Ziba Scott and Alex Schwartz at a GDC party in 2013, around the time they came up with the idea for Slots
Mobile games were supposed to be an indie developer nirvana. When the iPhone debuted in 2007, Apple pitched consumers on the promise of an endless stream of tiny creative games and other productivity applications. Indie developers immediately recognized the market’s potential: A small team of developers could release their experimental projects to millions of users at a low price and reap large rewards. Early mobile hits like Words with Friends, Fruit Ninja, and Temple Run seemed to confirm this notion, and those titles helped their developers amass significant nest eggs.
Then the gold rush happened, and the mobile market metastasized into something ugly. App stores overflowed with ad-driven, free-to-play games that catered to the lowest common denominator. Mobile game development became financially unsustainable for many. In the midst of this mobile “indiepocalypse,” two friends found success in an unlikely place. Their secret: Make a thousand bad games.
Ziba Scott and Alex Schwartz at a GDC party in 2013, around the time they came up with the idea for Slots
In 2013, Alex Schwartz and Ziba Scott joined a shared workspace co-op in Boston while independently pursuing careers in game development. Both designers had shifted to the mobile space with the dream of making their big break in the industry. After their first meeting, they quickly bonded over the struggle to realize that dream.
Schwartz had attended college for game design before landing a job at Seven45 Studios working on a failed Rock Band clone called Power Gig: Rise of the SixString. After its release, Schwartz set off on his own and formed Owlchemy Labs, the indie studio that released the racing smuggler game Snuggle Truck as well as the early VR standout Job Simulator.
Scott, on the other hand, worked for seven years as a Linux consultant and web developer when he decided that making games was more fulfilling. After earning a master’s degree in serious game design from Michigan State University, Scott secured a publishing deal with Adult Swim Games for his puzzle game Girls like Robots. By the time Schwartz and Scott met, they had both signed contracts with big publishers and released creative indie titles to favorable reviews. And yet, both designers still struggled to make ends meet.
“We always felt like if we could do something that was creatively fulfilling, and we made enough money on game number one to fund game number two, then that was top-tier success,” Schwartz says. “We played the multiplatform hustle, where if you make something in Unity you can put it anywhere, and it wasn’t working. The dream wasn’t ‘Oh man, I hope we can be kings of mobile.’ We were just chasing platforms, and we were watching the concept that people would spend three dollars on a premium mobile game nosedive super hard.”
We played the multiplatform hustle, where if you make something in Unity you can put it anywhere, and it wasn’t working…”
“It was 2013 when it became clear that that premium mobile market was dying,” Scott adds. “It was becoming a strange beast. Even now, you can’t follow the successes from two years ago. You can’t follow those rules because the industry is constantly changing. That was something we were learning. I think both of us felt like we were a year or two too late to release a three-dollar game or even a five-dollar game on iOS that would even make its money back.”
Half a decade after the release of the iPhone, the mobile market was awash with clones, reskins, and other low-effort shovelware. In some cases, the clones were actually making more money than the originals, which famously happened to number-based puzzle game Threes in 2014. Schwartz and Scott felt that it was nearly impossible for the average game developer to get noticed without a million-dollar marketing budget. As young indie developers struggling to pay the rent, Schwartz and Scott were growing disillusioned.
Then they had a crazy idea. If the system had stopped working for them, maybe they could just work the system.
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Every January, MIT helps host the Global Game Jam, the world’s largest game jam, which takes place at multiple locations around the world. While teams of programmers and artists beat their heads trying to come up with one “perfect idea,” Schwartz and Scott giggled in a corner and asked themselves, “How can we do worse?”
The two developers had often joked about how they could reskin and clone their own games and flood the mobile marketplace. Now they were ready to actually do it. But first, they needed to make a game that was incredibly simple and easy to clone. Schwartz and Scott never intended to spend a lot of time or effort on a project like this. Cutting corners was not only encouraged, it was a mantra. Ultimately, the designers decided that they didn’t even need to make the game themselves – they could just download and repackage some prebuilt program off the Unity Asset Store. Reskinning and cloning a game they hadn’t even made felt like one gigantic corner to cut. It was perfect. Schwartz and Scott hopped online and bought a slot-machine game for $14.99. The duo didn’t know it yet, but they would eventually see a massive return on that investment.
“Slot-machine games seemed like the perfect fit, because they have such a low barrier to entry,” Scott says. “There aren’t many games simpler than pressing a button that says good or bad. You can hardly abstract the concept of a game any further -than -that.”
“Slot-machines are the one world where there is already an entire industry built around reskins, and no one gives a s—,” Schwartz adds. “Walking through Vegas, you see hundreds of different slot-machines. You walk past Cleopatra slots and then Wheel of Fortune slots, there are even Fruit Ninja slots. It’s such a weird world that we didn’t understand, but we knew that humans seem drawn to them in some way.”
Once Schwartz and Scott had a working game, they set to work making copies. They added new background images, in-game “about” descriptions, and a custom theme song. Their slot games were of admittedly low quality, but they had taken less than an afternoon to cobble together. Future clones would take only a fraction of that time.
Scott wrote a Unity editor script that automatically grabbed images off the web, swiped an about blurb from Wikipedia, and then used a text-to-speech program to generate new lyrics to their electronic theme song. At this point, all Schwartz and Scott had to do was type a theme into their Unity editor and the program would spit out a new slot-machine. Before long, they had dozens of slot games with titles as absurd as Lobster Slots, Richard III Slots, and Harlem Shake Slots.
The designers then took the hundred-plus games they had made and published them onto the Google Play store. They marveled at the fact that a few people actually downloaded them and laughed over the smattering of bad reviews. At this point, Schwartz and Scott’s silly experiment seemed like a success. They didn’t know what it proved, but releasing a glut of low-quality games onto Google’s marketplace felt like a snarky middle finger to the industry and its rising tide of low-quality content that was drowning out premium mobile products dedicated developers had poured their blood, sweat, and tears into. Their curiosity satisfied, Schwartz and Scott walked away and forgot about their little experiment.
Over the next several months, while quietly unobserved, their games continued to accrue downloads.
After the Christmas break of 2013, Schwartz and Scott returned to check up on their slot-machine experiment. They were startled by their discovery. All of Schwartz and Scott’s games were free to download, but like most free games, these slot games featured integrated advertising. It was almost a joke. One of the most annoying aspects of the mobile market were the “gacha” free-to-play games that roped players into watching one ad after another for another spin at the wheel. Schwartz and Scott were trying to mock those types of games; they hardly expected to make money on the ads in their own crappy games.
“A lot of times app stores have a bump over the holidays and we wondered what happened,” Schwartz says. “We saw that our downloads had gone way up, but then we checked our ad network backend and saw that in January and throughout the holidays we were making over $200 a day.”
“It’s hard not to look at a few hundred bucks a day that took no work and not draw a line from $200 to millions twinkling in our eyes somewhere,” Scott says.
Schwartz and Scott didn’t need any more encouragement to fire up their automated workshop again. But this time, they were ready to take things to the next level, so they incorporated under the name Signal to Noise. The pair even came up with a cutesy tagline, “We are the noise.”
Making slot games was a snap, but there were a few speed bumps to Schwartz and Scott’s automated system. It took several minutes to fill out all the forms to submit a game for publishing on Google’s App store, and the pair still had to sit down and brainstorm new themes for future slot games. Sure, typing in a new theme took seconds, but they felt that even this process could be automated.
To solve the first problem of submitting games for publishing, Scott used a web-automation tool that played back browser-based interactions. This allowed him to record the inputs for filling out the developer agreements needed to submit a game to Google’s Play Store. To solve the second problem of generating ideas, Schwartz and Scott had Google Trends feed their system relevant news and celebrity gossip, which resulted in games likes Deer Antler Spray Slots and John Boehner Slots. Next, they downloaded massive lists of words and coded a formula that took random adjectives and paired them with random nouns. This program spit out a stream of nonsensical slot-machine ideas like Stupid Pumpkin Slots, Tremendous Face Pain Slots, and Inexperienced Great Horned Owl Slots. “We had reduced the gap between conceiving a game to publishing it to market to typing a single word and hitting enter,” Scott says.
After a few months of tinkering, Schwartz and Scott had developed an automated system that could be accessed via Wi-Fi from any country in the world. They had visions of sipping drinks on the beach while periodically checking in on their slot-machine empire. The duo nicknamed their system The Goose, as in the fabled bird that laid golden eggs. Before long, The Goose was churning out and publishing games at an insane clip. In fact, Schwartz and Scott were amassing more games than they could ever publish; Google actually restricts developers from publishing more than 15 games a day. But even with this artificial restriction, after its first year Signal to Noise had already submitted nearly 750 games to the Google Play Store. Most games only got a few hundred to a thousand downloads, but even the least successful slot-machines contributed to Signal to Noises’ overall downloads, and ultimately ad impressions.
We had reduced the gap between conceiving a game to publishing it to market to typing a single word and hitting enter,” Scott says.
“One month, we looked at the drip income of Owlchemy’s entire portfolio,” Schwartz says. “I remember that Slots, this low-effort garbage pile, was somehow bringing in more money than the past four years of my creative endeavors. That was a real laugh-while-crying kinda moment. I went, ‘What the f— are we doing with our lives if this joke has started to supersede true effort?’ … I almost didn’t want it to make money, because it proved that it’s more effort to make games the right way. There was a feeling of it shouldn’t be this easy, because it proves that, as a society, people are not as discerning with quality as we had hoped.”
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The bigger issue was that Signal to Noise had started as a joke, but it had grown into something larger – something unfulfilling. “I was constantly torn between pride and amusement and a sense that I should be doing something else,” Scott says.
“There was a joke here, where if the mobile market was more sustainable for premium content, then we wouldn’t have had to lower ourselves to following through on this joke idea,” Schwartz adds.
When Google started to implement systems that made it difficult for cloners like Signal to Noise, Schwartz and Scott ultimately decided to walk away from their project. On March 19, 2017, after more than four years, 1,500 slot-machine games, and over 1.6 million downloads, Signal to Noise published its last game: 3D Astronomer Slots – Free.
To be clear, Schwartz and Scott didn’t shut down their automated system, they just stopped updating it and let The Goose die a slow death. They left the keys in the car and let it slowly roll into a ditch. Surprisingly, The Goose lived far longer than either Schwartz or Scott had expected. Today, Signal to Noise’s entire portfolio of games has been suspended by Google for failure to keep up with the latest updates. Even so, as of this printing, Schwartz and Scott are still scraping in a small amount of ad revenue from users who occasionally fire up the apps still lingering on their phones.
Fortunately, these days, Schwartz and Scott don’t have to play the slot game to make money, and both developers have found some of the indie development success they yearned for. In 2016, Scott used Fig to successfully crowdfund Make Sail, a physics-based construction adventure, and the game is currently in early access. Meanwhile, in 2017, Schwartz’s company Owlchemy Labs was purchased by Google, and Schwartz has spun off once again to form another, currently unnamed, indie game company.
Both Schwartz and Scott say Google has made it more difficult for developers to flood the market with the types of automated clones that they released, but that doesn’t mean the mobile market has become more friendly to developers, or users for that matter. App stores are still brimming with clones and ad-driven shovelware that make it hard for premium titles to be discovered. This problem isn’t localized to the mobile space, either. As online stores like Steam continue to open up and make it easier for anyone with a computer to publish software to the platform, developers will continue to find ways to exploit those systems.
“It’s interesting how this experiment tied into my ideas on curation,” Schwartz says. “This is the logical outcome to a completely open, uncurated platform. Quality goes down, people think of various schemes to flood the market, and consumers are left with a low-quality experience overall. I feel very passionately that consumers should have a curated experience. So this was us jumping over the tiniest of tiny fences to go muck around in an open ecosystem to show people how bad things are, and how bad they can be.”
If Schwartz is to be believed, then maybe the problem isn’t with the kinds of developers who churn out endless clones and other low quality software. And the problem might not be the consumers who find themselves lost in a sea of likeminded apps that constantly demand their eyeballs. The problem is likely the systems platform holders have built that allow for this level of exploitation. Some developers are trying to stem this tide. Valve has taken a player-driven approach to discoverability, allowing user reviews and trends to drive many of Steam’s algorithms, but as more new games flood the market, developers continue to complain about getting lost in the sea. Online stores are full of garbage, but who’s cleaning up the trash?
This was us jumping over the tiniest of tiny fences to go muck around in an open ecosystem to show people how bad things are…”
If anything, experiments like Signal to Noise expose the inefficacies of our current online markets, and offer a peek into one potential future where automation spirals out of control.
Today, the internet is crawling with automated bots that do everything from sending emails to leaving consumer reviews to responding to Twitter comments. It’s easy to get lost in the cacophony. Tomorrow, bots are already learning how to make, publish, and even promote games. What happens next is still up to us.
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Game Informer.
Welcome back to The Game Informer Show! On this week’s show, we talk about Wired’s big reveal of even more information on the PlayStation 5. Then we unpack our full thoughts on Indivisible, John Wick Hex, and What the Golf. After some wonderful community emails, we dive in deep on Bungie’s Destiny 2: Shadowkeep with Andy McNamara, Matt Miller, and Dan Tack.
You can watch the video above, subscribe and listen to the audio on iTunes or Google Play, listen on SoundCloud, stream it on Spotify, or download the MP3 at the bottom of the page. Also, be sure to send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to have them answered on the show.
Our thanks to the talented Super Marcato Bros. for The Game Informer Show’s intro song. You can hear more of their original tunes and awesome video game music podcast at their website.
To jump to a particular point in the discussion, check out the time stamps below.
2:25 – Ghost Recon Breakpoint
4:30 – PlayStation 5 news
20:00 – Indivisible
30:55 – John Wick Hex
36:15 – What the Golf?
38:00 – Untitled Goose Game
40:40 – Community emails
1:43:40 – Destiny 2: Shadowkeep
In a living game like Destiny 2, it’s almost impossible to separate the content of an expansion from the changes to the core game that accompany release. In the case of Shadowkeep, the distinction is especially hazy. In terms of new content available during the first week, Bungie’s latest launch is comparatively modest in scope. It is focused mostly on enemies and locations that have been reimagined from earlier Destiny releases, and a story that does more to set the stage for the future than tell a meaningful plot on its own. This is still a strong release on its own merits, but the broader reworking of fundamental systems, presentation, and investment gameplay is profound, and sets the franchise on its best footing yet for a promising future.
After a long absence, one of Destiny’s most enjoyable characters makes a return in Shadowkeep. Eris Morn’s plaintive and foreboding pronouncements are a good fit for the story, which sees our Guardian facing down nightmarish specters of the bosses we’ve fought for the last five years. The biggest treat is a return to the excellent Moon destination from the original game, now transformed by further cataclysmic upheaval. It’s fascinating to explore what has changed and what has stayed the same, even if it ultimately means that the “new” destination is mostly a rehash of somewhere we’ve already been.
The campaign includes several riveting missions, but ends anticlimactically. Though it sets the stakes for future years of drama, it’s disappointing to have so much build-up and so little payoff. Even so, convincing narrative threads meld into a tapestry that loops in the Hive, the Vex, and the long-hinted menace of the Darkness.
New nightmare hunts offer an escalating series of compelling battles, and the Vex offensive is an entertaining (but repetitive) new matchmade six-person event that includes some especially flashy firefights. I’m happy to see a couple of solid new strikes enter rotation, and the three additional PvP maps are always welcome, even if two of them are just the return of old favorites. New rotating PvP modes promise variety, and there’s now greater flexibility to select the specific game mode you want to play, which is a welcome change. I’ve come to expect a new raid to provide one of the most riveting sets of encounters available in FPS gaming, and that streak remains unbroken with Garden of Salvation, a rollicking crusade into the arcane mysteries of the Vex, demanding precision timing and ceaseless teamwork.
More than ever before, Shadowkeep moves Destiny squarely toward MMO and RPG conventions. A thoughtfully constructed armor system works in tandem with the new unlockable artifact to dramatically expand playstyle customization. That leads to distinct loadouts and armor sets that can be tinkered to fit given activities. Lore engagement is closer to the surface of the player experience, and that fiction continues to blossom with complexity and imagination. Your XP across the season leads to desirable designated rewards. Across the board, there are more opportunities for long-tail engagement and progression.
Perhaps most importantly, Shadowkeep doubles down on the strategy that led to success over the last year, with ever more weekly content drops that grow and expand your activities and the universe. Bungie has taken the idea of a living game world seriously, and it shows. A regularly updated schedule lets players know what to expect and when. My Guardians grow over time, and the world is changing alongside them.
Shadowkeep is a strong release, but frustrations crop up. With the additional customization features, currency and terminology bloat is a real problem. Many features or modes are poorly explained or without tutorial. Knowing which bounties, quests, challenges, or activities to focus on is difficult – a problem only exacerbated for new or returning players. Moreover, the fixation on bounties to progress means that players are often forced into undesirable playstyles, like using weapons or subclasses they don’t enjoy. Much of the older armor has been invalidated by the new offerings, and it’s a shame that so many memorable rewards have been left behind.
Shadowkeep and the new Season of the Undying content launches alongside Destiny 2’s free-to-play New Light, which welcomes an influx of players, but also comes with the commensurate focus on the in-game store, and cosmetic items that cost more than they should. That’s a trade-off that frustrates me, but the available free offering is stellar, and invites more players into a vibrant, and frequently helpful community of players. Many of those newcomers will undoubtedly take the deeper dive to buy and engage with the current season’s offerings, and that’s good news for everyone. With Shadowkeep, the Destiny series is well positioned in both narrative and gameplay frameworks for what lies ahead; the joy of seeing that shape come into focus is exactly why it’s worth logging in with each passing week.
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Summary: Bungie’s latest release is a good expansion on its own, but the way it sets the stage for the future of the Destiny franchise is its most impressive feat.
Concept: Return to the moon for new adventures, and witness the continued evolution of the Destiny franchise toward MMO styling
Graphics: From haunted corridors far beneath the lunar surface to teeming overgrown gardens, Bungie continues to meld fantasy inspirations into its sci-fi playground
Sound: The orchestral scoring remains among the best in gaming, while the exaggerated personas of the lead characters are voiced with pathos and emotion
Playability: Gunplay continues to set the industry standard. The game still needs to do a better job of guiding its players to needed information and tasks, especially over a shifting leveling curve
Entertainment: Not as expansive in initial scope as previous expansions, Shadowkeep’s standout feature is instead the way it redefines the core loop and encourages week-to-week investment
Modern-day Atari does a great job of taking advantage of the confusion inherent to the idea of “modern-day Atari.” They certainly want you to remember Pong and the 2600 and all those other […]
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Despite releasing last year, Red Dead Redemption II has been in the news a lot lately, with new content in Red Dead Online and the announcement of a PC version scheduled to launch on November 5. On that latter point, Rockstar today revealed more information about what is going to be different about PC version compared to its console counterparts.
Gamers can obviously expect some graphical improvements that take full advantage of the hardware, like increased draw distances, improved lighting, and better textures. But beyond that, the PC version will also have new content that wasn’t in the previous release. That includes brand-new horses (and new variations of existing horses), three bounty hunter missions, two additional gang hideouts, two new treasure maps, and extra weapons for the story mode (some of which are already in Red Dead Online), and more.
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Players who pre-purchase the game via the Rockstar Games Launcher (until October 22) also get a bevy of other goodies, like a free upgrade to the premium edition, bonus cash for story mode and online, and a war horse for single-player. As another incentive, this deal also includes two free Rockstar PC games (selected from: Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Bully: Scholarship Edition, L.A. Noire: The Complete Edition, and Max Payne 3: The Complete Edition). You can get all the details at the official site.
You probably knew this already, but the original console release of Red Dead Redemption II was excellent (we gave it a 10), and these improvements may give everyone a reason to jump back in with the new version.