Imagine having a girlfriend without the hassles, no fighting over small issues, no shopping, no taking her out everyday and no listening to her emotional talk. Amazing, right? Well, that’s where My Virtual Girlfriend comes in. Developed by Mike Amerson, the game has gone on to become very popular across the globe as he tells us the story behind its creation and a few tips that would help the new App developers.
1. How did you conceive the idea for this game?
Back in 2003, We formed WET productions with the intent to put out an all female fighting game for consoles. We spent a couple years in our spare time to create a demo of the game , that we could pitch to publishers, in hopes of getting funding to develop a full game, we even wrote our own 3d game engine for this. We created a playable demo, Design doc, flow charts, budget, concept art and even a business plan (which is kind of unheard of for a single game title). I started attending conferences, and events where publishers would be over the course of a couple more years, and although we had some mild interest, the general sentiment – we couldn’t get funding. By 2008, (5 years later), we’d slowed down our efforts and were just focusing on our regular jobs (at studios), and a couple, small side gigs where we wrote small, custom software games for Casinos. Keep in mind back then, indie development wasn’t really an option. Mobile games were too limited to do anything cool with, and platforms were king. Specifically Xbox and pS2. That was all before the modern cell phone revolution and indie game development became a viable option. Once the iPhone came out – that changed everything. So we set about to bring our Girlfight game to iPhones. In 2009, we started down the development path but it wasn’t long before we started hearing that apple was removing anything they considered controversial content from their stores. We felt that our game might get rejected because of this, so we were at a loss. I thought about how we could play it safe, but it was too much of a gamble to put all the work in – only to be rejected. I knew we had a good opportunity to make a game, but didn’t think they would allow our girlfight game into the store. So i started looking around and saw this game called “igirl”, it wasn’t really a game, but more of a demo of a 3d girl that the camera would spin around, with not much in the way of interaction. It was quite popular at the time though, and so i thought – what if we make a virtual girlfriend, where its really a game, and there is interaction, and we can keep it light and funny. I also thought this is a good way to keep some of the girlfight assets, so that were not starting from scratch – And thats how the idea for My Virtual Girlfriend was born.
2. Looks like you have taken the virtual dating simulation to an entire new level. Can you elaborate on this?
There’s a saying that every overnight success is 10 years in the making. I totally understand this now. The failures we had to go to get to this point, you build upon them, and iterate, and make things better and better. I had in mind to create something entertaining, and funny, with some slight unpredictability so that it mirrored human before in some ways.
3. We see that the game graphics are 2D. Why didn’t you go for 3D? Any specific reason?
The 2d graphics you see in there on the activity screens are there because we had both memory, and time constraints we needed to adhere to. This game initially came out for iPhone3, so we had to keep it optimized. If i had to create 3d scenes for all the activities, it would require 50x more geometry and textures, and likely 50x the time. We needed the game to be optimized to play on the devices for the time.
4. How did My Virtual Girlfriend gain so much popularity? What went behind the success of the App?
Well, when it launched in march of 2010 it wasn’t that successful actually. The app store will still fairly new but a lot of apps were starting to come out, and the game was lacking a bit on the fun side. But since the platform allows you to update and push new versions, we did that. We gathered feedback from the players and pushed updates out every couple months. All this was done in our spare time while we were working at different studios full time. In 2010, i was working for a studio called “instant action” as my full time job, I was art lead on a game called “instant jam”, and in November of 2010, the studio closed down quite unexpectedly. I had to make a hard choice. Do i work on my 3d artist portfolio and look for another job, or do i take the risk and put all my efforts into my virtual girlfriend? Offering 1 more significant update and do my best to market it. I figured the game just needed a little more polish and i think it could well received, and may be enough to allow me to continue on- as an indie developer. I took that gamble and in December of 2010, an update was pushed and it gained the notoriety it deserved.
5. Which App marketing tools do you use now? How do you track reviews and what do you think about ReviewsCollect?
Marketing is the biggest challenge for developers now and reviews are an integral part that helps them to overcome that challenge because it’s three-fold. 1. It allows the developer to gather real feedback from players that they can take action on. 2. Reviews are considered in the algorithm that ranks games within the app stores, so better reviews means the game goes up higher in the ranks, and that gives more organic exposure – and organic exposure is like gold to a developer. 3. Reviews are validation for others who are looking at the product but haven’t yet decided if they want to download. We read other reviews before we commit ourselves to making a purchase or downloading an app. it gives us confidence to know how others are responding to it, and if you have good reviews, that may be the tiny bit of encouragement that someone needs to download. At this point i’m working on my new game – Blackjack Bailey VR, so I’m in full development mode and I’m not marketing my other games right now. At current, I’m only tracking reviews through iTunes, which is a bit clunky. I don’t go in there that often because I’m focused on development, but i do try to address players reviews every couple weeks. ReviewsCollect seems like a great idea that has come at the right time. It’s something I’ll be checking out more in the future when I’m out of developer mode and switch to gathering feedback and marketing modes.
6. Do you have any plans for future Products/Apps?
Yes, I’m currently working on bringing Blackjack Bailey VR to various platforms.
7. How did customer feedback help you improve your App? Can you share some experience with us?
It plays a crucial role in developing updates for the app. When we develop a game or idea, we only create what we think will be good, but our ideals often don’t align up with players ideals, and they are the ones who are buying and playing the game. You have to give them what they want. My virtual girlfriend wouldn’t be where it is today if we didn’t have player feedback. As i mentioned earlier, when the game was launched it wasn’t well received. Only after 3 more iterations through updates that year (incorporating both player feedback and our own ideas), did we finally get to a point where it became viable for me to branch out as a full time- indie developer.
8. What advice would you give to the budding App developers?
Attention is the New Currency in the digital age. Start thinking about marketing when you are writing the design doc. Have plans to incorporate methods of social sharing, retention, and don’t expect that it’s over once you release the game. The release is only the beginning stage for mobile games. Have plans to update, and make sure to incorporate player feedback into those updates, giving them what they want (if viable). Stay true to your vision, but be flexible to make changes that the players want. Good luck out there.