by William Kwan
How My Mobile Game Got 365K App Store Downloads in 2 Weeks (And Why I Quit Indie Game Dev Afterwards)
I’m not a successful game developer. My most popular game, Frantic Architect, only had 410,678 free installs before being removed from the App Store; nothing compared to the likes of Flappy Bird or 2048.
But I was 21, had an unconventional but respectable background in games, and had built the game by myself with relatively little effort. This looked like the perfect jumpstart to my career as an indie game developer.
Instead I quit.
It’s been a year and half since Frantic Architect came out. Things move quickly in tech and I don’t spend much time reflecting on abandoned ventures. But browsing through the App Store now, I see casual mobile game developers finding success with the same strategy I used back then. I doubt it’ll still work years down the line, but for now it does, and it’s very straightforward (not saying it’s easy).
You don’t even need the couple years of game programming and design experience I had. If your goal is to develop a mobile app quickly, you don’t care about what kind of app it is, and you want to replicable method to acquire ton of users fast without spending a fortune on ads, then the casual mobile game niche is for you.
I’ve got no interest in repeating the experiment because I think it’s a shitty business model. Maybe you can prove me wrong.
March 17, 2016
I rolled out of my bed in my university dorm and checked my Skype. My game had been submitted to Apple for review a week ago and I knew it could go live at any time. I was in Toronto, and my product manager was in Paris, so I had gotten into the habit of waking up to a flood of messages.
I recall reading some congratulatory message about my game getting featured worldwide by Apple. I turned on my iPad and opened up the App Store. Sure enough, Frantic Architect was sitting there as a Best New Game.
I got access to the analytics a few days later. Day 4 was my by best day with 58,486 downloads.
By two weeks, downloads had already dropped off precipitously. I wasn’t too disappointed because I wasn’t expecting this volume of users to begin with. During the 6 months which I worked/procrastinated on my game, I was given very little indication of how well it was going to do besides the fact that I had gotten a contract from one of the most successful casual mobile game publishers at the time, BulkyPix.
However, I was underwhelmed with the ad revenue given the download numbers.
This was the first alarm bell which made me question whether I should keep doing this. That initial spike of traffic at launch was nowhere near enough to generate livable income, and I didn’t want to constantly push out new content to keep my game relevant because I didn’t think the game was very good to begin with. More importantly, I didn’t even know what kind of content players would want.
My initial batch of users found out about the game through the App Store feature, which led to the game hitting the top charts in over a hundred countries, resulting in even more downloads. But I had no idea who these people were, or why they were interested in my game. As far as I knew, they just happened to download it because it was in front of their faces.
It turned out to be a good thing that my game wasn’t a cash cow because a couple months later, BulkyPix declared bankruptcy and I never got paid a penny. I was pretty pissed but this wasn’t why I left indie games. I needed to generate reliable revenue, but my approach, which I had shamelessly copied from other games, was flawed.
The entire strategy relies on getting your game featured by Apple or Google. A casual mobile game isn’t going to stand out among the thousands of other games released every month if you just post it on random places on the Internet.
In order to get featured, you need to get through to their editorial teams. You could try sending mass emails and LinkedIn connections to try to find an inside contact to pitch your game to (I’ve never done this but I guess it’s worth a shot) but what most of the top casual mobile game developers do is pitch their games to well-known publishers. These publishers meet with the Apple and Google editorial teams regularly, and will pitch them your game in-person. Their connections and reputation are your best way of getting that coveted spot on the front page of the store if your game is mediocre like mine was (I assume yours isn’t much better, or else you aren’t making casual mobile games).
To get your game through to a publisher, you need to pitch them a game which fits their portfolio but also has a unique selling point. If they accept your game, they’ll handle all the business stuff in exchange for a large percentage of the revenue and ownership of the IP, and you just focus on making the game good.
The overall strategy can be broken down into 5 steps:
- Comb through the top charts and the featured games on the App Store and Google Play and look for games which are dead-simple to build. As I’m writing this, prime candidates would be games like Fire Up! and Dunk Shot.
- Find the publishers behind those games and look for the ones which have worked with many different developers. Look for patterns across their portfolio of games. Generally, they all have short gameplay session duration and simple mechanics. There’s isn’t much difference between most of these publishers in terms of what they accept, so if one of them likes your game, chances are there’ll be others which like it as well.
- Make prototypes fast. Don’t code anything except for the core gameplay loop and keep the graphics simple. It’s fine to rip off other games as long as you have one unique selling point. This is usually a mechanic, but you can also just skin an existing game concept in an interesting way if you have the artistic talent.
- Send playable builds to all the publishers you researched earlier. Keep your email pitch brief. It shouldn’t take more than a sentence to describe that one selling point.
- Sign a contract and finish the game. You’ll probably have to make the sales material such as ads and descriptions as well. Pay special attention to the graphics you need to submit to Apple and Google.
My first 3 games were universally rejected, but this was only a few hundred hours of lost work, and I could have reduced this to a few dozen if I hadn’t fallen in love with the first two games and kept adding features to them in spite of the fact that they were getting ignored/passed on by every publisher I showed it too. Don’t do that. Scrap your rejected games quickly and mitigate your losses. Casual mobile games should be easy to make, so starting over is often faster than iterating on a boring or broken design.
When I say your publisher will handle the business stuff, I mean they’ll maximize your chances of getting featured. You might think that there are other avenues of marketing they can help with. There are, but it mostly involves sending sales material to a lot of gaming and tech-related news/review/social media sites. Not very impactful if your game is another casual mobile game. To give a sense of how little this helps, the Google Play version of Frantic Architect only had a grand total of 3,817 downloads. It was submitted to the same sites which the iOS version was (I don’t know what all these sites were, but you can find a bunch of them if you Google the game). It just didn’t get featured on Google Play.
What does seem to help, from what I’ve researched, is cross-promotion between different games in a publisher’s portfolio. Basically, instead of paying a ton of money for ads, you get the ads for free from other games the publisher owns. I don’t have the data for the sources of Frantic Architect’s downloads, but I doubt BulkyPix ever did this for me. It was a mistake to overlook this when I signed the contract, but it wouldn’t have prevented the game from dying.
If I had to describe why making casual mobile games is a dumb way to make money, I’d compare it to running a hot dog stand. It has a cookie-cutter business model and even though the food is terrible, customers come because it’s fast and convenient. The higher-end indie game developers are like restaurant owners, who put out good food but struggle to make money just the same because there’s just as much competition. Regardless of whether you’re running the restaurant or the hot dog stand, how do you convince someone that they need to come and eat your food, when there are so many other places they can go?
Of course, a select few will make it out on top as successful hot dog stands and restaurants. But why not choose a market with less competition, and one where you can succinctly explain to your customer why they should buy your product, instead of a vague promise of fun and satisfaction?
I still love games. I was raised on them and I’ll probably be a gamer for the rest of my life. But if I’m ever going to make another game, I’m not going to treat it as a business.
I don’t know much about running a company. I’ve abandoned multiple other projects since Frantic Architect, so I don’t even consider it a particularly painful failure. But I don’t think it’s due to luck or more effort that my current venture, a game server provider for a survival crafting game, is on track to surpass the total revenue of Frantic Architect next month, yet has a userbase of hundreds instead of hundreds of thousands, and has been growing steadily since launch a month and a half ago. I get why people need my service, I can charge accordingly for it, and I can improve it without having to take wild guesses at what to do.
Too many people look at the apps at the top of the App Store and mistakenly think that those are the the most successful. But targeted customers are worth way more than random customers, and the businesses which understand this are the ones worth learning from, even if they aren’t in the spotlight.