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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