What does it take to reach the App Store number one?

Indie dev Hannes Jensen on repeating the success of FallDown!

We see free-to-play games and we complain about the future of the platform, unfair competition and lack of creativity. A glance at the most downloaded apps shows that huge multinationals have a monopoly of the top chart positions. Small indie developers simply cannot compete against popular franchises everyone loves, mind-numbing game mechanics and viral techniques to cross-promote their own titles. That's just an unfortunate assumption.

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Today I have the privilege of chatting with the developer of FallDown! 2, Hannes Jensen, the Swede who works in his astronomy PhD during the day (or night?) and works on apps during his spare time. As he puts it, "It's a hobby that kind of got out of hand". From his work published on the App Store you can see his preference for simple visuals. These are extremely simple experiences that work well on mobile, discarding unnecessary makeup that leaves his work looking like very fun prototypes.

What's really special about Jensen is that he does more than reinventing the mechanics of a meta video game; he has managed to reach the number one on the iTunes charts with his first app, and now, with its sequel. Let him describe the experience.

For those who never played the original, what is FallDown! 2 and what is new in the sequel?

FallDown! 2 is a simple but addictive game where you guide a ball through a labyrinth and try to stay alive for as long as possible. It is based on an old game for the Ti-83 calculator. Besides a complete visual overhaul, the sequel adds new powerups, unlockable customizations, a new control scheme and some new stuff like bombs that you have to avoid.

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It looks like the first FallDown! came out ages ago. According to iTunes reviews, a lot of people still remember it and play it. What changes have you noticed in the type of iOS gamer and what they expect from a mobile game over the years?

There's certainly been an enormous increase in the quality and production values of the average game on the App Store, but I think games such as FallDown! show that there is also a niche for really simple games that start up almost instantly and where you can play for a minute or two whenever you have some time to kill.

You managed to reach the top download charts several times already. Now FallDown! 2 is doing the same, beating App Store staples such as Draw Something 2, Candy Crush Saga and Angry Birds. How does it feel to be number one?

Feels great of course. I never expected it to take off quite as dramatically as it did. The list does not reflect total downloads of course, so I wouldn't say I'm quite "beating" Angry Birds yet.

What does it take for small game developers to compete against the likes of Zynga, Gameloft and EA?

To be honest, in my case it comes down mostly to having the original FallDown!, which came out when there was much less competition in the App Store. Without such a platform for cross-promotion, it's very tough to compete, although games like Super Hexagon show that if you have something really cool, it's still possible.

I can assume that the downloads required to be on the first spot today have nothing to do with what was required three years ago. Is this the case? How do you see the App Store moving next with the popularity of free-to-play models?

It's hard to tell exactly what's required to reach the top lists, since the algorithm that calculates the rankings is kept secret by Apple. However, it's obvious that the number of downloads one gets for being in the top spots is much higher than three years ago.

As for the future of the App Store, it seems everyone is moving to free-to-play at the moment. I have no problems with FTP as such, but I'm not a fan of the trend with charging for stuff like extra lives and other things that help you in the game.

And talking about monetisation on free games, you've chosen to include iAds and cosmetic unlockables. Is this the way to go as opposed to a very cheap paid game with less public exposure?

I think it really comes down to the game. People expect a lot even for just .99 cents, and a small and simple game like FallDown! 2 just wouldn't cut it, I think. I have an update coming out soon that will add the possibility to remove the ads as an in-app purchase. I think that's a pretty good model, it lets everyone try the game for free and if you're bothered by the ads you can get rid of them.

Thanks for your time Hannes. I wish you all the good luck for your future projects and hope your experience will give courage to small developers trying to make a name for themselves.