How not to do it

Alert followers of the App Store will have noticed a game taking up residence in the upper reaches of the charts recently.

Fruit Ninja thoroughly deserves its success. It's a beautiful game, absurdly simple but lovingly executed and endlessly compulsive. Judging by its OpenFeint leaderboards, it's sold well over half a million copies in the six weeks or so since it was released, generating almost a quarter of a million pounds for its creators after Apple's cut of the proceeds.

(Man, there has to be an apple-cutting joke in there somewhere.)

What fewer people know about is the near-identical game that preceded it and completely flopped.

As Fruit Ninja took up what looks set to be a long-term residency in the top 10, Blade Man had been sitting on my AppShopper wish list for months, waiting for a price cut that never arrived. But out of professional interest I took one for the team and bought it this weekend, because it looked like it was almost exactly the same game as Fruit Ninja. And when I booted it up, my suspicions were confirmed.

The core gameplay of the two titles is practically indistinguishable. A handful of items are tossed up from the bottom of the screen, and you slash at them with a swipe as they fall back towards the ground, trying to chop as many as possible in a single gesture. Blade Man's graphics are pretty, it's smooth and slick, there's a quite clever scoring/lives system, and it's easy to get into. So why did it stiff when Fruit Ninja hit the jackpot?

The main answer is pretty obvious. Despite the constant protestations of idiots and vested interests, the App Store market really, REALLY likes paying 59p (99c) for high-quality games. Show it something it vaguely likes the look of at that price and it'll almost certainly take a punt on it, and if you've got something really good the word will spread like wildfire. Try to get greedy, though, and they'll shrug and move on to one of the thousands and thousands of cheaper options competing for their time and attention.

I didn't notice Fruit Ninja having any unusual amount of marketing or hype, but by providing a simple, well-made game that's easy to grasp and play but remains challenging and addictive no matter how much you practice it, developers Halfbrick have cracked the magic formula at their second try, and been rewarded by an avalanche of money that shows no signs of letting up any time in the near future. Meanwhile, SunArt (makers of Blade Man) look on sorrowfully, rueing their short-sighted avarice and thinking "It could have been us".

(In a similar scenario, the hugely-hyped Canabalt – a game which benefitted from a very large existing market awareness via the deservedly popular Flash version – caused massive controversy on iPod gaming forums when it was released at $2.99, the same price as Blade Man. It had a brief sales spike as everyone reviewed it, then nosedived out of the charts.

Meanwhile, the very similar Run! – with none of the brand awareness, none of the hype and a stupid, hard-to-search name – came out for 99c just a month earlier, and has quietly sold around 300,000 copies.)

Smart developers – those who've grasped the nature of the App Store market instead of bitterly railing against it – are making very tidy sums of money out of iPod and iPhone games. And here's the crucial thing, which disproves the usual howls of complaint from failures – they're doing it even without being big chart successes.

Plenty of coders will grudgingly concede that you can do well if you fluke a top 10 hit and thereby overcome the Store's visibility issues, but still gripe that that's your only – remote – chance of turning a profit. And yet, Run! has barely ever troubled the top 100. It isn't currently in the top 200 paid games, hasn't ever gone free, and has only had a couple of updates, so it rarely even shows up on tracker sites like AppShopper. But this one simple running-stick-man app has earned its  indie creator around £14,000 a month net since release WITHOUT ever really appearing on the success radar.

Don't believe anyone who whines that it's hard to make money with a really good game on the App Store, viewers. They're either lying, or imbeciles, or both. But the lessons that intelligent creators have learned there (and that stupid ones stubbornly resist learning) apply across the board.

Nobody's saying that new disc-based Xbox 360 games could or should be sold for the price of a Twix, of course. But trying to shift anything other than triple-A nailed-on blockbusters at £40+ is commercial suicide, and has already lead to the wholesale slaughter of small developers and publishers (not least by diverting a large slice of the revenue pie into the pre-owned sector, as consumers desperately try to save even a few quid). Attempting to cling onto it will soon finish the job.

There are signs that publishers are belatedly waking up to this fact. If I was you, though, I'd still be selling my shares in mainstream gaming companies while they were worth something, and lumping everything on Apple, and on iPod game developers who sell their wares for 59p.

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7 Responses to “How not to do it”

  1. hahnchen Says:

    Even had Blade Man been priced at 99c, it wouldn't have done as well as Fruit Ninja.
    The clue's in the name.  One of them includes the words, "blade" and "man", whereas the other is fun and inclusive.
    I don't think 99c is a panacea.  Some games, with the right marketing and brand recognition can charge more on appstores, and bring in even more money.
    They need to be flexible though, I'm sure Canabalt would have made even more money, had they strung the indie hipsters for $3, then dropped their price later on.  Bargain bucket pricing may seem old fashioned, but it works.

    Things are going to get even more fluid though, with the introduction of iAds, which would form another and competing source of revenue.  Android, and Flash on Android, is another thing that these guys will have to consider.

  2. To my mind, you need to be really good, be really cheap, be really lucky, have very recognisable IP, or have a mix of these things, to succeed in the App Store. There was a pretty interesting article about iTeleport recently – http://bit.ly/bmtPOd – with the devs noting they're raking in $1k per day, despite NEVER breaking the top 1000 apps.
    Clearly, this isn't the same as a game, but it does show there is money to be made with strong, steady sales of a product that isn't immediately given away for 59p.
    Most of the games devs I know bitching about a lack of income fall into three areas. The first lot saw those initial sales figures from the likes of Trism and then just had unrealistic expectations, ignoring the fact that Trism was good, but, crucially, it was also VERY early. The second lot moan, despite doing absolutely nothing to sell their apps: no website, deny people like me promo codes (one dev's comment to me: "It's just a buck – go and buy it if you want to review it."), no marketing. The third lot think they have the Best Game Ever, but it's just another piece of mediocrity floating in a sea of App Store games.

  3. Make that quarter of a milllion and about 40p, since I just bought it based only on that screenshot at the top.
    It's cheaper than a Mars bar these days ffs.

  4. Jamie Woodhouse Says:

    Very interesting points made on the pricing of apps.
    I think the biggest pitfall devs fall in to, is lack of marketing. Having an awesome game, even at 59p, I suspect is not going to guarantee anything like success.
    Not sending out promo codes to people who can make noise about your game! That's just plain stupid, and I have a hard time believing that devs actually do that..

  5. With an iPhone game on the way, this one has really made me think. To be perfectly honest I had been tending towards Andy Finnell's position ( http://losingfight.com/blog/2008/11/15/how-to-price-your-iphone-app-out-of-existence/ ) but it was posited at a time when the App Store was less saturated with quality cheap games.
    Either way, Craig'll be getting a copy, even if I have to post him the 59p (cripes I'd hunt him down and shove my dev iPod under his nose for coverage!) I'm with JW — can't believe there are devs who would shun significant eyes. Oh well, less competition…

  6. With due acknowledgement of the fact that it was written two years ago, that article is incredible. A better example of the indignant coder who believes people owe him a living simply for producing an app at all would be hard to find. I'm going to take a stab at guessing that his $4.99 single version of an old card game (released just a few weeks ago at $2.99 – not the $9.99 he promised – and then increased by $2 a couple of weeks later) won’t be selling too well.

  7. Update: Fruit Ninja has now sold over 1 million copies, in just 74 days on sale. That's a NET income for the developers of around £433,000, or a little bit shy of £6000 a DAY since launch, and it’s still in the top 5.
    Blade Man? I'm guessing a bit less.

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