Just over a year ago we released our first iPhone game Ow My Balls! into the wild. We were convinced at the time that we had a hit on our hands; we thought just the name “Ow My Balls” was enough to take the game to the top. Plus the game was hilarious and surprisingly fun, at least for us.
Despite good coverage on blogs and other news outlets the game never took off. While we saw some successful days with over 200 sales, for the most part the game sold on average 25 copies a day. This was a disappointment to say the least.
For six months we tried desperately to make the game big. We did a substantial refactoring of the entire game including redesigning the gameplay and adding lots of new features. We pushed on blogs as hard as we could and studied the App Store to understand what was making other games successful.
After several months, eight updates, and a failed Lite version we finally succumb to the feedback that most of our friends and developer peers told us – let it go, it hasn’t succeeded, it isn’t going to, so move on to your next game. At that point we put the game down and stopped thinking or caring about it. This was six months ago.
Over one years time we sold about 14,000 copies for total revenue of around $10,000. As indie game developers we were fairly happy about this; getting 14,000 people to play any indie game is an accomplishment. But it was nowhere near the millions we had anticipated.
About two weeks ago after a year of struggle we decided to make the game free for a few days. We had done a sale before with very positive results and given it was the one year anniversary we felt like it was time to really let go and move on. What happened next exceeded our wildest expectations.
In just over a week over 1.1 million copies of the game were downloaded including 233,124 in a single day. It grabbed the #1 spot in the app store and wouldn’t let it go despite challenges from many other excellent games and products. The position in the store that seemed unattainable was now ours and we were caught entirely off guard.
So what happened?
I wish there was one simple magic answer, but there isn’t. There are a lot of factors that played into the success of this sale. Let me walk through what I feel are the principal factors one at a time with the caveat that we can not prove the degree to which each of these factors may have helped.
- The sale was well timed
We started the sale at 11PM on Thursday. We knew from our previous sale that it would take at least a day of being on sale before the app became ranked and got additional exposure in the App Store.
Starting late Thursday allowed us to grow enough downloads to be ranked going into Saturday, which got us great exposure on the two biggest sales/download days of the week – Saturday and Sunday. We didn’t actually reach #1 until Monday, but it would have never happened if we didn’t get a solid boost from the weekend.
Had we started the sale at the end of the day Friday as we did previously, it wouldn’t really have legs until Sunday, and by then the other on-sale apps would have had an opportunity to grab a large number of downloads and take the top positions in the store. Starting the sale a few hours before most other apps gave us a head start and probably contributed to its success.
For more on sales timing, see Pinch Media’s App Store Secrets.
- Our target audience can’t pay for games
Ow My Balls! is a game for kids and grown-ups who are kids at heart. We’ve tested it with a lot of age groups and 10-14 year olds consistently respond the best to it. But there’s a problem – most of these kids can’t buy apps. They usually have iPod Touches with App Store accounts that don’t have credit cards associated with them. So even if we could market to them on the cheap, we can’t make money off them.
Making the app free actually opens it up to the majority of our target audience for which it would otherwise be unavailable. Most of this audience was not around when we first sold the app, so they’ve never heard of it before. A free game? Called Ow My Balls!? I’m in!
- The number of kids with iPod Touches has grown dramatically
Sales of iPod Touches have grown dramatically in the past year. There are now over 50M iPod Touches in the field and the majority of the users are kids (65% under 17.) The increase in the number of kids with these devices greatly expanded the audience who would be interested in the app. We’re talking 15M+ new kids with these devices since our last sale – that’s a big deal.
- The app is edgy again
When we first released Ow My Balls! it stood out as one of the edgier apps in the store. The game came out before Parental Controls and before Apple started allowing more adult apps in the store. While Ow My Balls! may be edgy, its nothing compared to apps that did nothing but show ass cracks and girls wearing Pasties.
Once Apple cleaned out all of these apps (thank god) we found ourselves in the position of being edgy again. Where for six months we couldn’t stand out, now we were once again on the boundary of what is and is not acceptable. We believe this played a big part in the success of the sale. When the Top 100 is full of soft-porn apps an app named “Ow My Balls” isn’t much of a surprise. But in the newly sanitized store it stands out, and standing out is key to getting people to download your app.
- Our blog network had our back
When we first launched the game we did a massive outreach to bloggers, many of whom really liked the app and gave it favorable coverage. This established relationships that ultimately paid off during the sale. When these bloggers saw the app go on sale, they remembered our previous relationship and were much more likely to cover us than if they’d never heard of us before. Building a strong network of connections with bloggers and other app critics is key to success, sale or not.
- Viral videos
One of the features we added late in OMB’s life was a collection of nutshot videos gathered from YouTube. This is actually a feature we wanted from day one but had problems implementing.
The rationale behind this feature was that the nutshot videos are inherently viral. When you see one of them you really want to show your friends. While we hoped that’s how people would feel about the game, we knew putting proven successful videos in the app would help.
YouTube traffic to one of the videos included in the game
I am fairly convinced that this played a big part of the success of the sale and the afterglow. This feature did not exist when we did the last sale, and it’s one explanation for the difference in scale. The number of video plays skyrocketed along with the sale of the app, and from anecdotal experience when one person watches one of the videos they usually show it to at least one other person. With no price barrier to block the app from spreading virally it finally took off.
I have always believed that luck was a major component in what made apps live or die. Having watched numerous apps go to the top that I felt were less deserving than OMB, I couldn’t help but think these other developers were either somehow cheating or were just downright lucky.
At this end of this sale I still believe in luck, in fact I believe in it more than ever. Part of the motivation for doing the sale at this moment was that our iPad app Magic Window was finding great success. We figured if we’re hot, we’re hot, so lets ride the streak.
- It’s all about the app name
The cornerstone of this game has always been the name. We believed that if people saw a game with the name “Ow My Balls!” in the store they would be obligated to buy it, if for no other reason than to see what it is. The snazzy icon just reinforces this.
The name we got right. The icon we got right. The part we got wrong was thinking people would pay for a game with that name. When the game first went on sale people were sick of gimmick apps that cost 99 cents and turned out to be garbage. While the name “Ow My Balls” is compelling, it also sounds like a gimmick app. I can see people finding it in the store and thinking “I’m not going to get ripped off by this.”
Had the game originally gone on sale around the time of iFart it would have likely found more success, because people were less suspicious of apps at that time. Now most experienced app customers are savvy – you can’t trick them into buying an app just based on the name, but you can certainly get them to download an app for free with it.
What didn’t happen
I’ve heard a lot of theories from others as to why the sale may have been successful. Many of them have lined up with our experience, but some have not. I’d like to call out two factors that we do not believe were in play for this sale.
- Cross-over sales from Magic Window
At the time of the sale our iPad app Magic Window was doing very well. We were featured in the App Store and held the top 10 position during the iPad 3G launch. It would seem on the surface like bleed over from Magic Window helped OMB reach the top. But neither the data nor anecdotal evidence supports this.
At the peak of Magic Window’s success, OMB had its lowest sales day EVER – just $7 (11 sales). This is before we started the sale. If there was bleed over from one app to the other, it would have shown up at least to a small extent before the sale, but it didn’t, and it makes sense why.
OMB revenue right before the most recent sale. Text indicates when Magic Window launched and was featured.
Beyond just looking at the data, it’s important to look at the target audience. Magic Window is for adults, and Ow My Balls! is for kids. There is almost no overlap. The apps are listed in two different stores (iPad and iPhone) and do not show up as “other apps by this developer” on the sales pages.
- The app was featured and heavily promoted
Ow My Balls! was not featured at the time of the sale, and has never been featured in the App Store. There was no additional exposure or publicity for the app around the time of the sale, or for the six months prior to the sale. We did not announce the sale to anyone other than the TouchArcade forums.
The Big Comedown – from #1 free to unranked
In the early days of the App Store when you put an app on sale for free and then switched it back to paid the sales count which is used to calculate rankings stayed the same. So you could make your app free, grab 10k+ downloads, switch over to paid and be #1. This lasted only a few weeks before Apple closed the loophole.
Now when you make an app free and then paid again the sales count resets. You don’t take any of your sales volume with you, you don’t take your rank with you, all you take is the buzz you generated from the sale. Watch what happened to OMBs ranking when we switched from free to paid:
As you can see for the first 6 hours after we changed to paid we were unranked. After 6 hours we were finally ranked at #867 in overall paid. We’re going from 150k downloads in a day to under 1k just like that.
The first time we had a sale we had only a tiny spike in sales afterwards. We literally distributed 25k copies on a weekend and then went back to selling at near normal volume on Monday. By Thursday it was as if the sale never happened. Because of this we assumed the same thing would happen this time. Not so.
With the recent sale we generated a massive amount of buzz – so much that the LA Times covered the app on Friday (the day before we made it paid again.) So while we did lose our ranking, we did retain some of the momentum from the sale – enough to propel us up to #22 in the entertainment charts. While this isn’t #1, its higher than we’d ever seen before, and reflects the reality that the app is now selling more copies than ever before.
This graph shows revenue after the most recent sale. Look at it skyrocket to 600 – higher than it had ever previously been. This makes sense, because the second sale was much longer and generated far more downloads and buzz than the first. Let’s look at the first sale volume relative to sales:
I love this graph. I used to show it to people all the time as an example of the difference between a free and paid app. The scale is dramatically different. Now lets look at the first sale relative to the second one.
Lessons for Developers and App Marketers
So to summarize, here are a few key points that developers and app marketers should take away from our experience.
- Putting your app on sale is one of the few magic tricks available to increase downloads in the App Store
If you’re looking for a magic trick to increase your sales in the App Store discounting your apps price is the closest thing you will find. I’m not suggesting that you cut your price to free; I’d recommend a more systematic approach where you test different price points over time and find the best possible combination of downloads and revenue. But continually adjusting your price and finding the best price point is crucial.
There are over 100 apps and websites that highlight on-sale apps. As soon as you put your app on sale (free or not) these sites pick it up and start exposing it. Try putting your app on sale and then searching twitter for it – within just a few hours there will be a bunch of posts. By cutting the price not only are you improving the value proposition for the customer, but you are activating all of these sale apps that get you additional exposure. This is one reason you see apps that constantly change their prices. They are continually gaming the sale system.
- If a sale is working, keep it going
The big mistake we made with the first sale was cutting it off too soon. The app was skyrocketing, but we had committed to take it down on Sunday and we wanted to stick to that. This time on Sunday we were in firing range of the #1 spot and just couldn’t kill the sale, so we let it run its course. Had we done this on the first sale we’d be in a very different position now. The bigger the sale gets, the more buzz it generates, and the more sales you’ll make when it is over.
- Start your app at a higher price and then lower it
When we released OMB we were told by many people not to price it at 99c. “Don’t shoot yourself in the foot” they told us. I was however convinced that there was no way to compete in the store at a higher price. While that may be true, if we had started at $1.99 we could have then cut the price to 99c and have the app on “sale.”
Perception of the value of your app is key to making it fly off the shelves. If your app was 99c and is now free people feel like you are giving them a dollar. If it was $4.99 and is now $1.99 you’re giving them three dollars. Regardless of what you feel the actual value of your app is, any discounted price looks better than the original pice.
- If you are going to have a free sale, find another way to monetize your app first
We had the #1 app in the store with over a million downloads in a week and barely made a dollar off it. Had we included in-app purchases before the sale, those free customers who liked the app would have had a way to give us money. We didn’t, so now we’re not monetizing those million customers.
We had talked about adding character packs to the game for months, but given the game wasn’t successful it was hard to find the motivation to do it. If we had gone through the extra two weeks of effort to add character packs before the sale we could have easily walked away with $100,000.
Adding advertising is an option, but can be tricky if you have an existing customer base. There’s no better way to screw your paying customers than to add advertisements to an app that they paid for.
- Aggressively monitor and manage your apps in the store
I’ve met a lot of developers who think that they’re going to build an app put it in the store and it’s just going to take off. This almost never happens. Getting highly ranked in the store has to do with a number of factors – (1) having a good product, (2) marketing it well, (3) managing your app store presence. If you aren’t tracking your app rankings (with a tool like Applyzer) or your download/sales counts (with a tool like AppViz or AppSales) you aren’t really playing the game. Instrument your apps, track their performance, and adjust your approach accordingly.
What about Lite apps?
I mentioned earlier that we previously tried doing a lite app as a way to drive sales. Our lite app did do OK, but it never drove sales – in fact we believe it cannibalized them. We eventually dropped the Lite before Christmas so we could take advantage of Christmas sales without risking losing out due to the Lite version. Look at this graph:
OMB revenue after Lite was launched
After releasing the Lite version we saw no movement in sales numbers. This was in part due to the fact that it was hard to make a Lite app out of the game – we had to include about 80% of the game in the lite app, which doesn’t leave much value for the upsell.
OMB lite all-time downloads
Beyond not having a good line between our lite and paid app, customers seem to be skeptical of lite apps now. We did the lite app after we did our first sale where we saw over 8K downloads in one day. We figured damn, if the app did that well free, than the Lite version should do nearly as well. Not so. The Lite version never peaked above 1.2k downloads a day.
I believe Lite apps are for the most part a solution for a problem in the store that no longer exists. Now that you can have free apps with in-app purchase, making a second Lite app just doesn’t make as much sense. The very fact that it uses the word “Lite” in the name makes people suspicious that it is highly stripped down, and no one wants to waste their time on a stripped down app.
If there’s one tip I’d like to leave you with it’s this – KEEP TRYING. Most of the people who are successful in the App Game have put an extraordinary amount of effort into finding that success. For every app that found success easily (see iShoot and Trisim) there are at least a thousand that didn’t. The App Store is not easy money, but it is an amazing opportunity, and one that I’m grateful to be a part of.
Thank you to everyone who helped Ow My Balls! along the way, especially KRAPPS, The Appera, Eli Hodapp at TouchArcade, and TUAW. And thanks to those who never gave up faith that this could one day make it big.