The ins+outs of life in the AppStore

With Apple’s ITunes AppStore predicted to grow into a billion dollar market, and containing over 10,000 apps already, a lot of people have written about the AppStore ‘goldrush’, and speculated about the difficulty+prospects of entering this crowded market. As a small games developer with valuable ‘insider’ knowledge on the workings of the AppStore, we thought it would be worth writing about our experience, sharing our sales data and the lessons we learned along the way, to help anyone considering jumping in understand what to expect.

Our main app to-date is Fuzzle, an addictive puzzle game which has been quite successful – sitting in the top 100-selling apps for the past month and a half, albeit at the low price of $0.99. Its seen a lot of ups+downs during its time in the AppStore ….

Fuzzle

Fuzzle

Initial Release

When we first released Fuzzle at $2, we saw about 100 downloads on the first day, and this quickly dropped such that after about four days we were having about 20 downloads a day, with the trend looking to continue downwards. Note that we did attempt to promote the app, in terms of releasing a video on youtube and submitting it for review on many sites etc but, as I’ll illustrate below, getting sales is mainly about AppStore visibility, and we had zero.

Free Promotion

So we quickly realised that this wasn’t going to cut it – we had (in our opinion) a great game which the reviewers+users that did try it tended to love, but it simply was getting no visibility. Thus we opted for a free promotion. This promotion was a great success, in that in the space of 3-4 days Fuzzle was downloaded about 120,000 times, and rocketed up to the top 10 free apps in the AppStores around the world.

Our next step was to switch the app back to being $2. This caused the app to firstly unnervingly completely disappear from sale for some time, but when it reappeared it was at the #1 position of all paid apps in the AppStore! This was due to a ‘quirk’ that used to exist in the AppStore, exploited before and after us by a number of apps, whereby the position is determined by number of downloads independent of price, so a free app switching to paid would find it very easy to reach the #1 position of paid apps. Apple later fixed this so its no longer possible.

Anyway, the net effect was that Fuzzle had about 1,000 purchases in about three hours, before Apple then reset Fuzzle’s download count to zero. Fuzzle also received a ton of one-star, negative reviews from other developers annoyed that we had ‘tricked’ the system. In our defense, we’d like to say that the main reason we did this was to the publicity generated from 100,000s of users trying our app, and we couldn’t help it if the AppStore worked in this way. Given that many apps both before and after us did this very same trick, and lasted in some cases days in the Top 10 without Apple kicking them out of the top, we actually felt pretty hard done by for a while, in the way we were treated by both Apple and other developers.

Note that case this illustrates a small part of the ‘ugly side’ of the AppStore, with developers playing all kind of tricks to try to work the system – developers writing up positive reviews for their own apps, or negative reviews for other apps as we experienced, or even paying users to write reviews etc, releasing a $999 ‘I’m Rich’ app or releasing a nice application for free, but once its popular and has good reviews updating it to add a ton of advertising etc.

In any case, the large number of reviews etc that resulted from our free promotion pushed our download count back up to average around 100/day for the next week or two, so generally we’d call it a success.

Price Dropping and Lite Version

So the downloads were now about 100/day for a week or so, but we could see a slow trend downwards, so we knew more was needed to make this game a success.

One of our next steps was to release Fuzzle Lite – a free version but with a points limit – we estimate that this now drives over half our sales and, given the cumulative nature of the sales driving the AppStore rankings and these rankings then driving the sales (and the sales driving the app into the ‘Whats Hot’ list which further drives the sales and the ranking etc etc), its probably safe to say that without Fuzzle Lite, Fuzzle would never have made it above a couple of hundred daily sales.

We also dropped the price to $1 – because the rankings in the AppStore are based on downloads and not downloads times price, there is a strong incentive to sell apps for the minimum price if you want to get it in the top 10/25/50/100 lists on the AppStore. Many people have complained about this ‘drive to the bottom’ – its a complex issue, in some ways its great for the users who are getting some amazing deals, but if it affects developer decisions to focus on smaller, quicker-to-develop apps in the future, it could be bad in the long run. In any case, we just have to work with the system, so whatever we feel Fuzzle is ‘worth’, $1 is the price at which we have so far generated the most revenue.

Success!

The above factors combined, along with a large number of very positive reviews on various websites (i.e. here), we believe, were the driver of Fuzzle climbing from 100/day sales to around 400/day and then 1000/day, as can be seen on this graph. It also during this time made the ‘Whats Hot’ list, which helped it sit for a couple of weeks in position 30-odd of all paid apps in the AppStore.

Fuzzle Daily Sales

Fuzzle Daily Sales

Since then its slowly declining again, to around 400/day now, but overall we consider the game to have been a success even if the sales continue to decline, although we expect a decent amount of sales to continue for some time thanks to the name+publicity Fuzzle has built for itself, plus of course we haven’t been sitting on our toes – we have some big improvements planned for the future and new games on the way. In any case, its been a great ride which we’re grateful to have had the opportunity to take.

Conclusions – is it worth it?

The AppStore is all about visibility – without getting in the top lists, or getting in Apple’s ‘Whats Hot’ etc lists, and without a popular Lite version which is compelling enough for users to upgrade to the full version, you can probably only expect single or at best double digit daily sales.

With a Lite version that works, and with a bit of luck (i.e. Apple putting your app in one of their front-page lists for some time), there’s no reason why an app can’t get a foothold in the charts and start climbing, and since being in these charts is a large determinant of sales, if you can make it into these charts, plus have something like a Lite version or some clever marketing additionally driving your app, it should be possible to stay in them for some time.

But is it worth it? Our sales data, correlated with our AppStore rankings, indicate that the vast majority of apps in the AppStore probably make a pittance. Even the top 1% of apps like Fuzzle, while they can make a good amount of money, don’t necessarily make a huge amount to account for the cost of development and the uncertainty involved, and the possibly limited extent of their stay at the top. If you’re in it for the long haul, looking to build quality apps/games and maintain+port+sell them for years, then it may be a great place to start. But if you’re wanting to quickly write a simple app for some quick money, your odds of success are probably quite slim now. Its really the top 0.1% or 0.01%, those apps that make it to the Top 10 selling apps, which can then generate 10,000’s of sales per day, that really make it big (places 10-30 from our experience represent around 1,000+ sales per day, place 30-100 around 400+ sales per day)

So in a way the AppStore is a bit of a lottery. Looking at the way the AppStore is trending, while there have been in the past many somewhat awful apps in the top 10, it looks to be trending towards only higher-quality, bigger-budget apps with certain appeal reaching the top 10. So the odds of an app reaching that level for a small developer are pretty low. But there’s no reason a decent app can’t have its day/week/month in the top 100 and thus generate some decent revenue. But it looks like the days of crap/super-simple apps making tons of money on the AppStore, as a number did at the beginning, are now pretty much over. The AppStore is slowly maturing into a place where apps from big existing players (EA etc) compete with some quality apps from smaller players – its still a more level playing field than most of the alternatives that existed before the AppStore for small players to have a chance to compete, and it is an amazing opportunity for a developer to make an app available to potentially millions of users, especially if they’re prepared to give it away for free, but the super-easy money days are over – your app definitely needs to be good, and even then success is not guaranteed.

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5 Responses to “The ins+outs of life in the AppStore”

  1. The ins+outs of Fuzzle in the AppStore - iPhone Dev SDK Forum Says:

    […] The ins+outs of Fuzzle in the AppStore Hi again, We also would like to share with the community our experience of what it takes to succeed in the AppStore, what kind of money people are really making and how the AppStore works. You can read it in depth in our last blog post: The ins+outs of life in the AppStore Candycaneapps iPhone development blog […]

  2. Paul O'Connor Says:

    Thanks for the informative and forthcoming post. As a gesture of developer solidarity I’ve purchased your Fuzzle App and put a link to your blog on my own Appy Entertainment developer blog (http://goldenboat.wordpress.com/). Keep it coming!

  3. Michael Kaye Says:

    “Thus we opted for a free promotion. This promotion was a great success, in that in the space of 3-4 days Fuzzle was downloaded about 120,000 times, and rocketed up to the top 10 free apps in the AppStores around the world.”

    Any hints on how you went about getting this free promotion? Website reviews, viral marketing etc?

  4. candycaneapps Says:

    Hey, thanks for the positive comments – to do the free promotion we didn’t really do anything except set the price to free … there’s some websites that track when applications go on sale (price drop or free) which a lot of bargain hunters seem to follow, so any form of price drop tends to get some attention.

  5. waynette Says:

    I love this game. I play it every day – several times a day. I still have no clue how people get super high scores though. I can only get to a little over 1200 points. This game is THE game most used on my iphone. Then my son and I play a word game. My vision is bad and this is something I can play without having to find my reading glasses.

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