The App Store Lottery

I often read how developing mobile apps is like playing the lottery, because of the multitudes of apps that are submitted, only a fraction ever get anywhere—the rest are complete and utter flops.

So should you just do yourself a favor and not develop or submit any apps, that is, if you’re an indie developer or part of a small studio? Not exactly.

You see, when you go purely by the numbers, you’re essentially equating apps that were made in a day and make fart noises to ones that had a lot of design, testing, time, and passion put behind them—placing all apps on the same playing field, when clearly they are all not.

What motivated me to write this post is the previously linked article written by James Hague, that pointed out a fact that many of the more pessimistic articles tend to leave out, or fail to emphasize on enough: not all apps are created equally. If you haven’t read the article, you should.

I’m going to touch on three areas that I personally believe that if you put more focus into, you’ll greatly increase your chances of “winning” the so-called app store lottery. I encourage you to research further into the following areas to see how you can apply them to your own games and apps.

Graphics

This is the area most people can agree on, because it is the most obvious. Your app should look professional, have a great-looking icon, the animations should be smooth—overall, it should look and feel very polished.

If you’re no good at graphics, it might be in your app’s best interest to either save up for a graphics designer, or partner with one (sharing revenue is a good example of a common, risk-free arrangement between a small group of people). Graphics are very important, because while we all know we shouldn’t judge a “book” by its cover, that’s exactly what most consumers will do.

Not much more to say here. Make your app look good. Then, once you think it’s good—make it better.

Testing

Putting in the extra time to test your app yourself, as well as allowing others to test it before release is crucial. Have friends and family test your app in person, right in front of you, so you can observe how they use it (you may pick up on important cues and other things that they don’t even realize).

Apart from friends and family, you’ll also want to allow those you don’t know to test your app as well, because let’s face it, friends and family aren’t always the best source of brutally honest feedback when it comes to app development. Getting in contact with people in forums (such as TouchArcade‘s, if you’re making a game) is a great way to find testers who are willing to give you honest feedback. Services such as TestFlight also help make the testing process easier—I’ve personally used their service, it’s really great.

Testing is probably the best way to identify bugs, usability issues, missing features, etc. Once you get plenty of feedback, you should take the time to fix the issues and do another round of testing—no matter how badly you want to ship your app. This doesn’t mean you should put in every feature that is requested (there will probably be a lot), but you should definitely address legitimate issues that are brought to your attention.

Marketing

It’s true, big companies are going to have much deeper pockets when it comes to marketing—and that kind of marketing budget isn’t available to most indie developers and small studios, but that doesn’t mean that success is going to be prevented or even greatly reduced.

The fact of the matter is, big companies generally pour much more money into actually developing apps, so they have to put the marketing muscle behind them just to have a shot of breaking even, much less profiting. Many developers do everything—or most everything—themselves and can get away with creating a game at a much lower price than big companies can, making it much easier to turn a profit.

That’s not to say getting your app “out there” isn’t important—it just doesn’t have to be quite as expensive as you may expect. There are tons of affordable (and even free) ways to market your app—but your app has to be good to begin with. You cannot forget that. You can’t just throw X amount of marketing to just any app and expect it to become a raving success.

Take Joe Kauffman for example. His company, Fire Maple Games, is a one (possibly two)-man shop that has made over $1 million in revenue from their game, The Lost City. When he came in and had lunch with my team at work earlier this year, he explained how he had done absolutely no external “marketing” to reach that level of success—but that doesn’t mean he didn’t do anything to get it in front of eyeballs.

When The Lost City was released, he decided to make his previous game, The Secret of Grisley Manor, freely available. It was updated to include a prominent—but unobtrusive—advertisement for his new game right on the menu screen. This, he said, was the source of a large amount of sales for The Lost City—which ultimately resulted in him becoming an “app millionaire”.

Grisley Manor wasn’t “just another game” however. It was a high quality, full-featured game that received great reviews from those who played it. Its audience was also a perfect fit for his new game, The Lost City (it’s the same kind of game, only bigger and better). In fact, Joe’s scenario is a testament to just about all the things mentioned in Hague’s article.

In short, your app must be high quality, look great, have a large target market, and be tested extensively. You should also put a considerable effort into ensuring people know about your app (with or without a large budget). All these important factors are ones that many “lottery” articles fail to place emphasis on. On the other hand, all of these things can be challenging, so it can certainly seem like putting your app into a big lottery—or perhaps even a trash bin—if too many of these areas are neglected.

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