Creatures & Castles developer Hiive on why the App Store is no get rich quick scheme

After 300 iOS downloads, it's time to consider freemium

Creatures & Castles developer Hiive on why the App Store is no get rich quick scheme
| Creatures & Castles

Little over a month after the launch of their first iPhone title, the story Hiive co-creators Andrew and Stephanie Rollings (pictured) have to tell is one that could be recounted several thousand times over.

By their own admission, Creatures & Castles was never intended to match the sales of the App Store's biggest hits.

Even at this early stage, however, the Rollings have gained a new perspective on the marketplace they entered with modest hopes of generating enough downloads to make the release of further games financially viable.

In Andrew Rollings' view, fundamental parts of the App Store simply don't work for anyone but the big boys.

From the apps that make it onto the marketplace, to the way they're sold, the App Store may already be too big to adequately manage the experience for consumers and developers alike.

We caught up with Andrew to ask what steps he'd like to see Apple take in the coming months and years, and whether rival formats might actually offer a more stable environment for the independent development scene.

PocketGamer: How many downloads has Creatures & Castles amassed since it launched on the App Store in December?

Andrew Rollings: As of January 23, exactly 300. Approximately 20 of those were via promo code.

How have downloads tracked since launch?

The first day it was on the App Store, there was a spike of 45 downloads, which I attribute it to being in the 'new' list, followed by about five or six fairly positive reviews. Since then there have been two or three spikes of 10 to 15 downloads, which have directly corresponded to my promotional efforts on various forums. Typically, two or three copies are downloaded per day.

There are two things that I have found interesting. One is that doing a search for my app name Creatures & Castles turns up more links to pirated copies of the game than anything else, and the second is that with hindsight, launching at Christmas may have been a mistake.

What promotion have you done?

Well, I'm a developer at heart. Promotion and marketing do not come easily to me. I've gone through all of the standard approaches; press releases, YouTube videos, a Facebook page and a Twitter feed, as well as giving out promo codes.

Everything I've read online seems to indicate that Google adverts have absolutely no effect on sales, so I didn't bother with that.

It seems that the general rule of thumb is 'be prepared to spend double the development cost on marketing'. Well, there aren't many indie developers who have that kind of money. Theoretically, if I spent $8,000 to 10,000 on marketing then I could probably make it back in sales, but - in case I was wrong - that is not money I could afford to lose.

How have downloads so far compared with the expectations you had pre-launch?

Given the large number of iDevices available, and based on what I had researched, I had hoped to see sales of between 60 and a hundred copies per day. If one doesn't include the value of the time I spent writing the software, then the cost of development was approximately $4,000 - for art assets and music.

I had expected it to be fairly easy to sell about 6,000 copies, which would have been enough to breakeven. However, I had estimated that I could sell about 60,000 copies - which is still a tiny percentage of the world market.

Why do you think titles like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope have been able to shift millions on the App Store?

Well, that's a very good question. Ignoring the quality - as they are both excellent games - I know that each of those games had a significant marketing spend. A friend in the industry assures me that Cut the Rope had a $10,000 marketing spend in North America alone.

The problem with the App Store as it is currently set up is that it it's a positive feedback loop. That is, in order to sell you have to be visible on one of the first screens a potential purchaser sees when they open the App Store on their device - this is how the majority of people find their games.

This means that you need to be visible on the 'new' or 'what's hot' tabs, or otherwise in the top 25 lists of each application category. Therefore, games that are selling well self-perpetuate their sales, as they are always visible to the potential purchaser.

The only other option is the lottery of being featured by Apple. Given the quantity of apps submitted at any given time, there's generally not much chance of that.

Is visibility the main issue then?

Yes, I believe it is. The amount of absolutely crap shovelware on the App Store is getting ridiculous. I'd like to see Apple follow through on its earlier promise to keep the crap out. It's even got to the stage where companies are being incorporated named after successful franchises in an attempt to capitalise on their success.

Just recently I saw a company called Angry Doodle LLC appear in the search results for 'doodle'. Some may call this clever marketing, I call it intellectually dishonest.

You can see this for yourself. Go to the App Store and do a search on the words 'Angry Birds'. Scroll down the list a bit and you'll see some examples. This is the kind of crap that Apple should be preventing, not to mention the fact that keyword spamming is in violation of the terms and conditions.

What could Apple do to better accommodate indie studios?

For a start, it could implement more stringent controls on what gets into the App Store. Seeing as it implements a review process for apps, why not add a 'quality score' to this? That is, have the Apple employees review the software internally and provide an official 'Apple Score Out Of Ten'.

If this was then made visible in the App Store, maybe as a separate tab, it would provide additional incentive for developers to produce higher quality software. If the threshold for App Store entry was a fairly generous five out of ten, then that would probably eliminate 90 percent of the crap that's out there.

Have you considered taking Creatures & Castles to any other platforms?

Yes, I have. It's down to time and money and trepidation. I've heard some horror stories about piracy and low sales on Android and Windows Phone 7, implying that an ad-supported model is the way to go. I've not had any experience of that, so I'll try a test run with an ad-supported version of Creatures & Castles on the App Store.

As for other platforms, I made a strategic and, at the time, risky decision to write Creatures & Castles using Monotouch - an implementation of C# for the iPhone. Versions of C# are available (or soon to be available) for both Android and WP7, so the conversion will not be as onerous as a complete rewrite would be.

In the end, it's going to come down to time and money. Seeing as my 'get rich quick' Creatures & Castles cunning plan didn't work out, I don't know if I'll have the time to support the additional markets given the aforementioned piracy problems. The number of different devices and the fragmentation thereof is also a cause for concern.

Has your experience so far put you off working on iOS again?

For the most part, I actually enjoyed the process of developing on iOS. I'm glad that I didn't have to do it in Objective C, but it would have been a lot easier if my (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) 'get rich quick' plan had paid off.

In all seriousness, I did a fair amount of analysis and talking to existing developers before I started out, but it seems that I misjudged the market somewhat.

Still, I do intend to keep developing on iOS, as it's a fun platform to work on. First on the plate is an additional 64 levels for Creatures & Castles, provided as a free download and introducing some new creatures and play mechanics. If sales pick up, there will be additional level packs based around Egyptian, Transylvanian, Greek and Folklore themes.

In terms of cost, each pack costs around $3,000 to develop, so I'll need to shift another few thousand copies of the game to make them viable - either as an in-app purchase or a free download.

I also have an idea for a second game based around a different theme. I have a rough design sketched out on paper, but again, it will be contingent on the success of Creatures & Castles.

Thanks to Andrew for his time.

You can find out more about Creatures & Castles by visiting Hiive's website.

Keith Andrew
Keith Andrew
With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font. He's also Pocket Gamer's resident football gaming expert and, thanks to his work on, monitors the market share of all mobile OSes on a daily basis.