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How To Build An iOS Game And Hit #1 In The App Store

Amir Rajan, the indie developer and brains behind ‘A Dark Room’, guest blogs today giving us some insight into what he learned on his quest to hit #1 in the App Store.

I made over $700k selling a premium mobile game with no IAP or Ads as a one man shop. It is possible to create sustainable income from apps (albeit very difficult). Here’s how I, Amir Rajan, built an iOS game and hit #1 in the App Store.

Background

I built an iOS app called ‘A Dark Room’ that hit the #1 spot in the App Store. Here’s some precedence to what I’m about to share:

  • 2.26 million downloads in under 2 years (free and paid combined)
  • #1 game in the US for 18 days straight (20 days overall)
  • 26,859 ratings of which 23,833 are 5-stars (4.73 average rating)
  • Publications in Huffington Post, Slate, and The New Yorker
  • Richard Garriott (creator of Ultima Online) talks about ‘A Dark Room’ on Axe of the Blood God
  • Reviewed on Touch Arcade (4 stars) and Cult of Mac (5 stars)

This graph shows the revenue I received for all of my iOS games over 2 years:

HAeWT2N

Getting Featured by Apple – The Do’s and Don’ts

Publishers are not treated equal. If you are Warner Brothers, SquareEnix, Kim Kardashian, King, etc, you get a red carpet to getting featured. You can release whatever trash or shoddy port you want, and you’ll get featured. So you have two options: 1) accept this and play by the rules I’m about to lay out, or 2) don’t participate.

Here’s the list of do’s and don’ts. You need to do all these, it’s how you show Apple that they can take you seriously as a game developer.

The Don’ts

  • Releasing During a Holiday Week
    Don’t submit feature requests during holiday weeks (unless your game is holiday themed). There is so much competition against AAA game companies along with an influx of shovelware related to holiday X. You’ll just be lost in the noise, so take those months to do polish releases, minor bug fixes, etc. Don’t release during New Years, Valentines, Christmas, Thanksgivings, etc.
  • It’s Your First App
    Apple wants to showcase developers that have experience. If this is your first app/game, it’s unlikely you’ll get a feature (unless the app is exceptional).
  • Spinoffs/Clones
    If you’re going to pitch “Crossy Road, BUT BETTER!!” just don’t bother. It’s a great way to get immediately dismissed.

The Do’s

  • App Preview Video
    Your game needs a preview video. Without a preview video, you significantly limit your chances of getting featured. There are plenty of examples of good preview videos out there, so make one for your game if you are serious about getting featured.
  • Good App Description and Screenshots
    Your game needs to have a compelling description and good screenshots. Look at other featured apps to see what constitutes a good app description and screenshots.
  • Localized?
    Is your app localized? It isn’t? Good luck getting a feature (this is the primary thing that’s keeping ‘A Dark Room’ from being considered for anything other than the Best New Game Updates category).
  • Email After Your App Is Approved
    Make sure your game is already sitting in the “Ready For Release by Developer”. You need to give Apple at least three weeks of lead time for feature consideration. Even if you have an incredible game, if you only give Apple a couple day’s notice, you won’t get featured.
  • Buy Featured Games (Know Your Competition)
    If you don’t buy featured apps, how can you objectively tell if your app can compete? You don’t have to buy apps by AAA companies, just apps by other indie devs.
  • Use New Apple Features
    Using these techs will help you get Apple’s attention: SceneKit, SpriteKit, 3D Touch, Replays, Apple Watch, Apple TV, Game Center.
  • Release Every 6 Weeks
    Apple wants to see apps that are updated frequently. If you don’t get featured as a new game, don’t lose too much hope, you can always get featured as an update (not just bug fixes/minor tweaks). Make your updates enticing. Updating (and sending feature requests) too often overloads the Apple team. A 6 week release cycle seems to be a good sweet spot.

The Steps To Follow

Alright, what all of you have been waiting for. Here are my recommended steps to follow for getting featured:

  1. Consider All the Do’s and Dont’s
    My contact at Apple has been very consistent with what the editorial team is looking for. When I ask him, “Hey, I did a major updates, why didn’t I get featured?!” In my case it was, “You need to be localized. You need a preview video”. So don’t waste their time if you’re not going to do the things in the list.
  2. Pick A Target Feature List
    Don’t swing for Editor’s Choice, Indie Game Spotlight, Best New Games, Best New Game Updates, etc. You’ll swing and miss miserably. For your first attempt, pick a minor category. Here is an example: If my game ‘A Noble Circle’ was my first game, I’d target “Great Game Soundtracks” under the Music category, and “Pay Once and Play” under the RPG category. Every game subcategory has a minor feature section. Target those first.
  3. Craft and Send The Pitch Email
    Here is an example email that I’d send to Apple:
    Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 20.40.05
  4. Send a Follow Up Email
    Send a short follow up email when it’s nearing the release date.
  5. Wait Until The Thursday You Were Supposed to Get Featured On
    Reflect on why you didn’t get featured. See which apps did get featured. Try to understand why. Try not to cry. Go in the corner and cry.
  6. Plan Your Next Release (Which Should Be a Minimum 6 Weeks Out)
    You can submit other games to get featured, just not the game you just sent.
  7. Rinse and Repeat
    Follow this protocol. For me (even with a #1 app in the App Store). It took four months of emailing, before I got a response.

What To Do If You Get a Response/Get a Minor Feature
The response you’ll probably get is something along the lines of “we got your email, thanks”. If you get this response, keep doing what you’re doing. If you get a minor feature, you can then start pitching for front page features under “Best New Games”, “Best New Game Updates”, and “Game Collections”. You have to make stronger cases of course, and your competition will be higher quality games, and bigger shops. But hey, it’s progress.

What To Do If You Get Assigned an Apple Contact
After the first 4 months of email, I emailed for another 2 months before I got assigned an Apple contact. At this point, you have hit a point where very few people will ever get. Your contact will be your advocate. So you can ease up on the pitch emails. Be short and to the point with your contact emails. Your job (now) is not to pitch anymore, but provide your plans for future updates. They will handle your submissions to the editorial team.

What Kind of Impact Can You Expect From a Feature
A minor feature won’t get you much. It’s simply a stepping stone to the front page. You’ll probably see a small bump. As far as a front page feature, that is a big deal. My best revenue increase was when ‘The Ensign’ got a second position placement under “Best New Game Updates”. I saw my downloads increase 5x (to about 700 to 1000 downloads a day for that feature week). It also had a residual effect to all my other games. Which brings me to…

Disable App Bundles If You Get Featured
Unless your feature is because of an app bundle, disable them immediately if you get featured. Creating app bundles is a great way to get your other games noticed. But the download of a bundle doesn’t contribute to the individual rank of each game. So if you get a feature, you want to make sure app bundles don’t dilute your downloads for the specific game that was featured (lots of downloads means higher ranks).

Cross Promote Your Games
Have tasteful interstitials to your other games (hell, Apple even encourages this). Cross promoting your games will help you regardless of whether Apple features you or not. So do it 🙂

Ask For Reviews
If you don’t ask, people who download your games won’t review them. So find the perfect time to request a review. Don’t nag them five minutes into your game. See how I did it in ‘A Dark Room’, ‘The Ensign’, and ‘A Noble Circle’. Geometry Dash does a phenomenal job of timing the review request too. Desert Golf does some cute things with sharing accomplishments too.

And Finally, How to Make Sustainable Income

Buy Other Indie Games/IAP
Commit to spending some money per month on indie games and IAP. If an indie game gets featured by Apple, buy it and see what they are doing right. You have to understand the market.

Build Games That Can Be Played in Short Sessions
You want to build “snack-sized” experiences for mobile. I play my mobile games on the can (you do it too, don’t deny it), during commercial breaks while watching TV, waiting in lines, etc. So build games that can be picked up and put down quickly.

Build Games for Mobile
You don’t have a controller. You have a touch device. Build games that are optimized for simple input/touch. You can still make games that are really smooth/fluid. You may also want to consider games that are played in portrait mode, one handed. It’s one of the reasons why Flappy Bird did well (imho).

Build Games You Can Finish Coding in a Short Period of Time
You have to build games that can be completed in 2-3 months (part time). I’d say have an alpha version of your game ready by week six. Submit this version to the App Store as a soft launch. You don’t need to market the release of your game, but at least get through the App Approval Process and get something in the store that you can get early feedback on. Don’t put any notes when submitting to the App Store that the game is incomplete (you may get rejected for saying that). I can’t stress this “first release” enough. You probably won’t get any downloads… but life of the app in the App Store does influence rank, so why not get a head start on this?

Release Every 6 Weeks Until You’re “Done”
Assuming you took the advice above, you’ll still be working on your game while it’s in the store. You’ll want to schedule a nice 6 week rhythm. This accomplishes a few things:

  • You have a sense of urgency for your next release. This forces you to chop things up and really think about what’s important and what isn’t.
  • Releasing often keeps your audience coming back to see what’s new. Every release of ‘A Noble Circle’ gets people excited to see what I’ve added. I’ve had people leave negative reviews, and then come back a few releases later and say “Things are shaping up nicely, good work!”
  • Releasing often resets the reviews (reviews will get archived with every new release). So you spend less time worrying about a critical review and more time on fixing what they complained about.
  • Releasing shows Apple that you keep your apps updated. Apple loves apps that are constantly updated with new/compelling content. But, you generally don’t want to release more often than 6 weeks (you’re just overloading the editorial and review teams at this point… so don’t do it unless you have a nasty game breaking bug).

Report Inflammatory Reviews
Reviews that are just plain negative should be reported. Long negative rants aren’t great to see on your review page, and frankly Apple doesn’t want them showing up either. Here’s an examples of a review I got for ‘A Dark Room’ that is eligible for removal (I didn’t remove them simply because it is hilarious):

  • Garbage (1 star): It’s so nice to have this hive-mind community full of hipsters and morons raving about the worst goddamn games. Same thing happened with Angry Birds and Flappy Birds. You people are disgusting. Horrible unwashed masses of brainless consumers. Hey morons, take a step back and really consider the piece of crap you rated 5 stars. No, really, just take a moment.

If You Must Do Ads, Do Them Well
There are good ways to do ads, and then there are stupid ways. Take a look at how Geometry Dash, Crossy Road, and Threes Free do ads. Each one takes a tasteful approach to. With regards to an IAPs that remove ads, give the player something additional. There is novel a tower defense game called Bardbarin. It has an IAP that removes ads, but also gives you a special item that buffs gold generation.

IAP’s
I’m not a big fan of IAP’s. So really the only thing I can say with regards to them is play League of Legends and see how they monetize. I’ve spent $100+ dollars on LoL and never have they presented a pop up to get me to buy something.

Add a Review Button
If you don’t ask for reviews, you won’t get them. You don’t want to do a nag review screen. I’ve seen too many apps that ask for a review five minutes in… don’t do this. Find the perfect time to present a review button and your conversion rate will significantly increase. Geometry Dash and Duet do a great job of this.

Endless Games
You want to build games that people finish (as opposed to playing a little and deleting). There are games out there that do endless really well, take a look at Desert Golf, Alto’s Adventure, and You Must Build a Boat. It’s important to realize that length does not equal value, so keep that in mind when deciding on what type of game you build. Great examples of satisfying games (that aren’t endless) are Prune, Monument Valley, Game Dev Story, and (personal plug) A Dark Room.

Screenshots
Have screenshots and if at all possible an App Preview Video. The guy that I used is pretty reasonable about pricing, you can email him at Rule2 Productions: [email protected] He did the video for ‘A Noble Circle’ and Michael’s new game GridLand. For your screenshots, pair them up with words. Few people actually read the description of your app.

Promotion Codes
Give them away like candy (especially since you’re releasing so often). If you reach out to editors or reviewers, just send redemption codes with the initial email you send out. The worst thing you can do is say “email me back and I’ll send you codes.” They won’t email you back, and they won’t take a look at your game.

Cloning Other Games
Create derivative works. Study games you like and recreate it with your style. Geometry Dash is a great example of a derivative work. You can tell that it’s heavily inspired by Impossible Game, but simply does a better job.

Free Versions
Geometry Dash has a free version and a paid versions. Having this kind of offering keeps cloners from trying to capitalize on your success. See what I’ve done with A ‘Noble Circle – Prologue (free)’. If you have a complex game, it’s unlikely you have to worry about creating a free version. It’s also worth noting that the App Store customer base is simply divided. There are those that buy games and those that don’t. It doesn’t seem like they cross over much. So it may be beneficial to provide both versions if that’s something that your game can work with.

Have An Identity
You will (hopefully, eventually) find your style. I know exactly what kind of game I will get when I get a game from Bossa Studios (the guys that made Surgeon Simulator and I am Bread). I know exactly what kind of game I’ll get when I get a game from Supergiant Games (the guys that made Bastion and Transistor). As an indie game developer, you can capitalize on “having heart” (as opposed to the souless AAA companies). You want to get to a point where people say “Oh, Amir built this game. I’m gonna buy it.” Having this kind of identity keeps you from having to create sequels/”franchises”. Having an identity that is more than just a game will help with having a sustainable income.

Do it for Love
Guys and gals, we’re lucky. We have the ability to release a game that can be something special to someone living on the other side of the world (with very little monetary investment). Before ‘A Dark Room’ went viral, I found meaning and success in what I did simply because I inspired some teenagers to get into game development, and brought a great gaming experience to the blind. I find meaning in presenting and writing about game development (none of which really generates money).
‘A Noble Circle’ has modest downloads, but I’m so happy seeing glowing reviews and receiving a single email about how a father and son connected while playing it. So relish in those small wins, they’ll make all the work you put into your games worth it (even if your game fails financially…which it probably will). I can only do game development part time (it doesn’t pay all the bills), but damn do I have a great time building them.

My Book
I’m writing a book, ‘Surviving The App Store’ that goes into details about the issues I’ve discussed. 10% of proceeds goes to a charity that helps kids learn to code. Find it here: https://leanpub.com/survivingtheappstore

My Games
A Dark Room – https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/a-dark-room/id736683061?mt=8
The Ensign – https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/the-ensign/id908073488?mt=8
A Noble Circle – https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/a-noble-circle/id977865620?mt=8
A Noble Circle Prologue – https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/a-noble-circle-prologue/id1033044184?mt=8
Beautiful Go – https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/beautiful-go/id955295568?mt=8



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