imangi_gdcDay two of the Game Developers Conference in Austin, TX began with a talk by husband and wife duo Keith Shepherd and Natalia Luckyanova of Imangi Studios. Keith began the talk detailing the history of Imangi and how they approach making iPhone games.

Imangi Studios was founded in June 2008, based in Washington DC and neither Keith or Natalia had any kind of game industry background. The App Store created a market that would allow Imangi Studios to create low cost high quality casual games, and now have over half a million downloads across their five games on the App Store. Their most popular game Harbor Master [$0.99] reached a peak rank of #3 in Top Paid Apps with over 11,000 sales in one day.

Design Process

When Imangi Studios makes games, they start with paper brain storming in notebooks filled with sketches and other ideas. The hardest part is determining of those ideas what is going to be the most enjoyable for everyone (including themselves) to play and of course using a concept that has wide appeal is important to appealing to the large casual user base.

Like many iPhone developers, Imangi puts lots of emphasis on making sure games that are extremely intuitive, take advantage of the unique iPhone features, and with a good balance of a game experience that allows you to play for a few minutes at a time or a few hours at a time.

  • Fast Prototyping - Imangi Studios' prototyping process has changed quite a bit since they started. They now focus on a quick and dirty concept based largely around the gameplay mechanic and then get lots of feedback to see if people think the game is fun before continuing. The most important thing when creating a game is making sure that the concept of the game is fun.

    Keith explains that while this sounds obvious, Little Red Sled started as a "Let's see if we can make a 3D sledding game." instead of "Let's make a really fun game." When they started with it, they didn't have an idea of what was going to be fun about the game and instead they had the engine built, the basic gameplay working, and then had to figure out how to make it fun. On top of that, instead of the normal 2 month development cycle, Imangi Studios had invested nearly 6 months of time into it. In contrast, Harbor Master's prototype was playable inside of 2 days, and the gameplay mechanic was hammered down inside of a week.

  • Icon Importance - The Harbor Master icon went through 8 iterations with multiple versions of each. Keith stressed how important the icon design is and making sure your icon pops out both on the App Store and on the phone. Important things to do are mock ups with your icon with your icon in the top 25, on the device, and next to similar apps to make sure it still stands out even if it makes it to the top of the charts or if a user has your icon right next to another similar game on their phone.

    icons

  • Alpha and Beta Testing - Beta testing is extremely important, originally Imangi started small with very limited beta tests. Currently they "alpha" test showing the game concepts at prototype to friends, other developers, and people who don't usually play games. Once the concept is solid, they move on to larger beta pools such as users on the Touch Arcade forums who have done great work for Imangi Studios.

    They also get people who don't play a lot of games, like their parents. Watching people play your game is important, and seeing what they are drawn to and how they play the game.

Marketing and Promotion

Natalia then took over the presentation to discuss their marketing and promotion. Imangi spends 40-50% of their time marketing their products, but Imangi has never used a publisher because they want to build their own brand, and they've never used a PR firm because their marketing budget is nonexistent. Putting great importance on the launch of games, Imangi focuses most of their marketing efforts on the initial release of the game to have the biggest rush out the door.

Marketing goals for the release of their games is creating a great community buzz and getting listed in the New Releases on iTunes. Obviously, getting on the top 100 is important because that's where most of the eyes on the App Store are. Positive reviews on sites and iTunes are also important.

  • Create Buzz - Engaging the community is the best way to have a huge launch, so don't keep your game releases a secret. The App Store is crowded, so if you don't create pre-release buzz your game will be a secret because no one will ever hear of it. Before Harbor Master even launched, nearly 500 people had posted in the pre-release TouchArcade thread with 15,000 views.
  • Cross Promote - Cross promotion is also important, and Imangi's games all go through App Treasures, a group of indie developers that all promote each others' games within their games.
  • Forums and Social Media - Imangi utilizes the Touch Arcade forums along with social media such as Twitter and real-life outlets such as GDC or iPhone meetups. Pictures are better than words and Natalia emphasizes how important screenshots and video are to show your game instead of typing a bunch of text for people to read about your game. She also implores developers to be nice because people on forums are going to be very direct about their criticism. "You will be told you suck."
  • Getting Featured - Getting noticed by the press is important because while you're reaching users, more importantly, you're reaching Apple. Natalia feels it's fairly obvious that Apple often features apps based on what's reviewed on the big iPhone gaming sites. Natalia doesn't deny that getting featured is like winning the lottery, but doing everything you can to generate buzz can only help you get noticed by Apple to be chosen to be featured.

    featured

  • Frequent Updates - Natalia also feels constant updates is important to maintaining sales, citing Pocket God as an example of a game that has sustained itself since its release with a constant stream of updates.
  • Move On - Overall, if your game isn't successful and hasn't taken off, Natalia stresses that sometimes it's just time to move on. If a game isn't taking off, global high scores isn't going to be the piece of the puzzle that makes your game a success. Being realistic about your expectations with what you make is important, it is going to be nearly impossible to break in to the match 3 or slide puzzle market. As most things in life, learning from your mistakes and failures is important. The original game Imangi was difficult to understand how to play, Harbor Master barely even requires instructions.

The App Store is an incredibly indie friendly market place, with your small company size and low overhead you can experiment and react quickly to what happens in the market. You can also built relationships with players, something that has really never happened with big studios in the past before the iPhone.

  • kanye west

    hey harbor master ima let you finish but FLIGHT CONTROL has one of the best iphone games of ALL TIME

    • http://www.tapdatapp.blogspot.com/ Tap Dat App

      LOL First Taylor Swift, now Harbor Master? Kanye Strikes Again!! xD

    • Anonymous

      Flight Control is great, but the reason the gameplay with Harbor Master is better is that once you've docked the boats, you still have to re-launch them on their merry way. In FC, once you land a plane, it miraculously disappears (Bermuda Triangle?) Since when do air traffic controllers only LAND the planes? I can understand that on an aircraft carrier, but not at an airport. Why don't you ever need to send a plane away for take-off?

      From Beyonce.

    • Chris Snoop

      Wasn't expecting that but that was funny as hell.

  • kanye west

    hey harbor master ima let you finish but FLIGHT CONTROL has one of the best iphone games of ALL TIME

    • http://www.tapdatapp.blogspot.com/ Tap Dat App

      LOL First Taylor Swift, now Harbor Master? Kanye Strikes Again!! xD

    • Anonymous

      Flight Control is great, but the reason the gameplay with Harbor Master is better is that once you've docked the boats, you still have to re-launch them on their merry way. In FC, once you land a plane, it miraculously disappears (Bermuda Triangle?) Since when do air traffic controllers only LAND the planes? I can understand that on an aircraft carrier, but not at an airport. Why don't you ever need to send a plane away for take-off?

      From Beyonce.

    • Chris Snoop

      Wasn't expecting that but that was funny as hell.

  • http://www.RockingPocketGames.com RPGGuy

    aw. You just stepped on a kitten.

  • http://www.RockingPocketGames.com RPGGuy

    aw. You just stepped on a kitten.

  • http://www.buzzabit.com/aaron Aaron Sullivan

    Hey, thanks for articles like this. Gonna need all the help I can get. :)

  • http://www.buzzabit.com/aaron Aaron Sullivan

    Hey, thanks for articles like this. Gonna need all the help I can get. :)

  • http://www.iphone-fun.co.uk/splojit Matt Hardy

    Great article & good to hear some insight into Imangi. I'm a big Harbor Master fan!

    Good to see some useful tips too - I recently had my first app called 'splojit' released in the AppStore ( link-> http://bit.ly/splojit ) and am working hard to get the word out - so the tips above are really helpful.

    Thanks :)
    Matt

  • http://www.iphone-fun.co.uk/splojit Matt Hardy

    Great article & good to hear some insight into Imangi. I'm a big Harbor Master fan!

    Good to see some useful tips too - I recently had my first app called 'splojit' released in the AppStore ( link-> http://bit.ly/splojit ) and am working hard to get the word out - so the tips above are really helpful.

    Thanks :)
    Matt

  • http://chesstris.com/ Martin

    I'm curious how the following statement follows the heading "Move On", or even the "learn from your mistakes" sentiment:

    "The original game Imangi was difficult to understand how to play, Harbor Master barely even requires instructions."

    It's important to remember that Imangi was a successful game, and one that totally launched their name into any sort of publicity or limelight. Sure, maybe it took some reading to understand, but at least it was an original idea (at least, I think it was at the time), and I think suggesting a game needs to be super simple in order to succeed is actively ignoring one of the contributors to their own success!

    I actually read a similar sentiment in the latest copy of Casual Connect last night, and it really pissed me off. Many complex games are extremely popular and successful. I'd also argue that just because something takes more than a few seconds to understand that does not (nor should it) exclude it from being a casual game.

  • http://chesstris.com/ Martin

    I'm curious how the following statement follows the heading "Move On", or even the "learn from your mistakes" sentiment:

    "The original game Imangi was difficult to understand how to play, Harbor Master barely even requires instructions."

    It's important to remember that Imangi was a successful game, and one that totally launched their name into any sort of publicity or limelight. Sure, maybe it took some reading to understand, but at least it was an original idea (at least, I think it was at the time), and I think suggesting a game needs to be super simple in order to succeed is actively ignoring one of the contributors to their own success!

    I actually read a similar sentiment in the latest copy of Casual Connect last night, and it really pissed me off. Many complex games are extremely popular and successful. I'd also argue that just because something takes more than a few seconds to understand that does not (nor should it) exclude it from being a casual game.

  • alma

    this doesn't seem success story, they worked for 6 months and sold 142.000 Harbor Master apps ~ $142k - 33% Apple = $94K for x men
    and this app was in top 3... This App Store business is not enough good business

    • http://www.imangi.com Natalia

      Wow, a lot of assumptions in those numbers.... I'm just going to say that they're wrong :)

    • AttackOfThePwned

      Going off your guesstimates, $94k/2 = $47k. Making that amount in a six month time frame is more than a lot of people make in one year. In no way would I think that is bad business when you consider they had no background in game development.

      You are not going to see the $250k+ stories as time goes on with the App Store. Look at eBay, it has grown to where a lot of home business minded people can make a decent living off of their sales. They are not rich but they make it and working for yourself is basically what it is all about.

      I never want to go back to working for someone else based on the fact that I have freedom now with my own business. Yes I work more but I feel much more accomplished knowing that my decisions mean something.

      I would say Imangi is making it by just fine in the current App Store economy.

      • http://splendid-things.co.uk/getrunning Benjohn

        Totaly agree with you, Mr(?) AttackOfThePwned.

        Those aren't stella, overnight millionaire numbers, but what did you expect? Becoming rich and successful to be easy? It's a job, not a scratch card!

        My App's in the health a fitness category, so it's quite a different market. But… I've invested probably 10K in its development (in terms of what I would have earned if I'd been working). I'm expecting to get back probably 30K or 40K. I'm not expecting to become a millionaire, I'm just expecting to enjoy building things that people love using, and that I care about passionately. If I can keep on doing that, I'll be a very contented man.

  • alma

    this doesn't seem success story, they worked for 6 months and sold 142.000 Harbor Master apps ~ $142k - 33% Apple = $94K for x men
    and this app was in top 3... This App Store business is not enough good business

    • http://www.imangi.com Natalia

      Wow, a lot of assumptions in those numbers.... I'm just going to say that they're wrong :)

    • AttackOfThePwned

      Going off your guesstimates, $94k/2 = $47k. Making that amount in a six month time frame is more than a lot of people make in one year. In no way would I think that is bad business when you consider they had no background in game development.

      You are not going to see the $250k+ stories as time goes on with the App Store. Look at eBay, it has grown to where a lot of home business minded people can make a decent living off of their sales. They are not rich but they make it and working for yourself is basically what it is all about.

      I never want to go back to working for someone else based on the fact that I have freedom now with my own business. Yes I work more but I feel much more accomplished knowing that my decisions mean something.

      I would say Imangi is making it by just fine in the current App Store economy.

      • http://splendid-things.co.uk/getrunning Benjohn

        Totaly agree with you, Mr(?) AttackOfThePwned.

        Those aren't stella, overnight millionaire numbers, but what did you expect? Becoming rich and successful to be easy? It's a job, not a scratch card!

        My App's in the health a fitness category, so it's quite a different market. But… I've invested probably 10K in its development (in terms of what I would have earned if I'd been working). I'm expecting to get back probably 30K or 40K. I'm not expecting to become a millionaire, I'm just expecting to enjoy building things that people love using, and that I care about passionately. If I can keep on doing that, I'll be a very contented man.

  • alma

    I bet, coming up the holiday version of HM

  • alma

    I bet, coming up the holiday version of HM

  • http://www.imangi.com Natalia

    Haha, thanks for the write up. I'm not sure if we're Taylor or Beyonce, but the comments are lolarious :)

  • http://www.imangi.com Natalia

    Haha, thanks for the write up. I'm not sure if we're Taylor or Beyonce, but the comments are lolarious :)

  • http://blog.mundue.net Matt

    Appreciate these insights. Persistence, adaptation, and exploitation can pay off. In my experience, most ideas don't work, but a few do, and you run with them. Your story rings true. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://blog.mundue.net Matt

    Appreciate these insights. Persistence, adaptation, and exploitation can pay off. In my experience, most ideas don't work, but a few do, and you run with them. Your story rings true. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.ixedu.com Pedro

    Hello Natalia and Keith

    Great job! I really admire people who success on having their own business.

    Is it possible to know Harbor Master’s sales numbers over a longer period of time? (maybe 6 or more months)

    Thanks for sharing!
    Pedro

  • http://www.ixedu.com Pedro

    Hello Natalia and Keith

    Great job! I really admire people who success on having their own business.

    Is it possible to know Harbor Master’s sales numbers over a longer period of time? (maybe 6 or more months)

    Thanks for sharing!
    Pedro

  • dingosmoov

    Great work guys and this is inspiration for me and my wife. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • dingosmoov

    Great work guys and this is inspiration for me and my wife. Thank you so much for sharing.

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