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Tales of an Also-Ran Part 3

I wrote Part 1 of this series almost a year ago. Then, as now, I was talking about our app Couplett. I'm returning to it now because the concept of the dual-camera app is making news and I'm a little bitter. You know the saying "a day latge and a dollar short"? Well apparently, we were a day early and... something short? Or possibly long. I'm not exactly sure.

Anyway, on March 14th Samsung announced the Galaxy 4 with something called "Couplett mode" (I'm kidding, they call it dual shot). So it seems we weren't completely off in thinking this idea had legs. Being a hardware company, samsung has designed the hardware in such a way that you can actually have both cameras active at the same time (the hardware in the iPhone/iPad can't do this unfortunatley). They've also built the dual shot functionality right into the included camera app (it even does dual video as well).

In a rare stroke of luck, Samsung made this announcement the exact same day that we relaunched Couplett in Fremium and Premium versions. Thanks to some eagle-eyed Facebook friends, I was notified of this new Galaxy phone and feature within minutes. The next morning, I waited with much anticipation to see what effect (if any) this would have on our sales. We also lucked out that the two Couplett versions were the 1st and 2nd results in a search for "dual camera" (samsung's choice of words) in both iPhone and iPad categories.

See that crazy spike? Well there you have it. Couplett seemed to be suffering from the fact that for a long time, people didn't know they wanted it. The concept being thrust into the public eye, they were now searching for it and finding it and we were reaping some benefit. I am left to assume this is when Apple also decided that dual cameras are a kinda neat idea.

How (not) to get featured on the App Store

I have to assume something like the following converstaion took place at Apple the next day:

Jeff: "Hey Bob, you see this Galaxy Phone? It takes pictures from both cameras at once."

Bob: "What? Really? Do we have any apps that do that?"

Jeff: "Lemme see." (searches for some term other than 'dual camera')

Jeff: "Yeah, there's only one. It's called DBLCAM. It's not great but it definitely takes two pictures at once. Let's feature them."

Bob: "That's enough due diligence for me, make it happen!"

They then reached out to the makers of DBLCAM to request artwork for the ZOMG ENORMOUS BANNER! that would grace the top of the photo and video page for at least a week. (I'm told this is what happens when you are going to be featured. I wouldn't actually know personally.)

I know they didn't seach for 'dual camera' because DBLCAM doesn't even come up in that list. The alternative is that someone on the review team remembered the app as it was only just released on March 1st (more than a year after Couplett).

So granting the benefit of the doubt to the feature team, let's imagine a scenario where they actually looked at both Couplett and DBLCAM as well as the handful of other apps that have sprung up in the last year (Doubleshot Photo, DuoCam, 2side Cam and Double Camera come to mind). Why would DBLCAM pop out of the pack to become the "Apple Blessed" double camera app?

We obsessed over every detail with Couplett. How can our app compliment the built-in camera app? What would the typical iPhone user expect? Couplett takes several pages from Apple's own apps like iMovie and iPhoto's slideshows with it's concepts of "themes". With just a tap take your two photos, then pinch-to-zoom the inner photo to resize it if you want, one more tap to slap a theme on it (or just stick with the default) and then save or share. After one or two versions and some feedback and iteration, we landed on what we thought was the best mix of steps and creative freedom.

At it's best, when we're not spending money to advertise, the free version of Couplett drives between 100 and 150 downloads a day with a 1-2% attach rate of purchased theme packs. Total revenue of maybe $5 a day average. Interest in the concept thanks to Samsung increased that by 200% for a couple days before it settled back down to it's previous levels (some of the bump also comes from being in the "What's New" section of the App Store whenever you release a new binary).

On the flip side, DBLCAM is in version 1.0.1 (an updated logo screen!) and performs the same function, with less control, fewer features and WAY less design. "So less is more in this case, maybe take a lesson from that," you say. Sorry, I don't buy it. By "less design" I mean stuff like using standard controls incorrectly and actions resulting in confusing results. A table view having options that open text messages, pop share sheets or kick out to other apps as well as the expected result, presenting a more specific drill down list, is sloppy.

The one thing DBLCAM seems to have going for it over Couplett is that the photos it makes are square and therefore easily Insta-sharable. And sure, I don't discount that this is a big one. Instagram is huge. But the takeaway here is being new and hipster is a better choice than being careful and Apple-like in your execution.

What's most frustrating about it is that the "Featured" area should showcase examples of good app design. Sure, show what's popular, but I've actively counseled clients not to go one way or another based on the fact that "Apple won't even consider featuring an app that does X". Apparently, I've been wrong about that. 

I used to say "It's not the idea, it's the execution," in response to people saying "you have to be first". Well in this case, they were not first, and they didn't even nail the execution. So I guess my biggest question just becomes -

Now what?


Tales of an Also-Ran Part 2

Pricing an App is a tough game. As many economists will tell you, anything is worth exactly what someone is willing to pay for it, no more. But how does someone decide what they are willing to pay, and who (or what) sways that judgment?

The current #1 app (both in games and overall) is The Room. It's a puzzle game where you must explore serveral deepening levels of puzzle boxes through intuitive yet compelling gestural controls on iPad only. It is atmospheric and strange and every level of the prodution has clearly been painstakingly considered. I played through it last night in about 2 and a half hours. It sells for $4.99.

In the great race to the bottom on the App Store, $4.99 is considered by most to be "premium pricing". It's the price you choose when you know you are going to be limiting your audience but you don't care because you know you are worth it and you know you've created something good. (Alternatively, it's the price you pick when you have millions to spend on marketing).

It's also the price at which we initially released Uncle Slam.

Let's run down a couple more things these two games share- 

  • Original Music - Check
  • iPad only (at least at launch) - Check
  • An overall cohesive art style - Check
  • Gestural controls that make full use of the touch screen - Check
  • Social elements to proclaim victory on Twitter/Facebook - Check

Now let's look at the first week performace of both:

(For those not familiar with AppFigures, the message "Ranks data is not available" means the app is not currently ranked in any way for that period)

Let's also consider for a moment what is different about these two games.

  • The Room is a single player only experience, Uncle Slam includes both single and multi-player.
  • The Room takes between 1 and 5 hours to complete. Uncle Slam probably takes about 10 hours to "complete" (assuming you take "unlocked Uncle Slam" to mean you've completed the game on normal difficulty).
  • The Room has zero replayability, Uncle Slam is a fighting game which is inherently infinitely replayable.
  • The Room has a dark and ominous vibe, Uncle Slam is more playful, cute and irreverant.
  • The Room is fairly timeless, Uncle Slam is politics-focused in the middle of an election year. 
  • The Room has been covered all over the internet as well as been featured by Apple on the App Store, Uncle Slam has not.

Where's the rest of my game? 

I was thoroughly enjoying The Room, right up to the point when I finished it. My first thought was "That's it? $4.99 for that?" Now I admit, my feelings about it are farily skewed. I know how hard it is to sell a game at $4.99 and this game, though fun while it lasted, ended far too soon. Yet it was handed media coverage and an Apple sponsorship leading to a first week revenue of at least $1.75 million.*

So who exactly decides what is worthy of coverage and an Apple-Blessed fast-track to fun and profit? We certainly tried. We spent lots of money (relatively) on advertising and marketing including direct media out-reach, "traditional" advertising (banner ads), incentivized advertsing, social marketing and viral video. And quite frankly, (if you'll allow me some conceit), Uncle Slam is a damn good game. After months of non-performance, we dove into the race to the bottom and began dropping the price while releasing additional characters to be used in the game hoping to switch eventualy to the Freemium model (which we did in August). Yet no matter what we did or do moving forward, The Room likely gets more downloads in a single day, for $4.99, than Uncle Slam has garnered in it's entire life so far, no matter the price (and including all free downloads).

The unfortunate reality I'm coming to terms with is that, despite what people constantly repeat, the App Store economy is really far more of a lottery than I think anyone really wants to admit. We all want to believe that you can build, package and market a good product and you will be successful, but I'm increasingly learning that this isn't as true as we all want it to be.


*This revenue number is derived from the assumption that, as of December 2011, it took at least 80,000 downloads a day to reach to the top 10 and The Room currently has been sitting at #1 overall for 5 days. The individual cut of at $4.99 selling price is $3.50. App Store growth over the last 9 months would imply that this download number can only have gone up making this revenue estimate extremely conservative from what I can see. 


Tales of an Also-Ran Part 1

“What I was really hoping for was to be one of those developers that started up, created a few completely forgettable apps, burned through some seed funding and then went belly up.” - no one, ever.

There are developers out there who are willing to do whatever it takes to “succeed”. We met one at GDC who told me proudly “I have bunch of guys in the Ukraine that knock out a new game for me every week”. To someone like this, success means ending the fiscal year with more money than you started with and, as far as I can see, nothing else. But for me, there is a guiding principle that I remind myself of daily-

Success is in the eye of the beholder.

It’s often said that Thomas Edison stated “I have not failed 1000 times, I have successfully discovered 1000 ways to NOT make a lightbulb”. I try to hold onto this idea as one after another of the apps that we’ve conceived of, built, and released completely fails to gain any traction. It is my firm belief that each and every one has something core to its being that is worthwhile. And every time we launch one, I’m one hundred percent convinced that it will be our Angry Birds, or Instagram. None of them has done it yet. But I believe in our ideas and I believe in the team.

Couplett is a great example. The app took way longer than you’d expect to go from concept to release - almost a full year. The reasons are many but one is that we weren’t content to simply do it - we wanted to do it right. We agonized over interface challenges, icon layout, user experience, etc. And even now, when faced with an app that isn’t making money, I’m hesitant to slap ads all over it since I think it would be ugly and detract from the experience.

So how long do you just sit back and trust that the next one will be “the one”? Or worse, when do you decide that none of them will ever be the one because you’re not willing to shovel crapware just to “get ahead” in any way you can?

Or worse still, when do you look at your work and realize that none of them is “the one” because none of them are good enough to be the one?

But there’s a problem with option 3 - when I compare any one of our apps with the top 100, I realize that most of them are as good or better, but there’s just something missing. What is that something? What takes an app from “also-ran” to success?