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Spilt Milk Studios 7: Launching an iPhone game

By on June 17, 2011
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Andrew J Smith of Spilt Milk Studios has been sharing his experiences as an indie iOS developer. After one week of game sales, has it been worth it?

Well well, what a rollercoaster this has been.

Hard Lines launch ad

Hard Lines - Spilt Milk Studios Ltd

As you’re no doubt aware, Hard Lines is out. The mix of emotions is a heady one, and suffice to say we’re very pleased with ourselves. The game is getting rapturous applause from the games press and we’re riding high on a tide of critical acclaim just 7 days after the game debuted. Obviously it’s only been a week since we launched but I can confidently say I expect Hard Lines to sit in the top 150 iPhone games in terms of a Metacritic-style average. In fact, at the time of writing, we’re only 1 review away from having an official Metacritic average!

Do reviews matter to an indie iPhone game?

So, those reviews! We’ve had 11 reviews so far, and we’re averaging 9 out of 10 across 14 reviews – it’s incredible. We’ve had some amazing full-marks coverage from the likes of Pixelated Sausage, Fusion-Gamer, Daily Joypad and Pocketful of Megabytes. Even those who like it slightly less (Pocketgamer, Midlife Gamer, 148Apps et al) still agreed on the strengths of the game –personality, humour, variety of modes and the success of the game’s design to be perfect for pick-up-and-play, mobile gaming.

Quotes like “Hard Lines is one of the best iPhone games I’ve played in quite some time.

Or perhaps “Humor, simplicity, difficulty, originality & a damn good soundtrack all blend together to create the perfect app package.

And then there’s “It’s rare to see such personality in this kind of title, and it’s wonderful.

This wonderful feedback all serves to inflate our egos (and maybe influence some of you wonderful readers to go and buy it!), but on a serious note these reviews let us know that the parts we were confident about – the parts we concentrated on – really paid off. There’s of course plenty to learn from the negatives too, and almost every single less-than-positive comment (reviews, forums and in the appstore) mentioned three simple things:

  • Addition of Game Centre support (our next game will launch with it)
  • lack of multiplayer
  • some balancing issues across the modes’ difficulties.

The great news is that these are all really simple for us to hone in on and fix or add, so we know that within a few title updates we’ll have the ‘perfect’ version of our game, and will be ready to expand upon it in new and interesting ways. We’re in this for the long haul, and the level and volume of feedback we’ve had is exactly what we need when considering what to add or fix next, and in which order to prioritise those changes. After all, now the game is out it is no longer ours, but our audience’s.

Making an indie developer website

So before we move onto sales figures, I’ll talk a touch about my website. It had been a flash-based monstrosity for too long, and with all the hard work of running a company it got left behind.

Spilt Milk's new website

Not only had a redesign been in discussion for a long time (I knocked it together one evening when I just started my company, and it hadn’t changed since), the web designer and I had settled on a new look, branding and layout. Suffice to say it wasn’t really ready for the launch of the game, but rather than leave the crappy old thing gasping along, I decided to put up a placeholder – based on the upcoming rebranding, with prominence given to my two game releases with embedded trailers, review quotes, and of course AppStore links.

I’ve not been keeping an eye on metrics – that’s the next step – but for now it does a better job of selling my games than the old thing did. Also, I did it all for free, using a trial of Dreamweaver that helps me update it very easily indeed. It took me about an hour and a half to get it from idea to live, and I’m pretty happy with that.

Using a newsletter to drive sales

A second part of my new-found focus on the website is adding a newsletter feature. Allowing fans to sign up, and thereby having a captive audience to send updates – people who you’d hope are more likely than the average Joe to download your next game. This was brought home when I read about the developers behind The Heist on iPhone having a mailing list of 500,000 readers, and selling 500,000 copies in the first week. I wonder how they managed to get their game into the top ten so quickly? I don’t actually, I’m being sarcastic. Obviously it wasn’t just the mailing list, but I am confident it will have been the single biggest factor in getting word to spread.

So do keep an eye out for the full website re-launch soon, and be sure to sign up to my newsletter when it appears! Nudge nudge, wink wink.

How many sales can an indie iPhone game make?

So then, the juicy bit. Sales. Overall? Pretty disappointing. In fact it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say I’ve never felt so torn about a game I’ve worked on. I think it’s ace, and apparently so do the press. We’re riding a critical wave, and surely this would translate into some half decent sales? Well according to App Annie and App Figures, not so much.

Stats for Hard Lines

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting a blockbuster straight out of the gates. I don’t have half a million people signed up to my newsletter, it’s only my second game for the iPhone market, and my first attempt at PR. I’m an unknown studio without a real pedigree or fan-base. I know that people talking and recommending to friends is a powerful tool in the iPhone market – of course top chart position is the key (or getting Apple to feature you) for sustained sales, but surely there is a snowball effect that at least begins with good specialist PR and high review scores, which feeds opinion-forming early adopters, who then tell their friends, who then… you know the drill. The thing is that all takes time. More than a week, for sure.

Aside from that, there are obviously issues with the launch that could have been avoided. The file size is over 20mb, meaning people cannot get it over 3G, while the version we uploaded requires the latest OS from Apple, and a surprisingly large amount of people are reluctant to upgrade. All lessons learned, and they’ll all be fixed in future updates. I’ve hinted at it before but we have BIG plans for the future of Hard Lines. We’re not just releasing it to fix bugs and move on.

User Reviews for Hard Lines

How long does PR for an indie game take to work?

So aside from the technical hiccups, the whole PR process obviously takes more than seven days to see its effect. That’s part of the reason behind the decision made at the end of this diary entry. But in the meantime, I decided to keep the PR up. I found and added 50 more review sites to my list, and also managed to wrangle getting hold of an acquaintance’s list of national paper and magazine contacts. I count this as a huge win and hope to see some progress – the amazing reviews we’ve been having should count towards something, so as I extend our PR efforts further away from specialist sites and into more general areas I expect sales to steadily increase, using the high rating and critic’s responses as leverage – “Want to cover the next big iPhone game? Sure you do!”.

So as I said, mixed feelings. On the one hand, amazing reviews, beyond anything I could have hoped for. On the other, my previous game (a free puzzler with zero PR at time of launch) ‘sold’ better over its launch period, so there’s a small part of me that wonders if all this PR effort really has been worth it. Of course it has, it just takes time. All this really suggests to me is that the idea of ‘doing all your PR at launch’ may not be a cure-all, as some people seem to suggest. I’m sure a well-timed ton of coverage at launch would help, but it can’t be the only way to success. Angry Birds is testament to that.

Next time will be the start of the fortnightly update. As I said one week is not long enough to really judge stats, or learn much from sales changes. I’m obviously hoping things get better, and I’m very keen to avoid knee jerk reacting to anything from day to day. Not only will it provide more useful and interesting info for you guys to pore over, hopefully it will help me not to obsess day to day over the sales!

Hey, we got FEATURED!

UPDATE: At the last minute (i.e.: overnight) Apple featured Hard Lines in their New & Noteworthy section on the AppStore. Words fail me, but right now Hard Lines is #78 in Paid Games, and #139 in Paid Apps. That’s quite the boost! This is VERY exciting. The only reason this is included is because I was going to re-read the diary before sending in for posting!

Featured screengrab

Release Fun facts:

  • Sales so far (7 days) – 470
  • Reviews so far – 14
  • Average critic rating – 9/10
  • Lowest critic score – 8/10
  • Lowest user score – 3/5
  • Favourite user review – “I love this game more than I love my mum and dad!” (5 stars, obviously)

About Andrew Smith

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  • Luke Kellett

    Nice work! And great to hear that Apple featured you, a sure fire way to boost the downloads and exposure of your game.

  • STewArthogarth

    Are we going to see an update of what impact being featured had on sales?

  • Orangepascal – totally agree. We’re looking at Android and maybe even WP7 for the game, while judging and balancing longterm updates is key to continuted success.You’re best bet is to look at the whole thing likea dynasty, with each successive game helping the other sell too.

    Martin – it’s a pleasure knowing that other people are gneuinely getting something useful out of this!

  • Martin

    Andrew,  I really respect how honest you’ve been here.  I’m a big fan of numbers doing the talking (or pretty pictures doing the talking if its about the product).  Hopefully this will drive home just how difficult and high risk launching any new IP is. 

  • Great write up, and nice to read it from another dev 😉  I launched Meganoid in the same week as your game, and basically took the same road as you did:  A lot of PR mailing to various sites, and checking the daily sales probably too often!  

    A day-one hit is extremely unlikely, and although this is the first iOS release of Meganoid, I have been working on this game since early March for the Android version (now over 250.000 downloads in that market).  It takes time to get a game noticed and played.

    and [email protected]:disqus : only a few hundred bucks in a first week launch is pretty good for a game that basically has no end-of-sales date.  The game will continue selling, and launching a new game gives you the possibility of highlighting your other games (menu buttons to link to your itunes store, etc) extending life of every game you place on the market..  It won’t make you rich as those one-hit-wonder stories, but it will make a living.

    I keep my game updated and fresh, new levels, bug fixes, improvements based on user feedback, and it all helps to keep the game in the attention of gamers (also having it on both iOS and Android helps).

    In my opinion the gamers are eventually much more important then reviewing sites. A review-site rarely looks at updates and rewrites about your game, but gamers will see how a developer keeps improving based on feedback, and will share that info with their friends.

  • Got to say Nicholas is spot on here – you simply can’t afford to take a short term view of the AppStore and mobile marketplaces. Releasing a game and then moving on to the next one is a surefire way to lose out on a lot of sales (same with digitally distributed PC games). We’ve got some pretty cool plans ahead, and in the meantime I’m able to get by on other game work/consultation etc.

    Also: we got featured a week after our release. If we hadn’t kept up the work and put together a plan for the future, say by moving onto our next game, we wouldn’t be in a position to make the mos tof the opportunity. As it is, we’ve submitted a patch to allow the game to run on iOS v3.1.3, which should see a bump.

    Anyway, more in the next Diary 😀

  • I’m not entirely sure I agree. Becoming a successful indie dev requires a lot of trial and error, of shots on goal, of experimentation.

    A few hundred bucks is disappointing, but being mega-successful on the first attempt is unlikely (After all, Angry Birds was Rovio’s 52nd game, and even that didn’t do very much in the first six months.)

    Andrew seems to be taking the long term view of this. I really hope it works out for him. But the learning process will be hugely valuable even if it doesn’t.

  • Tripitaka

    Wow, a few hundred bucks is pretty much not worth all the effort. I’d be really curious to see how that changes now that the app was featured.