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How did Ski Champion do? Download numbers

By on June 12, 2012

This guest post from Nicolas Godement of mobile games developer Majaka was originally published on his own website, and is cross-posted with kind permission.

Welcome ! Nicolas here. This is the first in a series of 2 blog posts where we analyze how Ski Champion performed on the Apple App Store. In this post, we take look atdownload numbers. The next post will focus on monetization.

Gaël and myself started Majaka in January this year. One of the key learnings we wanted to take away from making Ski Champion was how many downloads could a small, independent developer expect with a free game that does * just okay * without being a hit.

Downloads were very frontloaded, aside from a recent peak

Ski Champion shredded its way into the Apple App Store on March 25th. Two months in, and the game has now been downloaded 221,724 times (and counting).

We will now explain why the team at Majaka considers this figure a success, how we optimized Ski Champion’s presence on the App Store, and what lessons we learnt for future titles.

=> Sit back, grab a cup of mulled wine, and enjoy the ride !

First some data

We know our beloved games industry peers are always thirsty for juicy, accurate development stats-and they should. So here is what went into the making of Ski Champion:

  • Budget : ~ €22 000
  • Development time : 2 months
  • 4 team members working in an office room:
    • Gaël, game designer, co-founder
    • Thibault, graphic artist, intern
    • Benoist, programmer, freelance
    • Myself Nicolas, co-founder & President, really just there to water the plants
  • 2 freelancers for additional art (incl. our notoriously over-the-top fall animation)

200K+ downloads. What’s the verdict?

It’s not a *stellar* number, mind you. The most popular iOS games regularly hit several millions downloads. But not every free game on the App Store gets 200K downloads either. Funpark Friends had 68,000 installs in 5 weeks. Others go absolutely unnoticed despite being free.

Ski Champion ranked top 25 free apps in France, Italy and Slovakia, and  Top 10 free racing and sport games in 25 countries.

All in all, the figures certainly exceeded our expectations so we consider it a reasonable success.

Was it purely random?

It’s no secret that offering a free App will boost downloads tremendously in itself. However, as stated above, some free apps do get unnoticed so we like to think we must have been doing something right (remember, we are French and therefore cocky). Looking back, we attribute our download numbers to a combination of several factors that we will attempt to list below:

App Store optimized

App discovery is a key challenge for developers on the App Store. Many (most?) users aren’t looking for anything in particular, and blissfully browse the charts & lists for apps to download. Here is how we increased the likelyhood that someone stumbling upon Ski Champion within a list of other apps would actually go ahead and download it :

  • Go free. We believe this is the absolute key driver of organic downloads
  • Fit the build size under the 20mb limit imposed by Apple for 3G/Edge downloads.

A development anecdote

  • The title: Simple but efficient. “Ski Champion” leaves no doubt as to what the game is about, and delivers a strong promise. We considered over 50 different titles, but in retrospect it was by far the better one.
  • The app icon: our graphic artist Thibault spent an entire week on our icon. We read online advice. We started over 3 times from scratch until we were confident ours would stand out proudly

We looked at our icon among some of the best, most eye-catching ones

  • “Rate us!” : During the release week, our friends & relatives gave Ski Champion about 70 5-stars reviews on the French App Store, and in other stores as well. This definitely had forceful impact on boosting our ranks, which in turned snowballed and raised our number of daily installs (thanks again, pals!). We also rewarded players with free in-game currency for rating our app

Some players thought they * had * to rate Ski Champion with 5 stars to get the 20 free Ski Pass. Hopefully they liked the game too !!

  • Game description : we took great pain to write an engaging app description. Once again, we benchmarked the top apps in and out of our category to see how the big boys did it. We then kindly ask for a critique of our copy on theWarrior Forums, got great feedback, and iterated several times until we were happy with the final copy. We then translated it into French and Italian (grazie, Lorenzo!). Italy and France accounted for 35% and 30% of our downloads, respectively.
  • Screenshots : Instead of just uploading rough in-game screengrabs (graphic quality was never a priority anyway), we made compositions with impactful messages and nice frames.

  • Implementing Game Center had the nice, unintended effect of featuring Ski Champion in the various lists of Game Center-supporting apps on the iTunes storefront.

So, to summarize on Ski Champion’s App Store presence, we now understand that players make their download decisions based on a very small set of information. They take less than a second figuring out whether they even want to check out an app’s description and screenshots. Only after this 2 steps process do they decide to download the app.

Most players do not even go past this step. Make sure they do!

Pre-release teasing

Majaka is a new and self-funded company. While investing into marketing is something we would like to do more, and sooner rather than later, we decided to see how far free marketing techniques could take us for Ski Champion, our first title. Here are the actions we carried out:

  • Facebook page : we initially set up a facebook page for Majaka in lieu of a website (well, also because we had no idea how to make one). It proved a very effective channel to feed our entourage with small nuggets of information on our progress

We posted mostly status updates and pictures, and shared those on our own personal walls to encourage our friends to “like” the Majaka page.

  • Newsletter : we teased Ski Champion prior to its release through our newsletter, “The Purple Diaries”Our mailing list was assembled from 1300 personal or games industry contacts collected over the years.
  • The Trailer was overall well received by our peers. We posted it on most major video sharing websites : Facebook, Youtube, DailyMotion, Vimeo, Youku, Tudou, GamesTrailers, etc. We created a Youtube channel for Majaka to post more videos later on.

  • Press: PR are hard, unfair… and ironic : game journos claim they hate PR agencies and love indie devs, yet most stories are about fully-fledged AAA titles featuring bondage nuns and bazookas. So is it even worth the hassle? While direct impact of PR is hard to measure at best, at least our 3 press releases and a few reviews we got helped us “make news” that we could in turn feed to our facebook followers and email subscribers. To them, Majaka and Ski Champion were a thing now.
    • GamasutraEx-Arkane, Virtuos devs found new mobile studio 
    • PocketGamer : 6/10. There’s a chilly kick to the gameplay that turns Ski Champion from a wonky oddity into an entertaining imitation of something that looks a bit like skiing. (cough cough!)
    • RetroSports Gamer : The view and controls are unique and the built-in replay value with medals, unlockables and leaderboards are staples of iOS games I enjoy

At the end of the day, other than within our own network of friends and acquaintances, there’s no way our marketing efforts reached 200K people. However, by building up the tiniest hype among our entourage, we made sure many of them actually downloaded Ski Champion and, more crucially, gave it a 5-stars review. This in turn helped convert many iPhone players.

Find a niche

One of the main reasons why we made Ski Champion was because we simply could not find a proper downhill ski racing game on the AppStore. It sounded like anunderserved niche market, that also tied in rather well with the Winter skiing season in Europe (although the sun already shone quite nicely over most of Europe by late March, when the game got released).

While skiing may not have such a broad appeal as the most sucessful casual apps out there, Ski Champion definitely enjoyed particular success in countries where the discipline is the most popular : France, Italy, USA, Sweden, Japan or Switzerland.

A price-point experiment

Finally, we recently got an extra, unexpected 50K downloads by doing the following :

  • A month and a half after launch, downloads had gradually decreased to an average 200-400 daily installs
  • We turned Ski Champion into a paid app (€0.79, then €2.39) and got less than 10 installs per day
  • Upon turning Ski Champion free again, we registered over 50,000 downloads in one week. Booyah !

This is clearly a downward curve and we expect download volumes to rapidly decline to their former levels. Nevertheless, an extra 50K players is nothing to sneeze at !

Now, the practice of temporarily turning a paid app into a free app to give downloads a short-lived boost is fairly well known. There are news aggregators all over the web keeping track of paid apps turning free, and feeding those deals to their readers. What we learnt is that it seems to work both ways. It will be interesting to see how the trick turns out a second time around (hint: we suspect it  *will* work, just not as well)

Could we have gotten even more downloads?

Why, of course. There are many means available to drive installs of iOS apps. However, given the time and ressources available to us, we intentionnally kept away from most avenues, such as:

  • Work with a third-party publisher (Chillingo, Glu Mobile, etc) : these deals typically take months to complete and self-publishing the game meant we had direct access to users (well, in theory. We’ll get back to this in a minute)
  • Advertise the game through banners or incentivized downloads & user reviews: we had no budget for that.
  • Get featured by Apple : this is the holy Grail. There is no surefire way to ensure Apple will feature an app, but having connections at Apple and budget to create an über-polished app are certainly the way to go. We had neither.
  • Take advantage of an exisiting social graph such as Facebook Connect. Our main focus was to get the app out as soon as we could, and before the end of the ski season. We elected to focus on the core features and strip off most extras.
  • Make a better gamedoh ! Well, what can I say ? We did our best with what we had. We stand by our baby, even though there are of course legions of better games out there.

Lessons learnt

For our next games, we will definitely pay attention to what seems to have worked with Ski Champion: start marketing early, optimize App Store presence, support Game Center, etc. We incentivized players to subscribe to our newsletter, with decent results : we now have a 4500 people fanbase compared to 1300 before launch. 4500 people that we can promote our next game to.

On the other hand, we are kicking ourselves in the lycra-clad leg for overlooking the following 2 things:

1. NotificationsMake the math: we collected the email addresses of less than 2% of our 200K+ players. We have no way of communicating directly with the vast majority of the rest. What a waste! We will have to find a better way next time, such as to implement server notifications allowing us to send short messages to players.

2. App Store Localization: It’s okay to edit exisiting App descriptions, but youcannot actually add a new language without an app update. We launched Ski Champion with only French and English descriptions, thinking we could always add other languages later  on through iTunes Connect. We were wrong. We managed to fit Italian before the 1.1 update and have German and Russian translations waiting for update 1.2 (thanks Ji & Denitza’s mom!)

In retrospect, there are many other things that could have strenghtened our position as a games publisher. In particular, we could have offered more reward opportunities to our players : share app with friends, become a Facebook fan, follow Majaka on Twitter, subscribe to Youtube channel. We elected those out to be faster to market, but would definitely like to try them in the future.

=> That’s it for today ! In our next post, we’ll look at how Ski Champion performed financially for Majaka, and why. Follow me on Twitter (@NicolasG_B) to be kept posted!

Meanwhille, anything else you would like to know ? Do you have more download data to share? Tell us in the comments section!

About Nicolas Godement