I’m out of “Office” …

On August 30, 2010, in Announcements, by Steffen Itterheim

Or, in other words, I’ll be away from home (which happens to be my office) from Tuesday (tomorrow) to and including Friday for a much needed short vacation. That is to say I’ll probably be unresponsive for the rest of the week and I’ll catch up on emails next week, please be patient.

At one day I’ll be visiting the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, the world’s largest model railroad exhibition, on Wednesdy or Thursday. On the off-chance that you’re in the Wunderland too and would like to meet me in person, send me an email. Maybe we find a time to meet up and have a quick chat and connect. Speaking of meeting, I’ll also hold a cocos2d presentation (in german) at this year’s Macoun conference in Frankfurt, October 2nd and 3rd where I’d be happy to meet up with you, if you happen to be there. And in general, if you’re able to come to Mainz we can meet up just to connect and talk about experiences, like I recently did with Johannes Seidel from Blacksmith Games. That was a meeting I enjoyed very much, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that he was also the person behind the AppventCalendar, which essentially spawned Free App A Day (run by someone else). He also had some great marketing ideas that helped make his game Plushed a success (before you ask: it’s made with Unity). And it’s a deserved success. Definetely watch out for more games from him, and follow him on Twitter.

Those developer experiences and life stories are very inspiring and a fun thing to hear and talk about. I’ve been reading a lot of Paul Graham’s Essays once again because he’s the go-to guy for those kinds of experiences in writing, and I bought Founders at Work for exactly the same reason. Motivation, inspiration and thinking outside the box. For that I’m very happy that I can read those essays, docs and eBoos on my wirelessly (meaning: no wifi) iPad by using Instapaper and GoodReader for eBooks. Have I ever used iBooks? No, I don’t need it thanks to these two excellent iPad Apps.

Before I sound too much like a product marketer … I’ll see/hear/write/email you next week!

A marketing oversight on my part …

On August 26, 2010, in Marketing, Speaking From Experience, by Steffen Itterheim

I noticed that most of my recent posts revolve around the cocos2d book. It’s so very easy to forget one’s online presence while you’re frantically working on projects. I’ve seen it countless times and I don’t want to fall into the same trap. That is: create, create, create and then: announce. Boom. No one’s interested anymore. Everyone moved on. You lost your share of the Internet attention span. That certainly would be a shame because besides the book, I was working on other things over the past two months and I’m looking forward to making an announcement in the coming months. I think it will strike a similar nerve than the cocos2d book did. But it’s not limited to cocos2d, so it’ll get its own website, that much I can say. And yes, I love to tease. :)

I think programmers are especially prone to making the mistake of neglecting their online presence, their virtual alter ego that lives on the Internet 24/7. It’s all too easy to become deeply engrossed with what you’re working on, particularly if it’s a very technical thing. Once you’re done you get a burst of satisfaction and then you’re looking for the next fix which of course is spending more time on the project. In the meantime everyone else around you, and on the Internet that means blog readers, are wondering what you’re up to. If it goes on for a while without actually producing something, readers will stop wondering and start not caring anymore.

Numerous times have I read that you need to start marketing as soon as you start creating. At least that’s true for Indie developers. And how many times have I seen people fail at this? All too frequently. Typical scenario: our game is done, now how do we go about the marketing? Your blog should be your marketing instrument from day one. The other negligence for marketing simply stems from a deeply rooted repulsion for promoting one’s efforts and products. I certainly feel that too but I manage to live with it because it helps me strike a balance. I could only make a sales pitch like this one if I was primarily in it for the money (sorry Matt, that’s the impression the site is giving me because it’s too close for comfort to Internet marketer sites).

Most blogs die before they have even started. It’s hard to get readers attention in the first place but I think it’s much harder not to lose them over time. I learned it’s finding the right mixture of blog posts that will create the most interest and attention to readers, a careful balance that one needs to strike. Let me explain the categories of blog posts which I think are valuable but, if not mixed in with other categories, may be too niche to keep readers coming back more often. Unless you explicitly target a tiny niche, in that case a focused approach works quite well.

Concrete Learning Posts

Bloggers who provide sample source code and solutions for a particular platform fall into this category. You write a small tutorial or just a quick fix for a particular technology issue. The good side is that it shows off skill (sometimes) and that you’re being helpful. The downside of these posts is that, especially in the case of Tutorials, they attract a great number of readers but few will stay or come back. Smaller code solutions and quick fixes often get reader’s attention only through google, they copy the code and are gone. The blogosphere is saturated with information everyone needs to learn, because most of us are still learning. What’s often missing are the really hardcore ideas. Take that example and it makes me wonder, could this work to get cocos2d nodes to support NSCoding just by applying this concept? I’d love to try but I don’t have any need for that and it’s on the roadmap anyway.

The problem with the smaller code snippet posts, as I see it, is that they are often only losely related. You may find just the right piece of information but the rest may be too straightforward and already known to you that you don’t give it much value. Posts like these better fit on Q&A sites like stackoverflow.com. Also, before posting those bits of wisdom it may be wise to check if that information isn’t ubiquitious. Chances are someone else came to the same solution months before you. Posting what others have posted numerous times before does devalue your blog. In that case prefer a post that sums up all the other great posts on the topic. That works so much better since you’ll be sharing your own research.

And definitely share your current development status. I love those work-in-progress posts. I’ll be writing more of these in the future.

Concrete Experience Posts

You may be surprised how interesting your (development) life’s experiences can be. About a year ago I started a german Spieleentwicklerveteranen (Game Development Veterans) Podcast, in which I simply told my experiences within the game industry. How games come to be, what life is like as a game developer, why people start working for a games company and which kind of experiences they may be going through, from good to bad. Just a very hands-on, personal opinion approach with a couple anecdotal stories. I only produced two episodes though, mostly due to lack of planning and because it’s not really that much fun to do a podcast without a regular, reliable partner. Yet to this day I frequently get emails asking me for the next podcast.

Readers love to read and hear about experiences for two reasons: either they are less experienced than you are, and get a glimpse at what it must be like to be at your level. Or they actually are at the same level than you are, and they can relate. Suddenly they’re not so alone anymore.

Recently I spoke to a former colleague of mine who set out to write his own game, I think he has all the necessary skills and he certainly had the motivation and drive to go through with it. But as time passes by, and he kept working all by himself and more often than he wanted to, faced serious technological challenges that hindered his game’s progress. Not being able to actually talk to like-minded people and getting tips from a range of professions, as we were both used to during our time at game development studios, can be a serious motivation killer. And you guessed it, he has no blog and not even a Twitter account.

For me, one thing to fight off incoming demotivational phases is to converse with the people out there and blog my experiences, at least once in a while. I like helping others answer their question because I know how it sucks to be stuck, I also learn valuable lessons from it and I feel good to be able to help or at least nudge developers in the right direction. It also leads me to think in different directions and helps connecting the dots, so that’s where the interesting experience stories are actually born. Wait a second, I was in the exact same spot back then …

I believe experiences, if they provide a meaningful resolution are the most valuable blog posts anyone could write. But those don’t come natural to most developers (or people in general – but I’m not saying that developers != people). So that’s a conundrum. We programmers love the DRY principle (if you don’t you’re not a programmer yet), but that doesn’t translate to blogging and even less to marketing. Like my Starterkit, I know I should mention it more often to make a decent number of sales over the coming months yet the programmer in me tells me that, oh well, those who’ll like it will find it regardless. Trust me, they don’t. I am tempted to mention it more often, at least on Twitter, and maybe give away some promo codes or get someone to write a review. But what to say about it? Look, it’s here. The same thing from last week. Oh great. Yeah, I think you get the picture. It’s really hard to REPEAT YOURSELF without becoming obnoxious. We all know the kind. Personally, I don’t follow Twitter accounts whose tweets mention their own product(s) about 50% of the time or more, unless they provide interesting insights into their work.

Ramblings aka Opinion Pieces

Everyone loves to have an opinion. It’s very easy, tempting and almost natural to start blogging with a lot of opinion pieces. I started in 2007 with my gaminghorror.net blog and almost all early posts were opinion pieces. I think that, unless you know exactly what you’re talking about and can construct a careful argument, that those kind of posts can easily backfire. Either you’re an expert and a critical thinker and you are able to dissect your thoughts into constructive opinion, or else you risk being regarded as a loudmouthed idiot who doesn’t know squat. There’s a fine line to walk. Certainly no one cares about whether you like a certain product or technology more than another, or yet another opinion on the same issue unless you can provide a new, fresh argument. But if you have an actual pet-peeve, something that comes from your heart and that just totally goes against everything you believe in, that’s what should become a great insightful blog post.

For example, one of my pet peeves is to fight off the Piracy Problem by saying it doesn’t really exist. Except in our minds. We don’t have a piracy problem, we have a perception problem. We just make ourselves believe that most of the time piracy is bad for business. There is a real threat but it has a much less impact than the piracy numbers lead us to believe once you factor in human behavior. For App developers it’s widely understood and appreciated that, once their App is free for a day, the downloads jump through the roof. Ten or even 100 times more downloads for free than at the $.79 price point. Yet when we consider piracy, we see great numbers exactly because the software is free yet we forget to consider that, if any pirated software would cost just $.79 the piracy numbers would drop at least ten-fold. I can’t prove it, but I sure as hell believe it because that’s how software piracy works. It’s not a market, it’s a movement that exists only because there is no money involved, set aside a few scrupulous industrial pirates.

Paul Graham puts it best in his essay What you can’t say. It’s the things that might (or will) get you in trouble which perhaps should, or must, be said. The ideas that people fear might be true. Like Galileo’s moving earth theory. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

Conclusion

So what am I saying, I forgot to market myself? Not quite, I’d rather see it as an invitation. By writing more blog posts and allowing anyone who is interested to literally “read my mind” I invite you to take part. And dozens of developers have taken this offer so far.

I get a lot of emails and I answer all of them, even if it takes me a couple days to get to each and every one of them. There are valuable exchanges of information and knowledge and some of that would be of a general interest. But because I spend the time writing to a single person I tend to write less blog posts to a greater audience. I make observations and find solutions all the time and learn from them. Some of that actually goes into the book as I’m writing it. But what I should do more is to let everyone in on more of my insights or simply what I’m up to.

When I look at this website from an outsider’s point of view, I see too much focus on the book right now. A few valuable posts in between but not enough for my taste. I have a tendency that, once I start writing, I write a lot. This is bad because it costs a lot of time and effort. So I avoid it too often. Yet, often times it’s the tiny pieces that can be just as important. Because your time is valuable, too!

Going forward I vouch to write at least one blog post per week that’s not about the cocos2d book, and may not even be about cocos2d specifically, like this post, but still generally interesting to iOS game developers of course.

I also need to write shorter posts. The sun is setting … again?!?! 😮

Starterkit Price Drop, Sales Numbers

On August 16, 2010, in Announcements, Marketing, by Steffen Itterheim

The important bit first: the price of the Line-Drawing Starterkit is back at $179!

The simple reason: customers voted with their wallet, it sold zero units at the $299 price point over the last two weeks while people kept asking me for rebates and price drops. I clearly misjudged the value proposition of the Starterkit and how much potential customers would be willing to spend.

About Thinking, Learning and Knowing

I’m going to be upfront about the sales numbers because I want to be instructive and convey the lesson’s I learned. I also find these numbers posts very intriguing myself. One of the things I love about working under my own terms is that I can choose how transparent you want to be. I feel there’s more to gain from transparency, being open and upfront, and sharing what you know then there is to lose.

I’ve actually been told a few times that you can’t sell to cocos2d developers. Which I find astonishing. “I don’t think there are sufficient willing customers” was the one sentence I received in an email which I find most telling. Thinking is not knowing. Thinking is: not knowing! Trying and not succeeding is ok, but thinking and not even trying is not. The former you might regret financially but seldom will you regret having done it. The latter is just being complacent and accepting the status quo, or simply a reluctance of pursuing unconventional business ideas.

I can only say: I’ve learned a lot from running this website over the past 4 months. Certainly more valuable lessons and knowledge than from most of the books I own, and the above selection is just a fraction of my library. They are the books I hold most dear and are most relevant to my work right now, including Stephen Hawking’s Universe in a Nutshell as the perfect separator between left-brain (hard skill) and right-brain (soft skill) books. It puts everything in the proper perspective. I certainly didn’t expect to learn some of the lessons nor was it easy to deal with the very unexpected ones, but I did nevertheless. The good part about the hard lessons is that they make me think even harder to learn what I need to know to understand. I also have a bunch more unconventional ideas now. And I grok Invictus.

The Numbers

The Line-Drawing Game Starterkit has been on sale (40% off back then) from July 10th to August 1st, that’s 23 days. From July 10th until the public announcement on July 20th the sales were limited to my Newsletter subscribers, close to 670 people were given the password to access the sales page at the time.

When I formed the idea of selling a Starterkit, I punched some numbers about website traffic, pricing, conversion rates, looking at other products, thinking of what certain indicators could mean, why people are having success and why others don’t. Being a pessimist I came to about 3 sales per month if the price is around $200. That would have been nice, and would have allowed me a return of investment in less than 6 months. And when I was optimistic I thought I could be making up to 5-10 sales per month, perhaps by being featured prominently. I definitely had enough positive indicators to go ahead and try making and selling the Starterkit and being sufficiently convinced that it’ll have a positive impact, financially and otherwise.

The reality is that I sold 30 copies at $179 each within 23 days! Way, way more than my expectations. See the screenshot of the payment report to the left for the monetary details. Note that the first section with 3 sales were test sales by myself, so that amount should be deducted from the total. Also, 30 times $179 does not equal the sum on the bill because surcharge fees depending on the payment method have already been deducted. Net sales is the amount after Plimus took their share, which is close to 5% if I remember correctly.

I estimated my return of investment (break even) at about $4,000. So overall it’s not bad. Not bad at all given that I made all those sales in 23 days instead of months.

The downside to this story is that after setting the price high at $299 I did not make a single sale in the past 2 weeks! This price point seems past a certain pain threshold that developers are feeling comfortable spending. Customers voted with their wallets and I basically killed my own business by modifying just one (crucial) aspect of it. I was my own worst enemy by making a wrong judgement call.

And of course I’ll try to fix it: from this day on forward the Starterkit’s regular price will be back at $179! It has proven to sell at this price point and I’m hoping to see sales pick up again. Despite this no-sales period of over 2 weeks the Starterkit earned me $120 per day on average, or an hourly rate of $15 assuming a regular 8-hour work day.

The Future

If it turns out that continued sales from the Starterkit allow me to live off it, I’m going to run this website full-time in the near future. That means more free stuff, more intriguing blog posts and every once in a while a new commercial product that targets very specific unfulfilled needs of cocos2d game developers. You might consider the cocos2d book to be one of these commercial products, and I intend to improve it after press by listening to reader’s feedback and filling any holes with free Tutorials and FAQ entries on this website. It will be a book that continues to get written.

More Lessons to learn

If you want to learn some business & marketing lessons in general I recommend reading The Long Tail to understand how niche markets work and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion for a lesson in marketing which I find important to understand both from the seller’s and the customer’s point of view. The Long Tail was instrumental for me to actually become comfortable with the thought of selling a product to a niche audience and why that idea might just work. But also instrumental because I just keep shaking my head when I read the naive comments of some people. That’s also where how to deal with critics comes in handy.

About App Store whiners, again …

On June 9, 2010, in Mobile Business, by Steffen Itterheim

WOS Blog has a post online which really sums up well how i look at the App Store:

“Don’t believe anyone who whines that it’s hard to make money with a really good game on the App Store, viewers. They’re either lying, or imbeciles, or both.”

It’s called How not to do it and covers some basis of why certain Apps succeed while others fall by the wayside. Sometimes it’s a matter of beating someone to the market, other times to learn from other’s mistakes, but mostly to price your Apps fairly.

A while ago i read about Indie game developers who eventually thought it would be a good idea to spend 3-6 months on their next game, to sell the App by means of quality and content. While there are chances that this will work and even reward you greatly money-wise, it also increases your risks by several factors. You’re going down the same path that leads to similar problems of the AAA game developers, albeit on a much smaller scale. It’s a hit-driven business. If you did moderately well on your 1-2 month games, and then you do a 3-6 month game, your chances of making it a success get slimmer and slimmer. It does help to understand the market and marketing but even that won’t help you if the game doesn’t vibe with players.

So, would you rather have a less than 50% chance of making it (relatively) big, or a 100% chance of doing moderately well?

Of course, if you can keep running the 100% part of your business you should really consider making the bet. But if you have no money to spare you should stick with moderately well and instead keep pumping out moderately well doing games. Make 8 of those over the year and you got yourself a respectable business nonetheless.

I wonder what happened to those Indies and their “big project”? Hmmm …

If you think your game suffers tremendeously from App Store Piracy, you’re wrong. To put it bluntly: your game has simply failed on the market!

Reports that put the App Store piracy rates at “at least 60%” and developers reporting piracy rates of 80% and even up to 95% are mathematically correct but what they often forget to tell you are actual sales numbers. In the rare cases where Indie developers also mention how many sales they have made, pirates or not, these numbers are always extremely low. For a commercial developer who reports an 80% piracy rate on one of his games it’s simply an attempt to turn terrible sales into a PR story which might give their game a little bit more attention. In fact, i expect the games who report piracy rates of over 30% to have sold no more than 5,000 copies. At $.99 this creates a revenue of $3,500 – maybe a good number for a two-man team but a catastrophe for a commercial developer. This is hardly a problem caused by piracy but a simple failure of the product on the market.

What you have to understand about Software Pirates in general: they use a lot of software. In fact, this is their hobby and favorite passtime, to try out as much software as they can get their hands on. So you will always have a minimum amount of pirated copies of each piece of software, no matter how successful this software is (or not). Of course, with higher success and more sales of the software more pirates are also likely to use it because they, too, value quality software. But given the amount of jailbroken iPhone devices prepared to run pirated software there’s a hard cap of the maximum amount of piracy you will ever see on any title. Just as much as there will be a minimum number of pirates playing every game as soon as it becomes available and regardless of how successful it is on the App Store. If your sales are close or below that minimum number of pirates, you naturally get piracy rates of over 50%. These pirates don’t cut into your revenue however. Ignore them. They never would have bought your App in the first place!


David Rosen from Wolfire reports in his Another View on Piracy article that the highest number of Jailbroken iPhones worldwide is said to be 10%, and in the USA – whose users constitute about two thirds of the iPhone/iPod market – the number of jailbroken devices is just 5%. Assuming a total installed base of 75 Million iPhones (50 Mio. as of April 2010) and iPod touches (20 Mio. as of Sept. 2009) we get at most 7.5 Mio jailbroken devices worldwide, or approximately 2.5 Mio jailbroken devices in the USA. They are not all pirates, however. PinchMedia reports that 38% of jailbroken devices have run at least one pirated App. They also state this number is low. So let’s just take half and we’ll end up with 3.75 Mio. jailbroken devices worldwide which have run at least one pirated App. Still a pretty high number – but it only tells us that they have started one pirated App but not how many or how much of a pirate these users really are. If i had to guess i would say that 10% or just about 400,000 of these users are active pirates who try out a lot of Apps on an almost daily basis. These are the pirates who make the biggest impact in terms of per-App piracy numbers. They are also the users who are least likely to upgrade their pirated copy to a legal one, if they ever do it at all. And trying to fight these pirates is anything but futile – they will never be your customers!

PinchMedia also supports my theory that most Pirates try out as much Software as they can which, of course, leaves less time to use each App intensely: “Pirated applications are used less frequently, less intensely, and for a shorter overall length of time than purchased applications.”

Let’s go back to the gist of it: developers who have a problem with App Store Piracy have, in my opinion, either a problem of perception or they’re making a simple PR statement aimed at getting them more attention, hoping to achieve better sales. The developers who suffer most from App Store Piracy are those who simply are not successful. Their real problem isn’t Piracy, it’s much more likely that they failed either at Marketing, Timing, Quality or finding their Target Audience.

Let me sum this up with a simple chart which i think explains why App Store developers report amazingly high piracy rates, when in fact they are reporting the commercial failure of their App:

Bad user reviews and comments can actually be a good thing

On May 20, 2010, in Marketing, by Steffen Itterheim

Bad reviews, or simply trash talking and bad-mouthing, can have a positive effect on your game, and yourself. Don’t be overly concerned if some idiots voice their BS and drag down your review score. If you value what you do and others see that value, the positive effect of some bad rep is simply that it encourages others to voice their opinion in favor of the product and you. The things you should not do, however, is to be overly protective and try to remove such posts. That will only serve to earn you disrespect from everyone because freedom of speech is a much higher value. If disrespected, it will earn you much more disrespect in return. If you’re in doubt whether what’s been said is offensive, keep it online until someone complains. The more absurd and unreasonable negative comments are the more happier should be, and you’ll quickly notice other users jumping in to make their case. You, on the other hand, should stay out of it. React to the positive comments, ignore the bad-mouthing and trash-talking that is only targeted to lure you out in the open.

Applied to the App Store, where you have no control over the bad reviews other than complaining about them in your blog: don’t do it. No one cares about your whining on bad reviews. They happen. If your game is really good, it will get good reviews. The bad ones will only serve to encourage others to post their opinion and they often provide good reasons not to listen to “those jerks”. The other bad reviews which are clearly not from idiots you should hold dearly. They contain valuable criticism about your product. It will help you improve. Nothing is more powerful than a dissatisfied customer or someone who was simply disappointed which you were able to turn to your side by listening and reacting to their criticism. People love to criticize, but even more so they love when someone is actually listening and making changes in their favor.

Caveat: some people will always criticize no matter what. And some will always know how to make things even better. Those are the kind of people who could sway you into feature-creep, don’t listen to them, they’ll kill your product the more you try to make it theirs. And some will be jerks for live and just randomly change their opinions on a daily basis, probably based on what they heard or read today, or whether they were drinking or not, or whether today’s weather is good or bad. Listen only to the feedback that is voiced most often, which others agree on and which is consistent.

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Update to Marketing FAQ

On May 6, 2010, in Marketing, by Steffen Itterheim

I just published an update to the Marketing FAQ beginning with the lesson Your Privacy isn’t.

Those are mostly thoughts i had while i was cleaning out my Twitter list (who i am following) to make room for all the much more interesting people who are now following me because of this new cocos2d website. The Twitter celebrities had to go to make room for you! :)

It never actually crossed my mind that the Marketing FAQ would be so popular. For me it was a last minute addition to the cocos2d FAQs from a spontaneous thought. I’ll make sure to update Marketing and PR more frequently. I certainly learned a lot about it while i was busy with my colleagues getting an iPhone game company startup funded for the better part of 2009.

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They Make Apps – get listed!

On May 4, 2010, in Marketing, by Steffen Itterheim

Check out my profile on TheyMakeApps. It’s a cool site to get listed on if you do iPhone or Mobile Development in general.

They have a free account and a commercial which costs a whopping $89 per month. Given how frequented the site is i think for some developers it can be worth it but most should be ok with the free account. Once you have customers you should try to make them feel happy and foster that connection – if it is a good one. It’s much easier to close a deal with someone you know and worked with rather than finding another contractor. But to make the first connections a place like TheyMakeApps can be pure gold!

Before you create your own profile, take a look at the existing ones and check which you find the most impressive. Make sure you sell yourself well. A one-liner “I’m a programmer, i can make iPhone Apps.” just won’t cut it. Remember, you’re selling yourself, so put on that Marketing hat before you write.

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