Wednesday, May 13, 2009

iPhone Dev: Zombie Mansion post mortem

I released Zombie Mansion in mid December 08. It is a 1st person shooter, the 2nd available on the iPhone and the first one to be designed for mobile devices rather than being a pc port. ZM was a port and extension of the work I had done previously on the Yeti engine.

Seeing as how every other iPhone developer is sharing their tales of mega success, or crushing failure, I though I would add my story.

ZM has sold steadily, if not spectacularly. Unfortunately I have not made enough to pay off my house and buy a fast car. On the other hand, it sold well enough to pay my mortgage payments for the 1st 3 months. Sales are as you would expect: hundreds sold in the first couple of days, rapidly dropping off as ZM moved off the recent releases page. My first update provided a brief blip but my second update was unnoticeable in terms of sales.

I took 2 weeks leave to finish ZM, and I estimate that I spent the equivalent of another 2 weeks previously. This doesn't include the original porting work I did moving the yeti engine to the pocket pc.

As a return on time spent, ZM performed slightly better than working at my day job. It was however considerably more fun. It would have performed even better but I made a couple of bad design decisions.

Unusually, I did the bulk of the development in windows using visual studio rather than in xcode on OSX. I already had an OpenGL ES port running on Windows Mobile and Windows so an iPhone port wasn't much of a problem.

Coding was done in a mixture of C (yeti code) and C++ (my code).
On the iPhone, I used the Oolong engine to handle the sound, input and 3d setup. Oolong provides c++ wrapper classes for all this (and more).

On the pc and windows mobile side, I used the PowerVr sdk to handle 3d setup. Keyboard handling is trivial, and I used Hekkus to provide sound support.

Once I had this all set-up,I did most coding in visual studio. At irregular intervals, I would reboot into OSX and compile with xcode. I mostly used xcode for iPhone specific stuff and performance testing. All my support tools (map editor, 3d importer etc.) are windows based (in c++ builder and Delphi) so that necessitated mostly using windows. I prefer visual studio to xcode, so it wasn't much of a chore.

I made a couple of mistakes. The first, and most major was simplifying the weapons too much. I went with one weapon, a staff, with upgrades rather than with multiple weapons. In retrospect, a bad call.

The second mistake was not putting some help tips around controls. The controls work well if you leave your thumb on the d pad and slide it to control. If you pick your thumb up and move it, the controls don't work as well. Some easy way of explaining this to the player would have made their initial impressions better.

The underlying problem is that perennial development favourite, I underestimated the time needed to write the software. I ran out of annual leave and thus ran out of time. While I enjoyed the game that I wrote, it would have been better if I had more time to add extra features and polish.

Dealing with Apple
There are 3 major drawbacks to iPhone development: Apple, Apple and Apple. I don't know if they are overworked, incompetent or just don't care. Either way, developer support seems to be missing in action.

Since I have had children, I have made a concious effort to improve my language, removing the more robust terms I picked up working in the abbottiors. Three months of dealing with Apple has made a mockery of my self-betterment attempts, leaving me swearing like Gordon Ramsey on a bad day.

Simply getting a paid developer contract took six weeks. My first payment, for December, didn't get paid until late March. Emails asking when money was going to arrive were ignored, or fobbed off with stock responses or outright lies. Whenever I phoned, I was told they couldn't help and to email another department.

Even when I did get paid, there was no notification. Apple can email me every week, trying to sell me a second rate album farted out by a talentless boy band, but they can't be bothered sending me an email saying "We have now condescended to pay you".

As a comparison, RegNow emailed me on Jan 4th letting me know my December payment had been released, and the money was in my account on Jan 6th. Even now that Apple has decided to make my monthly payments on a monthly basis, they still take nearly 40 days longer than Regnow.

Random thoughts
There is clearly still money to be made in iPhone dev. ZM hasn't disturbed the sales charts, but it has still sold well enough to cover it's costs and my time. I imagine that there are many developers in a similar position, not making riches, but making enough to get by and keep developing. A small stable of good games/applications could provide a nice living without requiring a hit.

It used to be that you could get a large amount of exposure and thus sales by releasing an update every couple of weeks. However the volume of new applications has changed that. There are so many apps being released each day that the initial rush of sales from being in the "what's new" charts is much smaller. You need to get sales the hard way, with marketing; promotion and advertising.

I also have a couple of windows shareware applications, Pics Print and Rental Property Manager. While it is not easy to compare windows utilities and business applications with an iPhone, the return on time invested is far greater for these 2, particularly RPM, than for ZM.

All this brings me full circle from where I started out six months ago. There is money to be made in iPhone apps, but there is also money to be made in windows shareware as well. If you are a windows developer, particularly if you are a Delphi developer, then you are probably better off developing windows shareware than iPhone apps. I know a lot more developers making money off windows than off iPhones.

Oh, and developing for iPhones still sucks! Not as badly as I first thought, but still noticeably.


cakesy said...

Great write-up, always interested to get other developers opinions. Like I say, if you don't enjoy developing and learning new processes, then it will probably not be worth it to you. I understand you complaints about Apple, but I also appreciate them making the market so easy to get into.

Anonymous said...

Apple are a huge incompetent company when it comes to developer support. This has been the case since day 1. they have always failed developers and developers have always shun them. Paradoxically, they come up with great products but always fail to capitalize on them. With Android, Blackberry storm...and other serious smart phones coming to market, Apple will have to seriously consider how it treats developers. To make serious money with the iphone, you have to have a great application and you have to spend money and time marketing it.

Derek John Evans said...

Still excellent work Sean. I know how hard it is to find time.

From my perspective (as the engine coder), I liked to focus on "virtual reality". ZM is just lacking a few ideas that would have made the atmosphere more "real" and it seems to lack some Yeti3D features like slopes, dynamic lighting, coloured lighting and angled walls.

In the last days of developing Yeti3D I also coded transparent floors and 2 layered textures. So, you could look though grills in the floor to see lava or water. Or, you could add blood covering all surfaces.

Also, a cool elevator idea would have been good. I like the wall hole shooting idea.

But, all in all. ZM is a cool game and I thank you for making it.

I think Yeti3D has a lot of unexplored tricks in it that no one seems to have the time to look into, and its now 2009. Well past its use by date.

Everyone loves a zombie killing fest!

Derek John Evans