For this week’s iDevBlogADay post, I’m going to share the thought process I went through when creating a “lite” version of Trainyard.
What is a lite game?
A lite game is a feature-limited and/or content-limited version of a paid game. Lite versions have pretty much always existed in the software world, as things like demos and shareware, so it really isn’t a huge surprise that they also exist up on the App Store. They’re a great way for users to try before they buy. I know for me (and probably a lot of other developers), I didn’t really think lite versions were that important until I read this old Wired article about iShoot, which explains how the game didn’t get popular until the lite version came out, and then it ended up making Ethan Nicholas a ton of money. If you know you’ve got a great game, a lite version is the perfect way to let potential users try it, risk-free. Perhaps more importantly, you’ll reach a much larger user base. I’d wager that the vast majority of App Store users only browse for free apps.
There are a couple different ways to do a lite game. The most common is having two separate versions of your game, a normal version and a lite version. There are also other approaches, such as having a single version of your game that’s free, and including the full content as an in-app-purchase (see Landformer for a great example of this approach). For me, wanted to have visibility in both the paid and free charts, because of the different types of users that browse each chart.
Do I have to use “lite”?
Nope! In fact, Trainyard’s lite version is called “Trainyard Express”. I named it this for a bunch of reasons. First of all, it has a lot more content than most lite versions, which I’ll explain a bit later, so I wanted to get away from some of the negative connotations associated with “lite”. I also really liked how “express” makes sense for a game with trains. I had a look around the store, and found that Adobe Photoshop Express and Sketchbook MobileX are using the express name as well, so it won’t be totally foreign to some users.
I think the name of the app is a great place to get a bit creative, I really don’t think every limited game HAS to actually have “lite” in the title. Just make sure you don’t get too crazy, you don’t want to name it “SomeGame Premium” and confuse all your users
How much should I give away?
This is where it gets tricky. For Trainyard Express, I considered a ton of approaches. The normal game has around 150 puzzles, but at first, I thought about including only the first few puzzles in the lite version and hoping users would see the potential and want to grab the full game. The problem is that during first 10 or 15 puzzles players are just starting to get a feel for the mechanics. The “ah ha!” moments don’t come until 40 or 50 puzzles into the game, where you get a sense for just how cool the puzzles can be.
I was left in a bit of a tricky spot. I could give away the first 50 puzzles of the game in Trainyard Express, but then if users decided to buy the full game, there was no smooth upgrade path. They’d have to solve those 50 puzzles again in the full game. I considered adding a cheat to the full game that skipped the first 50 puzzles, but that still didn’t seem like the best solution. Instead, I decided to do something a little crazier.
I created 60 brand new puzzles for “Trainyard Express”. A lot of work? Yep, but I really want people to fall in love with the mechanic, and I think this might just be the best way to do it. I also increased the difficulty curve quite a bit, so that the 60th puzzle in Express is as hard as the 100th puzzle in the normal game. Aside from the fact that none of the Express puzzles have Splitter Pieces, it’s completely full-featured. I really want to turn Express players into true fans of the game, even if they never end up buying the paid version themselves (there are tons of users that NEVER pay for games). I spent a lot of time debating whether to enable online solution sharing or not. In the end, I decided it was worth it, even if it destroys my Dreamhost VPS. We’ll just have to see how that turns out.
An extra unintended bonus is that because the content is all unique, it’s even worth it for regular Trainyard players to get it as well. I’ve starting calling it a “prequel” instead of a lite version for this reason. I don’t know of any other games that have completely unique content in their lite version except for Jet Car Stunts, which at the very least means I’m in good company.
Other random details
I wanted to keep the app icon fairly similar, but still make it easy to tell it apart. It’s common to see icons with the word “lite” right on them, and even big games like “Angry Birds Lite” do it, but that goes against Apple’s icon recommendations: “Keep your application icons free of terms like ‘sale’,’ lite’, or ‘free’.” Not really a huge deal, but I like the simplicity of an icon without words on it anyway.
I went with a pretty soft up-sell strategy. The “want more” screen will only show when you beat all 60 of the puzzles, or if you specifically tap the “Want more puzzles?” button on the main menu.
That’s about it! I should note that Trainyard Express isn’t actually out yet, it’s being released 24 hours from now on “Trainyard Thursday” September 30th. Feel free to check it out. I’m curious about other approaches to lite versions, so please post a comment or message me on Twitter if you have some cool things you’ve done or that you’re considering doing in your own lite games.
PS: I didn’t want to go into the technical details of how to make a lite version of your app in this post. If you want to do that, take a look at this fantastic post by Noel Llopis of Snappy Touch.
PPS: In my research for this post, I discovered that there are a bunch of apps with lite in the title, but they’re actually paid apps. It’s usually “professional” apps, so I understand why they did it, but it still seems a little strange to me. I think they could be a little more creative with their naming. I know I’d have a hard time playing $24.99 for a “lite” app.