18 months on the App Store

This is my first article that is going to be included into the iDevBlogADay series. So, I would like to encourage you to read the About page and the Welcome post if you want to know a little bit about me. You can also find all my own iOS projects on the Projects page.

I started my own App Store journey as an indie about 18 months ago. It has been an incredible experience, with lots of satisfying moments and also some frustrating ones. With successful stories and also with non so successful ones. However, the most important thing is that I have learned a lot about living in the jungle of the App Store. In today’s post I would like to share some experiences with you.

App Store icon

The importance of the idea

The idea is not so important. Some people say that idea is 1% and the remaining 99% is execution. And I think it is absolutely true. There is a lot of people that has lots of ideas. And most of these ideas are good or even extraordinary. If you could store all the good ideas that people around the world has every day, you would probably need a kind of storage system that doesn’t exist yet. Tons and tons of petabytes (or even more!) would be probably needed!

However, most of these ideas never became something real, for the real world. And that’s because the important thing and the most difficult one is to execute a good idea. So, don’t worry about having or not a good idea. Almost every idea is good enough. You should be worried about how you are going to execute any idea that comes across your mind. This is a difficult and tricky process that requires experience, error analysis and self critics.

Do few things or even one thing, but do it right

I mean, keep things simple. Simplicity is good! It is good for you because it allows you to work on projects that you can manage to push until its end and publication. But it is also good for your customers. Simplicity is highly appreciated by iOS audience.

However, remember that simple doesn’t mean grotty. Focus on few things or even only one, but do your best to do it right. Customers will notice it.

Polish your products

App Store audience is extremely demanding in terms of polished products. Probably, other markets, like Flash based games, are not so demanding. Games for iOS need to have a professional appeal. Customers expect the game to have some standard features like well designed user interface and menus, options menu, connectivity features (Facebook, Twitter, Game Center…), high quality polished art, some kind of story or metaphor, tuned and well balanced gameplay, high amount of content, product support…

And yes, it means a lot of extra work. Remember to plan for it.

The 3 unconscious decision-making parameters to buy an app

From my experience as an App Store user and developer, I usually describe the customer’s unconscious decision-making process to buy an app using 3 parameters:

  • The app icon+name binomial. Probably the most important thing. The icon needs to have a professional appeal and needs to tell something about the game. Look to your game icon as the first step of the gaming experience that you want to offer to your users. The icon needs to capture the attention of your potential customers and invite them to go in. And the name needs to reinforce it. You don’t realize of the importance of the icon until you need it for your apps… I must admit that my icons are not so good so far…
  • The screenshots on the App Store. The average user unconsciously determines the overall quality of a game based on the quality of its screenshots on the App Store. Moreover, the quality of the screenshots not only depends on the quality of the game’s artwork, you will need to build your screenshots using visual marketing techniques to make the potential customers notice why your game is worth to spend a buck.
  • Reviews and ratings. Finally, when the customer has been attracted by the icon and convinced about the game quality by the screenshots, he needs to know what others said about your game. He is trying to confirm that he has made a good decision. Good ratings can burst your sales considerably. Don’t hesitate to use this kind of techniques to get more positive reviews and ratings.

The user needs to pre-judge your game because there are so many new games every day on the App Store that he needs some kind of quick and efficient (and unconscious) mechanism to discard games. He can’t try them all, even he can’t look carefully to all the new icons, so he pre-judge your game based on those 3 parameters. It is like switching channels on TV. You will need to deal with it.

How a potential customer becomes a fan

From my experience, I describe the process of a potential customer becoming a fan with the following steps:

  1. Good first impression. This first step is very related to the 3 unconscious decision-making parameters to buy an app. You need to attract the attention of your potential customers positively. It is possible to attract the attention of your customer negatively, for example, if your icon uses a weird combination of colors. The user got attracted but not invited to enter. Be careful with that.
  2. Engaging first 15 seconds. This is the time you have to convince the user that he was not wrong when he purchased your game. Only about 15 seconds. After that, if he doesn’t like the game, he will close it and, if you are lucky, never will launch it again. If you are not lucky he will post a burning review on the App Store…
  3. Well paced deep gameplay and difficulty. Make the player feel the flow channel. The game needs to be always challenging but never frustrating.
  4. Free regular high quality content updates. This is really appreciated by the users.
  5. Answer e-mails and twitter. Fans really like to get in touch with the people who made the game they love. Take care of your users, but take special care of your fans.

As you can see, graphics are not so important to become a fan. High quality artwork is only really important in the first step. But after the first impression, the player usually doesn’t focus on visuals any more. He focuses on everything else the game offers.

Causal games on iOS are not only for casual gamers

This is very important. There a lot of PC and console hardcore gamers that are also iOS users. This kind of gamers often look for some kind of high quality casual game experience on iOS. And often, this kind of users are who post reviews and ratings on the App Store.

A Lite version is not always a good idea

A lot of people explains how the Lite version of their apps pushed up their sales. Well I had the opposite experience with my first iOS app paintingWalls. paintingWalls was intended to be an entertainment app for mass market and casual users. I thought that it would be funny to paint your home and try different colors on it. Moreover, I thought that it would be useful for people that were planning on painting their home.

The app started quite well, however, eventually (at version 2.0) paintingWalls became a Pro app. A lot of features were included and the app lost its initial simplicity. And there was a Lite version available with almost all those powerful but not so simple features.

The result: pro users such as interior designers, professional painters, etc, e-mailed me congratulating me for the app and suggesting new interesting features. On the other side, a lot of casual users downloaded the Lite version because it was free and filled the App Store with negative reviews.

On the long run, it means that your app has an average of 2 stars out of 5 and the principles of the 3 unconscious decision-making parameters to buy an app are broken. And the app sales start to fall slowly. And… well you know how it ends…

Probably, a better approach was to not having a Lite version, increase a little bit the price of the Pro/regular version and spend more time on peripheral added values such as the Facebook page, twitter account and the official website with, for example, tutorial videos to master the app. But… who knows…

The art of pricing

Determine the price of your game is very difficult. Well, in fact, it is much more difficult to determine how you are going to monetize your game (Free+ads, Fremium, Free2Play, Lite+Pro, the traditional model…). However, to simplify things, let’s assume that you decided to go for the traditional model and you need to price your game. You can be tempted to price it high because you have spent a considerable amount of time on it and need to get your money back. Opposite to that, you could be tempted to price it low to maximize your downloads and reach the top charts.

Well, there is no universal solution. It depends on the game, the target audience of the game, the seasonal factor (Christmas?) and many many more. You will have to experiment on your own. I have experimented with paintingWalls and my main conclusion is that it is better to price  it at 2$ than at 1$. And that’s probably because paintingWalls is easy to find through a search in iTunes. Probably there is a lot of people that everyday search “decoration” on the iTunes.


These are some useful knowledge pills I have acquired via experience. I have overviewed them but if you are interested on an insight article of anyone of them or about some other issue feel free to post a comment.

One more thing…

I would like to recommend you some posts of this blog that are specially illustrative about my work:

This post is part of iDevBlogADay, a group of indie iPhone development blogs featuring two posts per day. You can keep up with iDevBlogADay through the web siteRSS feed, or Twitter.

9 thoughts on “18 months on the App Store

  1. I think you are absolutely wrong if you think, that the idea is not so important. The most successful games are based on appealing and fairly unique ideas.
    There are also unpolished and “crappy” games like “more pie”, “sand castle builder” etc, which selling like hot cakes, because people like just the idea. On the other side you have highly polished games like “pixel fighter”, “Elusive Ninja” etc. which doesn’t sell well.

  2. Hello Dango!

    That’s not exactly what I was saying. Obviously, the optimal situation is to have a good innovative idea and to execute it perfectly. But it is impossible. I was trying to advise about the difficulty of having a good idea versus the difficulty of executing it. Executing a good idea is much more difficult that having the idea itself.

    That’s the key thing for me. Everyone can have a good idea eventually. But probably not everyone can execute it well every time. If so, this person would have discovered the key of success. And I think this is impossible 😉

    Is a matter of changing the focus of your efforts. On the long run, it is better to focus on executing ideas correctly than on trying to have the best ever idea. And sometimes, executing well implies not picking the best idea on your “ideas repository”.

    Moreover, the examples you have cited are not ideas. They are executions of ideas you (and me) don’t know. The original idea is only in the creators mind. People have a global perception of the product and that’s “their idea behind the product”.

    Thanks for your comment!

    • Thanks! Well, if my english is good enough, “binomial” is something similar to “couple”, two things that always go together.

      Thanks again for reading!

  3. i would think the ideas are the ones hard to come by. I’ve been coding for 2 years, given Ive been focusing on more business like apps or rather, non-cocos2d game apps, and its tough to come up with an idea that is unique and original.

    Btw, i find that my artwork would need to improve dramatically. I have both photoshop and illustrator. What do you usually do? Draw a character or scene on paper and then trace it in illustrator?

    Do you have any good tutorials for illustrator & garageband?

  4. Pingback: The Harsh Realities of Making Mobile Games | Philter Design Studios

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