Dev Survival Tips From The App Store Wilderness

Dev Survival Tips From The App Store Wilderness

Leigh Harris is a freelance journalist by day and a video game app developer by night. Or maybe it’s the other way around. However he chooses to juggle his work schedule, the director of Flat Earth Games knows a thing or two about getting a game into Apple’s App Store. Here are some of the chief lessons his team learned in the trenches while making the city-building game Towncraft.

#1 Enthusiasm dwindles, no matter how cool the game idea.

“Woah, man! That’d make an AWESOME GAME!”

As surely as that statement is undeniably true, the effort, time, money and sanity required to turn it from that concept into something you can play is always bigger than you think it’ll be.

If you think it’ll take roughly one Incredible Hulk worth of energy to get it off the ground, it’ll actually take one late-stage Katamari – you know, the stage where you’re rolling up whole countries.

Coming up with and even getting excited about an idea is the easy part, sustaining that excitement over years while the project comes to fruition is hard. This is doubly true when talking about a project like ours, which lacked funding. Myself and my brother Rohan were both creating TownCraft outside of our day jobs.

The artists, musicians and whatnot who were working with us were also on board for a cut of each copy sold, since we didn’t have the funds to pay anyone up front. This made enthusiasm a huge commodity. Anyone who didn’t have it could easily find excuses to prioritise their paying jobs over working for Flat Earth – myself and my brother included.

#2 No, you can’t just make your game.

The number of times I’ve relished in that naive thought while pouring over ASIC documents, filling out accounting and budgeting spreadsheets, writing marketing plans or attempting to comprehend incomprehensible legal documents is beyond count. Put simply, almost everyone who gets into making games for themselves who starts out indie like we did does it for the love of making games. No one does it because they’re an entrepreneur and genuinely believe that the insanely competitive, highly risky and wildly unpredictable market of games seems like a safe bet.

Dev Survival Tips From The App Store Wilderness

But like it or not, someone will end up having to do all the things necessary to run your own company. Dealing with tax, accountants, lawyers and marketing agencies will be par for the course. In short, no, you can’t just make your game. There are too many other things to do.

#3 What appears easy isn’t always so, and the same goes for what appears hard.

There have been various times throughout development where something I thought was going to be incredibly easy to implement was actually going to require Rohan to re-write half our code (like adding the ability for peasants to give you quests as they walk by). Then there were other things (having wind which has the tree sway slightly) which I assumed would be time consuming and were done in less time than it takes to down a Coopers Green.

Dev Survival Tips From The App Store Wilderness

No matter how much time I spend as a designer working on TownCraft or any of our other titles, I can never seem to figure out the rhyme or reason of what constitutes a massive shift in the way we code the game and what’s simple.

#4 Marketing is an exhausting necessity.

I spent many years working in PR for Rockstar Games prior to leaving and starting my own indie company with my brother. No matter how many times I’d been negotiating for the front cover feature on a magazine or pitching to major league newspaper editors, nothing can quite prepare you for confronting press outlet after press outlet with no cultural capital.

Dev Survival Tips From The App Store Wilderness

Why should any gaming site on the other side of the world care about my little game? Sure, they want to cover games, that’s why they’re there, but since there are so many millions of titles coming out every month (especially where mobile is concerned), what on Earth elevated my game above the crowd? Even positive responses and an earnest desire to grab a review code often don’t end up in coverage. Your ego needs to be ready to take a beating and still push on with those cold calls / cold emails.

Disheartening doesn’t do justice to it.

#5 Not everyone will play your game the way you think.

We launched TownCraft at PAX Australia (or slightly delirious selves are seen preparing for the show in the lead photograph), and if there’s one thing I’m severely grateful for, it’s having had the ability to watch dozens and dozens of people play the game, one after the other, with no introduction and no tutorial.

What people chose to do was a real eye-opener. What I considered logical (“Of COURSE you’d assume you’re meant to tap on a tree to harvest it”) was met with all manner of interpretations of our visual design and game layout that I’d never even dreamed of.

Dev Survival Tips From The App Store Wilderness

Someone once told me that the best way (sadly) to run a tutorial is to hold people’s hands and FORCE them to go through and do every little thing they need to know, no matter how infuriating that may be. Now, I loathe a hand-holding tutorial, but the speed with which people would put down TownCraft rather than explore and experiment for themselves was mind-bending.

Even now, with so many great reviews out there, there’s always this caveat that almost everyone will mention – this game throws you in the deep end.

That’s how we always wanted it, but the thing is, to us, the game as it now stands is actually very VERY training-wheely. That it appears the opposite to reviewers the world across is a clear indicator that our idea of hand-holding and others’ have a chasm in between into which you could fit every landfill copy of E.T. The Game.

TownCraft is a crafting and city-building game for iPad and iPhone devices set in a medieval world of peasants, nobles, grapes and turnips. Head to the official website to learn more.


  • I saw you guys at PAX, showing off TownCraft, and I had a go at it myself.

    I remarked to friends at the time that I really felt for the guys doing the demonstrations. The frustration and disappointment was very well restrained, but still visible on their faces. Especially by the third day. That was a pretty common theme among most of the indies, actually… I really felt for the some of the devs there who seemed pretty bummed about the reception to their baby.

    It’s an interesting point about people putting things down. From my own very sparse personal observations of others playing, folks actually looking up and asking how to do something was much more rare than I had expected. Instead, muddling through, waiting for something to become apparent in the UI, for some progression path to reveal itself is the norm, and when it didn’t suddenly manifest… *shrug* and, ‘I guess it’s not done yet?’

    As for the gulf of difference in what’s ‘intuitive’… well. I recommend sitting down and playing Portal 2 with friends and family and watching how differently people will arrive at solutions to the puzzles. It’s pretty eye-opening just how different everyone is. What stumps one person will seem obvious to another, and vice-versa.

    (Related reading you might enjoy:

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!