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

4 mins read

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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  • I think the App Store is really focused on the 99c-free price point. There needs to be a valid space for games that aren't cheap and mass market, or you risk a gaming stagnation, where indies are as risk averse as big publishers and you lose the creativity unfettered indie development can bring. What is ideally needed are different sections of the store that focus on games at a higher price point. I would love to be able to search for good games around the $5 mark, than whatever cheap distraction is hogging the top spot at 99c.

  • Hi Andrew,

    Thanks for dropping by & the comment!

    I agree that the App Store is far too driven on the unsustainable 99c price point, but the problem I see is that that drive comes from the consumers, not necessarily the developers.

    Consumers have been programmed, now, to expect games cheap. I've heard people complain that $10 is "too much" for an iOS game. It's ridiculous, of course, because that $10 game in question was genuinely console-quality, but people see a price point and react without necessarily thinking it through.

    And, unfortunately, at the low end of town, it's only the very few who have massive market presence that can hit the kinds of sales numbers a 99c game needs to hit to be profitable.

  • I not convinced about the 99c price point argument anymore. I think marketing is key to being seen and there are enough consumers that are willing to go $1.99, $2.99 on iOS games if the game is good enough.

    Developers also have the option of going iPad only which allows for a premium price tag and the number of iPads in circulation is definitely enough to earn a developer a good income.

    There surely was a race to the bottom, but I believe prices have now increased as consumers want better games. Sure it's not $10 a title, but $2.99 is a substantial improvement over 99c

  • Hi Seon,

    Thanks for dropping by and your insights – are you a developer at all (your comments sound like they're from someone who is in the biz)?

    I do agree with you – I see a few more games popping up that hit the top 30 or so charts for $2.99. My question there is – is $2.99 that much of a boost over $0.99? I'm not so sure. It is going to cost some customers (there are some who won't ever spend more than $0.99 on a game – or will just wait for a $9 Gameloft/ EA game goes on sale), so the question is, is that loss of customers going to turn around a game that would be unprofitable at $0.99 to become a sustainable business model?

    I'm not so sure. I see those microtransactions being where it's at for developers. Convince one customer to spend $15 over a couple of months on virtual bonuses in your game, and you can get away with 1/15th of the customers that the $0.99 games need to rely on.

    Just my rambling musings. I find the monetisation models on phones and tablets absolutely fascinating stuff. 🙂

  • Hi Matt, yes I am a Solo Indie – and I previously owned Sector3 (another Indie Games Studio) that I sold to Trickstar Games in 2009.

    I have been on the App Store since the very start and have had some mild successes as well as struggling with everyone else, but I just launched Cubemen in March on Steam, Mac App Store and iOS Store (iPa2+ only).

    The iPad version launched at $3.99 and I earn't enough just off iPad sales in the first 2 weeks to sustain me for the next 18+ months.

    There is definitely a space for premium games at least on the iPad, and going multi-platform is something all developers should be looking at to capitalise on their titles and improve their marketing scope.

    I think a big part that most devs are missing is the marketing. There is no launch and forget. It's constant work to keep promoting your game and getting it in front of reviewers, consumers, even starting marketing months before release.

    Just ask Andrew Goulding about his constant marketing efforts, before during and after launch. it's key to success.

  • Sean – congratulations on all of your success – well deserved!

    And also, I've heard really great things about Cubemen – getting the game on Apple's Most Featured must have been a been a big boost – congrats on that, too.

    I completely agree with you that there's not enough understanding out there about marketing. It's much harder than many imagine it to be – I know from personal experience because I thought marketing was an easy gig before I did a degree in it.

    Thank you again for your insight – I appreciate you taking the time to drop by. Do keep us updated on how things go with you. 🙂

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