Doodle Jump is now an icon of iPhone gaming, but it almost died at launch after selling just 21 copies on its first day of release. How did developer Lima Sky get from there to Doodle Jump being a more famous app than anything not called Angry Birds? The answer is a strange mix of snack food, bubble wrap, blogger nagging, brotherly co-operation and sheer luck.
Lima Sky co-founder Igor Pušenjak spoke at the One More Thing 2012 iOS app development conference in Melbourne over the weekend, and gave an in-depth insight into how Doodle Jump came about and how it became so successful: "a mobile game classic", in his own modest words. (By the way, Kotaku editor Mark Serrels is a Doodle Jump tragic, and he hasn't forgiven me for grabbing the chance to go to the event.)
I warmed to Igor immediately when he admitted that his interest in computing began when he and his brother Marko started writing programs for the ZX Spectrum a lifetime or more ago in Croatia. Both pursued careers in computing, but it wasn't until the emergence of the iPhone that they founded Lima Sky and began to work together.
The path to Doodle Jump
"Over the years we started working more and more in the computer field. We never really worked together, and over the years we always wanted to find a way for us to work together on some project," Igor said. The release of the iPhone provided that opportunity: not particularly because it was a great platform technically, but because Apple already had a ready audience of potential app buyers and a payment mechanism to take money from them.
"In 2007 Steve Jobs introduced the App Store for the iPhone and we both immediately saw the opportunity to really jump onto it. At the time the App Store was introduced, there were already 10 million people who had the iPhone and those 10 million already had their credit card information on file with Apple, and all it would take for them to purchase an app for 99 cents was a touch on a screen . . . our idea from the very beginning was just to create very simple apps that we would charge 99 cents for and we figured it would be very easy for people to actually spend 99 cents if they didn't have to fill out their credit card information and mailing address and all that."
Lima Sky's first app attempt was a bubble wrap emulator. "How difficult can it be to create a bubble wrap simulator?" The answer: it was harder than the Pušenjaks figured, especially as both had no Mac programming experience. "Three months into the process we were still working on it and it turned out to be more difficult than we thought." But it was one of the first titles on the App Store, and that conveyed a lesson: "Even such a simple little app could sell and could make you some money".
Subsequent titles included a Noughts & Crosses game, but the market evolved rapidly. "Suddenly we've seen the competition come in. More and more people started creating apps that were really good looking or 3D. We decided to do something else. Instead of try to compete with 3D immersive worlds, we decided to go in a different direction to find our blue ocean, and we looked at games for kids."
The first Lima Sky attempt in that field was a game called Eat Bunny Eat. It was a simple carrot-catching game, but it led to one of Igor's happier memories: "One of the actual best moments in my short life as a developer of iOS apps was reading a review from someone in the UK who purchased the app saying how they played the game in the pub trying to better each scores and screamed at each other 'Eat Bunny Eat' and I could just imagine twenty-somethings in a British pub drinking pints and screaming 'Eat bunny eat'! That gives you reason to continue."
Arguably a more important stage in the development of Lima Sky was AniMatch, a game where kids had to find a matching pair of animal heads. "One of the things we introduced in this game by design was the concept of updates. We launched a game with 10 animals with the idea that we would launch a new animal every week. You get a very fast initial release and then add more content over time. The reason why this is great is you actually see if the game is being liked by your audience or not."
That release also took advantage of a quirk in Apple's ranking methodology. "Apple had this system where every time you updated your app, it went to the top of the new releases. This way gave them a reason to come back to the game every single week and see what's new and keep it fresh. We started implementing that concept into our subsequent games." And the next game on the agenda was a little title called Doodle Jump.
Games as mental snack food
As well as incorporating frequent updates, Lima Sky wanted to ensure that Doodle Jump had an addictive quality, something Igor refers to as the 'digital snack' notion. "Apps are like digital snacks: they're bite sized and have them and play them anywhere you want in a very short period of time. They have to be addictive. They have to have that 'one more time' appeal."
But not everyone likes snacks when they first release them. "We created the game, we were really excited, we release it up to the App Store and boom! It sells 21 copies the very first day. It's The worst release day we've ever had of any of our apps, including some that only sold 500 copies in total."
What's remarkable is that it was only after that failure that Lima Sky began to think about marketing the title. "Up until March 2009, there was no need to do any kind of marketing," Igor said. "When the App Store launched, there were 500 apps total. I remember sitting outside and going through every single launch app just to see what's there."
But marketing was going to be needed to revive Doodle Jump. One crucial change was made to the game: the addition of the jetpack power-up. Then the effort to get the title written about began. "We started on a huge PR and media outreach." Repeated and individual contact with bloggers and writers garnered the game some coverage.
The parallel step was to continue with the notion of content updates, which provided fresh topics for the world to write about. "We started adding new themes for the holidays, and certain things that today are kind of a norm, but at the time we introduced them, it wasn't something that a lot of people thought about. It's that thinking of 'what else could we do to make this app stand apart from the crowd?'."
One of those steps was a cross-promotion with Pocket God, including the pygmies in Doodle Jump itself. "That was on the top of the list for a while around the time Doodle Jump launched. 'Hey guys, what about if we create a little Easter Egg?' We did it, and of course it got press interested because it was novel, and it got a lot of cross-promotion from the Pocket God audience into Doodle Jump. Suddenly everyone started calling and asking if they can put their characters in . . . At some point we had to start saying no."
All those steps led to the familiar Doodle Jump success story (at its peak, the app was selling 25,000 downloads a day consistently). But the lesson for aspiring developers is more complicated.
This mission can't be repeated
These days, Doodle Jump is a recognised part of mainstream popular culture. Rihanna plays it in Battleship. it gets referenced on The Big Bang Theory. It's even the subject of a mildly amusing sports-themed commercial for a US phone company:
Listening to Pušenjak speak, I was struck by how quickly the app universe has evolved since that time. These days, it would be a rare app that doesn't offer regular content updates, explore the opportunity to cross-promote another character. And it would be a rarer dev team that didn't think about marketing even before the coding had started. But someone had to do that first.
Can other games reach than pinnacle the same way? Frankly, the evidence is mixed. Competition on the App Store is intense now, and the tricks which Lima Sky discovered by accident are now standard practice.
There's also the problem that hugely successful titles like Doodle Jump themselves make it harder to enter the App Store charts and get noticed. "The more promotion you get in the first few days on the chart, the higher up you go on the chart," Kepa Auware from Rocketcat Games remarked at the conference. "[But] the top paid charts kind of cement after a while. There are games like Angry Birds and Doodle Jump in there and they'll probably never leave."
The barrier for entry has shifted, and our patience is shorter as well. Witness the insanely fast rise and fall of Draw Something, which managed to shed 5 million users in a month. The rules have changed, and it might not happen again. But for Pušenjak, the fact that it happened at all is clearly both fun and astonishing.