(Note: This was written in 2012! Some of it is still applicable, but most of it should be taken with a grain of salt.)

We’ve been releasing apps on the iOS App Store for about a year now and have three apps in the store (our games “Drifts” and “Coign of Vantage”, and a sandbox game / interactive toy named “CellShades”). Although we’ve tried our best to do our homework and read up on how to do business on the App Store before our first release, there are numerous things that eluded us when we started out.

In this series of posts, I’ll try to summarize some of the things we learned over the year. This is by no means a comprehensive list – just a series of items that I would have liked to read about when we worked on our first app. Part 2 is here, and part 3 here!

Be wary of outdated information

The App Store is an environment that is ever changing, in terms of the competition, in terms of what users like in an app, and in terms of the inner workings of the store and the rules set forth by Apple.

While the early days of iPhone development yielded story after story of lone indie devs taking the charts by storm and then using the momentum of high ranks to stay there, these days dozens of big fish wield enormous marketing budgets to fight for the coveted top 25 spots, and surprise hits are considerably less common. While players might still find the idea of collecting coins to buy little hats for their avatars fun now, they may just as well be tired of it in another six months. And while giving out promo codes in exchange for user reviews or making your game free for a day to rise up the charts used to work great a couple of years ago, Apple has changed the way the App Store works to remove these ways of gaming the system.

The bottom line is, you should take any information about what works well on the App Store that is older than six months with a large grain of salt; and much more so, if the information could be considered to be exploiting loopholes in the store. Any advice older than a year is probably not worth taking. To save you from scrolling up: this article was written in May 2012.

I’d also suggest considering possible future developments before resorting to black hat techniques such as buying fake user reviews. Apple has explicitly stated that such behavior may be grounds for terminating your account, and just because they aren’t cracking down on the cheaters now doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t.

If you pick a name for your app, you have 180 days to finish it.

This came as quite a surprise for us (guess whether it was a pleasant one!):

From the day you create your app in iTunes Connect, you have 180 days to upload a binary. After 150 days or so, you’ll get a few reminder e-mails telling you that if you don’t finish your app, the name will be available for another developer to use. What they don’t tell you, though, is that you won’t be able to re-register the name yourself (as opposed to an expired domain name, which becomes available to the world, including you).

Since you need to create and name your app in iTunes Connect in order to add things like Game Center support or iAPs, this is something to really look out for if your project is big or you’re doing it on the backburner.

We’ve run into this with our own game “Coign of Vantage”. To be fair, we sent Apple an e-mail stating our case at the time, and we did receive a 120 day extension. But they took more than a month to reply, and just because they resolved our issue doesn’t mean they will do the same for you.

If your project could take more than half a year to complete, it might make sense to start it under a different name, which you can delete from iTunes Connect later on. (Disclaimer: I haven’t checked whether this is against any of Apple’s rules)

Update: Another way that appears to still work is to upload a dummy binary when the deadline arrives and then self-reject it.

Don’t mess up your placement in the “New Releases” list

While its importance has declined a lot in the past couple of years, the “new releases” list in the App Store gives you a few guaranteed sales and some muchly needed initial exposure. Since you’ll need all the momentum you can get, make sure your app doesn’t hit one of the few remaining obstacles that mess up its placement on the list:

If your app is approved and released after the release date you specify, it enters the “new releases” list a few pages back (which means nobody will find it), so when submitting your app for review, pick a release date a few months in the future. Only once the app has been approved should you set the date back to the actual date you want to release it. Set its release to at least one full day after the current date.

I’ve also heard that before your app is released, you can only change the release date once without messing up your “new releases” placement. I have no idea whether that’s true, but I’d rather play it safe. Your app will only be placed in the “new releases” list of the primary category you choose. The secondary category will be ignored.

The “new releases” list is sorted by alphabet by day, so all other things equal, apps that start with letters A to C will have a slight edge over other apps which may appear on the second or third page.

Submit your first update on the day you launch

Whether you’ll spend them on review sites, giveaways, or your twitter followers, during launch week you’ll quickly run out of the 50 promo codes Apple provides for your app. As you get a fresh batch of codes with every update and an update normally takes about a week to pass Apple’s review, you’ll want your first update to go through as quickly as possible. Keep a minor feature or a couple of levels out of the initial release, and submit your version 1.1 the day your app hits the App Store.

If your release date is after the approval date, it might even be worth submitting your first version before the app goes live, although I don’t know if that behavior could raise any red flags at Apple.

Update: You can now also buy promo codes for your own game as gifts (effectively at 30% the price of your app, as you earn 70% back for the sales), and hand them out. These come with the advantage that people who use them can leave a review on the App Store, which you can’t do with regular promo codes.

Update 2: Josef points out that purchased promo codes are only valid in the country that they are bought in. So if you need to gift promo codes to people outside of the US or you’re not a US resident, make sure you have an iTunes account in your target market!

Expedited Apple review requests

Any update you submit to Apple will go through the same review process as a new app, which is to say, it will take about a week to go through, provided everything checks out okay. If you discover a critical bug on launch day, a week could be what makes or breaks your release buzz. For such situations, Apple gives you the option of requesting an expedited review at this URL: https://developer.apple.com/appstore/contact/appreviewteam/index.html

Expedited reviews are granted on a limited basis, so be prepared to state a good reason why your update should get preferential treatment. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if crying wolf too often could get your account flagged.

Use a third-party tool to generate sales reports

Let’s face it, as far as monitoring your sales and download data is concerned, iTunes Connect is rubbish. You can either look at graphs for the downloads, sales, iAPs and updates of all your apps lumped together, or you can download an Excel sheet with raw data. You should also be aware that iTunes Connect only keeps track of your sales during the past couple of months. If you want to look at sales stats from last year, you’re out of luck.

There are numerous free services around that provide much better data, AppAnnie being the one we are using. The way this works is you hand AppAnnie your iTunes Connect credentials, and once a day the service pulls the sales data from there, combining it with data they gather from the web.

You can then get a daily report of your exact revenue (from all App Stores combined) and downloads separated by app, your ranking in the various stores, any new reviews of your apps, and other things. You can also check out sales graphs that go back for as long as AppAnnie had access to your iTunes Connect account.


2 Responses to Lessons learned on the App Store – part 1

  1. Orionnoir says:

    Thank you for sharing this! I wish I had read this before we launched our last game. We hit EVERY one of these bumps you mentioned. Every bit of this was relevant to us as well.

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