Joining the iPhone Application Train

Feb 23, 2009

My first iPhone game (Codewords) was released over the weekend (which you can see at the Idle Diversions Website. It joins the rapidly growing list at the Apple App Store (there are at least 25 new paid games released every day, plus all the free ones). How can one make money in this business? What is the development process like?

The second is much easier to answer than the first. Once you are familiar with Objective-C, Interface Builder, XCode and the Cocoa Touch frameworks (and friends), development is actually a relatively easy process. I spent about 3 months writing partial applications, relearning the language (I used WebObjects 10 years ago before Java), understanding the best practices for using IB and the frameworks to create the UI, and working through a number of application designs. After all that it only took 3 weeks to write Codewords, and then I built a generic application by extracting the common parts of Codewords and adding in some other necessary bits for future applications (such as dictionary management). With the generic application "framework" I can have a new application running in less than an hour.

I also built an OpenGL-ES shell to make managing the opengl state easier, although lately everything I am working on has been based on Quartz drawing.

With all this learning and canned stuff I think I can build a new game (in my chosen subcategories) about every 3 weeks or so. I have about a dozen original concepts (Codewords is actually based on an existing puzzle that is unique to the App Store but exists on the web and in paper versions). What I will not do is clone existing ideas outright; it makes no sense to write yet another tictactoe version. People on the iPhone may not buy every unique idea, but the odds against a "me-too" app succeeding are pretty high.

The iPhone market is an interesting place, everyone is in the same boat and there is no other boat (ignoring jailbroken iPhones). However the size of the market today is enormous and it's easy to get lost in it. I think of the App Store as a huge bazaar with a single entrance: the booths near the entrance get the bulk of the sales, and the folks at the back get very little. Being in the top 100 (or even better the top 25) assures huge sales. The developer of iShoot made $600,000 in January with a #1 position; however the majority of developers barely make beer money.

Unlike the early adopters back in August who all made good money with so little competition, today you have to market your applications any way you can and even then it may not catch fire. A perfect example of marketing was the iFart application, which really is nothing more than a simple sound player. The 3 month wait for approval was actually a blessing, as the constant mention of the app being denied and then the final approval generated enormous press and triggered a large number of purchases. It's clear the key to sales is eyeballs; the more people know about your application the better you will sell; and the more you sell the higher in the lists you go, which lets more people know about your application.

The funny thing is that the market seems blind to reviews; you can look at the top list of applications and see 1.5 stars alongside 4.5 stars. The mere presence of an application in front of prospective customers is sufficient to ensure sales. Likewise if no one sees it, no matter how wonderful it is, sales will be minimal.

Another interesting fact is that most applications are never used beyond the first day. I think this is indicative of the low price and huge availability of new apps every day. People constantly look for new shiny apps to buy, with a low barrier to purchase, and thus are attracted to the next big thing. Buying new applications for only $1 or $2 is itself "fun".

Yet there is nothing wrong with this. If I buy coffee at Starbucks I might spend $4 for 10 minutes of sipping. Going to a movie might be $10 for the ticket and $8 for the drink and popcorn. Thats $18 for 120 minutes of entertainment, a "fun rate" of $9/hr. Buying an iPhone application for $2 that provides an hours worth of fun is way cheaper. It's hard to find a cheaper form of amusement anywhere. Even music at $1/4 minutes is expensive.

Recently Amazon released a downloadable game store at $10 per game, and many game companies refused to join as most of them prefer a $20 price point. Most iPhone developers would love to sell things at $10. It would change the market if the minimum were $10; people would be more choosy of what they bought and likely the sales would be more even across the market but I don't expect Apple is going to change. So the challenge will remain getting to the top of sales lists in order to get to the top of sales lists.

I am also going to convert some of my applications to run under OSX, where the pricing is of course higher. Even here the key is to create original unique games and puzzles but the market is vastly different and in some ways more complicated.

In any case if it works out, it's a fun and crazy business to be in. Even in this down economy people still buy games and entertainment, if for no other reason than to keep from going crazy.