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.


  1. This is one of the specific and good clarity post.I like your blog details .This is one of the nice post.
    Android app developers

  2. Excellent blog post. Even as a user I tend to miss the Just-In section; even in the imperfect spammy state, I used to browse it every once in a while to see what new stuff might have turned up. Now, I almost don't bother with the Market. Except when something new comes from one of the big players, it's all the same anyway.

    I've had an OK January myself, much helped by a two-week sale at the beginning of the year. But I can definitely see where you're coming from - there is just no way that I could have had even the very modest revenue that I have, if I did not already have a major player base due to being early on the platform.

    I think you are right that 2012 becomes a watershed for Android. Google has done a lot to make the platform better and more friendly for users - they now really need to focus on making it better and more friendly for developers. I remain astounded that something as central to their GUI paradigm as the tag (reuse of layout structures) still does not work in their GUI designer, several months after they introduced the bug. Stuff like that + the fact that it remains easier to make money on iPhone, will keep Android a "second-class" citizen in the Android ecosystem if something is not done.

    As for the tirade above... words fail me.

  3. Hey, i am not trying to offend you - but please think about my advice.

    I started my android journey about 10 months ago by extending my Java knowledge - and believe me, i've worked hard to get to the point where i am today.
    Back in the early days, i published some crappy and bad designed apps (i tend to say "just like you") - and didnt get the feedback i was looking for and soon learned that it takes much more to be successfull. After publishing "Traffic Counter" i decided to put more time into design and coding at all.

    So for the next two apps i spent 2 months each, and alot of time spreading the word using forums, a couple hundred dollars of advertising and connecting with my users. Although my coding and photoshop skills still were bad as hell, downloads and positive responses went straight up!

    I think i've spent about three months developing my latest app called "Dominoes" and besides it's still sitting on a 4 start rating it's running good! Check it out! (btw - thats how i've stumbled upon you, competitor :P)

    It does not require the "just in" category to get discovered, it takes a well researched idea, love and alot of work to get your app out there.

    TL DR;
    - market research
    - spread the word!
    - design is the key
    - take your time

    Also, currently i am free for a project. I've written an awesome multiplayer library which is just waiting to get implemented in more games! We could team up for a smaller app if you're interested, let me know:

  4. I'm in the same boat. Published a simple little game, then challenged my wife to find it on the marketplace without searching for it's exact title. She gave up after 30 minutes.

    It's a word puzzle game, the market is too saturated with them I guess. If you search for boggle and scroll WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY down you can find it, I discovered. But that's about it.

    I paid $50 to run an Admob campaign and that got me about 140 downloads. That's why Google removed the Just In. They don't want to give visibility away for free. So we're gonna code for WP7. We've made way more money there than we have off Android, it has a Just In page.

  5. Odessa is right. If you made useless junk- you'll get 0 downloads.