I’m simple like that.
    But, I tell you, I’d still donate a few bucks if the option were presented.

    People, for example, can make a *living* on Minecraft donations.

  34. Neo says:

    Just want to add my 2 cents … Outwitters is an incredible game. Design and gameplay are solid. Many people that enjoy playing it are addicted. If you take the servers offline there’s going to be some serious withdrawal (I understand you’re not as of yet, but it could come to that one day). ;)

    I think the only mistake made was how to monetize it. The freemium model didn’t work because too much was given away for free at the start.

    It’s also a mistake to abandon the project (I’m making a generalised statement here without knowing the financial implications). There are many things you can do (even with minimal effort) to increase profits from this game. Of course you need to manage your resources efficiently, but I have some ideas to offer if you’re interested. (Won’t list them here because it would be too lengthy).

    Cheers

  35. Scott says:

    FWIW, I am squarely one of your demographics, “People who hate strategy games”. Outwitters is the greatest iPhone game I’ve ever played – I LOVE this game!

    It’s weird though, I’ll win a bunch and be happy and Clever, then go into a death spiral and get booted to Fluffy, then yo-yo back to Clever – it’s frustrating in that regard but it’s so damn fun to play I can’t stop! I’ve gotten pissed off and deleted the game at least twice, but I always end up downloading it again and playing more.

    I even bought the Uber-Pack and the new layouts, not because I needed them, but because you guys deserve to be paid for this.

    I’m sorry to hear that development has ceased, but I totally get it, so I’ll just leave at, “things for the fantastic game – WELL DONE!”.

  36. NathanDetr0it says:

    From a textbook over-thinker: Great job! Be bold in your next project; fear no failure! Excellent design!

  37. 5ryn says:

    OW is the game I play all the time on my iPad. I paid for the Uber pack to get Adorables and I play them all the time. I fell in love to OW so much that it made me think of cloning it and making AI players.
    If you’re not going to make OW2, is there a chance that you can release it to the community to continue the upkeep and development?
    * Not sure how server access payments will fly with AppStore rules

    5ryn

  38. Leigh says:

    I read this post-mortem and have been letting it sink in for a few days. It really did not sit with me well. I just bought the uber pack about three days ago, then I came here to find out that you have suspended development. I was completely bummed out to read this.

    These past few days, I’ve been thinking and thinking about this. I just cannot let this go. This game is too incredibly epic to let go or suspend work on. You have a gold mine here. No joke! You have a large base of raving, dedicated, intelligent fans who are foaming at the mouth to support you in any way possible!!

    Would you at least be willing to consider the options? For example, just one idea is to try a Kickstarter. I would be more than willing to contribute to Kickstarter. You have the concepts, the ideas, the drawings for new teams, and it would be a shame to not even give the opportunity to your extremely dedicated fans to see if it can be funded. I think you would be pleasantly surprised.

    These comments I’m reading really paints the picture of how valuable this game is. I bet if you posted this postmortem in the news section of the game with a donate button, you’d be flabbergasted at how much money you’d make just on that. I really think you’re underestimating us.

    Please don’t stop development just yet. You’re really onto something.

  39. Adam says:

    @Leigh: As much as we love Outwitters, it’s risky for the company to continue investing time there, whether it’s doing a Kickstarter or releasing new content. It’s only recouped about a third of the production cost. Not because it’s a bad game, but because our business model wasn’t what it should have been. We learned a lot here, and a sequel isn’t off the table, but for now we’ve got to move on.

  40. Trey says:

    Really enjoy the game. I’m sad to see that y’all are suspending production, but it makes sense from a business standpoint. One thing I disagree with is the idea that making one special unit per team was a mistake. In fact it is one of my favorite things about the game, because it makes it easier to pick up on the iPhone and forces the emphasis of the gameplay on tactics. Anyway, I hope to see a sequel. Until then I will keep playing Outwitters. Good luck guys

  41. Jeff says:

    I love this game so you better get started on outwitters 2 then!! I’ll pay again for new teams and maps!

  42. Sina Yeganeh says:

    Hi Adam,

    Any chance you could at least try a kickstarter? Or perhaps release the game into steam for a quick PC/Mac buck (greenlight)? I really hate to see this game die, because it is amazing in terms of content and balance.

    I know kickstarters are risky, but maybe if you set a ridiculous goal that will fund you like crazy, we can pump life back into your game. Even if its a stretch, its still something :(

    Sinbu

  43. Leigh says:

    Hey Adam, I’m back!

    Listen, I just can’t let this go. I really don’t think we’re seeing the same picture here. You’re saying it’s risky to keep investing time here, which I get, but that’s assuming that nothing changes. I’m absolutely suggesting to do things differently than has been done previously.

    There are ways to do this without investing much time. For example, adding a donate button. That’s a simple, poignant way for your fans to contribute to the development of this game. You’re saying you want two thirds of the production costs back. Great! Then ask for three thirds (yes, 100%) of your production costs. That way, you can use it for two thirds of the production cost you haven’t gotten yet, and in addition, you can make an extra one third! I don’t see how just trying, just attempting to do this would be negative. If you need $100,000, then ask for $100,000! It’s worth a try! And hey, if you do a website like indiegogo, then if you raise $50,000, then you’ll make $50,000! Or, alternatively, if you get a Kickstarter, and you don’t make your $100,000, then no one would lose their money, you wouldn’t lose your time. No loss.

    You’ve made it clear that this time around it is a learning lesson in how to do this. So if, say, you needed to charge $14.99 for this game to have been profitable, well, now you know that! But you didn’t know that previously, so make up the difference in your Kickstarter.

    Gotta ask.

  44. Adam says:

    Long time no Leigh. We’re actually not in a position to do anything for Outwitters at the moment, being neck deep in new development, shooting for a release in September. Our brains just can’t fathom it.

    If we came back to it, I think we’d be more interested in creating a sequel with exciting new systems than retreading the old stuff. There was a lot of cool ideas we didn’t get to try, which wouldn’t jive super well with Outwitters’ existing codebase.

  45. Km says:

    Does this mean this game is over? I bought the Uber Pack I thought this game is here to stay.

    It had a huge number of reviews average like 4/5 stars and it was so well made, I can get some one to compete against in like 0.1 seconds .

  46. Leigh says:

    Okay, I will accept defeat ONLY IF Outwitters 2 becomes a “thing”. :)

  47. DRON says:

    Wish you good luck! Will wait for Outwitters 2 :)

  48. Doug says:

    My son and I have been having a great time playing as a team. I really want to find a way to make Outwitters work for One Man Left. The $1 per month idea for heavy use seems like a good start. Count me in.

  49. Doug says:

    I also like the donation button idea!

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