98 - Applying app store success to your own project

Hello and welcome to the 97th episode of The Spark & The Art creativity podcast. Thank you for subscribing to our weekly podcast, where we alternate between interviews with creative folks from all different career levels and insight and inspiration episodes. All with the intention you’ll get what you need to get your creative projects started and, more importantly, finished.

I’m your host Tucker and this week I’m going to talk about an article I read on Reddit by Amir Rajan about his success in the iTunes App store. The article is basically a how-to for working with Apple to have a successful game for iPhones and iPads. Amir’s success was in the range of $700,000 USD of the course of about 3 years. If you’d like to read the article you can find a link to it in the show notes at TheSparkAndTheArt.com/98 in the show description in your podcast player. 

The article is very specific to working with Apple and iOS games but the underlying philosophy is a lot of what we talk about here on the show. 

In the introductory paragraph he says this "It is possible to create sustainable income from apps (albeit very difficult)” it’s the ‘albeit very difficult’ part that gets me. Remember, whether you are looking to simply get better at something or to make a living at something. It’s possible - just difficult. 

The next thing that I’d like to point out is in the financials section (the article lists a month-by-month breakdown of all Amir’s earnings for his games) Part of the breakdown lists a line item labeled "My half of ADR (I happily give Michael* his share)” Michael is credited with creating the original web version of the game A Dark Room. See, used his skills an knowledge and knew that he could create a new format for an existing game. It’s doubtful he expected it to the be #1 game in the U.K. & U.S. for 18 days straight but he knew he could make the app. 

Also, in the financials section he says his income tax bracket was 33% because he took up contract work to counteract the volatility of the app store. Even though he was earning money from his app endeavours he still had another stream of income that he could rely on. 

Next in the article is a list of do’s and don’ts a creator needs to pay attention to to get a game featured in the iTunes store. It starts off with little warning about the world not being fair. He says “If you are Warner Brothers, SquareEnix, Kim Kardashian, King, etc, you get a red carpet to getting featured. You can release whatever trash or shoddy port you want, and you'll get featured. So you have two options, accept this and play by the rules I'm about to lay out, or don't participate.” That’s right the big guys get the breaks and the little guys have to hustle and play the game. 

These do’s and don’ts are great they talk about having proper product descriptions and screenshots and preview videos. He mentions Localization which in app terms means it’s in more than one language. His game A Dark Room is a text based adventure so he hasn’t had it translated and mentions that as the primary thing that is keeping his app from being featured in anything other than the smaller feature categories. 

Here’s a couple of the don’ts as they relate to getting a feature spot in iTunes. Don’t request a feature spot if it’s your first app or game because unless it’s exceptional it will most likely get dismissed. (The question I have is with the doubts most creators have about their own work how do we know if our game is exceptional or not?)

To answer this question we look at the next don’t. Don’t pitch a spin-off or clone as a feature. If you’re game pitch is basically ‘It’s Angry Birds but better’ then it’s most likely not exceptional. And has Amir says it’s a great way to get dismissed.

But, I’m going to say that these last two bits of advice is for people who are requesting a feature spot from Apple in the iTunes store. If it’s your very first app and it’s a total clone of Angry Birds or Flappy Bird that is fantastic because learning and finishing are more important than getting features or selling things. 

Next in the list say to buy featured games to know your competition. What have other games or apps done that is intriguing or special that warrants a feature spot? This is true of anything. If you want to be a writer read. If you want to be a film maker study movies. If you want to be an iOS game designer play other iOS games. 

Next is to play with new Apple technologies like SceneKit, SpriteKit, AppleTV etc .. a lot of what he mentions I’m not sure what it is because I’m not a developer. But experimenting with new technologies is what can lead to new ideas. If you are a guitar player try different strings or pedals or amps. A writer? Try sci-fi or vampire romance or drama to see what fits. Film makers experiment with new cameras or films or lenses. James Cameron invented an entirely new 3D camera for Avatar. Talk about experimenting with new technologies.

Amir says “Apple wants to see apps that are updated frequently. If you don't get featured as a new game. Don't lose too much hope, you can always get featured as an update.” he recommends a six week update schedule. Once you’re done you need to continue on improving. He even mentions in the article that his latest game A Nobel Circle was released as a barley playable free version because he wanted to get something out there to get his next idea out to see if it got traction. And that after a few months of free he switched it to paid and got featured in Best New Game Updates leading to a significant spike in downloads for him. But the feature didn’t just come to him for nothing he said “It took a ton of work to build that relationship with Apple”

So, don’t record an album and hope to sell a million records. You gotta keep putting out songs. Don’t expect an Oscar for your first film but enter into as many film festivals as you can to build up some accolades. Find the relationships within the organizations that will give you the breaks that will help you move forward. 

Just keep making. 

Okay so now he’s into communicating with Apple and crafting pitch emails that would allow for the best success of getting a feature. #5 is “5. Wait Until The Thursday You Were Supposed to Get Featured On

Reflect on why you didn't get featured. See which apps did get featured. Try to understand why. Try not to cry. Go in the corner and cry.” But number 6 is Plan your next release. 

Don’t hang everything on one step in the process. Let the rejections pile up and the ignored emails float into the ether and when you are disappointed feel it. Then dust yourself off and carry on planning what’s next. 

What about those ignored emails? Amir say it took 4 months of emailing before he got a response and another two before he was assigned an Apple contact. Half a year of basically emailing into nothing before a significant relationship was created. 

Okay, that’s a lot of good stuff and there is more in there so I suggest you dig into the article and read it not as someone who wants to make a successful app but look at how you can apply the things he’s saying to what you do. Whether it’s painting or landscape artistry, cooking or being a journalist. 

Lastly, his final point is Do It For Love and I’m going to just read the whole piece “Guys and gals, we're lucky. We have the ability to release a game that can be something special to someone living on the other side of the world (with very little monetary investment). Before A Dark Room went viral, I found meaning and success in what I did simply because I inspired some teenagers to get into game development, and brought a great gaming experience to the blind. I find meaning posting and collaborating here. I find meaning in presenting and writing about game development (none of which really generates money).

A Noble Circle has modest downloads, but I'm so happy seeing glowing reviews and receiving a single email about how a father and son connected while playing it. So relish in those small wins, they'll make all the work you put into your games worth it (even if your game fails financially...which it probably will). I can only do game development part time (it doesn't pay all the bills), but damn do I have a great time building them.” 

If you know someone who’s hoping to find success by turning their creativity into a business I’d hope you’d share this episode with them. The easiest way is to send the short URL TheSparkAndTheArt.com/98 the hardest way is to get a pilot licence and learn to skywrite a transcription of of the article above your friends house before the wind carries it off into nothing. 

Get me on twitter @sparkartpodcast

Thanks for listening and remember: you won’t get the art without the work and you won’t do the work without the spark.


- Links for this episode -

Amir Rajan’s article on Reddit - https://www.reddit.com/r/startups/comments/4f74dv/quit_my_full_time_corporate_job_built_an_ios_game/