These tips are for the one-man/two-man/three-man shops. If you have a team of people, then these things may not be applicable to you (in fact the revenue generated by following this advice may not be even worth it).

When all is said and done. If you can make $10 a month on your game, you’re doing pretty well (that can scale quite nicely if you make many quality games). It’s pretty bleak/worst case, but I’d rather you go into mobile game development with very conservative expectations for pay out. There are few techniques in increasing sales, like creating a “sandbox app” and having interstitials, but getting your game noticed (and generating revenue off of it) is an uphill battle. Build niche games that you’d be proud to say you built.

Know the Quality of Your Target Category

Decide on what two categories you want to deploy your game to. Done?

Alright, now for those categories, go to the top charts list and download/buy the top 10 games (yes, buy premium games and download the free ones).

And the important part. Download/buy the bottom 10 games for that category. Scroll all the way down to spot number #150 (some have fewer).

What this will give you is a bar for what the most downloaded apps in a category look like, and what the standard deviation of quality is. It’s important to download both paid and free apps so you can get a feel for what drives people to each side of the coin.

Here is a very sobering example. There is a game in the Music category called Okay? (built by the guy who made Sometimes you Die). It’s a wonderful game. But it’s ranked lower than Frozen Princess Run 3D Infinite Runner Game Kids (which was ranked #33 at the time of writing). Why? Because parents don’t want to pay for a legitimate Frozen game built by Disney. So they download this. App number #150 is 3D Fashion Girl Mall Runner Race Game By Awesome (which is a reskinned version of the Frozen game).

Sadly, the number of downloads a game gets (and by extension, its rank) isn’t directly related to its quality (it certainly helps if your game has some though). That being said, this should give you some hope that the game you build could potentially dominate. It’s one of the few things that keeps me trying to make A Noble Circle the best premium Music game, and why I’ll eventually dominate the Go game market with Beautiful Go (more on this later).

Know Your Target Download Numbers

3D Fashion Girl Mall Runner Race Game By Awesome employs a frowned upon tactic of “if you give me a 5 star review I will give you a cool unlock”… so naturally it has a very high review conversion rate. The total number of reviews the game has is 842. If you find a game that has a solid “ask for review strategy”, you can use that number to figure out how many downloads you can expect from the lifetime of your own game.

Max downloads formula: number of reviews * 150 Min downloads formula: number of reviews * 50

This is based on what I’ve observed with my own games. Here are the results for applying the formula.

Projected vs Actual

A Dark Room review count: 27,745

The Ensign review count: 844

A Noble Circle - Prologue: 177

I want to include the results for A Noble Circle. But this game has an abnormally high review conversion rate. Usually review conversion rates are abysmal. It hovers around 0.5% to 3% (which is why the download multiplier is so high).

A Noble Circle review count: 1,238

Applying the Formula

So now that we know “the review formula”, let’s take a look at 3D Fashion Girl Mall Runner Game By Awesome and Frozen Princess Run 3D Infinite Runner Game for Kids.

Fashion Girl review count: 842

Frozen Princess review count: 2,088

For these two apps, I’d guess the actual download numbers are closer to the lower one. Both these games probably have high review conversion rates because of their sleazy tactics for getting reviews.

A note to the developer of these two games: Apple will take your apps down if you get caught doing this bullshit. You and I both know that devs have no idea if the customer actually did the review (nor what rating it was given). You’re misleading people by doing this and artificially inflating your rating.

An Example of How I’m Using It

As I mentioned earlier, I’m working on a smaller game: Beautiful Go. Let’s apply this thought process to my target game type and see how financially viable it is to go after the game of Go market (pun intended).

  1. I found a variety Go Games: SmartGo Player (515 reviews); Tsumego Pro (56 reviews); Light GO 13x (191 reviews);

  2. These apps have been around for a while, so their review numbers probably won’t increase substantially. I took Tsumego Pro as my low end (2,800 downloads), and SmartGo as my top end (77,250). Given that these apps have been around since 2012, my revenue can be anywhere from $700 to $20,000 annually (total projected downloads divided by number of years in App Store, at $0.99 per download).

  3. Given this info, I decided to give a “virtual Go board” a shot (I was coming off of a inspiration-high after watching Ikari No Go). I built the first version of Beautiful Go in a weekend. And then iterated on it a couple of times (taking in feedback from Go subreddits and forums). My lifetime revenue for Beautiful Go is sitting at $546 (it’s been in the App Store for year so far).

  4. Hey, not bad. Now I can continue to build variations of this type of “virtual boards”: Mancala, Reversi, Chess, Xianqi, Checkers, etc. Suddenly I have a 5x increase in revenue given these variants.

  5. I can then place interstitials between these variants to increase revenue across the board… I should probably do this at some point… right after I figure out how to clone myself.

Niche Apps

Build niche apps. As a small time developer (one, maybe two people), making $10 a month on an app really is great (that’s almost a Netflix subscription). You’ll have a much easier time finding people to buy/download your game if it targets a very specific audience.

For example. A Dark Room is a text based RPG. The Ensign is a “Dark Souls difficult” ASCII rouge like. A Noble Circle is based off of a book written in the 1800’s. Beautiful Go is for a small group of people studying Go strategies. All my future games are these ridiculously niche areas.

Look, what has a better chance of being discovered and downloaded for $0.99? On of the thousands of Flappy Bird clone, or a game about the 350 year war between the Netherlands and the Isle of Scilly? There are over 70 million iPhones out there. There has to be at least 10 people per month looking for a game about some niche genre/experience (especially since you’ve felt it was cool enough to build it). So concentrate on those small communities.

Once you’ve built your Under Water Basket Weaving game, go to forums, subreddits, meetups, and drum up visibility. You can set your app keywords to focus in on these niche “seo words” too. Take advantage of this beautiful virtually small world we live in. Ask for feedback. Be known in these communities and they’ll support you.

Baby Steps

Alright so I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. Here is a list of steps to take when building your awesome game.

  1. Decide on a unique niche game.
  2. Search for similar apps and decide on your category (you can put your app in two categories), download the top 10 free/premium apps and bottom 10 free/pre apps to see what people are downloading.
  3. Calculate the revenue potential for your super awesome niche game using that silly review formula. Determine if it’s worth building.
  4. Build something playable fast (have something in the App Store in six weeks). Get something out there dammit. Don’t worry, you’re a nobody and no one will download your app anyways. Hell, release it for free for now. Just to see if people will download it.
  5. Keep iterating on the app, find niche communities and let them know that the app exists. Give away promotion codes (for premium apps or IAP) like candy and ask for feedback.
  6. Make $10 a month. Play around with pricing, IAP (bleh), and ads (bleh). Because it’s a niche app, you can potentially charge more for it. Beautiful Go sells for $1.99, after the next update, I’ll bring that price up to $2.99 and probably won’t see downloads drop.
  7. Once you hit the $10 mark. Build another app. Following the same steps. Cross promote between your offerings. Keep doing this and hopefully you’ll build one that does better than the others.
  8. Once you’ve got a little gem that’s a bit brighter than the others, consider pitching the app to Apple for a minor feature.
  9. Are you making enough to cover your daily coffee? Lunch? Monthly car payment? Awesome! Cause that’s probably about as good as it realistically gets.
  10. If you become popular, consider creating a “playground app” for yourself where you can try out different ideas, and get feedback from people who are following you as developer (I’m doing this next and will report back with results).

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Also, I've spent the three years fighting the uphill battle of getting noticed in the App Store. I've decided to write some words about it in book format.

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30 January 2016