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GDC 2010: The secret to App Store success


For the last panel of GDC 2010 day two, David Whatley of Critical Thought took the stage to talk about the App Store success he found with his games geoDefense and geoDefense Swarm, and almost dared other iPhone developers to follow his "guaranteed plan" to go from "zero to Time Magazine." He's got quite a background in the trenches of coding and game development, having designed and run online mulitplayer games for over a decade with his "day job" at a company called Simutronics, but he decided to take to the iPhone in his spare time both to learn the platform and see what he could do with it.

First things first, he said, to make an iPhone game, you've got to figure out your goals as a business. He talked about the potential on the iPhone in terms of millions of dollars, but of course, since "99.9% of businesses on the App Store make no money," it's much more likely that if something goes wrong during development or something doesn't click right, the money will drop down to just "a few bucks." It's a balance of costs (which he relabeled as "risks") vs. revenue -- it's very easy, he said, to make money on the App Store, but the issue most developers have is that they let costs get away from them by having too big a team or by investing too much development time, and that comes straight out of their bottom line.

To save money on his bottom line, Whatley made a big deal out of hiring a PR firm. He hired Triple Point PR to handle his publicity (and namedropped them multiple times; like many similar firms, they send us PR notices here at TUAW), and he says that as a developer, that helped him remove a part of the business he didn't like (press and user interaction) completely from his equation, for what turned out to be only 6% of the revenue (he made a deal with them to get a percentage of the backend based on a few goals he gave).

He said to the audience that a PR firm is extremely important in app sales, because of the press cycle. A PR company sent word of his app (especially his second app, since he'd already created somewhat of a reputation with his first app) out to niche outlets like TUAW and Touch Arcade [Excuse us? Niche? –Ed.], and those outlets gained the attention of Apple, which placed his app in the iTunes promotional channels. That led to major sales, of course, and then the mainstream media (his app was featured in Maxim magazine) wrote about apps featured by Apple, which led to even more sales. In short, he said to developers at the conference, PR hands information off to "gamer press," which attracts Apple, which attracts mainstream media, which all goes back to sales numbers.

And he wasn't shy about numbers either: he's made $251,000 with geoDefense. That's only part of the revenue -- a certain part went to Apple, $15,000 went to the PR firm, and then he had $2,000 in overhead, which he said was literally a Mac on his Mastercard. Given that he already had the coding skills and business experience necessary to publish a successful app, that's quite a return.

So how can developers replicate that? He said that the X-factor is probably the most important part -- while you can follow the rest of his instructions to a T, and "do everything right," your app still needs to have that "X-factor" of being something people want to play and share. He also recommended that developers establish their goals early on and stick to them -- "if you're getting into this to be a millionaire," he said, "you haven't thought it through. If you get into it to learn to be a millionaire, you probably have."

Likewise, he joked that he had a foolproof solution to defeating piracy once and for all, and it was... "make a game no one wants." Finally, he showed a picture of himself working on a MacBook from a beach in Bali, and said that he'd been extremely happy with the success he'd found in the App Store -- like a few other developers at the conference, he made it clear that Apple is offering up quite an opportunity to smalltime developers, and that with the right mindset and discipline, there is money to be made.

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