Save the Pencil now has now been played over half a billion times. Saying that number still feels strange, writing it even stranger. Especially when you consider my previous post about the game’s somewhat disappointing launch. As an independent developer you hear countless App Store success stories which fill you with hope, but also perhaps a false sense of reality. Rather than asking why, with all this competition, will the next success story be me, it’s all too easy to become so attached to a project that you begin to ask, why not me? As a consequence, it’s also easy to become disheartened too quickly when things don’t quite go according to plan. Like many, I was guilty of this, and like many, this was premature. Success in the App Store is hard to achieve, and its becoming harder by the day. It is however still possible.
Let’s start with a bit of background. In February 2011 I lost my job. I had been working in Investment Banking in London. I’d always liked the idea of having an app in the App Store, had bought a book on Objective-C but had never really gotten round to actually doing anything. I took a few months off, doing very little in terms of work, and then decided it was time to start making better use of my days, swapping golf clubs for books (although not completely). This was late May ’11.
By early July I had my first application, Convertizo, approved and ready for sale in the App Store. It was a simple unit converter, a thoroughly unoriginal concept, but a logical and fairly simple place to start. I was happy with the results, and surprised that with such a tiny amount of publicity / marketing, it sold (and continues to do so) a small number of copies every day.
Next I wanted to create a game. But with no experience I didn’t have a clue where to start, I also had no concept. Enter Ray Wenderlich and his excellent book on Cocos2D game programming. I followed the book from cover to cover, and by the time I had finished, had decided that a very basic Simon Says game would probably be an achievable first Cocos2D project. Mr Mem was born and performed far better than expected (which subsequently prompted me to release an iAd supported Lite version).
By now it was September ’11, and it was time to come up with what I would regard as my first complete, original and noteworthy application. Something I could be proud of. I decided to leverage my newly acquired Cocos2D skills and make it a game. A month (and several prototypes) later however, I hadn’t managed to come up with anything which I felt worthy of a large time investment. I mentioned this to my friend Tim and he started shooting over ideas any time something came to mind. At some stage, join the dots was mentioned, a simple idea, but something I felt could be a good seed for a more interesting concept. I began to develop some prototypes and day by day, the overall concept gained clarity. It was now mid-October ’11 and by December, Save the Pencil , a stationery based puzzle game, was complete and ready for launch.
Now the purpose of this post is not really to explain how ideas were conceived and expanded upon between myself and Tim, or how the game itself was developed. I just felt that a brief summary of my background was necessary to put the achievement which is about to be described into context.
The launch date was set for December 8th. Press releases were issued, sites contacted, posts made in forums, a promo video created, the usual Facebook / Twitter posts, etc in what felt like a small but ultimately sufficient marketing programme. I didn’t (and never will) pay for advertising on sites or for reviews/coverage. Despite all this work, the launch was incredibly disappointing.
The disappointing trend continued, as illustrated by the sales numbers below.
As you can see, between launch date in early December and February 2nd, paid sales totalled less than 450. Pretty poor for a $0.99 game. On positive side, the game was well received by review sites, and of the small number of people that had downloaded the game, many left very positive App Store feedback and 5 star reviews.
So at this stage I knew I had a great game. But that game was, unfortunately, also a great failure. I had tried releasing lite versions to no avail; the gameplay was simply too limited on a reduced functionality version and of the many thousands of downloads, few converted into paid sales (lite versions now have to compete with many freemium titles – a battle they are losing). I didn’t have the money to run a robust PR campaign, and the last thing I wanted to do was fritter away several hundred pounds on half-hearted promotion.
On February 3rd, everything changed. Who knew one spontaneous decision would alter the fate of the Save the Pencil so dramatically. On that day, despite having no advertising and no in-app purchases, I decided to make the game free (note – I have since added in-app purchases to leverage the success of the game). I figured even if I wasn’t going to make money, it’d be nice to have a couple more thousand people playing the game by the end of the year. That would somehow make all the work seem more worthwhile.
I could explain what happened next in detail, but a chart probably gives a far better indication.
Over the next two weeks, Save the Pencil was downloaded over 3 million times. It had been the number 1 app in the free charts in a majority of global regions, and managed to hold the top spot in the UK, Canada, Australia and more for over a week. It also spent over a week in the Top 2 in the US.
So how did this happen? I must confess I’m not 100% sure. As an indie dev however, I know if I was reading this article I’d want reasons, so I’m going to make a best guess. A few sites picked up the price drop and mentioned it, which I believe gave it an initial boost. Not a large boost, but enough to get Save the Pencil to climb into the Top 250 free apps. And there’s the key, chart exposure.
Unless you’re lucky enough to be featured by Apple, chart placing is your only direct way of putting yourself in the shop window, literally. If you have a good app, you shouldn’t underestimate the viral nature of the App Store. A small group of individuals looking at the bottom of the charts and subsequently trying out your app can have a significant impact. If they like it, they may tell a few friends (it’s free after all – people are far more likely to recommend something if there is no cost to the other party), those friends download it, and so the cycle begins. The higher you climb, the more rapid the growth, with Top 25, Top 10 and course, the coveted number 1 spot being highly significant in generating an additional download bump.
So, at risk of stating the obvious, exposure generates downloads. But it has to be the right kind of exposure. In the app world, in my view, this gives you four options (note: spending a bunch on marketing is not an option as I don’t believe it works):-
1. Get Lucky
Ok, so perhaps luck is an important factor for everyone and unfortunately something you can’t control. Persistence often creates luck however, or at worst, helps your chances. Make sure you do not confuse luck with hope. I spent too long hoping Save the Pencil would take off, when clearly everything pointed to the contrary. But on February 3rd I stopped hoping and made a decision to change something; luck followed.
2. Get Featured By Apple
Ya right. And I mean properly featured, not New and Noteworthy in a third tier subcategory.
3. Receive Positive Feedback on Review Sites Simultaneously
I had little success with this. With so many big studios now making mobile games it’s becoming increasingly difficult to convince writers to give you column space. They’re far more likely to feature you after you’ve been successful rather than before. And who can blame them. It’s no secret how many hundreds of emails these peeps get every day. Futhermore, a good review on a site is simply not enough. Save the Pencil was featured as App of the Week on one of the top sites during launch, and yet sales still flopped. You need multiple reviews published within the same short time span. This would hopefully generate enough initial downloads to get a favourable chart position, and that App Store exposure.
4. Go Free
This can be for a limited period for paid apps, or permanently for apps adopting a freemium model. Despite popular trend, I would suggest the prior rather than the latter. A majority of Save the Pencil’s revenue has been generated by paid sales following promotional free periods, rather than in-app purchases. To put that in perspective, over 3 million users who got the app free contribute less to the bottom line than new sales. And that’s off a userbase that is fairly active (I’m actually planning a full post about this with more analysis).
So there it is, a slightly longer than expected tale of how an indie developer, with no help, reached over 3 million people in under 14 days with his first full-fledged game. The free charts are an incredibly powerful marketing tool. Their fluidity (in stark contrast to the paid charts which rarely move) gives even small developers a chance to get to the top. Of course, maintaining a high position is nigh on impossible – the drop will undoubtedly be as rapid as the climb – but by then you really won’t care, because all your hard work will have been appreciated by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people.
If you have a great game that has so far failed to get the success it deserves don’t lose faith, you never know what may be around the corner.