The harsh reality of indie iPhone game development

iPhone with pad and pencilIt’s been about 5 months since I set out developing games for the iPhone. I started with a decent amount of programming experience but no real knowledge of Ojective-C, Xcode, or indeed games development. Now, with my first game available on the iPhone app store, my first free update complete, and a website and blog under my belt, I thought I would take some time to review the experience.

I started this journey because I have a passion for video games and video game development. The iPhone platform presented me with an opportunity to develop a game for very little cost and publish it to a potential user base of millions. I won’t lie to you, the possibility to earn some money was a big draw and certainly acted as motivation in some small form.

I spent the first three months learning to program with Objective-C in Xcode. Coming from a Java and web scripting background, I expected to coast through but alas I found some of the concepts a bit difficult to get my head around. In the end it was sheer bloody minded determination and hours of late nights that saw things finally click into place for me. The first three months also made me realise that my original idea and code needed to be scrapped and I had to start again with a blank canvas (but this time with 3 months of experience to my name).

I think its relevant to share with you some of what was going on in my personal life. Whilst going through this learning process and developing my game, I had a full time job which made it difficult to spend as much time as I would have liked on my game. Mid way through my game development “journey” I was made redundant from my job. This gave me a new commodity, time, but with it a new worry, money! I was fortunate in that I was only out of work for a month before finding a new job. That month proved invaluable in allowing me to complete Star Fusion and submit it to the iPhone App store. Funny how things work out like that!

The final version of Star Fusion had changed significantly from my original concept. It was originally going to be loosely based on Icarus from greek mythology with winged creatures flying towards the Sun. Frustration at my basic animation and graphics skills forced me to abandon this and use a simpler theme. Utilising the cocos2d framework, development on Star Fusion was pretty fast and I completed the game in under a month. There were certainly difficulties but nothing that couldn’t be overcome by some late nights and lots of coffee!

After submitting Star Fusion and receiving some positive feedback I honestly believed that I would begin seeing a handful of downloads a day (at worst, I thought, 2 a day). How wrong I was. Initial sales of around 2/3 per day died quickly and within a few weeks I was constantly seeing 0 downloads/day. Its early days for my first update but so far i’ve seen only 1 new sale but a large number of existing users updating for free. Pretty gloomy from a financial perspective and i’m lucky that I have a full time job so I don’t rely on this.

So what’s the message? The message is one echoed by many indie iPhone game developers… The iPhone is a great platform to develop games for and you should definitely give it a go but do it for the right reasons. There is potential to make money if you manage to produce something that people click with, just don’t go in expecting it.

For me, it’s good enough that I can see my game on the app store. I get a lot of enjoyment from knowing that people, however few, have downloaded and played a game I designed and developed. Its been a great adventure so far and not one that I am going to give up on. I’m about to start work on my next game and look forward to seeing it in peoples hands.

17 Comments

  1. dave says:

    maybe it would be better to make your game available for free?

    if you get enjoyment out of knowing people are playing your game then surely making it free will get more people playing it. better than making 59 pence every 3 weeks!

  2. Gareth says:

    I don’t mean to sound mean or harsh, but, seriously, did you not think of doing any marketing or promotion for the game? Even if you’ve got something people want (and with a market of 40m+ potential users I’m assuming it was more than the tens you actually got) they need to know about what you’re doing in order to buy/download it. Just being on the app store is not good enough.

    Apologies if you did some promotion and failed to mention it – but sob stories like this make me mad. If you’re serious about selling a game and making it a business: make it a business. Look at how other businesses work and think about how to apply that to your product.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. After all your work, I think it would have lessened your disappointment if you had given more thought to promotion and marketing. I guess the Appstore is too full for random luck these days? We need to kickstart luck a bit maybe nowadays. Still, I hope you will continue and have more success with your next game?

  4. Chris says:

    Thanks for the comments guys.

    Promotion: I did a large amount of promotion before and during the games launch and continue to do so. My main outlets are twitter, iPhone games forums, this blog, word of mouth, emails to review sites, and just recently I’ve had some cards printed. Here’s a post I wrote about some of my early promo attempts: http://www.bytesizeadventures.com/blog/week-1-sales-and-promotion/

    I’d love to hear if anyone has any other ideas for promotion.

    Gareth – It was not intended to be a sob story. Sorry if it came across that way. I just wanted to share some of the realities of writing games for the iPhone store. As I mentioned at the end, the enjoyment for me is in seeing the game on the store and being played by people.

    dave – not a bade idea. Its certainly something i’ll consider.

  5. rose says:

    Not to sound like a b****, but what in the world did you expect? This post is ridiculous.

    “coming from a Java and web scripting background, I expected to coast through…” – You was gonna go from java and interweb scripting to formal C languages, hmm?

    “but no real knowledge of Ojective-C, Xcode, or indeed games development” – How can you just admit that and then continue with this post…

    The title should have been….

    “The Harsh Reality of an iPhone Game Developer with No Real Knowledge of Game Development, among other things”

    Wow. Just wow.

  6. Chris says:

    rose – interesting take on things. As I explained, I spent the first 3 months learning to program in Objective-C through Xcode so that when I came to develop Star Fusion I had at least some experience. I don’t particularly like your line “How can you just admit that and then continue with this post” – I’m sharing my experiences of developing my first game and being honest in the process. I think a significant number of people are probably in the same boat as me, coming from a programming background with no real games development experience.

    I’m not sure changing the title would make any difference since I explain in the post that I have no knowledge of game development.

    Anyway, thanks for the comments.

  7. I think you guys are being a little unfair to Chris, personally…

    This is just a summary of someone’s first experiences at iPhone game development. He never stated that he expected to make millions, just that the opportunity of making money is incentive for developers to target the platform. Clearly you’ve learned a lot on your journey and I wish you every success in you future endeavours. Naturally, marketing and promotion are important factors but its not like there is a whole heap of information on doing this specifically for this platform. I help out with a fellow indie games company (http://www.roguepirateninja.com/) and we’re currently trying to tackle the same mountain of trying to stand out amongst the big namers and top sellers.

    Take your experiences and lessons learned on this project as input for your next project and you’ll have a head start :)

    James

  8. Johannes says:

    Hey Chris,

    Don’t worry about so much the negatives that Rose gets in at – she’s just doing what every reviewer does (focus on harsh negatives). It’s really hard, but you have to read in between the lines on these kinds of posts, but basically she has a point: you need to do your homework before you jump in. I’ve spent the better half of 8 years of my life learning programming and game development, and come from a B.S. and M.S. with a lot of practical and professional experience in C, C++, amongst other languages like Python, Lua, C#, etc. But you are right that you’re sharing a personal experience, not so much a “please critique me” posting.

    Java is an easy and fast language to program in, but simply knowing that is not enough to prepare you for the lower-level coding in C and Objective-C. Personally, fully knowing there will be those who disagree, but web development is nothing like full blown software development. Different ball park entirely.

    I think what Gareth and Daniel said above nails it though – marketing is going to be your most critical asset. At RPNi, we’re spending a good bit of money (from my own pocketbook) on marketing alone, almost equal to some of the money already spent on monthly salaries, let alone hoping that sales will be anywhere to make up for it. Like quote from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “Bill, you gotta spend money to make money.” A lot of truth there.

    Plus, in this industry, it’s the most shallow of them all. Us programmer folk, being used to the interactions with other intellectuals, aren’t necessarily always as astute in the game of the shallow and popular, at least, only a handful of other programmers I know would ever fall into that category. Yet, that’s the reality of the industry. It really is all about aesthetics. Sad but true lesson. Even we have been nailed on that point. A love for the game is one thing, but polish is everything.

    At any rate, best of luck to you mate. Indie love for sure. =)

    Johannes von Luck

  9. Chris says:

    James – thanks for the support. I’ll definitely take my experiences on board and bear them in mind when creating my second game.

    Johannes – Really useful comments, thanks. I think I did underestimate Objective-C but I feel relatively comfortable with it now (5 months down the line). I have a BSC in software development and 5 years commercial programming experience – both Java and lighter scripting languages such as perl, php, javascript etc. I do have some prior knowledge of C# which I didn’t mention in the post. I feel I did my homework in learning some objective-c and xcode (3 months). Whilst this isn’t a huge amount of time, I feel that sometimes the best way to learn is by trying!

    I feel your sentiments around promotion and aesthetics are entirely correct. I plan on focussing on both of these for my next game. I’ll be spending a lot of time ensuring the level of polish is extremely high. Thanks for the comments and best of luck to you too!

    On a side note, I’m a sole developer working on all aspects of my game (design, programming, graphics, sounds, marketing). I’m also fairly happy with what i’ve achieved so far.

  10. ron says:

    just stumbled across your site! Always interested to see what fellow journeymen have to say about this process, since so many of us are going through all of this at the same time.

    As usual try not to take the harsh words from the less tactful of posters too much to heart, most usually mean well but I understand where they are coming from – so many people pour a lot of work into their projects and then when (another) joe schmoe mosey’s on in and thinks it’s gonna be all gravy, well it can be a bit humbling. My biz partner and I have been following this scene quite closely this past year, as we’ve recently released our first game and prepare to do it again. The best advice I can give is spend a lot of time glued to the forums (listen to what “the people” are saying – other devs, and the consumers as well!) and keep a sharp eye on all the other major and interesting titles which are constantly coming down the tube. It quickly becomes easy to discern the good apps from the bad ones, and get a sense of what your own work will be compared against. Also, three words – relentless guerrilla marketing!

    Good luck!

  11. Neeraj says:

    Hi Chris,

    I must appreciate that u honestly shared ur experience. To some extent i agree with rose or other people who have commented, but unfortunately Rose was too harsh. Anyways all the best for next game, also apart from marketing / promotions, the concepts of the game needs to be very very unique or catchy… because there r already 50k + apps in app store, and its pretty difficult for sure now to be in top 100.

    Regards

    Neeraj

  12. Greg says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for sharing. I am in a similar boat albeit coming from a database background. I just purchased Star Fusion and here’s my take:
    The graphics and overall design are great. Game play is actually better than it looks both in the screen shots and video.

    Suggestions:
    The fast moving stars are very hard to read / determine the value (perhaps a larger font). It should be fairly easy to add CocosLive to allow on-line scoring <- which I think at this point is a given for any successful app. You could also, relatively easily add Twitter and / or Facebook integration. With it's limited memory needs / requirements it is an ideal candidate to allow iPod background music. The addition of achievements (not sure, maybe # in a row or some other chaining award) would also help add more fun to the game play.

    Overall I can definitely say I have played games that are LESS fun, but unfortunately none that I have paid for :-( and I really wish I had some more ++ feedback for you.

    Best wishes
    Greg

  13. Chris says:

    Hi Greg,

    Thanks for purchasing Star Fusion and for your positive comments. Your suggestions are all excellent and I have most of them penciled in for the next release. I like the suggestion to allow ipod music and will add that to the list.

    I’m currently working on my second game but I plan on returning to Star Fusion for a couple of extra releases this year.

    thanks again

    Chris

  14. sugiarto says:

    Thanks for sharing, after reading your post and comments, I am not alone :)

  15. DPC says:

    Thank you for sharing.

    I’ve started developing for the iPhone, but now I am reconsidering. A lot of time and effort I would want to put in to make a quality product, but I refuse to be a slave laborer. Nobody should have to be, in a free country.

    How much money does Apple take off the top from each sale?

    Do they advertise your game?

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