Yesterday, Jared Sinclair published a very candid writeup of the download and sales numbers for his app Unread. It was very refreshing to see such an honest post and to see someone publicly admit that spending so much time on an independent app did not result in the numbers he was hoping for.
I have experienced the same thing in my indie-apps.
In my case, however, I was making indie-games, so the odds are even more against me. Here are the numbers for the 3 iOS games I published in the last year.
Spoiler alert: they are bad.
All of these apps were written as side-projects on nights and weekends. At the time I was a full-time employee at Twitter, so my livelihood was not dependent on the performance of these apps, however my goal was always to make money with them by trying different revenue models and not merely publish them for fun.
All numbers current through July 28, 2014.
I tried to mimic the Letterpress UI as much as possible for a few reasons:
Revenue model: Free app with One-time IAP full game unlock for $1.99
First commit: May 11, 2013
Shipped v1.0.0: Aug 9, 2013 (3 months)
Launched: Aug 22, 2013
Total downloads: 26,830
IAP Game-Unlock: 186
Total income: $261.23
Press: Some. I read Pitch Perfect by Erica Sadun to try to better my chances at getting reviews on blogs and app-related sites. When I sent out my pitch emails, I did get a response from Erica but ultimately no review on TUAW. I did, however, get some reviews on AppAdvice and a few others, but it was not nearly the splash I wanted.
Notes: One week after launch, Tetra was featured in several international Asian App-Store lists in the "New" and "What's Hot" game sections. This greatly increased the download numbers (way above the numbers I saw from review articles). 21,309 out of the 26,830 downloads (79%) are international, but only 74 of the 186 paid unlocks (39%) are international. This also means that 74 people out of 21,309 (0.3%) paid to unlock internationally compared to 112 out of 5521 (2%) that paid to unlock domestically.
It turns out that despite the popularity of Letterpress and all the players that started to finally use Game Center because of it, people still don't like it and find it hard to use. I even made a custom 1-tap New Match UI to simplify the flow (the stock UI from Apple takes 5 taps), but even this did not help too much.
WordGrid is a game I wrote while I was writing Letters (see below). I was stuck and wanted to ship something quick, so I challenged myself to write a game in 1 week. The result was a 4x4 grid word puzzle where each level is randomly generated using 4 four-letter words and scrambling them.
Revenue model: Paid app up-front $0.99
First Commit: Oct 13, 2013
Shipped v1.0.0: Oct 20, 2013 (1 week)
Launched: October 28, 2013
Total downloads: 260
Total income: $180.74
Press: None. This was intentional. I didn't want to put forth the effort of a marketing campaign for a one week app.
Letters is an arcade-style word game mix between Scrabble and Boggle. The idea started when the game Dots started to become popular and a friend told me, "People love to play word games. You should make the word game version of Dots." So I did.
It's a 1-player game, but it has social leaderboards so you can see how you score compared to your friends (this was a lesson learned from Tetra that people don't really like to have to wait for a turn-based game).
Revenue model: Free app with Consumable IAP currency in several quantities, plus 1 non-consumable Point Doubler for $4.99
First Commit: Aug 31, 2013
Shipped v1.0.0: April 6, 2014 (7 months)
Launched: April 17, 2014
Total downloads: 1883
Total IAP Purchases: 20
Total income: $56.89
Press: Zero. This was certainly not intentional, and in fact I am severely disappointed by this. Again I crafted a well written pitch email with screenshots, promo codes, and a 1-minute demo video, but the result was zilch. Nada. Infuriating.
Notes: Without any press, this app was pretty much DOA. Despite several follow-up emails to reviewers including download numbers from the first week, no reviews ever materialized. This is very upsetting because I feel personally that this is the best app I've ever written. I also spent a lot of time on polish, features, and game mechanics. The people that do play it love it, and the average session time is somewhere around 10 minutes which I think is pretty great for a mobile game.
I honestly still think Letters has the potential to be a big hit with the word-game crowd, the problem is that I don't have a ton of money to sink into marketing to get it up the charts. I have explored doing some kind of revenue-split with someone or some investment firm to pay for marketing, but nothing ever came of it.
I must admit that I am really disappointed by the current outcome of Letters. I still want it to succeed, but right now I'm not sure what to do about it.
Total income: $498.86
Even though I managed to bring in a paltry $498 for a year's worth of side-project time, it gets even worse. I paid nearly $700 in Facebook and Twitter mobile ads to try and market them. I also bought an iPad Mini and an iPod Touch for development and testing, so I'm even deeper in the hole overall.
In the end, I've had to chalk all these apps up to the "hobby" category as it has been a money-losing proposition.
For all 3 apps, half of their respective download numbers were accumulated within the first 1-2 weeks after launch. After that the numbers dropped like a rock.
I know that the Games category of the App Store is a total bloodbath when it comes to competing with the major publishers and even indie developers who have a decent reputation/following. I was just hoping the long tail was longer (it's not). I am a relative nobody in the app world (and an even lesser nobody in the game world), so I did not have the connections with reviewers or the gaming community to get things off the ground. I am not sure how to break into the App Store today except by winning the lottery.