Saturday, 30 June 2012

iOS Sale Numbers

I've written way too much about money on here lately. Clearly it's something that's weighing on my mind. I have enough to live on for now, but I have worries about the future. I was intending to avoid it and stick to games and theory for a while but there are some things that came up and I feel are worth saying.

So there are some misconceptions around about the iOS appstore (the market for games in general, but the appstore in particular). Everyone's heard about the absurd successes - the shallow badly-aliased bird games, the fart apps - and there's this public perception around that it's an easy way to make money. This perception is harmful, I've seen it do harm, I've seen people who really couldn't afford to sink their time into making apps because "everyone knows" it's an easy way to make money, then have them inevitably fail.

But mostly it just pisses me off. I meet someone, chat with them, they ask me what I've been working on, I say I've been doing some mobile games lately. They say, "oh yeah? I bet that's pretty rewarding", rubbing their fingers together in a symbol for money.
No, it really isn't.
It is very rewarding in many other senses; there's cool hardware, there's a powerful immediacy to a touch-screen, it's great for in-person multiplayer games, it's an ideal context for small-scale games, it's lovely to be able to meet someone at a pub and right there show them something you've made.

I've been hearing among game developers for a while statements like "the iOS gold rush is over" (although some disagree that there ever was such a "gold rush"). But in the world at large, this perception's still there. People still believe in the gold rush. And it affects choices they make, it matters. I'm sure the gatekeepers are happy to keep this fable alive. It needs to be dispelled.
That's why articles like these two are valuable: Congratulations, Your First Indie Game is a Flop, IceBurgers: by the Numbers. Everyone hears about the successes - we need to tell more people about the failures. Or the.. things that aren't really failures, but aren't successes either. It makes me deeply uncomfortable to see millionaires rage at someone posting this kind of thing. The conclusions drawn by the developers in those articles may be invalid, but the raw data is not. Negative results are just as valuable as positive ones, but while there are a lot more negative results most of the attention goes to the positive ones. Maybe those are bad examples, maybe they're bad games (I haven't played either and certainly they don't look very attractive), maybe they approached things with the wrong attitude, but this type of message is valuable.

It's really easy to look at articles like those and with 20-20 hindsight explain why they failed. Had Minecraft failed, it'd be easy to write off why - unoriginal gameplay, looks bad in screenshots, no tutorial. But since it is successful we can comfortably praise the originality of the design, the distinctive graphical style, and the joy of figuring things out for yourself. It's much harder to predict ahead of time what will take off.

There are a lot of good reasons people might not make these kinds of numbers public - they consider it personal information, they're under an NDA, they want to avoid an internet comment backlash, they don't want to be seen as a failure and have that colour perception of their future work. It takes a certain courage to be public like this. I admire the people above for doing so. Maybe it's a tragedy of the commons thing - it's not in anyone's individual interest to say this kind of thing because it's negative publicity, but it's in the interest of the whole.

So, having talked about this, I should show some numbers of my own. I'm slightly reluctant about doing so - partly because of the reasons in the previous paragraph, and partly because I don't feel like they're very good examples. They're niche games, quickly made, without a focus on selling well.
Some background is necessary. I went through some serious burnout over the last few years, last year in particular. Trying to complete two very high-maintenance projects simultaneously. Hard work. Pushing my limits. Stress. Isolation. Depression. Sense of failure. Major loss of energy and motivation. Still haven't completely recovered from it. I've found some respite in working on small games that are easy for me to complete, using very low-resolution graphics because they allow me to work fast and still make something that looks good. So looking at things I've done in the last year.. there's some bloody good design there, I'm really pleased with some of what I've done, but I haven't been doing everything I could to optimise for sales because that's a kind of work that really drains me.
So please don't mistake me for expecting these to be big successes. I didn't. They're tests to see if I can generate some amount of income from the small-scale things I've been making. Minor forays into the appstore market. Experiments.

So, Glitch Tank. Sold 127 copies in 3 months before Zaga-33 was released. Another 251 in the 3 months since. 378 total.

Zaga-33. 1624 copies total. That's not so bad. At a dollar each, that's ~$1100 after Apple's cut. Not so much less than minimum wage for the month I spent on it. (If you disregard time spent on failed prototypes that don't get released.)
The free PC version's been downloaded some 1500 times. More people have paid a dollar for it than have grabbed it for nothing. I find this most peculiar.

These numbers aren't final. They're still selling a few copies every day.

So I've covered the cost of the iPad (and even the repairs after smashing it on the floor) and the Apple developer license. But not much more.
However, I emphasise again, I do not count these as failures. They've been good for my mental health, if nothing else. People have enjoyed them. I've had some very positive responses to them.
And looking at how Zaga-33 fared so much better than Glitch Tank, and how Glitch Tank tripled after Zaga-33 came out.. there's definite network effects going on. I'm reminded of Bennett Foddy's GDC talk - he showed a graph of ad revenues from his site as he added more games, and the shapes here are looking quite similar to the start of his graph. I suspect a comfortable level of income could be reached eventually just by continuing to release similar games. This is one major flaw in the two articles I referenced earlier - they're both looking at a single datapoint. Two is barely enough to be worthwhile, but at least it's something you can draw a line between. This is woefully incomplete research, hardly worth publishing at all. But maybe it'll be useful if contrasted with other numbers.

It's traditional at this point to ask what could be improved. The main thing seems to be graphics. Both these games look pretty good. Colourful distinctive style, appropriate to the overall design. But it seems like low-res graphics put a lot of people off no matter what. When I can bring myself to, I'll sink some time into high-res graphics and try to get a measure on how big an effect this is. I love abstract low-fidelity graphics and it'd suck to have to give up on them because people are shallow or whatever, but if it lets me keep designing games I'll do it.


  1. Never heard of your games, but saw this article get retweeted and I will check them out for sure. I feel like people do love pixel graphics, but also love detail in the art as well. Something to think about I suppose. I'm doing a blog series on playing nothing but indie games for a year. I'll probably whore your stuff out if I enjoy. Do your best and all that. Good luck man, keep at it.

  2. Playaz in it // 4 da thrillz // countin stacks // a daw daw billz

    - A poem about this blog post

    The only strategy on the App Store that seems to truly work, while being accessible to most developers, is simply making multiple games that all promote each other. Older games point to games that you just release, helping them have more successful launches. New games point to old games, letting you shine that success onto your back catalog. It's a cycle that gets stronger each and every game you make.

    Really it's simply growing a base of fans that support you, and help bring attention to your new games. QWOP really paved the way for GIRP's success, and we at Rocketcat have been making a good living off really niche games. I think this is much more important than a game's "wide appeal" or even, hell, actual quality.

    (taking huge hit off marijuana cigarette and then puffing out smoke that spells out the word MONETIZATION)

  3. Thank you for sharing! I think it would've helped your sales if you linked Zaga-33 and Glitch Tank to their respective iTunes pages from your post. Nevertheless, I bought copies and really like them. :)

    1. Thank you! I've added links to the post now.

  4. Thanks for writing this. I found your work fairly recently (when Kompendium was posted on, and promptly devoured everything you've made for the Mac and iPhone. Really awesome style, and even if it's not profitable I can't wait to see what else you come up with!

    About the graphics: I've never had a problem with big pixels in general, but I think for something like Zaga-33 it's really perfect. The items are just abstract enough that you can decide the same icon represents an icicle in one game (because it freezes enemies), and a Hershey's Kiss in the next (because it restores health).

  5. Thanks for sharing all this.

    I bought Zaga-33 because it's more fun on the iPhone. Many games are more fun on touch devices, aren't they? Zaga-33 had good swipe controls so it felt satisfying. Swipe control should be default on both iPhone and iPad in my opinion. Also, buttons are too small on iPhone :) I didn't even know there were sounds and control buttons in main screen.

    About Glitch Tank, I didn't buy it because it was a multiplayer-only game. Many people would like to play together, but in reality, you can't find someone to play with every time. I learned it the hard way on my last project :)

    About Graphics overall: I checked your homepage and twitter. I liked the style very much, even the twitter profile image. (Btw, I discovered you from twitter) I personally love the kind of style although it may propel many girls away because it's not like all casual-angry-birdish. I'm a geek and a nerd so I don't represent all men either. You can try different styles on later projects I guess.

    Anyway, I learned that things could change on subsequent projects. Thanks!