The argument for in-app purchases: an interview with ustwo’s Matt Miller, co-creator of Whale Trail

Whale Trail is one of the most enjoyable games for iOS and Android. At least, it was before ustwo released a version 2.0 that made the 99c game free with in-app purchases. After playing the updated version of iOS, which hasn’t yet come out for Android, I was struck by something: why do developers pursue such a divisive revenue model? Sure, it’s worked for large-scale game developers like NimbleBits, Zynga and Imangi Studios, but the small UK-based ustwo felt they had no choice in the matter. After an initial spike of purchases, downloads levelled off precipitously. The revenue from both iOS and Android, once it was introduced, was tepid at best.

So the team decided to go free-to-play, and use an in-game currency called Krill as a way to earn power-ups and others bonuses. Like most games that offer in-app purchases, merely playing the game earns Krill, but not very quickly; you start out fairly simply, with limited abilities. I was quickly able to earn a fair amount of credit playing through a few rounds, but I found the initial state of Willow, the game’s loveable titular whale, to be severely underpowered compared to the game’s first iteration.

I was concerned with the state of the game after its update, but also the performance on Android, which I found to be much more limited over the iPhone and iPad. Turns out I was right; ustwo capped the maximum frame rate at 30fps to ensure it would play on legacy handsets.

Lastly, I was interested in a new feature I found on some Android games called Jakyl Toolbox and how it interacts with Google’s rather frustrating licensing system. Take a look at the interview below, it’s pretty interesting.

Bolded is me; answers by Matt Miller of ustwo.

Now that 2.0 is out, what has the fan response been? Has revenue shot up as you’ve expected? Have there been any balancing concerns you plan to address in the future?

I think we can safely say we’ve had mixed reviews so far. Some people hate major change and others hate the concept of virtual currency and IAP. The bottom line is we had to change the game to get it in front of more people.

At the moment the download figures are still stabilising after the price drop and promotions, so it’s too early to say but at the moment it looks like there will be a modest increase.

The feel of the game is fundamentally different now; Frenzy is now much shorter, and it also seems like Willow controls a bit “easier” (floats longer and drops aren’t as steep). Was this in response to customer suggestions?

The length of Frenzy is now upgradable, so it starts shorter than before, but you can upgrade it, which also makes the blast bigger. It’s interesting that every time we put out an update, people think that Willow’s flight mechanic has changed, but actually we’ve never changed it.

Before any updates are made to Whale Trail we always go through a period of beta testing so all alterations are tested and iterated with play testers.

Although Whale Trail was getting lots of 5 star reviews, users would often say something was missing – that it didn’t hold their attention for long enough or lacked the challenge to keep them coming back.

The new version of the game is much more fun, lasts longer and expands Willow’s world. We re-balanced with that in mind to provide a few hours of enjoyable progress and improvement for players. We wanted to make a game that is engrossing without forcing people to choose between grinding or IAP.

When will the Android version be updated to 2.0? Will it introduce ads if going free-to-play? 

We’re going through final QA with the Android version so it should be out pretty soon. We’re not including any interstitial or unsolicited ads in this release, although we are looking at ways that players without credit cards can earn extra krill (watching a sponsored video etc). We think this is a good way of doing things – to try not to pull people out of the ‘feel’ of the game unless they choose to.

Can you talk about the implementation about the Jakyl Toolbox? What does it give you, as a developer, on Android?

The Toolbox allows us to put more options about how to play the game into the hands of the player. For instance, we would not want to make a decision for the player about whether to letterbox the game screen, but if a certain player prefers that then the option is there. It’s a way of coping with the varied nature of current and future Android devices without having to make decisions that might not be suitable for everyone.

What was it like developing for Android? I know that’s a broad question, but I’ve noticed that even on high-end devices like the HTC One X and Galaxy S III the performance does not match the frame rate of the iPhone 4S.

It might not look like it on the surface, but Whale Trail is actually quite a technically intensive game. It renders a lot of lovely 2D artwork on screen, and has to stream resources for the backgrounds as you fly. On iPhone 4S the game will stop all other background processes running but on Android we don’t have that luxury, so we’re much more susceptible to performance drops due to other activity on the phone.

On Android we currently cap the frame rate at 30fps, as opposed to 60fps on iPhone 4S. We’re working on a system for Android to actively throttle the frame rate, which should allow more recent devices to run at a higher frame rate while also running smoothly on older devices. Hopefully this will mean that high-end Android devices can match up with new iOS devices, and Toolbox integration will allow players to find settings, which work well for them.

Does the licensing system bother you on Android? I flash a lot of ROMs and when I try to load up Whale Trail for the first time on the subway I am often met with a “cannot acquire license” message. Do you think Google can implement a better licensing system that curtails that initial offline restriction?

The nature of Android as an open operating system where users are free to load other versions of the OS on their device makes it very hard to do licensing in software. It’s possible that some kind of hardware DRM could be brought in, but until then we think any effective licensing system will have to rely on initial server access.

This can obviously be an annoyance for new players – in fact the majority of support requests we receive are to do with licensing, which is not ideal! I suspect this is another reason why more games are released as free-to-play on Android than on iOS.

Thanks so much to ustwo, Steve Bittan and Matt Miller for their time.