Postmortem: Monkeys in Space

I never wrote up a formal postmortem for Dapple and I wish I had. Now that Monkeys in Space has been out for over a month and I’ve released one major update, I thought it was about time to sumarize what went right and what went wrong on my second game.

Because I really enjoy reading Game Developer Magazine, I thought I’d follow their template for a postmortem and list 5 things that went right followed by 5 things that went wrong on the project.

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What Went Right

1. Prototyping, Iteration, and Early Feedback. One of the processes I put into place when I started Streaming Colour Studios is the extensive use of prototyping and rapid iteration. When you build a large console game, you need to plan out everything a lot more because there are 100 people working on the game. When it’s just you, you can afford to play around with ideas a lot more.

Monkeys in Space actually started out as a completely different game. The first prototype I built involved controlling space ships with black holes. One of the things I learned with Dapple is that the sooner you get feedback the better. So this time I sent that first prototype out to a few trusted friends to get their opinions on it. The feedback that I got was that the controls weren’t intuitive enough and the game wasn’t really fun to play, just frustrating. This was fantastic feedback to get so early in the process and I was able to start trying new ideas and iterating on the design.

Eventually I got to the point where the game was fun, but the space ship theme wasn’t working for me anymore. I had had an idea for a bonus level that involved picking up monkeys floating in space with your ship, but after discussing this with a few friends over coffee (one of them ended up writing the music for the game) I decided that the game might be more fun to play if the monkeys were the focus of the game. Once this decision was made, it opened up new avenues for art direction, marketing, names, and even merchandise.

Once I had the monkeys in the game, I opened the game up to much more public play testing. People were playing the game and providing regular feedback at a much earlier stage of the development than with Dapple. This proved to be invaluable for fine tuning the design and polishing the game.

2. Gameplay. Monkeys in Space fits into the “line drawing”/”chaos management” genre of games, but it needed something to set it apart and help it to stand out. I had also learned, through my experiences with Dapple, that I needed a gameplay mechanic that was easy to understand, but offered depth to the experienced player. Monkeys in Space offers familiar gameplay goals to players familiar with the genre (get the monkeys to the bases), but adds a twist that adds depth to the game (linking monkeys together). The chaining mechanic was added about mid way through the prototyping process, but the feedback from play testers was unanimously positive. I’m very happy with how the game ended up playing out. The chaining adds a risk/reward factor to the game that has been mentioned in a lot of reviews.

3. The Name. I mentioned above that the game was originally about space ships. Well, it was a search for a name for the game that ultimately led to the game being about monkeys instead. I was brainstorming game names with some friends when I mentioned I had been thinking about adding a space monkey level to the game. Immediately we all started thinking about fun names for a game involving space monkeys. My favourite at the time was “Space Monkey Rescue”, but I ultimately abandoned it because of trademark concerns. I contacted my friend Stacy, who is a writer, and asked her for help. I sent her some of my favourites, including just “Monkeys in Space”. I told her I was looking for a 50’s or 60’s sci-fi b-movie feel for the title and she came up with “Monkeys in Space: Escape to Banana Base Alpha”, which I absolutely loved. I think the name is perfect for the game in that it captures that silly retro feel I wanted, and it says “yes this is a game set in space, but it’s not a serious sci-fi game; it’s fun and it has monkeys!”

4. Artwork. With Dapple I had decided to hire a professional artist to do the game’s artwork. While the artist did an amazing job and I was extremely happy with her work, hiring an artist is also expensive. With Monkeys in Space I decided to take a different risk and do the artwork myself. Now, I took some art classes in university, I’ve done a little life drawing since then, and I once had a job where I was using Photoshop for eight hours a day, but I’m not a professional artist, so this was kind of a risky move. However, in the end, I was quite pleased with the art in the game. I think the monkeys especially turned out quite well. No doubt a professional artist could probably have bumped the artwork up a notch (or two), but I’m happy with the results. On top of that, it was also really fun. It was great to get back into drawing regularly again and I think it’s something I’ll be considering for future games, if it’s a possibility.

5. Reviews and Apple Feature. Monkeys in Space has received some great reviews from the iPhone gaming press/critics (you can read them on the Press page). Every good review helps to build buzz around a game, but one of the biggest reviews the game got was from Their Monkeys in Space review was on their front page for two days and during that time I saw a sales spike close to what I was to see being featured by Apple. Then a week after the Touch Arcade review ran, the game was featured on the App Store in the Games -> What’s Hot section. This happened just before Christmas, which couldn’t have been better timing. It wasn’t a front page of the App Store feature, but it was enough to push me into the Top 100 Kids Games in the U.S. store. This gave the game some momentum through the holiday boost.

I’ve decided that while I don’t want to share sales specifics about the game (like the infamous Dapple “Numbers” post), I will share the shape of the graph of sales since the game’s launch:

Monkeys in Space Sales

What Went Wrong

1. Release Date. I mentioned this earlier this week, but my release date turned out to be a big mistake. I submitted the game to apple in mid-November and wasn’t sure when to expect it to be approved. I got the email from Apple saying the app was ready for sale at about 7:30pm on Wed, Nov 25th. I was so excited that I switched the app into the “for sale” state (by setting the release date to the 25th) and started preparing the email I’d send out to the press in the morning. On Thursday morning I sent out my press release along with screenshots and video, etc, to iPhone sites. At that point I started getting back “out of office” replies and suddenly released it was Thanksgiving in the U.S. See, we Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in October, so the date completely slipped my mind.

At first I didn’t think it would be a big problem. But then I started reading the review sites that were staffed for the holidays and most of them were just running stories about the hundreds of games that were going on sale for Black Friday in the U.S. Not only that, but it turns out a lot of people apparently take a long weekend from Thursday-Sunday, so it meant I didn’t hear from anyone until well into the next week.

However, I can’t really complain as the game eventually did get picked up by review sites, but the roll out was more gradual than I had hoped. The delay meant that my marketing lost some momentum right at the start, which isn’t ideal. In the future I will be paying closer attention to U.S. holidays when I set my release dates.

2. Delays. When I did the first concept sketches for the game that was to become Monkeys in Space, the original plan was to build the game in 2 months or less. From start to finish, the game ended up taking almost exactly 3 months. One extra month isn’t terrible, but that’s a 50% overshoot of the original plan. Now I have excuses: my wife and I moved cities, which ate up a few weeks with packing, moving, and unpacking, etc. But I think the biggest reason the game took longer than I thought it would was because I decided to do the artwork. Because I was doing the art and the programming, it meant that the two couldn’t happen concurrently. When you work with an external artist, they can be drawing while you’re coding, but I didn’t have that ability this time. The artwork took longer than I thought it would, which pushed my timeline out. Ultimately, it was worth the extra time to make sure the art was good enough to meet my expectations for the quality of the game, but it did delay its release.

3. Marketing Push. I learned some important lessons with the launch of Dapple. One of the most important was the need to have your marketing push happen all at once. You want everyone to be talking about your game at the same time. I’ve already mentioned the problems the release date caused with this, but I suspect there were some other missed marketing opportunities around advertising that I didn’t explore. I haven’t had a lot of luck with advertising driving sales. However, I think if done properly, there may be ways to leverage advertising effectively, even for $0.99 games…I just haven’t figured it out yet.

4. Not Enough Levels in v1.0. During development I had to make a call about how many levels to include in the initial version of the game. I looked at the great games in the genre (e.g. Harbor Master, Flight Control, etc) and looked at how many levels each had shipped with, and decided to ship three levels. I also chose to limit myself to three levels at first because the game was already taking longer than I had expected. However, what I discovered is that people expect new games to contain as many levels as the other games do now, not how many they contained when they shipped. Some of the reviews of Monkeys in Space have mentioned that they would have liked to have seen more levels in the game. Since then I have released a fourth level as part of a free update and I hope to release more. Regardless, what I failed to realise is that the free update system for iPhone apps creates a different set of expectations in people’s minds. They don’t care that game X shipped with one level; what matters is that it has five now. This was an important lesson in competitive analysis for me.

5. Public Recruiting of Testers. I almost listed this in the “What Went Right” section as well, and it just barely squeaks into the “What Went Wrong” list. Very early in the process (much earlier than I’d ever considered before) I started asking people to play test the game and provide feedback. I put out a call on Twitter, on this blog, and in iPhone gaming forums, looking for people who wanted to play the game and provide some honest feedback about what did and didn’t work. The reason this should also be in the “What Went Right” is that I got some terrific people playing the game and providing me with insightful and helpful feedback. However, I also had a lot of people sign up, get the builds, and I’d never hear from them again. I think there is a small group of people who say they’ll beta test a game just to get a free game. The good news is that I’ve met enough great people that I now have a decent list of preferred testers I’ll ask first next time.


All in all, I’m extremely proud of Monkeys in Space. I think that I learned a lot from some of the mistakes I made with my first game, but I still made a few new mistakes. I suppose that’s all part of the process of becoming a better game designer, developer, and business person. What I like most about Monkeys in Space is seeing new players pick it up and to watch how easily they get involved with the game. I also love watching people laugh when the monkeys scream and wave their arms frantically. People seem to have fun with the game, and that makes me happy. To me, that alone makes the game successful.