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Τρίτη, 19 Απριλίου 2016

Self Startups-Quit my full time corporate job. Built an iOS game. It became #1 in the App Store. Here are revenue numbers and what I learned.

TL;DR

Made a little over $700k selling a premium mobile game with no IAP or Ads as a one man shop. It is possible to create sustainable income from apps (albeit very difficult).

Background

I'm writing a book that goes into details about all this. 10% of proceeds goes to a charity that helps kids learn to code.
I build all my games using RubyMotion.
My friend said it would be good to post my story here.
I built an iOS app called A Dark Room that hit the #1 spot in the App Store. Here is the article The New Yorker wrote about it.
Other accolades that establish some sort of precedence to what I'm about to share:

YTD Revenue of all my Games

Here is a graph of revenue for all my iOS Games.
Here is a breakdown:

A Dark Room Year 1

These numbers are from last year's developer logs:
[ Month ] [ Paid Downloads ] [ Free Downloads ] [ Apple Check ]
Nov 2013 403
555
Dec 2013 698
943
Jan 2014 986
1,320
Feb 2014 2,288 8,612 1,760
Mar 2014 15,428 15,172 11,600
Apr 2014 305,000
214,000
May 2014 237,000
166,000
Jun 2014 101,000
70,700
Jul 2014 29,526 5,110 22,200
Aug 2014 38,304 1,021,660 28,800
Sep 2014 28,400
19,900
Oct 2014 14,900
10,100
[ Month ] [ Amount ]
Gross income (less Apple's share) 553,000
My half of ADR (I happily give Michael his share) 276,500
33% income tax 91,245
12% self employment tax 33,120
Net 152,135
A Dark Room went viral in UK and US. It was the #1 premium, "free to play app" in the US for 18 days straight (with no feature/marketing from Apple).

A Dark Room Year 2

[ Month ] [ Paid Downloads ] [ Free Downloads ] [ Apple Check ]
Nov 2014 5,040 134,959 3,790
Dec 2014 60,600
41,500
Jan 2015 30,700
21,420
Feb 2015 47,100
32,700
Mar 2015 12,200
8,220
Apr 2015 9,180
6,290
May 2015 9,460
6,940
Jun 2015 4,820 ($1.99)
6,630
Jul 2015 3,670 ($1.99)
4,430
Aug 2015 4,070 ($0.99)
2,080
Sep 2015 10,800
6,970
Oct 2015 4,800 62,000 3,300
[ Month ] [ Amount ]
Gross income (less Apple's share) 144,270
My half of ADR (I happily give Michael his share) 72,135
33% income tax 23,804
12% self employment tax 8,656
Net 39,675
I took up contract work because of the volatility of the App Store (which is why my income tax is still at 33%).
Interestingly (and again for reasons unknown), A Dark Room went viral in the UK Dec 2014. The experience and length of the virility was similar to last time, but didn't have the long running side effect of going viral in the US.
Originally, I figured that ADR being #1 in the UK somehow triggered its rise to the #1 spot in the US. Turns out that's not the case.

The Ensign Year 1

Around August of 2014, I released a prequel to A Dark Room called The Ensign. I loved traversing the dusty path, and wanted an extremely difficult, "Dark Souls like" experience. Mission accomplished, here are the numbers:
[ Month ] [ Paid Downloads ] [ Free Downloads ] [ Apple Check ]
Aug 2014 16,600
11,600
Sep 2014 9,800
6,880
Oct 2014 4,500
3,170
Nov 2014 3,650
2,610
Dec 2014 6,600
4,540
Jan 2015 4,990
3,470
Feb 2015 5,750
3,990
Mar 2015 3,310
2,290
Apr 2015 2,630
1,810
May 2015 2,620 41,000 1,820
Jun 2015 2,230 ($1.99)
3,080
Jul 2015 4,250 ($1.99)
4,410
Aug 2015 1,270 ($1.99)
1,885
Sep 2015 2,340 ($0.99) 9,700 1,580
Oct 2015 1,440 10,100 980
[ Month ] [ Amount ]
Gross income (less Apple's share) 54,115
33% income tax 17,857
12% self employment tax 6,493
Net 29,765
The prequel is doing alright. It did extremely well the first month (it was featured by Apple... unsolicited). I expect The Ensign sales to stay at ~25% of A Dark Room sales.

A Noble Circle Year 1 (so far)

[ Month ] [ Paid Downloads ] [ Free Downloads ] [ Apple Check ]
Apr 2015
3,670
May 2015
4,700
Jun 2015
2,500
Jul 2015 1,360 1,200 948
Aug 2015 675
469
Sep 2015 6,580 1,380 3,570
Oct 2015 844 209 582
[ Month ] [ Amount ]
Gross income (less Apple's share) 5,569
33% income tax 1,837
12% self employment tax 668
Net 3,064
A Noble Circle is a new game I'm working on. I took a different approach with this game, being that I released a barely playable version for free. I wanted to get something out there, and show my next idea. It has been received really well. After e months of free downloads, I made it a for pay app, and am still working on it. The reviews are still very supportive, and are happy with the purchase (even though it's an unfinished product).
There was a significant spike in September because Apple featured me under Best New Game Updates. It took a ton of work to build that relationship with Apple (and get this feature). Of course, the number dropped right afterwards.
It remains to be seen if A Noble Circle will be as successful as ADR or TE, but I think it's too early to tell at this point (especially since I have many many opportunities to get this app featured). With regards to getting assigned a direct Apple contact.

Getting featured by Apple Do's and Dont's

The Ugly

Publishers are not created equal. It's something I learned very quickly when trying to understand the App Store feature mechanics. If you are Warner Brothers, SquareEnix, Kim Kardashian, King, etc, you get a red carpet to getting featured. You can release whatever trash or shoddy port you want, and you'll get featured. So you have two options, accept this and play by the rules I'm about to lay out, or don't participate.

A List of Do's and Dont's

Here's the list of tips. You really need to do all these things. It's how you show Apple that they can take you seriously as a game developer.

Do: App Preview Video

Your game needs a preview video. Without a preview video, you significantly limit your chances of getting featured. There are plenty of examples of good preview videos out there, so make one for your game if you are serious about getting featured.

Do: Good App Description and Screenshots

Your game needs to have a compelling description and good screenshots. Look at other featured apps to see what constitutes a good app description and screenshots.

Do: Localized?

Is your app localized? It isn't? Good luck getting a feature (this is the primary thing that's keeping A Dark Room from being considered for anything other than the Best New Game Updates category).

Do: Email After Your App Is Approved

Make sure your game is already sitting in the "Ready For Release by Developer". You need to give Apple at least three weeks of lead time for feature consideration. Even if you have an incredible game, if you only give Apple a couple day's notice, you wont get featured.

Don't: Releasing During a Holiday Week

Don't submit feature requests during holiday weeks (unless your game is holiday themed in nature). There is so much competition against AAA game companies along with an influx of shovelware related to holiday X. You'll just be lost in the noise, so take those months to do polish releases, minor bug fixes, etc. Don't release during New Years, Valentines, Christmas, Thanksgivings, etc.

Don't: It's Your First App

Apple wants to showcase developers that have experience. If this is your first app/game, it's unlikely you'll get a feature (unless the app is exceptional).

Don't: Spinoffs/Clones

If you're going to pitch "Crossy Road, BUT BETTER!!", just don't bother. It's a great way to get immediately dismissed.

Do: Buy Featured Games (Know Your Competition)

If you don't buy featured apps, how can you objectively tell if your app can compete? You don't have to buy apps by AAA companies, just apps by other indie devs. Here's my list:
  • Monument Valley
  • Hoplite
  • Alto's Journey
  • You Must Build a Boat
  • A Dark Room
  • Device 6
  • The Room
  • Downwell
  • Her Story
  • ALONE...
  • Plague Inc.
  • Lifeline...
  • Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
  • Desert Golf
  • Deemo
  • Cytus
  • Tiny Wings
  • Leo's Fortune
  • Sometimes You Die
  • Blek
  • Dark Echo
  • Piloteer
  • Prune

Do: Use New Apple Features

Using these techs will help you get Apple's attention:
  • SceneKit
  • SpriteKit
  • 3D Touch
  • Replays
  • Apple Watch
  • Apple TV
  • Game Center

Do: Release Every Six Weeks

Apple wants to see apps that are updated frequently. If you don't get featured as a new game. Don't lose too much hope, you can always get featured as an update. Updates should be non-trivial. If you are doing just bug fixes/minor tweaks, you won't get featured for that. So make your updates enticing. Updating (and sending feature requests) too often overloads the Apple team. A six week release cycle seems to be a good sweet spot.

The Steps To Follow

Alright, what all of you have been waiting for. Here are my recommended steps to follow for getting featured.

1. Consider All the Do's and Dont's

You really need to take all the do's and dont's seriously. My contact at Apple has been very consistent with what the editorial team is looking for. And when I ask him "Hey, I did a major updates, why didn't I get featured?!" In my case it was "You need to localized. You need a preview video". So don't waste their time if you're not going to do the things in the list. Sending a Hail Mary to Apple without doing some due dilligence is a great way to be blacklisted.
As I said in "The Ugly" section. Not all publishers and games are created equal. As a nobody (myself included), you just have to accept that you have to go above and beyond other publishers. So, take the list of tips I've given seriously. I do get some slack from Apple, simply because all my games are highly rated, and I had a viral smash hit.

2. Pick A Target Feature List

Don't swing for Editor's Choice, Indie Game Spotlight, Best New Games, Best New Game Updates, etc. You'll swing and miss miserably. For your first attempt at a feature, pick a minor category. Here is an example.
If my game A Noble Circle was my first game, I'd target "Great Game Soundtracks" under the Music category, and "Pay Once and Play" under the RPG category. Every game subcategory has a minor feature section. Target those type of feature lists first.

3. Craft and Send The Pitch Email

Here is an example email that I'd send to Apple.
Subject:
A Noble Circle [MONTH] Release
Body:
Territories Available: World Wide
iOS Device Target: iPhone 5 and up, iPad
Product Title: A Noble Circle
Publisher Name: [Name]
Apple App Id: [App Id]
Desired Live Date:
[At least 3 weeks in the future on
a Thursday, your app should already
be approved by Apple and Waiting
Developer Release.]
Release Info:
- 8 new chapters including many hand drawn pencil
sketches to create an immersive narrative.
- 2 new custom composed musical scores with
original sound track.
- Brand new jump mechanic "wallkick" will be
introduced (this is a very very big deal).
- New developer commentary exploring awe and
empathy.
Languages Supported: EN [you should have more languages]
Price: $0.99
App Preview: [the answer to this better be yes]
Game Center: [the answer to this better be yes]
Game Controller Support: [yes/no]
Metal: [yes/no]
SpriteKit: [yes/no]
SceneKit: [yes/no]
WatchKit: [yes/no]
Apple TV: [yes/no]
Comments:
This is an artistic game. It's a simple vertical
platformer, but hides a satire about the world we
live in now and explores topics such as science,
materialism, and gender/social norms.

It's a single tap game. No complex controls.

A Noble Circle puts a heavy emphasis on
musicality and emotional connections.

No In-App purchases. No ads. Pay once and Play.

Indie Developer title. Just two people: Me and a
musical composer.

Inspirational and deep story line. Portraying
simple graphics, beautiful black and white hand
drawn sketches, and an emotional soundtrack.
You can use the comments section to showcase all the things you're doing right (such has having multiple games, updating often, etc). Here is where you send the email: appstorepromotion@apple.com.

4. Send a Follow Up Email

Send a short follow up email when it's nearing the release date.

5. Wait Until The Thursday You Were Supposed to Get Featured On

Reflect on why you didn't get featured. See which apps did get featured. Try to understand why. Try not to cry. Go in the corner and cry.

6. Plan Your Next Release (Which Should Be a Minimum Six Weeks Out)

You can submit other games to get featured, just not the game you just sent.

7. Rinse and Repeat

Follow this protocol. For me (even with a #1 app in the App Store). It took four months of emailing, before I got a response.

What To Do If You Get a Response/Get a Minor Feature

The response you'll probably get is something along the lines of "we got your email, thanks". If you get this response. Keep doing what you're doing. If you get a minor feature, you can then start pitching for front page features under "Best New Games", "Best New Game Updates", and "Game Collections". You have to make stronger cases of course, and your competition will be higher quality games, and bigger shops. But hey, it's progress.

What To Do If You Get Assigned an Apple Contact

After the first four months of email, I emailed for another two months before I got assigned an Apple contact. At this point, you have hit a point where very few people will ever get. Your contact will be your advocate. So you can ease up on the pitch emails. Be short and to the point with your contact emails. Your job (now) is not to pitch anymore, but provide your plans for future updates. They will handle your submissions to the editorial team.

What Kind of Impact Can You Expect From a Feature

A minor feature won't get you much. It's simply a stepping stone to the front page. You'll probably see a small bump. As far as a front page feature, that is a big deal. My best revenue increase was when The Ensign got a second position placement under "Best New Game Updates". I saw my downloads increase 5x (to about 700 to 1000 downloads a day for that feature week). It also had a residual effect to all my other games. Which brings me to...

Disable App Bundles If You Get Featured

Unless your feature is because of an app bundle, disable them immediately if you get featured. Creating app bundles is a great way to get your other games noticed. But the download of a bundle doesn't contribute to the individual rank of each game. So if you get a feature, you want to make sure app bundles don't dilute your downloads for the specific game that was featured (lots of downloads means higher ranks).

Cross Promote You Games

Have tasteful interstitials to your other games (hell, Apple even encourages this). Cross promoting your games will help you regardless of whether Apple features you or not. So do it :-)

Ask For Reviews

If you don't ask, people who download your games won't review them. So find the perfect time to request a review. Don't nag them five minutes into your game. See how I did it in A Dark Room, The Ensign, and A Noble Circle. Geometry Dash does a phenomenal job of timing the review request too. Desert Golf does some cute things with sharing accomplishments too.

And Finally, How to Make Sustainable Income

Buy Other Indie Games/IAP

Commit to spending some amount of money per month on indie games and IAP. If an indie game gets featured by Apple, buy it and see what they are doing right. You have to understand the market. If you've never bought a game or IAP, how do you know if you yourself are doing a good job? So, buy games, learn from them, support your fellow indie developers for fuck's sake.

Build Games That Can Be Played in Short Sessions

You want to build "snack-sized" experiences for mobile. I play my mobile games on the can (you do it too, don't deny it), during commercial breaks while watching TV, waiting in lines, etc. So build games that can be picked up and put down quickly. This doesn't mean you can't build games with immersive story lines (I've done this "successfully" three times). It also doesn't mean you can't build "sit down" games like Transistor (they are just less likely to succeed given the nature of this platform).

Build Games for Mobile

You don't have a controller. You have a touch device. Build games that are optimized for simple input/touch. You can still make games that are really smooth/fluid. Take a look at Leo's Fortune, Piloteer, Wayward Sword, Downwell, and Sword of Xolan. The controls for these games are tight and satisfying.
You may also want to consider games that are played in portrait mode, one handed. It's one of the reasons why Flappy Bird did well (imho). Other good vertical games are Hoplite, Threes, You Must Build a Boat, 0h h1, and 0h n0.

Build Games You Can Finish Coding in a Short Period of Time

You have to build games that can be completed in two to three months (part time). I use the term "completed" loosely however. There is nothing stopping you from updating your games, but something "complete" should be released within two to three months. I've seen too many stories about how a couple of guys have spent a year plus on a game and still haven't released anything to the App Store. Don't do this.
On this same thread. I'd say have an alpha version of your game ready by week six. Submit this version to the App Store as a soft launch. You don't need to market the release of your game, but at least get through the App Approval Process and get something in the store that you can get early feedback on. If you don't feel it's worth charging for, go ahead and release it for free with a description of "Early access pricing, get it now while it's free!!". Don't put any notes when submitting to the App Store that the game is incomplete (you may get rejected for saying that).
I can't stress this "first release" enough. You need to get something out there. Honestly, you probably won't get any downloads... but life of the app in the App Store does influence rank, so why not get a head start on this?

Release Every Six Weeks Until You're "Done"

Assuming you took the advice above, you'll still be working on your game while it's in the store. You'll want to schedule a nice six week rhythm. This accomplishes a few things.
You have a sense of urgency for your next release. You know that whatever new game mechanic you want to implement has to be done within this time frame. This forces you to chop things up and really think about what's important and what isn't. For A Noble Circle, I take one six week period to optimize and polish, and another six week period to add new story elements and content.
Releasing often keeps your audience coming back to see what's new. Every release of A Noble Circle gets people excited to see what I've added. They will replay old levels to see if I changed anything, and they are more inclined to leave reviews with constructive feedback. I've had people leave negative reviews, and then come back a few releases later and say "Things are shaping up nicely, good work!"
Releasing often resets the reviews (reviews will get archived with every new release). So you spend less time worrying about a critical review and more time on fixing what they complained about.
Releasing often shows Apple that you keep your apps updated (this will help when it comes time to pitch your app for getting featured). There may come a time where you will get considered for an App Store Feature. Apple loves apps that are constantly updated with new/compelling content. So having a good update history will definitely help you out. You generally don't want to release more often than six weeks for this same reason (you're just overloading the editorial and review teams at this point... so don't do it unless you have a nasty game breaking bug).

Report Inflammatory Reviews

Reviews that are just plain negative (to you or other people) should be reported. Long negative rants aren't great to see on your review page, and frankly Apple doesn't want them showing up either.
Here are a few examples of reviews I got for A Dark Room that are eligible for removal (I didn't remove them simply because they are hilarious):
Garbage (1 star): It’s so nice to have this hive-mind community full of hipsters and morons raving about the worst goddamn games. Same thing happened with Angry Birds and Flappy Birds. You people are disgusting. Horrible unwashed masses of brainless consumers. Hey morons, take a step back and really consider the piece of crap you rated 5 stars. No, really, just take a moment.
And another one:
What is this? (2 stars): Before I bought this I was unsure so I looked at the reviews. They were all glowing which intrigued me, so I downloaded.. Played for about 2 minutes then deleted it! Absolute load of rubbish, it's sort of like sims but with no graphics, like a weird text version. Just utter nonsense how it has so many good reviews! If it was between watching a blind man trying dismantle a computer and playing this came I know which one I’d get bored of first!
One more:
Absolute scam!! Manipulated reviews!! (1 star): It's a text based game. That's ALL you get. Nothing like any review said how fancy and interesting the game play is. I suspect all the reviews are done by the developer himself using auto generated review. It is done by developer by purchasing the game himself through hundreds, if not thousands iTunes account, then give good rating over a period of time.
Here is a review that probably won't be taken down if you report it:
Not That Brilliant… (1 star): The novelty of this game wears down almost immediately after the first time around. The whole point of this I suppose is to make us introspective and question particular things in the universe. But as much as this game would like you to think, you’re not really in control. The fate of the game has pretty much been decided and no matter what you do there are pre ordained responses that characters like ‘the builder’ will have no matter what. I found that incredibly annoying. I guess it got the message through to me, but I don’t think of this game as very deep or thought-provoking. Give me Angry Birds any day and I’ll ponder the higher meaning of destroying smiling green pigs >while actually believing that my 1 dollar wasn’t for naught.
Nor this one:
Not worth the .99 (1 star): I beat the game in 2 hours, and the game doesn’t do anything to reward you for winning. I like the game but it’s missing depth and replay value.
Goes without saying that the take down process is subjective.

If You Must Do Ads, Do Them Well

There are good ways to do ads, and then there are stupid ways. Take a look at how Geometry Dash, Crossy Road, and Threes Free do ads. Each one takes a tasteful approach to. If you want a bit more revenue info with regards to ads, I've written about it here.
With regards to an IAPs that remove ads, give the player something additional. There is novel a tower defense game called Bardbarin. It has an IAP that removes ads, but also gives you a special item that buffs gold generation.

IAP's

I'm not a big fan of IAP's (or ads). So really the only thing I can say with regards to them is play League of Legends and see how they monetize. I've spent $100+ dollars on LoL and never have they presented a pop up to get me to buy something. I had a brief moment of weakness when Trials Frontier presented a pop up, so study how they entice you to buy IAP (they do a pretty good job).

Add a Review Button

Add a review button to your games. If you don't ask for reviews, you won't get them. You don't want to do a nag review screen. I've seen too many apps that ask for a review five minutes in... don't do this. Find the perfect time to present a review button and your conversion rate will significantly increase. Geometry Dash and Duet do a great job of this. I'd say my games A Dark Room, The Ensign, and A Noble Circle do a pretty damn good job too.

Endless Games

You don't have to make an endless game. You want to build games that people finish (as opposed to playing a little and deleting). There are games out there that do endless really well, take a look at Desert Golf, Alto's Adventure, and You Must Build a Boat. It's important to realize that length does not equal value, so keep that in mind when deciding on what type of game you build.
Regardless, you want your games to leave the player satisfied. Great examples of satisfying games (that aren't endless) are Prune, Monument Valley, Game Dev Story, and (personal plug) A Dark Room.

Screenshots

Have screenshots and if at all possible an App Preview Video. The guy that I used is pretty reasonable about pricing, you can email him at Rule2 Productions: magill.foote@hotmail.com. He did the video for A Noble Circle and Michael's new game GridLand.
For your screenshots, pair them up with words. Few people actually read the description of your app. Having a screenshot that says "No IAP's, No Ads" will get noticed significantly more than having it in the description. Take a look at Blek's screenshots. They do a great job of pairing screenshots with words.

Promotion Codes

Give them away like candy (especially since you're releasing so often). If you reach out to editors or reviewers, just send redemption codes with the initial email you send out. The worst thing you can do is say "email me back and I'll send you codes." They won't email you back, and they won't take a look at your game.

Cloning Other Games

Create derivative works. Study games you like and recreate it with your style. Geometry Dash is a great example of a derivative work. You can tell that it's heavily inspired by Impossible Game, but simply does a better job. Another game that (imho) does a better job than the "original" game is Sword of Xolan (which "copied" Goblin Sword).

Free Versions

Geometry Dash has a free version and a paid versions. Having this kind of offering keeps cloners from trying to capitalize on your success. See what I've done with A Noble Circle - Prologue (free). If you have a complex game, it's unlikely you have to worry about creating a free version. No cloner would take the time to make Monument Valley. But Threes unfortunately got cloned pretty quickly. So be conscious of this dynamic and plan accordingly.
It's also worth noting that the App Store customer base is simply divided. There are those that buy games and those that don't. It doesn't seem like they cross over much. See ADR's moving average after 1 Million free downloads. So it may be beneficial to provide both versions if that's something that your game can work with.

Have An Identity

You will (hopefully, eventually) find your style. I know exactly what kind of game I will get when I get a game from Bossa Studios (the guys that made Surgeon Simulator and I am Bread). I know exactly what kind of game I'll get when I get a game from Supergiant Games (the guys that made Bastion and Transistor). People who buy my games know exactly what kind of game they will get, too.
As an indie game developer, you can capitalize on "having heart" (as opposed to the souless AAA companies). Take a look at Space Team (you can "feel" the heart this game has, even though it looks unpolished).
You want to get to a point where people say "Oh, Amir built this game. I'm gonna buy it." Having this kind of identity keeps you from having to create sequels/"franchises". It gives you the freedom to be creative with other genres.
One game won't make you rich. The App Store is extremely volatile and fickle, so you'll need multiple assets to have a good, consistent income. Having an identity that is more than just a game will help with that sustainability.

Do it for Love

Guys and gals, we're lucky. We have the ability to release a game that can be something special to someone living on the other side of the world (with very little monetary investment). Before A Dark Room went viral, I found meaning and success in what I did simply because I inspired some teenagers to get into game development, and brought a great gaming experience to the blind. I find meaning posting and collaborating here. I find meaning in presenting and writing about game development (none of which really generates money).
A Noble Circle has modest downloads, but I'm so happy seeing glowing reviews and receiving a single email about how a father and son connected while playing it. So relish in those small wins, they'll make all the work you put into your games worth it (even if your game fails financially...which it probably will). I can only do game development part time (it doesn't pay all the bills), but damn do I have a great time building them.

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