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Interview With Shaun Musgrave - TouchArcade

My first interaction with TouchArcade was when I received an email from one of their forum users about A Dark Room. He simply wanted to say that he loved the game, and thanked me for making it. After visting the website, I was an instant fan.

My first interaction with Shaun was via Twitter. He did a review of Blek when it hit the #1 spot and unseated A Dark Room on day 19 of its rank streak. After the interview went out about Blek, I immediately whined to him like a baby and said "What about me?!?!" He was kind enough to give a review of ADR.

I figured it would be good to also include interviews with "the other side" of mobile gaming (ie what editors/reviewers go through). So, without further ado...

How old are you? What's your professional and educational background?

I've just turned 37 years old. I have a degree in psychology, which is either the most useless useful degree or the most useful useless degree, I can't decide which. Professionally, like many freelance writers, I suppose I'm a drifter. Outside of school, I've been: a midnight convenience store worker, a mobile phone salesperson, a private tutor, owner of a video game shop, a social worker, and for the last several years, the owner and main teacher of a private language school. I teach English and French. And of course, I've been a games writer on and off for the last two decades.

Want to share any history/background with regards to Touch Arcade?

Not much to tell here. My son was getting older so I had more free time on my hands. Though I had left games writing with a slightly bitter taste in my mouth after working for one of the big sites and swore I'd never be back, I had found myself wanting to write about games again. I was really getting into mobile games at the time and reading TouchArcade almost daily. I saw a notice Eli Hodapp put up looking for new writers, applied, and was hired a few weeks later. That was over three years ago. It's gone well for me, mostly because I'm afforded the flexibility to write about what I want, even if it's not necessarily going to bring in raw clicks. TA is cool that way.

There will be a lot of indie devs reading this. With regards to contacting editors/reviewers to get a game reviewed, what's the absolute worst thing for a dev to do/get him on your instant ban list?

Um, getting on my ban list is pretty hard. I don't really have one to speak of. I guess if they were really abusive or something? I'm here to critique your game, not you as a person.

There will be a lot of indie devs reading this. With regards to contacting editors/reviewers to get a game reviewed, what's the absolute best thing for a dev to do/get him in your graces?

Yeah, okay, this is a better question I think. Um, with the caveat that I can only speak for myself, of course. Well, the first thing to do is to make a game worth paying attention to. The mobile market is overflooded to levels that are frankly boggling if you stop and think about the raw numbers. We at TouchArcade (and presumably our friendly competition at other sites) have to sift through hundreds of games each week. As you might expect, when faced with such a task, the initial cut is swift and not very discriminatory. If your game doesn't stand out in some way, it probably won't get a second look. For the love of all that is good, please try not to piggyback your game on some kind of current event. Try to avoid describing your game as "current or past popular thing, with a twist!". If there's no other way to describe your game, it probably isn't right for our audience.

For making contact, every writer is different. Naturally, go through the official channels each site has set up, but that's easily the hardest place to get attention due to the sheer volume. Beyond that? Some writers like a quick note on Twitter. Some like emails. It's very annoying on top of all the other work you have to do, I know, but you really do have to get to know each person you're pitching at. I recommend following them on Twitter well in advance, having normal human conversations with them where possible, and so on. When your game is ready to be pitched, you'll be in a good position to ask what the best means is for doing so. Cold pitching on Twitter rarely works out. I don't mind it too much, especially if your game is cool, but some writers get really upset when you do it. So, yeah... I guess just talk to us like fellow humans and hope for the best?

Got a funny story about an interaction you've had with regards to an editorial you've published (and the game devs involved)?

I don't really have any funny stories, no. Usually interactions that come from something I've written aren't very positive experiences. Happy people don't reply most of the time, right? But people who are upset often do. I will say that in covering mobile, I get more positive replies from developers after writing an article than I did on the console beat. But these games are massive passion projects so I totally get it if you've worked hard for years on something, see me write a lukewarm review, and want to pop me in the nose. Please do not carry through on that fantasy, my face is already a disaster.

What are your thoughts on premium games vs free wth IAP? Why is it so hard for consumers to fork over $3.99 (or any amount of income) for a premium game? Have we just become numb to ads and energy bars?

Well... this is a complicated issue. But there's a simple principle underlying it. People will always want to pay as little as possible to have their needs satisfied. Most people who play games have very minimal needs. My uncle who only ever bought the yearly NHL hockey game and played five or six games before letting it collect dust for the next nine months? He doesn't need a deep, rich experience. So he doesn't mind if the game is lacking in depth or only lets him play for 20 minutes at a time. That's probably all he needs. And if that's free? Well, $3.99 isn't much, but free is less. From there, the game might get its hooks in him enough for him to spend something, but probably he'll just delete it and move on to the next thing.

I do believe there is a core contingent of mobile gamers who have bigger needs and spend appropriately, but if we're being real, the majority of the traditional core audience has an aversion to mobile gaming and are certainly getting their needs met elsewhere. The small percentage who do play heavily on mobile don't add up to a lot when you split that audience for genre tastes, etc. It doesn't help that the traditional core market pays little attention to mobile, only noticing games that are somehow put in front of their face through advertising or big names being attached. And these days, the companies that can most afford to do those things are putting their chips on free-to-play. It's just as hard to win, but the pay-off is bigger, so for companies like Square Enix or Konami who can afford to pull the handle on that slot machine several times, it makes more sense.

Of course, I prefer a premium experience, but I also prefer shmups to first-person shooters. I've made my peace a while ago with the fact that my tastes are a poor barometer for the market. I've played a lot of good free-to-play games, too. Yes, even ones with energy bars and ads. But recently, I'm not interested in the endless experience most of those games offer. I want an ending so I can move on to the next thing already.

I'm starting to release unfinished games and then iterate on them publicly. The first couple of months, the game is free, and then I start charging for it after it's more playable. Believe it or not, it's working! Am I insane? How would this affect editorials and reviews?

The mobile games media transplanted the structure and style of the traditional games media. This has proven to be a poor fit for the mobile market for many reasons, and updates are a big part of that. Unfortunately, it's not feasible for us to track every game after it releases to see if it has gotten better or worse. We're barely making it financially as-is, and that kind of wide-reaching gaze would require a lot more staffers. I guess what I'm saying is that our coverage is still heavily focused on the point of release, so your new method is probably not going to work well with the existing review structure. You'll either get a review of your initial (unfinished) release, or you'll get forgotten by media as the grind grinds onward. The pricing strategy is interesting though, and I'm glad it's working out for you.

How do you think live streaming will affect mobile gaming? Let's play YouTube videos?

We're partners with Mobcrush and do regular streams on their service. I'm yet to be convinced that it's going to catch on the way it has with other formats. Mobile gaming is heavily built around short bursts of gameplay, so it's hard to make a long video that is also entertaining. The games are also cheap or free, so people are less likely to check out streams to get a sense of a game's quality. And right there in the name of mobile gaming is 'mobile', which tells me that people are probably playing on the road or at least wherever they like in their homes, rather than in front of a decent streaming set-up.

What do you think the future of mobile gaming holds for indie game devs? Doom and gloom? Bright future?

This is still a relatively young branch of the market, but it's starting to shake out into what might be its final form. It's a wishy-washy answer, but I think the market holds both doom and gloom and bright futures. Like any game platform, you have to aim your project well and scope it realistically. I've seen a lot of console cats think they're going to walk into the mobile market and "bring enlightenment to the unwashed masses" with their console-style ideas, only to crash and burn when mobile gamers turn to something that fits their needs better.

I think like any art form, it's rare to be financially successful simply by making what you want. It's all about playing the odds, right? If you want to succeed financially on mobile, really go and take a look at what mobile gamers enjoy playing. Go beyond those top ten charts. Check mobile gaming communities and so on. Don't just copy what's popular, think about why it's popular. On the other hand, if you just want to make your cool dream game, well, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. You'll make a few people really happy, but your chances of even making your yearly Apple developer license fee back aren't great.

To summarize: Can you succeed? Yes. Will you succeed? Probably not. But in non-"gold rush" conditions, that's how it is in every gaming market. If you want safety and security, you might have picked the wrong job.

How can game devs better support editors/reviewers (and more specifically Touch Arcade)?

We are nothing without the readers and the developers deciding we are something. You can support us by sharing our articles about your games and others, telling people about us, and so on. If you've got extra money in your marketing budget, you can get in touch with our ads department and buy an ad on the site. But really, the best thing you can do to keep us relevant is to treat us as relevant. I firmly believe that it's beneficial to everyone to have an active, free press covering the platform, especially as more and more mobile sites are being bought up by big gaming companies. We love to be doing that work, but just as mobile indie developers aren't seeing much of the benefits of the massive amounts of people playing Clash of Clans on their phones, we also have trouble reaching the wider mobile audience. I feel confident in saying nobody does as much in-depth coverage of premium/indie mobile games as we do at TouchArcade. If you think that's something worth protecting, please spread the word.

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