Mobile Indie Spotlight #4 - SHI•RO

In this episode we have the honour to host Isabel Paehr and Jasper Meiners from Germany and their app SHI•RO. SHI•RO is an iOS premium puzzle game that uses gyroscope technology to bring art to life, providing over 60 handmade puzzles where players connect golden moons to separate the sea from the sky.

Based on a real ancient story, the game tells the tale of a curious empress, a lost love and a blossoming friendship. Each level transforms the device into a beautiful Japanese lacquer box, which players need to think outside of! To engage with SHI•RO’s story, players have to find the golden elements in the game’s hand drawn illustrations.

 

🎙 Can you share a few words about Topicbird and SHI•RO?

We are Isabel Paehr and Jasper Meiners, and Topicbird is our indie studio for connective virtualities. Our projects shift between media art, performance and games. Our mobile game SHI•RO was released on the 9th of September 2018 on iOS devices and got featured by Apple worldwide the same week. SHI•RO is inspired by the atmosphere of our favourite city, Kyoto. A few years back, when we were studying media art, we had the opportunity to take an exchange semester at Kyoto Seika University in Japan. When walking through Kyoto’s old town we found moments of calmness: In a small workshop, we saw a beautiful black lacquer box with golden sparkles and drew out our smartphone to take a picture. The stunning material resemblance of the phone and the box ‐ through their glossiness and their potential to tell stories ‐ became our core design concept for SHI•RO.

 

Every level in SHI•RO is connected to a word in Japanese that users can hear once they find each puzzle’s perfect solution. Each solution is also accompanied, by the sound of taiko drums. In order to make the game both challenging and forgiving, we implemented a hint system that allows players who are more interested in the story go through the puzzles quicker.

 

Current Status

 

🎙 What is the current status of the game?

SHI•RO was released on the 9th of September 2018.

We did several dedicated localisations in different languages including:

  • Japanese
  • English
  • French
  • Italian
  • Spanish
  • German
  • Chinese

Consequently, we did have the most sales in countries in which these languages are common.

Within September 2018, we sold around 6.750 units on the App Store. In the US, the game is being sold for $2.99.

SHI•RO’s distribution worldwide:

  • 40% Europe
  • 38% USA and Canada
  • 21% Asia-Pacific
  • < 1% Africa, Middle East and India
  • < 1% Latin America and the Caribbean

Distribution between iPhones and iPads:

  • 76% iPhone
  • 24% iPad

SHI•RO’s development took us roughly two years, but it was longer in actual time because we were both busy graduating from the School of Art and Design Kassel. The sound design was done by our dear friend Leonard Bahro.

Shortly after the release, we were awarded as ‘Most Innovative Game’ while exhibiting at Casual Connect in Belgrade, Serbia. We got also nominated in four other categories: ‘Best Game Audio’, ‘Best Game Design’, ‘Best Game Art’ and ‘Best Mobile Game’.

 

🎙 Which tools did you use for the development and how long did it take to go live?

Some of the tools we used during development can be found below:

Google’s free Noto Font was used within the game since it’s one of the few fonts that are available in Latin and Japanese, Korean and Chinese.

Some other tools that we used to enhance development with Unity are listed below:

 

🎙 How did you create the music and art within the game?

While playing SHI•RO, you will encounter illustrations that take you back to Empress Gemmei and her journey once in a while. You have to tap on the golden parts of the images to reveal their story. All images are hand drawn by us, on Japanese paper, because we think in the actual material, long standing traditions and storytelling are interlaced. In the puzzles, we use simple shapes that shimmer golden when players move the smooth surface of their devices’ screen.

 

 

Some of the sounds in the game we recorded with a handheld audio recorder when we travelled in Japan, like rain on bamboo and soundscapes from Japanese shrines. Later on, our sound artist Leonard Bahro added recordings of Taiko drums and the Koto. We also worked with Mrs. Zacharias from Japan, who recorded all the spoken Japanese words in the game with us. Familiar with the Kojiki, one of the stories SHI•RO is based on, she also helped us to tell the stories in a respectful way.

Marketing & Acquisition

 

🎙 Did you do any marketing or acquisition efforts?

Since this was our first non-free game release, we wanted to do everything right. So we read through post-mortems of other Indie developers and dove into forums and guides that the community had put together.

We decided to do everything that we could do without involving third parties:

  • Built a website for our studio and a website for the game
  • Created development documentation
  • Prepared In-game screenshots
  • Crafted animated clips for social media like Twitter and Facebook
  • Created several devlogs (for example on slidedb.com)
  • Created a trailer to show before the release in order to have something to present on the release day.

For the game’s website, we looked at other inspiring websites for games like Prune and Vignettes. Following the design principles of SHI•RO, we reduced the content we wanted to show on the website to the bare minimum and kept everything in alignment with the game’s design. Any extra information like more imagery, logos and descriptive texts went into an additional presskit which is now linked at the bottom of the game’s website.

While still in development we showcased the game at events like Bitsummit in Japan and Ludicious in Switzerland to meet other developers and get first hand feedback from players, which helped tremendously. We also had some people of platforms like Google, Valve and Nintendo play SHI•RO during the early days. Shortly before the release on September 9th, when we had some nice looking imagery ready, we contacted some design blogs we liked, and they were happy to post SHI•RO not as a game, but as a design project, which was really cool.

We were advised from various developers and publishers that there is no point in buying targeted ads for a Premium game, so we did not consider it.

The best part of our Do It Yourself marketing efforts were the events, because seeing people play our games there gave us the chance to refine the experience at several points in development. We always tried to finalize a new feature or UI system before showing the game to get feedback as quickly as possible.

The connections we made with other developers are growing stronger every month, and it is starting to feel like a big family all around the world. At almost all events we travel to, there are friends, and sometimes even people that played our game before we know them.

Of course, we also had many press mails going out to magazines, blogs and interesting people right before the release of the SHI•RO. But we did not hear back from almost anyone before we got featured by Apple in the week after. That is when journalists contacted us back, requesting info material to write about the game.

It’s still too early to see the impact of events, articles and future content updates on the sales numbers. What we do know though is that SHI•RO made it to the #1 spot for Puzzle Games in many countries, including UK, Finland and France for a few days during Apple’s feature.

 

🎙 How did you get featured on App Store? What impact did it have on the sales?

We don’t have insight into Apple’s decision making, when it comes to featuring new games, but we think that it was a combination of our stay at the Swedish games accelerator Stugan that made Apple aware of the game, and the fact that we put a lot of time and effort into the game’s design.

Since we got featured in the first week that the game was out, we can’t really say how many sales we would have made without it. But, let’s be honest, it is very difficult for art games to reach big audiences, so we think that the feature helped our players a lot to find the game and helped us to find our players.

Getting feedback

 

🎙 How did you initially received feedback around the game and how did it help during the development of the game?

After testing with a lot with friends, we watched people at events play our game, which was an unforgiving but honest environment: It’s loud and busy, so you have to get the point across very quickly. If the player is not hooked, they leave. The moment they exit your crafted experience was probably the tipping point of things that didn’t work for them, and a great point to examine again. For us, this came down to optimising the tutorials and reducing the number of onboarding puzzles. We swapped around some puzzles to even out the difficulty curve when a puzzle was too demanding too early.

Close to release, we had the honour to go to Stugan, a games accelerator program in Sweden. Our aim was to finish developing SHI•RO at Stugan. We were far away from anything that could be called a city, and just working on our game while having a great time with a bunch of talented developers from all over the world. The organisers also brought in mentors from the industry every other day, who gave talks about their practice. They also sat down with us in 1:1 sessions and helped us improve our games. For example, sound designer Martin Kvale gave us many great ideas to improve the audio, presenter Alysia Judge helped us with our press texts, and Unity’s Ciro Continisio helped us out with some shader problems that made us tear our hair out.

Indie developers are lovely people, and we made so many friends this past year. We can not recommend getting to know your fellow developers enough.

Making the users familiar with the game mechanics

🎙The game mechanics are quite unique. How do you try to point the user in the right direction within the game?

Since we invented a new puzzle mechanic with SHI•RO, it was very difficult to figure out tutorials that were easy to understand. Our onboarding levels use more text than mobile games usually do. Testing the game with many people who usually don’t play games and who are not native English speakers led us to avoid terms like ‘swiping’. Instead, we worked with a metaphor: Players engage with SHI•RO on the surface of a lacquer box. Most players figure out how to use SHI•RO very quickly even though it’s UIX is quite unusual.

 

Of course, it took us many iterations to get it right. To indicate that players can proceed to the next level or repeat a level, we initially used golden triangles at the edges of the screen. Those were accompanied by descriptive texts like ‘Next’. We needed a visual indicator for the direction in which the player was ought to swipe, so we added a golden glow and particles that fly into the screen from the edge. We supported this design element with the sound of scratching metal surfaces. Our test players understood the meaning of the triangles, but not their shape. Finally, we swapped out the triangles with indicators that suit the general style of the game better and look more like the star constellations we use to navigate between levels.

 

 

We carefully avoided fading or moving text, since it would break the physical rules of the lacquer box. Instead, text is slowly engraving, as if breaking out from under the lacquer surface.

 

Inside the puzzles, we added more and more micro animations to help players know what to do. There are blue circles at the top, counting the score you need to achieve to solve a puzzle perfectly. A red area pops up under a moon, or a dragged line turns red, if they are used in the wrong way.

Choosing to go Premium

 

🎙Why did you choose a paid approach for SHI•RO? Do you believe it was the right approach after all?

We always wanted to make a premium game. Placing ads into SHI•RO never felt right, since we wanted a calm atmosphere without distractions. Publishers that we talked to or who contacted us did not understand that approach — one even asked if we were developing SHI•RO as a hobby because we would certainly not make money when sticking to the premium approach. This argument doesn’t make sense to us, since not making money doesn’t equal ‘only’ doing something as a hobby. But, to be transparent about SHI•RO’s development, we’d like to add that we were lucky to develop the game while still studying, so we didn’t have much upfront cost.

🎙 Do you plan any updates for the game? Will you change your strategy at all to include IAP or ads?

We are planning to release two major content updates. Lacquer is traditionally black, green, or red. The first part, which is already out, is placed on black lacquer, and tells the story of Gemmei and the creation of the world. In MIDORI (meaning ‘green’) players travel through dark forests to invite spirits to the shrine of old Yoshida, while in AKA (meaning ‘red) they climb Mount Inari with a fox. We are currently discussing how to release these DLCs, but we will under no circumstances include ads.

 

Releasing the game through a Publisher

 

 

🎙 We noticed that you published the game through publisher The brothers grimm. Who are they and how did they help for making SHI•RO known?

The brothers grimm is a small publishing label based in Kassel, Germany. Its name relates to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, who where linguists, but also the collectors of fairy tales such as Red Riding Hood. They were the first to publish old stories told by local people like Dorothea Viehmann around Hesse’s dark woods. In this tradition, ‘the brothers grimm’ tell modern tales.

We decided to publish with them, because we align ourselves with their focus on unique experiences. There’s so much still to do with these little storytelling devices most of us carry in our pockets! Lennert from ‘the brothers grimm’ helped us make decisions about payment models, marketing strategies and localisation and also organised test players. He’s also handling contracts to the platforms. SHI•RO was Lennert’s first game to publish and our first to release, so we all learned a lot together.

However, Lennert was not the first publisher we talked to. Most other publishers that approached us were only interested in selling f2p (free to play) games that monetise by using ads and they did not listen to our worries about possibly damaging the calm experience we wanted our players to enjoy. This was quite frustrating to us because still, f2p publishers approach us without even having researched enough to see that the game is already out.

Next Steps

 

🎙 What are the next steps for SHI•RO and Topicbird in general?

The next step is for us to release a set of new puzzles for the first part of SHI•RO, in an area we call ‘Open Sky’. These puzzles are for all those players that finished the main story and are still hungry for more challenges.

After that, we will continue our development of the two content updates MIDORI and AKA and simultaneously prepare the Android release for early 2019. We are also looking into a release on the Nintendo Switch. And… there’s a prototype for a new game!

Mobile games have the potential to reach all kinds of people in their everyday lives. Make a game for people you like and don’t be afraid to try out new things in game design.