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5 Lessons from an Indie Launch on the App Store

Five observations that I've made since launching Head of State on the App Store and Google Play in September 2016

 Head of State is a political simulation game, launched on iOS and Android in September 2016.

Head of State is a passion project that became a top 10 downloaded game on the App Store. Here are the lessons I've learned since the launch weekend.

1. Featuring is everything

We were lucky enough to be featured on the App Store front page in 88 countries. We weren't featured at all on the Play Store - unfortunately just as we reached out to our contact at Google she told us she would be on her honeymoon the week of our launch ...   >_<   ...  the result was > €19k proceeds from Apple, and < €1k on Google. A bit of a kick in the teeth after the trouble of doing a simultaneous launch on both platforms, but we couldn't complain about the combined result.

2. ... As long as your icon kicks ass

In most of the countries we were featured in the App Store, we were about #14 out of #16 games in the "New Games We Love" section on the homepage. You have to scroll a couple of times to see us, but overall it's pretty awesome featuring. Shortly after featuring, we climbed into the top 10 in 14 countries, and all the way to #1 in Iceland and Australia. What was interesting was that the app next to us - Sushi Go! - got into the top 100 in more countries than us, but didn't manage to get to as high ranks as us in anywhere near as many countries. Some of this is probably down to their price point - $4.99 vs. Head of State's $1.99. But I'm convinced that our icon and name combination also had a big effect. I think our featuring was just good enough to push us into the charts, and then our chart position became reinforcing as people saw the name / icon combo and were interested enough to download it. 


3. It's all about the launch

Head of State has been live for 4.5 months now, and we're still getting 10-20 downloads a day. This is a far cry from the first days of launch where we got >1,500 downloads a day though. In fact it took us less than a week to earn 50% of revenue that the game would make to date (and despite a second sales bump the weekend after launch). It's no surprise that sales are heavily weighted towards the launch, but even so, I was surprise just how concentrated they were.

4. Updates are for pride, not profit

With the initial launch going so well, and a couple of months until the US election, we decided to do a major update based on the feedback we had in our reviews. The main thing that people complained about was the game being too short, so we expanded it with 4 new playmodes - effectively increasing the content in the game by 400%. We fixed a couple of bugs into the bargain and pushed the update the last Thursday before the US election, even getting minor (very minor) featuring from Apple in some of the category pages. We were pleased with the outcome, and felt the game was more complete, but there was zero impact on the download numbers, and despite addressing our users' biggest complaint our rating actually declined from 4.0 starts to 3.5 stars over time.

5. You get crazy network effects launching multiple games

Before Head of State, I had only launched one game on the App Store - a dating / life simulator called You Only Live Once (YOLO!). YOLO was the project that I had used to teach myself how to code and launch stuff on the App Store. It's buggy as hell and the art is attrocious. Still, I was thrilled to see something I built all by myself actually on the App Store and even more so when a few hundred people downloaded it (i.e. way more than friends and family). When Head of State came out though, the downloads for YOLO skyrocketed - it got about 20% of the downloads of Head of State. Now YOLO is a free app, so there's no reason NOT to download it (and it's actually pretty fun if you can look past the graphics), but the screenshots are the wrong orientation, it has no ratings and the only link is if you go from Head of State through the "related apps" link and see what else I've published. There's no doubt that if you can churn out 2-3 good quality games a year this effect would start to add up, and this is clearly a major factor driving the success of Ketchapp (which publishes one a week).

+1 ... having a narrative around your game is the best publicity

Whilst I was making Head of State I read Stuart Hall's blog post on how he got 2.3m downloads without marketing. TL;DR having a narrative about why and how you made your game is as good as publicity gets. There are a bunch of games on the App Store and when you start doing PR, you quickly realise that no one really cares about yours. But tell people the story of your game (not in it), and suddenly people start to pay attention. When I wrote about the making of Head of State a few days after the launch, I not only received great feedback from the community, but was rewarded with a sales bump on the second weekend. Being open and honest has its rewards.

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