SketchParty TV for the new Apple TV: The Story so Far
In June of 2011 I had the privilege of attending Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). It was an incredible conference; I met some great people, and there was plenty of “free” Odwalla, and the sessions were jam-packed with information. My favorite sessions, the ones that had the most impact on me, were about a then-new technology called AirPlay Mirroring.
AirPlay Mirroring is a wireless streaming and display technology that allows an iOS device to share audio, video, and photos with the Apple TV. It also has a technology called AirPlay Second-display, which enables an iOS app to show a user interface on its screen and a separate, related UI on an HDTV screen. That’s useful for something like a flight simulator to show special cockpit controls on an iPad and the view of the terrain on the television.
When I first saw it demoed, I had an epiphany:
AirPlay Mirroring would be perfect for a party game.
When I returned home from WWDC, as is common for people like myself who do contract development work, I put the idea on the back-burner for awhile. But I didn’t stop thinking about it. I ended up deciding to do a drawing game like Pictionary (actually more like Win Lose or Draw, one of my favorite shows as a kid). From what I knew from following the App Store since the beginning, the only drawing-and-guessing game on iOS with any modicum of popularity was one called Charadium, so I figured I was entering a part of the market that wouldn’t be too terribly competitive, one where I could create a standout experience.
I also quickly decided on the name “SketchParty TV”. “Sketch Party” was fun to say, in my opinion, and I knew from the start that the game should have the word “TV” in it. As we’re seeing with many of the names for games and apps on the 4th generation Apple TV, others are having the same realization.
By the time I was able to begin work on the game in earnest, it was already February of 2012. And as luck would have it, the very next day after I created my Xcode project, OMGPOP released Draw Something.
When I saw Draw Something take off, I was momentarily crestfallen. They saw huge and rapid success with a model I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) match, and one that wouldn’t work for an AirPlay party game. But I decided to keep moving forward, and ended up releasing the first version of SketchParty TV in July of 2012.
It was met with very little fanfare. I didn’t know a lot about marketing then, I just knew that to have journalists want to write about your app you needed to have done something interesting. And that you needed to know them. I only really knew a couple journalists: a TV reporter at our local ABC affiliate named Rebecca Regnier, and an editor at a technology site called GottaBeMobile named Josh Smith.
Both were very kind to give me coverage for SketchParty TV. Rebecca gave me an interview and I organized a group to play the game in the background during it, and Josh wrote a really nice review, “SketchParty TV for iPad is Pictionary on Steroids with AirPlay”.
Eventually other sites started covering it, including The Loop, TouchArcade, and MacStories. And through Twitter, I’ve been able to contact and develop a rapport with some awesome journalists. To any of them that might be reading this, thank you for your kindness.
SketchParty TV has been on the App Store as an AirPlay game for just over three years now. It gets the most downloads by far at the holidays; I knew that was the type of game I was making going in. And I priced it accordingly, or so I thought, at between $4.99 and $7.99 (it’s settled at $5.99) — this was in the range of the price of a rental on iTunes, so I thought that was fair. It’s also far less than the cost of a boxed game of Pictionary, and in my view it’s more fun.
When Apple announced the 4th generation Apple TV in September, I was ecstatic. Finally, SketchParty TV could have a more prominent spot on people’s televisions. I couldn’t wait to get started making a native tvOS app. I’d even started a version of the app that I’ll probably still release at some point called SketchParty ToGo that uses Apple’s Multipeer Connectivity Kit, a way of connecting iOS devices using peer-to-peer Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
I mentioned to Steve Troughton-Smith on Twitter how I’d already started that other version and felt I had a good head start. I hadn’t read the API change docs yet, though, and he had, and pointed something out. Multipeer was missing from the tvOS SDK.
So that’d take some time to re-implement.
My wife and I went on a long-planned vacation to Seattle the week after the new Apple TV was announced. On the flight there, and in the early mornings (I’m on Eastern time, so I decided to go to bed and wake up early while there), I worked really hard on putting together the TV app UI, parallax app icon, and top shelf image (if you install SketchParty TV on your Apple TV, at least put the app in your top shelf momentarily, I think the art looks really nice there). I also worked on re-implementing the networking code.
I used an awesome library called CocoaAsyncSocket. It was really pretty easy to get up and running, but working out all the different commands and messages took a couple weeks (I also have a day job working on a contract iOS and web development gig for a genetics company).
It took about five weeks of evening and weekend work to get SketchParty TV ready for the new Apple TV. My first submission was rejected pretty quickly for the same reason many others have been: the reviewers at Apple are really good about testing all the scenarios for Menu button presses on the Siri Remote. It was a non-trivial change to do some additional state tracking, and I ended up pulling an all-nighter four days before the Apple TV App Store was going to go live. But I got it in on time!
The results have been promising so far. Here’s a screenshot of the download volume for SketchParty TV Free, which I’d released the month before the new Apple TV was announced.
iTunes Connect reports a greater than 999% increase in downloads. Just over 1,100 people have gotten it so far this week, and the daily average appears to be trending up. And the paid version isn’t slouching either, going from an average of five sales per day to, this past week, between 30 and 40 per day. (For what it’s worth, the paid version has been downloaded nearly 13,000 times in its three year tenure on the App Store. I originally hoped it would reach about 50,000 people. We’ll see what happens!)
I’m still hoping for download volume to go up, but right now I’m pretty happy with the results. My first app, MASH, found a much larger audience: it ended up as the number 1 Kids game for a time and was in the top 25 of all games, top 50 overall. That was a few years ago, though. I know that SketchParty TV is likely never going to see that kind of volume, it’s a completely different kind of app, audience, and market now.
That’s ok with me.
I’ve had a blast making SketchParty TV. MASH is a kids game, and I wanted to make SketchParty for whole families (and classrooms — the word list editor is used to great success by teachers around the United States). It’s been one of my most challenging projects, and one from which I’ve learned a great deal about software development and marketing.
I’ve also got some great stuff in the works for SketchParty TV. The new Apple TV opens up some incredible opportunities for in-person gaming experiences for families.
Addendum (new download numbers)
Apple just updated “downloads by device” breakdowns to include Apple TV, so I’ve decided to make an addendum to this post with a graph of the new numbers. Since the launch of the 4th gen Apple TV, SketchParty TV and SketchParty TV Free have been download 2.9K times. The day following this post saw many more downloads than I believe it would have otherwise; thank you to those that read this article and for trying out SketchParty TV last weekend.
Addendum 2 (Thanksgiving 2015)
I’ve written a new post about how SketchParty TV did this Thanksgiving. You can find it here if you’re interested.