Rising to the Top: 5 ways indie developers succeed on the App Store

iphoneIt’s no secret: there’s some Benjamins to be made on the App Store. In fact, the App Store is now a $2.4 billion dollar per year business, according to AdMob’s monthly mobile metrics report. Here’s another fun fact you probably already know: most app developers fade into the App Store abyss long before they ever find fame and fortune. Even if you ignore the junk apps and the million e-books each published as a separate app, you’ve still got a solid 5-10,000 apps clamoring to grab a piece of the App Store pie. Many developers feel like the App Store is akin to high school: an anarchic and ruthless popularity contest to see who’s got the biggest, well, um, you know what I mean.

That brings us to the $2.4 billion question: how do you succeed on the App Store? We’ve spent the last few weeks trying to answer that question and have come up with a list of tips and tricks that’ll help you edge your way into App Store glory. Now, none of these will replace making a good product or compensate for a million-dollar advertising and PR budget, but they’ll likely help you get noticed or keep your current momentum.

1. In this race, the Hare beats the Tortoise. Develop fast, release often. This message was delivered loud and clear from every developer we talked to: don’t waste a lot of time on one app. Spend 1-2 months max on an app and then let that puppy go. If it sticks and users like it, iterate and release updates to keep users engaged and loyal. Dave Castelnuovo of Bolt Creative (makers of the wildly successful Pocket God) wrote a story in IndustryGamers in which he provides 10 tips to succeed on the iPhone. He writes, “Don’t expect your game to be a hit, and move on if it doesn’t fly… There are lots of really incredible games out there and even though people might give you a lot of positive feedback about yours – well, compliments are free. It’s hard to predict what people will actually buy. Just move onto the next one, keep your momentum, and focus on a new concept.” However, when you do get a hit, make sure to update frequently. The graph below from Bolt Creative’s blog shows you what an effective updates can have.

2. Make sure the price is right. If developing fast and often was the most agreed upon subject, pricing was the least. Honestly, nobody understands the mess that is pricing on the App Store. So instead of pulling a bullcrap decree out of our behind, we’ll just give you all the wisdom we heard. First, from Ian Marsh of NimbleBit: if you’re app is in the top 100, price it at $0.99. You want to get your app in the top 25, so price it low and watch it soar. Second, if it’s not in the top 100, compare yourself to other apps in the same genre: users can’t tell the difference between your app and another’s, so you kind of have to play the race-to-the-bottom. For most of you, that means you should price at $0.99. Third, watch your damn metrics. Whether you use Pinch Media or TapMetrics or some other App Store metrics provider, you should know how prices affect your app’s sales. Do the math regularly and change your price whenever its not working.

3. Show off your feathers. Back to the high school analogy: a nice pair of stilletos and some sexy lip gloss can definitely help you get noticed on the App Store. Imangi Studios, which made the top-rated Harbor Master (iTunes link), described it best at iPhoneDevCamp. They said that Harbor Master’s icon really “popped” on the App Store list, so users would notice it over other icons that were more drab or busy. They spent hours with their artist refining and perfecting the icon for Harbor Master. Ultimately, this makes sense: the icon and the name of the app are the only things a potential customer sees when browsing through the store, so you better make a good impression or you probably won’t get a second chance.

app-treasures4. Partner for success. This was perhaps the most innovative tip we heard. A group of five indie developers noticed something: all of the big shops (such as Glu, Gameloft and ngmoco) have a “More Games” section in their apps. Those sections encourage users who liked the game they’re playing to buy other games by the same developer. Well, these indie developers didn’t have enough apps to cross-promote effectively, so they decided instead to band together and create App Treasures. App Treasures is a “label for indy games” that acts as a seal of quality for these five developers. If a user is playing one of their games and likes it, they can tap the “More Games” button. Out pops a screen that promotes all of their apps – not just the app of the specific developer who made the game. This allows them to cross-promote their games and share in each other successes.

Over the past few months, as Harbor Master has stayed in the Top 25, fellow App Treasures games have seen an uptick in sales as well. The App Treasures landing page gets between 5-10,000 hits per day, and though conversion rates are small, it is still a great way to keep your app on the map. Don’t have enough developer friends to create your own mini-label? Piggy-back on another: Social Gaming Network (SGN – the dudes who made F.A.S.T.) recently announced on their website that you can partner with them to cross-promote your game in theirs. According to SGN CEO Shervin Pishevar, SGN is now on 1 in 3 iPhones + iPod Touches. Basically, even if your game gets promoted on 1/10 of those iDevices, you’ll be in good shape. If none of that works, cross-promote other games you like in your “More Games” section and earn an affiliate fee for each sale. You won’t get a whole lot of cash from it, but it’s nice to have an additional revenue stream.

5. PR isn’t all its cracked out to be. This is more of a time-saver than an App Store-buster, but still important. Every developer we talked to was surprised that getting coverage on blogs or gaming sites was hardly a boon for long-term success. Each saw a short spike in sales (usually, less than 20) after an article went out, and not much after that. Of course, firing off a few solid e-mails to game reviewers is a must-do; coverage from a well-read blog is still better than no coverage at all. However, this may mean that hiring a dedicated PR team or firm for the App Store is probably not worth it. There’s a great graph from Streaming Colour Studios below that shows exactly what effect certain review sites have had.

BONUS Half-Tip: 6. Get sponsored by Apple. Yeah, we don’t really know how to achieve this, but it’s obviously the holy grail of App Store success. The developers we interviewed agreed; one said, “Getting featured on the App Store is kind of critical to success on the App Store, but we don’t know anything about it.” Another developer said, “It’s a black hole.” Ultimately, playing nice with Apple can really boost your chances of glory so don’t forget to send them a basket of fresh-baked cookies when your app gets released. Other than that, we’ve got no clue what gets you sponsored.

All in all, this is just a snapshot of some ways to succeed on the App Store. There are definitely other great strategies, as well as counter-examples to our points above. Let us know what you think in the comments. Who knows? Maybe you’ll walk away with a nice pair of bluetooth headphones.

[Flickr / AMagill]