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The Mobile Gaming Mavens discuss how to make a successful iOS game

Does it have to have a bird in it?
The Mobile Gaming Mavens discuss how to make a successful iOS game
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This week, the PocketGamer Mobile Mavens were assigned a topic, but Mills(TM)of UK/Swedish outfit ustwo knew better and took them in an entirely different direction.

The question he asked was:

"How many people actually believe there's a high chance of making a return on a quality (by quality I mean something that any one of us can look at and feel a little sick that we didn't make) iOS game?

He further qualified this, adding;

"Recently, I spoke with one of my good mates who happens to run a very commercially successful game studio. I asked him if he would release a game without the power of a huge user platform he uses to monetise and he said; 'No, it would be commercial suicide'."

Best of a bad bunch

Paul Farley, from Tag Games answered in the affirmative.

"You almost certainly have a lesser chance [on iOS] than on other closed platforms, but due to the size and accessibility of the userbase, it's no wonder iOS is so attractive," he argued.

"It is a great place to test IP, but every success we've had has been because of a multi-platform strategy from day one. Also, despite the increased use of metrics tracking, data analysis and business/development models that require less upfront investment, creating games and trying to make money from them remains a very risky business."

Christopher Kassulke of HandyGames agreed, with characteristic honesty:

"If you want to become rich - become a pimp. Without marketing, sales or promotion power, you play the lottery. But that's for all platforms."

Then, making a wider point, he continued: "The goldrush comes, the goldrush goes; you can still dig for gold. Not all gold diggers became rich, but those who sold the shovels and whisky did.

"Two or three years ago, the most profitable business in the games industry was developing PlayStation 2 titles when everyone else was developing for Wii, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, etc. Normally, business gets more profitable when the lemmings have moved to the next goldrush."

Money, money, money

Tower Studios' Jon Hare has seen it all before. He had a more pessimistic outlook. "Commercial suicide backed by other people's money has been the norm in the game industry since the mid-1990s."

He listed three ways to operate as a mobile developer. "You can join the big boys and play their game, but you need a lot of luck, six months before you get really started, and a shitload of someone else's money .

"Or, go in both feet first on your own, throw everything you have and more at it. This attitude is very common among start ups and very damaging to the established smaller development community as it drives prices down, generates too much risk, and gives publishers unrealistic expectations about how they can treat the more established developers."

His third point, however, was based on what he called the first rule of business: Don't lose money.

"Take the cautious, stealthy approach, vow never to spend too much of your money, just your time. This slow approach is wearing and the constant commercial vigilance, politics and deal-making needed to keep going with little outlay is deeply unsettling to the creative soul."

Baby steps

But Bolt Creative's Dave Castelnuovo countered with optimism.

"The gold rush isn't over. Just make sure you have a bird in your icon, and you'll be all set," he opined, before taking a more serious stance.

"The key is not to spend $500,000 making a quality game and then leave it to succeed on its own. You have to start small enough that slow sales won't sink you, but big enough to get attention. Then constantly support it, market the hell out of it, work on getting visibility in the community, and make rounds with the press."

He also argued Apple features are less important than thought.

"An Apple promo is artificial inflation. People will download it just because it's visible, but not because of game's virality.

"Most of the games considered evergreen on the App Store experienced slow growth - Angry Birds, Doodle Jump, and Pocket God all took months to make it into the top 10. What allowed us to stay there, was we refined our games until they could get into the top charts based on the game itself."

Kevin Dent of Tiswaz, agreed with Castelnuovo.

"Generally when I am talking to small studios, I advise them to focus on single screen puzzle-style titles that they can put together in 60 days with two weeks QA and polishing time.

"I also advise them to keep their expectations low in terms of revenue. There are very few large indie studios out there that can swallow six figures of risk - maybe Firemint or Chair/Epic."

Everything you know is wrong

Ian Macleod, of A&N Mobile & TV, the apps division of UK media company DMGT, concurred.

"This industry continues to astound and confuse me regarding what games are successful. Even now, with the mainstream marketing I have access to, it is still extremely unpredictable which apps will resonate with the audience.

"Unfortunately, I think the main worry we have now as an industry is the trend to try and replicate success rather than innovate success."

At least, Mills was learning.

"Utter utter sense. So many times, in our utter failings, we have thought of release day as THE END, then moved to other projects and watched as sales bombed, user expectation for updates grows (without there being any), and studio depression sets in."

Paul Farley found Nassim Nicholas Taleb's business bestseller The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable helpful in "coming to terms with unpredictability, and creating a company culture and business model that accepts, and even welcomes it."

"I don't believe in luck, but I do believe the volume and complexity of factors that are involved in the constitution of a hit game are well beyond our capacity to define at this point," he explained.

Could do better

Of course, there's always one dissenting voice, and this week it was Michael Schade of Fishlabs.

"For an install base of 200+ million devices, Angry Bird isn't actually a great success story compared to a commercial success on a 100+ million consoles," he argued.

However, he did agree with the consensus that simple but engaging and continuously challenging games are what sell on the App Store.

"Given the way the App Store works - mainly driven by top downloads - it is all about mass market appeal, selling games at the lowest possible price. Without a brand from a movie or console games, it is almost impossible to be successful on the premium side."

Embrace the uncertainty

Warming to his theme, Tag's Paul Farley disagreed, saying success was unpredictable, even once experienced.

"Most studios with a hit game have to fight tooth and nail to get there. History is littered with companies such as Sandlot Games, which went massive with Cake Mania and is now struggling to follow it up. Even way back at DMA Design, when we were lived in a Lemmings- funded bubble for five years, we couldn't follow up.

"For that reason, at Tag, I doubt we'll ever give up work for hire, even if we do have a break out hit. It's more than just revenue and profit. Work for hire has many positive benefits, and once the team are used to working with both original and existing IP, it's becomes the norm."

"I learned this exact principle from Game Dev Story. I'm glad to hear it's applicable in real life development too," joked Capcom's Leo Tan.

IUGO's Sarah Thomson agreed with the original point: "No one, and I mean no one, has figured out the end-all-and-be-all to creating *The* big hit. Most of us simply stumble upon it," she said.

"That is the beauty and the curse of this industry. And as one of Paul's best points stated, you gotta just embrace it and learn how to work with it or else you'll go nuts."

Those flipping flappers

Much of the discussion revolved around specific examples of success; notably Angry Birds.

Gamevil's Kyu Lee attributed Rovio's situation to its hard work and attention to detail, not only when it came to game development, but also customer service.

"I read through the thousands of tweets on the Rovio site, and was amazed how actively it supported individual customers. Rovio is laser focused and cares about every single customer. It's doing larger promotions too, but it's also continuing to take the baby steps it did at the beginning. Rovio has earned its success, and I truly believe customers are the foundation of its success."

Com2uS' Joony Koo was another maven keen to stress keeping the customer satisfied.

"It's not luck; customer satisfaction is the core basic of any product/service," he said. "You can get lucky and land on the top of the charts but you need a great game and activities that care for your users. If there's a competitor rocking the App Store, you are lucky as you can learn from their experience and marketing activities."

Then, in keeping with the freeform discussion, he broke into verse.

"Knowing your position, game is important.
The gold rush may be over, but the mines are still there.
What the mines are filled with, really depends on us."

Looking beyond

But back to Angry Birds.

"Angry Birds is an attention-grabbing, expectation-shifting, beautiful piece of platform-specific work for its time," eulogised Jon Hare, although then suggesting it didn't actually grab his attention.

"Nothing has really got me addicted on my iPhone yet. I'm never that upset when the battery runs out. In truth I think the great games on these platforms are yet to come."

Dave Castelnuovo thought this view characterised the divide between iOS games and developers. "To my wife, Angry Birds is her Pulp Fiction," he said.

"She puts more hours into that game than the most hardened World of Warcraft addict. But I think we're probably all hard core gamers that grew up on Atari, Colecovision, Sega, Nintendo, and PlayStation.

"I have to agree - iOS hasn't gotten its masterpiece yet (from our perspective). Sword & Sworcery was a great start but a bit too short and not enough meat."

From the Bastille to Sandals

Kevin Dent took a pragmatic approach.

"If people like birds, give them birds. I believe it was Marie Antoinette who decided to shift the market by suggesting the starving hordes eat cake instead of bread and ended up getting her head chopped off."

He also stressed the importance of promotion.

"I would look at Lima Sky (Doodle Jump) and Bolt Creative as studios that really know how to promote their games. That's exactly the attitude developers need to demonstrate. You may have the greatest game in the world, but if no one knows about it, you are screwed. If you can get Yorkshire Terrier Monthly to review your game, do it."

So, ending as we started, Mills was in philosophic mood.

"What I adore about this industry is that we all share. There are no enemies, no NDA bullshit.. Just utter passion from people who actually give a massive shit about making utter quality products that change lives for the better.

I hope this thread goes on and on and one day we all meet on success island, ready to drink a lot of Lambrini."