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Launching an iPhone game: what we got wrong

By on June 21, 2011
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Independent iPhone developer Hindarium recently released Zombie Ball. Team member Ivan Vučica wrote some comments on Spilt Milk Studio’s post-mortem of an iOS game launch. I thought they were provided a useful perspective for independent iOS developers, so I asked him to write a guest post on his experiences. Which he did.

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It’s easy to think that the App Store is a gold mine. The gold rush is definitely still there, and a lot of people are still rushing to the platform. The combination of easy-to-use development tools, low entry barrier and even easy portability (native code is native code, if you know what you’re doing) is still drawing a lot of developers to the platform.

Add to that not worrying about the technicalities of how to charge your customers, and most people will be very happy to bring their game to the iPhone.

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Zombie Ball - Hindarium

I’m definitely not sorry about coming to the platform. I think we made the right choice when we at Hindarium decided to develop Zombie Ball for the iPhone. This is our first project. If you try it, you’ll see it’s definitely a game that could not run anywhere except on a mobile phone.

Why iPhone was the right platform for us

To provide a bit of context, Hindarium is not registered as a company. We’re a small, “garage” team of four guys designing, drawing and coding. That might explain a bit about our budget constrains, and some of the decisions we made.

Realistically, iOS was the only mobile platform we had the knowledge to target, not to mention ability. When I talk about ability, I’m talking about being able to receive money for our work. Croatia is a country that hardly appears on major corporations’ radars, and that directly translates into being able to receive payments.

For example, neither Android Market nor Microsoft App Hub support sales from Croatia, despite Microsoft having a local office and Google opening one soon. Apple is rather nice in that regard, despite having no local office. So — that was it. iPhone!

I like to think we didn’t make a mistake with the gameplay. Gameplay is fun and relatively original, and people seem to pick it up quickly. We slowly unlock things for the player, so there is some sense of discovery as well.

So, if our choice of a platform is not incorrect, nor is our gameplay to blame, what did we get wrong?

Where did we go wrong?

We made mistakes in our approach to releasing the game, and even in our approach to marketing. Some of our mistakes could have been fixed if we had money to spend. Some of our mistakes could not be predicted as our mistakes. For now, I’m not going to talk about exact numbers, but I’ll try to tell you about what we think we did wrong. Two weeks may not be much, but for us, it was enough. Sadly.

First of all, we did not work on our exposure continuously. It’s not that we could work more with the deadlines we set for ourselves. We did not have a lot of content to continuously share. That also meant we could not target the media with exclusive content. We did not dare bomb the press with constant releases, since we had no previous projects, so we did not want to be marked as annoying pests or spammers. We did not have time to produce fun, gameplay-unrelated trailers which would be interesting to the press. (You can see the trailer we did produce below). Finally, we worked on the game until the launch, so we could not give out previews.

We did not have contacts in key markets. We consider these to be United States, United Kingdom and Germany. These are not the only ones we care about, but these are some of the largest ones. Having even somewhat satisfactory performance in just one of these markets would be good for us.

How to market without a budget?

But, how can you be successful without either contacts that would spread the word about you (for example, via social networks) and without marketing budget? How can you be successful without anyone in large markets being willing to promote you enough, so you climb the charts for at least a while? And we know this helps: in our home country, Croatia, thanks to help from our fellow developers and other Twitter users, we made noticable sales on the launch day. Unfortunately, this is a too small market, and we didn’t have any further luck there.

That brings us to the next thing: we did not have marketing budget. iPhone may offer you a place to sell, but this place to sell is overcrowded. How can you just get the word out if you don’t have anything to stimulate the people to talk about you? How can they justify spending their time on you, when just around the corner there is someone financially more interesting? It doesn’t matter if you and I don’t think a small, indie developer should be paying for reviews; if the reviewers think we should pay for advertising and reviews, that’s it.

The trouble with getting reviews for an indie iOS game

You can conclude how successful our efforts to get reviewed were: out of several dozen sites we contacted for review, we got a total of four reviews (with three being a result of requests coming to us). I’d like to thank Paranerds, Bulletproof Pixel, Digitally Downloaded, and finally the one that brought most sales: AppAdvice. We think we may have had to provide more exclusive, that we should have provided more content, and perhaps the game itself should have looked more impressive on screenshots. As it is played, it’s rather nice. Maybe we lost some reviews due to being visually non-impressive.

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If you can, spend a month and create custom art, non-gameplay trailers and more interesting things that can draw eyeballs, and perhaps go viral. It will be worth it. You may not have advertising budget, but if you’re a small “garage” indie developer, it might be worth it.

It’s the little things that hurt you

Next, you must count on glitches in the sale software. In our case, this is the App Store. It’s overall a beautiful place to buy apps. We like it a lot. But, we have delayed our launch after approval. We got approved on May 19th, but we decided we really want to launch on May 26th. For good part of our launch day, we were listed on the “New Releases” list as if we launched on May 19th. That is — we were not noticable at all. Many sites that perform screenscraping on the App Store also did not pick us up for a while. Again, we lost exposure in an extremely silly way.

Remember the time when zombies were present in games just like any other topic? Remember when it didn’t matter much if the game contained zombies — if anything, it could, perhaps, be more interesting? You must have noticed that those times have passed. So it doesn’t make much sense to develop a game with a topic that is so overused that everyone is sick of it. We began working on this game because we felt the title is cool, and that this is an original idea. Squish the zombie instead of shooting it. Squish it with a rolling ball. Idea itself has turned out nice… except the “zombie” part. Now, when a person sees the title of our game on the App Store, they see just the “Zombie”, and skip it. When they search for “zombie”, there’s so many titles that there is almost no chance they will pick us randomly.

Never pick a name beginning with Z

Speaking of the title, we did not count on a small feature of databases. We forgot to mind the alphabetical order. Launching the game with a Z would make us rank lower in the “New Releases” list even on launch day.

You should make sure Apple has a reason to feature your game in the New & Noteworthy. We did get featured; unfortunately, that was only in some stores (luckily, the US store!) and not on the homepage. Still, this was the only thing that kept some sales around, apparently. You don’t want to miss this. Be distinctive in some way, and catch that app reviewer’s eye!

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Oh, and design your icon to be catchy. Personally, I think one can still ensure reasonable sales by making use of the old, mystical wisdom: “Sex sells.” If your icon is just between “Power Rangers” and “Lady Gaga” games, just like we were, it definitely wouldn’t hurt, would it?You’ll want to always have hi-res graphics around. We don’t have any graphics around except for 480×320, since the graphics has been postprocessed after rendering. Yes — that means no iPad version and no crisp retina display support. And that brings us to users not feeling they have added value which they can identify by seeing “Game Center” and “iPad” icons when buying the game. We did add “Game Center” support, but only in the update, when we dropped from the “New & Noteworthy” list.

Indies: don’t launch an iOS game on a US holiday

Never forget the social aspect of your launch date; remember the local customs and holidays! Most of all, try not to launch on US holidays. Those days, too many developers will be dropping the price. Competing with Gameloft and EA titles at $0.99, plus competing with the fact that those titles are on sale: that’s rather difficult. We launched on May 26th. That’s Thursday. If you take a careful look on the calendar, you’ll see that next Monday, May 30th, was Memorial Day. So we launched just before the Memorial Weekend. You can guess how that reflected on our sales. And it would probably be even worse if we didn’t drop the price from $1.99.

Where next?

To wrap this up, I’d like to point out that this being our first project, we don’t really know how to fix the sales. We’ll try various things: we’ll scrap together some cash for advertising, we’ll try running giveaways. We’re really charting what’s for us unknown territory, and we won’t easily give up. Who knows? Maybe this blog post will interest someone in our game.

But if the sales don’t go up? We’ll move on to the next project. Now we know what doesn’t work. And “Zombie Ball” could still get exposure through our next project.

Thank you to Ivan for his guest post. If you have any advice, post it here.

About Ivan Vucica

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  • Thanks for the post. I agree with you that paid reviews are wrong.
    I think it really help us in making logistics!http://fungamingzone.com/ 

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  • “Other team members are not hyper-enthusiastic about doing such major redesigns to the game (primarily because of existing results, but also because of what they feel about cloning existing game and how this might feel like it’s cloning). I’m working on convincing them, though :)”

    It’s your game so you have to decide what is best. I have seen a number of games change their names after launch though so you wouldn’ be the first! 

    I had another thought on the zombie issue. Even if there already a lot of zombie games in the App Store, “zombie” is still a powerful search term: http://www.google.com/trends?q=zombie%2C+zombies%2C+brains&ctab=0&geo=all&date=all&sort=0

    If you do change the game name, it might be a good idea to add a subtitle so you can still capture App Store search traffic, for example: BRAINS REVENGE – THE ZOMBIE CRUSHER

    It’s worth reading more about how the App Store search engine works with titles and keywords to determine results listings. Look at these guys to see how you can game the system: http://www.appannie.com/company/schvarts-apps/

  • One other point on paid-for-advertising Nicholas. There are a number of iOS sites who, after you send them news, trailers or other updates, immediately reply with their advertising options. The message is pretty blatant – if you want your game covered, pay for some ads. It’s a tough one because obviously these sites rely on advertising to keep going, but in my opinion, any link between advertising and editorial is wrong. 

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  • Between the time I sent this post to Nicholas and the time it was actually published, we’ve run low-bid image ads ($0.15) on AdMob. They were run with a low daily limit ($10) and set to spread across entire day. All clicks (67) were spent long before the day was over, and actual results were… practically nonexistent. Nowhere near an increase of 67. We ran for five days, Tuesday-Saturday.

    We did not have in-app installation tracking, however, and we might be repeating the experiment after the next update, now that installation tracking code is in place. Google might be adjusting display rate for better results on our side, based on actual installation rate.

  • //
    … gotoats.com …
    //
    Amazing site and initiative! I’m so happy to see it, proving some of my impressions wrong.

    //”We got approved on May 19th, but we decided we really want to launch on May 26th. For good part of our launch day, we were listed on the “New Releases” list as if we launched on May 19th.”I’m really curious to know more about why you think this happened? What were the exact sequence of events and how could it have been avoided?
    //

    We wanted to launch on Thursday. That’s basically it. We thought we could do better by launching slightly before weekend which we presume are the days most people would launch, thus avoiding being sunk among all other games. We also thought that start of the week is not a good day to launch, since the weekend just ended and people are going back to work, having already spent their money on games. Hence, we set the “Availability date” in iTunes Connect to be May 26th.

    We were approved by Apple on May 19th. There is apparently a glitch that, in some stores, results in approval date to be listed for a while as the launch date. That’s at least what we saw!

    //
    BRAIN BALL
    ….
    //
    Wow! This is some really, really amazing advice! We’ll definitely think about it. Other team members are not hyper-enthusiastic about doing such major redesigns to the game (primarily because of existing results, but also because of what they feel about cloning existing game and how this might feel like it’s cloning). I’m working on convincing them, though 🙂

  • re paid-for advertising – I should have been more clear with my words. I’m not against it in any way but I do think that for many indie games and apps, that it is a waste of money. The good news is it is very easy to track actual results so you can run small low-risk campaigns to test the water and see whether it delivers.

  • Thanks for commenting James. I agree with you that paid reviews are wrong.

    I don’t think that paid-for advertising is wrong in any way though. I think it may not be cost-effective, particularly if you are sticking to the old model of a single 99c price and have no in-app purchase strategy, but there is nothing immoral or wrong about it.

  • “It doesn’t matter if you and I don’t think a small, indie developer should be paying for reviews; if the reviewers think we should pay for advertising and reviews, that’s it.”

    No. Paid reviews are wrong and cannot be justified in any way. Supporting sites that offer “express reviews” and other such services only validates and prolongs these dubious practices. Besides, all the sites that actually matter have higher standards, see http://www.gotoats.org/

    Paid advertising is trickier. There’s no doubt that games can be marketed to success – see The Heist – for instance, however you need to look at the numbers very carefully. For example, a site recently offered us a sponsorship package on their podcast for $500. That’s not much money, but their podcast only reaches 50,000 people. So for a $0.99 game, 1 in 10 people listening to the podcast will have to buy the game just to return the initial investment. And that’s without covering Apple’s cut. Does that sound realistic? No, we didn’t think so either.

    “We got approved on May 19th, but we decided we really want to launch on May 26th. For good part of our launch day, we were listed on the “New Releases” list as if we launched on May 19th.”

    I’m really curious to know more about why you think this happened? What were the exact sequence of events and how could it have been avoided?

    “To wrap this up, I’d like to point out that this being our first project, we don’t really know how to fix the sales.”

    I agree with the posters above – just keep at the PR. Update the game based on player feedback, release new trailers and spread the word.

    If you are looking for specifics, I think you could tackle the Z-name and zombie-overdose problems easily. Next time you update the game, why don’t you change the name and the App Store icon to something with more impact? This is off the top of my head, but something like …

    BRAIN BALL
    BRAINS vs ZOMBIES
    BRAIN CRUSHER
    BRAINS REVENGE

    The story(!) of the game is that brains are fed up with being the victims of zombies and have decided to fight back. It’s time for brains to take revenge! This gives your game a neat twist that makes it different from other zombie games.

    Change the metal ball in the game to a big, squishy brain that rolls around the screen crushing all the zombies in its path. Make the brain the “hero” of your game – give it eyes and a angry snarl. Create a loading screen / main menu image that shows the brain’s personality. Use this image in all your marketing and PR. Change the App Store icon to feature a zombie being crushed by the giant brain. Rewrite the App Store description to bring the brain character to life.

    I really feel for you guys. Your post is so brutally honest and it’s clear that you have real passion for your game. Good luck and don’t give up!

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  • I’d echo that sentiment. The thing to remember is, a large portion of games journos are actually in the same position of developers, looking for content that will win you plaudits.

    Try not to mass-mail writers – look to what sites they write for, the areas they specialise in, and try and tailor any conversation you have with them towards their expertise. This is something the man above me here is very good at, and you’ll find most writers have much more time for you if you can prove in some way that you have something to offer them.

  • Just keep on doing it! The game is never going to disappear from the ‘shelf’ so you can always point people to it.

    Court the forums, do giveaways, do sales (any excuse) and for god’s sake PR-bomb more than a dozen gaming websites! 😀

    I sent multiple emails to over 100 websites and got maybe 10 responses. The odds suck, but that just means you need to find more websites to send emails to. Don’t give up though, seems like a cool game!