This is the first of several blog entries I plan to post to chronologize my first experiences in the iOS App Store. I intend to make my posts mostly about understanding the iOS App Store economy based on personal experience and less about code learnings. I'm no authority on app development or app marketing, I just think we can all learn from sharing more about our experiences (other than code) in this relatively new and exciting market place. There seems to be a lot of mysticisms about the App Store, maybe I can help debunk some of those.

Originally I wrote this entry with an elongated introduction about myself and my game's development story but I'll spare the snore and post it as an aside later.

Ready For Sale

I did have a marketing plan, just maybe not as great a one as I had thought, or maybe it doesn't really matter. I've prepared accordingly over the past few months, I've watch a lot of other individual developers like myself release and announce their games and I felt ready to step it up a notch. I had no actual marketing budget for advertising, so I did my best to stand out with what I had.

  • Twitter Account - Check
  • Contest ideas - Check
  • Blog Entry on Website re: The 'Mobile' RPG in replacement of Press Release - Check (I believe in having conviction)
  • Forum posts prepared Promo Codes in Hand - Check
  • Letters to reviewers prepared Promo Codes in Hand - Check

My game had it's Internet and Social Media face on. I was very ready to be out there, responsive to the community, build a user base and start growing. I wasn't dumping a single promo code in any forum threads either. I wanted to socialize a lot on the Touch Arcade forums with every poster and release codes steadily to prolong my position on their forums, which have about 300 eyeballs in the announcements/discussion section at any given time.

In a few short days time, the response was quite positive to my game; it was pretty exciting. Some argued it was a bit short or missing a thing or two, the UI didn't feel quite right, but they were very happy about the concept and value. I was there listening and ready, communicating back with everyone. In under a week's time I put out my first update in response to many of the key issues and minor requests I saw coming forth.

The reception was really good in the first few days and the overall score across App Store reviews worldwide are 4.5/5 - Sweet. A lot of the people in the Touch Arcade Forums were playing it, giving feedback and quite happy. So things are looking generally positive, I should be pretty happy too right? This is looking good.

Well, have no illusion that positive feedback and strong ratings = sustainable sales.

No visibility in App Store = No sales.

Don't get me wrong, I knew it was like this beforehand. I knew there wasn't going to be an overnight blow out and I know these things take time. In 2010, like many other game developers, I followed Matt Rix's Story (Trainyard) so I was well aware of the patience one needs when entering the market. I don't think I realized though just how few sales you'll make at that very peak start point (a few hundred maybe) and how quickly it will drop. I don't think my starting peak is as bad as it can get either. After all, my game was playing off of a LOT of retro familiarity and strategically underpricing itself in the RPG category - it was definitely getting some intrigue.

So what are my two biggest problems right now?

  1. Visibility
  1. Content/Depth

I'll address content issue first, but I ordered them in terms of their importance to driving sales.

In the last day or so, I have come to temporarily title my own game's Single Player function 'The premature ejaculation of RPGs' . People are liking it, the concept is grabbing them... and then it's over too soon and many are going "That's it??" I think that is a big thing holding some people from buy in to a concept they are generally very into, even though it has a ton of unique features to start.

This is what I was offering in Pixel Fighters to start for $0.99c:

  • Turn based RPG combat dissected into small bite sized rounds with a score provided at the end
  • A mobile phone focussed, arcade style approach to the RPG
  • 9 Unique combatants - Select 3 to make a team
  • Single player and Vs. Modes
  • Online Leader-boards
  • Achievements
  • 2 Player VS Mode - Shared Screen, Bluetooth or Online Game Center matches
  • Use the camera in your iPhone to take a picture of any surrounding and use it as your battleground in VS Mode

Thinking that 20 years ago you could have easily spent $1 on a pinball machine that you lost to in under a minute, it's kind of funny when today you are disappointing some people after giving them Single Player, Multiplayer, Camera/Game functionality, Achievements, Leaderboards and Awesome pixel art.

Reviews like these just warm your heart, don't they?? Also, apparently you can swear in the App Store...

Don't get me wrong, I had no illusions about wanting to add more content to my game, but I need a little support first to keep it up. Surely the game with all its features can't be that poor, can it? If there is one lesson I take here it's that:

1 Deeper/Longer feature > Many smaller features

If you are about to add a second mode to a game, make sure the first one rocks. I started with a 2 Player game that I knew would need at least some 1 Player facet to catch more because every tester was asking "Where's the 1P mode?". As a result, both modes are simpler than they probably would have been if just one was focussed on. Now, most people so far have only evaluated it for it's One Player facet, even though the multiplayer is unique and available 3 different ways. If people aren't seeing all the features and only focussing on one, there should be enough depth there not to bore them too quickly or they may not get the right impression of the game.

Visibility in Store

Visibilty comes from 3 key places. Marketing, Reviews in publications (Online/Offline), and Top App lists in the store. The third one doesn't come without the first two in place though.

My game lacked the starting wow factor I'd hoped would get it more reviews to start. In fact I only got one from 148apps.com and they called it 'One to watch' which I'm quite happy about... I'd just hoped more people were willing to pay to watch or already saw enough value. Also, the reviewer didn't mention the 2 Player facet so that doesn't help (Again with the features issue..). 'One to watch' is still a pretty good to me because its saying "more please". So maybe all I really needed right now is some more attention to get the ball rolling...

The importance of app marketing and just how much money some developers spend has only become apparent to me. Within a few days of being live, multiple websites contacted me offering to do paid reviews - Is this normal? Should I be paying for reviews? (Average $50 a review) Well, I opted for no because none of the sites seemed large and influential enough to offset the cost, especially at what I'm pulling in right now.

My designer suggested to me that I go free for a day to help my app spread. Great idea! I'll just email a company that runs these promotions and let them know I would love to go free for a day...

The saying "You need money to make money" has never felt so true. Obviously I can just go free for a day if I want, but not with the same marketing effect.

What Next? What Should I Do?

I think a lot of new developers who have released a game or application know this feeling. A looming question of whether to continue improving or abandon what you have made. Whether to go Lite, whether to go free, whether to pitch the cash for marketing. Once the app is out there its bound to make you at least something, but is there potential not yet unlocked? A lot of ideas have gone through my head...

Personally, I believe strongly in what I have developed and will continue to improve it patiently and look for the right time to hype it again for uptake. With some hard work on refinements and new content I do believe it will be a unique game very worthy of it's cost and worthy of enthusiastic recommendation. That's all I can aim for. I love RPGs, I wanted to make a different one for iPhone.

The dust is settling and while my app might not be paying for itself as quickly as I had hoped, I have no doubt that the cost will be recouped this year. I'm quite excited for the future of this game, I'm just not sure how quickly I will be able to afford supporting it with new features and updates. RPGs have a tendency to be art hungry. I will have to be very strategic about my approach from here.

I've already updated once, and will again very soon to make sure the Game Center Matchmaking is in full working order (there was a syncing issue), but after that I think it will be a longer wait before a big new content update.

As I see it, I've got about 800 units sold so far and even more curious watchers at the moment - That's a lot more credibility than I had when I launched. At the right place, at the right time I will rehype this game for it's next content update.

While marketing more immediately could get me my money back faster, I feel it might also be the axe on getting a bigger uptake in the ultimate end. I see risk. Domino's Pizza is still crap to me even though they've apparently "changed", I think they'd be better off if I hadn't heard of them when they were just okay.

Building more visibility and credibility in the App Store

A very friendly and helpful patron of the Touch Arcade forums has spoken with me many times and also consistently bumped my thread in the TA forum to help me get some sales. If that wasn't kind enough, he also gave me some good advice on building credibility and visibility. One of those pieces of advice, was to build a permanent free game just to get some more reputation and then promote my paid game inside.

I thought it was a pretty solid idea, but I don't want to just dive into something and drop this first project from my sight. I'm even more reluctant at the moment to put up a lite version of Pixel Fighters though. So I'm trying to commit 1 to 2 hours max a day to slowly nudging another game along in addition to my other work. I hope to complete it in about 50 hours total. I think there's a big difference between developing an app in a heavy 50 hour multi-day period, or over several weeks in tiny chunks. While the project will be minor, I will sleep on the idea for more nights and I find my best game insights for programming never come when I'm typing away at my desk. I also want to test and refine it appropriately.

While I choose not to disclose much about my free game at the moment, I will tell you one interesting and important detail - I plan to reuse the art from Pixel Fighters to build a more arcade style game. I weighed some pros and cons on this...

  • Pro # 1 - This way I get more bang for my design buck.
  • Pro # 2 - My two games tie hand in hand with promoting each other
  • Pro #3 - My art might stand out better in this category.
  • Con #1 - A possibility of game/brand confusion. Maybe I won't convert sales because some will see the same game twice, but I don't see this as a huge issue considering the name, icon, category and format will be significantly different.
  • Con #2 - A possibility that I'm appealing to completely different markets and Arcade lovers won't all convert to an RPG game. This is pretty likely but I don't think the groups are mutually exclusive. Also, who's to say I can't convert? My game would be one of the simplest RPGs for a newbie to grasp - it's possible they'd perceive the value as higher too since they don't know the category as well. I've actually had many people pick up my game and enjoy it who don't typically go for the RPG.

More to come

I wanted to write this article early in my launch because I think some of this information is good food for thought for others before their app's entry into the App Store. I will continue to blog as time goes on with updates on my first adventures in the App Store. In an upcoming post, I will look a bit more at iOS App Store market sizes worldwide and sales impact on rankings among other observations.