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.