Trainz Driver demonstrates that a good app icon can make the difference

The Trainz franchise gets a second opportunity

App icons are like the cover of a book. You shouldn't judge the content from it. There are many good apps with crappy icons and the other way around. From my experience buying, downloading and trying a lot of apps I can say icons usually are a good measure of the overall quality of the product. If the graphic designer in charge of producing the final icon files has overlooked, say the corner round ratio used on iOS icons, it's likely the rest of app will have similar mistakes.

When I have to sit down a type my review of an app, I tend to leave my icon considerations out. I have been doing this naturally for the last three years, noticing the reader will either disagree or take the information for granted. In the cases when an icon is so bad that detracts the user from even considering downloading what is, essentially, a good book with a bad cover, I try to encourage readers to give them a chance.

In the end it all boils down to the same conclusion: first impressions count. If people give you only five seconds of attention, the way you present yourself is going to be more important than how good you really are. Only if I had one example to prove my point…

App icons actually matter

Now imagine the day I receive and email from N3V Games reaching out to cover its iOS version of Trainz Driver. I have already played the more hardcore Trainz Simulator for iPad from the same developer. This is an extremely in-depth, realistic simulator that apparently delights the crazy amount of locomotion fans we have in Britain. The newer Trainz Driver is a simplified more casual version that fits on the smaller iPhone display.

I've noticed Trainz Driver climbing up the charts. Not being a new release I just assumed it was a price drop or something. You cannot underestimate the amount of rail geeks in this country, I think for myself. Tony Hilliam from N3V Games vaguely mentioned in his email the app had gained some traction recently "due to a new icon and new pricing"; something that finally grabbed my attention.

On the company's discussion forum there's a postmortem-style article narrating the incredible effects of changing the app's icon in December 2012. I recommend you read the whole piece titled The story of 3,249 VIPs (Very Important Pixels)!)

Admitting something isn't working

In summary, the original Trainz Driver release had a bland plain icon that didn't stand out at all. The idea was borrowed from the PC version but didn't make much sense. It was a portion or a logo, stripped of the game name. As Tony points out, it was more like a business application icon that didn't portray this was actually a game.

The My First Trainz Set icon screamed "train game for kids" and the Trainz Simulator icon said "serious 3D train game". On the other hand the Trainz Driver icon said neither of these things but did say "bright colors to catch your eye". It could even have been an icon for a business application. […] We decided to whip up a new icon and this time it had to say "awesome 3D train driving experience".

Changing the app icon on the Amazon store first as an experiment, sales doubled overnight. In two weeks it was selling 20 times more. The encouraging results followed on Google Play, tripling in four days. But that's Android. Taking the plunge on the 31st of January, Trainz Driver changed its icon on the App Store. In one week the app was selling three times as much, without any advertising or change in price — arguably the visibility in the charts contributes to that.

This story is an amazing feel-good example of the point I was trying to make. All the expertise developing a really deep PC simulator for years wasn't enough to impress the mobile gaming audience. As simple as it is, the cover of the book needs to be appealing if you're trying to sell something to a new audience, possibly less hardcore than the people buying the PC version.

Developers need to understand the importance of having a second opinion and testing. Even if the original Trainz Driver icon fit into the company's offering of train simulation games by keeping a strong branding, the reality shows this was a poor choice. Having the guts to identify and admit a mistake and later addressing it is the valuable part of this story.

I understand any indie developer wants to keep the production value low and tackle in-house every aspect of the project. I don't say you need to hire The Iconfactory for your next app; at least you want to have a graphic designer friend or someone outside the project to validate your ideas. And if you're the type of developer more focused on the coding side of things, there are plenty of amazing icon designers on Dribbble looking for a gig. People that are likely to be more excited about your next app's icon than what you are.