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My iOS Indie-Game Numbers
by Chad Etzel on 07/29/14 04:51:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Yesterday, Jared Sinclair published a very candid writeup of the download and sales numbers for his app Unread. It was very refreshing to see such an honest post and to see someone publicly admit that spending so much time on an independent app did not result in the numbers he was hoping for.

I have experienced the same thing in my indie-apps.

In my case, however, I was making indie-games, so the odds are even more against me. Here are the numbers for the 3 iOS games I published in the last year.

Spoiler alert: they are bad.

Preface

All of these apps were written as side-projects on nights and weekends. At the time I was a full-time employee at Twitter, so my livelihood was not dependent on the performance of these apps, however my goal was always to make money with them by trying different revenue models and not merely publish them for fun.

All numbers current through July 28, 2014.

Tetra

Tetra is a 2-player asynchronous board game based on Quarto. It uses Game Center to handle game-state and player matching.

Tetra

I tried to mimic the Letterpress UI as much as possible for a few reasons:

  • It's a good UI and people liked it.
  • I took it as a challenge to see if I could recreate the UI-isms using UIKit.
  • I knew it might stir up some controversy when it launched which would help with publicity (turns out it did, but not as much as I had hoped. However, I had talked to Loren beforehand and he was cool with it and wished me luck on the launch).

Revenue model: Free app with One-time IAP full game unlock for $1.99

First commit: May 11, 2013

Shipped v1.0.0: Aug 9, 2013 (3 months)

Launched: Aug 22, 2013

Total downloads: 26,830

IAP Game-Unlock: 186

Total income: $261.23

Press: Some. I read Pitch Perfect by Erica Sadun to try to better my chances at getting reviews on blogs and app-related sites. When I sent out my pitch emails, I did get a response from Erica but ultimately no review on TUAW. I did, however, get some reviews on AppAdvice and a few others, but it was not nearly the splash I wanted.

Notes: One week after launch, Tetra was featured in several international Asian App-Store lists in the "New" and "What's Hot" game sections. This greatly increased the download numbers (way above the numbers I saw from review articles). 21,309 out of the 26,830 downloads (79%) are international, but only 74 of the 186 paid unlocks (39%) are international. This also means that 74 people out of 21,309 (0.3%) paid to unlock internationally compared to 112 out of 5521 (2%) that paid to unlock domestically.

It turns out that despite the popularity of Letterpress and all the players that started to finally use Game Center because of it, people still don't like it and find it hard to use. I even made a custom 1-tap New Match UI to simplify the flow (the stock UI from Apple takes 5 taps), but even this did not help too much.

WordGrid

WordGrid is a game I wrote while I was writing Letters (see below). I was stuck and wanted to ship something quick, so I challenged myself to write a game in 1 week. The result was a 4x4 grid word puzzle where each level is randomly generated using 4 four-letter words and scrambling them.

WordGrid

Revenue model: Paid app up-front $0.99

First Commit: Oct 13, 2013

Shipped v1.0.0: Oct 20, 2013 (1 week)

Launched: October 28, 2013

Total downloads: 260

Total income: $180.74

Press: None. This was intentional. I didn't want to put forth the effort of a marketing campaign for a one week app.

Letters

Letters is an arcade-style word game mix between Scrabble and Boggle. The idea started when the game Dots started to become popular and a friend told me, "People love to play word games. You should make the word game version of Dots." So I did.

Letters

It's a 1-player game, but it has social leaderboards so you can see how you score compared to your friends (this was a lesson learned from Tetra that people don't really like to have to wait for a turn-based game).

Revenue model: Free app with Consumable IAP currency in several quantities, plus 1 non-consumable Point Doubler for $4.99

First Commit: Aug 31, 2013

Shipped v1.0.0: April 6, 2014 (7 months)

Launched: April 17, 2014

Total downloads: 1883

Total IAP Purchases: 20

Total income: $56.89

Press: Zero. This was certainly not intentional, and in fact I am severely disappointed by this. Again I crafted a well written pitch email with screenshots, promo codes, and a 1-minute demo video, but the result was zilch. Nada. Infuriating.

Notes: Without any press, this app was pretty much DOA. Despite several follow-up emails to reviewers including download numbers from the first week, no reviews ever materialized. This is very upsetting because I feel personally that this is the best app I've ever written. I also spent a lot of time on polish, features, and game mechanics. The people that do play it love it, and the average session time is somewhere around 10 minutes which I think is pretty great for a mobile game.

I honestly still think Letters has the potential to be a big hit with the word-game crowd, the problem is that I don't have a ton of money to sink into marketing to get it up the charts. I have explored doing some kind of revenue-split with someone or some investment firm to pay for marketing, but nothing ever came of it.

I must admit that I am really disappointed by the current outcome of Letters. I still want it to succeed, but right now I'm not sure what to do about it.

Totals

Total income: $498.86

The Kicker

Even though I managed to bring in a paltry $498 for a year's worth of side-project time, it gets even worse. I paid nearly $700 in Facebook and Twitter mobile ads to try and market them. I also bought an iPad Mini and an iPod Touch for development and testing, so I'm even deeper in the hole overall.

In the end, I've had to chalk all these apps up to the "hobby" category as it has been a money-losing proposition.

Notes

For all 3 apps, half of their respective download numbers were accumulated within the first 1-2 weeks after launch. After that the numbers dropped like a rock.

I know that the Games category of the App Store is a total bloodbath when it comes to competing with the major publishers and even indie developers who have a decent reputation/following. I was just hoping the long tail was longer (it's not). I am a relative nobody in the app world (and an even lesser nobody in the game world), so I did not have the connections with reviewers or the gaming community to get things off the ground. I am not sure how to break into the App Store today except by winning the lottery.


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Comments


Ian Fisch
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Outside of Tetra, which looks quite nice, your games are visually unappealing.

Letters has all the aesthetic personality of an eye exam chart.

I may not be the target market for this sort of game, but it seems to me that the most popular apps are bright and friendly looking. If I'm choosing a game, and I have literally tens of thousands of options, why should I pick yours?

Christian Nutt
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Considering Threes is considered to be the apex of iPhone game design by a lot of people of late, it doesn't seem that off the mark. Granted, Threes does have a more refined visual design (at least based on a quick glance of Letters here) but this is in that ballpark...

Kyle Redd
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In addition to what Christian said, I'm pretty sure most fans of word games don't put visual pizzazz high on their list of required features. Many of the most popular mobile word games have arguably less personality than Letters does:

http://tinyurl.com/829dcpp
http://tinyurl.com/bn6gt7t

Edmund Ching
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Personally (I may be wrong, of course), I feel that minimalistic look-and-feel is a trending style, after pixel art. What Chad has here is pretty close to what more and more developers are designing towards. With the right color palettes, the right polishing, even programmers can produce minimal UI that does not cause the viewers' eyes to bleed.

Jay Jennings
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Someone needs a hug.

And it's me. Thanks for that revealing look at your business, but it just depressed me! I disagree that your games are visually unappealing -- at least for "that type" of game (I think Letters looks pretty cool). ;) I think the success of Letterpress was probably *despite* the flat interface and while your experience may be just *your* experience I think I'll take it as a clue to make my games look very game-like.

Jitesh Panchal
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Excellent piece that shares a very honest opinion about the bloodbath that App Store is! There is lots to learn from what you've already mentioned... at the same time it is disheartening. Although, I haven't gotten into solo-app making as of yet, I'm sure to have some confidence and apply learning you put so bravely about Unread and the three games.

I'm curious though, did you also try/ make your apps for Google store?

havenisle mr jones
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Well, I was expecting something like this. I hope I don't sound mean, but it's almost exactly what I figured I would see without a grueling media blitzkrieg for each title. I was hoping that the media would take care of itself, but now I know without a doubt that it's all about marketing. Thanks for the info, it's a gut-check.

Ryan Lunger
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"I was stuck and wanted to ship something quick, so I challenged myself to write a game in 1 week". This bothers me for two reasons.

One, you're talking about poor sales performance, but one of the three apps you shipped wasn't even intended to be serious. Therefore, why would I believe (as a developer or a customer) that you've put a greater effort into creating the other two.

Two, this need to ship something regardless of its value is inane. Wanting to get noticed for quality production and uniqueness isn't the same as wanting to get paid by people who hopefully won't be able to tell you're not providing them with either.

I appreciate the time you spent on this article, but I simply disagree with its premise.

Yama Habib
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What premise? This is a brief post-mortem of three hobby iOS titles, not an editorial on the appstore as a whole.

adam anthony
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I like that your games conform to Apples minimalistic and flat colorization theory with iOS 7. I am sorry you haven't found success yet. How saturated is the mobile market with word games? I wonder if thats the issue; too much competition?

Erwin Bierhof
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This may be a small niggle but I couldn't find gameplay video/tutorial/presentation of the games on youtube. That's something I habitually look for these days. Even better when made by the developers themselves.

Also, while searching I ran into a problem with the game "Letters". Searching for "letters" and "iphone" returns a lot of hits, none of them have anything to do with the game. Your products should be discoverable at the very least.

James Yee
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Thank you for sharing, it's another example of how tough any creative outlet is to make money off of. I would ask one question though. You mention spending $700 on Facebook and Twitter mobile ads. Do you feel you got ANY return on that? Personally I wouldn't think those ads would be worth anything let alone $700, but I'd like any numbers you have on that.

Sam Cartwright
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Thanks for sharing. My day job is game programming and your worst app has made more than any of my hobby indie apps - one of which was a collaboration with people who work or had worked at Gameloft, Square Enix, Namco Bandai and Koei. The app store is brutal, try not to take it as an indication of your game's quality or your skill.

Johan Hoberg
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Interesting read. Thank you for sharing.

Roy Smith
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I think this post highlights the value (and necessity) of marketing in the ultra-noisy app stores. I'm sure these games are good games, but by only posting to the store and sending out emails to reviewers, the results were predictable. The top gamedevs are spending between $1 and $2 per install for games that are targeting $5-$6 average LTV. Obviously a hobbyist cannot compete in that environment.

Clearly the app store is not designed to help games like this succeed. It amazes me that Apple (a pretty savvy marketing company) allows its app store to continue in its obviously broken mode for the last six years. It probably reflects the feeling we all get when dealing with Apple that they absolutely do not care about developers at all.

I'd like to hear from Chad what he would have considered a success? $2K per game, $20K per game?

Chris Masterton
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You now have free advertising on Gamasutra, include the app store links. :)

Graham McIntyre
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I do think any game should be visually appealing

Brandon Sheffield
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One thing that might have helped is if you tried any original concept at all, instead of flat out admitting you borrowed ideas for every one of these games.

It's a harsh statement, I realize, but you can't expect to make something that's "like X, but different" successful without King.com-style money behind it.

Bob Johnson
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Well all you can do is things you can control.

Networking to help your chances of getting noticed in blogs and websites etc.

Keep improving your game design and programming skills. Keep experimenting with your business model. Keep making games.



I don't think you should expect that your 3rd game that you work on in your spare time is going to be a nice money maker after 7 months. I bet there are too many others putting in even more time without good results. I'd guess you have to work and develop your craft. Keep improving. Keep networking. That's all you can do. Let the chips fall where they may.

Edmund Ching
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Hey Chad,
Nice piece and I can totally relate. I too recently released a game and wrote a postmortem about it on gamasutra here, differences being: mine was one game, I screwed up the release, and made not even $50 for my 6 months work (spare hours).

So compared to mine, yours definitely scored better, if that is any consolation. I'm not stopping here and I don't think you would too, there is just something about having the ability to turn your own game idea into reality that's makes you want to go ahead and make that next prototype.

I will be putting out games with original concepts, I will still be doing the usual marketing a low/no-budget indie can do, but I still share that sentiment as you that no matter how hard I try, I am but just shooting at the App Store Lottery.

Bauke Schildt
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Could you update this article in a few days? I'd love to see if it had any impact. :-)

Ken Kinnison
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It's kinda funny reading this. I haven't released yet, I've held off on some of my 'weaker' games, always feeling they need to be bigger. Regardless, I talk to a lot of local friends about it, I see data like this, and yet, I keep wanting to believe 'I can do it' despite the odds.
I think there's a certain amount of (healthy?) ego that goes into rolling the dice for this. I have exactly zero data saying I can do better, but I still think I can do it. Even if my first game is a flop, even if my first five are a flop.
I hope you take on the next game, and the next, thinking you can be better than you were yesterday, and better tomorrow than you are today. I know it's cheese, but it's the mantra that keeps me going. :o


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