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360iDev: Riptide Games' App Store wins and losses


Because there are so many apps on the App Store, we often have a tendency to hear most about what are actual outliers on Apple's platform. It's very rare indeed, in fact, for the average developer to have either a giant hit or a giant loss, though obviously those games and apps tend to get the most press and become the most talked about. But for the majority of apps and developers on the store, those stories just aren't typical. Usually, the outcome of an app release is far less obvious: An app can do well at some things and not so well at others.

Developer Brian Robbins of Riptide Games (who's done some speaking on the subject before) took to the stage at 360iDev this past week to do a run through his company's history, and go over what both worked and didn't about his company's many iPhone apps. He's had what we'd normally call both successes and failures on the App Store, but even Riptide's wins weren't perfect, and the biggest failures still let the company learn how to better do things in the future.

In 2010, for example, Robbins said that he and his company came up with an idea they called "iLookGood," a mirror app that used the new iPhone's front-facing camera to actually work as a mirror. Despite its simplicity, that app did well and continues to grab downloads to this day, though it hasn't been updated in quite a while. But it wasn't all a success -- while the app did bring the company to spin off a popular version called iLookFunny, it also spawned a version called iArrPirate, which Robbins said was terribly unpopular. "Nobody likes pirates," he told the crowd of developers. "Don't do pirates." Robbins also said that he regretted that the iLook apps didn't have "a coherent strategy" -- they were just a silly idea that the company spun up into a brand.

BopIt has been a relatively big success for Riptide -- Robbins had connections with the popular toy's makers, so when the time came to make an app for the brand in conjunction with EA, he jumped at the chance. And indeed, the BopIt games (which are now published by EA under Chillingo, but made by Riptide) have been one of Riptide's most steady brands, providing work for the company since the very beginning. But in making the first title, says Robbins, Riptide actually lost money on the property. He says he doesn't regret making the first BopIt game, as he gladly jumped at the chance to work with EA on a larger brand. But though the decision was a good one, it wasn't very profitable for Riptide.

My Pet Zombie was Riptide's first really profitable title, and most App Store onlookers would probably call that one a hit (so much so that Riptide's next game, called My Pet Dragon, will use the same model). But Robbins says that My Pet Zombie had missteps as well -- it "didn't hit metrics," and he says the company could probably have followed up better on customer interest in the game.

Ultimate Battle Zombies, a freemium game that Riptide released earlier this year, was the company's "biggest financial failure yet", according to Robbins. The original idea for the game was to team up with a major media network and make a game based on celebrity zombies, but at the last second, the idea was kiboshed by lawyers and their reservations, says Robbins. Riptide decided to publish the game itself, but "we shouldn't have finished it," he says. The game's goofy premise "missed its audience," according to Robbins, and the work that went into the title (which makes use of Game Center's asynchronous gameplay features) just wasn't worth it.

But something good did some out of Ultimate Battle Zombies. Robbins and his team decided that instead of working remotely as usual, they would try to bring the team together and work in one place. After some research, they decided to meet up for two weeks in Florida, and at a cost of just around $12,000, were able to pull everyone down for about two weeks, having meetings by the pool and cooking all together as a group. Robbins admitted that a retreat like that probably wouldn't work for every company, and even Riptide only had everyone together for a period of about five days. But he says the experience was completely worth it for teambuilding, and any company with remote team members should consider an experience like that.

In the end, said Robbins, developers need to be scrappy and work hard on whatever chances come to them. True hits and misses are actually rare on the App Store, despite how much we hear about them in the community every day. As Riptide's story shows, the majority of developers have to always deal with the good and the bad, and figure out how to best move forward when either happens.

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