Before I start, I just want to mention that after 18 straight weeks of making iDevBlogADay posts, that this will be my last one. I’m following Noel Llopis’s lead and making room for that LARGE waiting list of developers waiting their turn. The point of iDevBlogADay was to encourage developers to blog regularly and help them get in the habit of blogging. I’ll still be making regular posts, so be sure to check back each week!

Coming into the App Store as new comers and even from an outsider’s view, rank seemed to be king. If you were in the upper echelons of the charts then you supposedly were making $$$$. And if you were no where near the top of the charts, then you’re probably making peanuts. For the most part, this holds true in the early days of a game’s launch. But over the past several months, our focus has shifted from ‘topping the charts’ to a much more sustainable view of getting as much ‘reach’ as possible.

From all the media, blogs, and podcasts I got the sense that once you drop out of the top 100 the app is more or less ‘dead’. Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration, but on the iPad this is far more pronounced due to the structure of the iPad app store. When looking at the performance of Tilt to Live, it seemed to be completely untrue. We’ve barely hit the 400-300 ranks in ‘All Games’ for several months, but sales never seemed to be effected by it. They held steady. Regardless if we had a higher than normal rankings on weekends or holidays, our sales per day stayed very close to a steady, but healthy number. Why?

We were fortunate in the early months to garner a decently large player base of Tilt to Live by letting it go ‘free’ for a week, which gave us about 500k more players. We were disappointed that this didn’t translate to a higher up take when we switched to back paid, but as time goes on I’m starting to think that large influx of players is paying off more in the long term than short term. With each update, we get another chance to re-engage players in our game and let them know of any upcoming titles or updates. And with the larger player base, ‘word of mouth’ tends to have a much longer lasting and stronger effect. This is one of the biggest reasons we’ve been able to support Tilt to Live and expand on it for so long.

So to help explore that a bit more, we decided to try a slightly different approach with Tilt to Live HD. With the power of in-app purchases, we tried to create a seamless upgrade experience for players playing a free demo version of our game. The guiding thought here is, the less amount of taps and thinking a player has to do to upgrade to the full version, the better chance we have at making a sale. Now our method of tracking a player’s path is crude (ie, nonexistent), but it’s mostly because we didn’t care to implement anything sophisticated. Hell, just having an IAP to unlock a full version is already a lot more sophisticated the ‘Lite app’ route. This is a better situation compared to doing a “Lite” version  because you wouldn’t be able to easily see where your users are coming from  even if you wanted to. Random aside: on the PC end of things for example, Cliff Harris obsesses over this stuff, because that market is very reliant on getting your own game out there as opposed to a centralized distribution. And reading some of his take on marketing could probably do some good for the indies on the app store surviving on apple features and rank alone (me included).

Doing an IAP for a ‘full version’ for a game seems to be going against the grain of the culture of the app store. Most games do a separate version, but again, I feel doing that is more short sighted and focused on app store rank than the ‘long tail’ of a game’s life.

Some of the benefits we’ve felt when we changed our mentality were:

  • Development became less of a fast pace “DO IT NOW OR DIE” feeling. Constantly sending out press emails, review requests, forum posting/lurking, was all time sensitive and a very “gotta get this done now” mentality. I use to constantly watch the ranks of our game and keep thinking of ways to boost it because the idea of “Rank = Revenue” was engrained in my head. Now I’ve gone weeks without really know what our rank is and don’t care too much as we won’t be seeing the top of the charts for a long while..if ever.
  • Early on when we were “blue sky” thinking of follow up projects, I was constantly obsessed with trying to find something that would fit the “Top of the charts” type mold. It’s as if we were giving up the very thing we went indie for: creative freedom.  Now, it still is a business and we’d be crazy not to give due diligence to market research prior to making a game, but the game we’ve settled on currently is something we’re both super excited about and feel we can reach a nice size audience and still come out ok on the other end :). Chasing the top of the charts isn’t for me.
  • With IAP of a full version, each app update not only notifies your current customers of new content/fixes but a large pool of potentially paying customers as well. The free customers get to see what fun they are missing out on!

So how is the Tilt to Live HD experiment going? Surprisingly well. We’ve got a 5% conversion rate right now since release, and within the first month of downloads we recouped our expenses and time. The daily download numbers and rankings are dwindling, but the daily sales are having a far less steep decline. I like to think we’ve decoupled our rank from revenue :).

I’m not going into detail in this post on specific numbers and revenue on purpose because I’m saving it for a “Numbers post” closer to the end of this year, but hopefully those about to launch a game or just coming into the market will know at least one thing: You’re biggest volume of sales will happen at launch due to release date, category, and rank charts. You should really have a plan beyond that to be able to exist “outside” the hustle and bustle of the app store chart monster :).