The App Store today is a different beast from the one in early 2009, when iShoot ruled the charts. Look at the top paid games on the App Store today. Actually, don’t worry, I did all the leg work for you. Here they are:
It’s All About Polish
The love and care developers put into those games shows the moment you start them up. Look at the textures in Tiny Wings, the sound effects in Angry Birds, the feedback animations in Words With Friends, or all the little details in Cut The Rope. All the tiny particle effects, transitions, sounds, and general squish and responsiveness. Every single one of those games is oozing with its own style and contributes to a very enjoyable first (and repeat) experience.
And that is the main point of this post: To make a successful game on the App Store, the main thing you need is love. You can skimp on features, on content, on marketing, on a web site, or even on gameplay balance. All those are things that you can add or improve after shipping, but polish and style are responsible for that crucial first impression. Miss the chance to hit the player with all you’ve got the first time they play your game, and that might be a lost sale (and a lost advocate of your game since word of mouth is such a strong force on the App Store).
Not convinced about the difference polish and style makes?
This game is essentially Tiny Wings with just a little bit of polish (and it does have *some* polish).
I rest my case.
Ship As Soon As Possible?
Traditional game development (especially for consoles) usually goes along these lines: Plan everything, create a game with everything that you want/can fit, ship it once it’s done, and hope not to touch it again. On the other hand, in this day of web/Facebook/mobile development the favored approach is to release a product as soon as possible, and then iterate from there.
My preference in the last few years has been more along the shipping as soon as possible lines (even if I haven’t always been successful at it). But then I paused and really thought about why and what I would accomplish by shipping early. These are the main reasons I could think about:
- Getting to market first. This is a big one in the web world (and maybe even in the hardware world). Even if your product is imperfect, or its UI is less than ideal, getting that initial critical mass of users could be what tips the balance in your favor.
- Canceling the project early. Maybe it takes as long as the first version of a product to realize there isn’t demand for it. So it was better to have spent 6 months instead of 3 years before canceling the project.
- Focussing your efforts. An impending ship date will make wonders to keep people on track and focused on what’s important to ship a game.
- Become profitable as soon as possible. Even if you make the same amount of money and spend the same amount of time working on a project, if you start bringing in money at the 6 month mark rather than at the 3 year mark, you’ll be profitable earlier. And as any RTS fan will tell you, getting extra resources early in the game can put you at a huge advantage.
- Changing the product based on early user feedback. Otherwise you might spend years working on a product that people don’t really want, or they would prefer something slightly different.
How do those reasons apply to iOS games?
- As an iOS game, your biggest moment is launch. That’s when you can get most momentum and get the word of mouth ball rolling. First impressions matter a lot and a lot of people will make snap decisions about your game in the first few seconds. If it’s not looking its best, it doesn’t matter if it came earlier than another game. Besides, games, for the most part, aren’t providing as much of a service as they’re a form of entertainment. Barring brand new genres or whole new platforms, getting to market first doesn’t mean much. And even if you’re making a brand new genre, chances are it’s unique so the clones won’t start showing up until after you launch and becomes popular (unless you announce way in advance).
- Stopping development on an unsuccessful game earlier rather than later is always a good thing.
- Likewise, having a milestone around the corner does wonders for focussing your efforts. That was one of the big benefits we got from submitting Casey’s Contraptions to the IGF.
- The last one is tricky. It might seem like a benefit for iOS games as well, but I’m going to argue it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I think that testing and user feedback is very valuable. But games ultimately are a form of art and you are the creator. In the end, you need to decide what your game and your vision are like. Feedback will help with usability and balancing issues, but not with what the game is fundamentally. Stick to your vision.
Looking at those lists, it makes it clear to me that iOS game development is not all about getting a product out of the door as soon as possible. There’s no need to create a finished product for your first release. Instead, save every feature and content you can for free updates or even future in-app purchases.
I’m convinced that polish and style are one of the most important things an iOS game can have. It’s not the first time I say that. So get the product out as soon as you can, but do not, under any circumstances, cut any polish from your game. Plan on spending a good month or longer after your game is “done” polishing it. That time will definitely be well spent and will increase the value of your game more than any other month you spent developing it.
What I’m suggesting here is actually quite different from what Chris Hecker talked about at last year’s GDC. Even though we’re both saying “take your time and do your game right”, he’s emphasizing the completeness of the game (in the sense of exploring all its potential), while I’m emphasizing the presentation. I think the main reason our messages are so different is the platform we’re developing for. On a platform like iOS, I really think you can explore the full potential of a game after it ships without any real drawbacks.
Right now we’re in the polish phase in Casey’s Contraptions. The game has been “done” for a while, in the sense that we have all the items, lots of levels, you can play through all the puzzles, make your own contraptions, etc. Even though it already has a lot of style and polish, it definitely needs that extra layer of shine to make it really stand out and bring it to the quality of those games in the top 10 list. We can only hope that Casey’s Contraptions joins them after we launch!
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 Feel free to substitute whatever word you want there that isn’t offensive to you: entertainment, interactive media, etc. Games are something *you* create from your imagination, so art seems like the best term to me.