Author Archives: Steve Hatherley

Steve Hatherley

About Steve Hatherley

Steve is one half of Freeform Games and wrote Death on the Gambia, Hollywood Lies and Halloween Lies. He has edited many, many others. He lives in Yorkshire, England with his wife and daughter.

Looking back at 2015

It’s the start of a new year and that means it’s time for us to look back and reflect on how we did last year. We did this last year, and for 2013 before that.

Sales overall were up 7% on 2014, and it was our best since 2012. Sales might have been even higher, but for some website problems – more on that below.

Hopefully this trend will continue into 2016, and we will continue to improve our website to make sure that it can be found by the search engines.

Best selling games

Our best selling games for the year were Way out West, followed by Casino Fatale and A Speakeasy Murder.

Way-out-West33

Way out West – our best-selling game of 2015

I predicted last year that A Speakeasy Murder would outsell Hollywood Lies, and sure enough that’s exactly what happened. It’s pleasing to see a new game in the top three. And Way out West’s popularity is boosted by it being our free game.

Overall the top three games accounted for 28% of our sales.

New and updated games

In 2015 we published Death on the Rocks and we updated Hollywood Lies.

Website improvements

We also made changes to our website in 2015. The main change was to make the menu more responsive on smaller screens – tablets and phones. This had been on the to-do list for a while, but Google announced last year that it would be prioritising sites that worked well on smaller screens, so we moved it up the to-do list.

Looking at our traffic, it seems that while we get a healthy volume of traffic from smaller screens, purchases tend to be made from laptops or desktop PCs. We believe that our visitors are browsing our site with a mobile device before purchasing a game with their “main” computer.

Speakeasy-PT1a

A Speakeasy Murder

Website problems

We had two big problems last year. We had a few outages in the first part of the year which led us to change our hosting provider (which is always a challenge). And then in October (the run up to our busiest time of year) our new hosts updated their database software, and that meant we had to update our site.

Our plans for 2015

We set ourselves some goals for 2015. This is how we did:

  • Continuing to improve the website, and keep an eye on its performance: Website improved, performance good but would have been better without the problems described above.
  • Publish Death on the Rocks. Achievement unlocked!
    Update Hollywood Lies: We finally published the updated Hollywood Lies in December. The update took us longer than we though and you can read about that here.
  • Publish our standard rules. Stretch goal reached! We snuck our standard rules into our games last year, and talked about it here.
DotR Group

Death on the Rocks – our new game for 2015

Our plans for 2016

  • Improve the website, again. Maintaining a website is a bit like painting the Forth Bridge. By the time you finish, you need to start over. So we still have a few things that need sorting, and we want make it as attractive to visitors as possible.
  • Improve sales by exploring reviews or advertising.
  • Get the free Way out West in front of more people. We think seeing our games is a good selling point, and we’ve got some ideas for that.
  • Update Death on the Gambia and Curse of the Pharaoh. They’re both popular games, but they need an update to the new format.
  • Publish new games if possible. We have some games in the pipeline, but none of them are that close to publication right now. So we’re not making any promises for 2016 (we want to concentrate elsewhere). If it happens, it happens.

Our standard rules

We use some standard rules in our murder mystery games to cover situations such as combat, poisoning, death and the like. We’ve now made these available in pdf form so that you can share them with your players.

(Note that we have more rules than this, but these are our most commonly used rules.)Derrenger item card

  • Basic rules – these are our basic rules that apply to all our games.
  • Combat – there are our full combat rules. We use these in a lot of our games – they are quite simple, but can be deadly. These rules include healing and death.
  • Poison – some of our murder mystery games include rules for poisoning others. This is how they work. These rules include healing and death.
  • Capturing another player – sometimes it’s important to be able to capture or restrain another player. This also includes our Arrest rules.

You can find these rules on this page, which also includes some ideas for using the rules.

Rationalising the rules

It’s taken us a while to get to the point where we can publish our standard rules because for a long time they weren’t actually standard. Our games have evolved over time, and we’ve incorporated tweaks and improvements as we’ve gone along. But what we haven’t been very good at is going back and updating the older games.

Poison ability card

Now that we’ve published our standard rules, we’ve gone back to our old games and made sure that they are consistent. After all, we don’t want to confuse anyone with different sets of rules.

The rationalising process has resulted in quite a few discussions here at Freeform Games HQ, as it hasn’t always been obvious which is the best version to use. Our rules for arrests and poison in particularly needed quite a bit of looking at. Overall, however, our approach has been to use the simplest version.

We’re happy with them now, and standardising our rules will make it easier for our future games.

Let us know what you think: have you shared our standard rules with your players? And if so, did it help?

Developing Hollywood Lies: Part 2

In Part 1 I talked about updating Hollywood Lies – bringing it into the modern format, making it completely kid-friendly, making all the characters gender-neutral, and including the extra character pack in the main game. In this post I talk about how I did it.

Preparing the character booklets

Hollywood-Lies

Detective Chase (right) investigates the murder.

The first thing I did was to prepare the character booklet format. When we first wrote Hollywood Lies our character sheets were on two pages – story on one side, goals and people on the reverse.

Our current format is an 8-page booklet:

  • Page 1 – Cover, including a few words setting the scene (the same for each character)
  • Page 2 and 3 – Background and goals
  • Page 4 – Other People and tips for beginners
  • Page 5 – Abilities (previously on a separate card)
  • Page 6 – Secret and Clue (previously on the same card as the abilities)
  • Page 7 – Rules
  • Page 8 – Cast list for our shorter games, blank otherwise. (Blank for Hollywood Lies because the cast list won’t fit unless the font is microscopic.)

Once I was happy with the format, I then cut and pasted the character text from the original files into the new format.

(An aside, Mo and I do this differently. Mo has all the characters in a single document, while give each character their own document. I do this because I’m often switching from one character to another, and I haven’t found a way that works for me when everything is in one document. The downside is that if I need to make a change to a piece of boilerplate text, then I need to open every single document whereas Mo can just do find-and-replace.)

The character spreadsheet

With the characters all in the new format, I then created a character spreadsheet that did two things: ranked each character, and tracked changes.

Character ranking: I ranked each character numerically based on things like the number of goals they had and how much background text they had. This resulted in a score, and those with a low score compared to others needed more work.

This was particularly an issue because at this point while I’d deleted plots (such as affairs and the photos discussed last time), I hadn’t replaced them with anything. So some characters were definitely weaker.

(I didn’t completely rely on the ranking, but it was a good start to identify those characters that needed more work.)

I has used a similar system for for Murder at Sea, which I wrote about here.

Tracking changes: I also used the spreadsheet to track the changes. For example, I changed the introductory text and I used the spreadsheet to ensure that I changed every character booklet.

The spreadsheet included a tab with all the secrets and clues on them, so that I could check that the murder trail worked. (I didn’t want to make it easy, but it needed to be possible.) Other tabs also tracked who knew who, so that I could fill any gaps.

Changing plots

As I said previously, some plots were removed and I replaced these by fleshing out some of the other existing plots and writing two new plots.

Other changes

Other changes arose due the the new format. Our previous format had the Other People section before the Goals, the new version puts Goals ahead of Other People. That meant that there were sometimes goals that referred to information that the player hadn’t read yet (because it was now further down the character sheet in the Other People section).

In our view goals shouldn’t add new information but instead they should summarise the background and act as a reminder. So in those cases I moved the Other People information into the background so that the character sheet flowed from start to finish.

I also checked that the balance of Other People was about right – that nobody was left out and that nobody knew too much about one particular person.

Remaining files

Once I was happy with the characters, I then updated the other files such as the instructions, quick reference sheet, and the cards file.

Then followed a thorough proofread, and that was it!

On reflection

Updating Hollywood Lies seemed to take a long time – but I think I was being a bit ambitious. The two big changes (making it gender neutral and kid-friendly) made a significant impact that I then needed to address, and all that took time.

However, I do believe that the game is better as a result.

Developing Hollywood Lies

So for much of 2015 I have been spending my spare time updating Hollywood Lies and bringing it into our current format. We finally released it in early December.
As well as re-formatting it (to bring it up to our current standard, as I had done recently with Murder at Sea), we had a few other ideas for developing Hollywood Lies:

  • To make Hollywood Lies gender neutral.
  • To make the game kid-friendly.
  • Incorporate the expansion pack into the main game.

I have talked previously about making Hollywood Lies gender neutral, but the last two deserve a bit more explanation.

Kid-friendly

Hollywood LiesOriginally Hollywood Lies had an “adult” version and a “kids” version. That’s because when we wrote it we didn’t think that our customers would want to run it for their kids – we should have thought that through!

Having two versions made it clunky for our customers, and harder for us to update when we find an error.

And to be honest, wasn’t much difference between the two:

  • The nude photos plot in the adult version (which was inspired by a plot in Notting Hill) were replaced with embarrassing photos.
  • The affairs were changed to “secretly seeing” (but no change in the actual plots).

And that was about it.

As the changes were just cosmetic, some parents were understandably concerned with their children playing characters who are in affairs (whether ‘secretly seeing’ or otherwise). With the new changes all these affairs are removed, and anyone can play, and it will still be lots of fun for everyone.

The expansion

We also incorporated the expansion into the full game. While we like the idea of having optional expansions for our games, practically they present a couple of problems.

  • First, they end up more complicated as there’s a second set of instructions and more bits of paper everywhere.
  • Second, the characters in an expansion never seem as fully embedded in the game as the original characters. (Although that might just be my perception rather than reality.)

So for Hollywood Lies we’ve included the characters in the main game. If that proves a success, we’ll do it with our other games as well.

So that’s what we’ve done. Next time I’ll talk about how I did it.

From the author: Jessica Andrews

Here’s the third in our occasional series of author profiles. This time it’s Jessica Andrews – author of our 1930s murder mystery Death on the Rocks.

Jessica Andrews

Jessica Andrews

Jessica is a freelance history book editor from south east London. She‚ adores a good mystery as much as a good party, and ever since she discovered that the two could be combined, she was sold. She has been forcing her friends to play murder mystery games with her since the age of twelve, and she is not averse to donning a false moustache when the need arises.

Her love of history makes her inclined to write murder mysteries set in the past, and her particular obsession with the Golden Age of Detective Fiction of the 1930s is what led to the creation of Death on the Rocks.

Jessica wanted to create a game inspired by Agatha Christie, her favourite detective fiction writer, and her game was particularly inspired by the spooky, claustrophobic atmosphere of And Then There Were None, where the characters are also stranded on a small island off the coast of England, unable to escape when murder strikes.

Death on the Rocks

Playing Death on the Rocks

She decided the 1930s was the perfect time period for her mystery, as pre-war innocence and glamour was fast becoming complicated by shifting political currents and the fear of impending war. She was also interested in recreating the poisonous, gossipy atmosphere of small village life, where a hotbed of secret passions and scandals might exist behind the picture perfect cottage doors.

In pre-war days, it would not have been uncommon for glamorous nobility in a big mansion house to necessarily co-exist with those poorer folk working in the village, and this gave her the chance to explore a wide range of colourful characters.

Jessica really enjoyed writing her game, but couldn’t have done it without the patience and encouragement of her editor, Mo.

Jessica can be found on Twitter @deadnightgames, Pinterest and Instagram, both @redsequin.

Writing a murder

As part of this year’s Hollywood Lies update, one of the changes I have made was to the murder plot. The original murder plot involved a love affair, and that was no longer appropriate as I was making the game more kid-friendly and gender neutral.

So this is what I did.

Plotting a murder

The first thing I needed to do was work out the basic plot – and most importantly the motive. I didn’t change the murderer’s identity, nor did I change how the murder was committed (the means). But I needed a new motive, and I needed to change when the murder was committed (the opportunity).

Obviously I don’t want to say too much about it here, so the rest of this post is about how I developed the plot rather than the details of the plot.

Once I’d worked it all out, I wrote it down in bullet points.

Hollywood Lies death scene

The Hollywood Lies death scene – but is it murder? (Probably.)

Clues and red herrings

With the murder outline in hand, I wrote down the clues that I needed that would lead to the murderer.

I also needed some red herrings, and other suspect. Our victim, Tom Speed, was a nasty enough character that he had a number of enemies.

I used a table (along the lines of the one below) to keep track of the murderer and suspects (and to make sure that one of the suspects didn’t have too many clues pointing to them).

murder-suspect-table

Writing the plot

Then I wrote the murder plot out in full, written from the murderer’s perspective. One of the challenges I find of writing the murder plot is that if it’s too involved, then there’s no space left for the murderer to have any other background or goals. So I made it concise enough to leave space for other plots, but detailed enough that the murderer knew what they had done.

Then I worked through the other characters.

I concentrated on the ‘core’ characters first. These are the characters that are always used in the game – the ones used when you’re playing with the minimum number. The clue trail has to work with them, so I made sure that all the clues were spread amongst the core characters.

Incidentally, this is why it’s difficult playing with fewer than the minimum number. You have to be really careful who you drop, in case the character you drop has a key clue that you can’t solve the murder without.

The denouement and other handouts

With the core characters done, it was time for the denouement, or the solution to the murder mystery that’s read out by the detective at the end of the party.

I like writing denouements. I imagine Poirot making a speech in front of all the suspect, and it’s about the only space in our games for a little dramatic flair.

With the denouement finished, my next task was to write the murder plot handouts that are needed during the game. In Hollywood Lies, this consisted of a few timed handouts relating to new information provided by forensics.

A fake body lies at the bottom of the stairs

Another death scene – this time from Snow Business

The other characters

With the core characters, the denouement and the handouts finished, I wrote up the remaining characters.

For the remaining characters, I repeated the clues that I had already used for the core characters. The reason for this is that with more characters in the game, it’s possible for an individual clue to be overlooked. Multiple copies of that clue makes it less likely that that will happen.

Murder all wrapped up

That’s how I updated the murder plot for Hollywood Lies, and it’s pretty much how I write any murder plot, whether I’m starting from a clean sheet or adapting an old game.

Adding Skype and cryptography to The Spy Who Killed Me

We’ve got something a bit different this time – a story from customer Mark Lemay about adding Skype and simple cryptography to The Spy Who Killed Me.

Here’s Mark:

When I ran The Spy Who Killed Me I created two additional characters who were only contactable by Skype. The players playing the characters were remote from the party, and I had two hidden laptops at the party.

The two characters were spymasters – the Soviet Heracles, and the British ‘S’. They joined the party 30 minutes after it started (which allowed the other players to start playing properly). Neither knew about the murder (until they were told about it by their agents).

The Spy Who Killed MeI wrote full character sheets for the two spies, with background, goals and information about other people. The main difference between these characters and the other characters is that they would have to do everything remotely, through their agents.

Heracles’ contacts were given a telegram that said: “Comrade, We have established a secure line of communication. In the back of the kitchen there are stairs to the basement. At the bottom of the stairs go right. At the back of the of the basement I will be waiting. Don’t arouse suspicion. Be sure you are not followed. Heracles”

(Those players who needed to talk to ‘S’ were given a similar note.)

I also sent Heracles the telegram on page 17 of the cards file when the party started. The two agents texted me messages that they needed to send to their ‘agents’. The only way the agents to contact Heracles or ‘S’ was by Skype.

I set the Skype ringtones to the appropriate national anthem, and Heracles set his Skype up so that only a silhouette could be seen. Neither ‘S’ nor Heracles knew that there was another spy Skyping into the party, and none of the players (with the regular characters) suspected that their out-of-town friends would be making an appearance.

At about 9pm I gave Heracles’ contact details to ‘S’ so that she could try and trick some information out of him.

It was fun for the people involved, and went surprisingly unnoticed by the people who weren’t. The biggest issue I had was not making the strict deadlines of the party clear to the remote players. Also, if I did it again, I’d give ‘S’ a few clues as to how to trick Heracles (such as pretending to be an Indian spy).

Feedback from Heracles

My friend who played Heracles was nice enough to write up his thoughts on the experience:

It was always clear that my participation would be more limited than that of guests physically attending the party, but I still enjoyed my role. Like a normal character, I had secret knowledge, relationships with characters, and abilities. Despite my separation from the party, I felt that Mark gave me enough choices that I could still employ strategy and influence the course of events. I had a means of contacting other guests at the party, and an incentive to strategically hide certain information from some of my associates, which was fun to roleplay.

There were a few things that could be improved. I was slightly discouraged from speaking with guests too frequently, because Mark was worried that I would give away information too quickly and take them away from the rest of the guests. It turned out that I probably could have spoken to more guests, and more frequently. Because I was isolated I wasn’t entirely in the loop about the timeline, and when the party was ending.

Cryptography challenge

Instead of using the mechanics suggested in the instructions, I modified the item cards to have an actual encoded message – the message encoded with the reverse alphabet. I added an additional book to the library that had an explicit key.

This was the perfect level of difficulty and while one person solved it quickly, nobody took longer than ten minutes. Instead of disengaging from the party to solve the problem, the players could work together in small groups. It was also one less thing I had to referee.

swkm_book_160The encoded journal

I tried a similar puzzled with the journal, but I didn’t want it to be too easy. I used a different substitution cypher on each page (but following a simple pattern) and left out spaces. I modified the key so it contained the information to decode the text.

A group of ‘student’ worked together to try and decode the journal. They became invested in solving the puzzle. Unfortunately, it was a little too hard (especially after all the drinks) and I had to give them the solution after 15-20 minutes. I think It would have worked out if I had left the spaces in the journal.

(A note from Steve and Mo: We don’t usually include codes like these to our games because it can be very difficult to judge player expertise. We also know how frustrating it can be to play an expert in codes but not be very good at it yourself. So we make sure we have other rules for dealing with codes. However, we’re always delighted when our customers change their games for their groups and incorporate these kinds of details.)

Staging the scene of the murder

I designated one small room as Beth’s room (the victim). This was mostly decoration, but the guests got pretty into it. First I thoroughly cleaned the room so there was nothing distracting – just a bed and a desk. On the floor, I made a roughly human shape out of (clean) laundry and covered it with a blanket. I put the description of the body under the blanket in case anyone looked. I decorated the room according to the description in the instructions. On the desk I put an assortment of math textbooks, and small photos of the boyfriend and best friend character.

At the beginning, after the introduction I announced that, “Beth’s room is up the stairs in the second room on the left… the police have asked the scene not be disturbed. So don’t go up there and try to investigate.”

It was good because even though only a few people would have thought to ask about the details of the room, everyone went up to see the room. Except the murderer, who purposely stayed away from it the entire night.

The Russian memo

I used Google translate to make a very Russian looking memo with the names and addresses in English and the names in bold.

I hid the telegram in a book and added its location into the encoded journal.

Writing gender neutral characters for Hollywood Lies

As I mentioned in our review of 2014, I am updating Hollywood Lies and bringing it into our current format.

However, one of the things that it making this harder (and therefore taking much more time than it otherwise should), is that I am making all the characters gender-neutral so that they can be played by men or women.

Hollywood Lies

Hollywood Lies – our movie themed murder mystery party game

My reasons for doing this are threefold:

  • Firstly, it helps make casting easier if you haven’t got to make sure you’ve got the right number of male and female guests. We include a few gender neutral characters to help with numbers, but making all the characters gender neutral takes that issue away completely.
  • Second, it means that when we are asked for an all-female game, we can direct customers to Hollywood Lies. (While we get the occasional request for an all-female game, we almost never get a request for an all-male game.)
  • Third, Hollywood Lies is set in the modern day and we shouldn’t be constraining any of our roles by gender.

For those of you who have played Hollywood Lies – yes this does mean that there will be some plots and characters that will change. That’s just making the task of updating the game more complex.

An invaluable tool for names

I’ve found Wikipedia’s Unisex Name page invaluable for finding gender-neutral or unisex character names . It’s a great place for getting gender-neutral names that we haven’t used before (it’s very easy to fall back on the usual ones).

Challenges in writing unisex characters

The main challenge in writing unisex characters is avoiding the use of he/she/him/her. Usually I find that a sentence can be simply rewritten to avoid these pronouns – and at worst case I end up using the character’s name instead.

(I don’t like using “they” as it often doesn’t sound right.)

Some examples:

  • Original: Edward is your agent and charges a standard 10%. He was Tom Speed’s agent as well.
    Rewritten: Eddie is your agent and charges a standard 10%. Eddie was Tom Speed’s agent as well.
    Original: James was fired after setting fire to the office. He was seen shortly before the fire drunk and smoking in a prohibited area. He hasn’t worked since.
    Rewritten: Joss was fired after setting fire to the office. Joss was seen shortly before the fire drunk and smoking in a prohibited area, and hasn’t worked since.

Plot challenges

As well as changing the written language, turning all the characters gender neutral is having a few other changes.

For example, our games often include characters who are romantically linked to each other. That might be as a married couple, or someone in love with another character, or possibly even having an affair with another character.

Not everyone is comfortable with same-sex romances, so I am removing these relationships. (And that changes several plots – such as those characters who are married or seeing each other and so on.)

Arguably, this gives Hollywood Lies a wider appeal: it becomes more kid-friendly and also less constraining in terms of who can play which character.

A challenge

Writing Hollywood Lies to be completely gender-neutral is proving to be a bit of a challenge, for all of these reasons. I’m having to carefully check the wording of every character, and also writing a few new plots to replace those that I’ve dropped. The core game is the same, though.

And no, I’m not sure when it will be ready. 2015 is all I’m committing myself to at the moment!

Playing two characters

Murder at Sea

First class passengers in Murder at Sea

I recently played in UK Freeform’s annual weekend game. Last year it was Cafe Casablanca (Mo played and I helped run it). The year before we both played in The King’s Musketeers. And this year it was Lullaby of Broadway: Into the Woods.

As you might guess by the title, Lullaby of Broadway: Into the Woods was based on Broadway musicals – lots of them!

I played two characters – the baker (from Into the Woods), and an assistant to the King of France (a generic “flunky” character and good friend of Cinderella’s Prince Charming).

I’ve mentioned playing more than one character in passing at least twice: once when talking about creating a crowd and also when talking about bit parts. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about playing two characters in a bit more detail.

Playing more than one character at once

About 20% of the players at Lullaby of Broadway: Into the Woods were playing two (or even three) characters.

The reason for this is that the game was undersubscribed, and rather than cut out ten or so characters and rewrite the game, the authors asked if any of the players would be prepared to play more than one character.

And because I thought that sounded like fun, I said yes.

Busy busy busy

In playing two characters, I had no time to be bored. Both of my characters had plenty to do – and doubling up just made me busier. (This is a good thing – I like to be busy in my games!)

In terms of how it worked, I only played one character at a time. Other players could tell who I was playing by my namebadge. If they needed my other character, they just asked me.

One consequence of that was that I didn’t achieve all my goals – there were just too many for me to do in the time. But I had a go at my main goals – and I had a wonderful time doing it.

And as far as I can tell, so did the other players who were running two characters. In fact, from asking around, most of them enjoyed the experience and would do it again.

So given that playing two characters is a lot of fun, how do you make it happen in a Freeform Games murder mystery? I’ve put some thought into that.

Tips for giving players two characters

Playing A Heroic Death - a freeform games murder mystery

Superheroes plotting in A Heroic Death

These are my tips for giving two characters to a player.

  • I would check with the players first. I wouldn’t try this out with an in-experienced player, but if you’ve got a murder mystery veteran, they may enjoy the challenge.
  • Limit the number of players with more than one or two characters. I would only have one or two players (possibly three with a big game like Murder at Sea) playing two characters. 20% of the players with more than one character was probably a bit much!
  • Think about costuming. I was able to switch quickly between assistant’s frock coat and my baker’s apron. Depending on the game, switching name badges might be enough. You need to leave it up to the player to decide when they switch between characters.
  • Money and items: I kept money and items for each character apart by storing them in different pockets. (Although to be honest, it probably didn’t matter all that much.)
  • Selecting characters: I would probably use optional characters for those who are doubling up. I would definitely try to avoid giving someone two core characters (unless I absolutely had to). And while I might give someone playing two characters the murderer, I don’t think I’d give them a detective character.
  • Separate plots: You don’t want characters who are in the same plots. At one point in the game I got a bit confused between my two characters. It didn’t really matter, but most of the time the two characters were doing very different things which helped keep them separate.
  • Tell everyone! If you’ve got people playing two characters – don’t forget to tell everyone at the start of the game! And you will need to explain to your other players when they are talking to those with two players, they need to check their namebadge to see which character they are playing.

Try it for yourself!

So next time you don’t quite have enough players for all the characters in one of our games, maybe you can persuade one of your players to play two characters.

Looking back at 2014

So it’s that time of year again when we look back at the past twelve months and review how we did. We did this for 2013, and now it’s time for 2014.

Sales overall – a bit flat

2014 was overall a bit flat for us – a rise of just over 1%. However, that figure hides quite a bit of good news, as although the first few months were generally very bad, since the beginning of September our sales picked up and showed typically 10-20% year-on-year growth.

Hopefully that trend will continue into 2015.

We believe that the improvement is down to two things: first, we’ve improved our website and made it more user-friendly (and thus search-engine friendly). Second, Google changed it’s algorithms again. A couple of years ago Google changed their algorithm and penalized low-quality websites. Unfortunately it seems that they were a bit over-zealous and we might have been caught by that change. Last year they re-tweaked their algorithms and we appear to be one of the beneficiaries. Hopefully future tweaks will only be to our benefit!

Best selling games

Once again, our best selling games were Way out West (by some way), then Casino Fatale, and followed by Hollywood Lies. The overall levels of sales were broadly the same as for 2013, with Casino Fatale dropping a bit. Overall, the top three games accounted for 28% of our sales.

Way out West goes Steampunk

Way out West – our best-selling game of 2014

We believe that Way out West’s popularity is boosted as it’s our free game – so presumably customers are upgrading to the paid version when they want to add more players. One thing we could do to test that is to change the free game, and that’s something we may think about in the future.

New and updated games

Murder on the Dance Floor

Murder on the Dance Floor – one of our two new games for 2014

We published two new games in 2014: Death on the Dancefloor and A Speakeasy Murder. We also updated one of our older games, Murder at Sea (originally All at Sea), bringing it into line with our current format.

Sales of A Speakeasy Murder have started strongly, and in 2015 it may be challenging Hollywood Lies for a top three position.

Doubling our newsletter’s readership

In 2014 we doubled the readership of our newsletter, which was its best growth for a long time. By signing up to our newsletter you also get to download our free copy of Way out West, which no doubt helps explains some of the growth!

Improving the website

Last year we identified that we needed to improve our website and as a result we:

  • Made a few cosmetic changes (including more photos) and rearranged the layout to make it more friendly.
  • Changed the site header to the montage photograph when testing proved that it was more effective than a testimonial.
  • Added a page for customers new to our games.
  • Updated the FAQ and pulled it all into one place (it was tucked around in different places before).
    combined the stories and pictures pages into a single page, which makes them easier to see (and avoids duplicating content which can be a search-engine black mark).
  • Kept the blog going fairly consistently for most of the year, but towards the end of the year Real Life got away from me and I was unable to update is as much as I liked. I’m hoping to be a bit more regular again in 2015.

Overall the website changes seem to have worked, so I think that’s a success.

Looking back at our plans for 2014

We set ourselves some goals this time last year. Here’s how we did:

  • Get the website into a healthier place: Overall traffic was flat, but that hides a dip in the early part of 2014 and an encouraging upward trend since the start of September. So hopefully that will continue.
  • Publish Murder on the Dancefloor and A Speakeasy Slaughter: success. We thought we might get Death on the Rocks published as well, but that has slipped.
  • Update All at Sea: success, and now published as Murder at Sea.
  • Mo and I talked about possibly getting together one weekend to write a game (a bit like Peaky), but that didn’t happen and it was always optional.

Looking forward to 2015

Our plans for 2015 include:

  • Continuing to improve the website, and keep an eye on its performance.
  • Publish Death on the Rocks.
  • Update Hollywood Lies, bringing it into line with our current format.
  • Publish our standard rules. Our outstanding action from the feedback we received last May was to prepare standard rules that can be shared and sent out in advance. We’re well on the way with this.

Here’s looking forward to a good 2015 for Freeform Games!