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‘Punch Quest’ is the iPhone’s hottest game, but it’s a financial flop

‘Punch Quest’ is the iPhone’s hottest game, but it’s a financial flop


Rocketcat Games proves that free-to-play isn't a slam dunk

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Punch Quest
Punch Quest

Rocketcat Games' Punch Quest was released last week and it's already the talk of the iPhone gaming world — not only has the title been downloaded more than 630,000 times, Metacritic also lists it as one of the highest rated games on the platform to date. It's also developer Rocketcat Games' first foray into the world of free-to-play gaming. Like many studios, Rocketcat wanted to be able to reach a much bigger audience by offering its game for free, and hopefully see an uptick in revenue as well through in-app purchases (IAP). And while on the surface it appears as though the game is a success, with plenty of downloads and near universal critical acclaim, there's just one problem: it's not making the studio any money.

There are only two buttons in 'Punch Quest' and both of them are for punching

Developed over the course of nine months, Punch Quest is sort of like a mashup of Jetpack Joyride and Street Fighter. As with all endless runners, the goal is to get as far as possible before dying, but the twist is that the game throws plenty of enemies in your way, so the focus is more on combat than navigating the level. There are only two buttons in Punch Quest and both of them are for punching. As you play you'll earn virtual currency that can be used to buy new abilities and cosmetic items to customize the main character. It's a formula that has already seen success with games like Temple Run, and Rocketcat was hoping that this could be the game to help it reach a new, larger audience.

"We wanted to try free and IAP because we really needed to expand how many people knew about our games," says Rocketcat's Kepa Auwae. "Being seen on the App Store is hard, and we need more people to know about us so that we can grow." Punch Quest was designed from the beginning to be a free-to-play experience, with a built-in virtual economy ripe for in-app purchases, and Auwae expected the game to do better financially than the studio's previous paid releases like Super Quick Hook and Mage Gauntlet.

But the reality was much different. Despite surpassing 600,000 downloads, Punch Quest only just crossed into the five figure range in terms of revenue. "The really scary thing is that profits tend to drop off sharply a week after an app's out," Auwae says. "I hear it's a bit better for free apps, but a paid app often makes most of its money in the first week of being out."

Figuring out where the problem lies is a difficult task. Punch Quest seems to have done many things right, with a game that has proved popular with a wide audience and was designed from the beginning with the concept of IAP in mind, but obviously something is missing. "There's a lot of stuff that could be wrong," says Auwae, "but we're just not sure."

It's something the team is trying to pin down and rectify, though. After getting plenty of feedback from both players and fellow developers, Rocketcat has come up with a list of potential problems to address, and at least one of them seems incredibly simple: the "buy" button for the game's currency could just be too small. "It's kind of terrifying that our game could have been incredibly highly reviewed and made no money because the ‘buy' IAP button was too small, but there you go."

"There's a lot of stuff that could be wrong, but we're just not sure."

It could also be that players earn money too easily. Racking up "punchos," Punch Quest's form of currency, isn't actually that hard, and since the game is so fun, jumping back in for an extra game or two to earn some more doesn't feel like a chore. Because of this, players may be less-inclined to spend real money. The team is working on an update to add new, more expensive things to buy, which will hopefully entice players to drop a few bucks. Among the additions are pets to follow the player along and help them out, and there may also be some tweaks to the pricing of existing items. And for those who simply want to support the developer without buying items to aid them in the game, Rocketcat is also planning to sell hats for the game's main character.

The update is expected with the next two or three weeks, but the team is aware that even these tweaks may not turn Punch Quest into a profitable game. "The last option would just be giving up and making it a paid game," says Auwae. "I'd rather do that than quadruple the price of everything."

"In a lot of ways, 'Punch Quest' did what we set out to do."

That said, while the game hasn't performed the way the studio would have liked financially, it did help Rocketcat achieve its goal of reaching a new audience, something that would likely not have happened if the game had a price tag. "In a lot of ways, Punch Quest did what we set out to do," Auwae says. The game could also serve as a useful learning experience, as the studio continues its transition to the world of free-to-play. The early financial disappointment of Punch Quest hasn't scared Rocketcat off of the payment model.

"We're going to try the model again for the next release, see if we can do it next time," says Auwae. "It's really either that or leaving mobile game development completely."