Tiny Bubbles has scored well in three separate indie-mobile-game contests. I’ve had the honor of judging the game from Pine Street Codeworks in those contests, and each time, the physics-based simulation of bubbles in liquid has come out a winner.
It has fluid, natural gameplay where you try to match four bubbles of the same color. You can snip the edge of a bubble, pop it, and connect other bubbles together as a result. Very simple and fun, as Stuart Denman, the principal game developer, demonstrated at last week’s Mobile Gaming Forum in Seattle.
But the fate of the mobile and Steam game is up in the air. Denman is targeting a January publication date, but he doesn’t have a publisher yet, and he is still figuring out how to properly market and monetize the game. Tiny Bubbles may be a lot of fun, with the indie contests validating that point, but getting a publisher could be critical to success in the mobile-game app stores, where hundreds or even thousands of titles are released every day. Denman needs a way to draw eyeballs to the game, and he doesn’t have a marketing budget that will help him outspend all of those rivals in the market. He also has to have a publisher for markets, such as China.
This is the kind of challenge that indie-game developers face every day. It’s a war for attention. Just last Friday, we saw the culmination of some really huge game marketing campaigns with the launch — on the same day — of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Super Mario Odyssey, and Assassin’s Creed Origins. Those kinds of triple-A games have marketing budgets that climb into the tens of millions of dollars.
But the indies are usually on their own, and they’re lucky enough just to cross the finish line of making a game. Denman, his wife Paulette, and two other developers — James Hutt and Kristoffer Larson — have worked on the game for a few years. And Denman is now hitting the events and talking to publishers about possible deals.
Denman isn’t new to this game. He has been making games for 25 years at big studios, such as Surreal Software — which he cofounded — and Midway Games. At this point, Denman has a polished presentation. He competed against other developers, including Adrian Sotomayor of Taco Truck Games, Ty Taylor of The Quantum Astrophysicists Guild, Auston Montville and Diana Pham of CatDate, Frank DiCola of Game Revenant, and Carina Kom of Crash Wave Games.
And his presentation certainly stood out. The best part of it was when he described the inspiration for the organic puzzle game set in a microscopic aquatic world. It came from his grandfather, Cyril Sterling Smith, who was a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and wrote research papers on the nature of soap bubbles. It turns out the mathematical equations for those bubbles are very complex.
His grandfather studied metals for work, and he became fascinated with bubbles because they had the same physical structure as some kinds of metals. Denman remembers reading his grandfather’s research papers when he was young. He found them again 25 years later, and he tried to think of a way to use them for a game.
Denman came up with Tiny Bubbles, a match-4 game where you can do things like snip edges, combine bubbles, and mix colors together. Altogether, the team has created 168 levels. The Unity-based, free-to-play game is coming in early 2018 to iOS, Google Play, Amazon, and Steam. Denman is also looking at taking the game to the consoles later.
His grandfather was also colorblind. So, Denman took the extra step of making the game playable for those who are colorblind. The game asks you if a modified version of the colors looks better to you, and if you say it does, the game will switch to that color scheme.
“Accessibility is really important to me, and I wanted everyone from any background to play it,” Denman said.
Tiny Bubbles won a $2,500 prize at the Intel Buzz Workshop game event at the Power of Play 2017 game conference in Bellevue, Washington, in April 2017. It also was one of the top three winners at the Google Play Indie Games Festival in September.
The prizes for that contest included promotion on the Google Play store, promotion on Android developer and Google Play channels, premium placement in the dedicated Indie Corner collection in the Americas and European Google Play store for one month, a Google Pixel XL 32GB device, a Daydream View device, $20,000 credit on Google Cloud, and passes to Google events.
And at the Mobile Gaming Forum this week, Denman picked up top prize and won awards like being featured on the Amazon App Store, multiple Amazon devices, and mentorship with various game industry veterans. All of these prizes will add up, as will the recognition that Tiny Bubbles will get from the exposure at these events.
A month ago, Denman began testing the game on Android with 2,000 players. He found that day one retention is higher than 50 percent. Analytics showed that the game has a path toward improving that result, Denman said. It showed whether notifications were working and how free-to-play players were viewing ads.
“We are looking at our difficulty curve and our onboarding,” he said. “Improving that can improve retention.”
Denman believes he can sell the game as both a premium title (which has a two-player mode and an ability to skip ads) and as a free-to-play game. There are things players can purchase to unlock, such as new sections, power-ups, and hints.
Denman is testing the idea now. The biggest challenge is going to be getting the attention.
“I don’t have budgets for mass marketing and user acquisition,” Denman said. “I’m open to talking to publishers. When it comes to Asia, I’m definitely looking for a publisher.”
Disclosure: The Mobile Gaming Forum paid my way to Seattle. Our coverage remains objective.