Following the success of Sopliskier, two-man indie team Mikengreg spent a year developing their follow-up: physics puzzler Gasketball. The game released a month ago to positive reviews from both critics and consumers. But the hope that offering their creation as a free download would lead to a dramatic increase in in-game sales hasn’t paid off.

“There was a lot of panic immediately after launch when we realized that we were doing pretty terrible sales numbers and it probably wasn’t going to improve without more work,” says the game’s designer, Mike Boxleiter. “We scrambled to throw in some analytics to figure out what exactly people were spending their time doing, and it was puzzling to find out people were actually playing the game an awful lot but just not buying anything.”

Mikengreg’s scramble was especially frantic as the pair’s money had almost run out and they were now sleeping on friend’s couches. Every lost sale tightened the noose on the indie dream, a particularly galling death threat considering it was a business model holding the rope rather than any creative or design shortcoming.

“We’ve had to take a lot of time to figure out why exactly the game fails to make the sale to the player, and still all we really know is how the players currently use the game,” Boxleiter says. “We don’t know for sure how their behavior might change if we release more updates. So we’re doing a lot of redesigning and a lot of arguing about what to cut, what to keep and what to add. We have a second shot at release with the iPhone version, so we want to capitalize on that as much as possible and fix some of our mistakes with the iPad launch.”

Before the iPhone launch the pair has taken some time away from the game. I catch Boxleiter on the road, in one of the rare moments he manages to find some Wi-Fi. It’s clear that the break, long-scheduled and originally intended to be a celebration of the game’s launch, has turned into something more reflective, soul-searching.

“We wanted to do a big road-trip to PAX and then New York to take a break,” he explains, “but it’s more turned into a vacation-introspection kind of spiritual journey. We know we made a fun game, but we need to figure out exactly how to move forward.”

Mikengreg is experiencing a very different situation to the weeks following the release of Solipskier, the pair’s first iOS release.

“Solipskier kind of came out of nowhere,” says Boxleither. “We didn’t have any great expectations for it and we had no idea what the iOS market could do for us. We had great success, and that allowed us to become more ambitious and we felt we could build on that success with an even bigger game. But Gasketball has succeeded well below what Solipskier did in it’s first few weeks. Even though we’ve had around 600,000 downloads it feels like a dud.”

Initially the pair believed the issue to be a lack of up-sell screens and there being too few ways for people to pay the developer on launch. But a rapid-fire update intended to fix this has shown Gasketball’s issues may be more fundamental.

“The update hasn’t dramatically increased sales. Our issues stem from a much deeper set of problems with the game. We tried to create a Draw Something or Words With Friends style game without the simplicity of purpose those games have. Many reviewers hardly mention the HORSE mode, which is far and away the best mode in the game, and I feel the difficulty of getting into HORSE is the biggest problem we face at the moment.”

You’re going to be OK, right?

“We’re not going to die, and we have plenty of friends and family helping us out, so as people we’re not in any danger of any kind. As for Mikengreg: things are a lot more uncertain. We have a lot of questions to answer: if we failed to read the market this poorly for Gasketball, how can we expect to ever succeed again? We’ve been doing a lot of second-guessing lately, and that’s a big problem as an indie. It’s difficult to be creative and bold when you’re not sure you can afford to sign a new apartment lease.”

All this talk of business models may be fundamental to the success of running a small developer, but it’s important to celebrate the great many things that Gasketball does well. I wonder what Mike is most pleased with in the game.

“Gasketball went through a hundred little moments during development which made us sit up and say: ‘Yes, that’s cool’. For us, the creative aspect of HORSE and the friendly competition that results between friends is the most engaging stuff, and it didn’t really come together until the final month of development. We have a lot of developer friends on our Testflight account, and we had been sending builds out since March, updating them with progress on the single player campaign and trying to get feedback, but for the most part there wasn’t a lot of interest or time logged in the game. For each update we would get about ten hours of play from our forty or so testers. Then in June we put together the final version of HORSE with Game Center enabled, allowing the testers to challenge each other online, and suddenly they were logging about a thousand hours per version, some of our testers were publicly trash-talking each other over Twitter, and it seemed we finally put something really engaging together. I thought the future of the game was solidified from that point.”

In fact, the single player aspect to the game became something of an afterthought for the pair, as they focused the majority of their effort on HORSE.

“Initially I just made a shot-attack style game, the player would be presented with a single level and he would have to try to sink as many baskets as he could within a time limit. We didn’t think that really sang, so we kept messing with new ideas until we decided a multiplayer HORSE game could be really interesting. We took a couple weeks in February to crunch twelve-hour days to get out a multiplayer prototype and in the middle of that we realized that our level editor was really fun to play with and had a kind of an eureka moment realizing that we could ask players to create their own HORSE shot from scratch and send it to their friends.

“After that we added the single player and one-on-one modes as an attempt to fill out the game for more than just turn-based async players.

So where is the magic on the game post launch, that kernel of wonder that makes Mikengreg proud of their baby? “I don’t know how widespread this is, but my best moments all come from watching a friend’s replay of one of my levels. It’s intensely gratifying to watch someone struggle to figure out the little puzzle that I’ve designed and it’s even better when they get it, which is kind of counter-intuitive since I should want them to fail so I can win the game. I play Gasketball much more as a friend trying to show his friends cool shots rather than as a hard-core competitor.”

There’s a sense that Mike finds it difficult to truly celebrate Gasketball when the game his future appears to be currently tied up in the game’s failings rather than its successes. I wonder what the immediate plan is.

“The first objective is to get some money coming in, either by fixing Gasketball or by making a new small game ultra-quickly. I was able to design and prototype a new puzzle game at Orca Jam just before PAX that a lot of people have already responded well to, which is really heartening. I think I’d like to focus on smaller, less risky projects for a little while, but there’s a lot that still needs to be figured out, like where I can afford to get an apartment.”

One thing is clear: Boxleiter is comfortable enough in his own skin and abilities to be able to talk openly about his failures, to take the criticism of raw numbers and turn it into lessons.

For him, this is a key piece of advice that any aspiring young game developer should take on: “Learn to take criticism and seek it out, and this goes for any creative working in any field, but too many kids who are starting out take criticism as personal insults, and this will keep them from learning from mistakes and keep them from making friends with the hundreds of experienced devs who they could meet and get help from.