Dokusen: The Art of Domination (iOS puzzle game) — A month later

It’s been a month since I released my latest iOS game Dokusen on iTunes. At first I considered polishing some aspects of the game and releasing an update, but to be honest the idea of developing a new game from scratch is more attractive, so I’ve stared down that path instead. So in a sense you can consider this post a “post mortem” of this game.

At heart, this game was an experiment to see if a bigger focus on visuals would reflect in more popularity in the store. I also spent a much larger chunk of time advertising on net forums, on roughly 20-30 different sites.

From a downloads perspective, my personal goal was to get at least twice the downloads of my previous game. Initially things went great, with the number of downloads from Dokusen in the first two days surpassing those from the first week of my previous game. Unfortunately downloads suddenly decreased after that on the 3rd and 4th days, such that I only reached 75% of my target downloads (to date, Dokusen got 1.5x of my previous game’s count). Though this is a bit of a disappointment, I should look on the bright side because at least things are going in the right direction. The large spike on the first two days is still a bit of mystery to me, since with previous projects downloads leveled off at a much slower rate. Oddly, I got a large majority of downloads those first two days from France.

These numbers are a further confirmation that advertising on net forums is not a great way to pull in downloads. I did, however, get some good feedback on the game’s rules from on a board game forum I posted on, since it shares some elements with Go and Reversi.

A week or two ago I talked to one of the people who informally tested for me, and he remarked that my previous game was much more fun and easier to understand. This was good feedback, though altogether not that surprising since I feel the same way. Ironically, with Dokusen I had tried to build a game that would be popular with others, but not necessarily myself.

For my next game (codename “T.E.” for the time being), I am planning on making something which I enjoy more myself, in terms of both coding and gameplay. I also plan to make a proper tutorial, as well as get more playtesters (please leave a comment if you are interested in helping). This next game is rooted in a longtime passion of mine, and the work I’ve done on it already is more challenging and interesting than Dokusen. I’m aiming for a release in 3-6 months if things go well.

Though I implied this project was mostly done, I am always open to feedback on Dokusen or any of my other apps. If you looking for someone to review your game I am OK with exchanging reviews of your game for mine.

Mobile Game Advertising: don’t be afraid to get creative

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of sites out there that can be used to advertise your mobile game, in the form of directory listings, reviews, or forum posts. If you have enough time on your hands, you can try to submit your game to as many as you can find, but in many cases you’ll be required to pay some sort of fee to be listed or to accelerate the process, which can take weeks or longer.

If you are getting into mobile game development gradually, you will likely start out by releasing your game as free. But this means that if you start reaching into your pocketbook you’ll quickly be in the red, which isn’t a great way to get motivated to continue game development as a hobby.

Besides sticking with just the free sites, you can try to get creative to avoid paying some of these fees.

To give an example, I recently received an email from one of the sites I did a free submission for my latest game, which had a long advertisement about the paid service, talking about the benefits of a premium listing plus the fact it was on sale.

The text, however, had several English grammatical mistakes or awkward parts, and while reading it I had a mini Eureka moment.

I replied back to the email, saying that I would like to help clean up the marketing text which would surely bring in more paid users. In exchange, if I could get a premium listing as compensation, that would be great.

In less than a day the admin replied back and said we have a deal. I rewrote much of the advertising text, and though I am not a specialist in this area, the end result was much better than the original one. The admin said I will get a premium listing in the next week or so. (If this doesn’t pan out I’ll be sure to let you know in a later post)

These sort of opportunities come by only once in a while, but if you keep an eye open and think creatively, you might be able to find some unique ways to further your game’s marketing efforts.

In my case, I only saved around $15, but the satisfaction from a well-handled negotiation was worth many times this. Creating a win-win situation for both parties is one of the key parts of business-minded thinking.

Game Review Web Sites: it’s a dog-eat-dog world

For my latest mobile game I’ve been advertising on many different web sites whose primary purpose is to review and showcase games or apps. It has only been a few days since I did this so I don’t have much data yet, but I hope to eventually post about whether it was worth it to spend my time like this on advertising.

While I was searching for sites to post to, I discovered a few interesting things about this area of the net. Among these was the level of competitiveness between the various sites, and how these harsh conditions make for a pretty high closure rate of such websites. I realized this because roughly one-fourth to one-third of the sites I tried on a list from a few years ago (see this post) were completely gone. Others had changed their name, or began charging for even a basic listing.

I find it intriguing how an over-crowded and hyper-competitive mobile app market ends up creating a hyper-competitive market for websites advertising these same apps. Ironically, these sites have to market themselves using many of the same techniques, via things like SEO and using forums to advertise. Ultimately, all of these web sites must earn enough money to support their hosting and development costs via some form of paid advertising, such as charging for reviews or expedited listing.

The smaller a review site is, the easier it will be to get your app on there, but the less useful it will be because of the smaller amount of traffic to that site. Everyone wants to submit their apps to the sites with all the hits, and submitting them to the minor sites is less important. You can see some of this in my brief look at some page view hits when I advertised my previous game, where there was over a 10x difference between the site with most hits and least hits.

The funny thing about all these sites is that I think the average user doesn’t even know about them. I’ve been getting apps for iOS for years now, and until recently I’d say 90% of the apps I got were found directly on the Apple App Store, or because I heard about it from a magazine, news site, or word of mouth. Of these, discovery from the App Store leads to a very biased selection (with many games that make me want to scream “why is this popular?!?!”), but as a user it’s just so easy to do, instead of fishing through hundreds of review sites.

I think the fact that iOS apps can only be sold directly through the App Store is one reason that people are less apt to try out other stores, since you’re not going to find any good deals there. Compare this with how you can find various PC or console games in online retailers at varying prices, including used copies.

I’m starting to get the feeling that these app review sites may not really be worth my time (except possibly the most popular ones), though I don’t have enough data to make that judgement yet. But I’m quite confident that a really great app or game doesn’t need to be advertised on 1,000 different sites to become popular.

Six nice things about advertising your game online

Though I’ve never been a huge fan of advertising (as a consumer or producer), after spending a few hours trying to push my latest game on various online spots, I’ve started to get used to it, even enjoy it a bit.

The main purpose of advertising is to get more people to learn about your app and actually download it, but there are some other perks that come along with the ride. I’ll mention a few which I’ve noticed.  Most of my efforts have been put into posting on forums and these items reflect that.

1) It’s a great form of market research – you can see what types of games are out there being marketed, as well as how they are marketing them (videos, contests etc). You can also get a feel for which games are getting more attention from the views on their posts. One might argue that looking at the various app store’s ‘popular games’ categories gives similar information, but often the apps that get that far have a large marketing budget, and those techniques don’t necessarily apply to the average indie gamer.

2) You can advertise your game using very small chunks of time, unlike development which may take you just 15-30 minutes to get ‘in the mode’ and actually start writing code. Once you prepare your screenshots, videos, and text for your posts, the actual process of posting is pretty quick and can be done in a few minutes. Often the most time is just spent registering for an account.

3) You can get much more feedback about your game, whether from hits on your various forum posts or comments. Much of this feedback comes quickly, sometimes in only a few hours. Though not nearly as nice as actual downloads, these can translate to some type of satisfaction or motivation to continue marketing your game.

4) After you have found the first few top forums and posted to them (i.e. Touch Arcade), you have to start spending a bit more effort to find those which are less popular, but have a chance to help bring in more users. Finding such forums can be rewarding, as can be the judgement process in deciding which are worthwhile.

5) Rather than using the same text for all posts, you can customize each one based not the form theme, user base of the forum, and what games seem to be popular on that forum. Through this process you can improve your writing, creativity, and ability to perceive trends. For example, if you find out a certain post on that forum seems to be getting a lot of hits, you can see if you can relate your game to it somehow.

6) Knowledge of how to advertise software online is a very valuable asset, since it can be applied to any of your future or past projects, irregardless of genre or platform.

A dozen tips for marketing your mobile game on internet forums

In the last day or so I’ve advertised my new mobile game on a few internet forums to try and pull in a few more downloads. I started with those which gave the highest hit count for my last game, and tried some new ones as an experiment.

Here are some tips for doing this for your own games (or apps), based on my experiences.

1) Make a list of sites you want to advertise on first before you actually make any posts. This will not only allow you to streamline the process, but also will let you focus more on which forums you want to post on.

2) Make sure you read the rules on each site before doing any posting. Getting your post removed, or worst, your account banned will only hurt your chances of getting many people to download your app. There are some basic rules which apply to most forums: no deceptive titles, don’t re-post the same content several times, post in the right sub-forum, etc.

3) Write the title and text in advance for your posts. For boards that are similar (i.e. game development boards) you can reuse these items, but feel free to write custom posts for the boards that have something unique about them. For example, one of the boards I posted on recommend giving details about how the game was developed, so I added a section giving that information. If you are not sure, err on the side of making customized posts for each site, since it will make your posts look less spammy.

4) Many forums don’t allow you to upload images and other attachments directly, so you must provide a URL linking to the image. There are many sites to host your images, and I ended up using http://postimage.org. It was free and easy to use, however it shrunk down the resolution to a pretty small size that wasn’t ideal. Some sites that do allow direct attachments will not allow you to scale them down manually, so consider re-scaling your screenshots and other images to a proper size before uploading.

5) Think creatively about what forums you can (safely) advertise to. For example, my latest game was related to board games such as Othello, so I advertised in a board-game related forum. To be safe, when you do this I recommend posting in the ‘Off-Topic’ areas, since often there is no to little moderation in them.

6) Before writing your posts, consider checking out some of the posts which have a large number of hits, and see what type of verbiage and style they use.

7) Don’t overlook the importance of the post title, often it is the only thing that decides whether users will start reading your post or ignore it.

8) For some forums, there are special ways to write posts advertising games. For example, on forums.toucharcade.com, there is a special meta tag of the form [appinfo=all]put iTunes URL here[/appinfo] which is supposed to (among other things) automatically get the app’s icon and show it next to the title on the post summary screen. I had mixed results with this, so make sure you check that any such meta tags are working either at preview time, or immediately after submission.

9) Many sites will allow you to embed videos from YouTube or other video sites in your post. Consider uploading your app preview (if you have one) to a video site and adding it to your post this way. You can use the same one you uploaded to the app store (if applicable), though you have the option of making a new one just for the purposes of advertising, the advantage being that you have less restrictions on time and content.

10) If you are maintaining a blog about your game, I would recommend to NOT include it in your post. Advertising your blog is fine, but do that separately. The reason is that if you imagine people only have the patience to click on one link, you want them going to your iTunes page rather than a page about development of your game. I wouldn’t consider your advertisement a success if you get a bunch of hits to your blog, but very few downloads to your app. For this same reason, (to go against what I just suggested in #10) you may want to even avoid embedding videos or if you do, include a easy-to-see link in your video’s description.

11) Make sure you test any links you include in the post, such as your game’s iTunes link. Particularly on iOS, I found out that even though my game was supposed to be on the app store, there was a delay of about an hour or two where the iTunes link I got wasn’t properly working and my game wasn’t actually in the store yet. If you want to be safe you wait until the day after your game goes live before advertising.

12) As the popular saying goes, “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst”. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there with several hundreds of apps submitted to the iOS app store each day, and forums where mobile game marketing is done are often equally flooded. Keep your expectations low, but experiment as much as possible and learn as you go.

Dokusen: The Art of Domination – Coming soon to Apple App Store [6/22/2015]

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After the usual week and half wait, my latest game was approved by Apple for distribution in the App Store for iPhone. I’ve decided I’m going to release it on Jun 22, but before then I’ll give a little more information about the game.

Dokusen, which means “Dominate” in Japanese, is a casual puzzle game that was loosely based off the ancient board came of “Go”, and involves trying to capture more space than the opponent(s) through a series of turns where each player chooses to claim a square. For those who are not too familiar with Go, you can think of it as being similar to the more modern game of Othello (sometimes called Reversi). An interesting fact is that this latter game was invented by a Japanese person and was influenced heavily by Go itself.

Since this game is free, and I’m developing it as a hobby, you might wonder why I would go to the trouble of setting a release date and delaying like this, when I could deploy my app to the app store with a few clicks.

One of the reasons is because I’ve heard that games released on Sunday statistically have more downloads, though I don’t have a great amount of faith in that. All things being equal, just changing a game’s release date to a different day of the week shouldn’t change the number of downloads that much.

A bigger reason is that by giving myself a few extra days I can more carefully plan my marketing strategy, which at this point will mostly consist on advertising an several forums. I did a bit of this for my previous game, but did it with less organization and several weeks after the game had been released. I’m hoping my renewed advertising efforts, plus a greater focus on visuals and ease-of-use in the game itself, will give a little more favorable results this time.

But above all, doing this makes me feel more like I am doing Game Development with a capitol “G”, meaning it’s much more than just writing a bunch of code. By doing this I can get a little taste of what it means to truly design, implement, release, and market a game – the full end-to-end process which is similar to what real game companies do (albeit at a much smaller scale). I’m also hoping that whatever I learn with this experience will be useful down the road, regardless of what I end up doing 5 or 10 years from now.

An argument for longer app store approval wait times

If you aren’t already familiar with the process of submitting to the Apple iOS App Store, lately you have to wait an average of 11 days until your app is approved. That assumes things go well, however, and if they don’t you could end up getting rejected, resubmitting (or appealing) and spending a month or more until your app actually gets listed, if ever.

The first time I found about this I was pretty annoyed, and I imagine that many of you felt the same. This can be ever more frustrating if you know that the Android store typically takes a day (at most) for the entire process, or so I’ve heard.

After going through this process a few times, I’ve finally come to the conclusion this large wait time actually benefits both the developer and the app store, for several reasons.

First and foremost, I feel that developers who know in advance they’ll have to wait for over a week will typically strive for higher quality than with a quick review process. I’ve seen this in my (very subjective) assessment of iOS vs Android apps. Specifically, developers are more likely to test their app more thoroughly because they know any bugs they find later, no matter how small, will take quite some time to get in the hands of their customers (though I’ve heard in rare cases Apple will make exceptions to fast-track critical issues). Also, since the iOS App Store has an image of being ‘strict’ in terms of what it permits, this will make developers think twice about much of their code, and as a result use APIs more properly. [I’ll leave the matter of whether the Apple app store is actually ‘strict’ for another article]

Another way to look at it is the professionalism, and sense of really releasing a product that this long delay gives to the developer(s) involved. There’s a feeling of satisfaction that you did something significant, and maybe even had a bit of luck on your side.

Although devs have the option to keep working on their app or game while waiting for app store approval, I generally don’t recommend this. The reason is that if you get rejected, you’ll probably want to submit the same exact version you submitted previously, with one or two surgical fixes, as opposed to a version with a bunch of new things that might fail the approval process in a different way, complicating things. If you are using source control this shouldn’t be hard in theory, but merging your changes can still be an annoyance.

I find this week or two period of respite really good for my mental state – it allows me to take a break from all of the focused development I’ve been doing and clear my head. This is a good time to put on your marketing hat and begin final planning of where, how, and when you will advertise your app or game once it is released. Hopefully you submitted it with the option to wait for manual release to the store after the approval process is complete, since this allows you some freedom for when you release. This is important if you are aiming to release on a certain day of the week, for example.

Other options for this break time are to begin planning what your next set of features will be, or even what your next app or game will be if you are ready to make that jump.

With all the money Apple has, it shouldn’t be too difficult to hire a bunch more people and keep the approval process to a maximum of a day or two. But I believe  they are purposefully keeping it roughly a week (with some variation) because of these benefits.

The only real disadvantage I can see to the long app store approval (besides frustration and uncertainty) is that if you working with a customer you might have to wait longer until you get paid. For one-off projects this can be troublesome, but anyone trying to make a business dealing with apps should consider pipelining several jobs at once, so that while they are waiting for approval for one job they can be progressing on another.

On a final note, I have heard many reports of Apple being inconsistent or illogical with some of the reasons they deny apps from the store. I think some of this is because consistently training everyone is difficult, but also for budgetary reasons because being extremely strict for all apps would take even more time. I see some parallel to the IRS’s audit process, whereby a few people get a stricter review and as a result the average level of adherence to the rules increases.