Updated figures and findings here: http://justinteractive.tv/?p=867
I’ll open with the numbers you’re interested in — after 20 days FishMoto has so far made me $182.35 selling 160 units at $1.99. Pretty abysmal considering it took me a few months to make the game. I knew the game would probably be more niche because it’s inherently more complex than the typical casual mega-hit and I never expected it to make millions or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, but I was hoping for at least a few thousand easily — to say the least, sales have been a disappointment. But it hasn’t been a complete waste and I do believe I’ve learned a lot.
So what went wrong?
To this day, I still think visibility is the main problem. Nice screenshots and icon aren’t enough — it’s incredibly easy to get lost in the App Store. FishMoto also hasn’t gotten featured by Apple, which almost seems like a requirement to make money on the App Store — for the most part, though, that’s out of my hands. What could I have done better to address visibility? Marketing. I was on a marketing budget of about $0 but now I see where I could have still done better. Near the end of development I was rushing myself to get it up on the store. After it got approved, I set the release date to the first Saturday available — this gave me very little time to put together and distribute all my pre-release material. Review sites were getting their review codes the day of or day after the release, which means reviews would be delayed by a few days at the very least. I also think having a free Lite version out day one is mandatory unless you already have a lot of pre-release buzz — the App Store has matured and impulse buys aren’t going to be something to rely on. FishMoto’s lite version came out about two weeks later and I think it was too late for it to do any help by then.
I should have been contacting IOS game sites before I was even finished with the game. I should have tried to offer exclusive previews to get early buzz weeks before I intended for it to be released — I should have gotten the game into reviewers hands earlier so they could have reviews up day one. I should have also spent more time to make promotional assets. When contacting review sites, I sent them a link to the trailer, a promo code, screenshots, and a press release telling them what the game is all about. I was busy working on developing the actual game thinking I couldn’t afford to spend too much time working on stuff that would only be seen on websites — looking back, maybe I couldn’t afford to NOT make those assets. High-res logos, concept art, etc — things editors like to include with their previews and reviews. Editors need to make their articles attractive to readers and you should make that as easy as possible for them.
Another potential hinderance to sales may be the fact that the game only runs on the last two generations of IOS hardware (3GS or newer, iPod Touch 3 or newer) and requires IOS 4.2. I had tried to do research ahead of time to see what percentages of the market was on what device using what IOS version, but it was hard to get real numbers. I found a site claiming several months ago that 90% of iPhone users were already on 4.0 and I know Apple themselves have basically stopped supporting older devices, so I figured it wouldn’t make a big difference. I still have no real way of knowing. Maybe a ton of iPod Touch users are still running with outdated hardware and software. Maybe it wouldn’t have sold much better regardless (my guess). Supporting older devices is not a very attractive idea — it doubles the size of the app’s executable and those older devices are much much slower, so I’m not even sure if I would have been able to get it running on them at a decent framerate (and I had no older devices to test on anyway). Supporting older IOS software wouldn’t have been out of the question, but it would have involved significant work. Worth it? I still don’t know.
Last but not least, game design. While both versions currently have 5/5 star ratings right now on iTunes, review websites weren’t so kind. The reviews were all more or less the same, too. They say the game is too hard and complex. It’s not like I made a hard game by accident (more on that later) — I just, mistakingly, thought a hard game could still sell decent numbers.
Especially true for small games, first impressions are important. The game needs to hook the player and immediately make it obvious why they should keep playing. FishMoto isn’t as good at first impressions — at first glance, it’s just a typical 2D bike game except the physics seem odd. The potential of those odd physics aren’t really realized until the player is more comfortable with the controls and is completing harder levels that rely on the crazier physics — until then, the game just feels obtuse. I tried to mitigate this as much as I could without sacrificing the potential high-end play. I wanted to make a game with lasting appeal — something to keep coming back to and master. The vast majority of iPhone games are games you pick up to play for a few minutes at a time and stop playing altogether after a week or two — FishMoto was never intended to be one of those games.
While I knew going in the game would probably be too difficult for the casual Angry Birds crowd, I think I probably still overestimated the willingness for gamers to figure things out. Games nowadays, even mainstream console games, are all about handholding. There’s very little player-exploration into the game mechanics for most games, but I guess I was trying to hold on to that old-school mentality and give players something to find out on their own. With a game that is already harder to get the hang of, I should have probably devoted more time to a more robust in-game tutorial and smoother difficulty curve.
I already knew playtesting is important, but in the future I’ll be smarter about it. While there of course can be exceptions, friends and family are probably not the best ‘beta testers.’ What I suggest instead is to do two kinds of testing. Get beta testers from the iPhone gaming community — reach out to Touch Arcade forums. Not only could it help get people talking about your game, but these people will better represent your target audience and typically be more interested in being useful beta testers. In addition to that, I think getting random people on the street to play the game can be tremendously beneficial. It’s important to get a fresh perspective on the game — just hand it to them and see how they play it without any help from you (as a real customer would experience it). I certainly wish I had done more of that — watching people play levels for the first time easily helped me the most in improving the level design.
Was it worth it?
Looking only at how much money it made, certainly not. Luckily I didn’t take on any debt to make the game — I’m no worse off than before I made it. I’ve got a few things left to try to help sales, but I’m not very optimistic and unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be able to continue working on FishMoto content. Looking at the bright side, it’s given me a lot of valuable experience. That experience has already gotten me some nice freelance work that might lead to big things.
Where do I go from here? Well I’m not incredibly interested in spending months on another new game — too much risk of a repeat. Right now I’m going to see where freelance work can lead me and I might work on something of my own in my free time. I’m considering using a lot of the FishMoto assets to make a similar game and not let that work go to waste. This hypothetical game would be designed to be much more accessible and casual friendly — I won’t risk going niche again any time soon.
While the App Store is still making some people a lot of money, it has matured since the early days where almost anything made a fortune. It’s a very competitive market (especially now with more and more big players coming in) and you can’t take anything for granted. My first attempt was less fruitful, but I think I’m much better equipped now.
Oh, I went with Lumen for the fish name and it’s on sale for 99c for the weekend.