Dr. Carla Fisher is a game designer and digital strategist with fingerprints on more than 300 games for kids and families. She continues her musings outside this blog via a free weekly newsletter (sign up here) that curates articles, videos, and games that catch her eye. She can be reached at KidsGotGame@NoCrusts.com or @NoCrusts.
I’ll guess you’ve seen a zombie apocalypse movie or game at some point. When the world is overrun with zombies, anyone who is not yet a zombie has a singular goal — survival.
The mobile app market is experiencing its own apocalypse right now. The market is flooded with way more apps than consumers need. There are 107,984 apps in the Apple App Store Education category and more than 1 million active apps total (148apps.biz). The Amazon App Store for Android lists more than 11,000 apps in the education category, 600 of which were released in the last 30 days.
Most education apps are lucky to see 1,000 paid downloads, even at rock-bottom prices. While some developers are commanding higher prices of $2.99 per app or more, it’s still a long road to viable revenue-generating business.
The “yes, there’s an app for that” culture and low barrier to entry has led thousands to create apps. Now they’re discovering that it’s a hostile climate and we’re all in the business of surviving the mobile app apocalypse, if I may be so dreary at the shiny beginning of a new year.
So how does one survive?
1. Take shelter and wait it out
Unlike a zombie apocalypse where you generally have to fight or become a brain-eater, you have the option of packing it in and waiting out the app market rather than trying to grow a business in one of the most competitive times ever. Waiting it out might mean focusing on other aspects of the business until there’s a more advantageous moment or it might mean shelving the app model completely. Please take a moment to consider what path makes the most sense for you.
But I suspect you are not reading this simply to get permission to leave the industry. You’re reading it because you really want your app to become a success. So onward…
2. Stock up on money
Just like how zombie apocalypse survivors must keep food and water stocked, surviving the app apocalypse is not cheap. Great creative and programming talent costs money. So does marketing. Most folks are going to ask for a fee for their services. They know the realities of the market, too, and so very few are going to be willing to work in exchange for a revenue share.
3. Barter where you can
That said, in a post-apocalyptic economy, traditional modes of payment often break down and trading essentials becomes necessary for survival. if you find yourself able to negotiate a revenue share to offset costs, it’s well worth considering, particularly for key team members. Stretch those dollars for as long as possible. Consult a professional when setting up a rev share deal, however, so that you avoid headaches down the road.
4. Define the metrics that matter
In most zombie apocalypses, simply killing all the zombies in sight doesn’t really stop the apocalypse. Sure, the body count looks good, but somewhere, there’s more zombies hiding, waiting for the sequel invasion. Most zombie apocalypses require a solution more cunning than simply killing all the zombies. (See World War Z for an example.)
The zombie-body-count metric is akin to judging success by the amount of revenue your app brings in. Is it one way to measure success? Sure, if the money is coming in, that’s great. But is it the metric that actually matters for your business to succeed?
Other metrics can be a better measures of a thriving business. Are you building a list that you can use to promote future products? How much time do users spend in your product? What features are people really drawn to? Can you successfully recreate those features in new products and leverage that traction further?
While it’s important to keep an eye on your profit-and-loss metrics when you’re building a business, it can hamper your view, forcing you to focus on the short-term gains rather than the longer term success.
5. Place yourself in a defensible position
When you’re surrounded by zombies, your odds aren’t great. But when you’re in a tall building, boarded up with shopping carts, cars, boards, and filing cabinets, you have a shot at defending yourself.
In the app world, this goes back to building the best damn product you possibly can. (You could reasonably argue that this entire list is about building the best products.) But beyond the metrics, marketing, and business development, you still have to build an amazing app, that’s steeped in developmental psychology and engaging game mechanics and carefully tested and improved upon over the development cycle. Refer to our post How to Build a Children’s App for a rundown on all the resources we’ve aggregated so far.
6. Ruthlessly destroy the weak
In this climate, only the best ideas will survive. Do yourself a favor. If you know you’ve got a so-so app concept, if you discover something already to market that’s very similar, or if a trusted someone tells you your idea is weak, figure out how to make it amazing (quickly) or set it aside. Don’t let the bad ideas pull you down, even if you’ve already spent money and time on the idea.
7. Recruit an army
The development team you use to create the product is important, but in the end, you need an army of users to ensure success. That means correctly leveraging social media, email lists, and other tools to recruit a loyal following of kids, parents, and any other relevant target demographic. With each product you release, you should be growing your list, not starting over again, and encouraging word of mouth growth. (Zombies do this literally… har har…) For more on how to approach marketing, check out my post on marketing to kids and families. Remember, you’re building a brand, not just a single product. You need a fan base who will loyally follow your products to any device, iPhone, Kindle, television, or otherwise.
As in any and all battles, knowing when and where to launch an attack is key. When you’ve done all your homework, made the amazing products, nurtured the community of users, and pulled every string you can to align the sun, moon, stars, and Jupiter in your favor, then you must wait for the exact right moment to launch. You don’t have to launch the moment your app is approved by the app stores. You can wait for your auspicious date of choice.
Consult your networks and competition’s social media to see if there’s other products launching on your planned day that might cut in your opportunities for press. (For example, launching the same day as a new Toca Boca, Sago Sago, Nick Jr, PBS KIDS, or other major brand app is probably not a great idea.) Prepare the press lists. Reach out to key people.
These are all things I did in preparing to launch Stride & Prejudice, which I talk about in the post How My Game Reached #14 in the Apple Education App Store. Do everything you can to make sure that you’re launching big and strong. (Unless you’re doing a soft launch and test, in which case shift all of this advice to the day that you do the full launch!)
9. Settle in for a long fight
Building a successful app business is a marathon, not a sprint. A single app is not going to magically hit it big and lead to great wealth.
Think of all those great authors who were repeatedly rejected before their amazing book was finally published. Game designers don’t get it right on the first try either.
- Angry Birds was Rovio’s 52nd game
- Toca Boca released at least four apps before Hair Salon (Toca Doctor, Paint My Wings, Toca Tea Party, Helicopter Taxi)
- King made a large number of games before Candy Crush Saga
- Plain Vanilla, creators of the amazing hit game QuizUp, worked for two years before they hit it big
The mobile landscape is littered with countless examples that demonstrate that it takes a long time to build a successful business, not to mention luck. And for each one that finally made it big, hundreds didn’t. We rarely hear the stories of the ones who never made it.
In the survival game of the app stores, you have to create your own luck. But the good news is that you’re not alone.