Monday, March 9, 2009

Brutal Honesty from Owen Goss

Owen Goss of Streaming Colour, a fine iPhone programmer capable of outrunning cybernetic polar bears in sub-zero temperatures and also of coding great strategy games (probably not at the same time, though), has posted a very interesting, if not entirely happy post on his blog, where he lays out exactly how much he has made (or, more accurately, not made) with his wonderful game Dapple that's currently available on the App Store.

(It's a great game, you really should give the lite version a try and then pony up for the full version if you like it.)

Although I wish Owen were reporting better news, I think it is good for people to have a dose of reality every now and then to counter all the hype we've been hearing around the iPhone and, more specifically, the App Store. Not every great game is going to be an overnight success, and not every overnight success is going to be a great program. As more developers enter the market (including large, powerful corporate entities who are starting to smell money), the harder it's going to be to stand out the way Trism did early on, and a handful of other applications have done since.

I believe in capitalism wholeheartedly, but I must admit that I find it a little dismaying that an app that plays pre-recorded fart sounds and probably took a grand total of a few hours to code can make hundreds of thousands of dollars, but a well thought-out, well-executed game like Dapple struggles to sell copies. I also think it's amazing that people who will drop $5 a day without hesitation to buy coffee, will hesitate to buy a game for the same price. I guarantee you you'll still be playing Dapple long after you've finished the coffee and annoyed every single person you know with that fart app.

Note: Owen's blog got Slashdotted, so availability may be sporadic for a little while.



17 comments:

Michael said...

And this is the problem...its not the iFart type applications per se but the fact that quality apps are often being overlooked. I'm not saying that all the simple apps aren't well written but the store needs apps that push the boundaries of what can be done (like Occarina).

An yes I agree whole heatedly agree with your "cup of coffee" statement. One of my apps descriptions jokingly says, "can't afford the price of a cup of coffee then try the lite version"...but I think people are missing the point I'm trying to make.

Michael

Jeff LaMarche said...

Yeah, I'm sure people do miss the joke. People don't think of it that way. I think App developers have to figure out the psychology of the App Store to do well. I'm not sure we've got enough evidence yet to decode the puzzle. The success stories seem to have few common traits.

mrboboto said...

The 10 MB limit is also a huge obstacle, maybe more so than the price. I can't count the number of times I've read about a cool game (for example, the $5 bundle of 5 games you posted yesterday), went to the app store ready to buy, got the "over 10 MB message", and never remembered to do it later when I was sync'ing to my home computer.

Anything that interrupts that process of "I just heard about this cool thing and I want it now" costs app developers money. I'm surprised I don't hear more complaining about this.

Chevol Davis said...

All I'm getting from that link is a 403 error, it would be real nice to read the article. Can you repost it here or something? Seems like it would be a real interesting read.

Michael said...

mrboboto - Is the 10mb limit still in place? I ask because Apple removed the restriction on downloading iTunes songs over cellular...so I thought maybe this restriction had been removed as well.

Chevol - I should think his site is overloaded at the moment. Hopefully it will be back up soon.

Jeff LaMarche said...

Chevol:

Owen's blog got Slashdotted, so I'm sure it's simply unable to keep up with the traffic. I'm sure in a couple of hours it will be available again.

Jeff

Alex said...

My game has a similar concept, and quite honestly, pretty much the same number of sales in a similar time period... I've tried different pricing schemes, and even a lite version without too much luck.
At least from my point of view the problem is getting your app noticed, if your app never makes it to the store front, most likely it'll never be a success.

Michael said...

Alex is right. I've tried lite versions, localised version (and localised descriptions/pictures on different countries store) and different price points and all these have very little effect on my sales....visibility is the key and this depends so much on Apple. Obviously anything groundbreaking (occarina) or "crap" apps (iFart) gather their own momentum but none of my apps (alas) are like this.

I guess at the end of the day we are finally reaching consensus on what works and what does not...although I find this slightly depressing.

Michael.

jrock said...

I have a couple of issues with the blog entry. First, there's a number of these type of games in the app store already, so differentiating your app is difficult. Second, part of marketing an app is assigning a correct price and $5 in a crowded category isn't going to cut it. Third, why on earth would you drop $30k on development costs for a clever but shallow game? Fourth, you can't rely strictly on review sites/the app store front page as a viable strategy for advertising an app. Some of that 30k should have been used in alternative advertising.

Overall, this entry suggests a poor strategy for developing a successful app. Find a unique niche and develop the best app you can. Look for ways to market your app outside of the traditional review sites. A little luck doesn't hurt either.

mrboboto said...

"mrboboto - Is the 10mb limit still in place? I ask because Apple removed the restriction on downloading iTunes songs over cellular...so I thought maybe this restriction had been removed as well."

Yes- you have to be on WiFi to download an app that is bigger than 10MB, or get it by syncing through iTunes. Given that I usually read my RSS feeds on the bus, I'm nowhere near either on my commute (which is when I usually read about cool software!)

The "people like me" demographic is always way smaller than one imagines it to be, but it's still clunky.

Jeff LaMarche said...

Jrock:

I'm not sure if the problem you have is with my post or Owen's. You don't seem to be responding to either post so much as just criticizing Owen's strategy. The point of Owen's blog, and the reason I linked it is because there are lessons to be learned from it. I would like to see Owen sell more, but the main reason I want people to read his blog entry is as an antidote to all the "ZOMG! I spent two hours writing an iPhone program and became a millionaire!!!" news that we see.

$30k developing a game is relatively low. If you read the post, you'll see that that includes his time, (albeit at a low rate). You have to factor your time in when you create a game or else you're not getting an accurate pictures of how well you're doing fiscally. You have to factor the opportunity costs of not doing other work while you're developing your application. Very little of that $30k so far has been used for advertising (I believe), but I don't know the details other than what's in his blog.

Owen is very nicely sharing his lessons learned, and I can only imagine that he will continue to do so as he moves forward in his quest to find a successful strategy. He's not "promoting" the strategy he's used so far, he's explaining it and admitting fairly plainly that it hasn't worked that well so far. Don't hate on the guy because he's giving a warts-and-all account so that others can benefit.

Personally, I agree that the $4.99 price point is probably the biggest problem he's got with sales, but Owen's intentionally fighting against the "race for the bottom" price game that's been going on in the App Store. I suspect if he dropped the price, Dapple would sell better, and maybe he will at some point, but I don't think he's ready to give up on his position quite yet.

I also suspect that when people start trying the free version of his game, his sales will increase. Have you actually played the game? I'm not sure calling it "shallow" is particularly fair. The gameplay is really quite good, but it's hard to explain to someone, and it's hard to grasp without actually playing a few rounds. I've watched people learning to play, though, and once they get it figured out, it becomes immediately addictive.

As for advertising, I talked with a lot of people at the 360 iDev conference, and many, many people have spent lots of money on different forms of advertising for their iPhone apps that yielded no sales or too few to justify the cost. This is a new market, you can't just say wave your hand and say "you should have spent more on advertising" because people don't know yet what kind of advertising works well in this fairly new space, and it's really easy to lose a lot of money by throwing it at advertising willy-nilly.

Jeff

Alexandre said...

I am in a similar situation with PozBook - my application on the App Store. It allows anybody to create beautiful notes and guides for your personal use or to share with everyone - you can record text, audio, pictures and weblinks all attached to your position.
There is a free viewer for the iPhone and am hoping that after some penetration i can contact content providers for them to distribute their maps, guides, brochures on the iphone in a very easy manner (there is a desktop application for content creation).

I thought it would get a better chance at success because of its quality, potential and especially because it is NOT a game, but still can be useful to many many people. But visibility is a huge problem, even for applications that consistantly impress their users.

I hope that in the coming weeks the free version will boost penetration, as well as entice people to create and distribute their guides through the PozBook Share website ala Youtube.

The market for games might be overcrowded, but for applications that revolutionize the way we procress and share information, with the technical possibilities of the iphone there are a great many things to do.

In any case, Apple really needs to start rewarding unique applications if they don't want the platform to be filled with clones.

jrock said...

Hi Jeff,

First off, I want to say that your book completely kicks arse and is used constantly with my development. I believe you chose the right publisher with Apress. I own 10 Apress books and they are all of extremely high quality (plug for my Tom Kyte Oracle book).

Rereading my initial post, I cringed a bit as it was written in haste during my regular 9 to 5 gig. I didn't convey my message clearly and I apologize for its crass nature.

I appreciate the candid view that Owen wrote in his blog entry and I certainly did not mean to hate on him in any regard. As a fellow developer, I want to see all devs do well. My thought is this - investing a large sum of money (like 30K) shouldn't be taken lightly. Looking at Owen's application, his app just seems like too much of a derivative to warrant such an investment. I almost feel like he should have partnered with another similar type of color/tile game to produce a more in depth game of this type.

In the end, whether you're developing software or running a bagel store or cleaning septic tanks, it's the IDEA that matters. If you don't have an idea that will succeed in the marketplace, no amount of investment will help (unless you're a failing financial institution which is a whole separate topic).

As far as advertising, I understand that it's difficult to find an affordable channel to reach a target demographic for a game that costs under $10. The review sites are read by a small fraction of the iPhone universe and iTunes doesn't have an efficient way of highlighting quality applications. I don't know the answer here but I believe it's in Apple's best interest to expand the capabilities of the App store. Maybe a web component of the App store would allow for easier searching and expanded coverage.

Thanks for your reply and your efforts in producing this blog. I read it every day as I strive to develop my own apps. Currently, I'm developing a game and a business app.

jrock

Jeff LaMarche said...

Jrock:

No worries at all. The written word, especially written hastily, is not always great at conveying nuance.

Thanks for your kind words. Dave and I have been really happy with Apress and our relationship with them. So much so that we're writing at least one more book for them.

I agree that $30k is a lot to invest. However, Owen gave a great presentation at 360 iDev on his process, and it was very thorough, very well thought-out. I think that the impression that it's similar to other games hurts it, because looks are a bit deceiving. The way the colors blend is really quite an interesting twist, and the reviews and feedback have been almost universally positive. He's produced a fun game, he just hasn't been able to turn that into good sales yet.

I try not to judge people's ideas. Ideas, IMHO, are relatively cheap and easy. I can't tell how many people approach me and want me to implement their "idea", and then generously offer to split the money 50/50 with me.

Execution is at least as important as the idea, and probably more so. But, in terms of sales, what's even more important than that is making people want to buy it. How cool a game looks and how fun it is to play are completely different things, unfortunately.

As an example, I bet The Force Unleashed for the iPhone sold a buttload of copies. It looked nice, very polished, but it just wasn't much fun. I bought it... played it twice, and then took it off of my phone. They got me to pay $9.99 for a game that wasn't fun.

Owen't having the opposite problem - he's got a game that actually is fun, but he hasn't figured out how to get people excited and wanting to buy it.

Hopefully his next post will be telling us that he has, and sharing his secret formula so we can all make money :)

jrock said...

"Hopefully his next post will be telling us that he has, and sharing his secret formula so we can all make money :)"

I'm down with that!

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h4ns said...

What youre saying is completely true. I know that everybody must say the same thing, but I just think that you put it in a way that everyone can understand. I also love the images you put in here. They fit so well with what youre trying to say. Im sure youll reach so many people with what youve got to say.

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