With thousands upon thousands of iPhone and iPod Touch games on the App Store, developers today are finding it considerably more difficult to get their games to stand out from the crowd, even when compared to just one year ago.
At GDC Austin's iPhone Summit in Texas on Tuesday, Brian Greenstone, CEO of Pangea Software, developers of top-selling iPhone games Enigmo and Bugdom, described five marketing rules to help the new influx of developers sell more games, taking into account everything from App Store search engine quirks to dreaded "Apptards."
Marketing Rule No. 1: Get Into The Top 200
Greenstone said that it is imperative to get your App ranked in the top 200 list of top-selling games. Apps in the top 100, Greenstone said, generally sell over 1,000 copies per day, while Apps ranked in the top 10 sell over 6,000 copies per day. "Some of the number one Apps were over 20-30,000 a day," Greenstone said. "...[But] your sales drop off rather quickly after they fall off that list."
Getting into the top 100 or 200 is easier said than done. Part of the key is to launch strong. Start with a special introductory price -- not necessarily the rock-bottom 99 cents price tag, but even a slightly discounted price could work wonders, he said.
"Profits are not important in the first week," he said. "What matters is your ranking." The profits, Greenstone added, will come with a good ranking.
Marketing Rule No. 2: Get the Customer's Attention
Icons, which are pictured beside an App's listing, are important in piquing interest in App Store consumers, Greenstone said. "You want to try to make an icon that is going to stand out." He suggested revising a game's icon once in a while -- perhaps once every six months -- because that could draw in new customers who had become accustomed to skipping over your game and its aging icon. Greenstone said from his own experience it's typical to see a sales "blip" after updating an icon.
Also important in grabbing more eyeballs is using great screenshots, particularly the primary screenshot that is featured prominently on a game's page. "I see so many people screw this up, when people put up the most asinine screenshot," said Greenstone. "Nobody cares about your menu screen."
For the game's product description, he said to keep it concise: use bullet points, localize, and choose key words carefully to attract more searches.
Also, Greenstone admitted, "'A is better than 'Z'." "Apps are released in batches, and the batches are sorted alphabetically in the chronological listings. Sometimes only A-D are on the first page," he stated. Apps at the end of the alphabet often "never see the light of day."
And if you find that your game is having trouble breaking the top 200 sales ranking, try focusing on a high ranking in a subcategory, he said. While it may be hard to rank high in the highly-competitive Action subcategory, the Kids category is easier to break into. But only be part of categories that make sense for your game, he said.
Marketing Rule 3: Promote Your App
"Expecting people to just magically find your App on iTunes is a recipe for failure," Greenstone said. People should know about your game before, during, and after launch.
"The more buzz, the better," he said. "It's better to sell 1,000 copies at once than over a week," he said, because that immediate impact will get the game a better ranking. Developers need to "hammer" the App Store right away.
Press releases are also important, as well as developing a strong relationship with media. One trick is contacting an editor, and give him "off the record" news to make him feel in the loop. Then, this can begin a kind of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" relationship.
Pangea typically sends out press releases on Fridays. "I always prefer to put out our press releases on Fridays. ... You get Friday, Saturday, and Sunday exposure," he said, as many websites don't update over the weekend -- that means three days of unfettered exposure. Using YouTube as a promotional tool is also hugely important, he said.
User reviews are also important. For reviews on iTunes, Greenstone visited the controversial subject of reviewing your own game. "It's okay to 'jumpstart' [your game through your own reviews] if you do it ethically." He argued that if you like your game, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to say so through a review. "There's an ethical way and unethical way to write your own reviews." He said it's okay to write one yourself, but don't create a lot of fake names to post great reviews of your own game.
He also said writing a review of your game is "the only recourse" to fighting what he dubbed the "Apptards" -- "angry kids" who, on a whim, change a game's rating from five stars to one star "if the game hasn't been updated for a week," or other frivolous reasons. "You have to counteract the Apptards," he said.
Gaining support from Apple itself is important. Much like fostering a relationship with the media, it's important to create close ties with the platform holder. By getting Apple to support your game, they can put the game on "hot" lists in iTunes with big icons.
Promotion shouldn't stop after the launch of a game. There should be a good amount of post-launch hype. Greenstone gave the example of how last year, Pangea put all of its games up for a "Black Friday" sale just prior to Thanksgiving. To his surprise, nobody else thought of such a tie-in. All five of Pangea's games shot up to the top 10, and the company sold 48,000 units per day during the sale.
One of the bigger concerns with iPhone development is the erosion of game prices. Many games are going for 99 cents, which leaves little for game's creator. "99 cents is a horrible price. A terrible, terrible price," Greenstone said. "... It gives you nowhere to go [if you want to discount it], and it also brought everyone's prices down. Now, we're seeing an uptick." He said that triple-A, premium-priced games games from companies like EA are helping bring prices back up.
"Higher prices tend to filter out the Apptards," so you generally get the better reviews, he said. One bad thing about sales is you get "inundated with Apptards," he said to a chuckling audience.
As for free "Lite" versions of iPhone games, Greenstone said flatly, "Don't do it." While these demos can help promote an App, he said in most cases it's either a break-even or money-losing venture, and rarely works as intended. In his experience, a Lite version of one of Pangea's games actually halted sales of the paid version, leading the company to pull the demo.
Marketing Rule No. 4: Diversify Your Portfolio
Today, it's not as easy as it used to be to make millions as a one-hit wonder on the iPhone. "You shouldn't really think about getting rich off one product, but getting rich off of your portfolio," Greenstone said. Developers are better off being more than a one-trick pony.
Marketing Rule No. 5: Keep Development Costs Low
Greenstone said profit sharing between a game's different contributors is the safest strategy, certainly safer than investing six figures into the development of a game. For Pangea, contributors get paid when as the game makes money. He said if possible, keep costs at $0. When profits start coming in and you start distributing the checks, contributors are happy to see that, and are willing to work with you again. "Everybody wins when risk in minimized," he said. "Do everything on the cheap, but do quality Apps."