Building an indie game studio - Year One
OK, so first let me introduce our team,
We are three co-founders of an indie game studio – Remarkable Games.
We started our own business a year ago, with no external funding and the obvious intention to turn profitable in the near future (before we exhaust all our personal savings…)
Our team includes only us (two developers and one graphic designer), with the help of some relatives and friends with relevant professions (a speech therapist to name one) who volunteered to help us.
During the past year we had our ups and downs and we wanted to share some of our experiences with the development community and whoever finds this interesting. We feel we learned quite a bit in this short period and the lessons we have learned might save you some time and headaches ;)
So one year ago, I was an experienced C++ programmer mostly involved in real-time financial-trading software, one of my partners had similar experience and my second partner was a professional graphic designer. The important thing is that we all had ZERO experience in developing mobile apps or games in general; heck, I’ve barely ever written any GUI in my life ☺ We also all have no experience in business management..
If you’re in a similar spot you’ll probably find the info we gathered quite interesting.
So first we had our vision: to deliver high-quality educational apps/games for children, while trying to give our users added value compared to similar apps from our rivals. We try to produce unique games; good examples are “What’s Different?” and “Pair-Up!”. Both are great tools for developing important language skills from a young age and are not the mainstream “Math”, “Spelling”, etc apps.
Here are some of our decisions and experiences over the last year:
Our first important decision was to work in small cycles. We come from the agile-development world and we wanted to keep the same state of mind.
The goal here was to get client feedback as soon as possible. In practice this means we aimed for short, focused projects in terms of graphic design and coding. We took on projects we felt we could finish in around two months and planned for future updates if we get positive feedback from clients. The reasoning behind this decision is that we had no budget. Each day we work is a gamble we take on our own money, money we could have made working for some big software firm. This meant we want to know as soon as possible that we’re on the right track . We knew it’s impossible to identify a winning horse before we let it run on a real track so this was our way of identifying the stronger games and focusing on them. Working on one project for a year and failing could be fatal to our company. Of course this doesn’t mean the same applies to you. If you’re working on your project part time and have a steady income, you can feel more comfortable working on a huge project. But I think our situation is quite common.
Our second decision was to make apps for both Android and iOS devices. We started playing with the native SDKs, but pretty soon we realized that with our limited human resources it would be impossible to develop anything releasable in the short cycles we want. We wanted short cycles with high quality products so we decided to use a cross-platform high-level SDK that will make our development process more rapid. There were a few solutions from which we finally chose the Corona SDK. This added an annual fee but if we were to succeed it was really peanuts and well worth our while.
This had its cons, mainly the fact that we are limited to what the SDK is providing us, compared to native coding in which the device limitations are the only barriers.
This led us to our next decision, which was to be more “API oriented”. We studied what Corona can give us, and thought about our ideas in this context. So in the process we threw away some good ideas just because they were impossible to implement with Corona SDK, but we feel it was worthwhile and this decision is a major factor in our ability to release 6 games (soon 7) in 1 year to 3 markets – Amazon, Google and Apple – and providing at least 1 update per game in this time period. Sure we go once in a while to their forums and bitch about missing features, but aside from that we’re just trying to do our best with what they do provide.
As for releasing to both Android and iOS this proved to be the best choice we ever made.
Before publishing any game we read all over the internet how awful android profits are and how the only way to make money is by using ads in a free app. Our expectations were that Apple AppStore will be our driving force and Android would be just a small fraction of our income with the hope maybe one day it will grow.
One year later the situation is reversed. Our earnings are 40% Amazon, 40% Google, and 20% Apple. On Google and Amazon, we’ve been able to penetrate the top 20 and even top 10 paid apps in the educational category. On Apple, we are just under the radar.. We never, ever appeared in the top 200 apps in our category. Usually we have a good first day and then just a drastic decline and within one day it goes to 5-15 paid downloads across all our apps!
We are not really sure why this anomaly occurs in our case, but we suspect that the competition in the AppStore is much tougher. It contains more high-quality apps and we think more people spend money on PR on the AppStore. We do very little in this respect.
An example is one of our leading games – Tracing ABC. This game is the No’ 1 tracing application on the android and Amazon market and is ranked accordingly, but on Apple, it has some tough competition from apps I won’t refer to, so as not to make things worse ☺…
The important thing to take from this is that even your most basic assumptions might be wrong, and in this case, especially considering the low cost of publishing to both platforms with a high-level cross-platform SDK, you should definitely consider publishing to as many markets as possible.
One of the most thrilling experiences we had was on the Amazon AppStore.
They have this great promotional plan (called “Free App Of The Day”) in which they give each day a paid app for free. We had the pleasure of participating in 3 such events with our games.
The results were good. On our first time, the featured app was downloaded 150,000 times! And the nice thing was that the following day saw 500 paid customers for that game alone.
Each free-app-of-the-day event also gave a boost to the rest of our apps and even across different markets and platforms. For example, on the day an app was featured in Amazon, it saw a 400% sales boost on the Apple AppStore as well.
As we learned more about promoting apps, we realized just how powerful this tool is. It’s free but still worth a lot of money. Just having 150,000 people download your app and being one day above Angry Birds is the kind of exposure you’ll end up paying a LOT of money for using traditional PR and advertisement.
Another nice aspect of publishing to different markets is the different information you get from each of them. And as we learned, information and gathering data (not via spyware of course) is crucial in this business.
On Amazon market, we really like the fact that you can reply to user reviews. When featured in the “Free App Of The Day” we got a lot of reviews, some of them really bad. One thing was the fact we required some phone permissions, which some users considered a privacy concern. The fact that we could communicate and pinpoint the issues was very helpful and we actually addressed all the issues we read about in these reviews.
In this manner we managed to turn bad user experiences to a good one, sometimes just by clarifying something that is a non-issue or a misunderstanding of how the app works. We feel that reacting to user reviews and fixing/adding stuff they ask for is very valuable. Reviews are a very effective and free way to promote your app and improve it. Changing a 1 star to 5 is well worth the effort, especially when you don’t have a mega hit with thousands of reviews. Ten 1-star reviews can really kill you if you have a couple of dozen reviews in total..
In Play Market (Google) we really like the matrices you can retrieve about the app performance over time, but the best thing in Google is the fact you get more information about the buyer profile. This enables you, through some data processing, to see how many products an average client buys. Usually this means a user liked one app and checked for more games you developed. You can use this information to know how much a user is worth to you and how much money you can spend on advertisement while keeping some profit. To generalize, let’s say you have 3 apps that cost 1 dollar each. But the average user who buys one app, buys another one. So one paid download is actually worth more like 2 dollars (putting aside the market commissions).
Now let’s say you can generate such a download by spending 1.5 dollars on ads. This means it’s worth doing so because you’ll end up with a profit… actually if you’re in this situation you’ve hit a gold mine ☺ but usually it’s not that simple.
So to sum this up – information/data is crucial to your success. Without it you’re just drifting in the dark..
So where do we stand today? Bottom line, we are NOT making enough money to sustain the 3 of us. I’m not ready to go into actual figures, but we need to make 5x more money to make it worthwhile. We’re still very optimistic that this is possible. I recall that one year ago we calculated that we need to make 200x more money (than we made at the time), so we feel confident that we’re on the right track.
Well, I think this is enough information to process for this first post. I’ll follow it up with some more when I have time and gather more data..
I can tell you that we have started promoting our apps on ad networks so we’ll share how successful that was for us in the near future.
Hope you found this information useful;