Fredrik Wahrman

Is it possible to earn money on the App Store?

by edi on Nov.14, 2009, under iPhone development

A story of how my adventures in iPhone development have worked out so far, how iAssociate and Associate This have come to be and how my games have done sales wise.

The story begins

When I initially got into developing games for the iPhone one of the things that attracted me to the platform was reading about success stories such as Trism and iShoot. After reading about them it seemed as if it would be possible for pretty much anyone to just launch a game and wait for the money to come in.

That was then.

Now, about seven months after launching my first game, Mercury Mind, on the App Store I must say I think a little bit differently about the situation. When I launched my first game I think I was a little bit too optimistic about what kind of sales to expect, I was thinking that I’d real fast earn back the money I had invested in getting into iPhone development. The investments I had made to get started were :

  • Bought a Mac (Cost me 579 euros)
  • Bought an iPod Touch (Cost me 289 euros)
  • Bought a couple of iPhone development books (Cost around 60 euros)
    • The iPhone Developer’s Cookbook by Erica Sadun
    • Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X by Aaron Hillegass
  • Bought the iPhone developer license (Cost me 79 euros)

In other words, in total I had spent almost 1100 euros (translates to roughly $1600)

So, when I finally got Mercury Mind approved and marked as Ready for Sale I was pretty much hoping to earn this sum back in almost no time.

First day sales

After the first day had passed I was anxiously waiting for my first sales report to come in. I was pretty much constantly refreshing the reports page, hoping to see the report there. When it finally appeared I almost didn’t dare take a peak, I knew that I’d get a lot of sales, it was just a matter of how many, 200 ? 500 ? 1000 ?

Imagine my surprise when I finally took a look at it and saw that my sales were as high as 9! Yes, that’s right, 9 sales! (At $2.99 each) What makes it even worse is that out of those 9 sales a couple were to friends of mine, so basically I had earned almost nothing on my own. I obviously immediately panicked, thinking that the only solution to this was to drop the price to $0.99 as everyone else was, as surely then the sales would start to come in.

And sure enough, the next day when I got the report my sales had increased. To 19, so nothing much. After that the sales dropped at a steady pace, so that on the 8th day they were 0, followed then by 1-2 sales per day. After the first couple of weeks my total sales were 64, earning me around 45 euros ($60)

Lite version

After those two weeks my Lite version was finally approved and marked as Ready for Sale. I was once again expecting to follow in the footsteps of iShoot, after all, that story goes that once the Lite version of iShoot was released the game skyrocketed to the Top 100 lists and the rest is history.

For me it didn’t go quite that well. Sure, the first day downloads were better than the sales I got with the full version, they were just above 400. But they were still nowhere near what I was hoping for. But, being the ever optimist I was sure that they’d start climbing upwards immediately, so no worries really. What followed was then a day with around 300 downloads, then 200, then 150, then 100 and after that back to under 100, settling down at about 40 downloads for a long time.

Lite conversion rates

Despite really low sales, the addition of the Lite version at least showed me that the idea of my game, word associations, was good. I got pretty good conversion rates of people switching from the lite version to the full version. Depending on the country those varied quite a lot, but in the major, english speaking, markets I managed to get a conversion rate of around 15%, even a bit more, meaning that now I was at least earning a few bucks every day.

Enter iAssociate

After looking at those kind of stats for a while I decided it was time for a change. I decided that I’d try to re-brand my game to something a bit more easy to understand and remember, something that would be easier to sell basically. That’s when iAssociate was born. I felt that with the name iAssociate I had a much better chance in succeeding, the name both uses the popular “i” prefix, as well as describing exactly what the game was about. So, my hopes were again really high when the release of it was nearing.

iAssociate - iTunes Banner

iAssociate - Get it now from the App Store

Results from name change

When the first day sales for iAssociate were due I was once again really nervous to see what they’d be. This time I was sure that I’d make a much bigger impact, after all, the name was now perfect so nothing could be in my way. When the stats then finally came, I saw that yes, I had indeed managed to sell more, it was nevertheless quite depressing to see that it was just 13 sales. And even though the sales didn’t drop as fast to 0 as before, they still dropped to 0 after just 2 weeks, just before I got the lite version of iAssociate out.

The results I then got off the lite version were actually worse than with Mercury Mind. The downloads for that version dropped down to just around 20 after only two weeks, meaning that I was still only managing to sell a few copies every day.

2 1/2 months == 500 euros ($750)

After having had my games out for about two and a half months I had barely managed to scrape together 500 euros, and at the rate I was selling games I was now earning around 5 euros ($7.50) per day, meaning that with this rate it’d take over half a year until I would’ve recovered the money I spent to just get started.

Publicity: Reviews, forums and ads

Even though the sales weren’t really as good as I had expected one thing I was still happy about was the fact that of my customers actually quite a few emailed me back, letting me know that they really liked the game. Some even went as far as stating that it was the best game they had every played on the iPhone. Anyway, all this feedback kept me encouraged to try to make something of my game, as I knew that with the right kind of publicity it might still make it.

The obvious way to get publicity was to try to get some reviews out. As I knew some other people who had managed to get decent reviews out for their games earlier in the App Store’s lifetime I figured that it shouldn’t be a big problem for me either, after all, I thought that I had a really good game, a game that a lot of people seemed to be really addicted to, so it should be nice and easy to convince a reviewer to spend some time to play it, right ?

Wrong.

Getting reviews out for an iPhone game is pretty much as hard as it gets. With the hundreds of new games coming out every week, and the huge number of games already out there, it means that most review sites already have their hands full just picking and sorting through the correspondence they get. I probably sent hundreds of review requests out there, to some sites more than once, and the response I got was pretty much non-existent. Only a couple sites responded in any way at all, and of those one actually picked up my game for review, so not much luck here in getting any attention for my games. (Later on, as my app was starting to get more downloads a few more sites have taken it up for review, but still there’s only a handful reviews out there, one of which you can find at AppleTell : iPhone Word Game Round Up at Appletell.com)

Despite not having any success there I still kept sending out those emails constantly, every now and then re-sending them to the most popular sites, hoping that one day someone out there would accidentally stumble upon my game and find it entertaining.

So, as I wasn’t getting any reviews out in a hurry, the other option for me was to try to post info about my game to various iPhone and gaming forums. This was actually fairly straightforward, find a forum, create a profile, add a post with general info about my games, repeat. I do think this helped boost my downloads a bit as this way I managed to get the word out about the free version of my game, which people then could try on their own to see if they’d want to purchase the full version. Forums such as MacRumors.com and TouchArcade.com seemed to work farily well, at least my posts got a decent amount of views there.

The last option I then tried was to actually spend some money on buying the publicity, it was time to start using ads with my non-existent budget. The first ad I picked up was at a game review site that promised somewhere between 100K and 200K visitors per month. I figured that I’d make an ad for the free version of my game, thinking that if people see an ad for a free game then they’ll click on it, who could resist that kind of an offer. (Little did I understand at that time that clickthrough rates for ads are extremely low.)

The plan was to get people to download the free version, thus boosting it in the rankings, leading to more visibility for the game. So, I quickly put together an ad and submitted it for the site, along with some money for having it there for one month. Once again I was there at that same step, waiting for something to go live and seeing how much it would earn me. The first day the ad went live I thought I’d see an immediate increase in the free version downloads, which meant that the next day I was again up for a disappointment when the sales report came in, showing absolutely no change at all(well, actually a small decrease). The same thing went on for the rest of the month, with me never seeing any results at all for this.

That was the first, and last, ad that I tried for a really long time (Just recently I’ve started trying out AdMob, not sure yet what my opinion is of them, I’ll try to update this later on when I can see the long time results)

Something more needed

While these efforst had produced a small increase in my daily downloads there was still no great reason to celebrate. I barely managed to earn a bit over 10 euros ($15) per day, so, while a nice extra income to get, it wasn’t still as much as I had hoped for. So, it was once again time to work on a new strategy.

To get to my new strategy I’ll briefly go into how the App Store worked at that time. Back then it was such that whenever you made an update to your game it would appear on the What’s New list, thus producing a larger amount of downloads for a few days while staying high on that list, before again dropping back to normal. These apps were sorted in such a way that every App that was updated on the same day was sorted alphabetically, meaning that my game, iAssociate, appeared in the middle of the list as it starts with an i. This meant that when I had an updated out I sometimes didn’t even make it to the first page of the What’s New list, which meant that I got less downloads just because of the name of my App.

So, because of this I decided to re-brand the free version of iAssociate and name it Associate This.

Entry of Associate This

When the first day downloads of Associate This came in I was for the first time pleasantly surprised. It actually managed to get around 1000 downloads the first day. After that the downloads then slowly dropped down to around 300 per day during the following week and a half, a really slow pace compared to my previous efforts. Thanks to this it now seemed as if I finally had a game that would keep generating income at a steady pace (I was now earning around 50 euros ($75) per day). For the first time in the 4 months that I had had my games out there I was really pleased with the way things were going, patience had paid off.

Associate This - iTunes Banner

Associate This - Get it now for FREE from the App Store

Back down again

After a couple of steady weeks the downloads for Associate This then dropped for a few days in a row, dropping as low as just under 150. I was already thinking that this was it, now it’s again gonna drop down to close to 0. Even when it the next day got back up to 200 I still didn’t feel to good about it, but as it was to be that climb then actually continued for the next few weeks, so that I eventually got up to around 500 downloads per day. The reason behind this is the App Store ranking system.

App Store Rankings

The biggest deciding factor of how many downloads your game gets is how it’s ranked in the App Store. Visibility in the App Store is limited to searching for a specific game or browsing through a list of all the games in certain categories. Besides these there are various list of the most popular games. There is for instance a “What’s Hot” list, a “Staff Favourites” list as well as Top 100 list in all the different categories, such as Games, Entertainment, Action Games, Word games, etc. Being on any of these lists means that you get additional exposure, which means that there is a much better chance that someone notices your app.

When it comes to the sudden increase in Associate This downloads that can pretty much be credited to the fact that I managed to get on these Top 100 lists. Every game can have two categories that it belongs to, for Associate This and iAssociate these are Word and Puzzle. In the App Store there is currently over 1000 Word games as well as somewhere around 7000 Puzzle games, so obviously getting into the Top 100 list for Word games is much easier than with Puzzle games, but at the same time being at the Top 100 list in the Word games category doesn’t translate to nearly as many downloads as being there in the Top 100 Puzzle games list.

So, the reason behind my improving downloads was the fact that I had just entered the Top 100 Puzzle games list. I had always been in the Top 100 Word games list and now I had finally managed to climb into the Top 100 Puzzle games list.

Positive Spiral

Once Associate This started to get more downloads this then it started a positive trend. Since Apple calculates the rankings somehow magically based on the last X days it means that whenever I get new downloads from today it at the same time replaces the downloads from X days ago when calculating the rankings. Which means that as long as my downloads are rising then the days I “lose” when calculating the rankings have much lower downloads, which means that my average is getting higher all the time. That way I then again rise in the rankings, which yet again will give me more downloads, resulting in a positive, self feeding, spiral.

And besides this working for Associate This, it also works for iAssociate. Thanks to the conversion rate of about 15-20% the sales of iAssociate slowly started to climb, so that iAssociate also managed to enter the Top 100 Puzzle games list from where it also could start a climb upwards. That is pretty much the situation today, both games are continuing their climb in the rankings, while I am putting as much effort into promoting them as possible.

Current Rankings

iAssociate : 30th among US Puzzle games, 8th among US Word games
Associate This: 35th among US Puzzle games, 11th among US Word games

So far I’ve only once been ranked at the number 1 spot, it was a couple of days ago when I managed to get into that spot in the Word category in the Finnish App Store. Hopefully more rankings like that would follow, I do have a couple of #2 and #3 rankings so who knows…

At the end of the Rainbow…

Right now I must say that I’m really happy about how both iAssociate and Associate This are performing in the App Store. The income from iAssociate is now at a level that far exceeds my salary from my normal day job, even though the time I spend with this “hobby” is much less (well, it’s less due to the fact that I have to spend 8 hours a day at the office).

My daily downloads are now at a level that is almost as much as what they were in total during the first 3 months, and so far I still haven’t seen them trending down so hopefully I will still be able to take them to another level.

Summary

Considering that I had no skills with iPhone development or Objective-C programming when I started with this project I must say that the results are currently far above what I expected. I had initially seen this as a way of getting a small steady income every month, nothing more than a supplement to what I was already earning from my day job. What I instead now have achieved is an income that far exceeds that, and who knows, if everything goes my way I might still even be able to increase it further.

So all in all, after a lot of long days, trying to push this game out to the general knowledge of the masses I must say that it has totally been worth it. Not only because of the fact that my sales are high right now, what is actually just as important to me is the fact that I feel proud of iAssociate. I feel that I’ve created a game that is actually really enjoyable, a game that almost anyone can enjoy.I’ve heard back from people everywhere between 12 and 76 years old, boys and girls, husbands and wives, and everyone seems to be having a good time playing iAssociate.

So, a big thanks to all of you out there who have purchased or downloaded my games! And especially to those of you who have sent me feedback, I really do appreciate any feedback I can get, good or bad, as I will try my best to keep improving this game. So keep the feedback coming, don’t hesitate in contacting me if you have anything that you’d want to suggest or ask!

Fredrik

P.S. If you wish to support me, please spread the word about iAssociate, let your friends know about it and ask them to try out Associate This to see if they like it. Any kind of support is greatly appreciated!

Update 17.11 – 2009 – I made it into the Top 100 Games list

The positive spiral continues, I’ve now managed to climb even further in the rankings, actually going as far as making it into the Top 100 list for free games! (As of writing this I’m 97th). Right now it’s looking like there is no end in sight for this climb, the only thing certain is that it’s an interesting ride!

Also, if you are interested in an interview I did then check out iPhone Savior from here : www.iphonesavior.com

Update 19.11 – 2009 – Almost in the Top 100 for Paid Games

I’m apparently ranked as 101st in the Top Paid Games list now, in an hour or two I think I’ll make it into the Top 100!!! Seriously, who would’ve thought just half a year ago that it’d be possible to make it into that list, considering that I’m competing against about 10000 other paid games. That I, as just a random independent developer, would have a chance of making it that far up in the rankings! (That hour or two has since passed, I’m 89th!)

And the truth is, I actually wouldn’t have been able to do it on my own… those of you out there who have told your friends about this game, thanks to all of you, you have helped spread the word, which was just what was needed for me to start my climb. If it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t have a chance in competing against companies that actually have a marketing budget (and someone who knows how to create marketing material =D). So thanks a lot to all of you!

Also, another thing, I had my first ever live interview today with the newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet (www.hbl.fi), I think it went fairly well, even though I probably was rambling on for way too long =D (HBL is the biggest newspaper in swedish here in Finland)

Another thing that has happened during these last two days was that I got a review out for iAssociate. Erica Sadun wrote a review for www.tuaw.com, she contacted me first on tuesday evening and yesterday(wednesday) she then got the review up. What was funny about that review was that after she sent me the second email, requesting some additional details about my game, her name suddenly rang a bell, it somehow sounded familiar. And sure enough, after thinking about it for a while I knew where it was from. The book that got me started with this whole project, “The iPhone Developer’s Cookbook” was actually written by Erica Sadun! I had to ask her myself to make sure I was dealing with the same person, and sure enough, it was! How cool isn’t that! I at least think that that’s a Really cool coincidence!!! So, thanks a lot Erica for contacting me, and thanks again for the review!!! (The review can be found here : iAssociate – Mind Mapping Fun)

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2 Comments for this entry

  • Astoria

    Nice story and nice game, Fredrik. Played your lite version back then and really liked it. Will make a review for your game in russian soon, for more people to use their brains instead of tapping the screen half-consciously.

  • Martin

    Hi Edi, Good game, finally something meaningful. I will play a bit around with it and one I get to know it I will post a review in Czech for you :) !!! Good luck and keep in touch !

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