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Effect of Sessions and App Gifting on Nameless AppStore Ranks

We noticed some odd behavior in our ranking metrics. Some days we would sell less, but rise in rank more. We would like to share our metrics about “Play Sessions” and “Formula” hearsay. If we knew before, we may have designed our game differently.

This is the third in a multi-part blog about our first game "Nameless: the Hackers RPG". You can read our first two posts here: 

Gamasutra Blog: 

This topic is a continuation of the previous post, talking about the ranking metrics of our boot strapped marketing attempts. By no-means did we excel or make it big, it was just okay.

Good news is that we still feel that the mobile touch screen interface still has a tremendous amount of potential. Secondly, our sales information lead us to believe that there exists an under served market for premium games on the AppStore.

Nameless: the Hackers RPG for iOS

AppStore ranking boost and paid app RPG

iTunes Link:
Reviews & Mentions:
First, an important disclaimer.

AppStore Ranking Optimization
AppStore Rank Optimization is similar to Search Engine Optimization; it is never solved. Its a battle between quality search results against products trying to gain visibility. 

While doing our homework, we found many “services” which offered a guaranteed rank boosts for a "marketing fee". Digging deep into the Internet, we found articles about download bots farms, rating bot farms, user-rewarded reviews (cash), user-rewarded downloads (cash), and etc… This was definitely discouraging since we know it hurts the industry and we don’t have the funds to compete. 

Note: We do not promote exploits; we think they are bad for the industry. However having knowledge and spreading awareness is important. Not all marketing services are exploits, it's hard to tell the difference. 

When you are approached by a marketing company, be sure to ask about how they acquire users. Don't throw your money away. Coming from the security industry, bot-farms that hook into official services (like the AppStore) are hard to track but easy to punish. Some of the articles we found talked about getting banned from the AppStore. It's just not worth it. 

Anyhow, back to metrics. =)

Play Sessions may affect AppStore Rank
While reviewing our data, we were delighted to see what might seem like "play sessions" making a difference. We’re not validated on this concept, but it’s what we’re extrapolating. The idea of ranking being affected by actual players playing the game rather than rank-buy downloads is better, not perfect, but much better.

At first we started to notice some odd ranking behavior after our sales started to level out. The odd behavior was a jump in rank each morning. It would jump up, then slowly decrease throughout the day. Then pop! It’s up 10-15 ranks in the morning again. We debated internally and figured it’s probably because our game is an RPG. We love RPGs, so we felt most RPG players play at night when they have downtime. Our assumption is that the nightly sessions were boosting us back up in Ranking. 

Here are a few daily hour-by-hour graphs that show session play vs. new users:

Session based ranking system image appstore

We could be wrong, perhaps AppStore just re-computes rank at night, but what we observe is that our sales were pretty even for each day while still exhibiting this awkward up/down behavior, specifically in the evenings and across midnight.

This is however was a doubled-edged sword for Nameless. On one-hand, download bots don’t get a heavy advantage since sessions are also part of the formula. On the other, our game was designed for 12 hours of game play.

This leads us to believe that the ranking formulas may directly promote unlimited-play, competitive, or sandbox games rather than story driven narratives or games with limited play-time.

Gift Apps Don’t help Rank
We ran into this while we were doing our homework; a great article about it from 2010 by Imangi Studios:

As noted, giving away your game as a promotion has a great effect since those that received it for free are more likely to tell their friends. This is also a very traditional marketing strategy. We had the exact same findings as Imangi Studios, including the Visa/Mastercard blocks.

We had to get a bit creative since iTunes 11 doesn’t allow you to print out gift redeem codes and asks you for emails. We had to downgrade to iTunes 10.2 so we could generate codes. It took several hours and was very tedious to cross-stare-type-codes since you can’t highlight/copy/paste from iTunes. Since this is our first game, we wanted everyone we know to play it: Friends, family, mentors, teachers, etc… With four of us, we decided to save the promo codes for international media and use our US iTunes store for the gifting.

Important if you didn’t know, promo codes are international, you only get 50 per update, and players are not allow to leave ratings.

iTunes gift apps are locked to store, you can’t buy a US gift app and give it to anyone in Canada or the UK. We had to find friends willing to help for these other iTunes stores.

Effects of App Gifting on AppStore Ranks

We bring this up because it plays into our assumption about sessions. Again, we’re not validated that sessions definitely play a factor in the AppStore Ranks. Here’s our rank history over the same time frame.

Download ranks by gameplay RPG

Since our game is a 12+ hours campaign, players that were jazzed about it might play it over 3-5 days. This plays into our assumption again since we can see a steady decrease in our sales while somehow seeing this “shadow projection” over 3-5 days. It’s not verifiable since we don’t have enough data and don’t have access to Apple’s algorithms, but it’s our best guess.

Would love to compare notes with any other developers that also see this or have counter-data about sessions.

Our Thoughts on Ranking

  • Sessions seems like a great idea for on-the-go mobile applications and is probably a very affective way to derail download-bots, but it may not apply very well to games.
  • Counting sessions may discourage developers from making short/fixed length experiences. This may one reason why quality premium titles stay on consoles or PC.
  • Gifting your apps make a lot of sense: Apple takes 30%, but it's a very traditional marketing method. The 30% was only $0.59 for each, we wrote it off as a marketing expense.
  • Would we make another RPG? Yup! 
Next Upcoming Topics
We have the following topics we'll be also touching on in the next few days. It takes a while to make these, we'll be posting every few days until we're done.
Check out our website: BoxCat Games

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Feel free to ask us anything in the comments. =) 


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