Rockets, Adoration, and the Difference Between Critical Praise and Commercial Success

By Nathaniel Mott , written on August 17, 2012

From The News Desk

Cute, anthropomorphic robots are my – and many others' – weakness. Web developer, game maker, and 8-bit wunderkind Shaun Inman knows this, and has commemorated the one year anniversary of The Last Rocket by releasing the game on the Mac and pushing Flip's Escape, a new iOS game, to the App Store.

The Last Rocket follows Flip, the previously mentioned anthropomorphic (and cute) rocket, as he tries to save his ship's Autonomous Mechanical Intelligence terminal, AMI. I gave The Last Rocket a solid 10 out of 10 when I reviewed it last year, citing its design and controls as some of the best on the iOS platform.

Things haven't changed much in the year since. I have yet to find another game that considers the opportunities and limitations of the iPhone's touchscreen as well as The Last Rocket did a year ago. Inman alluded to this when I asked him about the Bladepad iPhone peripheral, saying "It just seems like if you’re going to design for a medium you should design for that medium without any external dependencies.” His commitment to this idea is what made The Last Rocket so great.

Flip's Escape serves as a side game, an in-between way to transition from Flip's adventures in The Last Rocket to a "proper sequel." The player's job is to tap on the screen to make Flip stop as he rockets (ha!) away from a stellar shockwave and attempts to avoid asteroids. Where The Last Rocket made players think about a course of action and relied on quick thinking, Flip's Escape is a simple, almost mindless romp meant to be played in short bursts.

With The Last Rocket, Flip's Escape, and a "logbook" called Liftoff that chronicled The Last Rocket's development, Inman has created a genuine franchise around a blocky rocket. Despite the series' critical praise and an almost-rabid fanbase, however, Inman says that he wouldn't be able to make a living off of game development. Instead, he relies on Mint (not that one) and Fever, two Web applications that were released in 2004 and 2008, respectively.

Both applications cost $30 and require that a user install them on their own Web server. This may dissuade some users – say "FTP" and watch your friends' head spin – but sales are healthy enough that they cover Inman's game development. Fever, a feed reader that "takes the temperature of your slice of the Web and shows you what's hot," has grown more popular in the last few months, as Reeder, a popular RSS app for the iPhone, added support for Fever and new applications have been built to support the service.

"I wouldn't say [The Last Rocket] fully recouped its expenses, based on the amount of time I spent with it," he says. "I guess you could say I am doing the game development full time, just probably not responsibly."

Unfortunately this seems to be a harsh reality for iOS game developers. Michael Boxleiter and Greg Wohlwend of Mikengreg debuted Gasketball, their trick-shot game for the iPad, and are now struggling to find a way to make money off of its freemium model.

“We wanted the game to be free but also we want to make a living off of it since we’ve spent 2 years on it," Wohlwend told the Penny Arcade Report. "So we felt being honest and up front that this game has content, you unlock it once and you have it all forever was The Right Thing To Do. So far, humanity is proving to us that we can’t have it both ways.”

Inman decided against going the freemium route, and has subjected privileged his Twitter followers to an almost real-time update of how Flip's Escape is doing in the App Store. Despite garnering praise from Touch Arcade, a popular mobile gaming site, Flip's Escape has hovered around the Top 100 mark. Not a bad place to be when compared to the number of games in the App Store, but not a place where casual users are likely to discover Flip's Escape through sheer serendipity.

Inman is lucky enough to have two other successful products that can subsidize his game development. Others, like those documented in "Indie Game: The Movie" -- a film from earlier this year that followed three games through their development -- have placed their entire lives in the hands of platform makers and the chance that enough users will purchase their game to justify the effort that goes into a game's production.

There is no cut-and-dry solution to this problem. As much as many – including myself – would like to believe that the Web is a meritocracy and that "the good stuff" will be appreciated, the truth is that it all comes down to luck. Making a game is a lesson in frustration and, as shown during "Indie Game: The Movie", can bring a person close to their breaking point.