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Going from console development to social and mobile games, Letter by Letter

word games are "the most competitive market we could jump into" Ian Cummings, Row Sham Bow

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

We're attempting to log in through Facebook to Letter by Letter, the new game from Orlando, Fla.-based startup Row Sham Bow, but every time we try, the app gives us an error message and crashes.

That was yesterday afternoon. We shot a quick email to Ian Cummings, creative director at the small studio, notifying him of the bug. Whatever the problem was, he told us, "we will find out ASAP and let you know."

Barely 10 minutes later, Cummings wrote back, "Can you try logging in again now?" That time, and every time from then on, it worked just fine.

The quick fix illustrated a point Cummings made during a phone interview with Polygon earlier this week. Cummings had more than a decade of experience at Electronic Arts, where he began his game industry career in quality assurance and rose through the ranks to become creative director on 2010's Madden NFL 11, before he left in April 2011 for Row Sham Bow. The studio, which also employs many other ex-EA developers, makes free-to-play social games; its first game was the Facebook title Woodland Heroes, a territory-based strategy game.

"The biggest change" in going from console to social games, said Cummings, "was really that mindset of updating the game all the time, as opposed to one big release." In the world of a multimillion-dollar annual sports game like Madden, a developer releases a game and usually provides post-launch support with a few patches to fix bugs and respond to feedback from players. If necessary, those patches rarely come more frequently than once a month.

"when it comes to mobile and social, you're putting out fixes every day and every week"

"But when it comes to mobile and social [games], you're putting out fixes every day and every week," Cummings explained. "And if you push something out where maybe you forgot about ... what state [existing users are] in, you could so easily break [the experience for] people that are already playing." According to Cummings, that happened "all the time" on Woodland Heroes.

The other major difference between developing big-budget console games and smaller social games, said Cummings, is the heavy reliance on telemetry — collecting and analyzing data on how users are playing in order to figure out how best to serve them. "People on Facebook or mobile games don't give you feedback like the Madden fans do," said Cummings. So using metrics to track players' habits — what they're clicking on, what they're ignoring, how much time and money they're spending — is vital to keeping them satisfied.

To be sure, massive teams like the one at EA Tiburon making Madden employ all kinds of telemetry to measure user engagement. But it's still different from the social space, where Cummings talked about a deeper connection with players, marveling at "how close you get to your consumer, and how fast you have to move to keep up with them."

As different as the environment may be in social games, Cummings said that the Row Sham Bow team's experience developing AAA simulation sports titles — in particular, the developers' game design sensibilities — carry over.

The studio wanted to make Letter by Letter "ultra-competitive," just like playing Madden online; Cummings spoke of "moments that made you want to literally punch your friend while you were playing it." In Letter by Letter, that "comes down to ... things like iterating on the way people feel when they steal a word," he said. In essence, it's about delivering high production values, something that Cummings said was "burned into us from a life of living in simulation sports."

He pointed out the little things that combine to make a big difference — subtle touches like animations, particle effects and sound effects — and compared them to the small but significant reasons that the iPhone became such a phenomenal success: the consistent overall fidelity of the experience. "There's a lot of tile-based word games out there, and we're the only one that created our own font to use on the letters," he said. "I think a lot of people take that stuff for granted."

Another crucial part of making a free-to-play game is building a clear tutorial, much of which comes down to ensuring that the user isn't given an excuse to leave. "On a free game," said Cummings, "if you're confused within the first 30 or 45 seconds of a game, you're just going to bail. You're just never going to play it again." According to Cummings, the studio spent "probably two months" alone on trying to perfect the Letter by Letter tutorial.

"if you're confused within the first 30 or 45 seconds of a free game, you're just going to bail. You're just never going to play it again"

We've spent some time playing a bunch of Letter by Letter games over the past few days, and have found that those design elements really do make a difference: It's an engaging experience, and like all good word games, it's alternately infuriating and thrilling in the best ways. Row Sham Bow hopes others will enjoy it, too — as a small startup, the company takes a calculated risk with each game it makes.

"Without Woodland Heroes being a giant monetary success, we have to have a game like this hit," Cummings said. He explained that the studio didn't have a clear idea of how free-to-play Facebook games worked when they launched Woodland Heroes last fall, and while the game received critical acclaim, it wasn't particularly lucrative.

"It was a free-to-play game, and we didn't understand how to make a lot of money off of that, or barely any money," Cummings said. "Our hope [was] that we would make a great game ... and people would just pay us money because they [thought we were] awesome. And that didn't happen that way."

According to Cummings, that naivete is gone. Row Sham Bow is aware that Letter by Letter is a bigger risk because of the genre — word games are "the most competitive market we could jump into," he acknowledged. But the studio believes it has hit upon something unique, fun and compelling.

Cummings chronicled Letter by Letter's development in an email. When lead designer John Taylor brought the first prototype home to his fiancee back in mid-April, she initially played it to humor him. But the game hooked her, and based on that as well as the developers' excitement about it, the studio decided it was worth pursuing.

word games are "the most competitive market we could jump into"

Above all, said Cummings, Row Sham Bow just wants a lot of people to play Letter by Letter. It's the company's first mobile game, and the developers wanted to prove themselves in that space. "If we get a ton of users and we don't make any money, that's still cool to us," Cummings said. "If it doesn't monetize, it's not to say we don't care, but we just want people to enjoy it, really, at this point, and then we'll go from there."

Letter by Letter launched yesterday on iOS (Universal) and Android; it supports cross-platform play. An ad-supported free-to-play version is available on both platforms; the paid version on iOS costs $2.99, while an in-app purchase of $2.99 in the free Android version removes the ads.

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