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GDC Online 2010: Limbic Software's route to App Store success


I'm here in Austin, Texas this week for the Game Developers' Conference, and Limbic Software's Arash Keshmirian kicked off the iPhone gaming track this morning with a panel about how the company found success with their TowerMadness tower defense game. Limbic's story is similar to a lot of others that we've heard before -- the app released to little fanfare, but a few solid tweaks, strategies, and even lucky breaks after release led to lots of sales and lots of development lessons.

"What really started the company," said Keshmirian, "was when we decided to make the game free." Like many other developers, he and his team found that having a huge audience is extremely important on the App Store. Releasing a free version created opportunities for in-app purchases and monetization through ads, and it even drove sales of the paid version of the app. Keshimirian shared a number of other interesting facts about what they'd found on the App Store during development as well.

The first one was that all the talk about China's emerging market is becoming more than talk; today, he says, was the first day that the company's iPad app actually saw Chinese sales surpass those in the US. It may just be a fluke, but Keshmirian says he's going to keep a close eye on China. "Growing device sales" in that country means that he may have to re-examine marketing and development in the future.

While talking about fixing bugs for development, Keshmirian joked that App Store customers tend to have a short memory. While a crippling bug can really harm customer reviews on an app, releasing new (and especially free) content can often reverse the effects of bad reviews. He also made the point that app designers must "design things with fingers in mind." Even though the iPhone 4 makes more pixels at higher resolutions available to developers, buttons, fonts, and other UI elements still need to be big enough to actually be used by fingers of all sizes.

Keshmirian talked a little bit about marketing, and like many other developers, he made the point that planning out app marketing as early as possible can help out a lot on app release. He also walked through the process of optimizing an App Store's listing. Many customers on the App Store, he said, use only an app's icon and name to decide whether or not it's worth a purchase. TowerMadness started out with an icon that used a cute little sheep's face, and found that it helped sales out a lot in Japan. But even more than cute faces, "guns sell anything on the App Store," Keshmirian said, and so TowerMadness eventually moved to an icon that included a gun tower, with a big bright and colorful sunburst in the back. Screenshots are also very important in selling an app on the App Store. Keshmirian even recommended that developers add levels or expand their games with new looks specifically to create a little more variety and interest in their App Store screenshots.

Finally, Keshmirian talked about the maintenance phase of development, in which devs need to not only keep new customers coming in but also figure out a way to monetize those customers as best they can. Facebook is a huge part of TowerMadness' community -- Keshmirian said that sharing works very virally there, since customers who even leave a comment or a like get that feedback seen by everyone on their friends' list. Limbic originally ran some in-game competitions to try and beef up the community, but "some guy from Japan was winning every one" (legitimately, too), so they pulled back from that strategy for a bit.

In terms of monetization, Limbic has had success with in-app purchases. The company added a special flamethrower weapon as a 99 cent in-app purchase, and Keshmirian said that they soon sold over 200,000 of those purchases. In fact, he said, that kind of revenue was "like a new game release for us," with a lot less work actually put into it. At that point, the company even reconsidered working on a new game, since they could just make updates to their current one and see a lot more revenue. The drawback, however, said Keshmirian, was that microtransactions like that can "breed resentment," if they're not handled in a way that feels right and fair to the player.

It's all interesting stuff. Keshmirian's story mirrors a lot of the experiences we've heard about on the App Store, but some of the specifics were surprising. He also showed off some concept art of the company's newest title, expected out later this year, featuring a cute drawing of a squirrel and a pretty epic mountain background. Stay tuned all this week for more news and insight from GDC Online 2010.

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