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Plugged In

Tips for hitting it big with an iPhone game

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Tiny Tower (Credit: Nimblebit)

When Apple threw open the doors of its App Store in 2008, we all figured it would be big. But for a number of amateur game developers, it's been a veritable goldmine.

Steve Demeter, developer of Trism, was one of the first independent developers to hit it big, making millions in just a few months from his cheap and cheerful puzzle game. Many more have followed in his footsteps. So what would it take for you to do the same?

First up, you'll need to register as an Apple developer and learn the ins and outs of the iOS programming  tools -- but that's the easy part. What's not so straightforward is going from that great game idea in your head to a million-selling App Store smash. Here are some thoughts how to make your dream a reality, courtesy of some of the folks who have already done just that.

Can you really get rich from a 99-cent app?

Sure you can. Just ask Bryan Mitchell, currently of LittleBox Apps.

One day he was writing apps on the side and making ends meet doing odd jobs for his father. The next, he was an App Store smash, thanks to Geared, his iOS puzzle game that so far has amassed over a million dollars in revenue.

"It's very surreal going from making $20,000 a year with $40,000 in credit card debt to making 10-20 times that amount and suddenly being able to pay your rent every month without even thinking about it," he reminisces. "I had almost zero expectations when I released Geared, because my first seven apps were a total failure. With quite a bit of luck on my side, it skyrocketed to the top, and my life was changed overnight."

Start small, and be ready to fail.

The App Store is littered with hit games that were developed in a few weeks and with tiny budgets. It's as close as you're going to get to a level playing field -- so you can go in with a simple, cheap, and quick game. In fact, it may be best to do just that, even if you do have more time and money to sink into your debut.

"I think the biggest mistake new developers make is investing too much in their very first title," says Ian Marsh, co-owner of Nimblebit, the developer behind iOS hits like Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes. "Chances are your first game isn't going to be your big hit, so the best thing you can do is treat your first game or two as learning experiences."

"Developing many smaller games over a few months each at first gave us a ton of experience and knowledge about mobile games and the App Store," Marsh says -- and that's expertise that would ultimately carry Nimblebit to an enviable eight-figure App Store haul, and an only marginally less enviable iPhone Game of the Year award from Apple in 2011.

Make the most of the platform.

Gaming on the iPhone and iPad has one major difference to just about any other games platform in existence: there are no physical buttons, or none you can realistically use to play a game. Embrace that, says Bryan Mitchell.

"A lot of games try to separate themselves from the touchscreen by adding awful artificial d-pads and virtual controls to their games, rather than taking advantage of the innovative touch screen that all of these new smartphones have," he says. "Going into Geared, I wanted a game that could take advantage of the ability to directly manipulate things... I think people responded to the unique gameplay there."

Get the right hook.

Forget creating another standard shooter or cookie-cutter platform game. You need a creative hook to truly succeed on the App Store, and one that's apparent right from the start.

"The first 30 seconds of gameplay are the most important," says Nimblebit's Marsh. "With an almost infinite choice of alternatives out there, your game has to grab players quickly and convince them that your game is worth their time."

Think of it as the equivalent of a novel's opening sentence. The clock starts ticking as soon as you hit the icon.

"All of these games now seem to have two or three splash screens with 10 second load times," complains Mitchell. "People want to be able to pick up the game and play it while in line at a bank for 20 seconds and be able to put the game back in their pocket immediately without any consequences to the gameplay."

Don't be afraid of the big boys.

With the likes of EA, Ubisoft, and Square-Enix cranking out lots of high-budget iOS games, the App Store is big, big business these days. Even so, it's far from 'game over' for the bedroom developer, as this month's success-story 10000000 (a match-three game developed by a tiny London studio) demonstrates impressively.

"Little guys have time and passion," says Mitchell. "More passion than most people with a day job end up having, and so you work harder and more efficiently, and so you still have a chance. When you're working for yourself, you have so much drive."

Promote, promote, promote.

Gone are the days when any sufficiently good iOS game could rise to the top on its own merits. So says Jo Overline, developer of Ugly Meter, a number-one charting paid app that has cleared over $1 million.

"People think that they can just make a game and put it out there and it will sell," he says. "There are over half a million apps in the store now. You have to market to stand out."

That doesn't necessarily mean spending a fortune on ads -- Overline dismisses banner ads as "ineffective and a waste of money" -- but it does mean getting creative. His app is fortunate to have a close-to-the-bone theme (it rates your attractiveness, or lack thereof, based on your photo) that guarantees it ladlefuls of free exposure from the media, but even if you're not boasting an advantage like that there's plenty you can do on a small budget.

"You have to do everything you can to promote it with whatever time or money you have," Mitchell says. "You can't just post to your Facebook, telling your 15 friends with iPhones that your new game is out." Be it social marketing, posting on mobile gaming forums, cross-promoting from other games, or mailing out press releases, every little thing can help.

And sometimes, nothing but luck splits the hits from the misses.

Tempting as it is to overanalyze App Store descriptions, a game's screenshots, or even its icon artwork, the sad truth is the difference between success and obscurity is often just a roll of the dice.

"It's depressing to think it since this is our business, but with the size of the App Store now, you can't be successful without a lot of luck, which unfortunately is the one thing out of our control," says Overline.

He should know. The original version of Ugly Meter took him three hours to make, and earned millions. Some of his other games have taken months and earned less than $100, he admits, but he's not giving up. Overline's next game -- which he's developing together with Geared's Bryan Mitchell -- will be a larger project, a "huge" iOS role-playing game he describes as "revolutionary." It's projected for a March release.

Will it be worth the investment? There's no correlation between the success of a game and the time and money spent on it, Mitchell observes. Even for iOS millionaires like these, there are no sure bets -- and no substitute for good fortune.

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