From Bits to Atoms: Creating A Game In The Physical World

Some of you may recall last year’s post about 3D printing and my general disappointment with consumer-grade additive manufacturing technology. This was the start of my year-long quest to turn bits into atoms. Since that time there has been much progress in the technology and I’ve learned a lot about manufacturing. But first, a little about why I’m doing this, and my new project titled: Ether Drift.

Ether Drift AR App

A little over a year ago, I met a small team of developers who had a jaw-dropping trailer for a property they tried to get funded as a AAA console game. After failing to get the game off the ground it was mothballed until I accidentally saw their video one fateful afternoon.

With the incredible success of wargaming miniatures and miniature-based board game campaigns on Kickstarter, I thought one way to launch this awesome concept would be to turn the existing game assets into figurines. These toys would work with an augmented reality app that introduces the world and the characters as well as light gameplay elements. This would be a way to gauge interest in the property before going ahead with a full game production.

A lot of this was based on my erroneous assumption that I could just 3D print game models and ship them as toys. I really knew nothing about manufacturing. Vague memories of Ed Fries’ 3D printing service that made figurines out of World of Warcraft avatars guided my first steps.

3D printers are great prototyping tools. Still, printing the existing game model took over 20 hours and cost hundreds of dollars in materials and machine time. Plus, 3D prints are fragile and require a lot of hand-finishing to smooth out. When manufacturing in quantity, you need to go back to old-school molding.

You can 3D print just about any shape, but molding and casting has strict limitations. You have to minimize undercut by breaking the model up into smaller pieces that can be molded and assembled. The game model I printed out was way too complicated to be broken down into a manageable set of parts.

Most of these little bits on the back and underside would have to be individual molded parts to be re-assembled later--An expensive process!

Most of these little bits on the back and underside would have to be individual molded parts to be re-assembled later–An expensive process!

So I scrapped the idea of using an existing game property. Instead, I developed an entirely new production process. I now create new characters from scratch that are designed to be molded. This starts as a high detail 3D model that is printed out in parts that molds are made from. Then, I have that 3D model turned into something that can be textured and rigged for Unity3D. There are some sacrifices made in character design since the more pieces there are, the more expensive it is to manufacture. Same goes for the painting process–the more detailed the game texture is, the more costly it becomes to duplicate in paint on a plastic toy.

We're working on getting a simple paint job that matches the in-game texture.

We’re working on getting a simple paint job that matches the in-game texture.

So, what is Ether Drift? In short: it’s Skylanders for nerds. I love the concept of Skylanders–but, grown adult geeks like toys too. The first version of this project features a limited set of figures and an augmented reality companion app.

The app uses augmented reality trading cards packed with each figure to display your toy in real-time 3D as well as allowing you to use your characters with a simple card battle game. I’m using Qualcomm’s Vuforia for this feature–the gold standard in AR.

The app lets you add characters to your collection via a unique code on the card. These characters will be available in the eventual Ether Drift game, as well as others. I’ve secured a deal to have these characters available in at least one other game.

If you are building a new IP today, it’s extremely important to think about your physical goods strategy. Smart indies have already figured this out. The workflow I created for physical to digital can be applied to any IP, but planning it in advance can make the process much simpler.

In essence, I’m financing the development of a new IP by selling individual assets as toys while it is being built. For me, it’s also a throwback to the days before everything was licensed from movies or comic books and toy store shelves were stocked with all kinds of crazy stuff. Will it work? We’ll see next month! I am planning a Kickstarter for the first series in mid-March. Stay Tuned to the Ether Drift site, Facebook page, or Twitter account. Selling atoms instead of bits is totally new ground for me. I’m open to all feedback on the project, as well as people who want to collaborate.

Stop Hiring Advertising Agencies to Write Software

Advertising agencies traditionally build “creative” campaigns such as commercials and print ads that fly out into the world with an unmeasurable impact on a client’s brand. The first disruption to this model came with performance advertising. Instead of seeing if sales of soda increased after a barrage of 30 second TV spots, advertisers could see who clicked on ads and which ones followed through to purchases. Advertising dollars could be efficiently spent by directly measuring the impact of advertising campaigns. Increasingly desperate advertising agencies managed to grab a piece of this pie–either by creating and managing pay-per-click campaigns for clients or creating the landing pages that these ads lead to.

Mobile is the new disruption. Although mobile ads operate in much the same way as pay-per-click ads, there is a new generation of advertising that is delivered as a mobile app. Many brands have dedicated apps such as Chipotle and Starbucks, while others have created advertising campaigns built around mobile games and location-based experiences. This is real software.

Most advertising agencies are not software developers. Yet many brands make the mistake of hiring agencies to build mobile apps. I’ve seen this many times, as companies that know how to make web pages and 30 second commercial spots scramble to understand software development on behalf of a client. This is an expensive and failure-prone strategy. The software development process is completely different from Photoshopping banner ads or shooting TV commercials. There is no way for a traditional advertising agency to transform themselves into a software company. Large ships are slow to turn.

The reality is mobile advertising is more dependent on software developers and data scientists than video editors and account managers. Some brands are catching on and eliminating the middleman. In fact, others have started incubators and are smartly creating startups around this new era of software-based advertising.

This is a much smarter use of advertising dollars. Advertising campaign budgets can easily rival a series-A for a hungry startup. A startup filed with smart engineers and designers that are far more capable of promoting your brand in a measurable way than a traditional agency. Agencies might consider the same approach. Instead of trying to do it all in-house either hire an actual software developer to build and manage the project externally or spin up a disruptive advertising software startup.

Android Users Are Apathetic

I launched the virtual pets spoof, Brick Buddies, on Android and iOS last month with zero PR. It was a crazy idea I wanted to make for no particular reason. Since both versions were launched with the same minimal PR effort (a mere tweet and a Facebook post), I figured I’d use this as an opportunity to analyze both platforms from a new perspective.

The top line: Brick Buddies on iOS gets 10X the downloads of the Android version. I got more iOS downloads in the first day than I did in 3 weeks on Google Play. Although both versions have earned a pittance, iOS users spend more money too.

Brick Buddies’ iOS release got picked up as a news story on at least 3 websites, including The Guardian, with no PR. I saw far more Facebook likes, shares, and retweets about Brick Buddies on iOS through my social graph than the Android release.

But wait, isn’t Android beating iOS in market share?

Pondering this, I thought about everyone I know that has an Android phone. They are my friends least into mobile tech. When I get a peek at their home screen, they hardly have any apps installed. They are seemingly content to have a slick-looking phone with a giant screen that makes calls and sends messages. iPhone users (myself included) appear to be platform zealots and voracious consumers of apps.

I had a hunch that most Android users just aren’t into their phones–which makes sense. If you aren’t into mobile tech, you’d probably settle for an Android device. Let’s face it–Aside from the Google ‘pure’ handsets, most really aren’t so great.

I put a survey up on Mechanical Turk to unscientifically poll the public about the habits of iPhone and Android users. I wanted to see how they like their phones and how excited they are about apps. I only got about 200 responses, so this really isn’t statistically significant.

Hey–it’s good fodder for an inflammatory linkbait post about Android users! Here are some results:

WHO ARE ANDROID USERS?

Both Android and iOS had the same ratio of men to women users.

My results supported what I’ve heard from other studies–Android users trend younger than on the iPhone. 60.6% of Android users polled were under 29 as opposed to 47.3% of iPhone users.

Android users trend younger than iPhone

Android users also reported lower incomes and education levels than iPhone users. Not that this is relevant information–Unless you are an Instagram snob.

ANDROID USERS SEEM LESS SATISFIED WITH THEIR PHONE

When asked if they would buy the same kind of phone again, 89.3% of iPhone users said yes, while 78.9% of Android users did. Android owners also seem a little less satisfied with their phone when asked–89.2% of iPhone users were satisfied or extremely satisfied with their devices versus 81.7% for Android.

ANDROID USERS DON’T CARE ABOUT APPS

A chart showing the app recommendation habits of iPhone and Android users.

Android users seem less likely to blab about apps to their friends.

Android users seem slightly less likely to recommend apps to friends, with 37.5% of iPhone users recommending apps to friends often or extremely often and only 19.7% for Android. Hey, Android users just aren’t into apps–why talk about them?

Nearly 43% of iPhone users reported using apps extremely often, compared to 31% of Android owners.

ANDROID USERS ARE CHEAPSKATES

Android vs. iPhone users: Have you paid for an app?

iPhone users pay for apps, Android users don't.

Although the vast majority of Android and iPhone users have downloaded free apps, only 47.5% of Android users have ever paid to download an app vs. 80.4% of iPhone users. Also, 77.5% of Android users reported never having made an in app purchase in a freemium game versus 58.9% of iPhone owners. Hey, it’s been said before.

CONCLUSION

This data is based on too small a sample to really make a conclusion. I still think it’s decent data to expand on my hunch–Android users just aren’t into apps. This presents a marketing challenge. Android users are out there, but how do you get them excited about your content?

According to this final chart, users of both platforms look for information about apps in similar places.

Info sources for new apps ranked by popularity for Android and iPhone users

Android and iPhone users have similar tastes as far as info sources for new apps.

The audience exists. Perhaps you have to address them differently in the same channels.

Some developers seemed to have cracked this code. For most, monetizing apathetic Android users remains a challenge.