Rolling Back the Veil on developing the Wasteland Warfare App
In June 2020, I launched my very first mobile app — the culmination of 18 months of hard work that I fit around my family and my day job. It was an exciting moment. I was aching to share my work with others, but there was one aspect of the release that polarised users much more than I expected it would: the price.
I wear many hats in my life — I’m a husband, a father to two young children, a full time software developer, a musician, and a massive nerd. Amongst my other nerdy hobbies, I enjoy the occasional tabletop skirmish game. Gorkamorka was my number 1 for years until Modiphius Entertainment announced Fallout: Wasteland Warfare in 2018. Ever since I picked up Fallout 2 for £4.99 from GAME in my teens, I’ve been a fan of the franchise, and the announcement of a tabletop version had me more excited than any grown man has a right to be.
My preorder arrived a few months later and once I’d had a chance to play a few games I felt like something was missing. There were just too many tokens for me to move around, and I thought to myself "if only there was an app to track this stuff". So I built one.
The first version of my app was pretty terrible. It was basically just a collection of icons that represented a unit’s health and status, repeated in a list to represent all the units in the battle. If I refreshed the page, I lost all of the units and their statuses. But I tried it in a couple of games before deciding that the idea had legs and I should work on it.
By this point it was early November. I figured if I could get a barebones version of the app working by December, I could show it off at Dragonmeet in London, where Modiphius would be demoing Wasteland Warfare to the masses. I emailed Chris Birch, the founder and CEO of Modiphius, to ask for permission to use the branding and artwork from the rulebook. After a brief demo at Dragonmeet he went a step further, suggesting that we could make the app official.
As much as I wanted to build something for the community, it was also clear that to make a decent job of it would take far more time than I could realistically offer for free. By the time Dragonmeet rolled around, I’d easily spent about 40 hours on the app, and it barely scratched the surface.
I didn’t want to just phone it in — this had to be a joy to use. Every time I playtested the app during a game I would come away with a long list of improvements. Improvements that would take time. Remember, this is time that I wouldn’t be playing Wasteland Warfare. It’s time I wouldn’t be spending with my family. It’s time I wouldn’t be pursuing paid freelance opportunities.
At the typical rate I would charge for freelance software development, making an app for Fallout: Wasteland Warfare would never make financial sense for Modiphius. In fact, whichever way we sliced it, the app was going to cost way more to build than it would ever generate in revenue. If we had been looking for a way to make money, we would have thrown in the towel right there and then.
But instead we explored several options to at least partly finance it.
Let’s take a typical rate for a freelance software developer: £50 / hour. That’s actually pretty cheap, given that studios charge a great deal more, but for a lone developer it’s about normal. By mid-January I’d spent 80 hours on the proof of concept, and there was a long list of features left to develop that would easily take the cost to Modiphius into tens of thousands.
It would also mean that as the developer, I would be financially incentivised in the wrong way. Bug fixes would cost Modiphius money, as would releasing new models / cards. More hours spent working on it does not automatically equal a better app, so this approach would not align my interests with the interests of Modiphius and the end user.
This seemed like the next obvious choice. Charging each user a fixed fee to own the app would spread the cost amongst those who would benefit from it.
There is no way to know what the sweet spot would have been for pricing the app. If the goal is to generate enough revenue to justify continued development, then fewer users means more cost per user. Conversely, lowering the cost of the app would presumably increase the number of people willing to pay for it.
But realistically, there is a limited pool of users — at most it’s every person that bought the physical game, but even a completely free app wouldn’t capture 100% of the players.
And what happens when everyone owns the app? I’d be still be left supporting new releases, which is no small task. Every unit, every item, every perk has to be codified. Card images have to be cropped. New functionality has to be written to support specific card rules. I don’t want the app to die because I couldn’t afford to develop it any more.
Let’s not go there. I personally hate subscription services, and while it would incentivize me to keep the app fresh, it would ultimately punish users.
As of v1.1.1 of the app, a subscription option is now available. Looking at the ever increasing number of new waves of content, I was convinced to consider a subscription option for the benefit of new players who are discovering the app for the first time. The key here is that subscription is not the only option, which perhaps I overlooked when first considering the idea. For £2.99 per month, users get full access to every card pack released in the app so far.
It still makes more sense in the long run to buy the card packs up front, but for a new player subscribing now, assuming that new waves come out every 6 months or so, it takes 2 years before the cost of the subscription outweighs the cost of the packs up front.
Right at the start, the only features I wrote were pretty basic. I had plans for more, and even started off with premium features including the Settlement Tracker and the AI Decision Maker. But realistically, this had the same drawback as the idea of charging up front. There are a limited number of features that people are willing to pay for, and at some point the app would stop generating revenue.
But I’d still be on the hook for new releases, something I have no control over. I’d either have to keep working on the app for free or let the community down, which I did not want to do.
Modiphius are in control of releasing new content, and for every new release, I have to do a little more work on the app. Remember that the time I spend working on the app might have been spent getting paid for other work, so working on the app for free is costing me money. At some point, I would have to abandon the app in favour of something that pays the bills.
Once the core features are done, the only work I have to do is keep up with physical purchases. It makes sense to align my financial interests with the work I have to do — that way I have no reason to let the app go stale. If Modiphius are releasing new waves in a decade, I’ll be right there releasing updates to the app, because my time will be paid for.
This also means that features are free. If you only want the core set, you get all app features included without paying a penny. AI Mode? Check. Settlement tracker? Check. Custom unit photos? Check. Multiplayer mode? Check.
As I write this, the app is just over a month into beta. The fact that I’m even here tells you what one of the biggest pieces of feedback is: people hate having to buy digital content that they already own physically. I thought maybe we had it wrong, so I sent out a survey. About 10% of app users responded, and actually, over 50% said the pricing was fair.
The only other common piece of feedback was this: we love the app. Sure, there were some bugs that I had to fix, but overwhelmingly people were telling me how much they loved using it.
Still, the negative feedback is usually centred around one thing, and rather than repeating myself on the same points, I thought I would address them here.
"I already paid a lot for the game, and now you want me to pay for the app? It should be free!"
It shouldn’t be anything. You don’t have a right to a free app, even if you bought every Wasteland Warfare product three times over. Perhaps you imagine that Modiphius are some large pharmaceutical company with a legion of corporate employees all rolling in piles of cash? They are a small company who work incredibly hard to produce excellent games.
At a guess, I’d say I’ve spent about 400 hours of work on this thing so far. And there is a lot more to do. Even if I’d been doing this as a full time job instead of in my free time, that’s still two and a half months of work. Imagine being asked to go to work for two and a half months with no pay. That was never an option.
So the choice was between charging something or not making the app at all. The latter would mean nobody wins. I think we made the right decision.
"This is a clear money grab!"
If it was a money grab, it’s not a very good one. Modiphius haven’t made a penny out of the app — first Google takes a whopping 30% cut of your money, followed by a licensing fee to Bethesda, and after that I get my share. Once I’ve recouped a fair amount for the work to date, Modiphius get a cut to cover all of the work they have to do on approvals, checking the data and providing all of the card files and assets I need.
I could literally have made more money by working at McDonalds. Chris Birch and I knew that would be the case when we started down this road, and we went ahead with it anyway. It was never a money grab.
"Why make me pay for cards I can download for free?"
I’m not making you pay for anything. Yes, you can download the PDFs of the cards for free from Modiphius’ website. They should be applauded for that — how many other companies are that generous?
But you aren’t paying for the PDFs. You are paying for the app. Can a PDF automatically calculate the armour value of a unit based on equipped items? Can a PDF tell you what an AI opponent will do next based on current conditions?
If that kind of functionality is not valuable to you, then the app is no good to you anyway.
"But I already bought all of the physical cards!"
Some of you have suggested that there should be a way to unlock digital purchases if you own the physical cards. There are a few big problems there:
When you paid for the physical products you were promised models and cards, which is exactly what you got. The fact that I made something else doesn’t mean you should get that as part of your previous purchase. It’s kind of like buying a book and expecting the movie adaptation for free. And yes, I just compared my app to a movie.
Think about it like this, if you personally wanted this app, and a buddy offered to design it for free for you, but you had to bring him a Starbucks every night he worked on it, you’d do it, right? That’s a fair few bucks adding up over time but it wouldn’t seem a lot for all that work you were getting. At the moment you get the basic app for free and only pay for the factions you need, which is a lot cheaper than all those Starbucks. Plus I don’t drink coffee ;)
I know not everyone likes paying for digital content. But I’d like to think that my time is worth something. I have a full time job, and when I finish a long day at work, I come home, put the kids to bed, and then work on the app until midnight.
I hope this makes it clear that this is all a labour of love to support the community. I’m looking forward to adding some great features and hope you’ll join the process with me to make this the best app the industry has.
If you’re interested in trying the app out, you get get it on Google Play and the iOS app store using the links below: