Aeolus Released

My first game – Aeolus – was released last week :)

Aeolus – Greek God of Winds. You play the god of winds, amusing yourself with the mortals who venture into your domain. Yes, for some reason I believe every game has to have a story behind it (no matter how tenuous) :)

It’s an iPhone game that involves guiding hot air balloons to landing pads using swipes and taps. The simple gameplay makes it easy to get started and get through the levels. Getting the high scores is not so easy, with obstacles and different balloon types getting in the way.

It’s been over a year in development (for various reasons that include procrastination, too much XBox and a day job). I’ve got to admit I’ve had a lot of fun and learned a lot by doing it. A lot of the game has changed since the beginning too. Many of my original ideas about the gameplay, the look and the feel of the game have been cast aside along the way. Some were a bit painful to see go, others simply got left behind as the game developed and they no longer fit.

The result of this trimming and re-design is actually a really good game. If that sentence sounds like I’m a little surprised it’s simply because this is the first game I’ve ever done. My efforts have been to make something that I found fun, and make it to the sort of coding standards that I’m used to at work. I was also lucky enough to team up with a graphic designer friend of mine. Thanks to him my original developer art has largely been replaced by good looking graphics that are a world better than I could do and really give it a professional finish.

The big question is, of course: How did it do?
The answer is, equally of course: Good (as I’ve actually released my first game) but not great – sales were in double digits on the first day and have fallen since.

While my dreams of writing the next big thing in the iPhone world may be slightly tarnished, I can’t say I’m that surprised. I’ve already researched how these things work and know it is competitive, and it can be very difficult to get your app seen long enough to build lasting sales. Fortunately, this wasn’t a fire-and-forget plan. To-date I’ve only received positive feedback from people who have tried it, which means I’m pretty sure the game is actually pretty fun and addictive. I also have many ideas for new levels, updates, additions and improvements that will continue to improve the quality and quantity of the game. Rather than feeling disheartened, I’m actually feeling more motivated.

However, this is also uncharted territory. As a developer and project manager I’ve never had to do any sales, marketing or advertising so this is all new to me. So… if you have any advice, links or help on the marketing and advertising side of things (or personal anecdotes, ancient wisdom, prophecies, spells, voodoo or snake oil) I’d be grateful :)

If you like your non-violent arcady, puzzly, simulationy, strategy type games (still not sure quite how to class it) then please check it out and let me know what you think.

Doodlemate: 1 Year Report

Doodlemate is the first app I wrote for the iPhone and was released in July 2011. Now it’s over a year old it seemed like a good time to review how things went. Hopefully my experiences will help others working on, or thinking of starting, their own apps.

The Backstory

Doodlemate started life as a personal learning project. Back in 2011 I was just starting out with IOS and XCode and trying to figure out how everything fitted together. Learning, for me, is better with a solid goal to focus my efforts, so I decided to pick an app idea to develop.

After looking at various tutorials I figured a drawing app of some kind would give me a good grounding in both the standard model-view-controller architecture and in custom drawing. Pondering it a while longer, I also decided that a variation on the drawing app tutorial would be good: smaller images with limited palettes, harking back to the days of pixel art on BBC Micro Computers where I started learning programming. It also occurred to me that I could easily string a few images together and make animations, which would be a lot cooler than just drawing stuff.

I sketched up some basic requirements and got started. I think my outline was:

  • home screen with list of animations
  • preview screen
  • drawing screen with animation settings on the flip side (it was in one of the Apple tutorials and I wanted to use the flip effect :) )
  • palette management screen
  • colour selection screen

As a learning project went, it was ok. At the time there were only a few animation apps available (that I could find) and most didn’t let you do anything with what you created. I figured animations stuck on the iPhone were ok, but if you could save them or send them to yourself then it would actually be useful. It was then I realised the animation app I was creating fitted the format for animated GIFs, and that there might actually be a market for my little pet project!

After that I shifted my thinking. Instead of developing a learning project to teach myself various concepts, I was developing an app for release to end users. I think I actually learned more about app development from that shift in thinking than from all the other programming problems I’ve encountered in the last couple of years.

First Year Stats

The numbers then. In the 12 months from July 2011 to June 2012, Doodlemate has sold a total of 468 copies around the world.

Personally I find this number amazing. That many people have bought my app and, over the year, it’s gathered enough ratings to get 5 stars on the app store!

The number of sales and ratings did seem pretty low to start with. It’s worth remembering that people are usually a lot more vocal about things they don’t like than things they do. I realised that for my app to have only positive reviews meant it was good enough that people don’t feel the urge to go rate it down. Not the most glowing endorsement, sure, but I must have done something right :)

Spikes in Sales

The sales saw several spikes over the year which are worth mentioning:

  • Release – can’t get any sales if you don’t release your app. Without any advertising or marketing my initial sales were fairly slow and probably consisted mostly of friends and family. Thanks everyone!
  • Update – A couple of months after release I finished the animated GIF saving features and made an update.
  • Christmas – Well, January really. Not sure why this might be but my guess is that everyone who got a shiny new iPhone, iTunes vouchers as presents or just had a lot of spare time flooded the app store over the holidays!
  • Getting a star rating – Getting enough ratings to get a 4.5 star rating on the app store (I think you need a minimum of 5 ratings) caused another jump in sales.
  • Getting a 5-star rating – Getting that last half star caused another jump in sales. Apparently there are people who only download apps with a 5 star rating.

Lessons Learned

There were a lot of lessons learned from developing Doodlemate, and only some of them involved the programming I originally set out to learn.

I Can Earn Money From Apps

Until Doodlemate was released, the idea of actually earning money from writing my own apps seemed like a pipe dream. While it hasn’t exactly made a fortune it has shown that it is possible for apps I write to actually sell.

App Development Takes Time

This goes without saying, but writing a decent app is going to take time. However long you think it might take, double it. That’s a good starting point, but you’re probably still short.

If you’re a first time developer (like me), then there are likely to be a lot of tasks you either don’t know about yet (so haven’t factored them in to your estimate) or that you are aware of but can’t accurately estimate.

Another consideration is whether you’re doing things in your spare time or if you can devote full days to it. Trying to develop apps around a full time job means spending all your spare time doing it. This can be ok for a while but is a hard pace to maintain for long. Life, people and events have a nasty habit of catching up with you so it’s worth factoring in a little ‘me’ time, no matter how disciplined and hermit like you think you can be.

In the end, it will all come down to your persistence in completing your app. Burning out through overwork or getting depressed and stopping after massive underestimation aren’t going to help things.

Get a Star Rating

It might seem obvious but you really must get a star rating on the app store, and ideally a 3 rating at minimum. Getting a star rating had a double effect for me: I got a spike in sales and it slowed the tail-off in purchases. I was getting higher sales figures for months after getting a star rating than I had on release.

Many people, myself including, ignore apps without star ratings, especially if they have a lot of competition in the store. I want to buy useful apps not test and rate new apps, so I leave it to other people. I assume that the crowd will have already tried apps and rated them if they’re any good.

You don’t have to resort to any underhand tactics here. Simply do a bit of advertising with whatever you have available (friends, family, social media, clubs, societies, school news, etc) and prompt people to rate it honestly if they like it.

Aim for a 5 Star Rating

Ok, this might be a hard one to achieve but it should be what you’re aiming for, as a developer making an app and so that you maximise your returns. Essentially this means constantly testing, reviewing and revising your app to improve it as your working on it.

There are books devoted to this sort of thing so I won’t go into it, but I will say that the more testing, reviewing and improving you do before release then then better your app will be. Just remember to be honest about your app to yourself and be willing to accept feedback from others, even when they trash your favourite features. I’ve also found the more people you get involved in testing the better. Remember: you don’t have to like or use all the ideas people come up with, that’s your call as the developer.

Release Updates

Making an update does two things:

  1. It improves your app. You should have either fixed something or added a new feature to warrant making a new release. The better you make your app the more likely people are to like and buy it.
  2. It puts you back in the new releases section of the app store. This gives you a little extra visibility and another shot at getting into the coveted featured slot.

The flip side of this is that unless you’ve been very thorough in the original development, there’s a good chance your app will need improving or bug fixing after release. Prepare and plan for this in advance, don’t simply hope that once it’s released it’s all finished and you can stop.

What’s Next?

Well, Doodlemate is on hold at the moment. I do have plans for a round of updates and improvements based on all the new technology that’s now available and what I’ve learned from writing my second app. The simplest (and at the same time hardest) change is to make it a universal app. I would love to see it running on an iPad as well as the iPhone, partly because I want to play with all the extra space you get on the iPad display and partly because it opens up a whole new market of people who might like to make animated gif’s again :)

So there you go: some sales figures from a first time app developer and some things to think about if you’re developing your own app. Hope it helps!

The Subtle Approach

Now, I hope you enjoy the comic. It’s the last one I have in the back catalogue so anything from here on in will actually be new… don’t hold your breath ;)

RIP James

Today is the funeral for James McLaran, so will be spending today with his friends and family remembering him and his life.  Anyone who knows him can leave their memories here, or go to his memorial page on Facebook.

Creative Shadows

Last week saw a round of graphics updates, bug-fixes and improvements in the game. There’s a picture here showing the hard work involved. I wouldn’t say it’s ready yet (I still have to design another 18 levels) but things are moving in the right direction.

Zombies

Finally, I’m not sure whether game playing is called research or procrastination anymore. Either way, I do like finding the odd fun game to obsess over whenever I get a spare 5 minutes. My latest attention hog is called Gears and Guts, and basically involves driving cars over zombies. And shooting zombies. And cutting zombies in half with chainsaws. And impaling zombies with spikes. What’s not to like? It’s a ‘fremium’ game that looks really well made and plays really well too. I can already see the looming wall in game progression pushing me towards buying upgrades but I’m not quite there yet. As long as you have a good tolerance for re-running levels and splatting zombies you’ll probably be ok. The only gripe is not unexpected, in that it’s a little sluggish and laggy on my old iPhone 3GS. I’m sure it will get repetitive soon, but for now there’s still another chapter to play through so I’m happy :)

No! Comic! Shock!

No comic this week. Not that I’m expecting anyone to have noticed :)

It’s been a busy few weeks in the Creative Shadows world. My first game is storming along nicely and approaching completion. All the major features are in now so its time to update all the graphics, design all the levels/puzzles (still not sure exactly what they’ll class as) and do loads of bug fixing and testing.

Here’s a screenshot, just in case anyone is interested:

Game 1 Level Selection Screen

There’s still some developer art in there (fonts, text colours, etc) so hopefully it’ll be looking even tidier next time you see it.

I’ve also been watching the downloads from my first app, Doodlemate, with interest as it’s first birthday is rapidly approaching. It doesn’t feel like it, but my first little effort at an IPhone app has been out for nearly a year. To mark the occasion I’m planning a write-up on the experience of writing and releasing an app, for any other aspiring developers out there.

The other thing that’s in progress is a series of posts based around the collision detection code used in the game. It’s not doing anything amazing (most of it was Googled and cobbled together) but none of my google searches found a complete solution for bouncing objects of different types off each other so other people might find a working solution useful. Once the game is released (and I know the collision system is working) I’ll start posting about how it works.

With all that said, the only reason there’s no comic is I forgot. This made me actually write a proper post for a change so lets call it a good thing :)

I’ll go schedule the next comic now…