For game developers, all’s fair in love and apps

Meghann Myers
26 March, 2010
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Apps are a new frontier of game development where pioneers carve out a unique existence in a vast and largely uncharted landscape. For traditional developers who made their names in the console business, large budgets and well-staffed development teams provide an extraordinary leg-up, but the history of the App Store proves that these advantages aren’t enough.

The relatively young and still democratic app market creates an opportunity for independent companies to not only compete with, but to out-sell their peers. When EA released The Simpsons Arcade in January, it had a seemingly perfect combination of expensive development, good reviews, and a massive built-in fan base. Still, the game has failed to chart following its initial release in the App Store. On the other hand, Unblock Me – the only app so far from Kiragames, an independent company in Thailand – has been in the top 100 for months since it’s September 2009 release.

For the most part, the tools are already there, if they can figure out how to tap into them. Once an app is released, the work is far from over. An entirely new phase of app development opens up, where it becomes necessary to create a community around a game using frequent updates, social networking, and creative promotion.

“The ability to experiment and quickly adjust to the changes in the App Store marketplace is what gives the indies an advantage over some of the bigger companies,” said Igor Pusenjak, president and founder of Lima Sky, two weeks ago at the Game Developers Conference’s iPhone summit.

Even if you’ve never heard the names Pusenjak or Lima Sky, you’ve almost certainly heard of Doodle Jump, the company’s flagship game and all-around App Store dominator. As of this minute, Doodle Jump currently holds the number two spot on the top 100 paid apps in the Australian iTunes store. Lima Sky released a statement on March 10 touting the sale of 3 million unique copies of Doodle Jump, making it one of the most successful iPhone apps of all time. Since going from an unknown indie developer to a power player overnight, when Pusenjak speaks, people now listen.

The story of Doodle Jump

During his GDC lecture, Pusenjak presided over a packed lecture hall of developers, sharing his knowledge and expertise in the art of keeping an app at the top of the charts. When you’re operating outside of a giant corporate machine and without the help of an already well-known brand name, you need all the help you can get.

“When we first released Doodle Jump, we thought we’d put it out there and it was just so good that it would sell itself,” said Pusenjak. But the release date totals came in at only 21 copies downloaded. A feature in the iTunes store’s new releases chart helped the game move to number six on the Top Paid Apps chart, but that peak didn’t last long. “Through persistence and some creative promotion, we were able to reverse the fall and bring Doodle Jump back into the top 25, where it has stayed since July 2009.”

This is a common story among indie app developers. A spot on the “New and Noteworthy” list in the iTunes store creates a sort of honeymoon phase for new apps, but once they’ve been bumped off of the list, sales fall significantly. Reviews from major blogs and publications help keep things alive for a bit, but nothing assures sales like your game’s icon front and center on the App Store homepage, and the only way to do that is make the top 10 on the paid or free charts. At this point it’s necessary to begin phase two of app marketing.

The Magic of Updates

Frequent updates are perhaps the most important ingredient in maintaining a successful game. Rather than releasing an app and then praying for longevity, many developers believe that it’s a much better strategy to slowly roll out new features with purposeful progression. Still, an update is not just about what it adds to an app – packaging is also a major factor. Once upon a time, an update would immediately shoot an app to prominence on the new releases chart, but recently Apple stopped including updates on the list.

“Now that Apple no longer supports heightened visibility after updates, we did not really see an increase in sales when we updated Guess the News,” said audience member Isabella Saller, head of marketing for Finger Arts, an independent iPhone game developer in Silicon Valley. “So far, frequent updates have not translated into more sales for us.”

Because of this, developers are realizing that it’s not enough to keep the game fresh for users; it’s also necessary to communicate directly with customers, to let them know the game still exists and it’s still exciting.

Pusenjak stresses the importance of using the description box to the fullest when posting a new update. Instead of just detailing what’s in the update, he explained, a developer should also take some time to address gamers directly, by thanking them for their support and urging them to send emails with their comments and suggestions. At the same time, an update is also a great chance to plug other games.

Building a Community

After frequent updates, the internet is a developer’s greatest tool. A web site with an up-to-date blog and feedback forums can do a lot to turn a game into a community. Social networks are also key, because they allow gamers to form a relationship with developers.

There are different opinions as to whether a developer should maintain one site for the whole company or create separate sites for each app, but the choice has a lot to do with the popularity of individual apps. For instance, a game like Bejeweled is so well known that it deserves its own space. However, a company with only one or two apps may opt to keep everything together.

“We originally created two Facebook pages: one for Finger Arts and one for Guess the News. It was very difficult to maintain two accounts,” said Saller. “An account just for Doodle Jump worked, yet we don’t think that to be true as a general rule.”

If users are following a game on Twitter or Facebook, developers can keep in near-constant touch with their fans, almost seamlessly integrating themselves into their users’ lives. Consumer product companies have long striven to become lifestyle brands incorporating multiple aspects of their customers’ lives. Now thanks to social media, even an iPhone app that you use for maybe 10 minutes a day can play that role.

“After Igor’s presentation, we looked at his Twitter account,” added Saller. “His posts are very engaging and mention other developers as well. This was a good lesson to be learned: keep tweets meaningful.”

Cross-Promotion

Cross-promotion is another useful strategy, particularly for independent companies with little left over money for advertising. “The first cross-promotion we did was with Bolt Creative, best known for their smash hit Pocket God,” said Pusenjak. Both developers use some of that precious description space for mutual plugs, increasing users’ exposure to both games.

Julian Farrior, CEO of Backflip Studios told an audience at GDC that his games “got major bumps thanks to Apple promoting our game and cross ads from other games.” Backflip is responsible for such successful games as Paper Toss and Ragdoll Blaster, with a combined 22 million downloads across nine different apps. Ragdoll Blaster’s versions plug Paper Toss and vice versa—if you download any of Backflip’s apps, you’ll hear about the others.

And of course, sometimes a game just promotes itself. CBS primetime sitcom The Big Bang Theory wrote Doodle Jump into one of its episodes, and The Office’s Rainn Wilson has tweeted about playing the game. This kind of free advertising is mostly good fortune, but there are ways to capitalize on that fame.

When the Jonas Brothers name-dropped Doodle Jump as one of their obsessions in an issue of Tiger Beat magazine, Lima Sky opted to buy an ad in an upcoming issue. The Jonas Brothers-themed ad reminded readers that if they wanted to have that much more in common with their idols, they should download the app. It’s important to know your audience and take advantage of new and creative ways to reach them.

Price Matters

Price is also an issue in the success of an app. Most iPhone users are just not prepared to shell out for an app, no matter how good it is. “App Store consumers are price sensitive, and indie developers, made up of small teams with practically no overhead, are better positioned to thrive in this space,” explained Pusenjak.

A quick perusal of the App Store’s Top Paid Apps chart shows that seven of the top 10 apps all cost $1.19. Most of the more expensive apps belong to storied game franchises with a built-in fan base, like Street Fighter, Tetris, and Monopoly, or are companion apps to television shows, sports events, and other pop culture phenomena. One good way to circumvent hesitation on the part of gamers is to offer a ‘lite’ version as an initial teaser, then ramp things up with a tricked-out paid version and maybe a few in-app purchasing options.

Despite the proven success of $1 apps, at a GDC postmortem for the game Canabalt, co-founder of Semi Secret Software Eric Johnson expressed doubts about whether cheap apps can translate to a decent bottom line. He found that although, in general, apps must cost $1 to reach the top 10, they have to cost more in order to sustain a company. It may be a case of short-term versus long-term success, but others see the future leaning toward even less expensive apps.

“The power of free is catching on, “said Backflip’s Farrior, though he added that in his experience, “reducing price did nothing to increase sales” of his five paid apps, two of which cost more than $1. If the game is one of quality, players are willing to shell out a bit more for it. Or, if the game is already priced higher, Farrior believes, reducing its price won’t increase sales as much as some developers would hope. Farrior’s business strategies resulted in five games hitting the top 5 in the App Store, with $2.5 million in net revenue from downloads and ad sales. In the future, Backflip plans to increase revenue by expanding in-app purchases, as well as releasing advertising-supported free games with an option to pay $1 for ad removal.

ngmoco, Inc., a prolific app developer, has taken this idea and built a business strategy around it. Though many of their apps are free initially, they are also loaded with in-app purchases and paid companion apps. That is to say, you can spend $1 or $2 to separately download from the App Store 12 powercells to use with Eliminate, or 20 food points to enhance Touch Pets.

For its part, Backflip Studios is looking into new strategies by releasing five to 10 apps a quarter and even exploring turn-based gaming, a relatively rare feature in current iPhone games. Anything to get a foot in the door before “the big houses jump in,” said Farrior.

Final Thoughts

After releasing a well-developed app with an appropriate price tag, it is paramount to maintain a relationship with customers that will occupy a significant portion of their lives, guaranteeing that they will not only use it, but they’ll recommend it to their friends and even broadcast it to the entire Internet. Every update comes with a new description box, Web sites are getting cheaper every day, and social networking is still completely free. Finding the right combination of these three tools can be the difference between domination and obscurity for an app.

There is no magic bullet for a successful app. Still, it’s been nearly three years since the iPhone hit the market, and slowly but surely a tried and true business plan is emerging, with independent developers leading the charge. In other words, explore this new frontier now, while the gettin’s still good.

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