How To Make Sure No One Ever Downloads Your App

What happens if you do no PR whatsoever, and ideas from pros on how to recover

This story was originally published on Appszoom.

  • The unfolding story of The Spatials, a free, high-quality iPad game that totally flopped upon release
  • Kickass mobile PR pros (Novy, Noodlecake, and Emily Morganti) analyze what happened and what they would have done differently

Carlos and Max ​Carrasco are Weird & Wry, a mobile dev team based in Barcelona, Spain. For the past year and a half, they’ve poured their time and effort into putting together a space-themed strategic building and exploration game called The Spatials.

At the beginning of May 2014, The Spatials was accepted into the App Store as a free, ad-supported iPad title with minimal in-app purchases. One month later: downloads and revenue have flatlined.

Weird & Wry’s story is far too common among indie devs. What went wrong here?

What happens if you develop an indie game for mobile and do no PR whatsoever

Carlos wrote up the story of The Spatials on the TIG forums (famous for Notch’s original announcement and initial public development of Minecraft).

The basic timeline:

  • Early 2013: Driven by stories of indie devs Making It and Living The Life, the brothers began with a full 3D prototype, built using a custom engine.
“5 million tris from thousands of objects in ~200 draw calls at 30FPS, on the slowest retina iPad at full res. Procedurally animated too.”
  • Summer 2013: End of 3D prototype (too great in scope). Began work on 2nd game concept, more text based.
“Old-school, completely non-interactive, and induced sleep in most test subjects.”
  • Late 2013: End of text based game (worked, but wasn’t very fun). Began work on The Spatials, a strategic building/exploration game.
“Half of your time would be spent managing and building up the asteroid colony for your officers to live in, and the other half would be about visiting exotic locales and doing very interesting science. The kind of science done with large caliber guns and high explosives.”
  • May 2014: The Spatials 1.0.0 for iPad completed. Released to the App Store as soon as it was accepted — with no PR/marketing pitch whatsoever.

In terms of further dissemination, the Touch Arcade forums picked up on the release somehow, and there was a fairly long thread with plenty of interaction between users and the devs. There was never an actual TA review done, however, given that there was no contact between Weird & Wry and the TA review staff.

The devs made a Steam Greenlight page in the hopes of bringing the title to desktop as well. The page lacked a video for the first few days, predictably generating initial negative feedback.

The dev’s asked us not to share exact numbers, but downloads at this point hover around 5K total.
Revenue has been under four figures total. A single purchase can skew the graph completely.

There was an initial peak in downloads, likely due to a combination of the TA forums post and automated content aggregators picking up their release. The rush quickly dropped off to nearly nonexistent.

The devs have the equivalent of a year and a half’s worth of work on their hands and little idea of how to get it to users. The small handful of user feedback from Reddit, TIG, and Touch Arcade has been fairly positive, and Appszoom vouches for The Spatials as Definitely Awesome, with plenty of room for growth.

I just launched my mobile app and no one is downloading it. What now?

I spoke with three mobile PR wizards about Weird & Wry’s story:

  • Luis Levy of Novy, who quit a giant, well-known PR firm in order to work exclusively with indie devs.
  • Ryan Holowaty of Noodlecake, which is both a porting and publishing entity and an indie game studio itself.
  • Emily Morganti, who used to work for Telltale before morphing into a freelance PR consultant, working as such for the past five years.
Promo screenshot for The Spatials

What would you have done differently in this story? We have a feeling it’s a very common one.

RH: First and foremost, I would’ve submitted the app to as many news sites as possible, obviously. On top of that, I would’ve got more of the development community involved. As most devs are happy to help aspiring game makers, the goal is to get the game in front of those who might have more influence than you do. If they champion your game, then others will take notice. Or at the very least they will provide input on how to make the game better.

In addition, sell your story just as much as the game. Coming off rigid and robotic when talking to press hardly works. Explain what the game is, how you made it and what makes it great on a personal level. Editors are much more likely to gravitate towards games with a story than some formulaic press post. At the very least, personalize your emails to each site/editor you send it to.

LL: Once all the assets are ready, it’s important to cover all the bases. Basic activities include:

  • (a) Drafting a well-written, succinct press release with little to no “fluff”;
  • (b) Distributing it via a wire service such as Business Wire;
  • (c) Creating two pitches: one for pre-launch, and one focusing on the launch itself; and
  • (d) Pitching to the press 10 days prior to launch (pre-launch) and touching base again on launch day.

Then, it’s time to send the pre-launch pitch to all relevant sites — keeping in mind that some may only write about iOS games/apps, while others (such as Rock, Paper, Shotgun) might stick to PC-only titles. Knowing who to pitch is actually more important than the pitch itself!

EM: The App Store is big and crowded and it’s very hard for an indie to get noticed. I started doing PR for mobile games in 2010, and this has been more true every year.

So my first suggestion is to consider a multi-platform release—if you have the ability to bring your game to PC and are already thinking about that, do it and spread the love! If you launch on PC and iOS simultaneously, or at least start talking about the PC version during the lead-up to your iOS launch, you have the potential to attract interest from press who cover PC games and the audience who reads PC and general gaming sites. It opens up many more coverage opportunities.

Promo screenshot for The Spatials

What could Weird & Wry do now to fix the mess? They’ve got a high quality app on their hands and no idea how to get it to interested users.

RH: Continue to get involved in the community. Be active on social media with not only fans but other developers and press. Locate gaming communities on forums and websites that share a similar interest with the game and try to keep them engaged.

Also, get out to player based events. Submit your app to Indiecade or Pax or something that will show your title off to players.

EM: I don’t want to say there’s nothing they can do, but gaming press are more likely to cover games when they’re new. There’s less urgency to cover something that’s already been out for months, and reviews that trickle in months after launch won’t necessarily have a big impact.

They could still do personal outreach to the types of people they want to see covering it. At the very least, this will help lay groundwork for their next game and might have an unexpected payoff if the game catches the eye of the right person at a big site. Posting a post-mortem can help gain exposure in the indie community, and getting the game included in a bundle or promotion (like Free App a Day) can help too.

Since the game is in the works for another platform, be more on top of PR for the PC release and tack the iOS game onto it. For example, when writing to someone about the upcoming PC version they could say something about how it’s not playable for PC yet, but they can send over an iOS promo code if to check out the already released mobile version.

Post-release might also be a good time to look into targeted advertising (like Facebook and Google Adwords), since the “old news” factor you’ll encounter with reviewers doesn’t come into play there.

LL: Tough question. If the launch failed completely, it’s better to start over from scratch. The developer would need to pull the game out of all the app stores and spend some time improving it based on user feedback. Once a new version is ready, the title will need to be changed slightly as well (you can’t submit the same game twice and expect it to be in two different listings). A re-launch effectively turns back time and gives developers another shot. It’s far from an ideal scenario, but it’s certainly better than to simply fail.

If the game was well received by editors but didn’t get any sales — or it received a few thousand reviews — then pulling it is not a great choice. It’s better to spend time creating a 1.5 version — a sequel of sorts. It needs to be big enough to warrant its own PR push. Once the sequel is ready, it would need a full launch campaign. This way, any accolades associated with the original title would remain — and the life of the game could be extended through a new-and-improved version. Examples of new titles might be: The Spatials: Reloaded, The Spatials: Complete, The Spatials Strike Again.

Promo screenshot for The Spatials

Haven’t released your app yet? Need a crash course in indie mobile PR? These three pros gave me the low-down.

Check out The Spatials on iPad or the new version for PC/Mac (now under development). As an ex-Alpha Centauri junkie, I loved it.