How I turned two iPhone apps into $2 million

shainieldeoThis article first appeared October 8, 2010.

Australia has produced several high-quality iPhone app development studios, and Brisbane-based Halfbrick is one taking the iOS market by storm. In just over six months, its two apps, Fruit Ninja and Monster Dash, have made the company over $2 million.

But chief executive Shaniel Deo says the company’s success has depended largely on its efforts in marketing, including viral pushes on Twitter and Facebook, along with a consistent effort to create new content and harbour a sense of community.

This effort pushed the company’s apps in the top 10 in the App Store at the same time, and even got the company time in an Apple advertisement. Deo says businesses need to think more about marketing and how they can create more buzz around their products.

When did Halfbrick start?

We started in February 2001, so we’ve been around for nine years. The company was initially formed after we came out of college, and we decided to start up our own company rather than go and work at an existing company. Developing games was something we were really passionate about.

We started by getting onto the NEIS, and that allowed us to begin. We worked on titles for the Nintendo Game Boy Advance, and progressed from there to the DS and Sony PSP. We had a little bit of money to start with, but it was really just our savings because we didn’t want investment. We wanted to be in total control and rejected outside interference.

We started doing work for publishers like THQ, Activision and EA. We got our break helping local developers and then we worked on some pretty high profile titles, like SpongeBob Squarepants and Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The App Store has been out for nearly two and a half years – why did it take you so long to move?

It’s really been in the last two or three years that we started to make the transition to digital distribution, and we’ve been self-publishing our games. Really we were attracted to that because it lets us self-publish. We did some games for the indie games channel on Xbox 360, and ironically you can’t purchase those in Australia, but they helped us build our brand.

From that, Sony contacted us about those games, and we moved them over to Sony portable consoles. And in the last six months, things have really taken off.

That’s a very quick timeframe for creating apps.

Certainly, and unlike a lot of companies, we came more from the console side. We had worked on the DS and PSP, they are portable consoles, so it took us awhile longer to get over onto the iOS platform. We thought we had the skills to make short, fun games and make them accessible and easily to play.

We started with Blast Off, which didn’t do very well because we designed a game that used buttons and didn’t use the touch-style controls as well. But then we moved on to Fruit Ninja and Monster Dash.

The video game industry was hit by the financial crisis. How did you fare?

We knew that we wanted to make that transition before the GFC even hit. We were strained, yes, but not as much as other companies. We had a number of games bringing in revenue and it was work that wasn’t work-for-hire. Most of the industry is based on that. And although we were strained because a couple of projects were cancelled, we had a lot of projects going on and working for us.

How did you develop a strategy for creating your games?

We took a look at what our strengths are, and we knew there was a market for fun, accessible games. We did them well. We also looked at the top 25 games in the App Store, and we looked at the strategies employed and how they built up their reputation.

So we started a process of getting contacts in the press, expanding that to iOS press generally as well – and then we studied what those games were doing right.

Marketing was a huge part of it all, and it played a huge role. We needed to get the viral word out through Twitter and Facebook, and we also incorporated things like allowing people to post about their scores, having leader boards and so on and encouraging competition. We had a strategy to keep updates our apps.

The App Store has hundreds of thousands of apps. How do you make sure yours are seen above the rest?

You’re going to launch, but you also want to have a number of things to back it up. And our strategy was to have everything refresh every three weeks. So people would keep the game on their devices, they would keep playing it, and that would spread the word-of-mouth. And actually, Twitter and so on have been the biggest methods through which the game has spread.

We also knew the launch had to be really big. We got in contact with a lot of the press, and gave them all press releases, but we put an embargo on them. So when the game was launched, all of a sudden we had this burst of information. We also did a viral trailer, which got a lot of attention. (The trailer features Halfbrick employees dressed in fruit, fighting each other in a park).

Was this responsible for putting you at the top of the chart?

We put a lot of emphasis in doing big in Australia, which helped us get to the top of the charts. We were number two in a matter of days, and that’s how Apple picked it up.

Were you surprised by the success?

You’re always surprised with the App Store. It’s a roll of the dice, and we knew we had a launch right. I guess I’m surprised at how quickly it’s taken off, because it’s been the top five ever since and doesn’t really move out of the spot much. It’s providing a constant stream of revenue, the tail on that game is phenomenal and it just keeps going.

And then you developed your next app, Monster Dash. What happened there?

Monster Dash was a great launch as well. That was the second game we worked on, and was actually more of a safer bet because we know there are games of similar genre. Fruit Ninja actually gave us the opportunity to market that, we just let our players know about the new game.

They were in the top 10 at the same time in Australia, and places two and three respectively. Right now, Monster Dash is approaching 400,000 sales.

Are you still working for publishers now?

We’re definitely not doing work for publishers. We’re finishing off a couple of titles we were doing, but iOS is going to be a big part of our platform and we’re going to be launching a lot of games on these devices. But we’re also moving across smartphones in general, we have Fruit Ninja for Android, and we think the smartphone market is going to be big for us.

What other advice would you have for businesses after how you pursued marketing your apps?

I think the whole process has shown how crucial marketing is. A lot of people don’t even think about marketing themselves until their product is finished, but we made sure that we had everything in place to go. It takes time to build relationships with the press, you can’t just finish a product and then get them to feature you.

We may spend X amount of dollars on development, and X on research, and we definitely reserved a slot for marketing. It’s just about making sure you make your money back and a decent profit. Marketing is often underrated or neglected, and it is so important.

The other aspect of what we found was the social aspect of it all, and the viral hooks. We need to make sure people can find out about our products, and that’s an important part of spreading our products far and wide.

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