Conquer Games | Tips & Strategies for Indie App Developers

The player's the boss; it's your duty to entertain – John Carmack

The most socially awkward moment I have ever experienced was witnessing someone playing my game for the first time.

It is an eerie feeling.  I wanted to talk to the guy, but what do you say?  “Hey I made that.  What do you think?  Wanna hangout and talk about your gameplay experience?”

I don’t think so.

In my work, there are a lot of positives.  But there is no greater reward than seeing someone enjoy your work.  It’s a feeling of appreciation, pride, and acceptance.  To me, that’s what game development is all about.

I’m a gamer at heart. When I was a kid, I remember playing Tecmo Bowl with my brother on NES.  Blowing on cartridges and slapping on my Game-Genie were daily rituals.  Nothing topped running one back with Deion Sanders, or going yard with a Hail Mary from Joe Montana.

We are well into our 30s now, and my brother and I still stay up late gaming.

Since my early NES days, I have moved on to downloading and developing hundreds of mobile games while my old gaming system collects dust in the garage.  The scariest thing about being a mobile developer is keeping up with the times, the latest technologies, and of course the competition.

Ever have a bad revenue week and asked yourself: “Is this it?  Are my apps done?  How can I compete in this crowded market?”

I have.  Lots of times.

At least once a month I ask myself why I’m even still in this biz.  Are my games going to last?  Is the market going to crash?  The unknown is a scary thing.

The bottom line is this:  I develop games because I love it.  I have the lifestyle I want, I have an income that allows me to travel the world, and reports are showing an exponential projected growth well past 2017.  In fact, there is supposed to be over 6 billion smartphones in the hands of gamers by then.  Insane!

To be a successful game developer, you need an appreciation for games and other people’s work.  I get emails monthly asking development estimates for games like Minecraft.

Yes the foundation looks simple enough, but there are tons of coding, analytics, and marketing efforts that go into whales like Minecraft.  That’s why Microsoft purchased it for 2.5 billion dollars.  Did you know there are over 350 splash images in Minecraft?  In the real world, nothing is pure luck or comes easy.

So what’s up with games?  Who are the new hotshots?  What revolutionary technologies do you have to be mindful of?

You’ll be shocked when you hear what game makers are working on, as well as the classic development strategies that are still bringing in tons of cash.

a look into The future of games

virtual reality

Virtual Reality is here.  It might be unlikely that you or I will create virtual reality games anytime soon, but new technology Samsung Galaxy Virtual Realityis a plus in any market.   The concept of VR has been perceived as bogus in the past, but people had a strong liking to it at this years GDC in San Francisco.  Game developers are using VR for its 360° video environments and mega-screen like feel.

You’ve probably already seen Samsung’s VR mobile products in stores like Best Buy.  That stuff is no joke.  It is incredibly affordable and has 5 star reviews.

Apple Watch is projected to be the leading smartwatch vendor in 2015.  Games are going to take off on the Apple Watch with its straightforward UX that can be easily played on small screens and in short segments.  People are going to make a killing with the Apple Watch.  Games are easier to develop than any other Apple product to date.

iarm apple watch gameI plan to focus on how game developers successfully monetize their Apple Watch apps.  We don’t have a lot of research yet, but geo-locator ad networks like Tapsense are no doubt going to crush it.  Starbucks, Macys, Target…  These are companies that are taking full-advantage by displaying their promotions right in front of the customer’s eyes.

I’m pumped for the Apple Watch.  Creative development ideas like iArm Wrestle Champs are going to be no-brainers that cash in.

Facebook is beefing up its game recommendations.  With App Events we can collect data on events like level completions and purchases.    Now Facebook is using our data and their own historical data to target what games and ads to focus on.

Not interested?

Imagine an App Store that targets what you like, and analyzes what is already on your device.  Thats what Facebook is – a second App Store that matches what games you’ll play and spend money on!

Using Google to dominate

Besides Google’s new killer Player Analytic tool which is pinpointing user demographics and traits, I’m personally more interested in their heavy AdMob update.  AdMob is now sending out tailored messages to users.  Even better is AdMob’s AI that is predicting when a user will spend money on items like In App Purchases.

People are surprised when they see how often Bluecloud still includes AdMob in our games.  Although AdMob and banner ads feel outdated, they’re a solid source of revenue that don’t affect the user’s play.  Read more about AdMob and Google Play Analytic here.

Google paid over $7 billion to developers last year.  This year they'll pay out even more.  Get on it!

Be Like Matt

Matt Hall is an indie game developer who struggled to provide for his wife and daughter while living on his parents farm in Australia.  After a tough stretch, Matt developed an app by the name of Crossy RoadsCrossy Roads is based off the cult-classic Frogger arcade game, and can probably be developed by a majority of freelancers on elance.

hipster-whale-team

Matt started with a simple game that people already like.  Then he introduced a basic monetization system from similar successful apps like Flappy Birds, and developed a kickass app without breaking the bank.

Jackpot!

This is the same equation Bluecloud Solutions uses to develop dozens of apps that have hit the Top Charts.  And it's incredibly easy.

Everyone's playing with that one. We're going to go over here. We think that might work. Matt's research on emulating games like Frogger

Be like Matt.  Simplify things.  Figure out a system that works, and capitalize on it.  At GDC Matt reported that Crossy Roads generated $10 million with over 50 million downloads in just the first 3 months of release.  This just happened, and the cool thing is another indie developer with a similar story will do it this year.

Crossy Roads has reached #1 in multiple Top Charts categories.  Matt is single-handedly battling juggernauts like Supercell who are spending buckets of money to promote apps like Clash of Clans.

Blogger Dave Tach said it best, “It’s about lessons learned in hard times. To make art, you need to do some mixing. ” 

Don’t ever quit.  Take a deep breath and recognize what’s working and use stories like Matt's for inspiration.

Reboot your old games

My mentor Chad Mureta taught me a valuable lesson early in my development career.  Emulating is not skinning.  Emulating is taking something that already exists and making it better through additional features, new technology, and rapid iterations.

However, emulating and skinning do go hand in hand.  By emulating, we can reboot an old project to feel like new.  Then we can skin it to test different themes, metadata, and monetization strategies to cast a wider net and find out what works best.  Checkout Carter’s new skinning course to learn how he systematizes Bluecloud's hundreds of skins.  Get the details here.

Developers feel like its impossible to rejuvenate an app once its fallen off the charts.  Ramine Darabiha rebooted his 4-year-old game Age of Zombies back to the Top Charts.  He stated the reason he dove back into his game was because…

“It’s Free Money!”

Surprisingly, one of the biggest focuses Age of Zombies updated was its resources. Ramine’s powerful update was developed to be worthy of being featured, along with a marketing strategy targeting the Paid Top Charts.  He has become a huge story, and inspired thousands of developers to go back to older projects to see what can be tweaked.

temple run disney endless runner

Emulating and skinning are still dominating.  Even the biggest companies like Disney are releasing more duplicates of past successes.  Disney's latest hit Temple Run: Oz (one of many Endless Runners Disney has released), is a knockoff of an Imangi Studios classic.  Same code, another app on the charts.  With Disney's new release of Temple Run: Oz, Endless Runner classics are still king.

Quick Game Facts

Here's some findings you should keep in mind when developing games.

92% of mobile revenue comes from IAPs

Games account for 16% of the total time spent on mobile apps

59% of Americans are gamers

US smartphone owners aged 18 and over use video, audio, and gaming apps for an average of 10 hours 34 minutes per month.  Up 70% since 2012.

The average mobile gamer spends $4-$6 a month in apps

71% of the mobile gamers who spend more than $10 a month are males

The #1 reason gamers stop playing is because the game gets too difficult without having to spend money

The last one really hits home.  Is the freemium model declining?  Did Matt Hall see this coming?  I think so.  The user has picked up on the freemium model and shifted to other schemes.  Lets face it, when they’ve done a Southpark episode on it, it’s probably over.

What apps like Crossy Roads do show us, is that we’ll always have the classics.  Simplicity is king, and you can make big bucks with traditional monetization strategies.  Read more about monetization strategies and other development tips with Bluecloud's free Mobile Development Guide.

In closing

Games do more than help pass the time.  They challenge, inspire, and bring us together.  Whether your game is getting 1 download a day or 1,000, its a special thing.  Someone searched, scrolled, clicked, and downloaded your app in a market with over a million others to choose from.

People love the challenge of creating something, adding their own twist, and seeing how the market consumes it.  Thats why Bluecloud is made up of mostly repeat-customers.  Most importantly it makes them money.

Analyze new and trending apps to help you think outside the box.  Games like Lastronaut, Blockwick 2, and Build Fly Retry are simple codes that people have taken to the next level and cashed in on.

Remember to always be improving your existing projects and codes.  Nothing is finished.  Take your apps to higher levels,  and different platforms while experimenting with themes, metadata and monetization strategies that work best.

Keep it simple.  Follow development strategies like Matt Hall’s that work for you.  If you are interested in developing a whale, make sure you know what you’re getting into.  Take a look inside this simple game that cost $800k+, but made over 5 million.

Looking back, I can’t imagine having any other job.  App Development is what I was meant to do and I’m excited for what’s next.

Ever seen someone playing your game?  Tell me about it and discuss what new app strategies and technologies you’re excited about.  Add a comment below.

 

How to Make An App
 

COMMENTS

  • Shul March 11, 2015

    Thanks Mark for this post! Really interesting.
    One question, when you are talking about go back to older projects do you think one should post an update to an app or launch it again?
    Thanks

  • Mark March 11, 2015

    @Shul – Great question!
    I re-launch apps as a last resort. Yes Apple does give you a boost initially, but I’m seeing more consistent revenue streams longterm by posting updates. I also push all developers to learn how to upload to the Store. This will save you tons of cash, allow you to tweak metadata, and is relatively painless to do. Here’s what I recommend:

    – Start updating your project in small intervals. This saves you from any development breaking-points that you might encounter. You don’t have to release every updated version you create, but this strategy will keep you safe.
    – Once the version you want to release is uploaded, let it sit there for a couple days -> 2 weeks, or set a release date in the future.
    – Double-check your ASO, marketing and any ads you’ve got running
    – Release
    – Pump with reviews
    – Let it sit for 2 weeks and record the data

    If you’re not seeing a better result, try another update. After ~5 updates (or until you’re fresh out of ideas and you’re ready to call it quits), remove it from the Store and reupload. If you have another app account you can use even better. Good luck!

  • Kathy March 11, 2015

    Thanks Mark!

    A lot of golden nuggets in your post.

    I have come to the conclusion, the same as for you- save yourself the $$$ and post your own updates. There are a ton of Udemy course that will show you step-by-step. Really appreciate your interval breakdown for reposts.

    Kathy

  • Shul March 11, 2015

    Thank you so much Mark! it’s like you guessed my biggest fear. Learn how to upload to the Store!! I really should start facing this issue 🙂

  • Leo March 11, 2015

    Cool stuff Mark – one of your best posts I’ve read yet! Keep the juicy content coming!

  • Mark March 11, 2015

    @Leo – Thanks for the encouragement Leo! I’m glad the time and energy that goes into these posts pays off, and helps + inspires others. I’ll def keep the posts coming!

  • Matthieu OSADA March 12, 2015

    Mark, thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts! The “keep it simple” part resonates with me. And the example of Crossy Roads is sooooo true. I mean, I’m not an hardcore player but I played frogger when I was a kid on an Amstrad, or Comodore I can’t remember. But I do remember the game like it was yesterday! It’s one of the few that really sticked.
    To your readers that are “afraid” to learn how to update : take just one day to learn the process, step by step. It’s really straightforward once you’ve done it once or twice. I’m not a developer at all, and updating/uploading requires no line of code. It’s just a process and the web is full of tutorials on this. It’s really worth to sit and learn. Only one day. Right now I’m learning how to integrate ads SDKs and how to tweak ad placements. It’s tough at the beginning, but it’ll take a couple of days to figure it out, and after? You’re free to tweak! You need a dev for advanced stuff, but there is so much little things you can do on your own that’ll save you money at the beginning…

  • Leo March 12, 2015

    Mark – why do you think the freemium strategy is dying? How are you adjusting your portfolio of apps?

  • Aidas Bendoraitis March 13, 2015

    Interesting post and interesting statistics about gaming and spending money on it. By the way, what does “IAP” stand for?

  • Mark March 13, 2015

    @Leo –
    I think the freemium model will always be around, but gamers are aware and sick of downloading games that require them to pay to advance. As stated in the post:

    The #1 reason gamers stop playing is because the game gets too difficult without having to spend money

    Monetizing apps is still in its infancy. I’m excited for what strategies erupt next.

    A huge chunk of my portfolio is mostly made up of the traditional LITE/PAID apps. Its a classic model that gets more apps in the Store, plus allows me to test different revenue generating strategies.

  • Tania March 13, 2015

    Interesting article Mark. What are your thoughts on monetising puzzle games? One of the challenges is that some puzzle games constantly need new levels added.

    Also I haven’t found launching updates to be a huge help as it means starting over with getting your 5 reviews in each country. I do get some of the existing players returning to the game but it hasn’t pumped up downloads for new players. I have tweaked the keywords and screenshots but it’s not firing.

  • Mark March 13, 2015

    @Tania – Puzzle games are hot! Again, love AdMob banners for games like puzzles. Depends what style of puzzle, but all puzzles are great for retention so testing Ad Networks and Rewards are good places to start. We just updated our puzzle source code Gem Dots which is now equipped with AdMob, Applovin, Chartboost, RevMob, Xplode and a few other features that offer solid revenue options. Its a smooth code and great template for rocking puzzles. From a UX perspective, puzzles are ALL about a solid mechanic which Gem Dots dominates at.

    I also love puzzle networks. Puzzlers stick to puzzles, so cross-promoting to other games of the same genre is a solid idea.

    Sorry your updates haven’t been a huge help. I’ve had the opposite experience. It can be frustrating, but its necessary to update your app to get better results. Tweak your strategy. I primarily only focus on reviews for the US in 90% of my apps which seems to do the trick. Maybe instead of focusing in 5 countries, pump all reviews to 1. Good luck!

  • Mark March 13, 2015

    @Aidas –

    IAPs = In App Purchases

    In App Purchases are basically whatever the user purchases within the app – Coins, Remove Ads, Special Features, Upgrades…

  • Tania March 13, 2015

    Thanks Mark, I think you’re right on focusing reviews on a few key countries. The app was updated a week ago so I will give it more time for the keywords to do their thing. What I’ve noticed is that there are 10 reviews from 9 countries. There may be other ratings without reviews (any tips on finding those as they come through if they are under the 5 review threshold?) but so far no country has enough reviews to show stars when people search.

    I do love the puzzle apps. I have some that are endless (e.g. variants of 2048) but others need new puzzles added so I will look at the ad networks when I add the next lot of puzzles and game packs. So far they are all free but I plan to add paid puzzle packs and more platforms (ios only for now).

    Do you have any tips for encouraging people to buy more puzzle packs? Or do people download another free app instead of buying the paid puzzles?

  • Tania March 13, 2015

    Oops one more question. What do you mean by rewards in puzzle apps? I’ve been pinged by Apple for incentivized downloads/reviews etc but I guess you mean something else???

    I was thinking of merit badges but I’m at a loss to think what other rewards I can offer. I would love to hear your ideas 😉

  • Mark March 14, 2015

    @Tania –
    I’m assuming your app gets the most downloads by Tier 1 countries, specifically the United States. If thats the case, experiment with getting reviews for the country with the most downloads.

    Ways to encourage people to play:
    – Giveaway rewards like coins, extra level, special features, bonuses… These are great for endless style games to get people to keep playing.
    – In app messages encouraging users, giving tips for gameplay, or random facts about the theme of your game
    – Some ad networks do offer rewards, but make sure you turn these off during review or Apple may reject you
    – To buy more puzzle packs you can code dynamic full screen popups showing the value/coolness of your pack, or you can use ad services like Xplode and do the same. Possibly have a LITE version with items locked, and upgrade to a PRO version with everything unlocked.
    – Show stats, puzzlers are insane about getting the top score

    Be creative, if you have a big enough audience, ask your users and have them email you with what they want.

    Keep rocking!

  • Tania March 15, 2015

    Thanks Mark. Those are great tips. I have been looking at other games to see what rewards they use but most are things that Apple has rejected our app for. Yet a week later they will approve an update to my competitor’s app and they have all the same rewards (and then some).

    I didn’t know you could turn off rewards during review although ours are coded into the game, not the ad networks. Something to play with as we have no idea how to code rewards into the ad networks.

    Sorry to be dense but how do you give away rewards like coins? What do they have to do to earn them?

    We do give daily coins for opening the app and local message reminding people to come back and open the app to get the free coins. We haven’t been doing hints but that’s an idea that ran through my head last night.

    Apple rejected our apps with rewards linked to liking our Facebook page, doing reviews, downloading other apps so I didn’t know what else we could do. We did offer an extra 500 coins to everyone who downloads the update in order to push the update.

    Funnily in the original version of the game top downloads in order
    China, US, UK, Turkey, Canada.
    However, most revenue from IAP was Tier 1 (US, CA, UK)
    Per user US was almost double CA and UK for IAP!

    Updated version top downloads (in order)
    US, Turkey, China, Great Britain, Japan

    It’s an English language game with English words so we were really surprised to see China featuring so strongly.

  • Mark March 15, 2015

    @Tania –
    Ya Apple sometimes turns a blind eye to apps that are making good money. Think creatively. Make things dynamic where you have the power to turn them off and control them on the backend. Take Apple completely out of the equation.

    I don’t know your exact game/code, but the best way to giveaway coins is to look at your data and see where the user drops off. Then offer them coins right before that dropoff point. Thats where I’d start. It doesn’t have to be coins, it could be a promotion or something completely random.

    If your budget allows, you may want to try localizing the code and metadata to China. But your US numbers sound strong. Push US users if they’re the ones spending money. Maybe try some traffic campaigns…

    Sounds like you’re on the tip of the iceberg!

  • Connor caswell March 29, 2015

    Great advice!! Time to implement!

  • Hitendra+pratap April 8, 2015

    Hi Mark! Always good to read positively shaped article. I like it.

    @ Tania
    Maybe you take a look at the game, Tap Titans,
    https://itunes.apple.com/in/app/tap-titans/id940596201?mt=8

    They show incentivized video ads during gameplay. These are non obstructive and also help improving the gameplay therefore more people click on it and more ad $$.

    Mark has given excellent suggestion. You need to put this entire thing on the backend and control from there. So during review it won’t show any such incentive ads and later when game is live, it will show to your players.

    Have success!

  • Erin May 24, 2015

    Mark – I am not a gammer and absolutely technologically CHALLENGED! I came across your blog – you are very helpful but I am even more of a beginner. My family came up with a game that we play at parties, road trips, etc. I think we could make into an app and be a blast! How do I even get started? Thank you for any suggestions!

  • Mark May 24, 2015

    @Erin – Yes! Psyched you’re interested in developing games, especially a project that you and your family would be involved in.

    I’ve developed a lot of projects for my personal use. And they are JUST as exciting and rewarding as the big projects I’ve worked on. Think about the PURPOSE of your project and the END GOAL. Is it to make a million dollars? Or simply play with your family on road trips?

    Here’s 7 quick steps I recommend for getting started:

    1) Sign up for our Free ebook for an overview to the App Development World: http://www.bluecloudsolutions.com/opt-learn

    2) Check out the infographic and blog posts below. Get an idea of how much your app will cost. Without even knowing anything about it, I’m going to estimate 3k. But there are strategies to bring that # way down:
    http://www.bluecloudsolutions.com/blog/quarterly-report-q1-2015/
    http://www.bluecloudsolutions.com/blog/cost-develop-app/

    3) Set your budget.

    4) Begin wireframing your app. Be as specific as possible. Sketch out every button and where it will go. You can even make a mockup. Check out our Resources page for some wireframe and mockup tools you can use for free:
    http://www.bluecloudsolutions.com/resources/

    5) Search for Source Codes that are already created similar to your idea. You can purchase licenses online at sites like Bluecloud or Apptopia. Another option is to even reach out to apps on the App Store. There’s usually a Support email. Explain your situation, and ask to purchase a license of their code. You’d be surprised with the responses you’ll get.

    It will save you a lot of time and money to use something already created. I’ve found having a template to work off is a lot more efficient than developing from scratch.

    5) Reach out to developers for quotes. Find 20 developers you like, narrow to 10, and call them explaining your situation (We have detailed instructions for Hiring Devs in our Premium Ebooks if you’re interested: http://www.bluecloudsolutions.com/bluecloud-app-course/ And we have loads of free blog posts with tips).

    6) Do a Starter project. Before you dive into your BIG project, do a starter project to get an idea of what it takes to get an app in the Store + work with a developer. There’s TONS of source codes already made you can purchase for cheap and push in the Store. We have a starter bundle of 3 apps I really like. It’s called “Accelerator Kit” and can be found under the “Products” tab in the header.

    7) Get your app in the works. Make it a skeleton. Cut out as much fat as you can to decrease costs and get it in the Store quickly. Once in the Store you can decide to revise before launching. But sometimes it can be difficult getting apps approved as a beginner.

    Have fun! This is such a fun industry, especially if you’re working on a project that you’re pumped on. There are few things in life more rewarding than creating something you can share with others.

    Hope I was able to at least point you in the right direction. If you have any more questions about getting started, drop a line!

    Onward!

  • Mike January 31, 2016

    What’s up, just wanted to mention, I liked this blog post.
    It was helpful. Keep on posting!

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