Avoiding iPhone Game Obscurity

There is no shortage of iPhone developers. There is no shortage of iPhone applications. With over 100,000 apps, there is no shortage of extra features. It makes me wonder how I ever lived without my iPhone. I use Google Maps to get around. I share picture perfect moments using the Facebook App. I use the Subway Map app to get around NYC. I use Shazam’s tiny elfin librarians to tell me the name of songs. I use the Chase Mobile App to check account balances.

You name it, there’s an app for that. A year from now, you name it, and there will be apps for that and the ten other things you didn’t think of.

These are all conveniences iPhones owners have enjoyed. I have taken these services for granted. I don’t worry about where anything is anymore, I can find it on Google Maps. All of this convenience is fantastic for the consumer, while those trying to sell apps on the iPhone are finding it harder to stand out.

The most competitive category is Games. There are few categories as popular as the Games section of the App Store. There are more Games than any other category. At over 20,000 strong, avoiding obscurity will be a challenge.

But not only that, you need to have a lasting impression. You may have created the hottest iPhone game to date but, what is going to stop someone from releasing a $.99 clone? How do you ensure a cheaper clone isn’t going to eat away at your sales and market share?

Take the once popular iShoot. It made $800,000 in five months and prompted its creator, Ethan Nicholas, to leave his job at Sun Microsystems. iShoot has since been buried by competitors and copycats. Nicholas says it’s “terrifying” and that iShoot’s success was “pure luck”.

Pure luck is not going to work for a business selling games on the App Store. Relying on luck to run a business is the surest way to the land of businesses-that-were. And I’m not sure all businesses go to heaven.

Luckily, the solution is as old as time: marketing. Why do you buy Tide instead of Acme Brand? They may have exactly the same quality and stain fighting power but, Acme Brand isn’t going to hold a candle to the power of Tide.

There was a time when only a handful of games were on the App Store. The best games sold well in those prehistoric times. Those days are long gone. You can release a game on the App Store tomorrow and it’ll be in the company of a hundred other games. Only a small fraction of all iPhone users are going to know your game came out. People can’t buy what they don’t know about!

This is logical reasoning but, not everyone is on board. In an interview with Wired, Austin Sarner, CEO of Design by a Knife, said this:

“Basically everybody’s on the same level once they submit an iPhone app. Unlike traditional marketing, there’s no ad campaign: A user just sees what he sees in the iPhone store, and the applications kind of have to sell themselves to some extent.”

Sarner’s philosophy is that great content drives App Store success and not “marketing.” Sarner is a developer by profession so this an understandable point of view. Sarner confuses advertising with marketing and doesn’t realize that developing a great product is a fundamental function of marketing.

It is inaccurate that there is no advertising behind iPhone games. EA didn’t come to the party without their advertising muscle. And with hundreds of games being added to the App Store every week, the clutter alone will make you invisible no matter how good your game is.

It is suicide to release an app and hope it will be magically discovered. Only 7% of iPhone users download through iTunes, 62% knew what they wanted, 60% browsed the top lists, and 46% were from word of mouth according to AdMob. The 62% who knew what they wanted heard it somewhere first. It didn’t come to them in a dream.

If you are convinced that making the greatest iPhone game in the world, releasing it to the App Store, and then  praying it will sell is a viable strategy, I have two words for you: good luck. You are going to need it.

However, if you want a viable business, there is a better way.

Game developers worldwide will disagree and hate this but, marketing has to be part of the development process from day one. You can’t create a game and then sprinkle some marketing pixie dust as an after thought. That’s the equivalent of wearing a blindfold, spinning around a few times, and then trying to hit a pinata. You have no idea where the target is. You are going to miss.

The development process starts with an audience. You need to target someone. You don’t need to go after the same audience as everyone else, but you need an audience. Who is going to buy your game? You need to make a game for them. You can make a game for yourself, but that’s not a business–it’s a hobby. Doing things in that fashion means it’ll always be a hobby.

Your game needs to be characteristic of your company brand–your company does have a brand right? There is a reason EA has multiple brands. Each brand has its own image and their games reflect that. EA Games caters to a more traditional audience, EA Sports develops games for the sports audience, and EA Play is solely focused on the casual market.

Engage with the community. If your audience is there, you need to be there engaging them: blogs, forums, YouTube videos, LinkedIn groups, Facebook groups, etc. If your audience is there, you need to be there. Being engaged does not mean spamming. Join the conversations and use your company as the name of contact or end each comment noting your company. Don’t be obnoxious. Be informative, helpful, and provide useful discourse.

Marketing your game is a full-time job. People who solely work on the development side find this difficult to swallow. In their world, they are doing the hard work. Their point of view isn’t without merit. Without them, there would be no product at all.

To make things worse, it is difficult to accurately measure the impact marketing has on your business. You may never know how or if someone who interacts with your marketing ends up buying your product. In fact, they might not buy your product at all. They might talk to ten other people about their experience with your company and then one or more within those ten may end up buying. We cannot accurately measure this.

For people who are used to concrete and visible patterns, marketing may as well be voodoo. However, this doesn’t make marketing less important. It does mean marketing requires a different mindset than that of development.

Social medias has allowed us to monitor our audience’s thoughts, concerns, and feelings in real time. This lets us adjust our marketing efforts on the fly if it isn’t working or is having a negative effect. You need to be constantly monitoring your audience. It isn’t just a matter of marketing during a release–you will end up like iShoot. Cultivate your audience and develop a community.

Infinity Ward, the makers of Call of Duty, understands the importance of a strong community. They have a community manager, Robert Bowling, whose sole job is to monitor the Call of Duty audience. Without him, Modern Warfare 2 may not have become the highest grossing entertainment release of all time. The game would have done well no matter what. Call of Duty has a history, the first Modern Warfare was excellent, the hype surrounding Modern Warfare 2 was spectacular, it was a high quality product, and Call of Duty is a known entity–a brand. But, would it have done as well without marketing? Of course, we can never actually measure it but, I’m willing to bet marketing made the difference between one of the highest grossing and the highest grossing.

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