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Spilt Milk Development Diary 6 – Hard Lines hits the App Store

By on June 10, 2011
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Diary 6 – And we’re off!

Good lord, has it been a week? Andrew J Smith here (again, you don’t get rid of me that easily!), MD of Spilt Milk Studios.

Well.

This week we’re looking at the launch of Hard Lines on the app store. Crikey, never really thought I’d be typing that. I knew it’d be out, but taking each day as it comes does not leave much room for future-gazing.

Hard Lines launch ad
Hard Lines - Spilt Milk Studios Ltd

So the most important and interesting thing to happen is that on the day I’m writing this diary (Thursday the 9th June 2011 for anyone wondering) Hard Lines is available to buy on the AppStore right here. The past week has been a whirlwind and a half, with me essentially spending every waking hour attempting to get PR about the game sent out to all and sundry, knowing full well that the game will live or die on how visible it is at launch and in the weeks afterwards.

And so it was that I attempted to get Previews written… and got two! As I mentioned last time Gamezebo and Pocketgamer managed to write some nice words… but nothing prepared me for the reviews we’d start getting on launch. More on them later though.

Making a good trailer for an iPhone app

For previews were not enough – the trailer I’d made was far too long so I went ahead and tried a much shorter ‘launch’ trailer which seemed to work pretty nicely – it announced the launch sale, launch date and summarised what the game offered, as well as a bit of the personal touch I feel sets us indies and small studios apart from the big boys.You can check that out here.

While I feel it is a success, the view count (at least compared to the previous trailer) suggest otherwise. Probably due to the first one stealing the thunder somewhat, but also the lack of coverage it got, something I’m trying to rectify as we speak.

How a development diary led to a contact at Apple

Speaking of effective PR, I lucked out somewhat. This development diary led a very nice chap to my door (well, my email address) and after a few emails and some business discussions he offered me a contact at Apple. Gold dust, right? Well, that turned out very well – I now have an ‘official Apple press release’ for Hard Lines, as well as 3 direct lines into that behemoth of a company. You can bet your ass I’ll be working my damndest to get every advantage this could possibly confer on Hard Lines – but I’d not be able to force anything of impact across their bow without ammunitions. That’s where the reviews come in.

By launch day, we’d managed to get 4 reviews on various sites. Ready-Up.net gave us a very lovely 8 out of 10 describing it as “A genuinely top notch game”, while Gamezebo honoured us with 4 out of 5, saying “Try as you might, there just isn’t a bad thing to say about Hard Lines”. Another 8 came from Thumb-Culture where they remark that “Hard Lines is a fantastic little game that should be installed on anyone’s phone”, and finally a tiny wee blog also gave us 4.5 out of 5 summing it up with “Hard Lines is original, fun and most of all – addicting! Grab this neon lighted gem!”.

This kind of reception is amazing – of course I want our baby to get the best reviews possible, but it’s so hard to maintain clear vision. All I can do is humbly re-Tweet them all, and keep my fingers crossed for more of the same from other outlets.

How to use Twitter to launch your iPhone app

So it is worth me reiterating something I mentioned on a previous diary. Twitter is your friend. The majority of my leads – and more importantly the follow-up work that takes a contact and transforms them into an ‘ally’ is done on Twitter. It enables you to glimpse into common and shared interests, make each other laugh, and connect on a level that ‘cold-call’ style emails just don’t reach. Heck, I was even getting community encouragement on Twitter while tweeting about the next topic – emailing.

Email marketing for indie App developers

Now, that said, I did just spend an entire 2 days searching for, collating and organising website contacts for iPhone news, reviews and features. Ranging from hardcore gaming site like Eurogamer and Kotaku, through popular mobile sites like Touch Arcade and Pocketgamer, through to specialist blogs like AppGamer and Gaming Angels – and everything in between. No site is too small to add to your press release list, and I’ve made some really good connections this way – obviously the hit rate is very low, but you need to offset that with volume and hard work.

Nowadays I actually sort my contacts in lots of sub-lists (‘The Big Ones’, ‘Review Only’; that sort of thing) just to make sense of the multitude of contacts on my computer, and I’ve even had a few people get in touch regarding indie PR, asking if I’d be willing to provide them with my services. We shall see if anything comes from it, but it can only be a good thing!

And so it continues! Now that the lovely little game is out, I am able to submit it for review at even more websites than would accept news tips and press releases. Strategic use of review codes (you’re limited to 50 for every update, presumably to prevent ‘gaming’ the appstore rankings) has been… sporadic. Sometimes I’ll get an email from a random Japanese site and consider any coverage on those shores a bonus, and sometimes I’ll be a bit picky about western sites. But generally I think I’ve managed a decent spread, and still have a few left.

I’m obviously hoping that review coverage will boost the game’s profile as word gets round (helped in no small part by me pasting every link I find in every forum I find!) but this is really just the beginning.

We’ve got a ‘themed’ WWDC’E3 sale price for a week or so of USD$0.99/59p (every little helps to make your sale more relevant than someone else’s), and reason to believe some pretty ‘good-sized’ coverage is coming our way next week. Launch day is big, but the long term plan is bigger – and we’re now in a position to take a serious look at turning this game into something more.

How to pick a release date for my iPhone app?

But I can’t leave without talking about the release date. Crikey, what an interesting series of decisions that led to picking a Thursday. It’s ‘common knowledge’ that Saturdays are best, with Fridays coming in a close second for app and game releases (Sundays are in 3rd). So if we chose any dates or a release, they’d likely be weeks apart in the event that we got refused during the submission process. Turns out we didn’t get refused, and I was in a panic. Do I release as soon as I can on the Friday, do I wait for more previews and maybe some reviews to come out?

Then my Apple contact came through with a little tid-bit and the next Thursday was chosen – the last day of the WWDC. We’ll see if it pays off! At the time it wasn’t so easy though; I was halfway through making the launch trailer at the time, head firmly planted in the video editing sand (using iMovie on my Mac, cheap, very easy to use, does the job) – I only came up for air when I heard my inbox chime, and lucky I did as I was able to spend the extra time making a better trailer, and doing more general PR.

And there we go, another week done. Next week will be pretty much all about the stats of the first week of sales, as well as (with any luck) tons more review scores and thoughts about the critical and audience reception.

Early Days Fun facts:

  • No. of contacts in my ‘wide’ press release list – 178 (and rising)
  • No. of user ratings on the AppStore at time of writing – 5
  • No. of those rating which have a text review – 5
  • Average user score on AppStore at time of writing – 5 out of 5
  • Average score (not on Metacritic yet!) at time of writing – 8 out of 10

About Andrew Smith

  • Thanks for contributing your experiences!

    It’s such a tough market to break into in any meaningful way, I’m currently keeping my fingers crossed and checking sales every day. Too early to tell, but we’ll keep on trucking regardless.

    Best of luck with your projects too.

  • Congratulations on what is bound to be a good launch!

    My team has launched our game, Zombie Ball, on May 26th (also a Thursday). We’ve had a much harder time getting any coverage, and any contacts for our game. I’m still pretty much certain that it’s a fun and a good game (and almost all players and reviews say so as well), but no exposure has pretty much killed us. 

    We’ve botched numerous things at our launch:
    – We began working on exposure too late and too little.
    – We did not have any marketing budget. Nil.
    – We had zero good contacts in the key markets, US and UK. We couldn’t get anyone to mention us. We did very well on launch day in our home country, Croatia, due to help from fellow iOS developers on Twitter. But our home country is a small country, and sales dropped there very quickly.
    – We got approved on May 19th. We launched on May 26th. Due to a glitch, we ended up on the list in key markets as if we launched on May 19th. Lost exposure in “New releases”.
    – Despite contacting dozens of sites, we got only a few reviews. 
    – Forums posts are horrible for exposure. Too many other devs trying to get some exposure that way. Posts get deleted, too.
    – You REALLY don’t want your game to start with a Z. “New releases” are alphabetically sorted.
    – You REALLY don’t want to make a game that covers a topic everyone is sick of. (When we began working on the game, that was not the case. Yes, we worked on it that long.)
    – Your trailer probably shouldn’t only display gameplay. If you can, make a cute toon trailer. Or at least comedy. 
    – Press need something special to be interested in your game.
    – You might want to send that “something special” both directly to the media, as well as release it on a press release site.
    – Check if it’s a holiday in US. If it is, everyone will be doing sales. You’d better stay away for a while; it’s hard to compete with Gameloft and EA. We launched just before the Memorial weekend. Guess what happened.

    You’d probably be better of spending a month drawing stuff that people will appreciate (wallpapers, concept art) as well as offer something interesting so that reporters notice your press release.

    Regarding our sales… we were featured in a few App Stores across the world in the “New & Noteworthy” section. Of the Games category. Between “Lady Gaga” and “Power Rangers” games. Still, being there has “saved” us. Sales were very poor. Now that we’re out of there, they’re worse.

    Oh, and the best thing you can do is something like what you guys from Spilt Milk did: keep a diary, and get in touch with a notable blog to publish it.

    We really don’t know how to fix the sales. We’ll be trying various things. We’ll spend a little money (and I mean very little money) on ads. We’ll run some promotions. Hiring a consultant would probably help us a lot… but we have literally no budget, and no way of getting some. And if noone is willing to review us, what can we do?

    Probably move on to the next project.

    You guys will probably end up being saved by having more contacts… including the person from Apple. 

    Congratulations once again, and good luck! 🙂