Synesthetic, the App Store and making a living

Discussion in 'Public Game Developers Forum' started by Alex Dantis, Aug 4, 2012.

  1. Alex Dantis

    Alex Dantis Active Member

    Mar 20, 2012
    Long post ahead:

    About a year ago, I had an idea for a game that would sync with your music. I thought it was a sure thing since I believe there are plenty of people like me out there, who keep their music on their iDevices and would like to play a game that builds levels based on it (the first thing I searched on the App Store when I bought my phone was Audiosurf). Two weeks ago Synesthetic was launched and at that time I was afraid two things might happen: 1. the game is a buggy mess and everybody hates it and 2. the press completely ignores me and I get zero exposure. Right now I can tell you my fears were misplaced: most users have given the game great reviews and all the major IOS-game websites have reviewed the game (most of them giving favorable marks, and all of them appreciating what I was trying to do). So everything is fine and peachy, right?

    Well, no, unfortunately it isn't. At this point in time I've made ~1300$ and by the looks of it I don't think I'll make much more from here on. Thats 1300$ for a year of part-time work, definitely not a good return on investment (I could now probably make the game a lot faster but I assure you I've thrown out a lot more code than I've kept in the final product).

    So what went wrong? Well, a lot and not that much really. The game was launched on the same day as Fieldrunners 2 and on the same week as Great Big War Game and the latest Batman game (all of these are games with great teams working on them, a lot more money on their side and very recognizable names) but one could argue that none of them was a direct competitor and that every week great games are released on the App Store. Next, and I believe most importantly, Apple did not choose my game to feature in the New and Noteworthy category. I'm not sure if they didn't like it or if they didn't know it existed (the game was approved a whole month before release) but I do believe it was a better app than a couple of the games that were featured. On the other hand some of those games seemed to have done just as bad (or just marginally better) as I have (based on data from AppAnnie) so I'm not that sure how much of a difference it actually makes being featured on anything but the main page.

    When I started building apps for the iPhone I believed that if you are in the top 5% (quality wise) and get noticed by the press you will at least get the equivalent of a bad salary as a part-time programmer but it appears that only the top 1% break even. Whenever I heard somebody say that their game didn't sell as well as they had hoped, I thought that it was probably because their idea was unoriginal, the product wasn't polished enough or that there wasn't a market for that game but right now I'm not sure what to believe. The game is like nothing on this platform (the only other good music game, in my opinion, is Beat Hazard) and I'm sure there's a market out there. I'm not saying that Synesthetic is perfect (based on the reviews it clearly isn't) but it is a good game (again, based on the reviews) and I'm sure plenty of people who will never hear about it would enjoy it.

    If you have similar stories please share them and if you think I've made a mistake somewhere or have any advice what I should do with the game from here on, please, tell me.
  2. Alex, I wouldn't mind giving some constructive comments more from a consumer side of your question "So what went wrong?", but since you seemed kind of down, thought maybe that is not quite what you are asking for, seems like you want some more developer hardship stories or developer's advice on how to get more future sales.

    Too bad sales of your game didn't go as expected. Good luck.
  3. Alex Dantis

    Alex Dantis Active Member

    Mar 20, 2012
    Feedback is always very welcomed.
  4. RebelBinary

    RebelBinary Well-Known Member

    Jun 11, 2012
    Software Developer/Designer
    Ottawa, Canada
    I read somewhere on this forum and I'm not entirely sure on this but that once it get's accepted you have to release because it's countdown off the new and noteworthy section starts immediately.

    Why did you wait a month after it was approved? (website,reviews,promotion?)

    Your game looks professional, your website is great as well, but I think people saw it more as music visualizer and maybe don't understand how it plays as a game. Still looks like it should have done better. Will try it out right now.

    I feel like the same financial fate awaits me, <gulp>.
  5. RebelBinary

    RebelBinary Well-Known Member

    Jun 11, 2012
    Software Developer/Designer
    Ottawa, Canada
    #5 RebelBinary, Aug 5, 2012
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2012
    Just played the game, and I have to say I really love your work, It's exactly like playing a music visualizer from winamp and love how the game comes to an ending, buying and reviewing it right now. It's a shame this didn't get featured because the iOS was built for playing music and this game really uses it for gameplay. Very trippy. I haven't tried the other modes yet, but is there a way to make the variation in quiet and loud parts of song extremely evident in the gameplay? I see the bumps and how they change with the music, but I'm wondering if the app can sense larger chunks of the music and differentiate between them, like shifts between big and quite verses.

    Perhaps instead of getting game review sites to review you should try and see if you can get lifestyle sites and magazines (especially involving music/ipod/audio). I really hope it picks up, because I think it deserves too.

    This game should cater more to music lovers than gamers.

    Also I looked at your posts on touch arcade, while you were showing off your game you don't have a sig for your website or any social media account like twitter or facebook, you should put one up so ppl can follow the progress of your game, although I'm not sure how much a difference it would make, but it won't cost you anything.
  6. Alex Dantis

    Alex Dantis Active Member

    Mar 20, 2012
    To tell you the truth I didn't think about it that much. I imagined the reviewers just give the game some sort of mark and when the time comes they feature it based on this mark. The answer is a weird mix of getting a new job, studying for an exam, and working to make a great trailer (you'd be amazed how much time was spent looking for the perfect creative commons songs) + one week to send press releases and try to build up hype.

    Thanks! The nasty thing is that after a full year of playing the game I can't tell if it's any good or not and all the gameplay mechanics seem obvious to me. Unfortunately you're forced to base your assumptions on what the testers tell you and even though I've got a lot of great feedback and advice from them (a huge thanks to everybody on the forum who has helped me), it's never really enough.

    That's a great idea. I guess I should start preparing a new batch of press releases. As for the song analysis: I already have a couple of ideas how to improve it.

    I really hope not and wish you loads of luck.
  7. Bigmac1910

    Bigmac1910 Member

    Jul 13, 2012
    Just some feedback for you, from a potential costumers perspective. (Didn't buy it)

    1. Your game seems to be for a niche audience so I wouldn't expect too many sales.

    2. Watching your YouTube video, what the heck is going on? Looks like a visualizer like RebelBinary said. Zero explanation on how to play the game, I am totally clueless after watching your video. You need to explain (show) what and how things work.

    3. Classical music? Won't work on me, probably the last genre I listen too. Need more regular music (I know you have different music later). Your trailer is way too long, once you cannot introduce new game play elements, it's time to end it. Since it doesn't show any, most people will probably stop watching around the 15 - 30 sec mark.

    In the end, you need to market your game differently, both on your website and in Itunes, and I think people could be more open towards it.

    Hope this helps a little bit :)

    PS. Only us developers care about 60fps, your average costumer has no clue what it even means. DS
  8. ken1980

    ken1980 Member

    Mar 8, 2012
    I initially started developing apps back in late 2008 / early 2009 and released a novelty app (meaning stupid) which took me a month to develop with no prior experience in Mac / Obj-C. After I released my app, I saw that a company called Chillingo released a very similar app to mine soon after. Then I kept seeing their name pop up in the App Store and thought to myself, "who the hell are these guys?" Well, the rest is history and you know what happened next :)

    I made a little over $4,000 with that stupid little app. Your application is by far more complicated (and better) than my app. Fast forward to 2012, and the market is vastly different. You have to compete with established and AAA players moving into the scene. It's rough out there. It's the same story for most indies out there. They release an app or a game, and they don't understand why it isn't successful. But the way I see it:

    1. When I play the really successful games out there, it's obvious to me why they are successful.

    2. Lot of the successful indies games out there were first on the scene, and they have built on top of their success. Now they have a big user/player base, clout, and decent budget for marketing and PR.

    3. When I see people confused about their game's lackluster performance and check out their product, I can see why as I would not spend money on them either. By the way, I'm not judging your app and saying that your app falls into this category.

    4. There are always exceptions to the rule, but they are just that - exceptions not the norm.

    I started developing a game around two years ago. I was able to sign on with a major publisher, but the process has been dragging on for close to two years now even when the game has been done for over 8 months. So I have no idea how successful it will be because it has not released yet. We have been working on our second game for the past few months and were around 70% complete before everyone realized it just "wasn't good enough" to compete in the current market. So we scrapped the idea and are pretty much back to square one. Do we release a game that we don't believe in, in hopes that it will be successful and somehow generate income? Or do we take the time to make a game that we are proud of and a game that can compete? Are we putting ourselves at a bigger disadvantage by waiting and not releasing the game in this fast moving space?

    All I can say is that it is difficult for most indies out there. So at least we can commiserate :) I think many people out there are striving for the same goal -- to get out of the 9 to 5, the rat race of daily corporate life. I was super excited when I started developing apps and games for iOS. It felt as if the some of the power has been put back into my hands. But as the years have progressed, as the market has been consolidating, I must say that the excitement has been tinged with frustration and perhaps even slight hopelessness. The only thing I can do is continue trying. There really is nothing else that I'm even remotely good at, so not much of a choice haha. As much as I look forward to savoring writing that resignation letter to tell the man that I quit, It seems like I'll be keeping my day job for the foreseeable future.
  9. Echoseven

    Echoseven Moderator
    Staff Member Patreon Silver Patreon Gold Patreon Bronze

    Jul 19, 2011
    The red Skittle
    If you had waited a month after the game was approved, the game would not have been featured on the App Store's "recently released" tab. Thanks to that, it's not likely to have been featured by Apple too. They choose games (mostly from that list) from either the current, or the previous week.

    Hopefully that shines a little light on your situation. :)
  10. Joltrabbit

    Joltrabbit Well-Known Member

    Jul 5, 2012
    Beat Hazard Ultra has me wanting more from my music collection of late and I considered your game. I tried the lite version and I found it enjoyable but it largely depended on variations in the music to make it interesting (BHU has the same issue).

    You made a quality product! I'm sorry it didn't turn out better sales wise.
  11. Alex Dantis

    Alex Dantis Active Member

    Mar 20, 2012
    Ouch. Somehow I never thought about that. Talking about shooting yourself in the foot.

    @Bigmac1910 Thanks for the feedback. I guess it's a bit late to redo the trailer but for any future projects I'll try to remember what you said. Shooting trailers for tilt games can be quite a challenge. As for the fps problem: to me that video still looks incredibly choppy.

    @ken1980 These are the reasons why I was afraid the press might ignore me, what surprised me was that even though they featured me (and most actually appreciated what I did) this didn't really translate into sales. Somehow I imagined if you get this far you at least break even. Now I feel like I dropped the ball right at the end.
  12. Wizardo

    Wizardo Well-Known Member

    Jul 30, 2012
    Starving indie developer
    New Jersey!
    I'm thinking the way the iOS store is now, it's really more of a lottery with slightly better odds. The good thing about development is that at least you're building your skills up and have something cool to show for your efforts. That should help you should you ever decide to freelance or work for someone else. But then again, maybe you'll strike it rich. So tempting.

    Your game does look really cool though.
  13. Greyskull

    Greyskull Well-Known Member

    Dec 13, 2009
    Photographer/Social Sciences adjunct/sweet sweet l
    Fort Lauderdale
    You mentioned Beat Hazard...Beat Hazard was available on Steam (and possibly XBLA; it's now also available on PSN and might have been before its iOS release) long before it arrived on ios. I won't go into details of your particular game at the moment because I haven't slept in a few days and I'm having trouble constructing cogent sentences, but there is a valuable lesson for indie devs/self publishers: if at all possible, don't develop an iOS game, develop a game, allow it to build a following, AND THEN port it to ios. Whether it be Steam, Dasura, XBL, Kongregate, what have you. Your game, if successfull on alternate platforms, will have a built in fan base; will already be known to the gaming world at large (if it isn't ****); will have been heavily play tested already; and, most importantly, will have a name at least some people will recognize as they browse the AppStore. Taken together, you can end up with a more polished, play tested and proven product that will have an edge in getting over the "hump", the first thousand or so DL's necessary for someone who isn't an obsessive-compulsive app shopper to notice that your game exists.
  14. MrBlue

    MrBlue Well-Known Member

    Sep 3, 2008
    iPhone Developer
    All is not lost.

    Take the game, repackage, and rerelease.

    1. Get another icon. Spend some money and get a pro to give you something awesome.
    2. Incorporate features based on suggestions. You'll have to weigh if it's worth your time.
    3. As suggested, use hip-hop or pop for your video trailer.
    4. Re-release into the Entertainment category.

    Alternatively, I'm not sure why you didn't put in a cute character and have it run along the path. It looks very sonic the hedgehog type game to me. Re-tune the graphics to get a more cartoony feel to it. Prominently feature the character in the game. This alone could get you a brand new game with relatively minor changes to the code.

    The engine is the most valuable part here. At the absolute worst, you can license it to interested and more experienced parties who will get an awesome icon, redo the graphics, figure out the target audience, refine the sales pitch, and put it up on the store.
  15. RevolvingDoor

    RevolvingDoor Well-Known Member

    Dec 13, 2009
    I think that an ideal design has to be created in response to a need that the market has. It also has to be created around a revenue-generating strategy. "If it's good, it will get noticed" is a very outdated mantra.

    You made what looks like a great product, but it has a much smaller audience than the textbook app store hit. In order to really enjoy the game, it seems like you would want to pay attention to both the sound and whatever is happening on-screen. That already rules out every kid who wants to play a game in class for five minutes because he's bored, everyone waiting at an airport/train station/etc. It seems like the best time to play this game would be when you're relaxing at home... But in that case, your game is competing against every other form of entertainment available there.

    So, if you want to make profit with this game, you either have to figure out how to spread the word among the people most likely to buy your game, or sell the source code off to someone else. Sad as it may be, my next project will be designed around its marketing and plans for revenue generation, and not vice versa.
  16. Opinion

    Spending too much time on a game is just suicide, the market is so saturated now, and people just want more of the same, angry birds?. Look how many games even with a big budget for advertising had never reach the charts.

    I also like to remember the case of "Temple run", they strove hard, I remember watching it's itunes page just with some few reviews when it was paid, and look at what it's now.

    Only thing that I can say, is that for most of us, working one or two persons it's too difficult to perform all the functions required, sometimes you are so tired that even when you know your trailer or your banner or whatever is "not so good", you just want to check it as done on you list and move to the next thing, an that's not going to help you.

    Sometimes you need to realize that things are not going to improve and move on, or stick to them and accept their consequences, good or bad.
  17. Alex Dantis

    Alex Dantis Active Member

    Mar 20, 2012
    #17 Alex Dantis, Aug 5, 2012
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2012
    @p3gstudio @RevolvingDoor Actually I would recommend every developer to steer clear of "cute" games. Disney, Rovio and a couple Chillingo studios have that market cornered. If you go on Audiosurf's forum there are about 10 threads where people ask for it to come to IOS. Personally, when I go on the subway, I plug my earphones in and tune-out and I'm sure there are plenty like me (I see them every time I get on the tube). I would rather target a niche audience with an original product than target an established market with something unoriginal (I bet if you add up the number of downloads for Agent Dash, Subway Surfers and TheEndApp, all of these great games with a lot of work put into them, you still won't go anywhere near Temple Run). I would also add that unless you have a lot of experience and a really good team you can't make a great game in under 6 months (but it would probably take much longer).

    After reading your messages it appears that my two greatest mistakes have been waiting a month after approval (I still can't believe this is how the featuring process works) and not presenting my work in a good enough manner and to the right people. Maybe there's still time to fix these.

    @Greyskull The problem is that XBLA is way to expensive (50,000$ just to release a patch) +you need to get noticed by Microsoft, I bet PSN has similar problems, on XBLIG you have even less exposure than on the App Store and I wouldn't touch Flash games with a 10 foot pole (very technically limited and not much chance to build something really new + again, a very saturated market + no chance at all to monetize until you port to another platform). Practically, we're left with Steam and the App Store and there are already two great music games on Steam. Also I would really like to hear your (and everybody else's) opinion on the game.

    I was very surprised that a lot of people have said the game isn't "gamey" enough. I'm not really sure how I got here since games like Boost have practically the same game mechanics (except for flux mode which is a lot more complicated). I already know that I should give more feedback to the player when he gets good results (make the menus more "juicy") but I think there is more to this so if anybody could please explain and maybe give some suggestions I would be very grateful.
  18. RevolvingDoor

    RevolvingDoor Well-Known Member

    Dec 13, 2009
    When I'm talking about products that the market wants, I definitely don't mean that you should limit yourself to "cute" games. What I mean is, this is a mobile market. You have to think in terms of players with iPhones.

    When are they going to play your game?
    How much attention will they want to dedicate to your game?
    What span of time will they typically dedicate to your game?
    How often will they run your app?
    Will they want to invest any money beyond the admission price, and if they will, is there an easy way for them to do so?

    In short, who are these people that you are trying to sell to?

    Your game probably works perfectly for the player who wants to tune everything out and listen to music on some sort of trip, but who else? How do you inform ALL of those music-loving subway riders that your game exists, or, failing that, how do you broaden your audience?

    Being an indie developer in this day and age means that you should try to anticipate these things, IMO, and build your game around them. Starting with a great idea, trying to make a great game out of said idea, and expecting that sales will just sort themselves out is way too risky.
  19. #19 Connector, Aug 5, 2012
    Last edited: Aug 5, 2012
    Synesthetic Game Analysis
    By Connector, August 5th 2012

    Market Analysis:

    There are two similar games out there in the market, Boost 2 $1.99 and Supersonic Free with hd version at $1.99. Synesthetic is $1.99.

    All games are similar 3d motion runners with the ability to use itunes music; Synthesthetic has more music visualizer aspects than the other games.

    Release Analysis:

    Released on July 18, 2012 for $1.99. I saw game previews on two major websites (I think it was appadvice and toucharcade, but I don't remember). So publicity was pretty good for a small indie project.

    No mention on Apple's news and noteworthy which was a killer. If this game was released 30 days after approval, and this was a factor in not being in the top lists, it is a shame. That would have totally hurt the game sales on this game.

    A positive for the game is that it has a lite version. This game really needs a lite version because it is not a typical arcade game.

    Game Notes:

    Game has very nice graphics on my new ipad. The music integration is good and game concept is very sound.


    1. Change the game icon. On my new ipad, the icon is not retina, and the graphics seem very low resolution. The track line looks too thin like a string, and words "lite" look almost hand drawn, not professional.

    2. The track is way too bumpy. I couldn't figure out if the track moves according to music, or it is designed that way, but I think the track feels right now like a rough rollarcoaster. In fact, I almost get motion sickness playing the game. Boost 2 and supersonic are totally smooth, with Boost 2 being the winner for smoothness and perception of speed.

    3. The name is too hard to remember and spell. Even after typing all this, I can not still remember the spelling which is killer in the appstore since it is hard to search anyway there. It is too late to change your name, but I would think this would play a factor in people finding your game.

    4. When playing the lite version, first time played with a default song, after that I couldn't figure out how to play the default again. It seems to force me to use my itunes library. Don't know why this happens, but I know on Supersonic, the default music plays much better since it is synced more with the game. Maybe your lite version should have a time limit instead and open all songs or modes.

    5. Change this game to landscape mode. It is hard to play a motion game in portrait mode on both the iphone and ipad due to how you hold them. It would be nice to play this game in landscape mode.

    6. Maybe make the music visualization more like Beat Hazard with the background glowing and flashing, then the way it is now.

    7. There are 2 color schemes now. It would be nice go have two more, one a 3d vector one like Supersonice, and a black and white with some color one.

    8. Probably should lower the price to 99 cents. Both Supersonic hd and Boost 2, run at $1.99, and I hate to say this, but I enjoy both more. While I think the graphics in this game are better, due to the above points I think the other games are better. This game has a lot of potential, but if developers want to price their games at the same price, they really need to make sure their games are almost twice as good since the existing games have an advantage already with a good reputation..


    This game has a lot of potential with some game changes and price reductions. I love games like Boost 2 and Supersonic, and I am usually first in line for games like this. Hopefully, some of these comments will help, and I'm not trying to beat a dying dog with a dead stick, cause you seem kind of down right now.

    Good luck with your game, and keep at it, don't get discouraged.
  20. Alex Dantis

    Alex Dantis Active Member

    Mar 20, 2012
    Are you sure about this ? All the graphics are at retina resolution (including the icon), I've checked and double checked. As for the rail it's supposed to take up most of the width of the device (in portrait) otherwise you wouldn't see too much (and it wouldn't look like a rail anymore).

    The game syncs with the music. Bumpy music=bumpy track. This is the game's main feature and most seem to agree that it works well. Neither boost nor supersonic do this (Supersonic actually falsely advertises this).

    There is no default track. There is only a tutorial song so that you have a chance to practice a bit before choosing the most intense/bumpy song in your library (like everybody else does). Your music is supposed to take center stage here. And again Supersonic does not sync with the music.

    Unfortunately, I've already tried to do landscape support and it didn't work at all. The two possible outcomes were: either a fat guy on a tight rope (you would either clip through or hit most obstacles) or a very zoomed in pov in which case the rail would take up most of your view and the lack of visibility would make the game unplayable.

    I appreciate your feedback and I hope I don't sound overly defensive. The simple fact that we are having this conversation means I messed up somewhere. Hopefully I'll manage to improve it with future updates.

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