So you've done it. You've worked for 4-9 months without pay with the rest of your team, and you finally completed your app and are ready to unleash your indie game upon the mobile world. It's soon after this point you'll likely come to the same conclusion that I did. The game is rigged. The deck is stacked. The odds are against you.
If things weren't made complicated enough by your own inexperience, the realities of the app markets surely weed out more than their share of bright-eyed, indie developers. This isn't meant to discourage indies because you can do it, but you need to be aware of the nature of the game you're about to start playing.
You now have a completed game, but that's really only half the battle, and here are some of the challenges that you'll face. These are the realities that indies need to be aware of.
Failure to Launch
Launch is vital for indie developers, and here you can be your own worst enemy. If you're trying to make as big a splash as possible on the Apple marketplace, you need to hit the ground running, and that means making sure your game is ready. Test, test, and test some more.
Making a minor change? Play through the game again. If you fail to build momentum off your launch, expect your app to become invisible shortly after. It's possible to pick it up from that point, but it puts you at a serious disadvantage. You need to have all your ducks in a row and hit your launch with everything you have. You can't do that if your game isn't ready.
In January, when we launched Itzy3D, our game was running fine. We launched on the Android Marketplace while waiting for approval on the App Store. While we waited, we received useful feedback from our Android users and, as the Apple binary was pending, we made a few modifications (this will also set you back in Apple's queue. Beware).
When our game finally launched on the App store, we noticed that a seemingly minor change had borked gameplay in every level but the tutorial. So, no problem, right? Just fix, update and move on. Not so fast. By the time our updated version was approved by Apple, three weeks had passed with a broken version of our game sitting on the App Store.
When the game was fixed, our visibility on the App Store was next to zero. With no momentum from the initial launch, there was no chance for our game to rank in any of Apple's charts. Test, test, test. Make sure you're ready.
Then, there's the icon. Your first chance to make an impression is with your icon. That's the first thing people see. You can have the best game in the world, but if no one feels compelled to click on it in the first place, you're not going to make any money. In Feb, 148apps estimates that 823 apps are being added into the Apple marketplace every day. Will you stand out?
Marketing, reviews and money
So what can you do to get noticed? Well, you can spend money. Want to run some ads? That'll cost you. Want to get reviewed? Reviewers are buried under a ton of games all wanting the same exposure that you want. So they'll either ignore you, get to you in a few months – or you can always pay them for expedited reviews, and it can cost you.
Want to issue a press release? Oh, there's free ways to go about this too, but if you want to get noticed, if you want pictures, if you want to hit more media outlets? That'll cost you.
If you don't have the money for all these things you're already at a disadvantage because you can bet the established companies have no issue with spending money on marketing their products. They'll be noticed with their established advertising networks and partnerships. Most likely, you won't.
Make sure you have a plan. $1000 to start your marketing at launch couldn't hurt, and expect to reinvest a percentage to keep the ball rolling after that.
The Apple Fix is In
I had a chat with a successful mobile game developer awhile back, and he told me something that made my stomach knot. "If your game doesn't take off on its own, you can always pay the Russians. That's about the only hope you have. And if your game doesn't stick after that, pull the plug."
That's right. If your game doesn't go viral, his recommendation was to spend between $30-50k for one of these chart-manipulating services to artificially elevate your game to the top of the Apple charts. Once it gets there, see if it stays and if not, move on.
Those with the money can pay others to manipulate their way to the top slots. Can indies compete in an environment where the top slots are bought and paid for? It's possible, but not probable.
This rigging of the Apple charts came to light recently in the Touch Arcade, forums where a developer explained that he was approached by a company offering these services. The company pointed to 8 of the top 25 games that were at the top due to their machinations.
Apple issued a statement that these types of services were frowned upon and could, potentially result in your developer account being closed; forcing some to potentially pay new Apple fees to open a new account.
Forgive me if I sound a bit cynical, but I'm sure if these companies don't mind paying tens of thousands on chart manipulation, the fees associated with setting up a new account aren't much of a concern.
Android hide and seek
I've touched on this a bit in the past, but the Android Marketplace certainly isn't the answer either. Developers I've talked to have all tried to crack the Android market, but even when they have a measure of success, it usually pales compared to what they're able to achieve on the Apple App store. Many I've spoken to have simply given up on the Android platform or weren't interested in the first place.
For indies, it's even harder. On the Apple App Store, you can at least expect a small window of visibility at launch due to the "What's New" section. The Android marketplace no longer has even a basic "What's New" section. This means that if your app, god forbid, doesn't instantly sell enough to be featured in a Top category, no one will ever find you unless they're specifically looking for you.
Of course, you could always win the "Staff Pick" lottery just as you could win the App Store's "Featured" lottery. Someone has to win, but for an indie looking to seriously start a small business revolving around making mobile games, hoping for a lottery win isn't usually considered a sound business plan.
You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake
There are tens of thousands of indie developers out there just like you and me. When the new, digital frontier opened up and suddenly developers were striking gold in the App Store, it opened the floodgates for every would-be developer out there to take a crack at the mobile market.
Now, publications that would like to take us seriously are swarmed by indies looking for exposure. Reviewers have to simply ignore the large majority of requests due to time and resource constraints. And worse, our customers are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of new applications being added to the application marketplaces daily. So what can indies do to survive when the odds are clearly against us?
We can support each other and persevere. Our first game, Itzy3D exists due to the support we've received from others. Gamers and developers offering their feedback, indie developers raising awareness of our product via social media, indie Facebook groups and forums who were always there to offer support and advice based on their own hard learned lessons, and talented folks like Reuben Cornell who reached out to us via Twitter to offer his musical talents to help get us off the ground.
The worst thing an indie developer can do is isolate themselves. United, we have a better chance at improving our products and learning from the experiences of others. Maybe your first game doesn't take off, but you learn. Then your second does a bit better. Then your third does better still.
Talk to people, talk to other developers, talk to publishers. Engage your peers and you'll find that you don't have to do this alone. The odds might be against you, it can be discouraging, and you need to be aware of the realities indie developers face, but don't discount the support of the indie community nor their willingness to help. Use them and let them help you make better products.
In the end, this makes all indie titles look better, and together we can change the game.
[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]