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The Hardships Of iOS Development

A loss of funds and journalist payola are just two potential roadblocks

February 2012 will forever be known as the month that kick-started Linsanity.

In danger of being cut by the NBA's New York Knicks, point guard Jeremy Lin had what sports fans call a breakout game on February 4 against the New Jersey Nets. He then led the team on a winning streak that captivated the world. Now, Lin's one of the most popular basketball players on the planet.

It's no surprise that his rapid ascension caused other teams to look towards the end of their respective benches, wondering if the young, mostly forgotten players keeping the seats warm are capable of scoring 38 points against the Los Angeles Lakers, while outside the arena, millions of amateurs have renewed faith in reaching the pros. If Jeremy can literally come out of nowhere without attending a big time basketball school, so can they.

The reality, of course, is much different. Lin benefited from a string of circumstances that led to February 4. Had even one of them not occurred, his NBA career may have ended.

His unique story reminds us of Steve Demeter, who in 2008 grabbed headlines for making a $250,000 profit in two months off an iPhone puzzle game called Trism, despite the fact no one had really heard of him before, and he didn't associate with a big time publisher like Capcom, Sega or Electronic Arts. At least in Jeremy Lin's case, he bounced from the Golden State Warriors to the Houston Rockets before reaching the Big Apple.

Demeter, meanwhile, served as the iOS poster boy just two months after Apple released its now insanely popular App Store. You didn't need marketing people, a public relations firm and hundreds of developers. Instead, just a basic understanding of the iPhone operating system and a great idea. Put in a little hard work and voila, instant phenomenon.

"If the gameplay is fantastic and the graphics are just random colored boxes, it's still a great game. Do the math. The simpler the game, the fewer options you'll have for hiding your game design flaws."

On the positive side, it's easier to launch a successful iOS video game than making the NBA, but the rags to riches tales are few and far between. Hundreds, if not thousands, of aspiring developers, boosted by stories similar to Demeter's, learn the hard way that pulling off the next surprise hit takes not only a herculean effort, but also natural talent and some lucky breaks along the way.

The Sounds of Failure

"There are no easy paydays here, and the streets are not paved with gold," said Paul O'Connor, Brand Director of Appy Entertainment. "So much reporting concentrates on the gold rush aspect of iOS development. This fart app made a million dollars. Did you know a Chihuahua programed a best-selling app? It's like when you walk into a casino, all you hear are success sounds, slot machine payouts and sirens. If you heard all the failure sounds, you would be deafened. If the press reported the reality of our market, the same would happen."

With this in mind, aspiring developers shouldn't expect the cash to roll in anytime soon. If anything, it's the exact opposite.

"Money does not grow on trees when it comes to smartphone game development," said Ben Moore from Mighty Rabbit Studios. "Too often, people hear the success stories and imagine that any somewhat visible game on market is generating great amounts of cash flow. This simply is not the case. Roughly one out of eight games make it into any kind of a feature spot long enough to generate the coverage needed to sell enough copies to make money. That's why publishers have been stepping into the arena to formalize a process to getting into that coveted feature spot. If you have a publisher, they typically take between 20-50 percent of revenue after Apple takes 30 percent. So even with a big, successful title, a lot of developers only see 35-50 percent of what the game actually earns."

More important are the steps the designer must take to remain financially stable.

"Bankroll is the biggest problem a young and inexperienced studio will encounter," said The Game Bakers' Emeric Thoa. "For most games, there is a long time between launch and profitability, during which you still have to pay the team. If you have $50k budget for a game, you break even at around 70k sales. If you manage to reach this milestone in three months, you need three months of bankroll ahead of you, plus a bonus month because Apple pays every two months. If you bet on being profitable during your launch month, that's risky."

To that end, Thoa advises developers to beware of assumptions.

"The biggest mistake a developer can make when starting iOS development is to expect he or she will reach a hundred thousand users just because there are millions of iPhone users. Reaching the 100k milestone is hard as hell."

Company structure is also of key importance.

"Until you create a break-out hit, I believe the blockbuster app game is about being in the right place at the right time for companies of all sizes," said Bolt Creative co-founder Dave Castelnuovo. "Sometimes, you produce a game that doesn't do so hot, and sometimes it makes a lot of waves. I believe a lot of companies are too quick to blame the crowded nature of the app store and instead should manage this luck component better. Design your team so it can last long term on moderate success and continue to get better at your craft and produce new games until one of them hits. Don't take it personally if you create a great game and the audience doesn't react for some reason. Look at all the great movies that aren't necessarily blockbusters, it's very hard to predict what people will react to."

Keys to Development

One of the biggest things that often torpedo a developer/studio, though, is the idea itself.

"[Developers] choose a game design that is too ambitious compared to their capabilities," said Castelnuovo. "I believe in starting small and building up as you develop your technology and skill set. Most of the best-selling games are fairly simple anyway, so start with something you know you can complete in a couple months. Get some real experience with the app market. If you bite off more than you can chew, you and the game ends up not selling very well. Even worse, you run out of money before finishing your first game."

This being the case, a developer must know when a game's finished.

"Inexperienced developers keep adding stuff in their games in the hope of turning it into a fun experience at some point," said Housemarque's Sami Koistinen. "They should do the exact opposite: remove all the fat from the game design. The best core gameplay designs are always simple. The fewer buttons and core mechanics the player needs to learn, the better. If the gameplay sucks but the game has fantastic graphics, the game still sucks. If the gameplay is fantastic and the graphics are just random colored boxes, it's still a great game. Do the math. The simpler the game, the fewer options you'll have for hiding your game design flaws."

Moore echoed a similar thought.

"Anyone can throw crap at a wall and see if it sticks. From our own experience, time and effort has to go into making a title that stands out in the saturated market."

Developers must also take into account quality control. All too often, games receive horrible customer reviews simply because they don't work.

"About 80 percent of a game is made of invisible components that are only noticed when they break down," said Igor Raffaele, general manager of InterWave Studios. "Players never appreciate the majestic iceberg of software engineering they're on, unless you fail at making all those building blocks functional and unobtrusive. When they do notice, it's always because something wasn't good enough."

Shady Self-Promotion?

Visibility, or general lack thereof, is one of the biggest hurdles. Not every game receives a spotlight on the App Store, and developers must do whatever it takes to market the product, even if it means reviewing their own games.

"We have reviewed our own games on the App Store," said Raffaele. "It's not as big a deal as I've seen it made on many websites. Both stores' user rating systems are an open medium that everyone can contrast, and after the hard work of creating a game, that simple act of parental pride really won't skew an avalanche of bad reviews."

"There are much more insidious ways of promoting your games on the App Store," he continued, "and they come wrapped in nice market speak that makes them sound legit enough that no one complains. People should turn their attention to those, instead of a couple of developers giving their own games a five star rating."

"This is like not voting for yourself in an election," said Castelnuovo. "Also, any app developer would be irresponsible if they didn't try their best to get their friends to buy their game and leave reviews. At the end of the day though, I don't know if it's that big of a deal. I think ratings have the ability to guide someone's decision, but at the end of the day, a user typically looks at the screen shots and tends to find a review that supports the idea they already have in their head about the game. If the game is really bad, you will still see a ton of one star reviews despite a dev going out of their way to fraudulently create five star reviews."

"A team reviewing a game is not a problem," said Thoa. "It's a max of 30 people, including friends. It's meaningless compared to the 1000 plus a successful game will receive. Bots posting reviews is a bigger problem. Very frustrating for a small developer."

"Taking on too much investment to cover your ass through production is a sensitive subject, since taking on too much can lead to loss of creative control, or leaves you little to no rev share of your own game once it becomes profitable."

"I always send email to friends and family when one of our games or updates comes out, and I encourage everyone to download and rate the game," said O'Connor. "The only sure way to manipulate reviews is by providing a quality experience. Our games have thousands of ratings and friends and family don't move the needle."

That being the case, and without publisher support, developers wind up creating grass roots campaigns to get the word out.

"For my personal role with Mighty Rabbit," said Moore, "the toughest part of my job has been to do traditional PR and marketing activities with essentially no budget . This is a task. That means all campaigns we've had, all coverage we've had, and all web presence we have created had to be initially generated from the ground up. This includes grass roots campaigning, trade shows, game conventions, social media generation and constant persistence in convincing large game sites that we're a worthwhile company to spend their time reviewing or writing about. You have to get creative in how you get your game set apart in a saturated market that features games with bigger budgets, and visible since paid advertisements and handing out mass amounts of swag is a virtual impossibility."

"Essentially," Moore continued, "working on a bare-bones budget for any small studio has got to be the biggest issue if you're working full time on a project. Taking on too much investment to cover your ass through production is a sensitive subject, since taking on too much can lead to loss of creative control, or leaves you little to no rev share of your own game once it becomes profitable."

Ernest Woo shares this view.

"Marketing is an oft-overlooked task for indies. I'm not particularly PR savvy and I honestly prefer to spend my time coding rather than anything else."

A much bigger topic of discussion, or so we thought, involved a handful of websites providing expedited coverage for a fee, which appeared to go against the nature of journalism. For years, opponents have accused critics of taking money from publishers to inflate review scores, but had little to no actual proof this takes place. Yet here, under the radar, the mobile industry was falling victim to people who seek to profit off their "client's" invisibility in the marketplace. As it turns out, some developers see this as more of an asset.

"I don't think it's evil," said Carlos Sessa, from NASA Trained Monkeys. "Marketing your game/app is one of the hardest steps. If someone can promote my app, I don't mind paying."

"In a sense," said Moore, "I suppose one could argue that paying for this service is similar to paying for coverage to begin with (in an off hand way), though I don't find it particularly necessary or evil. For the most part, most of the game review sites I've contacted in the past stay pretty fair and objective on their review process or coverage protocol. I say it's not evil, because publishers and PR firms I've spoken with in the past offer many more services than coverage alone, and serve as a vital feedback source on where to improve/make changes to your game."

"This has not happened to us, but let's be realistic here," said Rube Rubenstein from Brain Blast Games. "These sites are trying to survive as small bloggers and review sites as much as we're trying to survive as developers. If they want to solicit for reviews or articles, let them. If you don't like it, politely tell them you're not interested. We don't stock soapboxes at Brain Blast, we make games."

Of course, not everyone likes the idea of paying for coverage.

"I can see where a new developer might be tempted to pay for a review burst, but these are empty calories," said O'Connor. "The fact is, this business takes time, and quality counts. If you're scheming to jump the line, then you're in the wrong trade."

Castelnuovo shared his experience.

"The closest we had to this was a meet and greet during GDC (Game Developers Conference) where we were asked to pay a sum of money in order to meet reviewers from various sites. There was no guarantee of coverage and the organizer was an independent entity, but it still felt slimy to me."

Jim Redner, of The Redner Group, feels such a practice would eventually price out the people it is designed to help.

"My biggest fear is that if this type of offering becomes a more common practice, it would be detrimental to indie and small developers. It would have a financial Darwinistic effect by creating a survival of the deepest pockets environment. More so than on any other platform, smaller and indie developers help drive this particular market. Sites dedicated to apps related coverage tend to provide an equal editorial playing field for small and big developers alike, but if the pay for an expedited review model became common place, it would significantly tilt the editorial playing field in favor of big time publishers with deep pockets."

Dane Baker, CEO of Villain, also chimed in.

"If you need to pay someone to cover your game or app, why are you bothering in the first place? Spend that money on making something unique instead."

Ernest Woo, CEO of Woo Games, thinks these sites hurt more than help.

"I have dealt with such sites and occasionally paid for an 'expedited review' in the past. However, having a PR pro on board means I don't have to deal with ethically challenged sites. Hopefully, more established sites and blogs pay more attention to indies so sites that charge for coverage will go the way of the dodo."

As intimidating as all of this may sound, developers should still submit games to the App Store. There are numerous challenges to overcome, from managing a company to being noticed, like a certain aforementioned hoops player, or a guy with an idea for a great puzzle game. One can still make a name for him or herself, so long as (and this will sound cliche) a developer makes games out of a love for games and not for making a quick buck.

"My advice," said Woo, "is to focus on a single mechanic or idea and build a small, self-contained game around that. Polishing the smallest of games will keep you busy for a long time."

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Chris Buffa avatar
Chris Buffa: Chris Buffa is the Editor-in-Chief of Modojo. You'll find him on his iPhone playing Tiny Wings, trying in vain to beat his sister's high score.
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