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Spilt Milk Studios Development Diary 10: Marketing Marathon

By on August 5, 2011

Andrew Smith of Spilt Milk Studios has been giving GAMESbrief the inside scoop on his experiences as an iOS indie games developer. Here he shares the ups and downs of marketing and promotion for the past few busy weeks.

It’s been slightly longer than usual since the last article, but blame Develop in Brighton – bear with me though as we’ve had an interesting and revealing few weeks. First, a summary for those catching up/with poor memories.

Hard Lines – the story so far

Hard Lines came out on the 9th June 2011. Apple featured us in the New & Noteworthy section for a few weeks, and we’ve since dropped off that list, as well as the What’s Hot section we were in for a week or so afterwards. We’ve had a great amount of really positive reviews from press and players alike, but we have messed up on a few occasions. Our app icon was a bit lacklustre, we released a crash-prone build on the eve of our biggest coverage yet and finally the game was over 20mb for too long, losing out on 3G-using potential buyers.

How important are reviews to the sales of smartphone games?

So our media coverage, in terms of being a hot new game at least, is pretty much over. There are a few sites that want to review the iPad build we’ve just updated to which is nice, but the last piece of wide-exposure coverage we got was in the Observer on Sunday review we’d been waiting for. Really positive, very praiseworthy, big audience of people who most probably don’t read games websites or follow me on twitter. No sales spike to speak of – 20 extra copies sold.

So that got me thinking. I’ve got a chart below showing an overview of the big reviews we had (Kotaku, Touch Arcade, Pocketgamer, AppSpy and more) versus the sales spikes we achieved on the following days. Frankly, it makes pretty disappointing reading – there seems to be very little boost from reviews on even the biggest sites out there. This doesn’t really surprise when I think about it, but the gut feeling is ‘what the hell?!’. Essentially it makes the point very clear that the vast majority of the iPhone market don’t pay much heed to critical reviews. Most are followed by a spike of many 20 sales, and some are even followed by dips.

How do gamers find out about smartphone games?

They must find out about their games in other ways – twitter, Facebook, whatever it is it must be driven by their friends and recommendations, as well as of course good placement on the various charts within iTunes. Nothing new, just a bit disappointing I suppose – but that’s not to say these reviews are without worth. The hardcore (the opinion-formers) will certainly find out about your game through these positive reviews, and they’re the people responsible for the first snowflake of attention that you need if you’re going to build an avalanche of success.

So I’ve been working to get the company and the game noticed in other ways too. I’ve been quoted a few times in articles in the specialist press over recent weeks, leading to one particular chum on twitter asking if I’m on commission. I wish! Pocketgamer has been particularly good to me – they spotted a tweet I made about our recently release-update going into submission at Apple and posted a piece about it (slow news day? Maybe, but I’m not complaining!) but more recently I’ve had a couple of articles posted.

The first was a response from me about Michael Pachter’s opinions about crunch and overtime culture in games development. Read it here, but suffice to say I called his comments poisonous. Some people have commented that may be a bit ballsy for a small developer like mine, but I didn’t do it to get hits. I got in touch with Pocketgamer knowing that if they posted it, then hits would be generated, but I wrote it because I had something to say. Too many developers assume their opinions are of no interest whatsoever, but I still remember the days when I tirelessly combed the internet for any insights at all into how developers thought and worked. In the end, the article got the most hits for that week on PG.Biz. I’m quite proud of myself!

I also put my hand up when a spot appeared for a guest opinion piece – and decided to write about my experiences going to games development conferences. I’ve not been to a ton, but again with the idea that my insights are of interest to someone out there, I wrote about how to get the best out of a conference trip.

Of course I went to Develop this year as part of a panel (which you can watch on YouTube or embedded below) and that snagged me a free pass to the conference. There were some really good talks, and some I felt I didn’t need to attend – and so didn’t. I spent that time ‘socialising’ (better known as networking) with fellow devs, a lot of whom I only knew from twitter. It was a great opportunity to reinforce relationships with a great many interesting and intelligent people. Hello if you’re reading this! Ultimately it was of little direct use for Hard Lines, though again as Spilt Milk Studios’ flagship game anything that increases the exposure of one helps the other.

The impact of going free on an ios game

So onto the big news. I turned 29 on the 27th of July! Well, that’s not the big news, but it is the inspiration. I decided, on a whim, to make Hard Lines free for that day only. Using twitter, and sending out a hasty press release at lunchtime, we had to wait till the next day to find out what sort of success we had. Not only did it get reported on a few websites, the numbers we got stunned us.

We saw a truly massive spike in downloads, from 20 the day before, to just over 12,000 the day of the promotion. To put that in some perspective that’s a rise of over 16,000%, and better than the entire lifetime sales of the game previous to that day. Bear in mind we had a lot of Apple coverage too early in the game’s life, and the impact this free day had truly comes into focus. We doubled our player base in one day. So what do the next days look like? Take a look below.

Essentially, it was an anomaly. As soon as the game went back to paid, we saw a drop back down to sub-100 sales per day within 48hrs of the change. It’s a tiny bit disappointing to see it revert so quickly, but hey it was just a whimsical experiment. What is interesting is that the daily sales, though dropped back down to ‘a trickle’ are now sitting at roughly double those as the period before the offer. Double the audience, double the daily trickle. I don’t think that is a coincidence. It has certainly made us think about our In-App-Purchase and expansion plans in much more detail, suffice to say we’re really excited to see the response to our next update.

Hard Lines is updated – and has an in-app upgrade

Which, speak of the devil, is already out! We’ve added almost everything the community asked for – Game Center support with achievements & leaderboards, OpenFeint achievements to keep parity, various bug fixes and tweaks, and we’ve also taken the chance to introduce a much more polished app icon, and take the game’s binary below 20mb. This is pretty key I think – or at least more so than most developers think. I’ve lost count of the amount of supposedly tech-savvy people I know who don’t realise (or even care) when their iPhone is using Wi-Fi versus 3G. If we run with the idea that most sales are through word of mouth, then some mates sitting in the pub telling each other about this cool new game are a pretty powerful opportunity. And one that is instantly lost as soon as they can’t download it because they’re not on Wi-Fi.

Another opportunity we’ve taken is to make Hard Lines a universal app. This means it now runs properly and full screen on the iPad, and we’ve taken the opportunity to test some IAP. Instead of the norm – where companies make a separate ‘HD’ app for the iPad, we’ve turned ours ‘HD EXTREME’ mode into an IAP item, meaning people don’t have to duck out of the game, and hopefully it gets more visibility with the iPad owners. When you upgrade you get 4x bigger arenas and tweaked modes with their own leaderboards. It’s almost a new game, frankly, and the response has been good so far. The results so far, after a day on sale, can be seen below.

So it’s been a really exciting and exhausting few weeks. We’re right on the cusp of getting some great new content in the game (more detail in the next article, no doubt) as we respond in force to the power of the Free App. We’ve always taken a long-term view on this game (and any in the modern digital markets) so come back next time for even more insight, figures and honest opinion.

Fun facts:
Downloads – ~22,000
Top Country by Sales – USA
Main source of Quips – our garbled recollection of movies & pop culture
Donuts eaten during development – Less than 5

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About Andrew Smith