in iOS

Paying Off: The Story Behind Unearthed

Today I have the pleasure to introduce the first-ever guest post in Games From Within, Joey Chang. Like me, Joey worked for many years in the game industry, and finally took the plunge last October to become an independent game developer. Unearthed is his first iPhone project and it’s a very unique free to play, augmented reality (AR) game with an X-Files-like theme.

Joey was kind enough to share the story behind Unearthed, some of the decisions leading up to the final game, and the initial reception and sales numbers. Thanks Joey!

Inspiration

Nine months ago, without warning, a gnome crept into my head. It was an idea inspired from a friend’s chance mention of an activity called geocaching, where participants use a GPS to hide and seek containers across the world. Within hours, I had envisioned a global cross between geocaching, the Amazing Race, and online travel agency representatives. The idea didn’t look much like the resultant product nine months later, but it formed the most critical ingredient to any venture: the obsession to see it completed.

I spent my evenings for a few short weeks hammering out a design, scoping and cutting features, and beginning a prototype, but it didn’t take long for me to admit to the unavoidable truth that such a project would take months working full time or probably 3 to 4 times as many months working nights and weekends. I had to sit and carefully consider the pros and cons of leaving my job to pursue something I desperately wanted to create.

Half-Hearted Dissent

UnearthedPoster.jpgFor two weeks, I debated with my wife and close friends with startup experience. I drafted a list of pros and cons to quitting my job to pursue an iphone project and stared at it for hours. Those of you who have made the leap or considered it may recognize some of the points or have more of your own to add:

Advantages of quitting to work full time on an iphone idea

  • Focus effort, complete project 3-4 times faster
  • Gain valuable unique experience of running solo
  • Avoid coding burnout, alienating loved ones, loss of sanity
  • Resume padding

Advantages of keeping day job while working on iphone idea

  • Steady income in a scary economy
  • Not having to job search in a scary economy
  • Peace of mind (in a scary economy)

You can see where a large portion of the dissenting argument forms its basis. After two weeks of listening to unanimous encouragement (bordering on persistent nagging) to quit my job, two weeks of trying my best to convince myself why I should not quit my job, I did what my gut knew from day one was going to be best for me. I marched to my boss’s room and quit my job. Ok, I had maybe two false starts where I turned around and went back to my seat.

The Project Unearthed

Over the next 8 months, scoping and an inclination to appeal to a casual segment evolved the project into a global paranormal investigation titled Unearthed. I tried my best to figure how to maximize the success of the product, and compiled a list of all the ways I could imagine increasing the product’s exposure:

  • Banner ads
  • Spamming blogs and websites to review my product
  • Spamming friends on facebook
  • Writing a blog
  • Viral app features

I had trouble justifying the cost to pay for banner ads, and I had too much urgency to implement the product to devote time to a blog, so I focused on occasionally talking about the app on facebook, compiling a list of potential blog candidates for the day the app released, and devising viral features.

Screen1.jpgApart from typical facebook posting and email-a-friend features, I decided to employ a “refer-an-agent” feature which would enable users to invite others to join their network, essentially a grouping of users that correlated with how effectively their app could process scanned creature data. The larger the network, the more credit users would receive for uploading data, and the better they would perform in leaderboards and achievements. The approach was an “everybody wins” style where anytime any user in the network gained a referral, every single person in the network would benefit from the growth of the network. The hope was that this feature would gain a viral quality.

Friends placed immense pressure to release the product as soon as humanly possible under the theory that doing so would reveal the 70% of my design that was wrong, so I divided Unearthed into three releases. The app itself has three game modes, each incrementally accessible as a given region “levels up” from users’ data uploads. I would have time to release the latter modes while the first mode of the game, the most casual mode where users look around where they stand and scan for anomalies, was being played.

In App Purchases and Ads

Screen0.jpgConsidering the App Store was flooded with free apps and that I had no name in the industry to immediately convince users to immediately pay for my app, I concluded that the most likely approach for success was to release a free app with In App Purchases. This appeared to be the best way to get as many users to at least try the app and decide how much they wanted to spend to access more functionality. Initially, I offered the following items:

  • All content, present and future ($5.99)
  • Scanner upgrades level 2-3 ($1.99)
  • Scanner upgrades level 4-5 ($1.99)
  • Bounty Mode (coming soon) ($1.99)
  • Blitz Mode (coming soon) ($1.99)

However, I hit a snag with Apple’s terms which did not permit me to even mention any features that were not yet implemented. The first item was intended to be a bulk pricing investment in the forthcoming completion of the app, and the ‘coming soon’ items were just client-side displays to tease of the future modes (not actually registered products in the IAP servers). Because I had to remove them, I revised my IAP content to the following:

  • Scanner upgrades level 2 ($.99)
  • Scanner upgrades level 3 ($.99)
  • Scanner upgrades level 4 ($.99)
  • Scanner upgrades level 5 ($.99)
  • Scanner upgrades 2-5 ($2.99)

The app essentially gives users access to all features of the game, but with a lowly basic scanner that doesn’t boast the speed, range, and creature clearance levels of a fully boosted scanner.

I added Greystripe’s ad system as a means to offset the cost I might incur from using Google App Engine as my server solution. Considering the large amount of rank tracking required by my app, I estimated the revenue from ads to break even with the cost of using App Engine.

Release and Reception

The app was approved in the early afternoon of June 21st, a Monday. Excited, I quickly moved up the release date and it hit the stores later that afternoon. One week later, the sales are dismal, with about 400 total downloads and only a handful of purchases.

UnearthedWeek1.jpg

I considered possible contributors to this could be the following (in order of impact):

  • Requiring 3GS
  • Releasing 4 days before the iPhone 4 (dropping off New Releases)
  • Requiring OS 3.1.3 (instead of 3.1)
  • Releasing the app in the late afternoon (dropping off New Releases faster)

Without knowing the specifics on the sales of the 3GS versus the 3G and the iPod Touch, the fraction of 3GS users able to even see my app in the store might be a small fraction. Unnecessarily releasing under an OS that prevented users from installing unless they went back to iTunes to update their OS was likely a dealbreaker for browsing users (quickly remedied but days later). And considering how many of the 1.5 million users would be browsing the App Store for free apps Thursday, releasing a few days too early may have been the biggest avoidable mistake yet.

Moving Forward

As uninspiring as it was getting only a few hundred downloads and enough revenue for lunch, I had heard that word of mouth was a powerful vehicle, possibly the best vehicle, for an unknown developer, so my plan is to continue giving it more time and implement the GPS-enabled Bounty Mode which will take considerably less time, possibly a short 1-2 months. One week is certainly not a large enough measure of success, and already I’ve received a few responses from blogs willing to write reviews, so I’m hopeful of seeing the userbase grow and eagerly anticipating the next big server issue. In the coming weeks, there will definitely be no “sitting back while the cash rolls in”, as I recently had the blessing/curse of another inspiring must-create iPad app revelation and am sweating bullets designing and scoping while scheduling in work on Unearthed, all the while keeping a grave eye on the lifeline of my business.

Looking back at the struggling decision I made to quit my job, I’m reminded of some advice that was given to me beforehand. “Quitting your job will be the hardest decision, but it will make you feel great.” And like an enormous burden lifted from me, it did. And to this day, with earned lunch money in hand, it continues to.

  • Hey Joey, thanks for the post, and thanks to Noel for hosting!

    I don’t agree with your reasoning for why sales have been slow, games just don’t spread that way on the App Store without marketing, and word of mouth takes time. The fact that you got a few hundred downloads and managed to convert enough to pay for lunch in the first week probably shouldn’t be seen as a failure. Some of them converted, and as of now, pretty much none of your x million potential customers know of your game. Get out there and try to get reviews everywhere you can, your work on this game has only just begun.

    If you want some inspiration, go and talk to Ron @headcaseGames (or read this thread: http://forums.toucharcade.com/showthread.php?t=59228)… seriously, we were with him for about half an hour at E3 and he must have handed out (or tried to) a dozen fliers for his game to complete strangers with iPhones. We were seeing stickers he’d put all over the conference center throughout the day. At this point marketing is everything if you want this game to take off.

    Kudos for taking the wild (and awesome) full time or bust approach, btw, and best of luck getting some attention and traction for the game.

  • I think this from Chris Heintz is very important to read

    http://www.slideshare.net/triplepoint/pr-101-for-iphone-game-developers

    To cut the story short……Make a buzz weeks before the game is launched.

  • Joey

    Thanks for your insight, Gavin. It’s a relief to hear that my release timing was likely not a big mistake. Marketing is definitely a scary unknown on a diminishing budget when examining various options and simply having no idea what the potential return would be versus the cost. I was thinking an ad on geocaching sites might be a good strategy once I release Bounty Mode (the gps tracking mode). Thanks for that informative link to Ron’s post.

  • Joey

    Hey, that was an interesting presentation, Darko. I had been under so much pressure to get the app out asap that to make things simpler, I’d planned to ask for reviews right after launching (to avoid hassling people with providing their IDs, downloading the adhoc build, etc). Maybe that was a mistake. It sounds like one of the things missing from my portfolio is a nicely made video of the experience, though, that’s for sure. Thanks for the link!

  • That was a great post. As a developer with a day job, I can relate to your difficult decision, and really hope it works out for you. The iPhone dev community is great, so don’t hesitate to ask for help or advice (you are not on Twitter? Why? šŸ™‚ I have a question about your game though: why the high requirements? What are the specific features that other models, and earlier 3.0 iOS versions can not covert? Maybe you can work around some of those so as to reach a wider market? Thank you again for your post and best of luck!

  • Joey

    I am actually now, as of 2 hours ago, on Twitter (as Gyrovation). Of course, I don’t know a thing about how to use it and will probably offend a great many people by using it in all the wrong ways. šŸ˜‰ I’ll squeeze in some time to give it some due diligence.

    Good question on requirements. When I first envisioned it, I was focused entirely on just getting it done the way I wanted to play it. I decided that releasing it in it’s fullest form was the best way to start, and working backward to make it compatible for other devices (in this case devices without the compass), was a second priority to getting the app out sooner. I did have a plan for 3G, and even iPod Touch users–one where I put UI buttons to allow them pan left and right–but when I proceeded to spend a little time on testing my 3G device, I hit a number of roadblocks. The game was terribly slow through even the menus and completely unplayable in the camera scanning portion. The Shark tool was sending me bad vibes and crashing every time I tried to analyze, and after all was said and done, I decided to refocus my efforts on just releasing before considering turning back to possible backward compatibility.

    Right now, I’d rather give my 3GS users the ability to run outside and chase things on their GPS so I’m pushing the second mode rather than jump back into the dicey issues I had with the 3G. Perhaps I’ll be brave enough to revisit it after that. Thanks for your supportive comments!

  • Joey

    Let me add, too, that while the decision to quit and work full time on my idea was a frightening one–I don’t want to say hard to make, but very nerve racking to execute–I was only able to do it because of enormous support from my friends and family, both in spirit and financially. That decision to leave would never have been the right decision without that support, so being able to do so is only 1 part courage/proactivity/awesomeness and 99 parts luck/good-people-around-me. I count my blessings every day for that and when/if I have to hang it up (i.e. find a day job) so that my wife can pursue her dream endeavors, there’ll be no regrets returning to part-time indie pursuit. I think that’s a key ingredient to all this.

  • Joey, congrats for the release! Don’t panic if the sales haven’t taken off. It’s a good lesson to learn that you really need to find your early adopter audience even way before the launch.

    We are doing social mobile games and our first “big” game is in development.

    However, we decided to launch a simple, but polished casual game as an exercise.

    We really spend time polishing it and thought that concept was simple but great. We built some viral marketing aspects to the game too. Based on user testing (and some analytics) some players, mainly very casual, non-gamer types, mainly women, seem to really like it.

    But boy we underestimated the difficulty to reach that kind of an audience! The type of player that likes the game, doesn’t follow game forums or any other free PR channels for games.
    (Shameless self-promo: The game is called Facetap (http://facetap.net/get))

    With our actual big social game, we will approach this in a totally different way: early PR and trying to find fans way before the launch.

    In your case, I see that it’s much more likely to you will reach an enthusiastic audience via gamer forums, just be persistent and creative. And it all starts by finding even a few people that care about your work and then caring about them as your most precious treasure. Watch and learn Gary Vaynerchuk’s RailsConf keynote, it’s fantastic and it’s all about creating community by caring about people that care about what you do: http://garyvaynerchuk.com/post/688601116/railsconf-2010-keynote#disqus_thread

  • Joey

    Thanks for the encouragement, Teemu. I had figured that early PR was not as useful in my case because of the importance of getting it out the door just to see what worked and what didn’t with whoever tried it (sort of a beta test). I didn’t intuitively feel like people would want to hear about the game and then be interested to sit and wait for it. Maybe something like that would work better now that I’m working on a second mode if I were to release teasers of the second mode while having something already in the store that people can get right away? I’m no expert, but it does sound like I’m hearing a lot of ‘early PR is worth it’, so I will look more into it. Thanks for that link.

  • “Iā€™d planned to ask for reviews right after launching (to avoid hassling people with providing their IDs, downloading the adhoc build, etc).”

    There is a little known fact about how promo codes work. You can actually use promo codes after your app gets approved, but *before* it gets released. That’s why it’s always good to push your release back to a couple weeks after your app gets approved. It’s incredibly frustrating to have your app approved but not have it released, but it’s definitely for the best from a marketing perspective.

    I have some concerns with your pricing structure. If I’m a user of your app, I might not wanna splurge on $2.99 for all the levels right away. Instead, I might want to just try out $0.99 on the level 2 upgrade. Now that I’ve done that, I can’t get a deal by “buying in bulk” so I kind of feel like I’m getting ripped off. I feel like your “buying in bulk” price should be 3.99, so that it’s not a deal, but rather it’s just a convenient way to avoid having to make 4 purchases, or maybe you shouldn’t have that package available at all.

  • Joey

    Thanks for the input Matt. I don’t believe I could have used the promo codes for my app, though. My understanding was that they cannot be used for in-app puchases, and my app is free. That’s an interesting perspective on the bulk pricing. I’m not certain which approach (the current one, having no discount, or having no option to buy all at once at all) is better. I guess there’s no easy way to tell unless you have some control cases. The tiny sample space I have is mostly the bulk IAP with a few level 2 upgrades. It’d be handy if someone did a bona fide study of what seems to have a more effective response.

  • Yeah it’d be hard to tell what is best for sure without some test data. I guess my point is that rather than make a choice, some users will choose to buy neither. If they spend 2.99, which is a lot on the app store, they’ll be afraid that it won’t be worth it, and if they spend .99, they’ll be afraid that if they do like it, then they won’t be getting a deal. It’s kind of a lose-lose for the customer because both options have negative side-effects, so I think you’ll find that a lot of customers don’t choose either. This article talks about something similar, although not the exact same thing: http://sivers.org/jam

    As for the promo codes, I think you could still use them to give people the app early and make your IAP free or something like that. I’m sure there’s a way to do it.

    One other major issue I think you will have with your game is that right now it’s really hard to tell what it is. Looking at the screenshots and stuff hasn’t really given me a good idea of what actually happens in the game. The description is written in a way that’s interesting, but I think at first you should explain what users actually do before you step into the fiction of the game’s universe.

  • You know, after seeing other feedback that the in-app store pricing just seemed too steep, I concluded that growing a userbase was just much more valuable than worrying about pricing it high, so I cut it all down to 99 cents for upgrading all the levels. After I made the decision to do that, it almost seemed incredible that I thought to charge 99 cents a piece for each level to begin with. Thanks for the perspective.

  • I hope it goes well for you! Please keep us updated on the progress. It can take a long time to be successful on the App Store, but every new customer counts. Eventually you’ll build a brand for both your game, and for you as a developer.