Mobile Games Development: My 3 Year Lessons

Lessons I Have Learned

This year marks my third year as a full-time indie mobile games developer, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to jot down what I’ve learnt over that time.

I think my thoughts may be useful to other people thinking of becoming an indie mobile games developer, but I also think this exercise is useful for me to get things clear in my own mind.

This isn’t a “starving artist” whine

Before I get started, I just want to make it clear that nothing I say is supposed to be a “poor me”, “starving artist” whine. If any of it sounds that way, that’s just because I’m trying to capture the emotions that I’ve felt during this time.

Being a one man operation, it’s very difficult not to be emotionally involved in what I do. The fact that I work from home, rather than from a separate office, makes it all the more difficult to detach my business life from my personal life. However, this is the life I’ve chosen for myself, so I have to take the rough with the smooth (I just wanted to get that in before the “get a real job then” crowd start). I’d wanted to make games ever since I first started programming on a SInclair ZX81 in 1982, so this is my harsh taste of that dream.

With that said, let’s get on with my thoughts…

Many people will never pay for a mobile game, no matter how low the price

It’s a fact that many people will not pay for a mobile game, no matter how low you make the price. I’m not criticising anyone’s freedom of choice here, as I’m not talking about those “I’d never pay for a mobile game” people. I’m talking about the people who don’t have the facilities to pay for a mobile game.

I offer my game Shoot Pro Wrestling as both a free, ad-supported version, and as a paid version without any ads. The free and paid versions are identical in every way, except for the fact that the free one contains ads and the paid one doesn’t. With both versions, the most downloads come from the US. However, with the paid version, the second most downloads come from the UK, whereas the UK is only ranked 6th for downloads of the free version.

The country with the second most downloads of the free version is, in fact, India, followed closely by Brazil, Iraq, and Mexico. I’m only asking 10 Rupees (about 10 UK pence) for the paid version in India, but still it doesn’t sell there, despite a thousand downloads of the free version in India each month.

The two main reasons for this are lack of disposable income (10 Rupees is still a lot in India), and lack of credit cards. If people physically have no way to purchase online, they won’t buy your game, no matter how cheap you make it.

Free, ad-supported games generally don’t make money

This one surprised me, as I too had been taken in by all the media stories about games like Flappy Bird making their developers rich, all because they had a few ads in there.

While I’m not denying that the developer of Flappy Bird made a lot of money through advertising in his game, the majority of games are not Flappy Bird. Flappy Bird was a rare fluke-of-nature game that happened to go viral. This will not happen to most games. Most games will have moderate to low downloads.

My own Shoot Pro Wrestling game has about 8000 downloads of its free, ad-supported version per month. These downloads result in about 90000 ad impressions per month, which then result in just 650 clicks. Adding it all up, the total earnings from those 8000 downloads in a month is less than £25. Imagine if all those 8000 people had paid £1 and actually bought the game… but it doesn’t work like that, as I explained with my previous point.

The problem with ad-supported games is three-fold:

Firstly, people just don’t click on the ads. They either just ignore them, or they play the game with their network access turned off, so the ads can’t load in the first place.

Secondly, mobile ads just aren’t worth that much. Most of them are advertising other apps, so, in order to make a profit on their own apps, advertisers have to keep their costs low. If many of your users come from countries other than the US, the value of the ads they’re being shown will be even less. For my Shoot Pro Wrestling game, a click by a US resident is worth about £0.11, whereas a click by a resident of India is worth just £0.02!

Thirdly, advertisers just aren’t showing ads to people in some countries. When I had a free, ad-supported version of my MMA Manager game on the Apple iTunes App Store, the majority of downloads were coming from the Philippines. However, nobody was advertising to the Philippines, so the ad revenue from all those downloads was a big, fat zero.

The “big boys” have the charts sewn up

It’s the dream of every mobile developer to get their app or game to the top of the charts on the app store, whether that be Google Play, or iTunes.

“If only I could top the charts,” they think, “I’d be raking in the money!”

Unfortunately, only the top few chart positions result in big money, and the “big boys” with all the money have those sewn up. Below those golden spots, the sales and the income drop off at a pretty rapid rate.

I can tell you this from my own experience as, in June 2014, my game Boxing Manager 2 reached No.7 on the Google Play UK “Sports Games” chart for paid apps. I was pretty impressed to have broken into the Top 10 on one of the charts, but my UK income from that game for that period was barely £10 per day, with a total of around £25 per day worldwide. Not exactly enough to make me rich! Incidentally, at that time, the game was ranked the 106th best-selling of all paid games on Google Play in the UK, but still only earned £10 per day!

The problem is that the indie games developer has next-to-no chance of ever getting into the really high ranking positions, as the big companies that occupy them spend huge amounts on marketing, just to keep themselves there.

In 2014, it was revealed that King, the developer of Candy Crush Saga, spend approximately $470 million per year on marketing. That works out at nearly $1.3 million per day! How can you compete with that to gain those top chart positions?

People think most mobile games developers make more money than they actually do

It’s not really the fault of the people that they think all mobile games developers make huge amounts of money. Just this week, the media ran a story about how Kim Kardashian’s game had made $100 million, and not so long ago we had the stories about the maker of Flappy Bird.

It’s not surprising then that a “them and us” sort of relationship develops between games buyers and games developers. They think all of us developers live in golden mansions, which is why it’s a hard decision for them whether to spend less on a game that took a month or more to make than they spend on a cup of coffee with a 300% markup.

The fact of the matter is that, once Google or Apple have taken their cut of nearly 30%, the amount of money I make from one sale of a game would buy me about half a loaf of bread. To put it another way, I have to sell 11 copies of a game to even make what a minimum wage worker in the UK would earn in an hour!

With that in mind, I can’t help but feel that many of my customers are actually financially better off than I am, yet I still receive comments like the one I got on Amazon for one of my games that said, “…these developers make a small fortune every time they release one of these games…”

I’m still looking for my small fortune.

As I stated at the start of this piece, I’m not saying this to complain about how tough the life of an indie games developer is, I’m saying it because people’s perception of how wealthy developers are also affects their perception of what price represents good value for a mobile game. It’s the reason why raising the price of a game from £0.99 to £1.49 reduces sales significantly.

So how much does an indie mobile games developer make?

It’s difficult as a developer when customers ask whether you will be updating a game or whether you will be releasing a sequel, when you know that the game hasn’t even made enough money to cover the bills you had to pay whilst making it. I live pretty modestly, and, as I said earlier, I’m a one-man-band, so there’s only my own costs to cover, yet none of my games have actually shown a huge profit yet.

Boxing Manager 2 has been on sale for almost 2 years now, and only reached the point where it’s earned more than it cost to make a year ago. Shoot Pro Wrestling has been on sale for 16 months, yet looks like it won’t turn a profit for at least another 6 months. MMA Manager has been on sale for 9 months, and has so far made back maybe a quarter of what it cost to make, so it’ll be another 2 years before I see a profit from that.

When you break down figures like that, it’s hard to see why anybody would actually want to be an indie games developer. However, If more potential developers start feeling that way, the app stores will just end up with the same old sorts of games by the same big developers, and that’ll be a shame.