Are Premium Smartphone Games the Best Choice for Indies?

Wheel & Deal iOS

While most of Finland seems to be rushing for the untold treasures of the free-to-play mobile market, some smaller game development studios argue that premium is the way to go for indie developers.

One such studio was founded in Helsinki in 2013 and is called Robote Games. The studio only has one full-time employee, Juha Pennanen, who happens to also be the founder of the young studio. Albeit only one full-time employee, the studio does employ two freelancers, which Pennanen hopes to be able to hire as full-time employees at some point. The two freelancers are Eetu Aalto who works on the graphics, and Aki Karumaa who does the music and sound. Despite its size, however, Robote Games is set to launch its second iOS premium title, Wheel & Deal, on the 22nd of January 2015, with a third game already on its way as well.

Wheel & Deal is a retro-futuristic arcade shooter with a very 80’s soundtrack, and with lots of upgrades to choose from, the game sounds like something that could easily be turned into an in-app-purchase-wonder, right? Not really, at least not if you’re a small developer, according to Juha Pennanen.

“It was an easy choice for us to go with the premium model because designing good f2p-mechanics with a team of this size is really hard and we want to leave that to those who can do it right. I also personally find ads a bit too intrusive most of the time and simply don’t want them in our games.”, he says to Nordic Game Bits.


The first premium game from Robote Games, Trambo, launched a year ago, in January 2014. Shortly after its launch, the game was featured by Apple in the US, UK and many other countries as well.

“The game got featured by Apple in the US, UK and many countries across EMEIA, Latin America, Australia, Japan, China and most of Asia which blew us away.”, Pennanen explains.


The game was thus off to a great start, but the young studio was not prepared for all the sudden attention, and the sales numbers weren’t looking as great as expected, which caused the first and very important week on the Appstore to disappoint – at least in terms of sales.

Trambo did eventually break even, but the important point to make, is that the initial lack of sales was not caused by the choice of business model, but rather because the studio was taken by surprise, according to Pennanen.

“Sales were not that huge though, as we failed pretty hard during launch: our screenshots were not up to the standards and even though we quickly fixed things the first critical week was already over. We did manage to break even eventually, which was really nice.”


There is one more thing that sets Robote Games’ games apart from the traditional trend these days, which is that the game will only ever be released for iOS, with no plans for an Android or Windows Phone version. In fact, Pennanen says that if the studio was to move to another platform, it would be the PC / Mac via Steam, and of course with a completely different game, rather than Android.

“We are specialized in iOS development at the moment, but are actually more interested in PC/Mac than Android to be honest”.


While some premium games such as Monument Valley do quite alright on the Android platform (despite the recent numbers released by ustwogames), Robote Games has still chosen to steer away from the platform. When it comes to the various platforms, Pennanen believes that the Android platform is harder for smaller studios with premium games as a huge number of the customers on Android are used to getting games for free.

“It seems Android is a really tough platform for smaller scale premium games. Games like Badland or Monument Valley can make a profit there, sure, but it’s a bit different game for smaller developers.”


No matter whether you developer premium games or free to play titles, one of the main concerns for many small studios – Robote Games included – is securing an initial funding round. But while a lot can be said about talking with investors, what it all comes down to in the end, is whether or not you can deliver kick-ass games, Pennanen argues when we asked him about the studio’s primary concern.

“We plan to overcome this by making more kick-ass games – we already have a third one on the works and this one is quite a doozy! On a more serious note, we plan to seek funding in some form or other. We’ll wait and see how Wheel & Deal sells first.”, he says.

When talking about concerns, it is hard to avoid also mentioning motivation. Developing games should be fun, but some days, it is simply just a whole lot of hard work. For those days, Pennanen luckily has one final advice, however, which we will let end of this article, as we quite literally have nothing to add to it.

It’s just a plain old good advice.

“I actually have a good tip for those feeling unmotivated: go play that game that got you interested in game development in the first place – works every time! Also, whenever you feel de-motivated in the middle of the development process, just reopen the first build. Magic.”

Sune Thorsen

Sune is not only a gamer and writer who wishes his keyboard-typing-speed would translate directly into Nintendo 64 controller agility, but also the co-founder and CEO of NordicGameBits.

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