Steambirds: iOS vs Android

I thought some of you might be interested to know how our experience launching Steambirds on iOS and Android worked out. So I’ve written up a little post-mortem of sorts, below. But first, some important notes: the excellent iOS version was developed and published on our behalf by Semi Secret, best known for their wonderful game Canabalt, and the equally-excellent Android version was developed by Flat Red Ball and published by us.

Both the iOS and Android versions of the game were featured by Apple and Google, respectively; the iOS version was featured immediately upon launch, while the Android version was featured a couple weeks later. We did little in the way of traditional marketing to support the game, but we did put a very prominent link in Steambirds: Survival to a page advertising both the iOS and Android version, and given that SB:S has already been played by over two million people, that’s a fair amount of promotion. We were also fortunate enough to get a shout out from Penny Arcade, among other notable sites.

So, enough background information. Here were the pros/cons of each platform we released Steambirds on:

Cons: Android

First: Fragmentation was an issue, and not simply because of the many older Android devices floating around out there. We got one-star ratings from unhappy users of newer devices (such as the Dell Streak) who complained of inexplicable crashes. Given that even Rovio (the developer of Angry Birds) has struggled with Android fragmentation, it was pretty much a given that we’d struggle with it, too.

Second: For a while, refunding was a big issue. Prior to a very recent update, Android Market essentially encouraged users to request a full refund, no questions asked, if they uninstalled a game within 24 hours. Many people realized that Google’s refund policy was a way to play any game they wanted, for free, without resorting to piracy. Prior to the aforementioned Market update, roughly 15% of people who purchased Steambirds ultimately requested a refund. After the update, the rate dropped to about 9%. That new number is both good and bad — good because it isn’t 15%, but bad because I’m guessing most of those nine-percenters are folks using a device that is not compatible with our game (…speaking of fragmentation…)

Pros: Android

First: the ease with which I am able to update the Steambirds application itself, the description of the app, and the price of the app is simply awesome. With a single click, an update is instantly available to consumers worldwide. When some early negative reviews alerted us to problems with the game’s memory footprint on older devices, we were able to turn around a quick fix and staunch the bleeding immediately. (In fact, some users took note of the quick change and rewarded us by recanting their negative reviews.) Similarly, when reviews indicated that users were unhappy with the lack of a software setting for disabling music and sound, we were able to satisfy them immediately… and once again, reviewers took note.

Second: Google’s responsiveness to our questions was remarkable. I nearly always received answers to my questions within 24 hours, even if the answer was simply: “we’re working on that.” I enjoyed several very active and very frank chat sessions with someone on the Android Market team. We’re a small company, so for us to experience that level of attentiveness was truly gratifying. I should note that since the iOS version of Steambirds was published by Semi Secret, we didn’t interact directly with Apple, so I can’t compare levels of responsiveness.

Third: I can log into Google Checkout and see every single transaction (purchases and cancellations) made for Steambirds in real time. And we get paid by Google within days of selling a copy of the game. Awesome!

Cons: iOS

First: I’d been told by friends that Apple has significantly improved its turnaround time on application (and app update) approvals. For the iPad version of Steambirds, this certainly seemed to be the case; our update, which addressed a critical sound bug, was released almost immediately. But for the iPhone version of Steambirds, this was not the case. We were forced to wait nearly a week for the release of our update, which addressed another critical, iPhone-only bug that seemed to drag down our review scores by at least a full star — more than enough to potentially harm our sales momentum in the incredibly competitive iTunes app market.

This was unfortunate, because Steambirds was featured immediately at launch, which meant that it was receiving tons of attention at precisely the moment when it had its biggest problem. I thought that being featured would get our updates fast-tracked, but for at least the iPhone version of Steambirds, that was clearly not the case. Ultimately, our problems were our own fault — I can hardly complain about the fact that Apple generously decided to feature Steambirds. I just hope that in the future, Apple will find a way to process updates faster (if not as fast as Android Market.)

Second: speaking of that “critical bug” I mentioned in the iPhone version of Steambirds — it was a pinch-to-zoom issue that prevented players from completing the tutorial. What I didn’t mention was that the bug only affected people with v3.1.3 of iOS running on their phone, which turns out to be a small but significant number of 3G owners who want to avoid the performance hit caused by upgrading to iOS v4+. We had tested the game on a 3G device running v3.1.2 (which, notably, had its *own* unique bug) but we missed v3.1.3.

As I mentioned earlier, this single bug seemed to really hurt our overall review score. It makes sense — if you buy a game and can’t play past the tutorial, your odds of getting pissed off and giving a one-star review are very high; people who play the game successfully are much less likely to give reviews of any kind. Long story short, while there’s no question that fragmentation is an issue for Android, I wouldn’t say that life is completely hunky-dorey on iOS. Adam Martin posted a similar story on his blog recently.

Pros: iOS

First: When the update for the iPhone version was finally released by Apple, our rating quickly stabilized at a much higher value. That’s partially because we fixed the critical bug, partially because Apple helpfully resets your rating when you update an app, and partially because we added a “would you like to rate this game?” popup to the app, which quintupled (5x) the number of reviews we received in a day and helped prompt fans of the game to give us a boost. (Some people don’t like the fact that updates reset your rating in the app store, but let me tell you, when you’re trying to recover from a bug, that’s a pretty great feature…)

Second, but pretty much all that really matters: The iOS version of Steambirds has thus far outsold the Android version by almost 6 to 1. What makes this even more remarkable was the bug I mentioned earlier, which hurt our iOS review scores during the first week that Steambirds was featured. The Android version of the game had a significantly better average review score during the time period in which it was featured, and yet iOS sales were still dramatically higher.

One important thing to note: Steambirds is $0.99 on the iPhone and $1.99 on the iPad, whereas the price is $1.99 on all Android devices. So, the revenue difference between the two platforms is more like 4 to 1 in Apple’s favor, not 6 to 1.

You might also wonder if the higher Android price somehow artificially depressed sales relative to the iOS version. My thought: the average price of top Android games is much higher than top iPhone games, so our having gone with $1.99 should not have had too much of an effect on purchase intent, and as (admittedly anecdotal) evidence to support that, we have noticed very few complaints about the price in customer reviews and on forums. Consumers judge prices based on locally relevant information, not some sort of “universal value” system. If you own an Android phone, and you want to play games on that phone, the average price of highly-rated games in Android Market is mainly what matters to you, unless you’re also carrying around an iPod Touch.

What’s next?

In general, as I’ve noted several times on this blog, I’m more excited about the potential of free-to-play games than I am traditionally-purchased games. I think it’s likely that the next iOS/Android game that we release will be F2P, and it will be interesting to see how that changes the relative revenue performance of the game (if at all) on iOS and Android. I’ll let you know.

PS. If you didn’t hear, the Android version of Steambirds won the IndiePub Mobile Games Competition grand prize! Congratulations are due to our friends at FlatRedBall, and to Andy and Daniel for their tremendous design work.

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