Once upon a time, Rubicon Development had been scratching a living doing contract work for various clients for several years. It put food on the table, but it was hardly a commercial easy street, and the work itself was usually uninteresting jobs we wouldn’t have picked given the choice. Such is the life of contract developers – you take what’s offered because that’s all there is.

Great Little War Game banner

Great Little War Game

Developer: Rubicon Development
Publisher: Rubicon Development
Release date: April 27, 2011
Platforms: iOS, Android, PlayBook, PC, Chrome OS
Number of developers: 5
Budget: £120,000 [about $190,000] (Game and tech)
Length of development:
About 12 months

However, one hot summer’s morning back in 2009, I realized I just didn’t want to go to the office that day — or for the rest of the year, for that matter. OK, everyone gets days like those, but you know there’s a real problem when you don’t want to go and work at your own company. I mentioned this to my business partner and found he felt exactly the same.

Just having that brief conversation polarized us. We would finish the current job, which Murphy’s Law of course dictated would be our biggest and longest, and then we would stop taking new work in and go indie — no matter what.

We didn’t make a business plan; we didn’t even decide right then and there what we’d make or for what platforms or any of that stuff. We simply knew we had to go indie or shrivel up and die (of boredom).

As we reached the end of that last work-for-hire gig around February 2010, Apple’s App Store was becoming a serious draw for us, and by the time we were ready to make a start, we’d decided that’s what we’d specialize in. Android gaming showed imminent promise, too.

That just left picking a game to make. This was actually pretty simple, as my favorite handheld game of all time was Advance Wars for the Gameboy Advance. It became a classic, so obviously there was a market for those sorts of games, and because I’d played it to death I knew where I could make a bunch of solid improvements to the formula.

And that was that. We hoisted the indie flag one day and never looked back.

Great Little Wargame snow battle

What went right:

There is only one piece of program code in the entirety of Great Little War Game that’s not written by us, and that’s a public domain ZIP file loader.

In my view, to be truly independent, you have to not just get out from under the thumb of a publisher or other controlling body but also avoid being beholden in other areas, too, such as tools and technology. To that end we wrote all our own game-specific tools and tech: renderers, animation systems, sound engine — the works.

In the indie world where time really is money, this probably sounds like madness to a lot of people, but because of this ethos, we can write games quicker than most, as our tools have been designed to work the way we do and we understand them forward and backward. We can also fix bugs the same hour we hear about them, without waiting for a middleware provider to “get back to you.” As you’ll see later, this was important.

But most of all it just feels like it’s all our own work. When I point at Great Little War Game and say “our studio made that,” I really mean all of it. This may not have any importance from a business perspective, but it’s why I write games and not banking software — it’s important to me.

App Store spotlights
We released Great Little War Game on iOS only to begin with. Back then, the whole Android scene was pretty new, and we didn’t have the staff for two major jobs at once regardless.

Anyway, within a few days of release we got a front page New and Noteworthy feature from Apple. We didn’t know anyone there or any of that stuff; they just plucked us out of nowhere. As a new nobody studio with an unknown brand and zero track record, we hadn’t even had that “what if” conversation in the office, so you can imagine we were ecstatic to see the feature show up when it did.

I’m sure this was more luck than judgment (probably 100/0), but this feature turned out to be vital to our company, as those first few days of sales beforehand were looking truly grim. Had we not had that feature, I’d probably be keeping my nose down in Barclays’ IT department by now and not writing this.

We’d designed our tech to work in a platform independent manner, but we’d still not gotten around to making the game run on Android yet, so this was our next task. A few months later we had that box ticked and rolled out our first ever Android game.
And boom, another featured spot. We couldn’t believe it.

And then some time later, Google hit their magic 10 billion downloads milestone and included Great Little War Game in its big promotion for that as well. If anyone wants to know the true power of PR, get Google to do an announcement with your name on it. Although we were only making 10 cents gross on every sale, we were shifting about 400 copies a minute for almost 24 hours. That netted us about £20,000 [about $32,000] in a single day. If only they were all like that!

At some point later on, we ported the game to Blackberry Playbook. And sure enough … you get the picture.

I think in the whole history of everything, the attention Great Little War Game got from the platform holders was beyond our wildest dreams, and we’re eternally grateful to them. We would not be in business today without them.

Look and Feel
It will come as a surprise to nobody that Advance Wars was our main inspiration. We had a bunch of new ideas to put in, but the first difference anyone sees is in the display, so we had to bring that up to modern standards.

Possible map for Great Little War Game
Maps: We wanted to go with hexagons for gameplay, as diagonal movement in square grid-based games just doesn’t work properly. The problem here, though, was that this is much harder to make map geometry for – you can’t just line up a load of squares or cubes because the hex shapes intersect with each other and it looks awful. We solved this by writing our own tool to extrude 3D meshes from height-difference contours found on a 2D tile map that the designer could lay out quickly.

Performance in-game was also a key issue, so we had to ensure these meshes were uniform manifolds without intersections and overdraw. This processing takes ages even on a beefy PC and is the sole reason we’ve not put a map editor into the actual game, despite many requests for it. (The reason we didn’t supply the PC tool to do it is that it’s buggy and not written with the player in mind. I still feel guilty about not addressing this.)

Great Little War Game Postmortem 3
Men and machines: We needed a fairly unique style to make the game stand out and we discussed many ways to go with drawing the units. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was the aesthetic I had in my head from the beginning, but then our artist showed us “Choro Q,” a Japanese toy line sold in the West as “Takara Penny Racers.” We were all instantly sold on the big rounded look and took that styling to the world of tanks and armor.

Game controls: We thought long and hard about how the game controls should work – or more specifically how the viewpoint should work. The control method was always going to be “tap and drag,” as that’s what touchscreens were invented for.
We tried putting the camera down among the action, like you see in a first-person shooter, and this made for some excellent-looking screenshots. The problem with that though was it made the game much harder control. Gameplay always comes first, so we binned this idea completely and went with a bird’s-eye view for the main display. Later on, we made the camera zoom in on fights as they play out which gave us the best of both worlds.

If you’ve played it (if no, why not?), you’ll see right away that we went for a quirky and irreverent air throughout, as we didn’t want the game to be taken too seriously.

We pick up some occasional flak for the thinness of the unfolding “story” running through the game, but most players realize this was deliberate. I have a particular dislike for games trying to cram a story in where none is needed, so this was our jibe at all that. I think on balance we got it right — but we didn’t clearly 100 percent nail it.

Also key to this irreverence was the music. We had to keep this upbeat and jaunty whilst still sounding like a military march, and again that went perfectly. We have no in-house audio capability, so we had to contract this out. Luckily, the very first person we tried turned out to be extremely good and understood our needs perfectly. Most of the audio in the whole game was done in one take.

Show me the money
Great Little War Game has been out on various platforms for a little over two years now. The Android and iOS versions are by far and away the best performers, and between those two formats they’ve earned us about half a million dollars. It might surprise many to see that Android isn’t that far behind iOS, which goes against the grain of much perceived wisdom in the trade. Android is great!

  • Total earnings to date, iOS: $283,760.53
  • Total earnings to date, Android: $216,424.23
Sales graph for the first six month’s performance on iOS.

Above: Sales graph for the first six month’s performance on iOS.

Image Credit: Rubicon Development

You can clearly see the effect of our New and Noteworthy and the rather telling figures just before it. I didn’t include more time in this image as the remainder of the sales graph just looks like a cut and paste of the rightmost inch of this one, but even less high. The “long tail” on mobile seems long indeed.

I put some interesting labels on for you.

  1. Launch day
  2. When we nearly quit mobile development and filed. Just two days in, initial sales had more than halved to about $400, with no indication of putting the brakes on by tomorrow.
  3. Salvation! Can you spot when the new and noteworthy started?
  4. Interestingly, this is where it ended. Back then you got a month in the spotlight, losing prominence each week along. To be frank, I do find it a bit depressing that most of our sales are based not on game quality but on how easy it is to find and tap an icon.

The bad news for us is that before we switched to mobile development and began Great Little War Game, we had been stitched up by a former client we did a lot of that contracting work for. We’d lost our personal savings and got into some debt and had even got to the point of phoning the tax man for clemency on our mounting unpaid bills.

When that first mammoth post-feature paycheck came in from Apple, my biz partner and I took most of it straight back out and used the money to dig ourselves out of our respective financial holes. It saved our business, and our homes, but we were left in a state where there still wasn’t much new money coming in after the feature period had expired and sales settled down to a background level.

There were five people to pay out of all this, three of us in the office and two contractors on a backend royalty deal, and the income just about managed to pay us all a living wage, barely. Not exactly an auspicious start to our new business, but we’d basically made it and decided to continue onward to see what the future would bring.

After we’d launched on Android, we got to the point where we actually had a workable income and didn’t live in permanent fear of having to close next month. And that’s about where we’ve stayed right up until time of postmortem. There are no Ferraris in our car park, but we can at least stand proud and say we operate a viable small business in a very challenging marketplace. That makes me happy.