Mar 172011

I touched on most of this stuff, in a condensed form, in my SteamBirds Survival: By The Numbers post last week. It’s received a lot of attention, so I thought I’d expand on it a bit.

I only have experience with the two largest markets: iOS and Android.  I will focus on those two, but the same arguments can be extended to any other mobile platform.

The Allure of Mobile

I don’t believe that developing a “mobile application” from the ground-up is an easy task. As a port, or an add-on to an existing IP: maybe. But an original title? Scary thought!

Some developers are drawn to mobile platforms for technical reasons: The touch interface, the GPS functionality, or the gyroscopic inputs. For those developers, it can be an exciting new platform with excellent opportunities for innovation. Still, you have a hard road ahead of you, and you have my sympathy and support!

A good chunk of developers, though, want to make original games for mobile platforms purely because of the stories of Scrooge McDuck-style money-bins. I suppose this post is being made to dash those dreams on the reef of reality; I hope I’m wrong, and I wish you luck and success regardless, but I think it is a losing venture.

How to Succeed

To succeed in either the iOS or Android market you need to have one of the following:

  1. Excellent Marketing (buying a billboard in LA helps)
  2. Amazing, ground-breaking, innovative gameplay (you might think you have this, but you probably don’t)
  3. Be “featured”

Assuming #1 and #2 are out of reach for you (as they are for most Indies), I guess that means we’ll be sticking to the “getting featured” item. Why?

Most customers are lazy. They will buy games near the top of the charts. The few people willing to “dig” for a good game are (a) probably not going to find yours amongst the thousands of other titles, and (b) probably not going to buy it even if they do see it. Why would they pick yours over the ten apps on either side of yours? Remember: There are over 500,000 apps out there.

On iOS, the default chart-sorting is by “Most sales in the last 72 hours.” On Android, the default chart-sorting is by “Most sales of all time.” This is (IMHO) complete bullshit, and is why content-discovery is such a problem on mobile platforms (particularly on Android).

Being “featured” let’s you skip the catch-22 of “you need sales to make sales.”

Getting Featured

So how do you get Featured?

  1. Know somebody at Apple/Google and grease some palms (take someone out to coffee, meet them at a trade show, etc)
  2. Know somebody that knows somebody at Apple/Google (aka: Publishers. They will take a lot of your money for this advantage!)
  3. Prove your worth with hard facts (sales figures from other platforms, reviews, having a long successful history with the store, being a triple-A studio, making a game based on a blockbuster movie, etc.)

Note that there isn’t an option there that says “My game will do well, honest!!” or “Play-tests say it’s great!” The gate-keepers are only interested in solid facts, not speculation.

How important is getting featured? Well, most games that don’t get featured disappear into obscurity. Friends and family might be your only customers, if you can be so lucky; expect sales of less than $10-$200. If you get your entire extended family to buy your application, what rank do you think it will appear as? How far down the list will it be on iOS? How far down will it be on Android?

What if you ARE featured?

IF you get featured, what kind of sales can you expect? How do the markets stack up?

In my experience, and speaking with other Indie game devs: The Android market will get you somewhere between 10-20% of your iOS sales, if all other things are equal.

Yes, there are more Android devices in the world than iOS products. However, every single iOS device has access to the AppStore. Some Android devices don’t have storage capabilities, are regionally locked, or sometimes carriers themselves block out the AndroidMarket. I haven’t been able to find hard figures on this, but I estimate that the potential Android app-customer base is way less than half the size of the iOS market. 10-20% sounds and feels about right, and seems to fit evidence collected.

In terms of actual cash generated: Being in the top ten can keep you in the top ten for a long time. The rich get richer. So the higher your ranking, the more money you make. But it’s a very steep curve.

How about an example?

SteamBirds had a decent launch on the mobile market. Here’s some figures:

  • The game launched in early December on (flash version). This version linked to the mobile editions.
  • Mobile editions simultaneously launched on iOS and Android a week later.
  • A week after mobile editions launched, they were featured on both platforms (thanks to shout-outs from Penny Arcade, Rock Paper Shotgun, and our own connections)
  • After 3 months of sales:
    • $100K-ish from iOS (just about 50/50 iPad and iPhone)
    • $30K-ish from Android
  • On iOS, peaked at #12 (ipad/games section), #26 (top apps)

Android’s long-tail is roughly twice as thick as iOS, and I predict that – over the course of 1-2 years(?) – it might even overtake iOS sales.

Grain of salt time

Other than big-studio- or proven-IP-based- titles, I don’t know anyone that’s done as well as SteamBirds in the Android market [given my 3 months sales time]. I know a lot of developers with Android titles; some made less than $10, and nobody I know of  has been featured in that market.

That said, there’s always the chance you can get lucky. Considering how many entrants there are in the mobile industry, though: the odds are against you. Better luck playing the lottery, I think!

If you have any experiences with the mobile markets, please post them in comments! There’s not enough data being shared about this industry!

  7 Responses to “Thoughts on Mobile Platforms”

Comments (6) Pingbacks (1)
  1. Hi Andy,

    We are the lucky ones. We haven’t got any contacts at Apple but our Fairy Cubes and Fairy Cubes HD games were featured.
    The most important part – in my opinion: make a good game. ;)


  2. It’s interesting that getting “Featured” can determines if a game succeeds or not. According to this article, Angry Bird’s developers Rovio hooked up with publishers Chillingo to approach Apple to get to be featured. I wonder if Angry Birds would be where it is today without getting featured.

    “”we went to Apple with Chillingo and said, ‘We’ve got something here.’” On February 11, 2010, Apple agreed to feature Angry Birds on the front page of the UK App Store as game of the week. ”

  3. Hmmm…the message here seems to be twofold: “Forget it, pal. You’ll never succeed developing an indie Flash game for the mobile platform.” And, “After 3 months, Steambirds earned $130k.”

    Don’t you think this is maybe a little bit arrogant?

    Sure, there are tons of apps out there, and like any endeavor, the going is tough. But I’d wager there are a whole lot of young programmers in the world with the potential to be just as cool as you.

  4. Not at all, Joe – I believe steambirds was successful BECAUSE it was a proven IP to start with, and was ported to the mobile market. That got it featured, and that made it successful.

    If I had launched directly to the mobile market it probably would have been a very, very different story.

    In the “Getting Featured” section of my article, I had all three numbers covered:

    1. The game was ported by SemiSecret Software, who – with the success of canabalt – is very well known to Apple (and they have a dedicated Apple account rep)

    2. SpryFox was essentially “publishing” for me and knew people at Apple

    3. I had hard sales figures, endorsements, and reviews from the press.

    I believe SB is an example of how to do things “right” – and I hope maybe I can help others do it right, too!

  5. That is bloody interesting! We’re thinkinking & thinking here in Moscow on marketing investments & what the campaign should be. Does the free browser version help to increase the mobile sales? Google optimisation?

    P. S. Steambirds is a revelation! Addicted 4 two days. My wife goes turn-based.

  6. Actually I have a better idea. PORT REALM OF THE MAD GOD TO IOS!

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.