GDC Austin: ‘Tips for Success as an Indie iPhone Developer’ by Imangi Studios

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.


  • 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.


  • 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.