Confessions of an iPhone game maker

The following article is reprinted from the Casual Friday blog at PCWorld.com.

Blocked for the iPhone

Joel Rosenberg isn’t exactly a household name, but if you goof around on your iPhone, you’ve probably downloaded his addictive puzzle game, Blocked ( ). The increasingly brain-busting block-shifter sells for $1.

Have you ever wondered what goes into making, marketing, and selling an iPhone app? Rosenberg, an online citizen journalist for the Sacramento Press and coder by night, took the hot seat to answer a few questions.

Read more…

PC World: Let’s get the big question out of the way. Will you be able to retire based off the success of your first game?

Joel Rosenberg: Although I really enjoyed developing and selling my first iPhone game, I’m happy where I am right now.

PCW: But you have had some success…

JR: Well, when I was number one for that nice little period last month, I was seeing 10,000 to 15,000 downloads a day. But even at number ten they dropped off significantly, and two months ago I was selling 5 to 15 units a day, so it’s hard to make predictions.

PCW: That’s not shabby at all. How much of that 99-cent sale do you get?

JR: Apple gives developers a 70 percent cut of the sales across the board, so about 69 cents.

PCW: You aren’t rethinking your career?

JR: I feel like seeing success on the App Store requires some good design and programming, and a great deal of hard work, but too much is left up to chance for a one-man development shop to earn a steady living. I’ll make another iPhone app in the future, but if I stick with it, it’s because I’m doing something I love as a hobby first and foremost. If it makes money, great. If not, well, there’s no loss or disappointment. However, if my next app is as successful as this one, maybe I’ll change my tune.

PCW: In the meantime, though, not too bad.

JR: Yeah, I’d fall into the category of the hobbyist who was fortunate with his first attempt. That said, I’ve been developing professionally for ten years or so. I decided to make an iPhone app mostly out of curiosity; I wanted to learn a new language and explore Mac development.

Creating a Game on a New OS

PCW: Considering this was your first time with a new OS, how long did it take you to make Blocked? Was it difficult?

JR: I’d say somewhere between 40 and 80 hours over the course of a month or so in my free time. There was a bit of a learning curve in the transition from Web development to device development, but Apple has done a great job getting the average developer up and running quickly.

Apple organized a set of tutorials, sample code, and documentation that seemed to be directed just to people like me: developers from other backgrounds who were trying their hand at mobile development for the first time. Those bite-size chunks helped me learn just what I needed in order to get my app started.

I spent most of my time in the beginning and final stages of development. I really wanted the interface to be simple and polished, so as I neared completion, I removed features I initially thought were useful but ended up distracting from the core purpose of the game. The proper iPhone development cycle should start with a lot of thought and design of the interface, and end with a good look at performance and memory leaks.

PCW: No bigger turnoff than constant iPhone crashes. Besides improving stability, what else have you been doing with your game?

JR: Listening to customers. Although I’m glad I cut some features, people really want ways to extend the game once they’ve completed it. Blocked currently has 100 levels, and I’m only keeping track of whether a level has been completed or not. In my next update, I’m adding move counts so that people can try to improve their records after completing the game.

Success on the App Store

PCW: Let’s talk about some of the success you’ve had with the game since it launched.

JR: Blocked hit the App Store in early September 2008. I had a modest amount of downloads at first. And then, right after Christmas, sales jumped. I’m not sure what led to Blocked’s being chosen as a staff favorite, but I know that once I started actively promoting it through advertising, Web forums, YouTube, and Twitter, I saw an increase in activity.

PCW: How much did it cost you out of pocket to get Blocked off the ground and spread the word?

JR: Since I did all the development in my free time, essentially zero. When I was advertising, I spent around $300 over the course of just under a month. That’s about the only money I spent, besides the $100 developer sign-up fee required to put apps on the App Store.

PCW: How does the back end of the system work? Is the approval process a pain?

JR: There’s a lot of work to get through when starting up as an application developer. One has to create and gather a slew of certificates and other security-related files that enable you to digitally sign and encrypt your applications, put your app on any development phone(s), and finally submit your app to the App Store. The documentation was a little lacking when I submitted my app back in the summer, but checking out the developer site now, it looks a little kinder to the uninitiated. After submitting your app, the waiting period can be long, and even though they’ve published rules and guidelines for applications, you’re at the whim of Apple when it comes to getting on the App Store.

PCW: But then you get paid.

JR: Yes, but that’s also my biggest frustration. It took several months to iron out banking information with Apple and start seeing money from my sales. Even now that I’m seeing regular payments, it’s almost impossible to correlate the financial reports I get from Apple every month with the deposits that are sprinkled into my account from varying worldwide banks at unpredictable times. The financial reports are in the local currency, but deposits are, of course, in U.S. dollars. Since there are no reference numbers to tie the two together, and since they come in at the discretion of the corresponding banks, it’s difficult keeping the books organized. Also, you get paid only when amounts in a particular region exceed a certain total, so several months’ worth of reports and figures in a foreign currency will be represented by a single payment in an amount that’s hard to identify. It can be a little difficult to rein in.

That isn’t to say that Apple has a broken system. It’s amazing what they’ve been able to accomplish and provide to developers and consumers. I’m sure it will continue to be improved over time, and a lot of these wrinkles and processes will be ironed out.

Tips for the aspiring iPhone developer

PCW: Any advice for would-be iPhone app developers with an idea?

JR: Don’t go into the App Store expecting to make a living from your efforts. There are currently 25,000 apps available, and very few make enough to support someone, let alone a team. My advice is, don’t quit your job. Even if you see a good month, be wary of assuming what you’ll see the next.

Read up on App Store trends. A month or two ago, everyone thought that the 99-cent model was going to be the dominant price point for applications. Now it’s been suggested that when people see a game that costs $3.99 among a sea of apps that cost 99 cents, they think that it intrinsically holds more value and are more likely to purchase it. Choose your price carefully, and see what the state of the market is before you do. Check out Pinch Media’s slide show that aggregates their experiences.

Also, you need to think about promotion. Hit the gaming forums and ask for opinions or reviews. Give out some promo codes to reputable reviewers. Advertise! Try spending $10 a day for a week on targeted Facebook or Google ads to see if you get a bump in sales.

PCW: Besides the money, what has been the best part of this experience?

JR: It was pretty exciting to see Blocked receive recognition—and to get word from friends and family when they spot someone playing it on the street. It’s been great hearing from fans who ask for hints via e-mail or tweet their progress through the game to their friends.

You can find out more about Blocked at Rosenberg’s site, Tip-Top Workshop .

[Need even more nerdity? Follow Casual Friday columnist and PC World Senior Writer Darren Gladstone on Twitter for 140-character product reviews, odd links, and time-wasting tips.]

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