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Spilt Milk Diary 8: How to turn an iOS PR disaster into an opportunity

By on July 6, 2011
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Andrew J Smith of Spilt Milk Studios has been sharing his experiences as an indie iOS developer. By week 8 of the diary (and week 3 of release), what has he learned.

Just when I thought things would be simple, clear, or easy to understand, the last two weeks come along and completely dumbfound me.

Hard Lines came out on the 9th June. That first week was a rollercoaster, ending in Apple featuring us in the New & Noteworthy section. That’s right. SALES BOOST! It was great, and you can see by looking at the nice chart I’ve provided that sales jumped quite a bit. We’re talking a leap from ~100 per day to ~600 per day! Not half bad.

sales_last_week copy

Of course that increased for the weekend, and then settled back down for the week after, before we moved off the front ‘page’ of the New & Noteworthy, and settled onto the second page. I’ve no idea if there’s a third week to look forward to on the list, but that second week on sale (the first in New & Noteworthy) we were selling ~650 per day. Until of course ‘The Thursday’.

iOS reviews. Do they matter?

But before then, we should cover something interesting – getting reviews on Eurogamer (8/10), Slide to Play (4/4) and Touch Arcade (they don’t do scores) on the Tuesday and Wednesday saw zero spike in sales. Zero, from 3 of the bigger games sites around – and all of them very positive! Interesting… but maybe people save up their purchasing decisions for the weekends?

The dangers of a badly bugged iPhone game

So, that Thursday. Derived from Thor’s Day, the God of Thunder – and thunder was what struck. We released a build too fast, not properly checking it, and anyone who downloaded or updated the game were simply faced with my company logo and then a crash straight to their home screen. Devastated it had slipped through, we swiftly updated and were fortunate enough to get the fix through and released before the end of Friday. Still… what damage had been incurred?

Thursday night saw us riding high on another series of high-profile reviews and features from AppSpy (5/5), Edge (8/10), FHM.com (8/10) and being featured as the ‘Gaming App of the Day’ for Kotaku (which got nearly 8,000 views). So we saw a nice jump in sales that day, to ~835. The next day we’d dropped like a stone to ~350, and that’s where we stayed for the weekend.

sales_last_week copy

I can’t be sure what longer term effect the week of good reviews would’ve had because of the crash bug, and also because of dropping that same day to the second page of New & Noteworthy. There are simply too many large events that potentially have an effect on sales to properly gauge the damage the crash did, or how positive reviews from those big sites affect sales (if at all).

It’s probably fairly safe to say that we’d still be at the current sales level (~160 per day) on the second week of being featured anyway, but there is a part of me that will always wonder if the spike would’ve seen us rise into the top 20 and therefore get sustained a touch longer. Without a doubt that weekend should have been a high sales weekend, because we saw a spike to our best day of sales yet on the Thursday evening (~830 compared to the previous Sunday’s ~730). Ah well, we’ll be a lot more careful in the next update and for my next game.

What’s the long-term trend for Hard Lines sales

So what are we expecting next? If we drop off from New & Noteworthy then I’m pretty sure we’ll settle into a weekly groove of ~100 downloads a day, with boosts at the weekend as per usual. We’ve set a price of £1.79 for the weekdays, and then plan to do discounts every weekend, or every time we do an update. Any excuse for a sale (and a press release), really. The key for the weekly price-point is to balance ‘lost’ sales from a higher price-point with the money being made back by that self-same price. We’ll see after things settle what the best tactic is, but for now we’re of the opinion that there’s not much of a dip in sales between £1.19 and £1.79, so the higher price point makes more money for us. In the UK obviously the £0.99 mental barrier is broken, but not the £1.99 barrier. In the USA it’s different, as we’re sat at $2.99… potentially seeing a drop off compared to $0.99 as well as $1.99, if we follow the same logic. Again, time will tell if this is the right move for us.

So what are we up to now we’re potentially faced with losing our choice spot on New & Noteworthy? Turning a bad situation into something positive, of course! When we updated Hard Lines with the crash – even though we turned around a fix in record time and talked a lot with our fans to make the impact less of an inconvenience, not to mention adding 100 extra quips to spice up the game, and full Retina support too – I felt like we were missing an opportunity.

Turning a PR disaster into an opportunity

Luckily I’d been developing plans for the future of my company website, part of which was getting people more involved with my brand. One way to do this, I thought, was through papercraft. My company logo is already quite fun and relatable (being a character in and of itself) so it wasn’t a big jump to assume people would like to interact with him (or her) in some way. Papercraft is something almost anyone can get involved with; all you need is a printer, scissors and some glue so it made sense to plan for a time when I could offer this through my website.

The opportunity as I saw it was to make up for inconvenience we caused with the buggy update by sending out a free gift, and making it available to anyone who wanted it. For example, one email that really got to me was from a grandmother telling of how her grandson had really been looking forward to playing Hard Lines, and then when they’d finally downloaded it the crash meant they couldn’t play! So the unveiling of the papercraft logo was brought forward.

Then it hit me. This was the perfect opportunity to get some PR. From a failure, no less! So we’ve started a competition on the website and via Twitter and Facebook – if you print out the bad boy, make him, and then send us a picture of it in a funny, clever or cool image or location you’ll be in with a chance of winning a free code for Hard Lines. The competition, combined with the amazing high profile reviews – and remembering we’re also apologising for a bug with a free gift – felt like being newsworthy, so a press release was hastily written and sent out. But not before I had sent emails to all the people who’d been in touch regarding the crash bug in the first place – reputation is everything, and you’ve got to have your priorities straight.

Suffice to say that if this works and we get any coverage from the main gaming/tech websites, I’ll be the first to buy me a beer. Check back next time to find out!

Keeping up the PR pressure

So we’re hoping to keep the Hard Lines coverage incoming – the competition is one facet, but there’s a ton of websites that still haven’t posted reviews of Hard Lines, and plenty more to send press releases to when we do our inevitable-and-amazing content updates for the game. In the last week we’ve been featured on Indiegames.com, reviewed by Paranerds & Appsmile, and even recorded an interview for the 148Apps podcast for next week. Add to that the beginnings of some coverage in the national press (Daily Record’s website and games review, as well as an expected review in the The Observer on Sunday, out on the 3rd July) and it’s clear we’re not resting our laurels. This business is all about the long term and if you stop for a minute you’ll sink.

The past fortnight has been an interesting one to say the least. On a very personal note I was crushed (and humiliated) by the crash and it really did affect my outlook on the sales dip that we experienced on the weekend quite significantly. That said time and distance have made me realise we can’t tell (and never will be able to) quite what effect it had on our chances of rising up the charts, but as I keep saying regardless of what’s happened in the past we can only learn, try to turn it into an advantage, and move forwards. Releasing a game on almost any platform these days should be the beginning, not the end, of your efforts to get it selling and provide your customers with a ton of fun. Suffice to say that right now I’d be able to keep doing this based solely on the day’s income from Hard Lines.

Whether that’s still the case when we drop from being featured – who knows? Actually, we may next time. Speaking of which, come back in a fortnight to see what happens when you try to turn a faux pas into an attempt to get more sales. We’ll also update the sales study too, and cover what the future means for Hard Lines. Hint: Universal App, Game Centre, Achievements and more.

UPDATE: As of Friday 1st July, we’re still sitting in the New & Noteworthy / What’s Hot! That’s nice to know.

First 3 weeks of numbers:

  • Downloads – 7,388
  • Updates downloaded – 6,077
  • Refunds – 15 (?)
  • Promotional codes used – 90
  • Current Metacritic Score – 86
  • Hard Lines characters on Twitter – 1

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com