Monday, July 9, 2012

The End of Indie Game Development on Android

I got back from San Francisco and the Google I/O developer conference there last week. Google was yet again gracious with the hardware giveaways, giving out Nexus 7 tablets, Galaxy Nexus phones, a Nexus Q, and a Chromebox.

 But the real takeaway for me was what I had seen happening to my indie business over the past year, and that's that indie game development for Android is pretty much dying. The main reasons are competition and discovery. Now that Android is a hugely successful platform, the major game developers have entered the market. Smaller devs simply cannot compete for visibility with limited or nonexistent marketing budgets. Coupled with the removal of the only free visibility channel (the Just In category), and new indie titles that weren't already hits on another platform are dead in the water. But this isn't just me whining in the wind.

I spoke to two different Google employees, one of which gave a talk on game development at I/O and who has served on the editorial team responsible for picking featured apps and games. I didn't want to sound like I was just bitching and moaning, so I asked him an actionable question: In his talk, he mentioned several things NOT to do as a game developer. If he were an indie developer like me, who had been successful the past three years but was now dying in the market, what would be his game plan?

 His answer was telling: Try to publish through one of the big game publishers.

 In other words, you can't make it as an indie anymore. He said in the past couple of years that developers had "been given a bit of a free ride." I'm aware of the realities of the market, and I wasn't sure I'd be able to do this for a decade or more, but I tried to make the point that there might be a middle ground, assuming that Google cares, which I think they should.

 Chris Anderson's The Long Tail is an excellent treatise on the revolution of digital marketplaces. He points out that nearly all markets have a long tail distribution, meaning there are a small number of products in a given market that are hits, a middle ground of moderately successful products, and a "long tail" of products that only sell a small number of units each. Because media was traditionally only sold in brick and mortar stores, where shelf space is limited, if you were a music seller in the 80's, would you rather fill your shelf space with the latest Michael Jackson album, or a plethora of obscure indie titles? The answer is obvious. But with digital distribution, shelf space is no longer an issue. Since inventory space is virtually unlimited in a digital marketplace, you can now offer all the obscure stuff you want. The issue then becomes discovery. If it's relatively easy for fans of obscure titles to find them, what will happen is that you'll still sell the mega-hits, but that long tail will get fatter, since you'll sell non-significant numbers of the obscure titles as well, increasing the overall area under your sales curve. In other words, purely hit-driven markets generally make less money than those with a fat, healthy long tail.

In the past year, Google Play has shifted into a more hit-driven market. By doing away with the only channel that would facilitate discovery of indie titles (other than the golden ticket of being featured), they've flattened out their long tail. People are not going to search for games or apps that they don't know exist. They will simply default to known quantities, such as Angry Birds or the latest Zynga or Gameloft game. Every single digital game store that I know of has a "What's New" channel, except for Google Play. Excluding that, I suggested to the Googler that they might add a channel for indie games, which the Xbox market has. He said he'd take that back to the team. And lest you think I'm alone, here's a bit from the Android Fireside Chat at I/O this year:
Q: For my new app I got 30 downloads on Android, 4,000 downloads on iOS. Probably because What's new section was removed from the Play Store. I understand you were getting a lot of spam but are there any plans to bring it back? 
A: Looking at it. We care about app discoverability. Launched recommendations, that should help.
Peer-to-peer recommendations can't hurt, but how are you supposed to get the ball rolling? I can get my family and friends to download and recommend my new game, but their social network will likely be very cannibalistic. And if I'd like people in Europe or Asia to see my game, recommendations aren't going to do squat.

 Killing visibility for new apps is making Google Play a more top-heavy market, hurting existing indie developers, alienating devs, making it much riskier to launch a new indie title on the market, and ironically, probably hurting the overall profitability of the market by thinning out the long tail. I'll be all right, even if my business doesn't survive another year. But I couldn't in good conscience recommend Google Play as a viable market to a new indie developer. As much as I dislike Apple, if I were recommending a mobile gaming platform for a new dev, I'd tell them they should focus on iOS first. And if one of Android's most successful indie devs is recommending a competing platform, you know things are really screwed up.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Google I/O 2012: The Agony and the Ecstasy

Google I/O is a developer conference run since 2008. Ostensibly the purpose is for developers using Google's products to learn about upcoming software, network, and help Google help them make better products.

I attended in both 2010 and 2011, and found the conference useful and interesting. I met other Android game developers, and Google engineers actually working on the platforms I was developing for. But probably mostly due to the increase in tech giveaways (in 2010 I got 2 Android phones, in 2011 a tablet and a Chromebook), demand for the conference has shot through the roof. The conference sold out in under an hour last year.

So I was heartened to hear that Google intended to implement some kind of screening process for registration this year, to make sure that actual developers would be able to attend. A Google rep last year said something like "brush up on your programming skills" in anticipation for registration. A coding test would have been difficult to administer. I guess they were sort of referring to the mechanical widget builder on the Google I/O page. Supposedly there was an Easter egg for early registration, though I didn't hear much about this, and it's a pretty pale substitute for any kind of screening process. Also, supposedly attendees for the past three years got preregistration, though this seems conflicting as well. I just saw a tweet from someone who said they've attended since 2008 and didn't get it. So basically it was a free-for-all.

This morning at 7am PST, Google opened its registration site. They insisted that the snafus from last year (all sorts of technical issues with the registration site) would be resolved. They were using new servers...etc, etc. Just before the allotted time, I had the page open, and started hitting refresh. Right on time, I got the "Registration is open" message. It still prompted me to sign in to Google+, which I already was, so I may have lost a couple of precious seconds there. But when I clicked "Register", I got this page:

Okay, fair enough. I waited three minutes on this screen, then got this screen:

Ah well, I thought. That was that. I was already pretty disgruntled at the way Google had handled the whole registration process, so I was feeling a bit of sour grapes. My friend Jeremy suggested I keep at it, though. I preregistered last year, avoiding any nonsense, but he went through the free-for-all registration and initially got "sold out" only to get a ticket later. So I clicked on "Register" again. Several more minutes went buy, and the same indicator of no tickets available came up. I tried again. Third time did it, and I got a "We found a ticket for you!" message. So I registered.

Even though I got a spot, I have mixed feelings, and I'm still not happy about the way Google has handled this. I'm seeing droves of tweets from devs who didn't get in. What would have been the fairest way to handle registration? I don't know, but I don't think Google put much effort into it.

What would have been ideal would be for some kind of vetting process to make sure the people attending are actual developers, and not swag-hungry people who would otherwise get nothing from the conference. I think a white list of verified devs would be a start, those people who had registered Android developer accounts, who had some kind of history developing with Google products. The full-time developer advocates could have helped out with this. Instead, Google I/O is turning into a tech-grab with artificially high demand for what should be primarily attended by developers. As far as I know, there is no way for Google to verify that the people who registered aren't just people trying to profit from the tech giveaways, or flip their registration. Jeremy just sent me a link to someone who just flipped their registration on Ebay.


So while I'm happy that I got a golden ticket, I'm still not happy with Google about the way they've handled this. And I feel for all the devs who got shafted.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How Google is Killing Indie Android Developers

I've been a full-time indie Android developer for over two years now. It's been an awesome experience, but this is going to be a watershed year, and at the end of it, I'm not sure I'll still be in business.

 First some background... I published my first app on the Android Market in March of 2009. At the time I was a graduate student hoping for some pizza money. I didn't expect it to turn into a full-time business, but that's what ended up happening.

My early efforts at apps were clumsy. I published simple utility calculators just to learn the development environment and get my feet wet. Then I moved on to games. I was the first to publish some staple games on the platform, like Spades and Dominoes. And my version of Golf Solitaire has also been very popular. Because I was one of the more successful early indie publishers on the market, I was approached by a Russian developer to resell EasyTether, because at that time Russian devs were unable to publish in the market. So we worked out a publishing agreement and I've been very fortunate to be able to publish that app. In total, I've published 39 apps on the Android Market. Many are very simple. You can see them in the market here. Some have done well, and some have flopped. But all of my new apps had a fighting chance. Until last summer.

In July 2011 Google revamped the Android Market and removed the "Just In" category. I can't speak for other devs, but this decision may have wrecked my small business. Why? Because for most indie devs, the Android Market is their primary distribution channel, and if users don't see it there, they don't see it. Some section of the market displaying the newest releases is very nearly the only way indie apps are going to get any exposure. Instead, there are now "Top New Paid" and "Top New Free" sections, which only reinforce the popularity of apps that already have exposure, and do nothing for new apps that have no traction. This editorial over at Android Police was in favor of the change at the time. They said:
Of course, the problem is that these developers can't actually determine what percentage of their app's "clicks" come from the "Just In" section - there seems to be a tacit assumption that it's a large number, without any evidence to back up this claim. I don't think that is at all the case, but I don't have any numbers, either - just my own personal experience that I think many of you will be able to corroborate.
Well, I have several years of direct experience with the market, publishing numerous apps. Let me share a little with you.

Here are the first day sales for apps published:

Drywall Calculator, Jan2010 (4)
Friction Loss Calculator, Jan2010 (8)
Puzzle Lords, Jan2010 (4)
ReceiptBook, Apr2010 (5)
HairBook, Feb2011 (4)

HairBook, a hair stylist customer database app, went on to sell 30 copies in the first week. All of these apps, and all of my earlier apps and games benefited from the initial exposure of the Just In section. What typically happens is that sales tend to either drop off after that first week, or pick up and plateau (as has happened with my more popular games).

Now let me share first-day sales figures for the last two apps I've released:

 Flick Hearts, Oct 2010: (0)
Save the Egg, Jan 2012 (0)

Flick Hearts was admittedly an experimental game of sorts. It requires multiple devices to play, and was designed to use a hi-res device (such as a tablet or Google TV) as the playing surface, with phones used for holding your cards. Users flick the cards from their phones to the host device (like playing cards on a table), which tracks tricks, points, and scores. Admittedly the market is smaller for this game, because of the requirements and format. But zero sales? The most disheartening, though, and possibly the nail in the coffin, is my latest game, Save the Egg. It's a physics-based puzzler, a game type that has been very popular and performed well for indie developers (e.g. Apparatus, X Construction). This game represents a significant investment in time and money, and to have it fall completely flat on the first day is just horrible. It's not dead in the water, but not having that initial exposure in Just In hurts its chances. This is undeniable.

Now, I've tried marketing efforts in the past for other games, and I can tell you from my experience that they have been utterly worthless. Ad campaigns have led to no significant increase in sales or downloads. My guess is that you have to have a critical threshold for an advertising budget to begin to see any kind of return. For Save the Egg, I have done what I can to set it up for success. I'm in the process of issuing a press release. I've published a free demo version with the first 5 levels (which got exactly 1 download on its first day). I'm cross-promoting the app with house ads in my other apps. I've announced the release via my company's Twitter feed. I've published the app in secondary markets such as the Amazon Appstore and SlideMe.

The fact is this: The single largest factor for sales or downloads is exposure in the market. An indie cannot advertise their way into this exposure. They can hope they get free exposure from being featured, but this is akin to winning the lottery.

Currently the only way for most users to discover new apps is reading blogs (which many do not do), or searching for the app. If the app or game is novel, and not a clone of an existing concept, users simply will not find it via search. My dominoes app may be found this way, because people purchasing an Android phone who want to play dominoes, will search for that term. But original apps and games will be disproportionately punished by a lack of ad hoc discovery. My revenues are down significantly from the previous two years. January is going to be one of the worst months I've ever had. Some of my older games are still chugging along, thanks to gaining market rank in their respective categories. But they are not enough.

I cannot sustain on a business model where I continue to invest time and money into new projects that do not generate any new revenue. If Google had wanted to avoid unscrupulous devs from spamming such a section, there were much less drastic and more more effective ways of doing it. The Just In category was indicating updated, as well as new apps. They could have restricted it to newly published apps. And for those devs who might just rename apps and publish tons of new apps every day, simply restrict the number of apps published per week. If a company has a legitimate reason to publish more than 3 apps a week, for example, give them an appeal process. Though it is highly unlikely that any developer should be publishing a large number of apps. Instead of targeting the problem, Google simply hacked it off, thereby severely hurting legitimate developers.

 Other developers may have different experiences, but I can only speak for myself and my company. And I can say without a doubt that the current state of the Android Market is killing my business, slowly but surely.