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Observations about iPhone games and how the App Store works from an iPhone gamedev's perspective, updated with examples and comments based on my own experiences having just unleashed my first iPhone game into the vast abyss of the App Store!

Jeff Hangartner, Blogger

June 28, 2011

22 Min Read

When I first got my iPhone, I spent a lot of time playing iPhone/iPad games to do some research as I dipped into iPhone game development.  I got a lot more familiar with the App Store's nuances and what other games are doing in general.  At the time, I wrote up 15 observations to mull over as an iPhone game developer.  Now I'm posting them again but adding notes from my current perspective on the other side of development having just released my first iPhone game (Elusive Ninja: The Shadowy Thief - shameless plug!)


I've added notes in italics that relate to my current actual experiences:

1) I've just found out that this "back to the top" deal has been fixed and the App Store lists now work awesomely, when you go back to the list you end up where you were! I'm leaving the original paragraph in for context for the rest of the writing because the "plummet into obscurity" concept still happens but now it's more a result of the sheer number of new Apps coming out rather than any bad design on Apple's end. :)

It’s extremely obvious why games die in sales once they’re off the Top 25.  When you go through a list of games it only shows a handful at a time, and you have to hit “Show more games” to list the next handful, and those take a few seconds to load all the icons for.  But that’s not the worst part…say you’re down around game 80 and you see one you dig so you click it to check it out and decide to download and install it.  Well now when you go back to the App Store, are you at game 80?  Nope, you’re back up at game 1 and have to “Show more games” your way all the way back down to 80.  There are like 300,000 Apps in the App Store and I bet no one ever sees past 200 on one of those lists.  So while it’s already well known that it’s vital to get into the Top 25 chart, I’d say this is the main reason for it.  I actually WANTED to find more obscure games to see if I could find some hidden gems that I dig, but it was extremely difficult to attempt. 

So is this a bad thing or a good thing?  Well the bad part of it is if you fall off the charts, you’re pretty toast.  That’s obvious.  The good part is there’ve got to be ways to get back up on the charts.  If you’re game number 100,000 right now, NO ONE knows you exist.  You could probably re-market your game right now as if you had just released it brand new and all the people who’ve bought iPhones in the last couple months would think “hey, a new game, cool!” and you might be able to re-popularize your game.  If you have an app on there that isn’t doing anything, consider giving re-marketing a go.  The only difference between Angry Birds and a game like Tomacow is that Angry Birds is easy to find and Tomacow is way off the bottom of the charts right now.  If tomorrow Tomacow shot up to #1 and Angry Birds fell a few dozen spots down their sales stats would probably reverse.

In my case, my game came out on Day1 of E3 2011 and my advertising cards didn't arrive in time for E3, so there wasn't much I could do for advertising.  When Nintendo is announcing a new console, no one cares about a tiny indie iPhone game.  So my game fell off the New Releases list fast and is now sitting somewhere in obscurity.  I'm not complaining though, I just look at this as a re-marketing challenge: how do I get people to know the game exists?  Like I wrote up above, now that I'm off the list NO ONE can find me.  You literally have to search for "elusive ninja" to find my game.  Even typing in "ninja" I'm like 6+ pages down the list. 

2) The other main ways of finding games are via the Categories and doing word searches.  The Categories seem kind of random…”Adventure” doesn’t seem to be much different than “Action” or “Arcade”.  And you pretty much end up with the Top 25 games again, so again it’s hard to stumble across the obscure ones.  Word searches will give you obscure games but it looks like the word you type has to be in either the game’s title or in the name of the game’s developer.  If you make a ninja game but call it “Death Strike”, anyone typing in “ninja” won’t find your game.  Does this mean “Dinosaurs In Helicopters Wearing Top Hats”? would actually be an optimal game name?  Oddly enough, it seems like it would be haha  So I won’t be naming my games “Fubar” or “Zoiks” or “Swoo” because what are the odds someone is going to type those in?

When I went to name my game, I actually wanted a really short name that had the word "ninja" in it and like, "dodge" or "action" or "fight" or some other really common word.  Unfortunately everyone else wants to do that too, so it turned out all the short simple (but good for search engine results) names were taken or copywritten etc.  In the end I honestly just got frustrated with not being able to find a decent short ninja related game name that wasn't taken, and instead decided to go the opposite route and give it an elaborate name.  I figured if I can't have a short name with common keywords, I'll take a long name with less-common keywords but more of them.  End result is Elusive Ninja: The Shadowy Thief pops up near the top of the lists when you search for the words "elusive", "thief", or "shadowy", but how often is someone going to search for those VS "ninja" or "fight"? 


3) Free Apps with iAds (in-game advertisements) are getting more popular and seem to be used as a re-marketing tool now.  Say your game falls off the charts and isn’t selling…what can you do with it?  Well, how about throw in some iAds and release it for Free?  The Free notice is going to boost it’s popularity and you’re still making a tiny bit of income off it VS the nothing you were making before.  Backflip Studios has a great idea, they run advertisements for their own games as well as other people’s advertisements…and during certain times of the year (like near Christmas) they’ll switch from 80% other ads and 20% their own, to 80% their own and 20% other ads.  That’s some smart stuff right there.

 Advertisements in iPhone games are pretty ugly, there's no denying that.  I opted not to follow the Free-with-ads model because I wanted my first game's development to stay pretty simple since I was working over the Internet with a programmer I'd never worked with before.  Now that I'm focusing on the marketing however, I'm actually on the flip side of the in-game ad stuff: I'm a publisher wanting to promote my game in other people's in-game ads sections.  I've just signed up with Admob and Flurry App Circle as a promoter and I'll do a blog post up of how those services worked out when I get some results back.

One thing I did do that's along the lines of in-game advertising is put in a Get More Games option that goes to a mobile-formatted website with a handful of icons for other games.  I can update this website and change or add games to it and even if someone buys my game in a year they'll still be taken to the most recent game list.


4) The iPad doesn’t seem to have a lot of Free/Lite versions of it’s Apps.  I’m not sure why this is…is it because gaming on iPad isn’t as popular?  Is it because the iPad market just has more money to spend so they’re willing to drop $8 to try an App out, while iPhone users are like “$8??  fuck THAT!!”  Not sure, but there’s got to be some logic behind it that everyone is consciously/sub-consciously following.

I still don't know what the reason for this is.  In my particular case I know that when I do the HD version of the game for iPad, I won't be releasing a Free/Lite version of it.  This is more due to the game's design than any business decision though...the game is pretty simple so there's not much you can really release in a Lite version that isn't "the entire game" haha  If I was developing a large in-depth game like an RPG I would definately want to know why other developers don't make Free/Lite versions on iPad.  I was thinking it might be that a lot of the time the iPad App has an iPhone version already that's either much cheaper or free, and maybe developers figure because the iPad runs those, that's good enough?


5) Everything on the iPad is expensive.  Consistently, across the board, an iPhone game that’s got a Free/Lite version and $0.99 cent version on iPhone will have a $4.99+ version on iPad.  So porting to iPad should be high priority, and art for games should be drawn large enough that it looks good on the bigger/retina screens and then shrunk down for iPhone.

 I did actually do this, but it turns out the iPad is way less powerful than I was expecting so I'm going to have to take a few extra weeks and figure out how to get it running.  Doing the art huge and scaling it down for the iPhone was definately the optimal method because not only does it mean I can make an HD version of the game for iPads quickly, but I'm finding as I do a lot of marketing I can use the iPad art as promotional material...I can grab a few sprites from the game or the title and just drag and drop it into my Press Kit and it's good to go.  I'm having to make a lot of banners and icons for ad-space etc. and I'm just throwing together iPad assets to make them nice and quick.

6) The above point is important because from what I’ve seen a ton of “HD iPad Apps” are not “HD” at all.  They’re just the entire game small with a 2x magnifying/zoom option, or they’ve got a bunch of art assets that have just been scaled up in Photoshop and are blurry looking, or they’re some sort of freakish hybrid of the two (Broken Sword HD, you cost me almost 10 bucks and that’s the quality I get??  come on now…).

Now that I've messed with the iPad a little more and found out that being a bigger device doesn't mean it's actually any more powerful than an iPhone 3GS, while I still hate this practice of just scaling up art, I understand why developers do it.  It's hard to cram a bunch of twice-as-large art into an iPad game when you still have the same memory restrictions as the smaller device and the same 20MB Wi-Fi download limit.  In the future I'll definately be looking at the iPad as a much less powerful device and plan the art accordingly! 

7) While Super KO Boxing 2 on iPad just scales it’s art up (boooo!!), I have to say it’s an awesome game.  The iPhone version is just perfection.  Gorgeous huge hand-drawn/animated characters, tight controls, thumbs don’t cover the action area, lots of menu polish and painful punch sound-effects…awesome stuff Glu.  This is the type of stuff I want to make.

 I'm actually super happy with the amount of polish I got into Elusive Ninja.  I feel like visually it can compete with games like Super KO Boxing 2, and that was really important to me right from the get-go.  In retrospect though, I spent a lot of time polishing things that probably didn't need to be polished...like the menus could have been a lot simpler than they are and nobody would complain.  In the future I'll have to learn to better balance what's worth investing my time in!


8) Unfortunately Glu made a bit of a faux pas with it’s attempt at adding micro-transactions to KO Boxing.  Whenever you lose a fight it pops up a “Want to get roid rage? Yes/No” screen.  Roid rage is you paying 99 cents for what I’m assuming will skip the opponent you’re stuck on.  After you say No, the “Try again?” screen comes up.  The placement of this is unfortunate because what’s the first thing that goes through everyone’s mind as soon as they lose a couple matches?  “This is BS, the developers made it impossible after the first few characters so we’d have to buy the roid rage!!  They’re just trying to suck our money out of us grrrr!”  The reviews for KO Boxing on the App Store pretty much all say that.  So now some new user comes along interested in the game and sees those reviews and goes “woah, maybe I don’t wanna check this out after all!”

The lesson to be learned from this?  Micro-transactions need to not only not be mandatory to progressing in the game, but need to also not even remotely SEEM as if they COULD be mandatory to progressing in the game, because gamers will assume the worst, and justifiably since there ARE developers that do attempt this sneaky trick.  A 99 cent fee for a new costume?  Should be fine.  A 99 cent fee for a a sword you can’t get anywhere else in the game that’s the only weapon that can defeat the boss?  That’s going to get you some flak.  Micro-transactions have a ton of potential, but they have to be really well thought-out to avoid bad PR.

I didn't mess with micro-transactions at all.  There's the weird Lodsys lawsuit stuff going on which is scary, and just in-general as a small dev working with contracted programmers over the Internet, I didn't want to jump into complicated micro-transaction stuff.  If I did something like Glu did and people complained "This is BS, you shouldn't charge money at this point blah blah" I wouldn't really have a way to fix it except to re-hire my programmer if he's available or hire a new programmer just to fix it and it's just too much mess to deal with.  Down the road when I have an in-house crew I'd like to dip into micro-transactions, but I'm trying to approach this all cautiously. 


9) Mirror’s Edge on iPad is awesome.  So is Action Hero on iPhone.  The catch is they’re the same game, but Mirror’s Edge cost like a jillion dollars more to make than Action Hero.  I wonder which one made more money when all the sales figures and development costs were factored out?

haha I still think this is a funny observation.  I read someone somewhere saying that Rockband is just Whack-A-Mole set to music.  I think a lot of popular games have really simple doppleganger versions when you really look at their core mechanics.


10) Tons of games lock the screen however they want.  I was originally worried about having to design UIs and game areas that would work with rotating the screen, but since everyone else has said “Tough!  Play this the way we want you to!”, I’ll do the same.  I also notice that certain angles for certain control schemes can make your hands cover the speaker, or get in the way of the microphone jack when you’ve got your headphones in.  If I was making a music/rhythm game I’d make sure the game was locked to have the microphone jack on the top-right instead of the bottom-left where it bumps into your palm, because anyone playing in public will probably have their headphones in…whereas a game where sound isn’t important people will probably play it with the speaker Muted so it doesn’t matter.

 Turns out Cocos2D handled this all blindfolded.  :)  The game is locked to landscape mode, but it flips 180 degrees depending on which way you're holding the device so all the "covering up the microphone jack" stuff isn't an issue thanks to the wonders of Cocos2D.  I would imagine Unity and other libraries handle this automatically too.


11) It’s looking like OpenFeint is the way to go with Leaderboards…It’s the one I’ve run into the most, at least.  It looks like it’s basically Mochi for iPhone, which I’m guessing means it’s easy to implement and if it’s in a lot of popular games then people must have accounts for it already.  Anyone know of a more popular one?  Maybe I’m just happening to run into this one a lot by fluke.

I had actually planned to use Apple Game Center just to suck up to Apple, but my programmer already knew how to set up OpenFeint so we went with that.  And then it turned out that OpenFeint actually wraps around Game Center now so when you set up OpenFeint you can tell it "also support AGC" and have AGC Leaderboards and Achievements for AGC users.  Unfortunately one brainfart I had was completely forgetting to put in an AGC button of some kind so you can access the AGC stuff easily!  And neither my programmer, nor anyone in testing even noticed so it just slipped right on through haha  I'll have to fix that in an Update.  The good part is that even without a button accessing it, a person can still go to their AGC App and see the Leaderboard and Achievements for the game.  All in all it seems like OpenFeint is the optimal choice right now since you get both OF and AGC with it. 


12) However on that note, games that REQUIRE you to create an account to play them are a terrible idea.  I’ve grabbed a few where all I get to see is the title screen because I’m on the bus trying to check out the game and it wants me to fill in a name and password and link it to my E-Mail address with other misc info as the bus jostles around and it’s like “Dude, I just want to see your game!  If it’s awesome then sure, I’ll create an account…but what if it sucks?  Like I don’t have enough random “created an account somewhere obscure just to download a file or be able to upload an image or see a trailer” accounts around the net…I don’t want to make more when I don’t even know what your game is like.  If you’re going to have a create an account thing, at least have a quick-play option of some kind where I can see what I’m in for.  Am I just cranky or does this annoy other people too?  haha

ugh.  This is still annoying and I still see it sometimes.  Even though I don't have a "create an account" requirement in my game, I still put a Quickplay button in my game that pops up as soon as the first Logo starts up...if you click it you'll skip all the logos, the title screen, the menus, and go right to the Loading screen for the gameplay.  I forgot to put a Flurry Analytic on this to see if people use it, but I think it's a good idea.  Part of the draw of iPhone games is that people can pick up and play them instantly.  Even if you have to have accounts, it'd be nice to have a mode you can play where you don't need an account, or maybe the game could not pop up the required account creation screen until the user first tries to save the game?  I suspect price-point would affect how annoying this is...if the game is Free, it's frustrating, but if the game cost the user $4.99 they'll probably fill out your annoying form to play. 


13) I don’t think I’ve seen a single in-game feedback form.  I’m not sure why this is.  Customer feedback is super vital…even if you can’t fix the current game, you can avoid making the same mistakes in future games.  The closest thing I’ve seen is in the text blurb on the App Store there’s a “Send us your feedback we’d love to hear it!” sentence and an E-Mail address that you have to cut & paste into your E-Mail prog and blah blah blah too much work.

It's early for me to judge how this worked out for me but I have a good feeling about it.  I've gotten a handful of Bug Reports back, and some of them are important ("you forgot a button to access Apple Game Center stats!") but some of them are stuff like "the ninja should have a super mode where he glows and can fly and then go to another village and fight a dragon" haha  The thing is, that guy might have left a 1-star review saying "needs a super flying mode and dragon, 1-star!!!!" but instead I've kind of re-routed his complaint into a private E-Mail to me where I can reply back to him and discuss it further if it's a cool idea, or just thank him for the advice and tell him I'll take it into consideration in the future if I can't implement it.  In theory if that guy left a review after that, it would probably be a lot more positive since he knows I've heard his complains and acknowledged his concerns.

When I have more users playing the game and more Bug Reports and Reviews to compare, I'll be able to see how this pans out better, but psychologically in terms of public relations, I think this is a pretty good idea.


14) When you play a game for a while it’ll pop up a message saying “Seems like you’re enjoying this App, why not leave a review on the App Store?” with a quick-link.  I don’t know if this is developers doing this on their own or if Apple does this automatically but as a developer I think this is GREAT.  It’s not super intrusive and if you’re in the middle of having fun, great, share that with the world.  Plus if you hate the game you’re probably not going to play it long enough to get that pop-up so it’s smart to have that in there in terms of getting positive reviews haha

Turns out this is a little program called Appirater that you can throw in your game when you're developing.  It lets you set how many days between pop-ups and what the text should say and all sorts of good stuff.  Highly recommend it!  I set mine to wait for the user to run the App 3 times before it first pops up, then each time you say "Remind me later!" it waits 5 more times before it pops up again.  I figure if you don't like the game, you don't play it 3 times so hopefully I tend to get positive reviews from people who like the game. 


15) The App Store blurbs are hardcore basic text.  Not even bolding/italic stuff, from what I’ve seen.  It’s basically ASCII.  ASCII advertising blurbs, games you can download trial versions of and pay for the full version…where have I seen this before?  oh right, Shareware in the late 80s and early 90s haha  Apple should let people put ANSI blocks in there so we could have badass ANSI art make a comeback!


Best BBS Door game ever made.

Legend of the Red Dragon

I tried doing a bunch of little icons and junk in my App Store blurb but honestly it just looks so ugly that I gave up and kept it simple haha  I wish they at LEAST let you Bold and Italicize things, but no go.  Some notes about the blurb: I found using dividing lines to separate key chunks of it (the section with Review quotes, the section with a description, the section with features, the section with links, etc.) helps make things look nice.  And the first 2 or 3 lines of your description will be what's shown by default, requiring the user to hit a "More" button to see the rest of the description...so make sure what's in those first 2 or 3 lines is something eye-catching like an amazing review quote or a good stat your game has like "#5 in North America" etc.  Also as you get reviews, be sure to quote them in your description...psychologically a lot of people choose their games based on recommendations so when they see "oh, these 3 reviewers are raving about the game" they're more likely to take a chance on it than if you have no quotes at all.


That's about it!  Hope you enjoyed the read and if you're an iPhone developer I hope you got a little out of it.  It's amazing how many lessons you learn when you actually sit down and finish a project from start to finish...but as long as you learn those lessons and remember them in the future on the next project, it's all good.  We're always going to make mistakes, we just want to avoid repeating them!  I figure by the time I finish 2 or 3 games I should have a pretty solid streamlined development workflow so I'm excited for that!


- Jeff

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