Hypercasual Publishers Are Squeezing Us For Free

Subject: Hypercasual Publishers Are Squeezing Us For Free
From: dododoro
Date: 22 May 2020

We are two independent videogame developers. We chose to publish this open letter anonymously.
After years of collaboration on various major videogames for PC, we decided to jump into the mobile market in 2018 in order to secure ourselves a relatively stable source of income. Once we had a small prototype of an endless runner, we started pitching it to various mobile publishers and were contacted by a big publisher of hypercasual games, a genre we did not even know yet. A Skype call and in a few days visions of enormous incomes were presented to us: the publisher promised us incredibly high figures for our small game, reported with order in a contract. We were thrilled, excited: the small prototype we had was easily achievable for our skills and we were sure we could make more of it in a continuous cycle, which meant exponentially multiplying those incomes and, at a certain point, gathering the fundings and having the safety necessary for us to focus back on the big videogames we had in mind.
There was just a little condition to this sea of money: the game had to be “tested” and match the KPIs set by the publisher. We had no idea what KPIs were yet, nor that they would have affected and dominated our lives for months and years.
KPIs are metrics, parameters with which a prototype’s performances are evaluated within a short ad campaign on a group of potential users: in a few days, the prototype is advertised towards a specific target audience and, depending on the number of downloads, it may result to be a “hit” and therefore can be published. If the prototype is a “hit”, we gain that famous big money.
In no time our prototype was ready to be tested. The publisher would have kindly paid for the ad campaign and we would have been able to easily follow the progress of the game by checking the metrics.
Our prototype revealed not to be a “hit”. At the end of the test, our publishing manager (a publisher’s employee who communicates with the developers and coordinates their projects) told us the KPIs were just not right, and that we were better focus on a new concept. Well, nevermind: in the meantime, pumped by the frenzy of “making money”, we had prepared a couple of new prototypes to be tested, and many other ideas were on their way. If the point was holding on, try and retry, we would have succeeded: we didn’t lack ideas, and were fast at developing the prototypes.
Our treasure hunt in the world of hypercasual started in September-October 2018.
The beginning of 2019 saw us still strongly busy building prototypes at a pace of two-three per month, all of them duly failing the KPIs tests. Meanwhile other prototypes, which got canceled even before the tests due to technical or design issues, started accumulating; the days of work grew longer, the hours of sleep grew shorter, there was no time to go outside or “take a break”.
We reached the summer of 2019 with zero games published, many prototypes tested (and failed), too many prototypes discarded and the sharper and sharper impending ghost of desperation: for how much time could we keep going? For how much time could our poor savings last? How much time would have a “hit” game taken to arrive? We did not know. We only knew that, if we wanted to win the game of hypercasual, we had to keep grinding, farming prototypes, test as much as possible, learn as more as possible from our mistakes.
And we knew a summer without holidays was approaching.
At the beginning of the summer, other publishers started reaching out: we discovered that those prototypes we published on the App Store for the tests were seen by publishing managers of various publishers, which so went looking for new developers to engage. For us it was an unexpected source of new hope: if it didn’t went good with the first publisher so far, we could try with someone else. After all, we did got noticed, they noticed our prototypes on the App Store; it had to mean something.
We chose to keep in touch with and listen to the offers of as many publishers as possible. We kept working during our “vacations”, and spent the whole summer making prototypes for multiple publishers, along with the usual bunch of discarded ideas piling up where only we could see them. Have you ever spent a month on the seaside, locked in a scorching house from morning to evening, trying to invent the next “hit” game while the rest of your family was going to the beach, going out, taking a rest? I did. My colleague did not, but just because that summer he chose to avoid the costs of a holiday.
What we soon learned (even if ten months in the hypercasual industry is not exactly “soon”) is that every hypercasual publisher wants the same thing: a “hit” game, able to climb the stores’ top charts. No one wants a “nice game”, a very pretty game with cool ratings but still not the most downloaded. No. Everyone want the next game to be featured in the Top 10 Free Games on the App Store, possibly at the first places. Therefore, every publisher asks for the same KPIs in order to publish your game; the names of the parameters may change, the percentages and the cap values could slightly vary, but it does not change anything: everywhere the same, lurid, savage, apparently endless hunt to the next game to break the charts.
A little digression about hypercasual games: hypercasual games are, by definition, good for everyone, simple, repetitive just as necessary, as much addicting as possible, that can be played in sessions as quick as a snort of cocaine, that can attract men, women, children, teens, adults and elders, doctors and labourer, teachers and housewives, graduates and ignorants. The hypercasual game must be less game possible because, otherwise, it will look too hard and not enough appealing to the non-players, but it must also be challenging and intriguing enough to push the users to download it in the first place, and then play it, and again and again. The hypercasual audience is just anyone who has access to a smartphone and since, as a good game designer knows, the game has to be balanced on the less skilled player of the target audience instead of the more skilled one, hypercasual games, more than any other type of game, must be:

  • Idiot proof.
  • Non-player proof (how do I make my game so that it can be played by those who do not know how to play? In this subtle oxymoron lies the nightmare of many of us developers.

The reader may start noticing that slight, very slight difficulty, which we initially had ignored and set aside, in hypercasual game development? Shall we be more specific? Fine. With hypercasual publishers you test prototypes, not games. I very carefully used these words throughout this letter, because they mean different things: a prototype is just a draft of a game, just what is strictly necessary, in graphics, mechanics, level and user interface, to be thrown on the App Store and hopefully, hopefully, downloaded by enough people and played regularly enough during that bunch of days of anguish that is “The Test”, in order for the game to be considered a “hit” and allow us to get paid.
And this is what all the publishers we got in contact with were looking for. Did anyone also know how to make those hypercasual games? Yes, but actually no: the job of the publisher is to fund the ad campaigns for the tests. All the advices that the publishing managers may give about what game to make, what mechanic to implement, are based upon deduction, upon reverse engineering of the success of the “hit” games published so far, and often lack the solidity and consistency of an idea based, instead, on game design notions. Paradoxically, I and my colleague, with our game design studies and practical experience in programming, modeling and animating, had many more tools to understand and analyze the market compared to the gentlemen we had been working for.
Yet, until that point, no publisher, no publishing manager, none of the infinite, desperate and frustrated brainstorming sessions had brought us a prototype able to pass the test. Twelve months in the hypercasual industry, a year of our lives spent working full time, crunch times included, no holidays, no Sundays, without seeing a cent, and we had not learned anything yet.
We had learned something. Indeed, we were learning a whole bunch of very nice stuff. In particular, three fundamental rules of hypercasual:

  1. The mobile market changes quickly; the hypercasual market changes more quickly (when did you take a look at the App Store top chart the last time? The last week? Now it’s all different, man). This has a marvelous consequence, which is easy to neglect: it is hard, extremely hard, incredibly hard to learn from your mistakes: how much value does a failed prototype have in a market which is not equal to itself for more than a week?
  2. Time is everything: the short period during which the prototype is tested by the publisher is a very tight time frame during which you have to hope the market and the users are receptive towards the type of game you are testing. If the time frame is not right for your prototype, if the market is pointing towards something different or due to a thousand other factors related to what users want and expect, your prototype may fail the test and you will have to start from scratches.
  3. The hypercasual developer cannot, the publishing manager cannot, the hypercasual publisher cannot, no one CANNOT predict the right time frame for a specific prototype. There are moments more favourable than others, clues in the trends, but the market runs too fast (an old adage says that when you notice a trend, it is already fading) to be able to say “this is the time to test” for sure. A result of this situation is that the prototypes must get tested as soon as possible: think of something quickly, develop it quickly, test it quickly. And in the end I dunno, who knows if it’ll work?

On top of the stress we were accumulating, there was the pressure of always having to think of a second idea, think about the next prototype while still being at the beginning of the development with the current one. Too many times, in the morning, I found a message of my colleague, maybe sent around three or four in the night, in which he illustrated a brand new idea. It is not a nice awakening, it is not nice to know your friend and colleague, instead of eventually going to bed, spent the entire night awake studying games from the competition, GIFs and viral videos in the desperate as obsessive trial to discover the recipe for the next “hit”. And it was not cool to discuss new ideas either: that frenzy with which we had started our treasure hunt was leaving us, replaced with tension, rage, stagnation. I was at a point at which I felt sick just because of the sole idea of having to make another fucking shitty prototype, of having to discuss it, of having even just to think about a new mechanic; all that I could think of was the nauseating awareness I would have had to waste hours, days, weeks, months squeezing my brain to make a new prototype work, just to see it regularly fail the test and restart all from the beginning, and all without being paid the beak of a penny.
The reader shall take note: so far, I’ve wrote about burnout, frustration, rage. In the end, we were depressed. Spoiler: we are depressed. All the streets were closing before us, leaving just the infinite road of hypercasual games, which still were, funny enough, the fastest way to make money and a lot of money. Adding to our fears there was the information about the enormous amount of money required to open a society; because the first step was to make money, the second to pay the relative taxes, the third actually get the incomes, and there are no half words: or you make a lot of money and are able to pay the taxes and keep a considerable figure for you, or the incomes will be too low to constitute a profit, but high enough for it to be taxed.
But yeah, we were depressed, locked in our homes, working all day for free, our social lives almost or completely null, no desire to lose time in frivolous and unproductive things like hanging out with friends or getting a girl. Our lives were a miserable and monotonous pile of garbage, punctuated by turning on the computer in the morning and turning it off later and later in the night, by the ticking of mouse and keyboard, controlled by the always inadequate metrics, the KPIs, of our prototypes and by the fundamental need of money. We did not want to spit out ideas any more: often and willingly, our Skype calls just got lost in a silence dense with fatigue.
Things, though, were changing: along with the usual proposals of new publishers asking if we were interested in “collaborating” in the development of hypercasual games, some of them started talking about the possibility of paying for the prototypes. Hold on, wait a minute: was that our chance? Were they willing to pay up front for our prototypes, no matter the results of the tests, on top of the various revenue share and similar for the “hit” games? For us it was a breath of fresh air, a new, even if little, hope to “start something” seriously with videogames, to get to have a salary. We immediately answered, providing the publishers interested with a catalogue of our prototypes done so far. Meanwhile, we were constantly working on always new prototypes for old publishers. And… here we are, now, in May 2020: we are in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, we never stopped making prototypes, testing them and watching them fail. But what about the paid prototypes? No, no no no. Too easy, it seems.
No publisher has given us this new, longed contract in which a fixed amount of money was to be paid for each prototype in the moment it becomes testable, yet. Why, though?, the reader will ask. The answers, or the excuses, we received are more or less always the same: “we appreciate your prototypes, but we do not think it is the right time to sign you a contract”; “we do not think your profile matches our requirements”; “we are sorry, but it is very hard to be approved for our contract”; “we would prefer to offer you the contract after we will have made a good game together”. Fantastic. Even more fantastic is the gloss to these excuses, a leitmotiv with which we had some familiarity: “if you wish, we will be happy to collaborate with you in the development of prototypes without a contract”. You will be happy to work with us at the exact same conditions in which we have been working for the last one and a half year? Fantastic.
It is necessary, though, to take a moment to analyse this new situation. What happened? What changed? Why, just out of the blue, various publishers had the same idea about a contract in which the prototypes are paid instead of sticking with the good old “collaborations”? We have a theory.
What changed, or is changing, is the hypercasual market, along with the audience: when we started, back in 2018, hypercasual games were very simple, usually oriented, with some adjustments, towards an impossible game aesthetics. They were games easy to make on a technical level, very minimal in content, but they worked at their time. In the last months, though, more complex games, with technically more elaborated mechanics, occasional touches of puzzle, simulation games (cooking, fashion, make up, medicine, the list is very long) and race games filled with bots started taking over the charts. Around the core gameplay, a series of pretty stable features expanding the game (skins, keys, coins) has been consolidating. We see an increasing complexity in execution, as well as more polished graphics compared to what we had to study at the beginning of our adventure. We think the hypercasual audience somehow evolved, preferring, slowly but inexorably, deeper and more articulated games over the impossible games that were ruling in 2018. A result of this change, on top of the obvious saturation of the market which we are witnessing, is that it has become harder to find the next “hit”: with the increasing technical and graphical requirements to be met in order to compete with the games on the top charts, it is no more that easy (or remunerative?) for the publishers to milk prototypes from any miserable developer they can find. The entrance requirements for the hypercasual industry are raising up, and maybe the publishers just decided to start, if not cutting their staff of “collaborators”, to give priority to the best of them, and that is where this brand new enticing promise of paid prototypes no matter the results gets to shine, a safe way to bring the more competitive developers on their sides.
Does this mean we are not good enough? We would like to know, since it is almost impossible to dive into the subject with these gentlemen: when we start looking too much interested in the contract over the “collaboration” and asking what we can do to get to the contract, the answers of the various publishing managers who, with so much enthusiasm reached out in the first place, get delayed with days and weeks; some simply vanish forever, submerged with countless Skype calls and work commitments because of which they just cannot answer us.
Now, I understand this is not the most polite, aulic, authoritative or politically correct letter in the world, but please let me go for a final list of clarifications with calm eloquence. I do not only write for me and my colleague, but for all those developers, single individuals, duos or trios, out there, who like us are finding themselves in this surreal work condition (because we shall not forget that this is, despite all the abuse and debasement we suffer, a job):

  1. The hypercasual publishers always wanted and always will want our precious prototypes and at the same time refuse, fending off their asses with the sagacious “collaboration” formula and other lowest excuses, to pay us. They want a product but they refuse to pay its price.
  2. Does the publisher with which you are in contact refuse to sign you the paid prototypes contract adducing a vague “you do not match the requirements”? Until proven otherwise, that is until these requirements are specified, this is just an excuse. Ask what exact requirements you need to match!
  3. This is essential: stop working for free! Stop letting any publisher test your prototypes without getting something in exchange and start pretending, of your own strong and legitimate will, a contract in which is stated, with no gray zone, that each prototype that is tested, no matter the results, must be paid an exact, explicit amount of money. Everything else is wasted time for you and unduly saved money for the publishers.
  4. Someone may answer back that this is how the hypercasual market works, that it has rhythms which are not compatible with paying every single developer, that this is not the only sector in which there are these dynamics. If you think this situation is normal you are part of the problem! It is not normal! It is not normal to work without schedules, without money and without hope. This working condition is not sustainable for us developers, who are at the base of everything! The hypercasual market is the way it is because we allowed it, by accepting the indecent proposals of collaboration from the publishers in exchange for a vague, distant promise of huge incomes at the publishing. Guess what? It is us little, tiny developers who make the billions flow in the hypercasual publishers’ pockets thanks to our continuous afflux of prototypes, and we are the ones with the power to control that afflux and pretend it to be paid!
  5. As long as only the two of us are protesting against this situation, nothing will change. That is why we are publishing this open letter anonymously. It takes a strong joint action of all the hypercasual developers to fight this exploitation. Pretend the money! Pretend the paid prototypes contract! Pretend a salary! Is not game development your job? Do not you have to pay bills and buy food? Do you think you can make this job work with just the “hit” games, which could easily never come? This condition is not sustainable and is unfair in our regards, an insult to our job! Do you think your illustrious publishing managers do not have a set salary upon which they can plan their lives? Do you think they “collaborate” with your publisher just like you, managing dev teams and games for free and just taking a percentage on the published prototypes? Are we kidding?
  6. Is the publisher willing to sign you the paid prototypes contract only if one of your prototypes matches the KPIs first or pretending you already have published some “hits”? But I bet they would be happy to accept any prototype of yours for free. This, on top of being unfair and hypocritical, is a proof that what hypercasual publishers want are not the “hits” but the prototypes: once again, the entire hypercasual market is based upon the possibility, for the publishers, to milk us prototypes with zero costs (the ad campaigns for the tests are way cheaper than you might think) and to probe the market with hundreds of gameplay tests. It does not really matter that a prototype makes it through the test, because in any case it will produce precious data about the direction towards which the market is pointing, about what the users like and do not. Our prototypes have value, monetary value, and we are literally selling them (at zero dollars) so that a publisher over others may test them in a unique and valuable time frame. We are giving away, along with hours and days and weeks of hard work, a potential “hit” game and a sure source of statistics on the market status. The publisher offers you the contract only if you already published “hits”? “Hits” are something that happen, not something you make: who of us developers has the arrogance to say they can make “hit” games as they wish, with all the randomness and contextuality involved? We make prototypes which the publishers would not be able and do not want to do by themselves, and that is why we must be paid FOR EVERY SINGLE PROTOTYPE. For the “hits”, there are already the various revenue share agreements which the publishers immediately present to bait us, so, really, there is no valid reason to not pay us.

Divided we can do nothing, but together we can do everything. We are hundreds, thousands! As long as even one of us will still accept the wicked conditions imposed by the publishers and develop prototypes for free, we will not be able to change the things and the publishers will preserve their power to reject our requests. And it is our duty to change the things, to pretend the regularisation of our job, a contract which establishes how much money we receive for our hard work. The time of the hypercasual industry as a big prototype milking machine must end, and united we have the power to overthrow it.
Of course, we are available for anyone willing to reach out (even you, dearest publishers. Write us and we will be happy to define a price for our prototypes). If anyone wants to help us unite and organise the hypercasual developers in this struggle for life, career and survival, that is what it is, or if something similar is already happening, please contact us. Use Discord, Reddit, Facebook, whatever you prefer; please share this open letter with as many people as possible, help us sensitising developers and newspapers. And for the love of God, STOP WORKING FOR FREE! We remain available; we keep looking for the next “hit” game and pretending our salary; we keep fighting against depression and the will to give up and rage quit out of a life which, day by day, gets more and more unsustainable.
Thank you to the dear reader who followed me this far, and one last FUCK YOU to the kind publishers still thinking they can enslave us.