Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Interview: On why the Apple App store drove an Aussie indie out of business

Aussie developer, Paul Turbutt, had a great little game on his hands with Star Hammer Tactics: a fun little strategy game that was a bit of a critical hit on the PlayStation Minis service.

Then he released the game on the Apple App Store. Now he designs mining software for a living and the dream of being an indie game developer has been put on the backburner. It’s no longer possible to download Star Hammer Tactics on the iOS app store. We sat down with Turbutt briefly to find out what happened: it’s a warning for anyone who sees the iOS store as a gold mine.

Matt Sainsbury (MS): So what happened? Your game was so good!
Paul Turbutt (PT): It just didn't sell very well! The reviews were varied, but generally about average. So I guess the game wasn't so good. I had a particular objective in mind with the gameplay - I wanted to make a strategy game that was really easy to learn, and that used a "core gamer" theme, in this case, sci-fi. I think in hindsight, maybe there isn't a market for that combination. A simple strategy game might work, but "core gamers" aren't interested, or a sci-fi strategy game works, but needs to be more complex. So maybe I misjudged whether there was/is a market for what I was making.

MS: Why do you think you struggled to gain visibility on the app store?
PT: Several reasons. First, it's absolutely flooded with games. That made it really hard to get websites to review the game. With a dozen new games coming out a day, and limited numbers of reviewers, your game needs to really stand out to get the attention of potential reviewers. Second, the release was really poorly timed. It came out on iOS in mid-November, when the big publishers was starting their pre-Christmas sales, and releasing their big name games. So that was dumb on my part. Third, it wasn't mass-market enough to get into a Top 10 list, or "indie" enough to get a buzz going online.

MS: What are some of the lessons you learned about indie game development from this experience?
PT: Don't give up your day job. Whilst it's entirely possible that an indie developer can be successful, it's just unlikely. Really, it's a numbers game. If 100 games come out in a week, and only the Top 20-50 of all games are getting much visibility, the odds are against you.

MS: What advice would you have for aspiring Apple App store developers?
PT: Don't release your game around Christmas, make sure your game is absolutely spectacular, and that it's either as close as possible to the current Top 10 games when it's released, or unlike anything anybody has ever seen before. There is no middle ground.

MS: What's next for you?
PT: I'm not doing games any more. Right now I'm working for a company that does realtime 3D visualisation for the mining sector.

Really, we’re hearing more and more cases of talented indie developers struggling to get anywhere with the iOS app store, and if you tap along to the sales charts, they’re very much dominated by the big gun publishers and developers.

So, is the iOS bubble about to burst?
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